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Posts Tagged ‘performance’

Chris Burden.

In Art, Performance on May 11, 2015 at 6:56 am
‘Trans-fixed’, Venice, CA, 1974 Photograph © Chris Burden

‘Trans-fixed’, Venice, CA, 1974 Photograph © Chris Burden

Chris Burden is an art school staple. As you warily begin to ingratiate yourself into the world of modern and contemporary art, you soon realise that Burden is one of the world’s preliminary performers, perhaps because he’s done well to make sure you never, ever forget him. Whether you perceive his performances to be a destructive waste of time or whether you consider him a courageous genius, that’s up to you. Many people know him as ‘that bloke who kind of shot himself in the arm.’

Burden was born in Massachusetts in 1946. His early college works were sculptural, but early on he noted the potential for human interaction with the artworks. In reference to his untitled outdoor tunnel sculptures constructed out of plastic and steel, the artist claimed to have “realised that what I had made was not a piece of sculpture but something that had to be activated” (Horvitz 1976). It was the act of running through the 100 foot long tunnels that drew Burden towards processes more associated with physical activity than minimalist sculpture. And so a performance artist was born.

‘Shoot’, F Space, Santa Ana, California 1971

‘Shoot’, F Space, Santa Ana, California 1971

From then on Burden’s artistic explorations began to consist of sculptures that required physical triggers, thereby causing the viewer/performer (you essentially became both) to become an inherent aspect of the artwork. Then he went one step further with Five Day Locker Piece, where he confined himself to a 2’ x 2’ x 3’ studio locker for five consecutive days, apparently for reasons more to do with curiosity than anything else.

Burden’s work continued to embody these themes of tense and often claustrophobic anxiety, although in some cases he actually came to enjoy the isolation and deprivation. In Bed Piece (1972) he inhabited the corner of a room with only a bed and a portable toilet for him to spend 22 days of his time on. His visibility to the audience, however, prompted Burden to rethink his approach. He came up with White Light/White Heat (1975), in which he spent three weeks lying hidden on a raised platform in the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. When discussing the piece with Robert Horvitz, Burden elucidated:

I have this fantasy, which may or may not be realised, that someone will come in off the street, not knowing my name, just doing a gallery tour, come in and see the platform and be able to feel that something’s amiss. There’d be something that would nag at them and they could maybe feel my presence…” (1975)

Not all of Burdens work was so contemplative and quiet. In what are perhaps his most famous performances, entitled Shoot (1971) and Trans-fixed (1974), we are offered much more abrupt and violent artworks. In the case of Shoot, the statement goes: “at 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.” Ouch. This overtly aggressive performance impelled journalists and the public alike to consider him as either a crazed man or as an artist presenting a commentary on modern-day gun use and warfare. Whichever stance was taken, it certainly got people talking about him.

Burden following ‘Shoot’ 1971

Burden following ‘Shoot’ 1971

In Trans-fixed (pictured in the title image) Burden was literally nailed onto a Volkswagen in the manner of a crucifixion. Whilst his palms were pinned to the car, the vehicle was displayed for a matter of minutes before it was placed out of sight and Burden removed. Whilst this performance and Shoot did not appear to outwardly resemble his subtler, durational pieces, references to religious themes such as voluntary seclusion and trial by ordeal were consistent throughout his entire practice (Horvitz 1975).

Other performances by Burden involved the artist electrocuting himself, not to mention all of the cutting, drowning, disappearing, (yet more) shooting and fasting that went on. On later returning to a literal sculptural approach he created artworks such as Medusa’s Head (1990), the monstrousness of which renders it almost irresistible to look at.

‘Medusa’s Head’ 1990.  Plywood, steel, cement, rock, model railroad trains and tracks, 14’ in diameter.

‘Medusa’s Head’ 1990.
Plywood, steel, cement, rock, model railroad trains and tracks, 14’ in diameter.

In 2005 Burden revealed his project Ghost Ship, a yacht that is capable of navigating itself on the high seas. Whilst we may not have all been talking about it in our lunch-breaks, it is impressive that Burden had the momentum to keep his art practice up, especially when considering the fact that the prime question on everybody’s lips in 1971 was “will he even make it past 30?” Well, I”m glad he did.

Chris Burden passed away on 10th May 2015.


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’

Third Year/Degree Show Practical Analysis.

In Fine Arts on May 13, 2010 at 7:41 am

Still from 'Miriam' 2010

Recently I went back over some footage that I had filmed in Osnabrueck, Germany, when myself and fellow student Lucy Thompson went to take part in the annual media arts festival there. The footage was of Lucy packing to leave the night before our departure and my focus was for the duration of filming on her face and hands. This is the first instance of me documenting a person in a way that directly associates with my method of filming now; honing in and focusing on certain aspects of people’s physical demeanour’s in order to try and extract something more internal, as if attempting to analyse their state of mind. It was ironic then that I paid no attention to the footage once returned to the UK, and only when watching it in retrospect could I laugh at us in our hostel room as I pressed record and hummed the song Getting To Know You to myself. I swear that I didn’t even know this when I named my December assessment statement ‘Getting To Know You’; it’s almost as if my mind was trying to offer me clues from whatever subconscious depths I possess, most of them in vain until at least six months later.

My artwork has always been about the other person. Gillian Wearing phrased it so well when she said, “I thought what I had to say was pretty limited and I could learn from listening to and observing other people” (in Corrin, 1997), as I so often like to quote. However, it is also said that no matter what you portray in an artwork it will also say something about the artist as well, as I suppose is inevitable with most tasks that we commit on this earth; but I’ll return to that in a moment. For now it might make sense to quickly refer to my artistic inclination prior to university, especially since the themes within my work have been far more consistent than I initially suspected.

The focal point of my painting and drawing practice revolved around the human portrait, in particular the faces of those that sat for me. I also had a fascination for hands and skin, as well as the physical, muscular line that a human could be seen to form when closely observed. I used to draw the school jazz band and my friend when she practiced her saxophone during otherwise non-eventful lunch breaks; it is amusing now to think that a video I produced of the very same friend years later geared my work in the direction that now constitutes the majority of my Recital project. My dissertations during this time were based around the concept of ‘truth’ when regarding the human form and how it’s portrayal by certain artists revealed massive and yet simultaneously intricate, emotional intimacies; Lucian Freud, John Singer Sargent and Egon Schiele were my main points of reference. My own painting, however, I found extremely unfulfilling and I was permanently considering my artwork with carelessness and frustration .

Video was the medium that allowed me to evade this attitude of pointlessness towards my artwork, a value that prior to my artistic discovery of the moving image was beginning to contribute to my overtly existential view of art as unnecessarily self-indulgent. It’s probably worth mentioning that I still consider this somewhat of a fact; the only difference now is my own enjoyment (and therefore my own self-indulgence) of this. No wonder, then, that I only feel the drive to observe and document others around me in the world; in this way I can attempt to convince myself that the indulgence is less prominent and it’s purpose more substantial. Whether I succeed in this is up to the audience.

My observations of people through the camera began with my need to make my experiences with them more permanent. What is recorded through the camera and projected onto a screen may just be a simulation, but it is a physical representation of a memory that we can hold onto for as long as the medium lasts. A tempting offer in comparison to the vague fuzz that is human memory. My anxieties that for various reasons have manifested themselves since childhood relate strongly to loss and instability, and as a result of this I have claimed Cardiff as my only home and my relationships here form what to me is a strong family unit. This was the driving force behind my videos Nintendo Night and Manipulation as well as, I later came to see, Emily. How this previously (somewhat subconscious) approach developed towards my latest film Miriam I will go on to discuss in more detail later. Firstly I must address certain obstacles that have surprised me along the way.

The most significant hurdle (and certainly the one loaded with the greatest amount of irony) is the fact that I had (have?) a terrible relationship with feature films and television, in that generally – until I could get away with it no longer – I used to avoid them like the plague. I have an amazingly short attention span. How then have I come to be a person making a go of being a video artist? Who knows. The only way I can defend myself on the matter is that video fulfils for me everything that I found absent in painting; you can scrutinize the physicality of a person whilst at the same time digging deep into their emotional state of mind, you can draw out intimacies and idiosyncrasies in a way that is so unique and, dare I say it, true in comparison to a painting. This doesn’t mean that I am convinced of the ‘truth’ that some consider the lens to behold; like Wearing I am conscious of the verite claims of documentary and the subjectivity of the maker. After all, video is just a literal representation of a hyperreality, “substituting signs of the real for the real itself” (Baudrillard, in Poster, 2001:70); a simulation of our physical reality and a sometimes superior imitation of human memory. But despite this neither am I a reveller of Bergman, or put more bluntly of symbolism that drips from every frame of a film. Whilst I have no doubt that films such as these are capable of pertaining to whatever human truths they wish to discuss, the theatricality and poise of such an approach often leaves me stone cold.

This is not to say that I hate all films. I don’t hate film at all; I am just very specific about what I personally find worth watching. After all, movies are on the same bandwidth as art when it comes to subjectivity. Because of these issues I have to closely consider my reasons for exhibiting my video as a large-scale projection with tiered seating; the lighting will also reflect that of the theatre or cinema.

The first reason for this decision stems from my last assessment piece The Recital, a video that I now consider clumsy and unsuccessful in expressing the intimacy I had intended to convey. I exhibited it on a small television screen in a curtained off area of the space workshop, with only ten seats allowed for the audience. The limit to the scale of the space and size of the audience was originally intended to create a more intimate environment, to make the video more of a personal experience. I don’t think this worked, no doubt due to the fact that the video in my opinion was rife with flaws (discussed more in my summary on page 15). What I have come to realise since December is that despite the cinema projection being stereotypically more formal than a television screen, the sheer scale of the image being projected makes the scrutiny of the performer so intensified as to somehow imbue the experience with a higher level of intimacy. The performers face, magnified dozens of times so as to fill the screen, becomes inescapable and the viewer must examine them; if an object is at that scale in front of you, you will notice so much more of their little habits and expressions as they work through their performance. The second reason behind this method of exhibiting the video is that I am in awe of the performer and I am struck by the music that they produce; my desire is to fulfil the brilliance of it by documenting it through video and using it to encompass an entire space.

The cinema setting is not instigating a transformation of my video’s characteristics to those of a feature film. Miriam may portray a recital and I am wary of boring my audience but it is not intended as pure entertainment; rather, as Douglas Gordon says, for enjoyment: “Enjoyment is in your head but entertainment stops when the curtain closes. Enjoyment can be when you go to sleep and remember things, when you’re falling asleep and when you’re waking up, your reflection, and your memory” (in Ferguson, 1996). If my aim was to market it as entertainment I wouldn’t include the repetition of Miriam’s recital – a technique that was inspired long ago by the monologue repetition in Bergman’s Persona (so it certainly isn’t for entertainments sake) – or her warm-up on the cello which, although necessary to the performance of a recital is not imperative to the recital as an event itself; generally a solo performer does not embark on a range of warm-up exercises while the audience sits before them in anticipation.

The major question that now remains is of course what the major themes are that form the concepts behind my videos. For the sake of practicality I will here refer to my Recital Trilogy videos only, those being Emily, Rhiannon and Miriam, although more often than not there is a strong continuity running through the entirety of my work anyway. All of these and the rest of my videos have been previously discussed in more depth so here I shall offer a quick summation of what drove me to make the work. The dominant themes are:

Human expression: this term can be taken both of two ways; ‘expression’ as in a creative outlet that allows a person to express something more personally internal; or ‘expression’ as in literal facial expressions or gestures, which themselves reflect a persons state of mind. Musicians embrace and embody both of these to a dramatic extent, allowing the audience to gain insight into their involvement in the performance.

Intimacy: I am aware that this is quite a broad term; I mean it to encompass the various types of relationship that develop when filming a subject or when participating as the subject. In order to begin confronting the idea of onscreen intimacy the topic of the recorded performer needs to be addressed; after all, how could a video of a recital be more intimate than watching a musician perform in person? And herein lies the paradox: the complete lack of intimacy that mass-produced DVD’s and videos are inevitably steeped in is the definitive way for making the experience of a film more personal and intimate. The clinical and repeated production of the product allows it to be experienced multiple times and in an array of places; those who would not generally get to see a music recital are therefore able to experience one, albeit a simulation. But it is also its simulative nature that emphasizes the intimacy between director and performer, performer and music, music and audience, performer and audience; because the recital of the musician has been documented through the camera lens the person controlling the construction of the video can hone in on aspects of the subject that generally may go unnoticed. By closing the focus of the lens in on Miriam’s eye or nose, for instance, I am hoping to capture an expression that reflects her concentration on the music and on her internal state of mind. Even for those who regularly experience live music such close observation may be missed simply because of the physical proximity of the audience to the musician. My aim with Miriam, as with all my Recital videos, is to examine and extend this physical closeness in order to gain intimacy on a more emotional level, be this through the facial expressions and gestures of the performer or through the music itself.

Picnolepsia: Let me begin here by warning that Paul Virilio, the French theorist who coined the term ‘picnolepsia’, is not the most adept at describing in prose what it actually is. After reading his Aesthetics of Disappearance I quickly returned to the essay in which I discovered the term, Timothy Allen Jackson’s Towards A New Media Aesthetic. Jackson explains what Virilio chose not to by using the computer game Mortal Combat as an example; those playing the game are transferred into another kind of ‘reality’ and to their immediate physical reality they become a daydreamer transfixed in another world. Their concentration is what permits this. So the picnoleptic can be found in the home, in the cinema, in the classroom; pretty much anywhere, but for me a prime example of the concept exists in the performing musician. As I know from playing an instrument myself and as many people all over the world will know, when practicing a piece of music unless already distracted it is impossible to focus on anything else. When filming, this intensity allowed me as an observer to step closer so that I was almost ‘in’ the performance rather than an object external to it.

The musical recital: As I have just stated, the musical recital is perfect for what I want to achieve in an artwork; a musician deep in practice is not only going to be more used to performing but also less aware of the camera as they recite, allowing me to hone in on them in my efforts to achieve the facial and gestural intimacy that I feel the need to portray. The universality of music is also something that I believe is approachable to any kind of audience; again, whilst I do not want Miriam or my other videos to be considered entertainment, I have no intention of making my work so impenetrable that it is only accessible to those few who possess the ability to contextually scrutinize it. The cathartic nature of music also plays an important role in my Recital videos; for me the obliteration of the ‘real’ world that playing the piano offers is an important therapy. People who take up music as their lifetime’s vocation must do so for equally (or far more) imperative needs, just as those who choose to make other forms of art do. Because of this relationship that people are capable of grasping with music I cannot see how filming a musician deep in practice could not be intimate in terms of ‘interior’ as well as ‘exterior’. And if the audience relates to both the performer as a human and the performance as a piece of music, then a further intimacy has been gained.

My choice of exhibiting Miriam for the degree show makes sense to me for many reasons: firstly, it is technically the last Recital video to have been completed during the available time on my university course, so chronologically it makes a lot of sense to exhibit this over, say, Emily. Also, because it is the last one (at least for now) it appears to be the most successful in portraying the themes I have just discussed above; through filming Emily, Molly and Rhiannon previous to Miriam I slowly deduced what it was that I needed to achieve in terms of visual imagery, sound quality and readable concepts. I needed to get closer, to zoom in on her as much as possible and again and again in order to create a video worthy of her as a performer and of the piece of music. Now all I can hope is that the audience will find the piece to be articulately expressed as an artwork.

I can end only by thanking those who have allowed me to intrude upon this intimate relationship between themselves and their art-form; for allowing me to subject them to “the relentless gaze” and the “unflinching eye” (Rees, in Parker, 2000) of the camera and consequently of the future audiences that will view the performance as a simulative event. Each video that I have made is just as much theirs as it is mine, if not more so.

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.