Final Major Project – self-isolation earthwork performance

Following my reflections on self-isolation, making oneself an island, in this current climate of coronavirus lockdown, I wanted to experiment with creating an earthwork in performance. A moat, while ostensibly being a body of water, is first an earthwork – involving the movement and construction of large amounts of earth. I planned that this should primarily involve my push gesture, on my knees, arms extended, pushing the earth away so that it would create a trench and a mound encircling me.

The video above records this process, which in fact ended up seeing much more tearing and pulling than pushing – I encountered several areas where the earth was resisting my efforts, and felt great frustration and hopelessness. I persevered, and it took great physical effort. I paused at the end to rest, recover my breath, and find peace in the space I had made for myself. Throughout we hear and see the effect of external forces (the wind), and some passersby can be spotted in the background, and reflected in my reaction during my recovery period.

I decided to walk out to Northchurch Common, approx. 25 minutes walk from my home, to conduct this performance, taking with me my camera and holder. I chose this place as I was aware of there being historic earthworks in this area, used for a similar protective purpose. I discovered a tree near to these earthworks with suitably low-hanging branches I could affix my camera to, with a patch of ground that would be appropriate for my experiment.

Map of Northchurch common, with the earthwork marked in the centre.
The tree from which I hung my camera, and my completed earthwork – I considered whether to make use of the long shadow of the tree but decided it best to allow focus on the process/form itself of my constructing.

I particularly wanted to engage with the process of making the earthwork using my hands/fingers, rather than using any tool or gloves to shield or protect myself. Firstly, so that my only protection was coming from the earthwork itself – we have no defence from this virus other than the practices of self-isolation, social distancing, and hand washing. Secondly, to directly undermine this hand washing practice – making my hands purposefully very dirty. Thirdly, as a representation of manual labour – I am literally labouring with my very hands, something that is atypical for someone of the middle class, and in our digital world where we engage less and less with the physical, with nature. Lastly, to make this most personal and direct means of expressing – by sensorially and manually engaging with the earth, I felt I might be better able to channel my emotions through my actions.

I chose to dress in black, to reflect the dark emotions I was exploring, and to avoid drawing focus from my actions. But too, the top I wore was similar to a dance leotard. I chose to keep on my accessories (engagement ring, watch, earrings, hairband), which I felt personalised the video more, made it individual and also feminised. It also roots the act in my identity and social strata (something I cannot escape). I kept on my practical hiking shoes, though in retrospect I think it would have been poignant to have worked barefoot here.

That my top rides up at the back in the video, revealing my lower back, was unintended, but is a curious effect. It highlights my vulnerability in this process, as well as being an unflattering view of my body. This harks back to my future self-portrait, which sought too to highlight and undermine notions of feminine beauty.

I think I will need to do some further research, to understand land art as a context, and what female performance has taken place within a context of nature/earth previously.

Final Major Project – research/context in Pecha Kucha

In order to kickstart my final major project, clarify my aims and plan for the weeks to come, and contextualise around it, we were tasked with drafting our project proposal and action plan, and creating a Pecha Kucha presentation to share our initial research. A Pecha Kucha (aka a 20×20) is one primarily composed of images, spanning 20 slides, each of which is shown for just 20 seconds, meaning that the full presentation lasts just over 6 minutes. Below I summarise the contents of my presentation, and so the research I conducted in the first two weeks of my project.

Reflection on past work

First I reflected on some of the commonalities/themes I have previously explored in my work that have driven my interest in the topic of my FMP: expression. This related to the work in Futures project, where my future self-portrait and the navigating space/grid cell/instruction work has commonalities of i) an interest in perceptions of self/observation by others. ii) Behaviour and body language. iii) Psychology, consciousness and identity. iv) Manipulation, instruction and expectation. v) interaction. Thus something around behavioural expressions/externalisations of our inner psychology and how this is expected/observed by others would be a natural continuation.

Also too that in previous Unit 2 work I was interested in gestural and expressive mark-making, and the notion of automatic drawing or writing. I have not yet taken this into the action itself as a performance, as opposed to a work produced from it, so would be interested to explore this in my FMP.

Context

I was keen to contextualise the notion of my performance of expression within what might be interpreted from it – and the problematic biases of my being a woman artist. I saw this being across multiple facets. One being narcissim/vanity. Autobiographical work by women is interpreted as superficial or vain, self-obsessed, while autobiographical work of men can access universal themes and move beyond the personal. I linked this to the works of Helene Schjerfbeck who I went to see back in 2019.

Too, it is a paradox for women artists that in portraying their subjective reality/perception of themselves they are colluding in their own objectification. I related this to the Ways of Seeing I researched previously, as well as Tracey Emin’s self-portraits which evoke her subjective sexuality, but at the same time could be objectifying and eroticising herself.

I was conscious too that in externalising my emotions, I could be pervading the prejudice that women are ruled by their emotions, and the problematic connotations of this in relation to hysteria. I discovered that hysteria (back when it was treated as a psychological disorder), was specifically seen as the height of female sexual expression in a world of repression and strict social behavioural restrictions.

This photo of a woman demonstrating a ‘hysterical episode’, characterised by the arched back, was distributed for voyeuristic purposes in 1880

The surrealists were particularly interested in this – as an expression of the subconscious sexuality of women. This brought me onto another problematic context for the performance of women – that women’s performance takes place within the asymmetric power relationship between men and women. The surrealists choreographed/instructed a performance (below) by the dancer Helene Vanel to simulate hysteria – sexualising and objectifying her.

Helene Vanel (1938) at Exposition Internationale de Surrealisme in Paris

Another such problematic performance, which explored the body and gesture in performance art, was Yves Klein’s Anthropometries.

Here naked female models were instructed to cover their bodies in Yves Klein’s blue paint, and place themselves against surfaces in ways instructed/choreographed by the artist. He clearly objectified them here, calling them ‘living brushes’, though later the models have claimed they were collaborators in his work.

In considering female performance art, it is also important to contextualise this within the gender theory of philosopher Judith Butler – that gender itself is performative and we identify someone’s gender from the repetitive behavioural characteristics that we attribute to certain genders. This is evidenced in the performance of drag – whereby someone identifying in one gender performs the characteristics of the other as an illusion/subversion of such gendering. It’s easiest to see the skill involved in this, and thus the nuances of behaviours we interpret as gendered, by comparing an experienced drag performer with a novice who has had a makeover, in the makeover challenge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race (below)

Experienced drag performers (left) and novices (right) demonstrate the nuance of stance/posture for gender performance

Art Research

So one theme I explored was resistance and women’s rage. I discovered that just as long as women have been resisting, they have been using their bodies to do so.

A jiu-jitsu how-to guide for the Suffragettes, Mary Evans c.1910

Here I also referred back to my research around Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, and how these women pioneered the freedom of expression for women’s bodies.

I also looked at how other artists have sought to express through suggestion or absence of the body, but where the works themselves have been created with the body or with interaction with the body in mind.

I also looked at artists who have used performance as the work itself, or in the creation of works, where abstract gestural mark-making has been utilised.

And works where the gesture itself is fully expressed in the mark/performance, and repeated.

The taking on of gestures/expressions of others as a suppression of self/ventrioloquist expression.

This is by no means an exhaustive line of research, and indeed since compiling this I have already found more lines that are of interest and relevant to this work!

Unit 2: 3D – Data Visualisation (pt 3)

I was interested to become more performative in my exploration of infinite scroll and screen usage.

Taking a handful of paper clay, I shaped it roughly into something that would fit comfortably in my palm, and then began ‘scrolling’ it with my thumb, as I would a phone screen. The effect of this gesture on the wet clay was like a carving out of a groove that fit my thumb – i could have continued this until the block split into two, but I chose to let it remain a singular object. The grip I maintained while scrolling was also changing the shape of the clay, so that it became a rather strange form.

I decided to repeat this, now using a rectangular form similar to a phone itself. It was interesting here to see the ‘rippling’ at the base of the thumb groove, and the warping effect on the underside of the shape from the grip/scroll exercise.

Top: ‘phone’ scroll gesture artefact, Bottom: scroll gesture artefact

We were introduced to different glazing techniques once our works had been fired to biscuit. I chose not to glaze the first object, feeling that it’s ‘rough’ appearance was in keeping with its abstract form. I was keen to explore a the application and removal of glaze and under glaze to achieve a warped sheen/reflective appearance on the phone artefact though. This has been somewhat successful, and has made the rippling effect of the clay seem almost like bodily mutilation of an organic substance (oozing) rather than a piece of warped machinery.

This repetitive motion carving out a form reminded me of a work I recently saw at the Dora Maurer exhibition at Tate Modern. This involved a girl performing a ‘parade’ with her feet painted red, walking in a circle over paper and scrumpled newspaper. Her repeated walking painted a circle and stamped down the newspaper to a pulp.

I think I like the destructive, irreverent and playful nature of this work. For a child to be performing this repetitive act in a fairly sedate and controlled way is an intriguing contrast to the tone of the work itself. The red paint is now only suggested by the red fabric the photographs are now presented on, the black and white images themselves instead more akin to the newspaper she had walked on. I like the very obvious agency that we see being demonstrated in the work. I am intrigued why the artefact of this performance was not itself seen as an artwork (or if it was, why would it not be preserved?).

Performing Chance: reflection

We were introduced to performance art in a one day workshop relating to play/chance. This was probably the discipline I was most wary of in the art world prior to joining the course, as I found it to be unnerving and out of the norm (a bit like when you are approached on the street out of the blue by someone trying to get you to sign up for something). I’m still pretty sure this isn’t the discipline for me but I did enjoy some elements that I think I could look to incorporate in my practice – particularly the element of play possible.

First we engaged in some chance word selection from a newspaper, using the roll of a dice to determine the line and word we would cut out, to form a sequence of 12 words.

This was apparently a strategy used by J D Salinger and a similar one to how David Bowie created his lyrics.

We also had a task where one by one we entered a room and interacted with some objects (while being filmed). I was the last person to enter the room and unbeknownst to me the person prior had reoriented the camera so that my actions were not recorded. I found this to be a bit frustrating as I had put thought into them, but I suppose this was a lesson in itself!

Finally we had a group task. Here, we were to fill a disposable camera with a sequence of recordings of something. As the theme of the workshop was about chance and relinquishing control of the art form/the art being the performer, our group chose to involve the general public and ask that they perform an act for us, before then thwarting that and recording their reaction. We chose to ask them to blow up a balloon, draw on it, and then we would pop it without their forewarning. We created some rules and a vision of how we wanted this sequence to pan out before heading out to complete the task.

Below the photographs developed from the camera. We were not allowed to use the viewfinder to aim the shot, and found that winding on the disposable camera hindered the timing of the shot also, meaning sometimes we missed crucial parts of the sequence for some participants.

On reflection, I think perhaps we over-complicated the rules/sequence requirements and did not factor in the timing constraints/delays of the disposable camera we were using. We also had not planned for some participants being unable to blow up the balloon, so had to improvise with these participants the ‘destruction’ of their work by stamping on it, smearing the ink.

Overall I think it was successful in creating a sense of play for these participants, who were amused and quite willing to take part in our action. For the most part, they were unphased by the balloon being popped/trodden on and took this as part of the ridiculous scenario, so this too became a part of the play. I enjoyed this sense of fun and mischief, which I think is particularly seen in shots where the participants are laughing, or in the midst of blowing up a balloon (which harkens to children’s parties particularly).

Impermanence: my work & research

Since the lecture on approaches to drawing, I’ve been interested in thinking about impermanence in art and materials disintegrating.

This specifically was sparked by the mention of artist Amanda McCavour who creates ‘thread drawings’ on water-soluble fabric. One material (the thread) remains while the other (the fabric) disappears.

I think this is different to auto-destructive / destruction art. Where the whole piece might be destroyed in the process, e.g. Gustav Metzger’s acid paintings, or Banksy’s Love is in the Bin. Instead it is the juxtaposition of something ceasing to be, while something else endures. For me, this is akin to memento mori. We are reminded of our own mortality, while at the same time viewing something that will endure beyond the life of the subject.

I looked to other water soluble materials to experiment with this idea. In both tests I took the paper and ran it under the tap directly – this alone let the pen run, but I had to stroke the sketch itself in order to distort it directly. In both cases I chose to use imagery/text that directly act as memento mori.

I think this was an interesting experiment, but I wonder if it is a little too obvious? I may try to incorporate this into a more subtle approach.

Another thought I had was to make use of fleeting phenomenon to explore impermanence. In particular, shadow. In the process of making one of the objects for my survival kit, I happened upon an interesting shadow form as I was exploring it in suspension

I would be interested in exploring this theme further also. I am aware of artists creating sculptures in order to cast figurative shadows, but am not yet aware of more abstract shadow pieces, which I am interested to look into.

Detail of shadow cast by Kira Freije’s Standing Woman Arms Folded, RA