exploring art and writing

Ras Goffa Bobby Sands, The Bobby Sands Memorial Race.

In Exhibition, Performance on November 1, 2009 at 8:35 pm

It can be difficult when considering a politically concerned piece of art to identify an appropriate reaction, or should I say a reaction that one feels is appropriate. In this case I am referring specifically to Ras Goffa Bobby Sands, or The Bobby sands Memorial Race, a  multi-disciplinary piece performed at Chapter Arts Centre by contemporary Welsh dancer/artist Eddie Ladd, with music composed by Guto Puw and a responsive sound environment constructed by multi-media artist Nick Rothwell.

My prior knowledge of the 1981 Hunger Strike that took place in HM Prison Maze was, I must admit, nigh on non-existent, a fact that I see no point in hiding; I have no one but myself to blame for my own ignorance. It was refreshing, then, to leave a performance feeling not only creatively (and, I must add, physically) inspired, but also to have something historical to consider. Since researching Bobby Sands and the political context that Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom was steeped in at the time, I am amazed at how I have never heard the strikes being discussed or referred to; either I am brilliant at ignoring matters or schools really are wasting our time. However, I’m not writing this to offer a political analysis or even to submit a political opinion, and by saying this I am in no way denying that the context of such a piece is imperative to the experience of it;  I am merely guarding others against an unsophisticated political analysis. I study art and am concerned with how myself and others experience and interpret works, be they political statements or pretty pictures, or both; I am still learning in this field as well, but as an artwork I can honestly say that I found The Bobby Sands Memorial Race a deeply affecting and beautifully constructed piece of art.

When the performance began I had a few concerns inkling away at the back of my mind; Rothwell’s laser beams were gleaming towards the audience through slowly emerging, hissing bellows of smoke, followed by Eddie Ladd emerging to run laps around the stage; by doing this the audience was placed at the beginning of something extremely physical and mental as themes of exhaustion, and also of an endless circle, an entrapment, came into play (symbolised neatly, if not intentionally, in the soon-to-be constant whirring cycle of the 12 ft running machine). The inkling I was referring to was quickly dashed away: as Ladd slid through the smoke and underneath the thin beams of light I got a sense not necessarily of cliched visuals but perhaps of distracting ones; however, as the running track geared up and began its process – and as Ladd, portraying Bobby Sands, began hers – the piece obtained the rhythm and grit that seemed more analogous to Sands 66 day struggle.

This was where the running began. Sands, who was an enthusiastic runner throughout his life, is personified by Ladd on this monster of a running machine, stretching across the stage and issuing unsettling hissing and clunking noises that don’t cease until the end of the piece. My mind was fooled at one point into believing that I was watching a character in forward motion on still ground, as if a world were passing them by. And the faster Ladd ran the more I empathized with her exertion, and the more I sympathised with Sands’. Towards the end, when the running machine begins to slacken pace, the gradual calm that ensues feels more like an absence rather than a peaceful quiet as we are fully drawn into the characters deterioration. Ladd’s quick and nimble movements prior to this not only emphasise the slowness of these last moments but also reinforce the passionate emotions that Sands and his inmates must have felt regarding their cause.

Throughout the performance we hear various monologues, including the first-hand account of Sands’ fellow republican prisoner Laurence McKeown, as well as information provided by Sands’ latest biographer Denis O’Hearn and a new poem by Welsh poet Menna Elfyn; the former two are successful providers of context and keep the mind trained towards the purpose of the piece. The most effective excerpts of monologue, however, are the softly read words of Bobby himself read by performance artist Andre Stitt; the words, which are taken fromThe Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cripple and the Comms that were smuggled in and out of Maze, are calm and stead-fast in comparison to the stamping of Ladd’s feet thumping on the running machine. Here you get a direct sense of Sands’ character rather than just a feel for the general situation encompassing him; when these words are spoken the piece becomes suddenly personal and you begin to realise that, as Ladd’s dance begins to meander and stall, you are watching a representation of something that was far more of a struggle than even this performance helps you to imagine. This does not belittle Ladd’s performance in any way; her motions are consummate physical actions to such soft words.

Ladd’s performance, when combined with the chiming discord of Puw and Rothwell’s sounds and sensor beams, builds up to a fantastic climax of movement as well as one of struggle; at one point massive multiple shadows leap in all directions as Ladd begins the final fight, creating a disorienting feeling of overbearing, unstoppable and arduous motion. This climatic build-up ultimately transforms, however, into a subdued and slow crawl towards the final resolution; a crawl parallel to the line of salt lain out in recognition of its power to stall death, a line that has poured away over the edge of the running machine. And like the salt, Ladd finishes the performance lain on the floor; only when the motion stops are we sure that Bobby Sands’, and of course Eddie Ladd’s, exertions are over. Overall a visually appealing, technically impressive and thought-provoking piece that is more than just a pretty picture.

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  1. wow… Awesome! 🙂

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