The Power of Image

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Having been looking at and researching a lot of Performance Art lately I have inevitably been thinking about its modes of documentation. How do we accurately record an ephemeral event in which setting and audience were so crucial? The atmosphere of the room and the reactions of the audience are in a sense part of the artwork; the audience in a sense become co-creators of the work, yet this does not always come across in documentation. It’s incredibly problematic and an obstacle for most people working with performance. There are all forms documentation can take; photographs, film, film stills, text, written accounts, you name it. It’s a matter of finding what works for you and the individual piece of work. In a lot of cases one single image comes to represent a performance piece and this becomes the image that gets circulated. I myself have fallen into doing this with one performance I did (pictured above). This one image is the only one that truly represents the piece, especially given the angle of the room and my feet against the floor in this shot. It’s an exciting moment when you do find the perfect document, but the obstacles it takes to get there are often plentiful!

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Performance Art

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Janine Antoni ‘Loving Care’, image sourced from Artnet.

Having always used and worked with the body as a theme and a medium, it seems only natural that this year I have started to work with Performance Art. This was a movement that came into existence in the 1960s and 70s and is rooted in Conceptual Art. Performance Art is where the artist uses their own body or the body of a model to perform tasks and actions that become the artwork themselves. Famous Performance Artists include Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Yves Klein, Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman – the list is endless! Pictured above is one of my favourite artists, who has been a huge inspiration since I discovered her two years ago; Janine Antoni performing ‘Loving Care’. This is a work in which she dipped her hair in the hair dye and used her body as a painterly tool. This is in a sense a parody of Jackson Pollock’s painterly techniques and the male-dominated Abstract Expressionist movement, as well as being a social commentary on the domesticity of women. 

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‘Loving Care’ has been a piece that has stuck with me for a while now and I have always been curious to test this idea of extending the paintbrush beyond itself. I recently cut my hair and therefore thought it would be interesting to do a performance which acted as a reversal to that.  I also wanted to make a gesture towards the impracticality of hair extensions and their artificial qualities. I cut my hair really short, so I wanted to extend it really long. I used the stretchy exercise bands that most people use in the gym, partially because they were a practical object to use in this instance and partially due to the presence of the gym and exercise in my work. 

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The white objects I am using are obscure and grotesque limb-like forms that I made out of papier-mâché. This was a very laborious and time-consuming task not only because I made a lot of these objects, but also because of their drying time and formation process. However, the labour was another element to this performance. In it I am not only exploring this idea of body image through the representation of hair extensions, but I am also exploring the repetitive and mundane. Labour is an element not only in the construction of the objects, but also in creating the drawing given how many times I walked up and down the paper.

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There was also an element of pain present as although these objects are relatively light, when attached to your hair and roots they are less so! I had a pot of ink and water that I kept dipping these objects into and my intention was to continue until I had used this up, however the pain prevented me from doing so.

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It was interesting to blend such traditional art materials (cartridge paper and Indian ink) with an act that was so far-removed from conventional painting methods. This mode of working falls into the category of Action Painting, a movement that really took off in the 1960s and is something that I myself have never tried before. There have been moments and elements of it present in my work before, but never in such a direct way. 

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Given the fact that this art form falls and touches on a lot of aspects of performance itself, costume is consequently a very important part and something I put a lot of consideration into. In some cases I have gone for the stereotypical artsy all-black ensemble, but in this instance I wanted to return to the studio aesthetic which I think tied in well with the rest of the materials I was using.

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As well as thinking about what I’ll put on my body for performance work, I also think about what I’ll remove. I am a complete jewellery junkie, always adorned with rings and dangly earrings! I tend to remove all of these elements for the purpose of performance work. However in this instance I kept it all on as I wanted the jewellery to be a part of the work, as an indicator of its constant presence on my body. 

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I think for me one of the most interesting things about working with Performance Art is focusing on and thinking about the objects left behind and how they are imbued both with the trace of human presence and a past kinetic action. What’s exciting is that although the performance is an ephemeral event, the objects left behind hold so much potential for further exploration.

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Exposed (Working Title) Series

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One of the things I love most about making art is that I constantly surprise myself. If you had told me three years ago that I would be doing a shoot like this I would have laughed in your face. Why? Because it involved getting totally naked in front of someone who was not a lover! Well, ok not totally naked in the sense they saw everything, but the only barrier between myself and them was a beautiful piece of material.

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Prior to the shoot I was slightly nervous and self-conscious at the thought of stripping down. However once we started it felt like the most natural thing in the world. It wasn’t embarassing or awkward, it was purely about making the art. And I loved it! It was a very liberating experience for me and really allowed myself to loosen up about my body. It also added a new dimension of thought for me to contemplate in my art. 

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Sadly in a lot of cases, once you get naked for art that is all your art is suddenly about. That’s all the person reads when viewing it. Which I think is tragic as there’s obviously so much more to it then that. Of course I’m not saying that’s always the case, or that everyone does it. I just know a lot of people do. So let’s look past the nudity and more into what is actually going on here. Firstly, it’s material fascination. My friend has had this material hanging in her studio for ages and her love for it became kind of infectious for me. She was so fascinated by the colours and the way it worked in light that I started to see more and more in it every time I visited the studio. I even started liking how pink it was! It’s a very tactile material which is very appealing but also multi-sensory given the crispy, rustling noise it makes – like the wind drifting through the trees. 

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So of course I started to think about the material in relation to my own body. Through it’s tactility I was already starting to engage with it, but I wanted to further this engagement. That’s when the idea of water came to me. As I mentioned in my last post, I have been thinking a lot about water and time recently and am starting to bring them into my work more. So I asked my friend, given her highly articulate understanding of this material, if she could help me capture these images. And what a perfect job she did! We used my desk lamp as a spotlight, my bath tub, her material and my body to produce these shots. It involved a lot of stretching, balance, holding uncomfortable positions and very cold bath water, but it was worth it! 

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I’d explained at the beginning how and what it was I wanted to capture, and the more photos we took, the more we evolved and arrived at what it was I was after. The results are sensitive and subtly sensual, but not overly sexual. The images hint at nudity without being too overt, partly because I wanted to avoid that instant jump to ‘naked art’. You would think the contrast between such an artificial material and my skin would be harsh, but the colours of the material dance so beautifully over my skin in the light that the two almost blend together. I think the water helps this, there’s this whole question of what is wet and what is dry and I think that really enhances it. 

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You know you’re doing something good when you start to get really excited about something you make. These photographs are one of those special moments, I feel these are just the tip of the iceberg and hopefully a lot more will come from them!

Projection Experimentation

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I had a play with the projector today. Not really sure I feel about these works yet, they’re still far too fresh for me to form an opinion of them. There are elements I’m really happy with though, primarily the physicality created by the projection. It really has been a struggle for me working so digitally and having everything on a screen, but even though these are images projected from a laptop, they reclaim the physical. They also take away the perfection of an on-screen image as the distortion was a key concept to them and something I generally find very appealing.

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I also really like the way in which the projector has saturated the colour, it’s created a kind of pastel rainbow which I think brings a real sensitivity to the images. Completely unintentional but I am in no way complaining! It is often the accidents that create the best works!

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I think they’re quite playful works. But then that may be because I know the root of their content. These images are stills taken from a film of a performance I did. Wow that’s quite a sentence there isn’t it? How many mediums have I crossed to create these?! I guess in a way these works are the combination of all my other works layered together. It’s a build up to an endpoint almost like the layering of paint on  a canvas. The painterly mindset really hasn’t left me despite technology being the current basis of my work. I’ve decided film is really not for me though. I’ve tried and I’ve pushed it. But as my films are merely experiments, almost like a digital sketchbook, they don’t work beyond the moment in which I created them. When I watch them I instead think in stills, which is why I am able to draw out the moments that convey what I am trying to depict so easily. 

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For me it’s still very important to maintain a sense of ambiguity in my work which is why I’m not really explaining anything here. I don’t want to and I don’t need to. I don’t want everything about my art laid out on a plate. An image should be able to stand for itself. And I think these experiments are a perfect demonstration of that. Only I know what exactly went on and how I got to this point, but the viewer is free to interpret it as they will. 

Performance Art

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Fourway‘, Daisy Cockle

Last weekend I attended ‘ATTEMPT’, a live art event organised by fellow students at The Stand, a local comedy club. Performance Art is something I had never truly experienced up until now. Yes, I’ve read library books, heard all the big names, watched countless videos and even dabbled in it slightly myself. But never have I sat through an entire day of it. So I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’d never even been to The Stand before but the fact their toilets were painted in primary colours instantly had me sold! The event began with a live stream of the first performance ‘Fourway‘ which showed the artist walking through Newcastle carrying a giant canvas. And when I say giant, it really did eclipse her – what muscles she must have to carry that thing alone! Not only that, she was braving the cold wearing merely a dress. Simply watching her walk through town without more clothes and a scarf on had me shivering (but then again, I do have an unhealthy attachment to wearing scarves)! It was a brilliant start to the show though, it brought the outside space inside and utilised technology in a way I would never even think of (or be capable of given I can barely use my phone!) Instantly I knew I was in for a very creative afternoon.

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‘Explored Persona’, Dan Graham & Alan Barrett

The performances varied greatly which made the event a really dynamic one. Even if you were familiar with performance art you would not have been able to guess what came next. I definitely didn’t guess how much the audience would be a part of it. We were asked to move from our seats for several of the performances. At first I was nervous about this invitation to participate. Normally when you’re asked to leave your seat at an event like this you end up with everyone looking and laughing at you (yes, memories of my experience at The Edinburgh Dungeons where I was called up and put on trial for being a witch were running through my head! Motto of the story, never EVER sit at the front!) But I needn’t have worried. In this case it was merely to give greater attention to the performance, to really be able to look and move as you pleased. In Explored Persona‘ we stayed in our seats but this time the performers approached the audience (and yes I got nervous again!) But it was nothing too daunting, merely comedic interaction involving high-fives, amusingly prolonged eye-contact and giggles from the audience. 

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‘Habbit is a great deadener’, Ciara Lenihan

‘Habbit is a great deadener’ was a very interesting performance to me. It began with a pile of potatoes. They were there from the beginning; as soon as I walked in I noticed them. And I suppose it was this anticipation, this curiousity as to their purpose, that provided a very effective build up for the piece. I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe consumption or something strange like that (not that eating a raw potatoe appeals to anyone but you never know). It was far more peaceful then that though. The performer, Ciara Lenihan lay on the floor; her feet, hands and mouth were covered in dirt. And for a while, she just lay there, completely still. And it was very silent, and very peaceful and very tranquil. It made me think of all the times I’ve done meditation in yoga. She then began to reach out for the potatoes and one by one place them over her face. A lot of the time, they rolled away. But she kept repeating the process. For some reason it was very soothing to watch. I think everyone else was just as mesmerised as me. It was a simple but very powerful piece. I suppose sometimes the best art is the art without all the flash. The best art is the most pure.

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‘Protest’, Dean Wilson

For the most part, the performances were silent, but not in the case of  ‘Protest’ which to me was one of the most powerful performances. There was audio playing in the background for this piece which I thought was a brilliant idea (why didn’t I think of doing a performance with that?!) It was not just the fact Dean had audio playing, but it was what the audio that was playing. It was very intense stuff. And when I say intense, I mean intense. And it was truly brilliant. It made you sit there and think, it made you sit there and feel something, it even made you sit there and squirm. For some people it would probably have made them want to leave the room which in my opinion completely defeats the point of attending a performance event, as by walking through the door you are essentially agreeing to open your mind to anything. But even if that were to happen, I suppose it means the performer got a reaction. And isn’t that what performance art is all about, not really knowing what’s going to happen until you do it? I think that’s why I could never perform infront of an audience. Behind a camera it is  reserved just for me, like a secret performance.

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‘Untitled’, Matthew Young & Nikki Lawson

When I talk about how every performance was different, the contrast between ‘Untitled’ and ‘Habbit is a great deadener’ highlights this perfectly. Whereas in Ciara’s performance she was predominantly still except for a few rolling potatoes, in ‘Untitled’ the performers were running about all over the place like hyper children. They were juggling  tennis balls painted white and the circular motion of the juggling was hypnotising! There were only two performances consisting of a duo act and I don’t think this one would have functioned as well as it did if it had been a solitary performer. Given that the performers of ‘Untitled’ tended to occupy opposite sides of the room, you were left wondering who to look at. So your eyes flicked constantly between the two. Coupled with the movement of them darting after their ball every time they dropped one, the piece ended up with quite a strong sense of momentum and energy. I was actually quite jealous of them juggling by the end of it – I almost wanted to magically conjure some more tennis balls and join in!

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This experience of Performance Art has made me thirsty for more. I suppose again for me it comes back to that sense of body and self that I like to be present in my work and art that interests me. So although watching performance art won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, it’s definitely something worth trying out if you ever get the chance!