Saturday, April 20, 2013

'LUPA 18' behind James Campbell House, 19th April 2013

A performance artist doesn't have the slightest obligation to entertain an audience.  At least as far as I see it, the important thing is to arouse some kind of intellectual or emotional reaction.  This can range from revulsion, fear, anger right through to intentionally inflicting boredom on those around you.  In retrospect, even something excruciatingly repetitive and outright annoying to watch can be a very worthwhile experience. Having said that, performances are a hell of a lot more fun to watch when they're as exciting and entertaining as what was laid on at LUPA 18.

There were three eye-catching, extroverted performances and two smaller durational pieces occurring off to the sides.  Stuck on the side of the LUPA garage were three small black and white photographs that appeared to show a family frolicking on a beach.  Attached to each of the photographs were large drooping stalactites of chewing gum.  Attached to the tendrils of chewing gum was a furiously masticating Sarah Grainger-Jones, who was pulling strands of gum from her mouth and sticking it to the photographs.  I have no idea who the people in the photographs are in relation to her, if even she knows them at all.  But the gummy connection seems to suggest some kind of desperate attempt to link to their world.

Sarah Grainger-Jones
Chewing gum is an interesting medium for this kind of thing.  It straddles the borderline between food and not-food.  In the mouth, infused with warm spit, it's quietly intimate.  Yet once outside the body it's a sticky, gross, dirt attracting pain.  It's an interesting dichotomy, and assuming that the photographs are of people now dead, a neat little metaphor about attempts to communicate with them.  The artist herself explains that the chewing gum is a visual reference to the 'ectoplasm' that Victorian mediums produced.  The Victorian craze to pierce the veil led to some pretty weird occurrences at dinner parties, the most notable (and photogenic) was the production of ectoplasm, a mysterious etheric substance that would be produced from the (generally female) medium's mouth, nose, ears and vagina.  You can read more about this weird phenomenon here.  So, Grainger-Jones' performance is a neatly concise, visually interesting and pleasantly minty exploration of the barrier between the living and the dead, and as far as I can tell, a demonstration of the impossibility of surmounting it.

Also performing throughout was Leah Clements, about whom I don't have much to say.  I was told she was moving around the performance space pretending to be over-friendly and enthusiastic to people she barely knew.  The LUPA newsletter explains that she's investigating "what it means to be charismatic".  This all kicked off with a joke that Kate Mahony told in the introduction to the night.  I had to have it explained to me later (a few times actually before I understood it).  At the punchline the crowd stood in awkward silence, with one lone person laughing uproariously during it.  That person was Clements.  I sidled up to her while she was chatting to some people, eavesdropping to try and work out what she up to, but frankly, it just sounded like she was making small-talk with her friends.  So I haven't really got much to go on here. 

Silvia Ziranek
While both of these were quiet and subtle, the three other performers were anything but.  First on was Silvia Ziranek, described concisely and accurately as "a woman who wears a lot of pink".  I gather she's something of a big cheese in the performance art world, and after watching her I can see why.  Even before she started I was excited just looking at the props she'd laid on the ground: cymbals, sparkly heels, dinner plates, spray paint, a brass loudhailer, beer, a large brioche  and various frilly skirts.  Any or all of those things can be used in amazing ways, and Ziranek didn't let me down.  

Near as I can tell the performance was a demonstration of unlimited personal freedom, shown by redefining the space.  So, she'd pick up the cymbals and commandingly say "I do this, here" and then *CLANG* them together.  Then she'd throw some plates across the car park saying "and I do this, here!".  As she worked her way through her props the outside of the garage and her body became an increasingly personalised statement.  A bedsheet was spraypainted with question marks and monetary cymbals and she began to cut quite an iconic image, posing archly with a cake balanced on top of her head; then dancing, shaking gold streamers which glittered in the streetlights, before putting on the skirts and holding up two signs that stated "I do this" and "here". 

Damn tricky to look this cool with a cake on your head.  Damn tricky.
There's a lot that sets Ziranek aside from other performers I've seen at LUPA.  Her affected received pronunciation lends her some kind of innate authority, as well as slightly muddying the clownish exterior.  This weird dignity in the bizarre is also helped by her outstanding body language.  She's seemingly conscious of every single pose she pulls, which again raises her status.  It's a difficult thing to look classy with a panettone balanced on your head, but she effortlessly manages it.  Outstanding.

After this was Nicholas McArthur, who presented an apocalyptic vision of self-destructive dancing mania.  He explained the origins of this performance; the unexplained mass psychogenic illness that affected medieval European towns and became popularly known as St Vitus' Dance.  This is a truly bizarre phenomenon: dance as infectious disease. At its height it could affect thousands of men, women and children who'd begin wildly dancing until either collapsing from exhaustion or in cases dying.

Nicholas McArthur
McArthur was dressed as a kind of neo-peasant; caked in mud, his clothes torn and ragged and the wild stare of the genuinely bonkers.  Soon he was joined by a hooded friend (who I think was Robert Molloy-Vaughan, although correct me if it wasn't), who announced his presence through a loudspeaker.  These costumes were outstanding, both modern and medieval at once.  They stood, facing opposite each other to a relatively quiet soundtrack of clanging church bells and faint chanting.  I figured they were going to start dancing anytime soon, and though they looked ace I found the soundtrack a little slow.  But then... is that...? It is!!

Then things went bananas.  They started genuinely freaking out, arms flailing wildly, tearing at their clothes in paroxysms of what could equally be agony or joy.  They twirled and staggered into the crowd, shoving and grabbing people.  The camerawoman next to me got a hit of a whack in the eye, and people were recoiling, trying to get out of the way as fast as they could.  As they danced they alternated between tortured exhaustion; supporting each other and grimacing in religious ecstasy and going nuts, tearing their clothes off.  They grabbed a plastic bag full of flour and threw it through the air, caking the people in its path with a white cloud.

His power level... it's over 9000!
Eventually the Molloy-Vaughan kneeled on the ground, pulled out a bottle of bleach and drew a circle around himself.  McArthur, now topless and feral, convulsed madly while the Molloy-Vaughan drank as much from the bleach bottle as he could (I presume it wasn't  actually bleach), before spraying it all over each other's chest and eyes.  Then he was handed a birch staff and proceeded to beat a twitching and exhausted McArthur, before collapsing himself.  Cue rapturous applause.

Whoa Nelly!  What a performance!  This is the kind of thing that I want to see at these events; a cocktail of danger, insanity and kinetic joy, all set to a perfect soundtrack.  It was confrontational without being obnoxious about it, pounding on the walls of what's acceptable in a social context.  Bringing St. Vitus' Dance into the modern world is an idea ripe with symbolic possibilities.  There's a brilliant quote by David Byrne: "music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head" that rings true here; this was the complete decoupling of any kind of intellectual response to the sound, acting purely on primal instinct. Hot damn this was great stuff.

The final performance was by Lili Spain, who emerged from the LUPA garage dressed as what I can only describe as a kin d of totemic, glam-scarecrow.  In a white robe wrapped with ribbons, gold draped around her neck and straw poking all around her she cut quite a figure.  To a soundtrack of Beyonce's 'Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It), she moved through the crowd, spraying them with the most floral, feminine perfume I have smelt in a long time. Almost instantly the area smelled like an explosion in a pot pourri factory.  She was walking a pretty brave line here, spraying people down with this strong-smelling stuff, marking the clothes for the rest of the night.  She even sprayed one guy's beard.  

As she moved through the crowd, Kate Mahony, assisting her walked over and popped a plastic, gold costume necklace on me.  Then someone walked towards me and offered me a slug from a bottle of dark rum.  This is performance art I can get behind!  After navigating the entire group, spraying as she went she retreated inside the garage, which was then closed.  Only the muffled sounds of Beyonce could be heard emanating from within.  I was still in a bit of sensory overload from the previous performance, and this seemed over as quickly as it had begun.

Lili Spain (on the left)
But here, I think the point was that even though the artist herself had departed, her ghost still remained in the shiny bauble around my neck, the alcohol coursing through my bloodstream, the faint thrum of Beyonce and the perfume filling the air.  Her brief appearance and retreat into the box felt like a visitor from another, better world had briefly stopped by to say hello.  We're left staring at the garage door, trying our best to imagine what was going on in there; a crazy private party to which we can just taste a bit.

I have zero reservations about saying that this was the Best LUPA Ever.  Perhaps the dry and relatively warm weather buoyed my mood a little, but frankly I'd have stood ankle deep in freezing water and still be able to appreciate just how great this whole thing was.  So yeah, performance art doesn't have to be entertaining - but it's a damn sight more fun when it is.  Pretty much a perfect event.  Roll on the next one!

LUPA19 is on 17th May.

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