Three exhibitions will open at SALTS in Birsfelden, opening June 16 and running to August 28.
The first space, organised by SALTS curators Samuel Leuenberger and Elise Lammer will see a duo exhibition by Owen Piper and Lili Reynaud-Dewar called on how to talk dirty and influence people. It promises the offer of a rich show, glittered in the biographical, and hinting at a retrospective conversation between the two artists, who have known each other for decades.
The artists, whose work will be installed in SALTS’ ‘Printed Room’, have practices that span what the short text describes as ‘multimodality’ in relation to the word: Fragments of text exist as images in circulation as much as they exist as conjunctions of syntax, metre, person.
Warm with borrowed beer on the hard concrete floor, I just arrived back to London having watched the car crash of the Conservative second term —austerity cuts upon austerity cuts —from mainland Europe. On Facebook and in Peckham, feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut “WANTED: George Osbourne, For Destroying Women’s Services” posters. On the walls of Cubitt, sewn banners —“Disabled People Against The Cuts” —part of A Public Resource, a programme curated by Morgan Quaintance as a support and space for correspondence between art and activism.
In this context the ‘And No Animal Is Without An Enemy’ reading at the end of March was about survival. Writer Megan Nolan conceived tonight’s series of reading-performances with reference to psychiatrist R. D. Laing, author of The Divided Self, from which the title is drawn. “Considered biologically, the very fact of being visible exposes an animal to the risk of attack from its enemies”, writes Laing. This evening each reader makes themselves visible, stands up before friends, or enemies, or strangers, or all three, and their texts act as both an unveiling and a camouflage.
Nolan has set the night’s premise as an “unravelling of assumed positions; to question what the self can mean to a disembodied subject …what it means to refuse the belief that you are alive.” Writing and finding the self in the city, finding sex in the city, following sex through different cities, finding oneself in friendships, misunderstanding ourselves in friendships, misunderstanding or abandoning oneself. Hiding oneself from oneself, or baring one’s teeth to oneself, one’s soul.
Nolan reads first and her claim of the first person is incisive, as in cutting, and traumatic, as in digging-up-the-real. She sits cross-legged on the floor, wiping her hands therapeutically with a wet cloth, turning A4 sheets on which are excerpts of her novel-in-process. It is the first basic mistake to assume that the ‘I’ is the author or the performer, because anyway, every ‘I’ is constructed; every ‘I’ a protection of insides or a gathering together of selves. Still, here the ‘I’ feels close.
There is much to dislike about the term “confessional writing”, it turns quickly onto shame, unless, as Juliet Jacques advocates, you treat it as “a form of performance art”. But Megan grew up in Ireland, and begins tonight with Jesus. I think of the scene in The Devil Probablyby Robert Bresson where the foppish protagonist injects heroin in the chapel and empties the bronze of the donation box onto the floor. Chinking metal on cold stone. There are scratches, scars, blue bruises, running blood, running away over Hampstead Heath, in Nolan’s text; there is sex and self-disgust. Having always read her pieces curled in private, it is hard to hear them spoken into the air, however adamantly. But the text is her survival, and like a good sermon there are jokes.
It is a relief to laugh! Penny Goring has a ditty on people and body parts, disses of perineums and rectums sung in beautiful cockney glottal stops. ‘Temporary Passport’ is a bohemian mythology of being on the road in Europe in the 70s or 80s: brawls in Brussels, begging on the beach in Nice, sheets of cardboard and methadone wings. There’s the leftover scent of a pink vibrator last brandished above his shining head (now in a drawer with a collection of colonoscopy bags). There are fears —of illness, age, and herself, her addictions.
Rachel Benson’s poems are also really funny, such that I won’t recreate them here; the stuff of self-deprecating stand-up in free verse, body image and moments with BFFs. A tiny cactus given as a gift, but better, says the narrator, would be a gift that could be eaten and digested, “to defecate the bad feelings between us.” (I’m paraphrasing.)
Self-deprecation is often affected in Eoghan Ryan’sperformances, which play on the presence, or exposure, of the artist and their body in a “don’t mind me while you’re looking at me” kind of way. Tonight he represents the divided ‘self’ in relation to close ‘others’ via fragments of narrative, pre-written and improvised; his image, mediated through his favoured interface of the Skype camera; and his body, hunched before the projector. At first it sounds as though he’s constructing an average male passage from adolescence to adulthood, beginning with a clip from an Arsenal game, going back to photographs from his also Irish youth, which he talks us through flatly …the T-shirt he’s wearing, the hairstyle he had …with interludes of Johnny Cash’s band’s ‘Here We Are Again’ as comedic accompaniment.
But soon the plot becomes darker, stranger, and possibly no less true. We hear about an old friend, on SSRIs, anti-depressants; we see CCTV footage of this friend, sort of friend, buying knives; then we hear how one day the guy turns up at his ex-girlfriend’s house and stabs her, nine times, along with her then partner, who dies. No animal is without an enemy, no story is without fabrication, no Eoghan Ryan performance is complete without an awkward exposure of flesh. The body always intervenes, even if it he doesn’t want it to, now undressed and redressed. He changes his pants, flashes his ass, and trips as he exits over the seated spectators, muttering “sorry, so sorry”.
In Linda Stupart’s finale, we are taken beyond the animal self to rocks, crystals and viruses. They read from their recent book Virus (Arcadia Missa) —the parts on Ana Mendieta’s murder by her husband and no. 1 enemy, Carl Andre. Images of the late artist’s work in blood and water appear rhythmically, along with Stupart’s gutsy collages and graphic mineral shapes. They end with a video recording of a spell cast from Virus, “To Bind Male Artists From Killing You”, re-incanting the words while covered in projected patterns of squiggly virus strains. We are looped back to Laing’s words: “We all employ some form of [magical] camouflage.”**
The thing about readings, or events with readings in them is often that what is being read doesn’t necessarily do much different to the content being read than would be experienced on a page, online or on paper. That’s not to misunderstand the basic fact of ‘liveness’ and how different that medium is to reading in your own time –but it seems that at the moment there is not enough of a distinction between work that is meant to be read and work that is meant to be read!
The words read out at Gathering Place, the evening organised on February 25 by Caspar Heinemann held at London’s ANDOR Gallery and featuring live readings by Mira Mattar, Nat Raha and Penny Goring, were completely lifted, necessary, painful, important, big, small, and received by the people there. They were given into the room.
The words in Goring’s piece for the evening are defensive, protective, strong, sore and tender, but her singing of them too, to a repeat and memorable nursery rhyme tune feels like a very real strategy in order to be present with the work in the room –for the artist, and in turn, for us. This runs throughout the evening and is what allows it be a good Gathering Place.
There are many people here, talking, meeting and drinking the free gin & tonics. The smell is absolutely incredible, it’s aggressive. It is a work by Alex Margo Arden and is most present in the space between the first room and second room, where the readings take place. It is on the verge of being slightly nauseating. It is on the verge of being slightly intoxicating. It is possibly the smell of hot rubber or rubber that has had friction applied to it, rubber that has skipped straight past the fire part and is just smoking quietly.
In the short piece Heinemann has written to introduce the event, they mention that architecture should inspire and innovate: “I defend to the death the right to smoke weed on children’s play equipment”. The phrase makes me think quickly to the promotional image used for Gathering Place (below), which is a photograph of a work by Alex Margo Arden, although the work is not in this space. Ropes wrap around hooks and end up like pink buds that give out lines and shadows to form a silhouette of a climbing frame or something like that on the wall behind.
What holds each of the four pieces of writing together is a lament or narrative or, occasional homage to the destruction of everything, innovation, luxury, struggle, desire, deficit and fantasy. I wonder briefly, sitting there on the floor with everyone else, about using words like weights or punches to criticise things that are the definition of, or that actively define and oppress structures. A thought occurs about destroying words; and then about the fact that thoughts like that often form as the direct result of listening to powerful ones that are spoken by someone with a deep understanding of both their destructive and constructive power.
Mira Mattar silently approaches the wall she leans against to speak. She reads two sides of a single piece of paper without averting her gaze from it and without pausing for reaction or effect. The silence Mattar commands is stunning and precious and no one breaks it. She reads like she is under and also performing a spell, but for something/somewhere other than the audience; we watched. The writing is memory, and remembering with occasional marks of self awareness. “I am plotting a solitude that is neither thin escape nor shallow respite,” she says as though she invisibly lifts her head into the present moment –although all of it is read in the present tense –before dipping back into describing, “a silver fish rims sickly the edge of a toilet bowl”.
“Trains/ tunnels/ ports/ movements/ the violent fictional nation/ lyric choke”. Nat Raha’s reading is long and difficult and that feels intentional. She moves like she’s battling when she reads. She reads out lists of painful things, pain, recent histories, acts of police racism and violence, lists of people affected by “the economic” and it is hard to follow and hard to access, but, so are the “inaccessible homes of the economic”. And so is it for the family of “Sarah Reed and Mark Duggan” and trans women of colour in Greenwich prison marginalised: “whose being does legislation [and words and understanding and accessibility] represent?”
Raha’s words leave no traces of words. The words are almost physical acts or marks of replenishing holes, or naming and listing where names and lists have not been. There is no residue left in the performance, no poetic excess in which the words might point elsewhere, because her words are like people and bodies, they are present, here and urgent.
“In my bone dust disco” comes about half way through Penny Goring’s long poem and it stays in the air, her voice so, so sad and her words able to carry and cradle expression and indescribable feeling like the fragrance by Arden that seems to be getting stronger now too. She sometimes stops, kneeling slowly down to carry on, or standing slowly up to drink some water. We are totally in her time and she’s singing us a long tale that she’s told before somewhere, I think. Mainly it feels like a tale of a failing body holding it together (even) in intimacy to look after another.
After the final reading by London-based Goring I speak with her about what it is to sing words as well as say them, and if it maybe helps the author sit with the words better in a live moment: when people want your words most and when you don’t know if you can listen to them out loud anymore.**
NTGNE is a retelling of, Antigone, the hellenic fable whose eponymous heroine has been an enduring symbol of anti-imperial struggle for centuries. Like Sophocles’ original work which was written at a time of great national fervor, Jesse Darling’s performance is presented in London on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a day of mass mourning and a sobre reminder of the greatest ideological attack on the Western Imperial project in modern times.
After jostling for space in the crowded Serpentine Pavilion, I find myself lying flat on a yoga mat in complete darkness, contorted amongst the multitude of bodies that have piled inside. As the performance begins, a discordant throb of electrical interference pulses through the air, vibrating the opalescent skin of the stage set. The atmosphere is ominous and psychedelic, like a bad trip, and my discomfort is intensified by a foreboding meta-commentary between bursts of white noise; “…the floor feels really hard on your head”, I am told by a young voice as I fidget, “you feel vulnerable…you’re forced to”. I am now hyper aware of my body and its encroachment into shared space. As audience members settle around each other, a chorus erupts, holding a dissonant harmony until their voices waver, breath running out, reminding us of our corporeality and the frailty of a collective voice.
A News jingle chimes over the PA; a reporter from ISMN (“International, State and Municipal Newswire” – whose initials are extrapolated from the name of Ismene, Antigone’s sister) who we are told is our “only legitimate truth source”, warns us of an epidemic with an unknown source that is sending the city’s residents into “mass hysteria”. The virus, NTGNE (an acronym for National Terror Grief Negation Epidemic), threatens to engulf the entirety of the “pale kingdom” of King Carry-On (whose name is a pun the original King Creon in Sophocles’ version, among other things). The allusions to 9/11 and the fall of Empire are recurrent, and the staging of the performance on a day of commemoration gives a sinister tone to the unfolding news reports that pace the production. The cast –with writer Penny Goring, actor Shia Labeouf and Darling’s own dad among them –burst into life, writhing and crawling, zombie-like, through the unsuspecting crowd having previously hidden in plain sight. An orgiastic struggle ensues and members of the audience are dragged to their fate as the performance reaches its climax. A silence descends, the crowd is left in a state of panic. Abruptly, we are told to “Leave the auditorium immediately”, to which we duly oblige, fleeing the scene of the imaginary contagion with considerable urgency.
Darling’s NTGNE is a somber reflection on powerlessness and subjugation, a complex deconstruction of neo-liberal subjectivity and Empire. Indeed, the etymology of the name ‘Antigone’, meaning “worthy of one’s parents”, elucidates a complex narrative of hierarchy and inheritance, and it is the legacy of these inherited ideologies that Darling is most interested, not least through the involvement of their own family as cast members. NTGNE tells us that to mourn the conditions of late capitalism is to mourn our collective agency, but that to deviate is to die. Upon taking our leave, we are given passenger jet-shaped cookies, fuselage aflame and wrapped carefully in cellophane; a saccharine end to a bitter morality tale. **