UNBUILDING in words

Mermaid Arts Centre, 21st Aug – 17th Oct – 2010

An Awkward Consortium: Performance Art, Theatre and Parody

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Dominic Thorpe, ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, Part of Unbuilding and Mary Kelly’s Burial Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September 28th, 2010. Image courtesy of Mary Kelly.

What does the artist want from the viewer and vice versa? As artists and consumers of art, there seems to be a disjoint between artist and viewer, between expectation and disappointment, between what the artist reveals in the work and what the viewer picks and takes away from the work. Is the artist and the viewer fooling themselves in a game of unsolvable charades? Here is a painted/ sculpted/ performed/ technological gesture for you–the viewer, now go off and make it into language, which will hopefully end up as sense. Inconclusiveness is what art wants to present, the question is what is the artist waiting for from an audience that cannot clap, shout “hooray”, or “Boo!”.

As part of Unbuilding, specifically Mary Kelly’s Burial project for Unbuilding at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Dominic Thorpe was asked to restage a previous performance newly titled ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, (the original performance took place at Millstreet Gallery, Dublin, in 2009 and was titled  ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT GIRL SEE HER MOTHER’ ).[1] This was the fifth exhibition in a rotating series of eight exhibitions for the experimental visual arts project. Thorpe’s performance acted as a 3 hour disruption in the week long event that ‘invited the artists from Unbuilding to respond individually to the notion of burial’. Although all art events are temporary, the art objects that are produced for the events stay around for a while, cynically lingering in the artist’s studio, or optimistically finding a home in a museum or domestic setting. In the past, performance art willingly avoided the production of an art object. The “object” for the performer was the threshold between performance and viewer. The artist and writer Melanie Gilligan says this has changed:

‘The sphere of ostensibly traditional object-production now overflows with practices considered performative by dint of their execution or content; performance almost seems on the verge of achieving objecthood itself (judging by such recent indicators as a conference at London’s Showroom gallery dedicated to “the performance of new sculpture,” or, also in London, “Absent Without Leave,” an exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery focused on “performance as a material”)’.[2]

Absent Without Leave, Installation view, February 2007, Victoria Miro Gallery, London. Image here

On Victoria Miro Gallery’s website,  you will find the Absent Without Leave statement, which makes Gilligan’s remark more concrete:

‘Conceptual and performance artist Vito Acconci has discussed how, at a certain point in his career in the early seventies, he decided to appear less in his work, so that his presence was more of an absence. Absent Without Leave borrows the spirit of Acconci’s decision and uses it to platform an investigation of the idea of the ‘absentee performer’ – an idea in which the ‘performer’ (the artist ) is relocated from a visible presence, to a presence which is recorded in the conceptual fabric of the art works themselves. The exhibition featured works in which: there is potential within an art object for action to happen, which may or may not necessarily occur; there is a live event without a performer; there is a physical trace of an event which in fact never occurred; or there is a possibility to read the environment as something staged, or as a set awaiting a narrative’.[3]

Dominic Thorpe, ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, Part of Unbuilding and Mary Kelly’s Burial Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September 28th, 2010. Image courtesy of Mary Kelly.

The “[stage] set awaiting a narrative” is a well worn ploy by artists, it has become a cliché or signifier for the loss of commitment to a narrative, which is inherent to contemporary art practice. The fear is that everything has been said and to say it again would have the effect of parody. This “waiting room” prop was initiated by literary events such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In the context of theatre, performance art is the awkward bedfellow, the former gets the applause, while the latter is the dejected sibling. However, performance art seems comfortable in this position; it is energised by the silence and tension of the viewer.

Thorpe outlines the aspects of the performance ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT GIRL SEE HER MOTHER’ on his website:

Laying on a mattress underneath 900 ticking clock mechanisms

Writing the words ‘should have let that girl see her mother’

Pouring water from a silver bowl

Turning a fader increasing and decreasing the light

Whispering the words ‘should have let that girl see her mother’ [4]

When we take into account that this performance for Unbuilding was a restaged performance, Thorpe’s above outline of events becomes a “to do” list, rather than a ritual exercise on the present-tense. Gilligan also discusses the recent phenomenon in performance art of restaging or reappropriating performance from the past. Established  performative figures like Marina Abramovic and her Seven Easy Pieces is an example of this “theatrical” sojourn:

‘a series of performances that took place in 2005 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where the artist restaged seven works epitomizing the transgressive ethos of the Conceptual era-among them, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, 1972; Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969; and Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure, 1974’. [5]

Dominic Thorpe, ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, Part of Unbuilding and Mary Kelly’s Burial Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September 28th, 2010. Image courtesy of Mary Kelly.

In the context of Kelly’s Burial, where art objects become funerary reliquaries or shrines for the chosen theme, is Thorpe’s reenactment a reliquary also? Does the nature of performance art, where the artist depends on the present rather than reflecting on the past, require a one-off show? Does performance art become theatre or even a parody of itself in the repeat showing? Kevin Atherton’s In Two Minds – Past Version (1978/ 2006) is a  reenactment of sorts. The original work from 1978 had the 27 year old Atherton on one video monitor asking questions of his self on the other monitor. At the time, this work was more about the art object reflecting back on itself, art was more important to the artist than life. 28 years later Atherton restaged the work, but with a twist. This time around the artist would ask questions of his younger self as a 55 year old man. This affirms not only a formal twist in the reenactment, but a rejection of the 1970’s Conceptual Art tenet of the ruling art object; life in this sequel trumps the art object. But Atherton’s proposed trilogy of the work, where he would forecast himself as an older man in make-up, is a parody of a parody of a parody (as he would say himself). Atherton’s practice easily avoids a performative critique because the work is already a dual critique of itself and performance.

Kevin Atherton, In Two Minds – Past Version (2006). Edinburgh, 2008. Image here

From a formal stance, on entering the architectural insert that has framed all the exhibitions of the Unbuilding project so far, Thorpe’s performance fits nicely with the description of the Unbuilding space by one viewer, who described the experience of walking up into the Mermaid Arts Centre’s new architectural addition as disrupting the “installation of an attic”. The filmic function of the attic is one where bad things happen, where memories in nostalgic objects reside, where things go bump in the night. As Thorpe lies flat on a brown sheeted bed, under 900 ticking clocks, and gesturing with only his arms – the rest of his body limp, and clothed in a banal grey t-shirt and trousers, the viewer is left with a framed image that is no different from the TV image. This is what perturbed one viewer, who hurried from the space after a quick glance. For this fleeting viewer, the still image was enough to create a memory-a memory of some uncanny episode, dreamt in bed or remembered from TV; framed and still. For this viewer, Thorpe’s controlled gestures (writing words with charcoal, pouring water in a metal bucket), beneath the hive of insect-like ticking clocks, was inconsequential, his/ her mind was already made-up with a glance.

Dominic Thorpe, ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, Part of Unbuilding and Mary Kelly’s Burial Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September 28th, 2010. Image courtesy of Mary Kelly.

For others, awkward or not, who stayed on for a longer duration, Thorpe’s performance achieved what Gilligan describes as performance “objecthood”, and what all performance artists’ aspire to grasp, the liminal space between performer and viewer. From a theorethical stance the ticking clocks invoke what Slavoj Žižek describes as the ‘Ridiculous Sublime’:

“there is nothing intrinsically sublime in a sublime object-according to Lacan, a sublime object is an ordinary, everyday object which, quite by chance, finds itself occupying the place of what he calls das Ding [the Thing], the impossible-real object of desire. . . It is its structural place-the fact that it occupies the sacred/forbidden place of jouissance and not its intrinsic qualities that confers on its sublimity.” [6]

Maybe the fleeting viewer remembers the scene from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which is also invoked by Žižek in his analysis of the Real:

…the broad shots of idyllic small-town Middle America with a father watering the lawn; suddenly, the father suffers a stroke or heart-attack while the camera dramatically zooms in on the grass with its bustling microscopic world of insects. [7]

David Lynch’s Blue Velvet,1986, composed video stills; Žižek’s ‘Everyday’ and ‘Real’.

Thorpe’s ticking clocks, and on second glance, a pig’s heart strapped to his arm, invites associations with Lynch; but from an art world perspective, owes a lot to Paul McCarthy. In 2003 at Hauser and Wirth Gallery, London, McCarthy’s video installation titled Piccadilly Circus (an echo of the gallery’s location in London), was the usual mix of chaos and precision; control and disorder, chance and rehearsal. As a inexperienced art student, on leaving the gallery I felt the same “catharsis” that the author disclosed in his review of the of the show in Time Out London. which was my gallery guide for the day. This is how performance art finds “objecthood” – through the human encounter with the absurd and the after-effect of “catharsis,” or if not catharsis, a retelling by the viewer of the encounter, no matter how fleeting.

Paul McCarthy, Piccadilly Circus, Hauser and Wirth, London, 2003. Image here

What we have here is a disjoint in art, like the aforementioned gap between viewer and performer; between what is communicated and what is understood; and what is everyday and what is uncanny. Thorpe’s muliple clocks float between Žižek’s defininition of the Real via Lynch’s beetles, and the everyday–if you can imagine buying the cheap and simple time pieces from ebay; Lacan’s sublime object is debunked. The incongruous heart on one of the artist’s biceps, only seen with Thorpe’s incremental movements, is symbolic. A metaphor for what, I don’t know; but its aesthetic effect against the cheap ticking plastic was disruptive. Maybe the dead heart and wind-up clocks complemented each other on an intellectual level, and could be explained away as signifiers for time and routine; but their visceral aesthetic value outweighed any sort of academic reading.

Surprisingly, the noisy lunch-time cafe at the Mermaid Arts Centre lent a hand to the reception of Thorpe’s performance. For the uncanny to appear, the everyday has to be in the backdrop. What can be more representative of the “everyday” than the noise from a space that relishes in the acts of eating and conversation, while above in the “attic”, the obverse is happening.

James Merrigan is an artist


[1]   Dominic Thorpe discloses the impetus to make/ reenact work for Unbuilding: In 2009 I made a performance called ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT GIRL SEE HER MOTHER’. It was made after hearing the story of Maria McCrea on the RTE radio documentary ‘This is Maria McCrea’. Irish born Maria was a young girl living in England with her family when her Mother Left to return to Ireland. When Maria turned 18 she began to look for her Mother with the support of her foster parents in England. At the same time her Mother had been in Ireland looking for her. The social services knew they were looking for each other but didn’t put them together. One day Maria got a phone call from the social services to say her mother had died and did she want them to arrange for her to go to the funeral. This work in Mary Kelly’s exhibition ‘Burial’ as part of Unbuilding at the Mermaid Arts Centre is titled ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’. It was made about Maria McCrea’s mother who died longing to know her daughter again.

[2]   Melanie Gilligan, The Beggar’s Pantomime, Artforum XLV No. 10 (Summer 2007), pp. 426-433.

[3]  Victoria Miro Gallery Press Release for Absence Without Leave: http://www.victoria-miro.com/exhibitions/_375/

[4]   Dominic Thorpe, http://dominicthorpe.net/projects/should-have-let-that-girl-see-her-mother-09/

[5]  Gilligan, op.cit., The Beggar’s Pantomime

[6]   Slavoj Žižek, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, California Press, 2000.

[7]   Ibid, Slavoj Žižek.

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Written by James Merrigan

September 29, 2010 at 12:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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