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 – 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.