In selecting my Critical Analyses I have focussed primarily on exhibitions and events that I chose to go to whilst making the decisions surrounding the development and realisation of my degree show piece: Learning to Walk.  I have also included a participatory performance that I went to some time ago which I did not previously review, but which I found myself reflecting on as well.  

Videos

My original thinking was that I might prepare a video for the Summer show.  These are two videos I saw as part of reflecting on the way that video can be used to portray subjective experience.  Both of these are from an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection: Somewhere in Between

Performance

 

Having decided that I was in fact leaning towards performance:

Reading

 

To build knowledge of phenomenology and embodied experience, but also to think about the ways that others write of similar things to me:

The Hands and Gesture

And because I am obsessed with hands as an expression of the embodied self, a piece of writing that caught my eye and an exhibition whose title could not fail to entice me along...

 

Wellcome Collection – Somewhere in Between (Sensorium Tests At the Threshold)

 

A collaboration between the artist Daria Martin and scientist Michael Banissey

 

This collaboration was focussed on the experience of Synaesthesia, which occurs when a form of cross over takes place in the senses – a stimulus in one being experienced in another.  In this case there were two videos exploring MTS, where a person experiences visceral touch on their own body when they observe another being touched.  This sounds like an amazing level of empathy but in fact is a form of overstimulation. 

The first video was the re-enactment of testing for MTS. It was not set up as a documentary but rather we were observing the observers and the tests taking place as if we were free to wander at will (unobserved) like the proverbial flies on the wall.  The quality of the video was part documentary and part dream like. 

The second video was based on a mother son relationship where both have MTS.  It was in part playful and also teasing, taking advantage of, and annoying a housekeeper as she prepares food, say, but also showed them enjoying the sensuality of the experience of their responses.  Again there was a dream like quality.  It was clear that we were watching interactions taking place on a set that this was an enactment devised for camera even before reading the wall text.

If I had not known the purpose of this video I do not think I would necessarily have been able to work out what was being portrayed.  Having said that, it was certainly considerably less dry than reading about the experience.  Although supporting text was required the videos did support an attempt to get inside the experience of this type of synaesthesia.   

Wellcome Collection – Somewhere in Between (Under)

A collaboration between artist Martina Amati and Physiologist Kevin Fong

Entering the carpeted space there are three videos running simultaneously, two opposite each other at wall size, one on the side wall projected at around the size of a door. Free diving is measured in three ways: depth, distance and time; and each of these films focuses on one of these measures. 

The two main videos show free divers, falling/pulling themselves down on ropes and then using the ropes as if to dance. The lack of equipment reveals the body in water and it’s movement.  It calls upon our own ability to recreate experience in our minds, to project ourselves into the situation, the way we move in water. There is something about the human body moving in water, the (almost) languorous nature caused by the resistance to movement that is captivating. The artist speaks of ‘an urge to capture the human body crystallised in movement.  I always want to drag the audience underwater with me.’

It is always difficult to gain a full understanding of an experience I will never have but the immersive nature of these videos enabled me to identify in some way with what I was observing. Watching these elegiac videos I was simultaneously very aware that for the duration of each film the divers do not, in fact, cannot breathe.  The film really works in terms of time in the moment being slowed down. 

 

Could I tell what these films were literally about if I did not read the wall text? No, but the videos were still engaging in their own right as visual poems. 

 

Joan Jonas: A Pioneer of Performance at Tate Modern

This exhibition coves over 50 years of pioneering work in both video and performance.

 

There was a mix of records of performance, performance with filming in mind, performance for the camera, aware of the camera as a single viewpoint, and video work that is prepared both with and without the camera. As a video artist, she came over as being very aware of video as a means of (a) recording, (b) transmission, (c) possibly the only way a performance may be seen by the majority. But also purely documentation, action takes place but the camera is just there, the performance is for others in the space.

The range of work and experimentation was inspiring.  Not that it was all legible, the early video works were hard to read and less sophisticated but this too is inspiring as it shares with us the fact that sophisticated work does not spring fully formed from a standing start but is born out of experimentation and failure.  Clearly though there was always something, an ability to touch on a point of experience that engaged/resonated with at least a proportion of the audience. Other works seemed more intended to open a door to reflection that might take its own path.

There is something about the ordinariness of some of these videos but also the heightened awareness, the playfulness of looking at different aspects of being and moving.  The use of nonsense rather than narrative, it is not a play, we are not being asked to reflect on a text of people’s inner worlds but their bodily actions.

 

The Touching Contract

ArtAngel Performance, Toynbee Studios, Saturday 19 November 2016

Artists: Sarah Browne and Jesse Jones

The outline of the performance was that this would reflect on how the state intervenes/touches people’s lives and the contracts that are associated with this.   

 

The initial set up revolved around our completing a form before waiting to queue up to obtain another card and then having to wait again before being taken upstairs to a hall where we waited again for the performance to start.

Looking around there were various ways of waiting.  Some people were clearly just there for a laugh, some, like me, were there out of curiosity, some looked wary as if they were not sure what was expected of them and wanted to be sure they got it “right” whatever “it” or “right” was.  Personally, based on the documents I had signed whilst downstairs, I was curious to know what would actually transpire.  I got from the frame that it would involve touching either by me or of me but how that would be worked out I did not know.  I assumed, accurately, that it would require more contact than would be normal in our society.

The performers moved us around and put us in contact with each other in various ways, increasingly crossing normal social lines (although never that far).    There is a degree to which the content of the performance felt entirely separate from the set up at the beginning so I was not quite certain what I was really supposed to take away.

 
 

Paul Maheke ‘A Fire Circle for a Public Hearing, Chisenhale Gallery

 

Performance 2: A place you only go through (Carrie Topley)

The performance took place in the gallery space as set up for the exhibition, or was it set up more in anticipation of the performances as the exhibition otherwise consists solely of one 22 minute video, a space mapped out by curtains and a sound track.   So on one wall is a video screen playing Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) 1991, this stayed on throughout.

To one side, half-tucked behind one of the curtains, was a set of seating for visitors, one of whom turned out to be the performer.  Dressed in a mixture of green and purple, neither dressed up nor dressed down and certainly not in the black t-shirt and trouser combo that seems favoured for certain performances, she merely seemed a little unconventional (though that might depend on your conventions).

The performer started by wandering the space with a piece of lit scented wood and it became clear that we were watching someone prepare to and then ‘read’ the room, sensing its energy, the memory of its history in psychic space and any ghostly residents.  During this period the performer altered the space at intervals by pulling the curtains aside to open the space, ultimately returning them to their original layout We were there as if for a séance, as observers but spoken to so we were ‘included’ throughout.

The performance was elusive, a mix of impressions and perceptions, those of the performer in the space and ours of the performer.  The lack of narrative feels somehow closer to real life than the organised fashion of an intentional communication. 

 

'The Intertwining – The Chiasm'

 

Chapter 4 of The Visible and the Invisible, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (pg 130 – 155) (English Translation, Northwestern University Press, 1968)

I have never been a big fan of the three page long paragraph but there is something about the nature of what is being discussed here, a dissection of nuances of subjective experience that seems to lend itself to the stream of consciousness mode.  (Although it does take some getting used to.) 

In the text itself MP introduces and considers in depth the concepts of ‘reversibility’ and ‘flesh’.  Starting with vision and the visible he looks first at how we are both simultaneously one who sees but also one who is seen as we are part of the visible world ourselves.  Similarly when we touch (ourselves or another) we both touch and are touched at the same time.   We are always both objective and phenomenal bodies, subject and object.  This concept of reversibility is extended to considerations of thought and speech as activities that have two sides but which are also intertwined with their reverse.  In the case of thought this is the world, self and other.  In the case of speech, the voice.

Having said that MP considers that reversibility is ‘always imminent and never realised in fact’ (pg 147) ‘because I am always on the same side of my body’ (pg 148).

 

By ‘flesh’ he is not speaking of literal bodily material but an ‘element of Being’:

 

‘It is the coiling over of the visible upon the seeing body, of the tangible upon the touching body’ (pg 146)

 

The concept of intertwining speaks to me of my own thinking around Inseparability, that there is a constant elision between the senses and their experience and none of this can be divorced from our constant operating in both the interior and external world.

'The ‘body-mindedness’ of the mind'

 

Chapter 5 "Body, Brain and Mind" in Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio (pg 183 – 220) (William Heinemann, London 2003)

The mind exists because there is a body to furnish it with contents (pg 206)

 

In other words, the rationale for the existence of the experience that we call mind makes more sense if we consider its existence by reference to the needs of the body rather than by thinking of it as a function of the brains activities.

The book as a whole is an exploration of the body states that we experience as emotion, how these are mapped in the mind and interpreted as feelings and how this potentially explains our self (and broader) governance as human beings.  It is contextualised against the Ethics and other writings of Spinoza and his prescient analysis of what it is to be human.

In this chapter there is a pulling together of the earlier chapters into a consideration of the mind body problem created by Descartes, how this is resolved/explained by modern neurobiology and also, how the current analysis of their interdependence is reflected in Spinoza’s Ethics (written long before we had MRI scanners, or even a significant understanding of anatomy).

What is fascinating here is that a reflective person writing so long before the rise of neurobiology, in only the early days of anatomy can analyse their experience so closely as to result in an unexpectedly high level of accuracy in their perceptions.

 

Spinoza also developed ideas that could lead onto the understanding of how self comes to mind, that once we are able to both perceive modifications in the body but also have ideas of those modifications, then further ideas of ideas becomes possible, with self being such a second order type idea.

 

"In Praise of Hands"

From “The Life of Forms in Art” by Henri Focillon (pages 65 - 78), (Zone Books, New York 1989)

‘The hand wrenches the sense of touch away from its merely receptive passivity

and organizes it for experience and action’ (pg 77)

 

Another title might equally well be "The (Romance) of the Artists Hand".  This essay does rather do what it says on the tin, it is literally an essay that sets out in poetic and elegiac terms the contribution the hand makes to what makes us human and in particular, art creating creatures.  The questions it addresses might include: What are hands (in our lives)?  Hands in art?

The author does have a rather romantic view of what it is to be an artist but at the same time, has a healthy respect for the labour involved, and the possibility of failure that always lurks there. So, he speaks of the artist as a ‘prestidigitator’ (what a marvellous word) who amongst other things takes advantage of [his? (1934)] own mistakes.

Interestingly he does not include the photograph as being made by the hand and considers it reduced: ‘because the hand never intervenes to spread over it the warmth and flow of human life.’ (pg 73).  He wrote though in 1934 and I wonder what he would say now when the camera has become so much more embedded as a tool of the artist alongside the drawing he so admires (as ‘a manual sorcery’ (pg 74)).

 

‘I separate hands neither from the body nor from the mind.  But the relationships between mind and hand are not, however, so simple as those between a chief […]  and a docile slave.  The mind rules over the hand; hand rules over mind.’ (pg 77)

 

The Muse: 269 Portobello Road

 

Embodying Gesture: Margaret Ashman and Rod McIntosh

The two artists in this exhibition both work with gesture but in very different ways that enhance and complement each other.   One is working through gesture, describing them as “physical meditations”, the other creates translucent prints on the language of gesture.

For the former, Rod McIntosh, the works themselves are the record of gesture, expansive gestures made by laying the material on the floor and using the full capacity of the arm in movement.  And the materials themselves are the sort of materials you would want to touch, delicate Chinese papers, reflective of our own fragility, used to create surfaces that hold deep dark bold Indian ink and charcoal swathes.  Pausing in front of these and thinking of their performance, there is a vigour to them, but measured, creating voids on the paper that are then picked out with delicate highlights of gold leaf.

Margaret Ashman partners with dancers who are deaf and who use sign language, the movement of the body in gesture, as the way that they communicate rather than being a gestural dance that is secondary to the spoken word.   Working with these performers, Margaret videos them and then uses stills from the video to develop in the studio creating images with multi-layered meanings.  (The knowledge that these are records of an act of silent speech being but one of them.)

Thus the two sets of work speak clearly of the deep mine of possibility that is gesture and its embodiment.  The use of photopolymer print, largely emptied of colour through the use of light reveals the ephemerality in the gesture through its record; the deep black of the gestural records reveals the pure physicality and potential theatricality of the gesture. 

Rod McIntosh, Hold It Tight

Margaret Ashman, Mautoki

 

Copyright © Andrea Arnold 2020

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