Thursday, August 25, 2016

'Performances of the Skeleton House #2', 24th August 2016

Something peculiar happened last night in Clapham. From within a well-to-do townhouse came billowing clouds of talc, dusting the street in a thin alabaster layer. If you'd have glanced up, you might have been a naked woman, face whited out, hurling fistfuls of the stuff from an open window. This is The Skeleton House.

With its owner mysteriously absent, the house is in the custody of artists, who are using it as a home, studio, residency, workshop and exhibition space. Considering that performance art tends to take place in industrial warehouses, semi abandoned buildings in odd areas and (occasionally) car parks, it's surreal to step through the door of a typical terraced house and find someone licking the walls with a mirror strapped to their back.

That someone is Natalie Ramus with Site:Requite:Trace. Sadly, these are the last days of The Skeleton House as the owner is returning in early September. In just a few weeks this curious suburban anomaly will revert to type, though Ramus aims to pay tribute to the way the place has cradled the people that've lived and worked within its walls. 

To achieve that, she's blindfolded herself, strapped a mirror to her back, wrapped a ribbon umblical cord around her body (trailing off somewhere upstairs) and spent the night licking the walls. It's a strange kind of communion; a performance utterly unconcerned with actually being observed. As we arrive, Ramus is the only person who's begun, so she gathers a little appreciative crowd. Then, as the other performances start up, people filter away. Eventually she's left alone, blindly exploring the house in slow motion with her tongue as the primary sensory organ.

She ends up licking the fireplace, observed by only one person. It's gentle, meditative and quietly respectful, somehow sanctifying the house. Her contributions (and those of the other artists) pile up against the ghosts of the past and future Claphamites to come.

This segues nicely into Sebastian Hau-Walker's Ausculta (Vision Serpents). On heading into the kitchen we're instructed to take a set of wireless headphones, a pillow, an orange and lie down on the floor. Projected onto the ceiling is grainy camcorder footage of Sebastian as a boy, graduating from kindergarten and generally being a rather sweet child. Meanwhile, the adult Sebastian perches like a gargoyle on the kitchen counter, dressed in Clockwork Orange white and a mortarboard.

He then creeps along the kitchen counter, orange clenched between his teeth. As he explores the cupboards he finds VHS tapes (presumably of the projections). As he hums Auld Lang Syne he bashes them against his head and the oven, eventually cracking them open. Then he takes the reels of tape and fixes them to the ceiling, causing them to unspool in a beautiful silvery column, piling up in shimmering heaps on the audience. By the end of the performance he's naked, wearing a tattered black cloak of tape and surrounded by the physical remains of his treasured family memories.

There's a lot of meaning to unpack here, but this is a kickass piece of performance art. In purely visual terms the sight of videotape unfurling in liquid columns from the ceiling is absolutely fascinating to watch. I had the fortune to be sat right below one of them and the sensation of tape piling up on my face and chest was fantastically, awesomely weird. 

And what does it all mean? Well, probably only Sebastian knows the full story, but it's certainly autobiographical and deeply personal. It's easy to try and fill in the blanks between the child on screen and the adult bashing a videotape against his skull. Other than the home videos, we hear distorted heartbeats and fuzzy organic soundscapes through the headphones. By the end of we're laying amongst the jumbled, frozen knots of his own history, now just piles of polyethelene.

Unpicking things a little further, Sebastian makes reference to his Mayan heritage in the introduction.  Following a bit of post performance Wikipediaing, the serpentine quality of the unspooling tape and Sebastians actions make this a translation of a Mayan bloodletting ritual. This facilitates communication between the past and present - which we see all to viscerally in the distorted, artifacted videoportal projected onto the ceiling. On top of that, by the end he's quite literally cloaked in his own past, the tape echoing feathered ceremonial cloaks that signified the spiritual power of the Shaman.

It was dead good stuff and precisely the kind of performance art I like: sincere, unironic and refreshingly open. Sebastian's personal connection to symbology and use of his own history rendering it devoid of the masturbatory obscurantism that can gum up pieces like this.

Last up were Alicia Radage and Robert Hardaker with S O M E T I M E S W E W E A R A N T L E R S / / S O M E T I M E S W E W E A R H O R N S. This felt like The Wicker Man on diazepam. 

Mostly naked apart from a couple of twigs, Robert and Alicia stood facing a bedroom wall. At the centre of the room was a chair sat in a big pile of talcum powder. Dangling from the ceiling was fishing wire festooned with white-painted leaves. In achingly slow motion, the pair navigated towards each other along the wall, eventually coming together in an embrace. Ordinarily this would look sorta sexual, but Robert's cock and balls were bound up in a gaff, leaving him flat and androgynous.

Then Alicia moved to the chair, with Robert sat alongside her. With precise motions she constructed a tall of twine and twigs around his head, leaving him looking like he'd walked out of a Guillermo del Toro movie. When the crown was finished, he began to writhe around, pulling down the dangling leaves with a satisfying *twhip* as the cords gave way. He then stood in front of Alicia and removed the gaff, letting his cock dangle free. 

Alicia stared on blankly, then, as Robert kneeled in front of her, she got up and began to toss big heaping fistfuls of talcum powder out of the window into the street - as if the very house had begun to boil. Then, shaking out the sheet on the chair, a blastwave of white enveloped the room. To cap it off they retreated to their rear of the room and gently anointed each other with red wine, concluding the performance.

So what does all that mean? Beats me. But whatever it was, it was extraordinarily beautiful and hypnotic, a mysterious ritual that felt equal parts pagan and fetish, but with a warm undercurrent of affection and a subtle romance to it. It's easy to read Alicia as representing a historical all-femininity, beginning as a powerful matriarch and gradually being transformed into the submissive by the increasingly unbound masculine presence that swirls around her. But then, in the finale we're all coated in the same flesh and working from the same organic baseline, represented by the ashlike powder around them.

It's also startlingly intimate; a performance that all but demanded silence and attention from those concerned. The atmosphere felt a bit like being in church, the kind of instinctive hush that comes over a crowd in the presence of religious superseriousness. Sustaining this over more than hour requires some serious performance chops, not just to maintain this intensity for so long, but the confidence to know that people will be fascinated by it. 

Walking out of there I felt like my brain had been in for an MOT. I really should do more writing about performance art - I miss seeing stuff so strange, so open to interpretation, so unconstrained by commercial considerations and so utterly fearless. A hell of a night, and a wonderful way to close out The Skeleton House.

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