The art of life support

Jonathan Marshall

Sarah-Jane Pell, Hydrophilia, BEAP04 Perth, Video Still

Sarah-Jane Pell, Hydrophilia, BEAP04 Perth, Video Still

Walking With Water offered a retrospective of work by performance and installation artist Sarah-Jane Pell, in what she calls “aquabatics.” Although she draws on the poetic and performative potential suggested by aquatic environments, her body of work is best described as an aestheticisation of life support systems. The body in water is dialectical, at once in communion with and conflict with water. Aquatic performance offers the possibility of an ecstatic release into the enveloping weightlessness of an azure world, yet nevertheless the body gags in the face of this fantasy, as the need for oxygen reasserts itself.

The most successful of Pell’s live works documented in Walking With Water is Under Current (2003-4). It did not, however, involve any external water source, rather the body became watery: a tortured, twisted, physical object, vacuum-sealed beneath a plexiglass dome, dragged across the floor while water vapour condensed on the shell over Pell’s increasingly distressed form. For 16 minutes, the sound of her laboured breathing was amplified to the audience as she crawled about, all but consuming the available oxygen. Like the tremulously beautiful performances by butoh master Kazuo Ohno of the 1970s, in which he depicted the ghost of his “dead foetus” alter ego, or the childhood recollections of his peer Tatsumi Hijikata of holding himself beneath a deadly whirlpool while undergoing multiple deaths and rebirths, Under Current is a violently sublime work, playing on the sadomasochistic beauty of our fragile embodiment.

Pell’s other works engage more directly with water. Second Nature: Second Skin (2003) and Revolutions (2004) are video installations of actions performed on or under the ocean. In Second Nature, Pell is shown silhouetted by an aureole of light, suspended in deep blue water, her arms adorned with wing-shaped, steel and perspex armatures based upon Leonardo da Vinci’s speculative designs for human flight. In Revolutions, however, Pell is shown spread-eagled (as in da Vinci’s Ecce homo), rolling across a bay in a German wheel, her smile periodically submerged as she turns upside down. Videoed in the warmth of sunset, Revolutions suggests a joyful game with water, while Second Nature is more meditative, the human form surrounded by dark liquid recalling Bill Viola’s more arresting installation, The Messenger, at the 1998 Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Pell’s most provocative and innovative practice is that in which she is also most tentative. Hydrophilia (2004) and Odyssey (2005, performed alongside the retrospective) both employ clear plastic headpieces partially filled with water, air being visibly provided to the audibly breathing performer via valves. Hydrophilia is a fascinating durational work using a heavy, spherical helmet, in which the water distorts Pell’s physiognomy and spittle pours from an external valve, dramatising the affinity between water inside and outside the body. Although visually attractive, this helmet proved dangerously heavy and was replaced by the flexible casque of Odyssey additionally fitted with an external air-cleansing unit, moulded in the shape of a heart and lungs. While this externalization of internal life processes was intriguing, the mechanics of Odyssey eclipsed this conceptual focus.

Pell cautiously entered the gallery, engaged in complicated hand signals with her support staff, laboriously positioned herself in the German wheel before standing for a minute, breathing loudly, then inverting herself in the wheel to allow for the equally involved removal of the helmet. To safely establish the body within such a framework proved so fraught that the logistics themselves became the form, audiences becoming absorbed with watching Pell’s semaphoring, or in trying to determine what was happening.

Pell taps into a rich vein and her video installations are highly accomplished. However, her recent live performance primarily served as a fascinatingly tragic enactment of the overwhelming complexities involved in designing safe life support systems. By focusing her attention on minimizing the dangers inherent in her process, Pell loses the visceral affectiveness inherent in live art works such as Joseph Beuys’ residency with a wild coyote (I Love America and America Loves Me, 1974), in favor of an aesthetic which gestures towards the eventual taming of these dangers via a thoroughly technologised aesthetic. Whether such an art would be compelling, once rendered streamlined and safe, remains to be seen.

Walking With Water: An exhibition of underwater performance research, Sarah-Jane Pell, Western Australian Maritime Museum, June 17-22

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 48

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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