Wednesday, July 10, 2013

'Totemic Festival Third Day' at the Freud Museum, 7th July 2013

By the third day of the Totemic Festival, Sigmund Freud’s house was beginning to feel disarmingly familiar.  When I’d first walked in on Friday evening everything seemed slightly saintly and hallowed, but by Sunday it felt like the artists owned the place.  A pleasant avant-garde infection had spread through the timbers. The visitors to the museum  had no choice but to breathe in this shifted atmosphere, having to contend with densely symbolic performance art taking place all around them.  Quizzical looks flashed between these visitors, who were either amused or annoyed at the disturbances to their sunny afternoon out.

This was shaping up to be a lazy, baking hot Sunday and before I arrived I was in that woozy summer delirium that makes you want to nap like a lizard on a hot rock.  Fortunately, due to the adrenaline rush of having a car crash into me, my mind had been snapped back to focus.  And not a moment too late either - as soon as I’d walked in the door Kate Mahony grabbed me, as Verity Lambert had just begun her performance outside.

Verity Whiter
Verity’s performance, The Weight of the World covered a remarkable amount of ground thematically and geographically.  Starting in the garden in front of the house she placed a large olive green net over herself.  The net was studded with bells, and as she moved she jingled.  Occasionally she’d come to an obstacle and thrash her head a little, ding-a-linging people out of her way.  Once inside the house she picked up a large hoop wrapped with white rope.  

Rolling the hoop alongside her she made her way around the house, up the stairs, around the landing, looping around the whorls of the rug and out into the garden.  Here, beside the cafe she discarded the hoop, and tied herself up in blue rope, with two big bowling ball sized blue balls hanging from the end.  With a heave-ho she hefted the balls through the garden, dragging and then swinging them through the air, her walk jerking this way and that with their heavy momentum.  I didn’t see the end of this performance, but I gather it finished soon afterwards.

The jingling, the hoop rolling and pained way she dragged those rope balls about created a modern version of the medieval flagellant.  They were pilgrims who attained religious ecstasy by beating and whipping themselves as they moved around Europe at around the time of the Black Death.  They saw the plague as God's punishment on mankind, so figured that by rending their own flesh they'd gain his favour and either avoid the plague or redeem humanity.

Verity cut a rather pitiful site inching around the garden, head hunched down, body language drawn inwards.  The distance that she moved meant that fewer and fewer people were watching her towards the end.  By the time she was swinging the balls down at the end of the garden she was cutting a rather pitiful and lonely figure.  I assume this was her intention.  It really did look like the weight of the world was pressing down upon her.  Like the whip-freak-masochists of old, she's taking this weight for us.  

On after that was Jack Catling’s Totemic Act.  He walked into the middle of the garden dragging a rotting bird carcass.  Then he put a bowl of milk on the floor, got down and lapped at it like a dog until he pulled out some kind of miniature musical instrument from it.  Blowing into it furiously he cleared the milk the valve, causing it to let out a rather damp whistling sound.  Then he upended the milk dish and left, bird carcass in tow.

Jack Catling
It was silly and overwrought, a performance that felt like something cobbled together for shock value from whatever was lying around his kitchen at the time.  There’s a really thin line when it comes to surrealism - try too hard to be weird and you end up looking a bit desperate.  The only genuinely odd touch to this performance was that there were two women behind me quietly but excitedly discussing the ongoing Andy Murray Wimbledon final, which I think they were watching on a phone.  Though, to be honest, other than being a weird contrast between what I was hearing and seeing, this just made me wish I was watching the tennis instead.  And I don’t even like tennis that much.

Moving swiftly on I headed to the main hall, where Kate Mahony's performance, Animistic Gesture, was beginning.  Moving around the main hall she tried desperately to sit on a chair, hovering above it and repeatedly asking the chair if she could sit on it.  She couldn’t.  Neither could she open a chest of drawers in the corner of room.  Nor could she walk across the rug move across the floor, at least, not without special ‘rug shoes’.  Kate could look through a chopping board with some cupboard knobs stuck on the front though.

Kate Mahony
This all took me quite a while to decode, and my view of it was complicated by the fact that the inadvertent soundtrack to this was a serious sounding DVD playing upstairs recounting Sigmund Freud’s flight from the Nazis.  Adding to the inaccessibility of it was the length and relatively static nature.  In the end my key to working out what was going on was in the title - the idea of animism - specifically of interacting with inanimate objects as if they possess their own spiritual essence.  So, Kate is literally asking for consent to interact with chair, drawers and rug and finding herself repeatedly denied.  A demonstration of the myriad perils of living in an animist world!

Once I’d worked this out the piece got a bit less opaque and the drips of humour she put in made the whole thing more palatable - especially the idea of meeting the rather choosy rug halfway - wearing rug-bottomed shoes to walk across it.  I guess from a rug’s perspective - having another rug pressed up against it is infinitely preferable to some dirty rubber soles tracking dirt in from the garden.  Still, I don't know quite what to make about seeing through the chopping board though, but I guess a bit of confusion isn't too bad.

The last piece I saw of this festival was Alaistair MacLennan’s 8 EQUATE.  The piece began when Alaistair put a black stocking over his head.  Underneath it, pressed against his head what looked like a vice.  He then pulled out a large sheet of thin, transparent plastic and let it gently waft in the wind in front of him.  He moved around like this for a while, walking gently up to people and letting it blow softly in their faces, tickling their noses.

Alaistair MacLennan
Following this part of the performance he picked up a bucket of water and poured it over his head, revealing a photograph that had now become stuck to his forehead.  Next he blindfolded himself with the stockings and draped some beaten up old shoes around his neck, walking around semi-blindly, feeling his way around the garden.  Then, as if to pop a cherry on top of his costume, he stuck a long, thin twig in his mouth - projecting the bendy plant high into the air like a bizarre wooden antennae.  To cap it off he emptied another bucket of water over his head, revealing another picture stuck on top.

That description makes it sound a bit ridiculous, but MacLennan performs it with such tortured gravitas that you can’t help but take it seriously.  There’s an element of the ‘holy fool’ to this performance - the veneration of those that flout societal conventions through shocking, unconventional behaviour.  The basic idea is that the enfeebled of mind possess a reflexive innocence and purity in the eyes of God - having little or no room to consciously commit a sin.

I saw a lot of this in MacLennan, who moves with tortured grace.  When he blindly shuffles about, shoes festooned around his neck, a pained expression on his face there’s more than a tinge of King Lear.  Perhaps the gravity he possesses comes from his age - his bald head and white beard irresistibly suggest a monkishness.  Notably, everyone shut the hell up for his performance, the only sound the haunting giggles of children at some faraway garden party.  What a great capper for the weekend.

Your sense of what’s odd gets skewed when you spend so much time around the strange.  It’s like a frog sitting in slowly heating water - it gets so used to it that it gets boiled to death.  The bizarre becomes something you take for granted.  I don’t quite think that happened here, but I was perilously close to becoming a little blase about seeing people doing interesting things in interesting costumes.

Even so, lying on a fragrant lawn watching these performances and sipping a cold beer was one of the more pleasant experiences of the year.  This is the kind of summer I want: surrounded by intelligent, interesting people exploring modes of behaviour and interaction in a kaleidoscope of forms.  As I walked out of Freud’s door for the final time, the place seemed infused with a dynamism it lacked before the weekend.  It’s a lovely place, but it’s built on a foundation of dead and discredited ideas - now it’s been reinvigorated with a hundred new memories.  I don’t know what Freud would have made of it all, but I had an absolutely wonderful time.

Opening night review here.

Second day review here.

Thanks to Kate Mahony for the weekend tickets.

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