Monday, October 26, 2015

'Silvia Ziranek' at the Bloomsbury Festival, 24th October 2015

Swaddled in fairy lights, tiara-clad and wound up into roll of fabric; you're not going to mistake anyone else for Silvia Ziranek. She was performing at the Bloomsbury Festival, which marks the International Year of Light 2015, taking 'LIGHT' at its theme. 

A little light was desperately needed - this was a rather gloomy day: London squatted under a corpse-coloured sky that couldn't make up its mind whether to properly rain or not. Worse the performance took place inside a big beige tent on the grounds of Mary Ward's house. She was President of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League: who vociferously campaigned against the suffragettes on the basis that: "constitutional, legal, financial, military, and international problems are problems only men can solve" as women have a "disability of sex".

Jeepers, talk about being on the wrong side of history...

Anyway, underneath this oppressive weather, inside an uninspiring tent and within the grounds of a house with unpleasant historical reverberations, Silvia was a bright core of light, giving us a performance that consisted of her miming a poem in semaphore, reciting it, explaining what it all meant and finally performing it again so we can view it through 'new' eyes.

Silvia's approaches language like a topiarist approaches a particularly tangled hedge, pruning and snipping away anything extraneous until some carefully shaped beauty emerges. In her case it's usually clipped and cryptic semi-sentences delivered with perfect enunciation and confidence. The end result is, for example:

"culture couture to some dressy dream / a frock come true / can ask advice on shelving / for a castle zoo / can buy the Mai Tai / as I wordly rhyme in lovement with in sock and in soul / wool wash"

Her language is so dense it all but requires the audience do some mental legwork to get anything from it. I love it: you can sense a core of meaning, but this is poetry as Rorschach test, any insight you glean the product of an invisible collaboration between yourself and Silvia.

That said, it's not for everyone. A couple of times I've taken friends along to these performances and they've ended up largely baffled. So it was with some surprise that she spent much of the performance explaining precisely what her actions and words meant, revealing that the piece was originally intended for the 'Art For Africa' campaign - being originally performed at Sotheby's.

She gradually unravelled her language, pointing out references to Tilda Swinton's "The Maybe", in which she slept inside a glass box in the Serpentine Gallery, castles in which she'd been invited to perform at, references to photographic work and so on. I've always suspected that Silvia quite enjoyed being an enigma, so I was surprised to see her go all Rosetta Stone on us.

Then again, it makes my job a hell of a lot easier when an artist explains precisely what they're up to. Additionally, watching the same performance twice, once without context and once with is genuinely transformative. Some people seem to assume that performance art is playing Emperor's New Clothes; being obscure and difficult to disguise that there's nothing underneath. This piece disproves all that  - getting under the skin of a piece and communicating a straightforward (but no less satisfying message).

Aside from the lights sprinkled about her torso, the explanation was the true illumination - lifting Silvia's bonnet and shining a torch on the pistons and gears that thrum away under her lid. A pleasure as always.

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