At three o’clock, in front of approximately fifty viewers, Hugh O’Donnell started his performance in front of the projected video. Its subject was the weeping face of a Dutch artist who disappeared, later, in 1975, attempting to cross the Atlantic in a small sailboat . Bas Jan Ader acts to a camera that documents in black and white. We see his head en face- few times his right hand touching and twisting his hair, smoothing his hair -what was supposed to be visual equivalent of sadness. The video, made in 1971, is named I am too sad to tell you. The verbal and the visual immediately enter a paradox framed by “I cannot tell you” and “I am telling you via a camera and projected images”. The video loop kept repeating over and over, ad nauseum, throughout O’ Donnell’s performance. Apparently it was his choice.
Two strongly competing phenomena took over: O’Donnell’s body and gestures were difficult to see, mostly appearing as black cut out silhouettes. Some details, e.g. smearing something over his head, could be only guessed. The contrast between not knowable parts and those schematized into two dimensional shadow pointed to the cognitive insecurity so fatally connected not with the video, but its subject and author. The second phenomena born out of the constant projection was much more wounding. It lead to complete loss of the belief that Ader has been genuinely sad. Instead, convincing artificial pretense became fully foregrounded. Ader’s acting came out as dilettantish.
O’Donnell responded with a long phase of balancing barefoot on two lines on the floor, and then, carrying a broken chair, dismantling it with decisive noise of the wood hitting the floor. This visceral element wiped out the intended impact of the video, replacing it with a realization that the image is an exercise in narcissistic love of Self.
The projection was also at the background of the dance performed by Maeve McGreavy. Working within her own choreography to a sound a cello.Significantly, she used a light to map a path across the space in front of the video projection. It positively affected the visual force of her body dressed black, inside a warm, almost earth coloured light.
Her dance became so foregrounded that the video lost its visual force and turned into a “wallpaper” you can easily ignore.
She was a superb interpreter of the concept of dance I know from Pina Bausch and Ballet Rambert. I do not have the professional vocabulary to describe the precision of her stops to a fluent movement, definition of angles, fluency of stretches, graceful placement of pointed foot, light touch when changing a rhythm with masterly precision… Some of the passages she repeated with such gravitas that they easily became iconic, for the removal of the personal. Yet, were this be a poem, I would call it personal.
The third performer, Sandra Johnston, wisely switched the video projection off, and moved the audience nearer to the space where she positioned her performance. While the two previous works of art replaced the presumed intimacy of the video with a field of energy of here and now, Johnston’s performance focused back on the ways of making the intimate visible. She started with brutally fast repeated, bending down to draw on the floor. A piece of chalk in her left hand marked the floor again and again, ending as an organic tongue of white. Several times, the energy of the sweep resulted in losing her balance. Then she briefly touched the floor in a spiky tick to straightened up – as if effortlessly. The hard demand on the body is her hallmark. It surfaced not only in her licking some of the chalk mark off, but also in her contorting right hand as if out of its anatomical setting. I thought – stop now… I felt a relief when she did. Not such success with her putting a stone into her mouth. Sitting on a chair, she bend her head far back, letting the stone travel deep into her mouth. Her cheeks turned hollow, like on old faces, like in Munch’s Scream.
As if there was not enough torture – she placed three glasses from which she drunk, in an elongated triangle. She placed her hands on the two in front and lifted her body above the floor. Then she started to wiggle her feet to reach the third glass. Failed.
The whole work was a kind of remembrance of Henri Bergson’s claim that we do not achieve achievable. Presented as a tragedy – kind of tragedy we know from classical Greece, Antigona comes to mind- its ephemerality mirrored life. Johnston has a store of information in her muscles and brain, to choose from how to make something visible using her body. And more often than not, she crosses the cautionary discomfort of pain barrier. Her performance was not describing sadness, it was it. The artists’ trust that we shall view her work on its merit may quell our anxiety to know more, as we crave a narrative. This means that there should be a wider breadth of meaning, even beyond the one intended.
Art has not lost the force to preserve the unknown, and still validate our private aesthetic experience.
Images: Jordan Hutchings
January, 15th, 2013.