Monday, July 8, 2013

'Totemic Festival Second Day' at the Freud Museum, 6th July 2013

It's another beautifully sunny day down in the beautiful garden of the Freud Museum in Finchley.  There are worse places to be in the world. I had a fantastically fun time at the opening night so immediately resolved to fit in as many artists as I could into what was becoming a pretty busy weekend.  I couldn’t see everyone I wanted to, but those that I did were well worth the trip. 

First on after I arrived was Benjamin Sebastian performing a piece entitled Rite of Passage.  He began by taking Freud’s Totems and Taboos and tearing it apart page by page, yellowed paper fluttering onto the grass around him.  Next he pulled out a roll of black electrical tape and began tightly winding it around his head, giving him a featureless, gimplike visage.  With this done he picked up a pair of antlers and taped them to his head.  Then he pulled his t-shirt off (no mean feat with a pair of antlers in the way), picked up some kind of blade and cut his chest.  Blind, topless, antlered and bleeding he scrabbled around in the pages on the floor, gathering them into a pile.  Then, having removed both tape and antler he set fire to the pages and swiftly walked away.

Benjamin Sebastian
I saw a number of pagan ritualistic performances at the Totemic Festival over this weekend.  Granted, it could have been my perspective colouring what I saw, but everybody seemed transforming themselves into animist shamans.  The slow, precise movements suggest an infinite amount of previous repetitions, a tradition handed down through generations.  It’s a neat illusion, one that gives you instant gravitas. Sebastian uses this to his advantage, the effect making his work impossibly solemn.  This meant that when he rejects Freud, symbolised in the destruction and subsequent burning of his book, there's a weight to it.

The blindness, the antlers and blood-letting transform the burning of the book from mere petty rebellion into sacrifice.  Powerful, irrational paganism is haunting Freud’s garden, though the “father of the modern mind” is tries to pin it down like a butterfly on felt, Sebastian shows that for all Freud’s analysis the true power of these beliefs eluded him.  

It’s a well thought out and well executed piece of grim performance, though it does take itself awfully seriously.  I inwardly sag a little whenever someone flourishes a blade and hacks away at their flesh.  It’s an undeniably effective tactic at getting people’s attention and convincing them that you’re serious, but it’s almost too easy.  I can’t deny blood is a powerfully symbolically loaded substance, but it feels played out and dare I say, maybe a bit clich├ęd.

Jordan McKenzie and Co
Far more cheery to my eyes, was Jordan McKenzie’s long group hug which began in the main hall.  The piece consisted of Jordan and what I later discovered to be his siblings standing still, hugging each other.  That’s it.  It lasted (I think) maybe 45 minutes.  Throughout this they slowly shifted positions, less out of a desire to create some visual variety and more because standing still for so long must have been hurting their feet.

During pieces like this my attention span falters and my mind wanders.  I’d come to the conclusion that  static, durational performances maybe aren’t for me.  But something strange happened here.  The longer I looked, the more a happy feeling of serenity came over me.  I suspect this strange mood may have been the result of the pleasant mingling of the tail-end of the previous night’s hangover shaking hands with the tendrils of that evening’s drunkenness.  But regardless of where it came from, seeing people simply in loving, sympathetic and mutually supportive contact with each other really cheered me up.  

There’s nothing scary, dynamic or disturbing here, and to be honest, probably nothing you couldn’t see in shorter form in the departure lounge of Heathrow airport.  The only difference here is the implicit permission to stare, the opportunityto drink in the subtleties of casual intimacy without feeling like a creep.  I walked away with a warm fuzzy feeling filling me from top to bottom.

The final Saturday piece I saw was Silvia Ziranek’s I THINK NOT.  I’ve been seeing an awful lot of Silvia lately, spending quite a bit of time chatting to her at the previous night's launch, visiting an exhibition she’s running in Chelsea, being introduced to her friends and her daughter and sending the occasional email backwards and forwards.  I think Silvia is dead cool.  But there's a part of me that worries that my objectivity towards her work is taking a bit of a whack.  Even so, I think I do an alright job of being objective, and after all, the whole reason I think she’s cool in the first place is because I really like her work.  

In this piece Silvia, with a neon pink hair, wearing all pink, sat down at a pink table and pulled out lipstick tube after lipstick tube from a bag – all various shades of (you guessed it) pink.  Then, while making a declamatory speech, she applied layer after layer after layer of lipstick until a giant pink clown-like grin was painted across her lower face.

Silvia uses a lot of pink in every performance I’ve seen.  Even when she’s not performing I generally see her wearing pink.  So why the fixation?  What is it about pink that’s so important?  The instant colour association is femininity, specifically young, girlish femininity.  Modern stereotyping implores us to associate it with concepts like delicacy, sweetness, softness etc.  In this piece Silvia subverts these stereotypes not by trying to drag the colour back towards the masculine, but by redefining the type of feminity it embodies.

There’s a quote from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that I’ve always liked.  Two henchmen are pondering why the Joker wears make-up.  One says: “To scare people.  You know, war paint.”  I've always liked this line and it immediately sprang to mind when I realised where this piece was going.  The traditional function of lipstick is to define and exaggerate a person’s lips, simulating a woman’s sexual arousal as a representation of engorged labia.  But this only goes so far, and as you put more and more lipstick on what is initially conventionally, attractively sexual begins to transform into a sinister, clown-like parody.

So pink is transformed from weak and pliable and becomes dangerously alien:  war paint.  It's the equivalent of bright ‘warning colouration’ of nature: the iridescent blue of a poison arrow frog, the red and yellow stripes of the coral snake or, more simply, the yellow and black bands of a wasp.  This is weaponised femininity: the worst stereotypes being inverted, exaggerated and appropriated as powerful society-shifting tools.  

A pretty neat thing to accomplish with a bag of lipsticks.

After Silvia I had to dash – so apologies to the artists I missed.  Concluding piece up tomorrow where I write about Sunday’s performances.

Opening night review here.

Third day review here.

Thanks again to Kate Mahony for the ticket.

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