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Of Other Spaces: Where does gesture become event? Chapter Two

This reflection on the second chapter ‘Of Other Spaces: Where does gesture become event?’ forms a companion piece to a text on Chapter One published online by the contemporary art journal ‘This is Tomorrow’ in November 2016.

Like the exhibitions it attempts to describe they can be read together, with overlaps, linking illusions and echoes or considered separately as mirrored apparitions of each other. As political theorist Hannah Arendt - so important to the staging of this exhibition - suggests, of the “space of their appearance”. And with a sensibility that might hint at the folding of time, encounters and matters that tie the two events together. This text is not a review or evaluation of exhibition curator Sophia Hao’s project in the traditional sense. I have taken the opportunity with this text for DISPATCH to approach Chapter Two less journalistically (the text concentrates mostly on the three works installed together in the institution’s principal gallery, for instance) and is framed by my own interests in what these particular modes of feminist practice announce. All the while making note of what has been achieved in these exhibitions; in the bringing together of these projects, films, texts, objects, actions and performances. And what has been accrued through their collective experiencing and re-experiencing.

Chapter Two is a sparser sister echo to Chapter One. The same Cullinan Richards units of display, made of scaffolding, mirrors and wooden surfaces, are in place, but this time they hold works in more economical configurations. The performing, active and present body (with its accompany female voice), alongside an array of adornments which render the body as hybrid (female-supernatural-form, female-animal, female-sculpture, female-obstacle) is seen in mirrored planes, through strange reflections and disorientating shadows. Criss-crossing histories of particular forms of British live and performance art, with those of feminist activism and protest are traced out. All the while there are suggestions of surveys of live art practices like the influential ‘National Review of Live Art’, housed at various times in spaces like CCA, Tramway, ICA, the Riverside Studios and The Arches from 1986 to 2010.

The aesthetic and theoretic of the ‘mirror’ is inescapable. The exhibition is navigated through Cullinan Richards and Cooper Gallery’s structures of display like a hall of mirrors. Through illusions, echoes, appearances as apparitions and floating layers of opacity, disguise and transparency. This process of perception and fabrication then lends itself to the housing of a trio of works by artists Linder, Georgina Starr and Rose English. They are presented together conscious of their aesthetic and sensory symmetries, and their theoretical and political harmonies. There is a dream state at play here and between the juxtaposition and configuration of these works. In doing so an imaginary possibility, that draws together past, present and future, is conjured. There are overlaps of voices and singing which often seem to emanate from nowhere, separated from the body. ‘The Lesson & The Birth of Sculpture’, 2016, by Georgina Starr, is a two-screen video work assembled from performance materials made during her installation ‘Before Le Cerveau Affamé’ at Cooper Gallery in 2013. In that work a troupe of acrobats and dancers in extraordinarily elegant costumes and pristine hair styles blow bubble-gum breath sculptures while enacting poses and acrobatic gestures through hallucinatory sequences which are also bound together with ceramic objects, poetry, collaged photographs, mirrors and tarot card readings. Shot through a kind of yellow-pink glaze, and using slow motion and slow dissolves this new film work draws upon references to films and literature like ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, Peter Weir, 1976, ‘Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls’, 1903, Frank Wedekind and ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’, Jacques Rivette, 1974, while the use of screams in its electronic tonal soundtrack brought to mind Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s 16mm film ‘The Call of the Wild’, 2007, and with its pronounced or exaggerated use of the voice to Canadian poet and scholar Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’, from ‘Glass, Irony and God’ published in 1995.

Starr’s video has edits like the breaths of sleep. A fade to yellow-pink on one screen cues the action on a second. A voice reads out a sequence of titles and subjects in Italian, translated on screen to a series of glittering subtitles in English. Meanwhile performers peek out and emerge from curtains made of blends of extraordinary colour, and perform, in group actions, a series of acrobatic postures and bubble gum ‘tête-à-têtes’. The voice speaks a series of mysterious instructions and spells, of perhaps suggestions of what these bubble-gums might be: “The Weight of a Thousand Dreams”, “Infinite Recognition”, “Ectoplasmic Error”, “Menopausal Concrete Boulder”, “The Length of Supernatural Grief”, “ Oracular Echo”… These poetic phrases echoed fellow exhibitor Rose English’s sung and spoken text made from coupled actions from her exhibition ‘A Premonition of the Act’ installed at the Camden Arts Centre in 2015. The collective effect of Starr’s work hypnotises through its sheer elegance; of sumptuous coloured fabrics, elegant hair styles, the gazes held by beautiful women and their serenely adopted poses.

The blow of bubble-gum bubbles represent feminine sculptural forms. Growing together, they form like skins, are deeply sensual and are fused membrane-breath-gestures, that at times cover the face and eyes. They tantalize, obscure and disguise. At one moment bubble-gum skin and human skin are indistinguishable and suggest a ‘caul’, a piece of membrane that can cover a newborn’s face and head. In folklore possession of the caul, which would be gathered into paper at the birth and preserved between sheets of glass, was said to bring the owner good fortune, protection against death by drowning (and therefore highly treasured by sailors), and was possessed of psychic properties. In Russian folklore and fairy tales they describing the caul as a ‘supernatural armour’.

Linder’s complex video, ‘The Ultimate Form’, 2013, is made of split or multiple screens, transparent layers of still images, and choreographed dance sequences, accretions of collage and visual movement. Her camera is tantalisingly erratic. Stills of elegant models postures from couture and fashion magazines are blended into snake and lizard skins, butterfly wings, petals and the eyes of black birds substituted for human eyes. Linder’s screen is a sculptural dimensional form made of veils and transparencies. Image and gender are precarious because they are conjoined to opposites. Image, surface and gesture spilling back-and-forth from projected screen to tangible appearance. Membrane-like costumes featuring Linder’s photomontages and made by the late fashion designer Richard Nicoll adorn a Cullinan Richards skeleton-like ‘Modular Infrastructure’, the exhibition’s display units. These second-skin leotards represent the body in spaces of and between absence and presence. They hold a ‘potential energy’, to be worn again, to be activated; bodily enhancements bringing on motion and movement.

Rose English’s performative action ‘Quadrille’ from 1975 seen here from digitised super-8mm film shot by the artist’s brother shows an ‘intervention’ at the dressage competitions of the Southampton Show horse trials. An ensemble of six dancers in hybrid form – horsehair and leather half-corset belt pony tails, aprons, knee-high white socks and tip-toe shaped shoes adorned with horses hooves and leather laced ankle cuffs act out a series of choreographed, coordinated gestures and manoeuvres that allude to dressage and its ideas of training, poise, pace and control which in turn expresses forms of fetishisation of women in competitive arenas like athleticism and sports. ‘Quadrille’ is a highly influential performance work, often seen only through photographic documentation and the installation and presentation of its performance materials as sculptural artefact. Much like the installation of Linder’s costumes on display here in the exhibition or during the installation of ‘Before Le Cerveau Affamé’ a special display unit holding all the bubble-gum breath sculptures produced by Starr’s troupe during the production of her film.

Over the course of these sister exhibitions, and their associated events and screenings, and in particular the 12-Hour Action Group in December 2016, the twin Of Other Spaces projects have given choral voice and multifold presence to the conditions - 'subversive, radical, dissonant, collective, luxuriant, magical' - with the evolving frameworks of international feminist practices. It has given a solid platform from which to reassess and re-experience past influence works, actions and activities from the 70s and 80s. While giving through its multiple mirrored planes, ephemeral surfaces and performative presences, its entanglement of voice, body, action, screens, appearance and narrative, through a kind of crystal ball, with second sight, an oracular vision of feminist futures.

Chapter One of Of Other Spaces: Where Does Gesture Become Event, Oct 2016 - March 2017.

All Images courtesy of Cooper Gallery DJCAD University of Dundee. Photography by Studio RoRo.

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