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!