disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves

judith palmer on the performance art of anne bean

Anne Bean, Twelve Hundred Fathoms and Ashes

Anne Bean, Twelve Hundred Fathoms and Ashes

ON OCTOBER 29, 2004, ANNE BEAN DELIVERED A SHORT PERFORMANCE, CALLED YEARNINGS, TO A GROUP OF FIVE YOUNGER WOMEN ARTISTS IN LONDON. THE WOMEN HELD THE PERFORMANCE IN THEIR MEMORIES. THERE WAS NO DOCUMENTATION, THEY WROTE NO NOTES, AND THEY DID NOT DISCUSS IT.

On October 29 2005, one by one, each of the women, followed by Bean herself, re-created the performance—or what they could remember of it—to a small public audience, including myself, in the original venue. As the seasons have turned, I’ve continually found myself wondering how much of that performance might still remain with me. A year on, it’s 8pm on October 29 again, and time to sift through the residue.

Autumn came late that year, and the trees were more golden than ever I remember. Drizzly and dark, driving out that night. That big turquoise scarf draped round my neck, new and glorious on its first outing. Days before, I’d walked through the park in a red summer dress, but this was the evening the weather changed. Tonight the world is framed by warm woollen tassels.

The Yearnings performance had taken place as part of Reap, an expansive year-long collaborative investigation into the nature of time, memory and ephemerality, led by Anne Bean, in and around Southwark Park in South London. Throughout the complete cycle of that year, dozens of installations, actions, films and rituals charted patterns of growth and decay, accumulation and dispersal, absence and presence, memory and metamorphosis. Month after month, I had travelled across the city, to observe time’s transformations.

Months of cancelled trains, snarled traffic and lost ways. Tomorrow I’ll make the same journey yet miss Reap’s final firework: the clock that’s been counting backwards all year will explode without me. But tonight I glide through the city.

In the disused church at Dilston Grove, Twelve Hundred Fathoms and Ashes, Bean’s immense installation of slow-burning incense had hung from the ceiling in coiling red and yellow cones, interlaced with a web of thin blue threads. Smouldering continuously for a year, a glowing ember and a wisp of fragrant smoke counted off the days until nothing remained but curls of ash patterning the floor. Remember Me, a carpet of 5,000 apples, stayed stubbornly rosy for over half a year, until suddenly the fruit began to crumple. Briefly, the healthiest-looking apples revealed a hidden phrase, but then, as the rot took hold, the message slipped elusively back out of view. Meanwhile, that same line of poetry was being passed around the world for a year, being translated from language to language, stretched further and further from its origins until no trace of the source survived.

Repeatedly, Reap would reveal the unpredictability of time’s processes. Like recessive genes, long-abandoned words would mischievously reappear in the translation, the promise of meaning flickering in then fading out. One apple would scarcely wrinkle, while its identical neighbour collapsed in on itself in a frill of white mould. Count on change, and it throws back continuity. Expect consistency and encounter capricious shifts. In Yearnings, the materials offered up for testing were the human mind and body. Could a brief performance be successfully transported in a woman’s memory across 365 days?

They can close the tunnel under the Thames without warning, and you’ll never reach the other side. No second chance with live performance. So much uncertainty, always, chasing that moment. Catch the moment and hold it close.

In the traditions of oral poetry, or religious ritual, initiates learn through repetition. In Yearnings, however, the participants had just one opportunity to absorb the performance. Anne Bean was investigating not the capacity to memorise but the process of remembering.

I’m looking for a scout hut. What will a scout hut look like? So much anxiety, always, finding these scattered sites. Does the stress of site specificity heighten awareness and intensify experience? Stress, they say, can stretch time.

Alongside her award-winning solo career, collaboration has been a regular feature of Bean’s practice (one of her longstanding collaborative relationships has been with artists Richard Wilson and Paul Burwell, notably as the Bow Gamelan Ensemble).

Just as her work has responded to the everyday metamorphoses of natural phenomena—the weathering of stone, the melting of ice, the sudden shifts of shadows and sunlight—so Anne Bean has been drawn to the shapeshifting slipperiness of collaboration. Many of her solo actions have played with ways of affecting and distorting her own voice (filling her mouth with pearls, pouring honey down her throat, tampering with recordings). These vocal manipulations are analogous to the effect of collaboration on her artistic voice—allowing an idea to eddy in unexpected directions by diverting it through another person. Bean’s willingness to embrace the random interference of chance in all its forms is an extension of her belief that the artist can never be in full control of their work, since “time is an inescapable collaborator in all art and life.”

That teapot! The biggest teapot you’ve ever seen, with two spouts. Two streams of tea, to fill double the cups, in double-quick time. A plate of madeleines, to aid recollection of temps perdu; and the Reap wine for later, bottled exactly a year ago, for drinking tonight. Six streams of recollection: Miyako Narita, Lucy Baldwyn, Lucille Power, Holly Darton, Meg Mosley, and Anne Bean. One performance poured into six vessels, exactly a year ago, for sharing tonight.

The idea for Yearnings evolved partly through a brief mentoring relationship Anne Bean had earlier had with those five participating artists. At the time, Bean had been both reflecting on the role of the older artist, and revisiting her own early work. In 2002, she agreed to re-do a live performance from 1973 for the Whitechapel Gallery’s A Short History of Performance. Meanwhile she recreated a further 30 actions that she’d first made between the ages of 18 and 24 (1969-1974) and performed them to camera (1996-2005). These “reformations”, as she described them, she titled “shadow deeds” and showed in her zretrospective, Autobituary. But which was the shadow? The deed which existed a third of a century ago, fractured into a few black and white photographs, and the hazy testimonies of a handful of witnesses? Or the crisp colour footage of the freshly committed but copied act? Which was more authentic—a lifeless record of the original, or re-embodied experience?

Six faded photographs are propped along the wall. Quick snaps taken a year ago, the day the women met. Rain-splattered and sunburnt, they tell a deceptive story. Advanced in their disintegration: they seem relics of another age. Time has been tampering with the evidence.

The question of what remains is performance art’s most enduring dilemma. Is it possible to make work which transfixes its audience unequivocally in the here and now, but which still leaves something meaningful for posterity? Photographic documentation is no less subjective or untrustworthy than the recollections of witnesses. When the bulk of a video camera swoops down between the audience and the artist, it critically alters the tension/tense of the live event. This artist isn’t here with you, in the present; it says, she’s there with someone else in the future.

How many witnesses? Twenty-five perhaps, on the municipal stackable chairs—five placed in a circle, the rest clustered behind. Five of us beckoned to the circle. Between each re-rendering, we will shuffle and switch places, relinquishing the central vantage. Recollections from the circle so much more potent than when relegated to the rear.

Any performance will splinter into many independent co-existent realities. Like the biblical loaves and fishes, it can be sub-divided endlessly without diminution, and still serve all. Every audience member, every artist, every anecdote, every film frame, holds their own piece of that reality. Multiple and mutable, the truth expands, contracts and adapts, transformed by time and context.

Experience percolates through the cells of the body like water through limestone, changing and being changed. Memories, like apples, experience different rates of decay.

Six times the room descends into darkness as each woman takes her turn. In the gaps between, I sweep the floor clean of petals. Piecing together the past, some women have yearned for a colour, others a scent. Curls of pungent yellow chrysanthemum, or crushed red roses. In the dustpan I watch the remembered and the misremembered mingle.

Yearnings acted as a metaphor for memory, and the multi-directional communication of experience.

Beginning in darkness, a woman enters the circle, lights shining from her dress. Bare feet, long black dress, flowers from a basket strewn on the floor, trodden in until the scent releases. She turns to each witness, placing in their hands a wooden spindle wound with thread, and one of the lights from her dress. Lines of thread radiate from her. She turns, slowly, and the thread unspools, wrapping her in its web. Perhaps she speaks as she turns: her voice mixing with the gentle rattling of the unravelling spindles. Gathering pace as she spins now, the illuminated spindles are pulled violently out of grasp. For a few moments the lights hang free; are then extinguished; and darkness resumes.

With a look of intense concentration, like a child entrusted with a brimming glass of water, the first woman has allowed her memory to spill through her fingers. The performance is at its most condensed. She shrugs and flees. The next, enters, then immediately realises the flaw in her order of events—retreats, rethinks, restarts. Body memory has suddenly been re-activated, with its own overriding logic.

As version followed version, the pattern became clear. The performance’s metaphor, and the actions and symbols that carried it had survived. The words that were spoken had evaded recapture. A quirk diverted the pattern: Lucy Baldwyn, from the original quintet, was unavoidably abroad, and chose to write instead about her memories and send her friend to read them. Baldwyn was no nearer to reproducing the incantatory text Bean might have voiced, yet the delivery of her rich and poetic meditation redressed the balance of wordlessness in the evening overall. Together, the succession of reinterpretations formed a composite truth. The intensive inquiries of the intervening year had subtly redirected the focus of Anne Bean’s own thinking. A year on, even Bean was unable to sift for certain what might have been from what has been; the things she thought about saying from the things she decided not to say. Bean was not the gatekeeper to the memory. We all had a key.

Tomorrow we’ll return to the church for one last event. We’ll string together letters bent from glowsticks and spell out the phrase that had been hidden in the apples. ‘At the still point there the dance is.’ In glowing green letters suspended from helium balloons, a line from TS Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” bobs against the rafters of the church in darkness, before floating off across the dark city sky. “Anne,” I asked, surrounded by glowsticks and sellotape, “do you want me to make a full stop”, “Why not” she said. And the full stop drifted far away.

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 35

© Judith Palmer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2006