Monday, February 3, 2014

'Lab 451; On Perspective' at the Camden Image Gallery

Performance art is often a bit of a mixed bag.  Fortunately, my bullshit benchmark is set pretty high, and I usually more or less like most things I see, if only because I appreciate that it takes a certain amount of guts to put yourself in front of an audience.  But just 'liking' something isn't why I attend these things: occasionally you get a dizzingly great artist who knocks my socks off (perhaps literally!).  Conversely you also encounter the crushing lows - egotists with self-serving, poorly thought out performances that leave you praying for a gas main to randomly explode, saving us from our misery.   

Chris Woltman
Things at Lab 451 don't start particularly promisingly.  My least favourite musical sight in the world is a lone, youngish guy perched on a stool clutching an acoustic guitar.  Seeing this makes my heart drop quicker than even seeing a pair of bagpipes sitting just off-stage. Before even one note is played a visual warning is blaring out that we're about to have to deal with someone plucking their way through awful aching heart poetry - most likely with their eyes closed and a gormless expression on their face.  Chris Woltman not only provides this, but he provides it badly: the singing off key, his lyrics contrived and his guitar playing objectively pretty crappy.  There's a suspicion at these sorts of things that the crapness might be on purpose - maybe this is a commentary on emotional honesty or something? Then again, whether it's crap on purpose or crap by mistake, ultimately it's still crap.  The best we can hope for is that this was either Woltman's first time performing or that he's a beginner on the guitar.

Ivor Lloyd & Jake Harrison
Thankfully the next performer took things up more than a few notches with a spot of morris dancing.  Given my innate suspicion of morris dancers, that's a sentence I never thought I'd write.  When I saw Ivor Lloyd and Jake Harrison emerge with bells attached to their knees and an accordion in tow my heart sank a little bit more, but I very quickly warmed to them. Standing atop a blue stool Ivor delivered a neatly clipped and vaguely Pythonesque treatise on "The Influence of West Northumbrian Morris Dancing in Popular Culture" interspersed with snippets of dancing.  Two things made this unlikely setup work; firstly was that both Ivor and Jake are actually damn good at what they do; the sound of the accordion nicely evocative of old-fashioned entertainment and the dancing planned and executed smoothly.  Any bozo can flail their arms wildly in the air, but there was control and method to this flailing - adding a nice sense of ritual to the piece.

Continuing the musical theme was Joanna Houghton playing her oboe.  I know bugger all about oboing and oboists but I liked what I heard - a nicely experimental piece of music that eked every possible sound from the instrument.  Even within the depths of my oboe ignorance I still appreciate virtuosity, and I think the crowd did too, standing hypnotised in rapt silence until she'd finished.  

Geraldine Gallavardin
I'd last seen Geraldine Gallavardin at 55 Gracechurch Street in October where she got into my good books right away by doing a great performance that concluded with her giving me a load of potatoes (which I later ate for dinner).  No potatoes this time, but the performance was no worse for it.  Gallavardin stalks the space enveloped in an intense, almost suffocating aura of theatricality.  She moves like there's high voltage cables running through muscles, throwing herself against the walls and snarling at the audience rather intimidatingly. This (slightly scary) stage persona is softened a little by the way she asks us to contribute to her piece by flapping paper with pictures of Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground's first album and other things on them, or asking us to talk to each other through part of her performance.  In all honesty I'm not quite sure what she was getting at, but she radiates a supreme confidence that papers over any cracks - even if I didn't get what it meant, at least I felt that there was something to get.

Sitron Panapoulos
We were on a nice little roll by this point, and not even the appearance of another a stool-squatting acoustic guitarist could dampen my mood.  Fortunately he was only the backing guitar for Sitron Panapoulos, who sang wonderfully evocative songs about the myriad pleasures of life in London.  The closest I've ever come to any form of patriotism is to feel vaguely proud of this city, so it's a subject close to my heart.  With a lilting, clear-voiced passion he spun lyrical tales of a London where you can be, see and achieve anything.  My favourite was a romanticised song about Whitechapel, replete with lovely rolling lyrics and soaring choruses.  I got pleasant little tingles up and down my spine it was so good.

After that blissful reverie it was a bit of a shock to be plunged straight into the dark heart of emotional fascism.  Calum F Kerr (who I'd previously seen as part of the excellent Lonesome Cowboys from Hell), performed 5x451, taking satirical aim at selfie culture and wider issues of narcissism.  Dressed in all black with 'NARC' written on the front of his jumpsuit he gave us an overbearing, authoritarian lecture from a quickly sketched yet well thought out dystopian future where creating images of yourself is illegal.  This segued into a miniature detective story where he explored five 'partial' selfies that just showed an ear and some background.  The highlight was when he instructed us to take out our own phones and take a selfie of our own ears and whatever's behind us, nicely drawing us into his world.

Live on a Stick
Next up was Sadie Edginton and Leonora Aumstrup with Live on a Stick.  Cards on the table, I know Sadie pretty well so my objectivity is a little shaky on this one.  Having said that I've always had a soft spot for performances where I get to eat the art.  Sadie and Leonora draped the gallery in home-made breadsticks, hanging them from wires and placing them atop people's shoulders and heads.  There was a pleasing analogue chaos to the breadsticks, reminding me of microscopic views of chromosomes or bacteria writhing around in a petri dish.  After the gallery was pretty much saturated with breadsticks, the two delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce: plastic cups of home-made hummus.  I've interpreted most of Sadie's performances as physically realising the invisible bonds that tie a crowd together; (age, class, friendship etc) and this piece felt like a logical evolution of that, bringing us together in that most basic of human acts - snacking.  

Tex Royale
I said earlier that I've got a pretty high tolerance for bullshit.  Not high enough apparently, as the next artist, Tex Royale, wasn't only the most pretentious git I've had the misfortune to encounter in a very long time, but one of the most boring.  Things actually looked promising to start, he was dressed in a pretty cool outfit - kind of a cyber-dayglo version of Sun Wukong from Journey to the West.  Outfit aside he didn't exactly endear himself to the crowd even before his performance: ordering Sitron Panapoulos to sweep up bits of breadcrumb from the floor as if he was the damn janitor.

But this was nothing compared to what we were about to be subjected to: namely the aimless ramblings of someone with their head jammed right up their arse.  Sitting on a mat with bleepy bloopy synths behind him, Royale smugly delivered a huge turd of a word salad. Dropping meaningless buzzwords like "sunconscious" and wittering on about alchemy, Philip K. Dick and Sun Ra he sounded disarmingly like Stewart Pearson from The Thick of It - mangling together ideas he obviously doesn't understand. And it went on for an hour.  A fucking hour.  I've seen some crap performances in my time, but this takes the biscuit.  Usually I feel bad about criticising artists - after all at least they're doing something creative - but not this time.  This was an hour of pure, undiluted shite - like being haunted by the ghost of Nathan Barley.

Oberon White
With the hell of Royale still ringing in my ears and a warm pub beckoning just down the road I really hoped that the final performance of the night was worth hanging around for. Mercifully it was.  Oberon White more than lived up to both halves of his name, dressed in a white jumpsuit with white face paint and acting like some ethereal vaguely supernatural being.  He pulled tape from his mouth and then sang opera in German, his bass voice reverberating off the walls, shocking the audience into hypnotised, like cavemen frozen before a tiger's roar.  He filled the space brilliantly, capturing everyone's attention with a combination of singing skill, precise movement - basically just being interesting as hell.  The best compliment I can possibly give White is that it was well worth sitting through the last hour of rubbish to get to his performance.

So a bit of a mixed bag, but overall a successful night.  The Camden Image Gallery is friendly and welcoming - the people running it open and friendly and obviously eager to put on an interesting programme for the evening.  Most of the artists performing were sincere, intelligent and achieved their goals - though frankly if I never have to encounter Tex Royale ever again I'll consider myself blessed.

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