Nostalgic for Newcastle

Someone came up with the fantastic suggestion when I was leaving Newcastle in July, that before I say goodbye to the city I should document what have become my favourite and fondest places over the last three years. I thought this was a wonderful idea, especially given how cities change and evolve over time, how interiors get renovated, or places close down. I might come back some day and not be able to go to my favourite little wine bar! I therefore felt taking a few  documentary photos was the perfect way to remember the good times. I’ve had them on my hard drive for a while, but it wasn’t until I revisted the city yesterday that I remembered I’d taken them. I was just visiting for the day to work with the Newbridge and Newcastle-based artist Rosie Morris for her upcoming exhibition at The Laing Art Gallery (preview Friday 30th September, 5-7pm with a live performance at 6pm). It was a fantastic today and I am very excited to be a part of her work (more on this next week or on The Laing Gallery’s website, click here to view).

I only realised yesterday however, how lacking my photographic documentation of Newcastle is. I’ve got the Quayside and it’s pubs – the beautiful river front, all of which I frequented often, The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (sometimes I kick myself for not keeping track of how many visits I paid there, just for the sake of curiosity!) Grainger Market where I bought all my fruit and vegetables (how I miss it!) Flares, the cheesiest club you will ever enter, but always with the gurantee of a good night! Blakes, one of my favourite cafes, mainly because you can get the yummiest breakfast served as late as 2pm (never miss your breakfast!)

However, I now realise I’ve only really captured the exteriors. The buildings and architecture are of course beautiful, but the interiors are what I want to remember more. I want to remember the dim light of the pub where I was laughing madly with my friends, I want to remember the coffee shop where I had to take my shoes off, I want to remember the chandelier of spoons that hangs in Quilliam Brothers tea house. I suppose, if you have read my previous posts, I am contradicting myself. In the previous statements I mentioned the lack of necessity with imagery, how words can satisfy and be enough. However, in nostalgic projects like these and in the act of remembering, I am definitely a visual person. I feel another few trips down to Newcastle may be needed, for me to complete my collection of memories.

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Self-Portraits

I’ve been thinking a lot about imagery lately.

I have an exhibition that I keep meaning to return to so that I can write about it, as wherever possible I far prefer sourcing my own images. Otherwise it kind of feels like stealing. Especially when I have the chance to photograph work in the way that I, as opposed to others, see it. Photographing and capturing something visually is as much a language as a piece of writing. This urge to document and provide my own source work has led me into thinking about the necessity of images and how we use them to frame both our written texts and our lives. Particularly in terms of how people constantly feel the need to document not only the world around them, but themselves. The way in which we can convey, warp and shape the reception of our persona through our careful selection and sensoring of our own imagery. How, through specific choice we can create the perfect presentation of ourselves. A facade that once the spell is broken and the true self becomes revealed, can never return to the idealised perfection. Once the mask has been removed, there is no return.

I find this very interesting, as in the sea of images out there, people attempt to make their own mark; to create an identity for themselves and a projection for the world. I think this way of thinking and my interest in this peeked following my visit to the exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. ‘Facing the World: From Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei’ is an exhibition that I have now visited…four times. I would highly recommend going more than once. Or even, like myself, splitting your visits into two so that you view only half the exhibition at first and then return another day to view the rest of it. I have never done this before, however I found it incredibly fulfilling, as it enabled me to better absorb the artwork as my mind was not too saturated with it all at once. It gave me more time to reflect and made me realise the works that I was truly interested in. It’s difficult, as there is so much to gain from every work in the exhibition, however the self-portraits that really struck a chord with me were Andy Warhol’s and Robert Mappleforth’s. You could argue I am cliched in my Warhol orientated interest, he is after all, renowned for his self-portraits. However these were works that I have never studied up close and they had quite the impact on me.

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Warhol in drag. Yes, I’ve come across it before, but there was something about it in the context of the exhibition. The scale I should have realised were small poleroids, whereas when I’d seen the work in books, I’d mistakenly imagined it more A4 or even large scale. The size of course, changes the meaning of the self-portrait entirely. In my imagination, the large scale of the portrait was garish and intruding to the viewer, cocky even. However, when I viewed it during my ‘Facing the World…’ visit, I was struck by the intimacy that the poleroid scale allowed. I had to stand up close to study it. There were four of these small self-portrait’s of Andy’s on the wall and from afar all you could see was the stylish black frame, you could not make out the facial features. Yet upon close inspection there was so much to see and draw out, a rawness and an insight which felt personal and floor shattering. Almost as if I was an intruder catching Warhol in a moment which belonged only to him.

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Suddenly, my assumptions of Warhol with his elaborate pop art flamboyancy melted away and I was left with this striking affinity I felt for the pieces. I have read Warhol’s autobiography ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again’ and I must say that it changed the way in which I viewed him. I think changed is actually an understatement. It revolutionised the way I view him. I feel I have a far greater insight and understanding to both his methods and intensions of working because of this book. A lot of people like Warhol and his work. A lot of people don’t. It’s always the people who don’t like him to whom I recommend read this book. I can never decide as to how I feel about him exactly; I am fascinated by his life in the Factory and his relationship with celebrity icons like Eddie Sedgwick, his intentionally monotonous yet revolutionary films like ‘Empire‘, yet I am also reserved in my interest. His fascination and fear of death is perhaps what speaks to me most. Following the assassination attempt on his life and his near-death experience, Warhol began to explore this theme in his work. He created silk-screens of gruesomely smashed up cars wrapped round trees, he did portraits of celebrities like  Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, both of whom supposedly died of a drug overdose. In among his colourful depictions and his Campbell’s soup cans, lies tragedy in the work of Warhol. There is a personal undercurrent that hums quietly underneath the elaborate facade and  his artistic persona, which once exposed, is truly magnificent. It is this undercurrent and its subtleties which I am drawn to with Warhol. I found therefore found these portraits very touching and almost kind of melancholy.

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I viewed the self-portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe with much the same air. It feels as if there is an inherent sadness to his work, one which you can’t escape from in the process of viewing. Perhaps it is his striking eyes, which pour so deeply into your soul that you can’t help feeling as exposed as he is in his portrait. Or perhaps it is the monochrome, the lack of colour an allusion to a lack of life. Yet his portraits are filled with life, with intimacy and with themes that are dictated by the erotic. Perhaps it his aura, the knowing tilt of the head and the carefully applied mascara. The sensual addition of the fur. Or perhaps it is merely the contrast provided by his opposing self portrait that was in the exhibition, which is infused with a reasserting masculinity. Mapplethorpe employs the same dark backdrop, yet creates an entirely contrasting presentation of himself. The hardened expression, the tough leather jacket. The casual cigarette protruding from his full-bodied lips. What is it about Mapplethrope that is so sensually infused? Is it the chiseled cheek bones? Or is it his defiance? His ability to present himself in an entirely modest, yet simultaneously proud way?

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I think Mapplethorpe’s work has a solid beauty to it.You can’t ignore the sensual air, or the sculpted bodies. For me, the use of monochrome is a very striking elemt. It removes unnecessary details from the work, the fact that colour is absent forces you to focus more on the features. The depth and tone created through the clothing texture (or lack of it) and pure human flesh is striking. Given the iconic features of his work and the raw portrayal of himself and his subjects, I think it is safe to say Mapplethorpe is one of my favourite photographers.

‘Facing the World: From Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei’ is an exhibition unlike any I have seen before. Mainly due to the fact I have never before encountered a portrait-based exhibition. The range of work created quite the pictorial journey with incredibly interesting content, particularly given the evolution of the portrait itself. How these days, the full human body is as much a portrait as more traditional depictions which include only the upper torso. Yet for me, it was the works of Warhol and Mapplethorpe that stood out. I felt that they were the most successful in capturing the essence of themselves and conveying who they were or what they could be. I was spell-bound by their works to the point I felt as if there was a direct correlation between myself and their portraits. As if I, stood staring up at their work as I occupied the gallery space, ceased to exist for a moment. I disappeared into them; I became irrelevant. This ability to strike up such a close and inclusive dialogue with the viewer can be a rarity within an artwork, but in this instance I left with a lasting affinity towards the works and their subjects.

Images sourced from:

http://67.media.tumblr.com/ead8fd2dbfd137095a33ae12ed892ca3

http://theredlist.com

http://www.tate.org.uk

Visual Essay on Architecture

Being in Berlin gave me so many revelations that I can’t stop thinking about. It also, much to my delight, reignited my love for architecture. I did a project on architecture as part of my Art coursework at GCSE level, but have never returned to it as a topic since. Partly I think because I was put off by the result of my naive endeavors. At GCSE level I explored Omani architecture with it’s beautiful mosques and arched doorways, as well as more modern twisting architecture in the form of the Armani Hotel. I feel the way in which I approached it at the time was far too broad; I just plunged in with the only focus being ‘architecture’, meaning the results were weak due to the lack of specificity. Now I look at things with more refinement, far more critically and only really pay attention to things that ignite my utmost interest. Which pretty much all of Berlin did! I always remember someone telling me to look upwards as you walk round cities, because that tends to be the place you see the most exciting and unexpected things. Watching ‘The September Issue’ (a fashion documentary) years ago also made me think about how and where I should be looking as what was said has stuck with me. In the documentary, Creative Director at the time, Grace Coddington, talks about how you should never shut your eyes and sleep, but always look out the window of a car and absorb the world as it flashes by. Never miss a minute.

Walking around Berlin allowed me to contemplate the city and its structures at my own pace and I am slowly starting to formulate the idea of exploring the bridge between architecture and life within my artwork. I have studied and worked with the human body for so long now, I feel it is time to refine even that as a topic.Possibly merge it with my revised interests in the buildings that surround us on a daily basis. Culture of course comes into architecture, as does history. Not just of the buildings themselves, but of how infrastructure has developed over time. Perhaps a comparison between Egyptian architecture and the historical buildings of Berlin will feature? Perhaps a trip to Barcelona to finally see the work of Antoni Gaudi will happen? I don’t know. All I know is that I want to explore more. I want to try broadening the palette of my focus. So again I have resorted to a John Berger style visual essay on the architecture of Berlin.

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Berlin Berger Style

Recently I have been reading the art critic John Berger’s two books ‘Ways of Seeing‘ and ‘About Looking‘. Both are truly inspiring reads; Berger’s insights highlight things you think or notice on a subconscious level, but had never fully come to realise yourself. He is like the stepping stone to realization. He draws out your way of thinking and forces you into a mode of questioning that can be applied to everything from that point onwards. ‘Ways of Seeing’ was particularly eye-opening for me; the way in which I read paintings, their composition and their form has forever changed for me following these two poignant books.

What I particularly liked about ‘Ways of Seeing’ was it’s composition; it is split into concise sections which are well structured and coherent in their point. Yet between each of these sections is a visual essay, an essay composed entirely of images. This was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Each visual essay acted as an introduction to the subsequent written essay. This forces you to try and decipher the images themselves in isolation from the written word, before having Berger go on to elaborate their context in the next chapter. I thought this was an incredibly interesting way of conveying an idea and I was delighted when I was able to comprehend most of the visual essays. Recently I have been drawn more to visuals than writing, particularly with all of the interesting content I follow on Instagram in the form of various galleries and art collectives. So reading the Berger books and discovering the visual essay came at the perfect time for me. In Berlin I was looking, sketching and trying to capture what I saw. I needed a more instant way of absorbing the city which writing did not quite satisfy and so visuals became my supplement tool. Following all of this visual inspiration, I thought I would have a go at compiling a visual essay/visual summary myself of our time in Berlin and how I saw and perceive the city.

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Photo credits also to Jamie Strathearn.

‘Vinyl Icons: Persian Pop and Turkish Psychedelia’ Part III

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People often say that a photo is worth a thousand words and I am a strong believer in this. Photos tell stories, document fond memories and capture funny moments. Personal photos are the stills to your life. Documentary photos allow us visual access to the past; whether it is a glimpse into the harrowing life of trench warfare, the horrific effects of Napalm in Vietnam, or more light-hearted occasions such as Royal Weddings. It’s incredible to think that we can see a visual of someone who existed hundreds of years ago, that we can put a face to the name of ancient geniuses. ‘Vinyl Icons: Persian Pop and Turkish Psychedelia’ demonstrates the importance of the photograph. Within the exhibition this takes on a variety of forms, such as a photographic collage of family photos as above. 

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It also took the form of more explicit photographs, such as this found postcard of an Iranian pop star. As I said before, a picture is worth a thousand words and what interests me most about this fact is that different people will all take different things from what they see. Such as with the above photo; some people will find it crude, others will find it sexy, generally people will find it cheeky and naughty. Personally I like it, I think it’s got a wacky side to it and a sense of pride within the woman as she commands her body. I also find the setting incredibly interesting and the material of her net leotard provides an interesting contrast against the plush velvet of the chair. Having written extensively about ‘Vinyl Icons: Persian Pop and Turkish Psychedelia’, I have realised that as a whole it is of course a flourishing exhibition. Yet it’s only really when you break it down and truly examine the details that you realise just how effective and important every single element is. 

 

Sensual Materials

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I have this absolute nightmare of my tights ALWAYS getting holes in them. It drives me nuts; my toes peep out, the ladders run up the back of my leg, I don’t think I own a single perfect pair of tights! So being an artsy creative person I of course think of new ways to use them when they’re on their way out, otherwise there are far too many tights going to waste!  When I did these shots, I’d recently been using cling film to cover and wrap my body in. So these photographs were kind of an extension of that experiment. Of course, wrapping your body in cling film holds very different connotations from interacting with fragile tights. 

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I was quite pleased with how these photographs turned out. They are completely unedited, I just used a desk lamp directed at a very certain angle to get these colour shades. Normally putting something over your head is claustrophobic and uncomfortable, but given the transparency and delicacy of the tights there were no problems at all. It was more exciting trying to develop a relationship with the material and mould it into interesting shapes that worked both within the frame of the photograph and in relation to my body. I had a tripod set up to take these, so it was all very trial and error; I only got three good photographs out of all the ones I took. That happens most of the time with photography though and the shapes I did manage to create here complemented the warm hues of the lighting. 

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Despite the lack of editing, the colours came out really well; they shift between pale pastel yellows and orange-tinted pinks. I was also really happy with the blend of focuses; the fixed outline of certain areas such as the head in the photo above, against softer and more ambiguous outlines as in the case of my fingers in the above. Out of all components of my torso, I think my hands looked the most interesting encased in the tights, as the fingers are usually so mobile and free to use that is was strange to see them restricted. Yet the conflict present within the restriction is interesting as the hands are encased by the most fragile material and have the ability to break free at any moment. This potential is most evident in the middle picture where my fingers are most pronounced. I also think this potential is evident in the blend of static and movement. Although I am holding still and posing for the camera, there is so much movement in the light and the material which provides an interesting contrast to the overall result. I think these aspects are why these photographs are successful to me; I’ve taken a simple everyday material and tried to adapt it into something entirely new. 

Francesca Woodman Part 2

Continued from yesterday’s post (see first part of text here: https://themindofmilla.com/2016/03/23/francesca-woodman-part-1/)

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Francesca Woodman, Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980 © George and Betty Woodman NB: No toning, cropping, enlarging, or overprinting with text allowed.

Although sexuality is inherent to Woodman’s work, it is not the primary objective given her predominantly raw treatment of it. There is a sensitivity to the way she portrays the female nude which distils the sexual components that are inevitably present. In some instances however she is more willing to be sexually explicit, as in the case of ‘Untitled’ (1980, pictured above). Through the framing of the shot and the absence of the lower half there is the suggestion of sexual occurrences. Her facial expression seems to emphasise this possibility. She also uses a fur-based prop which accentuates the smoothness of her skin and feminine elements such as the erect nipple. Contrast to this highly visible sexual component, there are more subtle depictions of the female form as demonstrated by ‘Untitled’ (1979-80, pictured below). In this instance the mirror reflection becomes the subject of the photograph and the body more of an aside. Mirrors are a common prop employed by Woodman, which highlight the theme of representation and self. Given all the connotations that a mirror holds, the presence of this object within her work furthers the exploration of bodily image and form.

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Props were often employed by Woodman in constructing her photographs. Mirrors, doors, shells, tables, fabric and food are just a few of the objects that she utilised. These are all objects originating from the domestic realm, which demonstrates Woodman’s interest in gender. It is amazing to think that all Woodman required in constructing her images was a room, a tripod, some objects and herself. Such simple tools yet the results are so complex. Despite the minimalist assortment of items depicted, she pushed photography to its limits through the experimental use of slow shutter speed and interesting photographic stand points. Woodman’s work is sensitive yet interrogative in its dynamic exploration of the female figure. Although the tragedy surrounding her death will always be in the background to her work, that is where it will firmly remain given her compelling, iconic and beautiful oeuvre.

Francesca Woodman Part 1

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When we were in Amsterdam at New Year, my boyfriend and I were lucky  enough to see ‘On Being an Angel’ at Foam the photography Museum. ‘On Being an Angel’ was an incredible retrospective of American photographer Francesca Woodman’s work which ran from 18th December 2015 – 9th March 2016. I had never come across her work before so I was incredibly lucky to witness it in this collective way. It was raw, it was subtle and it was beautiful. Woodman generally took herself to derelict locations and created what you could I suppose call a body of self-portraits. Her portfolio is vast and sensitive, mostly shot in black and white with long exposures. Viewing it in the form of a retrospective was interesting as it allowed you to more fully comprehend her progression as a photographer and artist. I wrote a piece about Woodman’s work with the intention of submitting it for an art writing prize, but ended up submitting something else in the end. So instead of leaving the written piece dormant on my laptop, I’m instead going to publish it in two installments on my blog across two days.  

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It can be a curse to the artwork when an artist dies young, as from that point onwards their work will inevitably be read in relation to their premature death. Eva Hesse is a prime example of this, as the rhetoric surrounding her body of work never fails to mention the brain tumour that took her life at the age of merely thirty-four. Francesca Woodman’s work does not escape this morbid reading either given her suicide aged twenty-two. Woodman had not long left her student days behind when she killed herself and consequently her work became imbued with tragedy; with an attempt to try and solve the mystery and turmoil surrounding this ‘lost girl’. Yet in her work Woodman was far from lost as she had an aura that has become iconic to her powerful photographs. They are all to an extent self-portraits, as the majority of Woodman’s photographs are composed by her placing herself within a chosen environment. Despite the settings being a critical element to her compositions, they do not feel forced. Quite the opposite; her placement within the surroundings feels like the most natural thing in the world, even if it does happen to be in an apparently derelict room.

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By photographing herself in abandoned-looking places Woodman creates a sense of both hopelessness and emptiness which are highlighted through her solitude in the space. There is a melancholy to the majority of her images, particularly the ones in which her expression can be depicted, as a smile is a rarity. Yet for Woodman photography was no smiling matter, but instead a personal exploration of the female form, gender, sexuality and self. The nude figure was a common motif throughout her work which created an explicit sense of vulnerability. By posing naked Woodman was peeling back not only the physical layers, but also the psychological. She was exposing herself to her audience by allowing her body and self to be truly scrutinized; although more often than not the body in Woodman’s photographs tends to be slightly obscured. Whether this is through a material covering of the body, awkward placement of self, or unusual camera angles; there was rarely a clear and easily read depiction of the figure.

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Woodman instead favoured this sense of ambiguity; a body that is both present and absent simultaneously. ‘On Being an Angel’ includes a lot of photographs that evidence this theme of Woodman’s. When confronted with her work throughout this exhibition there is a lot of contemplation involved in the reading of it; her pieces are not designed for easy digestion. Instead they are complex and demanding, forcing the eye to engage and to question what it is seeing. ‘Space 2’  (above) is the perfect example of this as Woodman has chosen to incorporate the wallpaper as a physical prop to obscure her body. We are left wondering where her body begins and the wall ends. There is also a very sensual component to this piece, as the placement of her hand draws attraction to the area surrounding her groin. The angle at which her other arm holds the wallpaper is also sexually suggestive as the viewer’s eye travels up the diagonal of the wallpaper almost expecting to see a hint of side-breast.

Text to continue in tomorrow’s post…

Body Poses

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It’s amazing when you stop and think about the body; when you register the fact all of your movements are controlled by tiny little messages sent along your nerves and synapses, allowing you to move instinctively without thinking. Transmitting instructions that allow your body to function. These days we are so preoccupied with image, diet, building artificial muscle, losing weight, gaining weight that we forget to think about our core components; the things that actually matter. How our muscles stretch as we bend our arms, how the skin moves with your joints, how our bones click and slot into place as we sit down, how we blink to keep the dust out, how we breathe as our pulse rate changes. All of these small little details are so crucial to everyday life, yet how often do we stop and think about them? How often do we take it all for granted? How often do we truly contemplate the wonders that are our bodies? 

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I have very bad knees, so I am constantly aware of the clicks and the shoots of pain. Yet in a weird way I am grateful to this pain. It forces me to slow down to reduce impact on the kneecap, or stop shin splints. Often I can feel my knee caps clicking and sliding over each other like a machine. I am so aware of these faults in my body that I can’t help become aware of everything else. This is why I love the gym so much, as I enter that space it allows me to open up a direct dialogue with my body. In the gym my actions are entirely dictated by the balance of mind and body; how far can I push certain muscles? How long can I do certain weights? How long should I spend stretching? It is almost as if I go deeper into myself in these moments as the mind dissolves and becomes one with the body. 

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Balance and endurance are core components of my workouts. There’s the will to stop verses the will to continue. As well as being good for fitness and strength, I believe the gym is also very good for the mind. Going on a regular basis takes commitment; continuing on a machine for a certain amount of time takes willpower. It is all a discipline in which the mind and body are intrinsically wrapped up in each other. I often find it difficult to get this across to people, as everyone has their own reasons for gyming, or some people I know don’t gym at all. Investigating my feelings further in my artwork is helping me to better articulate myself. I feel these images and their poses are highly effective in highlighting a lot of how I feel about exercise and its necessity for me in daily life. 

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!