exploring art and writing

What Next For The Body? The Inbetween Time Festival of Live Art and Intrigue at Arnolfini, Bristol.

In Exhibition, Fine Arts, Performance on January 7, 2011 at 9:35 pm

It was with high hopes that I arrived at Arnolfini on Thursday to gain my first experience of the Inbetween Time Festival of Live Art and Intrigue, with the subtitle and theme What Next For The Body? Whilst I don’t pretend to be able to review an entire festival based on its opening night, I can attempt to interpret it and the actions performed within it as a taster for the rest of the week.

To begin I’ll set the scene: Arnolfini, as ever, had a warm and bustling atmosphere inside and it was a welcome haven from the hackling cold. The bar in particular had a wonderful buzz and was filled with students and families alike, with a dimly lit chic but casual feel to the seating and bar. On this occasion the weather called for a winter warmer – perfectly made hot chocolate with a much-welcome shot of rum.

Drinks consumed and sufficiently toasty we made our way into the main foyer where two artists, Jones and Llyr, were about to embark on their first collaborative performance, A Mouthful of Feathers. 

Jones, an Arnolfini Associate and Llyr, a member of Random People and joint-founder of Showroom (both organisations are currently proving to be quite elusive – my research continues!)

A crowd had gathered around the small table at which both artists’ sat. Wearing underwear in the form of white vests and white pants and donning garish, imitative Native American head-gear, the two faced each other with scowls that comically contradicted their appearance and situation. Sitting between them on the table was a large jar of what looked like a certain well-known peanut confectionary brand; throughout the performance these sweets would be plucked from the jar by both Jones and Llyr before being placed in their mouths and sucked for a brief period prior to discarding. They then proceeded to spit and salivate on the white cloth that covered the table, resulting in a childlike ‘watercolour’ of shades that matched their rainbow headdresses. Throughout the duration of the performance one would gaze at the other, the stare being returned with apparent, and it must be said often unconvincing, animosity.

Described in the booklet as “a bold, queer performance exploring play, pleasure, spit and disgust”, Llyr and Jones certainly achieved this in regards to the visual aesthetic of the performance, perhaps to the point of over-compensation. And whether they endured “the limits of their own revulsions” I find doubtful, unless they truly detested the treats on which they were sucking.

The metaphors are blatant for all to see here, but for every one of my comments on the perhaps disappointing starkness of such a performance, as the evening progressed I found very few objections to their actions. I retain the belief that simple, repeated actions often portray messages far more succinctly and so, when durational, they allow the audience to experience an artwork with more intensity and integrity, irrespective of whether they decide to subsequently adore or despise it.

And so I found myself interested in the two men and their relationship, both to each other and to their resources, so to speak. The childlike aspects of the artwork’s appearance – the brash rainbow colours, the sweets, and Jones’ and Llyr’s matching garb – when infused with the queer innuendo’s that these characteristics were also pervaded with, became humorous in their irony. The stoic façade being maintained by each of them added to this joviality as the intimacy of excreting saliva, typically repelling in such a public environment, saturated into the tablecloth until the two bodies had essentially met and mingled.

As Jones’ and Llyr’s performance unfolded visitors had the opportunity to meander through Arnolfini to view the rest of What Next For The Body? The exhibition guide is there for viewers to pick up on entering Gallery 1, where Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet’s artwork Refolding (Laboratory Architectures) can be found alongside The Inbetween Time Lounge.

Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet, ‘Refolding (Laboratory Architectures)’

The guide begins with an appropriately meaningful and yet elusive quote from American poet Mark Doty’s Lament-Heaven (1995): “Isn’t everything so shadowed/By its own brevity/We can barely tell the thing from its elegy?”, some Baudrillard-esque sentiments that told me I’d have to put my thinking cap on.

My knowledge of O’Reilly’s previous work alludes to the body, flesh and biochemistry. It is not surprising, then, to find her showing work in an exhibition that is concerned with “the conditions and outcomes of the body breaking down in the face of political, sociological, technological, scientific and environmental upheaval” (exhibition guide). The same goes for bioartist Willet, whose various projects all seem to refer to contemporary biotechnology and the political discourse surrounding it.

Whilst the work they are presenting to the audience in Arnolfini no doubt began as performative actions, we are presented with two large photographic images only. What they lack in quantity they more than make up for in quality, however; the images, both of O’Reilly and Willet tangled in the sterile white lab coats of their surrounding ‘bio’ environment, are stunning in quality and composition.

The guide reads that the laboratory coats “create molecular-like structures”, sometshing that I failed to perceive (perhaps because my knowledge of molecular structures is extremely limited), but I could certainly appreciate the structure of their forms as they entangled themselves amidst the laboratory. There are further nods to the simulative-reproduction ideas of Baudrillard when you turn from the first wall-mounted image to the second photograph, placed before you in a slightly ominous ‘light-box’, in which we see them straddling in the first photograph. Here we can experience both the physical object and its simulacrum, a neat echo to Doty’s quote.

Moving up the stairs to Gallery 2 leads to Zoran Todorovic’s Warmth (2009). As an installation it is striking; on entering the gallery you are faced with several piles of ‘merchandise’, in this case blankets constructed of human hair obtained from various salons, prisons and military barracks. Each blanket is for sale at the price of £100, a reiteration that we ourselves consist of sellable and tradable goods. Mounted on each wall is a monitor showing footage of the hair being cut and collected, although I will admit I felt a sense of slight disappointment on realising that each screen was showing the same footage (several of them were also not working – this did not necessarily impact on the meaning and quality Todorovic’s piece as a whole but it certainly diminished my initial experience of it). In spite of this, I could not suppress my fascination with the tactile, literally human aspects of the blankets and the corporeal history that each one was constructed of.

Zoran Todorovic, ‘Warmth’

If the connotations of Todorovic’s Warmth/Toplina seemed potent in its enquiry regarding ‘what next for the body?’ then Teresa Margolles’ 37 Cuerpos (37 Bodies) and Aire (Air) intensified the direct relationship between audience and external bodies even further. Margolles’ Mexican background and her career origins as a forensic morgue technician have provided ammunition for her artistic explorations. In the exhibition guide her work is described as exploring “the life of the body after death…[and how] in Mexico thousands of people are affected by the violence resulting from the international trade in illegal drugs”.

This brutality is subtly encompassed in 37 Cuerpos (2007) and Aire (2003), the former being 1240cm of discarded autopsy thread, previously used to stitch together the bodies of those whose lives had met a violent end. When I first viewed the connected pieces of string I was unfamiliar with the context, although I assumed from the stained thread that it had been used for some visceral purpose. Spanning the length of the enormous third gallery the train of thread was simultaneously inconspicuous and obtrusive as it sliced the space in half, characteristics not inappropriate considering Margolles’ intended context. Like the surreptitious and yet violently obtrusive threads that make up the Mexican drugs trade, and in accordance with the private nature of the morgue, 37 Cuerpos embodies the polarities of discreetness and flagrancy, but also of grief.

Teresa Margolles, ’37 Cuerpos’

The morbidity and political slant of the subject matter continues in Aire. In a small room two cooling systems circulate disinfected and recycled water into the air, water that was once used to hygienically cleanse bodies prior to autopsy. Whilst this morbidity appeared to be too invasive for some, tap water is often recycled from such sources. By putting autopsy water in an air humidifier, Margolles seems to be expanding further on ideas that express quietness and yet hint at insidiousness. Her use of “vapour as a metaphor for the absent body” and “as a reminder of mortality and the rituals of death” (exhibition guide) reflects the influence of a culture infiltrated by uncertainty and violence.

The final performance that I came across prior to my regretful absconding of the nights events was Jordan McKenzie’s Drawing Breath. This was the most physically interactive and intimate piece of the whole night, a status maintained by a limit on how many members of the audience were allowed access to the room at any given time. After repeatedly marking brown paper with charcoal, McKenzie proceeded to blow into the paper until a balloon had formed, which he then slammed into the wall, causing it to form a dusty pattern as it exploded. He then approached an individual member of the audience, unbuttoned his shirt and placed their hand on his respiring chest, only to retreat and repeat the process for two hours.

Drawing Breath appeared to be an enquiry into the act of breathing, of its necessity, its repetitiveness, and of the transience in the intake of a single breath. Whilst I will admit that I found the performance slightly rigid and uncomfortable – in particular when he took my hand in order to lay it on his chest – it was also a very fitting way to end a night of pondering such a loaded topic as the current and future state of the human body. The simplicity of such universally organic actions was a soft reminder that we all, for now, begin purely as flesh and blood. Whilst this may be perceived as wonderful by some or as naïve or even crude by others, as we journey further into the twenty-first century it is a subject that will grow in technological complexity and philosophical ambiguity. Let us hope that artworks such as those found in What Next For The Body? and the following Inbetween Time festival will aid us in comprehending both where we now stand and where we are heading.

Jordan McKenzie, ‘Drawing Breath’

  1. First of all, I was just checking your site last week and wanted to Wish you a very happy new year! Was not sure if you were busy with life in general! 🙂
    Let’s get to the article at hand: This is the most fascinating read of my lifetime.. In terms of hyperbole or metaphors.. I have never heard of such a Live Art exhibition, just shows there are so many things that I still have to learn.. !
    “as the evening progressed I found very few objections to their actions. I retain the belief that simple, repeated actions often portray messages far more succinctly”.. I think that is what I feel for anything that you dismiss at the first go.. Give it a chance, absorb the intent and enjoy the act – there might be a hidden meaning.. Nice to hear, you just came to that conclusion!
    Human hair in the form of blankets.. “we ourselves consist of sellable and tradable goods”.. Ha, true!
    I believe I am congested and overwhelmed by the concept of both, 37 Cuerpos and Aire.. Reading it makes my head woozy, I can’t believe you actually experienced them.. WOW!!!
    Thanks for bringing them together for someone like me, who might never get a chance to see or experience such a fascinating experience! I hope to read the other entry soon!!

    • Hi Rachana,
      many apologies for the belated response. Thank you so much for your comments on my review, I’m so chuffed that you had such a positive reaction to it! Often people are disgusted by artworks of this nature, and I can understand why, but I’m very appreciative of your response. There are so many interesting artworks that address a multitude of different topics – this festival is just one of many.
      I’ve been pretty busy over Christmas and the workload is increasing, but I’m hoping to blog more often this year. I loved reading Little Mo and the Shooting Star, it’s a very touching story – I can’t wait to read more; it makes me want to write about something with more magic to it than an art exhibition! Very inspiring!
      I hope this message finds you well,
      all the best,
      Oh yes, and a happy New Year to you!

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