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 – push gesture water experimentation

Following my reflection, I wanted to explore the push gesture in water. I feel that I may be preparing for a performance at the moat at Berkhamsted Castle, but I want to develop my idea further before doing so. I chose to investigate the water butt in my garden, since being so deep it offered the same darkness/contrast in reflected light that the moat itself has. This limited the extent of the gesture I could adopt here, but it was interesting to explore the ripple effect and methods in video editing in Premiere Pro, since the uni have now had the Adobe suite made accessible from our home computers.

I chose to accentuate the effects on the water by slowing down the movement. The accompanying audio becomes quite mesmerising, and the shifting water creates some very interesting warped abstractions. Here are two videos I made of the footage, one in black and white, and the other in colour, zoomed in so that the edges of the water butt are no longer visible.

I especially like this decontextualised view of the water, further abstracting the reflected imagery. The light dances.

It would be interesting to repeat this on a larger scale – perhaps in the moat itself, though I am unsure if this would be possible within the current lockdown (or if it might break any rules more generally on site).

Water itself has some intriguing connotations – life-giving and preserving, cleansing, and appears in various rituals (washing of feet, baptism, blessing etc.) and routine behaviours primarily associated as women’s work, such as laundry, cleaning/scrubbing, washing up. There is also a sexualisation of water when applied to the body – think of wet t-shirt competitions and the car wash.

It too reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais, depicting the tragic character from the play Hamlet. She falls into the water but continues to sing, unaware or uncaring of the danger to herself, before drowning herself. The painting is rich and verdant, the figure appears floating and as one with nature, but it is eery too – her face pale and close to death, her palms upraised in surrender, mid-song.

Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01506

Researching this briefly, I came across an article about the significance of water in this Shakespeare play, which too looks to where else this symbolism is seen (excerpts below).

Water has long been a powerful symbol in literature: rains denote cleansing, the equality of mortality, and the rebirth of Spring. Baptisms also denote rebirth, while rivers and oceans connect people, denote the unknown, potentialities, and broadly speaking, the unconscious. But here we have an eroding kind of water, the sort that might carve a canyon, or a body.

Repetition and action–perhaps in a trade–are ways of lasting, and of keeping out the water, during life and even after death. The great antidote to the will-eroding current of introspective consciousness and the paralysis, stagnation, putrefaction, and death which follows, is action. 

A river separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, in both Greek mythology and in the oldest story we have, the epic of Gilgamesh, wherein the protagonist’s contemplation of death drives him to the ends of the earth in an unsuccessful pursuit for immortality. The myth of Narcissus and the pool depicts the same danger of excessive introspection in a more direct and literal manner: Narcissus, enraptured with his own beautiful appearance in the pool, leans in too far and drowns.

Water is both a powerful danger to be feared as well as a necessary agent of changing ourselves. We don’t want to stagnate and rot like a corpse, after all.

It seems then that water is a very apt element for me to be exploring as part of my theme of self-expression, being a tool of introspection and something we both seek out and shun through action. It’s interesting this too should harken to the flaw of narcissism in considering the self too much.

Final Major Project – Reflection on pushing gesture

Following my experimentation with pouring paint/gesture, it took several days for the paint to dry. The colour darkened during this, and below the final result. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not sure this fully expresses, since I was concerned with the pour of the paint, and so a more vigorous gestural work in this vein might be worth doing. It also could have done with some sort of background? Though I quite like the stark simplicity of this.

I like the near symmetry of this piece, and that the marks suggest a pattern or symbol of some form. It reminds me somewhat of rorschach ink blots in this way. But too the fluidity of the paint and the arching imply a spring or fountain of water for me. I was interested too by the concept of bodies of water in themselves as an action, having visited my local castle ruin in Berkhamsted on one of my daily walks.

I was reflecting on the concept of a moat in relation to the practice now of social distancing and self-isolation that we are mandated to perform during this coronavirus pandemic. The word isolation itself deriving from the Latin word insulatus, meaning to make an island. The manmade moat of this castle is in a literal sense constructing an island (whereby the castle is the island, isolated from its surroundings), and making manifest then this idea of social distancing.

Moats for me though imply a sense of stagnation, of anxiety and fear, and protection. I took several photos on my visit as I reflected on this, but found it difficult to capture just one that fully encapsulated that this was in fact a moat, and not some other body of water, such as a river. The closest to communicating that is the first below, where we can see the path across, a piece of the castle walls, and the two fortification mounds, but to gain this perspective little of the moat itself is visible. I think use of a drone camera (or at least, a much higher angle) would best work to capture the full sense of the moat.

I think this sense of distancing/isolating ourselves is also reflected in this pushing gesture I have been exploring. Pushing others away, rejecting our former habits and behaviours, creating physical distance/space for ourselves, all for me can be implied by this action of extending the limbs forwards and outwards.

When thought of in the context of water – pushing against water perhaps – it is also reminiscent of swimming, i.e. the breast stroke. A means of propelling ourselves, harnessing the resistance of the water. In thinking about water I became interested too in this resistance – the forces that act back upon us when we act on the world, as in Newton’s third law – the effects of our actions, repercussions and consequences (foreseen or not).

This is particularly topical at the moment, as we are made aware of the consequences of our individual behaviour on others – the possibility of spreading the virus by unnecessary contact with others. This has been made apparent by the study of the spread of the virus in South Korea, where just one infected person accounted for the majority of cases – patient #31.

Many images/animations have been circulating online using this matches illustration for the importance of social distancing to prevent the virus spreading to others

Final Major Project – experimentation in floor based drawing/painting

I was keen to get started experimenting with linear gestural mark-marking. It was important for me to capture the process of this as potential starting points for performance too, but as I have been cautioned not to use the studio space in the university due to the corona virus shut down, I was presented with a challenge to make use of my home environment to do this in!

My first challenge was in erecting some way of filming the process from above, as I do not own a tripod or the special craning equipment that would be used by professionals. I discovered a DIY instruction for a cardboard cradle of sorts for my phone that could be affixed to the ceiling using masking tape, and used this for some drawing experimentation in my sitting room. This floor is carpeted, which would mean it less than ideal for paint work, but does give me the most floor space in which to work.

Having centred myself by completing a yoga exercise, and reflecting in my journal, I decided I would explore different modes of attack for my gestural drawings – from standing, from kneeling, and from lying down. I was also keen to see the difference between using a large graphite stick and large charcoal (i chose these large materials to more easily capture my gesture across a wide surface, and for greater distinction in pressure, orientation etc). I opted to do these with my eyes mostly shut whilst moving, so that my gesture might be guided from the sensation/from within, rather than aesthetic appraisal. I did allow myself moments in between marks to assess whether further marks were needed or not.

I think the standing piece is my least preferred, it is more chaotic and less readily understood in terms of being gesture. I especially enjoy the expression of the charcoal, the pushing/expelling nature, and how the paper in fact moved away from me and contributed to the mark itself. Kneeling seems to be the posture in which I can exercise more control of expression, and capture the full arcing of my arm movements. Lying down was intriguing for allowing movement that was not isolated to the arms as much, and for more chance to be involved (when the graphite was caught in my hair and made no mark on the paper).

While the cardboard cradle worked for this short experiment, i found that the masking tape peeled away and the camera angle could not be easily perfected. The sound of the tape coming away was quite distracting, so I decided I would purchase a cheap phone holder as an alternative. I reasoned that if I am needing to use my phone camera to document anyway then this is a worthwhile investment!

I decided to try a paint pour experiment using this holder, this time working on my kitchen floor (to prevent any spills marking my carpet!) and had the holder clamped on my kitchen table. This allowed for a more up close view of the work in progress, but less vantage of my full body movement. I think this shot though is better suited to the A1 paper size I am currently working with.

I chose Ultramarine colour to experiment with, as I believe it the nearest to the blue of Yves Klein. I wanted to repeat to some extent the gesture used in my charcoal piece – the pushing element I thought might be interesting explored in a more fluid sense. Perhaps in my execution I was more focused on the pour (I did not perform this with my eyes closed, though perhaps I should repeat this with them shut!) and so there is less forcefulness in my gesture. It seems more meditative.

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!

Final Major Project – Idea Generation

I already had established I wanted to explore self-expression in my final major project, but I needed to get a broader view of what directions I might explore. I began by considering the different associations of the inner and outer self, to understand how I might investigate their relationship.

It seemed to me that there were lots of ways in which the outer self can make known or express the inner self – e.g. through behaviour, gesture, grooming, ritual, touch etc. But too there were some elements relating to the outer self that might frustrate or obscure this – such as cultural norms, comparison with others, beauty standards, restrictions, and indeed gender. Reflecting that, if I am to explore self-expression I would need to do so as myself – a woman – I wanted to explore too the factors relating to identity in this gendered case.

I feel I barely scratched the surface (and this by no means counts as some proper feminist/gender theory – merely a brain dump in the moment). But it helped to coalesce in my mind that there are various societal structures that obscure the female self. Who am I really if I stripped away the gender roles and behavioural conventions expected of me? How would I act? How much of my personality has been shaped irrevocably by the expectations and experiences of my gender from early childhood?

So it seemed that to adopt a gendered lens to my exploration of self-expression might be an interesting path to pursue. But I was keen to move beyond the male gaze topic I had previously explored in my contextualising research of earlier units, and not only explore literal self-portraiture. I want to explore expression specifically – of thoughts or feelings – to make the inner world apparent.

I knew this would bring me back to the world of abstract expressionism, where I had previously learnt of Lee Krasner in particular. I was excited to learn that there was an exhibition on the 9th street artists at Gazelli Art House in London, who I had been reading about back in Unit 1, so went along to see some of their works for myself. Below are some of the works I liked most from that exhibition:

It is intriguing that several of my preferred pieces were by Grace Hartigan, she seems to here have particularly intriguing use of colour.

This coincided with a performance I learned of through an instagram post (below). The idea of natural barefoot dance defying the social norms of the day intrigued me, so I decided to attend the performance!

It was fascinating to learn about this pioneering woman, whose tumultuous life was immortalised in film, who led a sea-change in the approach to modern dance. She was opposed to the unnatural restricting and painful movements imposed on ballet dancers (who are intended to produce the appearance of floating on air), and instead sought a freedom of movement that expressed the innermost spirit, hoping to inspire individuality and authentic movement for all. As such she was a proponent of improvisation in dance, and was often danced in response to great musical pieces.

She was inspired by ocean waves, and the poses of Ancient Greek sculpture – from which she also derived her flowing fabric costumes.

There were 3 performances at the Barbican that night. One was a restaging of an original Duncan choreographed piece – The Dance of the Furies (with 5 dancers). The Second was Five Brahms Watzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, a choreography by Frederick Ashton that took on the style of Duncan (A solo piece). The final piece was a new work developed specially for this Barbican bill, which was inspired by this technique, called Unda (with 6 dancers).

It was entrancing to watch these dancers across the various pieces. I was particularly moved by the solo piece, in which the expression of the dancer was most apparent.

This is a short excerpt from a similar staging of the Five Brahms Waltzes from a few years ago

The group pieces were fascinating, though I found it more difficult to glean perhaps a clear expression in the Unda work, it seemed more of a narrative to me (around friendships forming, routine, death and loss). There was an interesting use of water in it – dripping from above into large washing bowls placed around the set. The finale of the piece involved the dancers ‘washing’ themselves and then splashing the water around using their hair and limbs. IT was quite interesting to see these precise movements interacting with the liquid.

The Dance of the Furies was intriguing, the movements used by the dancers were forceful and directive. That they sometimes ran across the stage, and moved aggressively really brought out the sense that these were human movements – heavy and earthy. I was particularly drawn to a repeated motion of upraised forearms (with the elbows bent) as though beating an invisible surface with the underside of your fists. There was often too a sense of undulation – the bodies rocking to one side and then retreating, much like waves. It gave a sense of being cyclical or inevitable.

They were evoking the mythological Furies, the goddesses of vengeance from Ancient Greece. They feature in the opera by Gluck of Orpheus and Eurydice, from which the music was taken that they danced to in this piece.

I am intrigued to pursue the notion of expressive and improvised dance for myself, and experiment with the movement of my body, to hopefully inform gestural mark-making in my work. It could be also interesting to understand how gesture and movement express within the convention of performance art and whether there is crossover with the world of modern dance.

Further research – Gabriel Orozco

I try to use the tools that everyone can use. I don’t want to be a specialist in a technique that is very difficult. I prefer be a beginner… even like I think when I do the ceramic it’s like a hobby for me. It’s more like ‘yeah I like ceramics, it’s nice, I want to learn a little bit’

Gabriel Orozco, Art21 2003
Photographs appearing in Notebook 12, Gabriel Orozco

In the course of researching around this artist, who I find very intriguing, it struck me how his words here surprised me. I tried to imagine these words coming out of my own mouth, but couldn’t. I certainly see this as a way in which I do approach materials and processes, and his way of interacting with ceramics seems to be similar in some ways to my own. But until now I have not thought of it as a particular approach, more a personal failing! I think this might speak to a tendency towards Impostor syndrome.

For Orozco, the process of making is another way of stimulating his own thought processes, in this way it seems quite meditative.

When I feel that it should be ready it’s a kind of subjective thing, but it’s just that the shape should represent what just happened before.

Gabriel Orozco
My Hands are my Heart (1991) Gabriel Orozco

I was also surprised to learn that in his early career particularly he eschewed the artist’s studio, favouring instead a derive or flaneur style of wandering in the urban environment, photographing things that took his interest, and using the camera as a way of focusing his own attention. He would interact with found objects and intervene to create photographs also. So much of this is related to what I have done in my unit 2 work!

Breath on Piano (1993) Gabriel Orozco