Monday, September 2, 2013

'The Birth Caul' by Miriam Austin & Adam James, VITRINE Bermondsey Square, 31 August 2013

It's the last Saturday of August.  The sun beats down upon a city desperately sunning itself before autumn proper kicks in.  But I'm not relaxing in some shady park. I'm in Bermondsey watching three people in billowy white robes decapitating a large eel.  Behind me was a pot-bellied, hairy man clapping furiously, the mask covering his head making him look a bit like a burn victim. Ordering him around to a rat-a-tat drum beat was a man covered in hundreds of used teabags.  

Ah performance art.  Ever wobbling along the tightrope of meaningfulness, the chasm of ridiculousness yawning beneath.  Fortunately, The Birth Caul makes it to the end of the tightrope, though with a few minor wobbles.  Bermondsey Square is an interesting place for these performances; it's a new build corporate pavilion ringed by chain restaurants, a swanky bar/cinema and a Sainsburys.  Along one wall is a mini exhibition, but the immediate impression is that this some minimum council requirement (I imagine some stressed planner ticking off 'Culture []' on the planning requirements).  Either way, the lunchtime diners of Bermondsey Square were going to get an unexpected side of weirdness with their over-priced pasta.

Without fanfare a woman dressed in purest Persil white appeared from a large wooden door. Clutching half a raw egg, yolk floating in the cracked bowl of the shell, she processed across the square to the door of the art exhibition.  It was locked.  Maintaining her rather solemn demeanour, she marched back over from whence she'd appeared, and soon someone in civvy gear popped out with a key to unlock the door.  

The guzzling of the tentacle.
Take two.  Again serious-faced, again egg-clutching, the woman made her way behind the glass this time, facing a large European conger eel resting on a sheet of pink latex.  Taking pins with paper petals skewered on top, she began gently jabbing them into the flesh of the eel, decorating its slimy body with a surgeon's delicacy.  Soon she was joined by three more robed figures, picking up gooily stretched out latex strips and lewdly wiggling them about. Purple, organic and wet, the strips looked like the mangled remains of what happens when cephalopod meets propeller.  

One of the robed figures had a picture of a restless sea stapled to their front - a microcosm of a performance full to the brim with aquatic  imagery.  Bright sunlight shone down as they performed behind the glass windows of the gallery, bright sunlight reflecting off it, obscuring the artists like sunlight hitting a gently rippling sea.  The gentle swooshes of their bone-white robes reminiscent of the sails of boats.  The dead eel, plucked from ice-packed Billingsgate obscurity, was elevated to holy relic, carried on the shoulders of priests like the tortured remains of a martyr.   

The procession of the eel.
This was Miriam Austin's Objects for a Mourning Ritual, but as I gazed at this, behind me Adam James' The Mudheads had appeared.  Turning from the ritualistic preparation of the eel I was confronted by seven topless men, dressed in loincloths with crude sackcloth shoes on their feet.  I'd seen these Mudheads before, wailing their way through Amazing Grace on a freezing January night.  In the hot sun they looked primal, though they range in size, their hairiness of the bigger ones backs and the sagginess of their guts suggested a brutal, prehistoric masculinity; raw bashing power rather than finesse and skill.  After slowly marching around the square they froze, baking under the afternoon sun.

The Mudheads
Behind them the priests of Miriam Austin's performance had placed their decorated eel on a sacrificial foam rubber altar.  Taking a knife, they partially decapitated the eel (who by now had a rather morose look upon his face), reached into his thoracic cavity and pulled out a stinking fistful of fishy viscera.  The guts were transferred to the purple muslin hood of one of the priests and softly, save for one left behind to stand vigil over the bisected eel remains, they left.

An eel: bisected.
As I turned my head to follow their exit, I realised that a large man covered in used teabags had stealthily entered the chalk circle within the square.  He was the a very British shaman: tea as multi-symbolic communication, narcotic tool inverted to chainmail armour. Pulling out a drum he beat a steady rhythm, drawing out a posse of cardboard headed, fur clad dancers who leapt and writhed around him.  Their boxy heads, rabbit ears and large round eyes made them a step up from the savagery of the Mudheads - perhaps animated Olmec statues of Central America.  

The teabag shaman beats his drum
The beat of the teabag man's drum attracted the attention of the Mudheads, who marched right through the circle and stood in uneasy confrontation facing the teabag shaman and his Olmec dancers.  The Mudheads began an ominous rhythmic clap, which quickly sped up - then they broke rank, moving one by one into own sectors of Bermondsey Square,  standing guard. Then the shaman re-emerged, still pounding his drum, yet now dressed in a black overalls with cloth fish dangling from his neck.  He beat his drum, and his acolytes, now clad in thick layers of swirling bedsheets twirled around him, leaving patterns of cloth behind them like whirling dervishes.

Whirling bedsheet dervishes.
This pattern of exorcism and renewal continued, the relationship between the Mudheads and the Shaman obviously antagonistic yet apparently at some mutual stalemate.  The priests of the 'mourning ritual' had once more emerged behind me, the lead apparently being decorated with the fish guts over her long pink latex beard.  Everyone processed back inside, save the Mudheads, who pulled large, lumpy plastic phalluses out of nowhere and gleefully sprayed each other and the crowd with water, before mischievously scurrying back from whence they came.

Squirting with washing-up liquid phalluses
Following this was the premiere film, The Mudhead Dance, which essentially recapped much of what we'd seen in the Square, except with an awesomely dissonant Aphex Twinesque soundtrack, super-disorientating editing and a lot more floppy cocks.  

God only knows what all this meant but boy was it fascinating to watch.  The interplay of the various performances created a symphonic effect, each performer contributing their own line to the complex whole.  It was impossible to take everything in at once, so you end up flicking backwards and forwards between groups of performers, like performance art channel-surfing, or watching a game of tennis.  Almost as interesting as the art was the reactions of those eating lunch or wandering through the square.  They'd be chatting away quite happily and then do a double take as they saw a burly man striding towards them purposefully with a neon melted head.

This performance as a whole was called The Birth Caul, a caul being a flap of membrane that can cover the face of a newborn baby.  Throughout all these performances the faces of the people within were near constantly masked, covered in fabric, cardboard or rubber.  It erases individuality, those taking part within the ritual willingly sacrificing personhood to become an artistic symbol.  Similar lacking was language, communication being entirely through drum beats, body language and clapping.  No language both obscures and facilitates communication; rendering a message both wide open to subjective interpretation and able to be universally understood no matter which culture you've been raised in.

I had a fantastic time down at VITRINE.  A gripping bit of performance art, enacted carefully, seriously and with attention to detail.  Enchanting, mysterious and faintly ethereal.

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