into the woods

tim atack: live art weekender—
beautifully twisted

Annette Foster, Destiny

Annette Foster, Destiny

Annette Foster, Destiny

WELCOME TO THE UK! WHERE THE INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ARTS IN LONDON HAS JUST CLOSED ITS LIVE ART AND NEW MEDIA DEPARTMENT, ITS DIRECTOR CITING HIS OPINION THAT THE PRACTICES LACK “DEPTH AND CULTURAL URGENCY.” MEANWHILE, IN BRISTOL: ARNOLFINI’S SECOND LIVE ART WEEKENDER OF 2008 ATTRACTS AUDIENCES AND DIVERSE REACTIONS ON THE SORT OF SCALE YOU’D EXPECT WHEN THE ORGANISERS A) KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT AND B) ACTUALLY PROGRAM ANY LIVE ART IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Warped fairy tales and strange symmetries weave their way through the weekend under the apt title Beautifully Twisted. Seven female artists engage with the theme of the “dark landscapes of sexuality and desire.” At the event’s conclusion on a crisp Sunday afternoon, the audience is led through muddy woods on the western outskirts of Bristol, where the artists have re-framed and re-enacted aspects of their work. Drinking wine in the gathering dark, we discuss the things we’ve experienced in the last three days.

First of all, on the Friday night, Folake Shoga emerges from the shadows of Arnolfini’s dark studio. She approaches unassumingly, asking “How’s that for an entrance?” and her work, The Long Dark Path, continues along similarly understated lines, quietly engaging the audience in a series of texts, images and actions themed around her British family and Nigerian heritage. She recreates loud domestic arguments with her daughters in amplified whispers, sending a shiver down my spine with the rejoinder “If you hate me so much, why do you wear my clothes?” She cuts open apples full of maggots, reacting repeatedly with comic yelps. She mocks her own attempts at a Nigerian dialect. It’s all delivered without grandiosity, self-regard or even—at first sight—much of a framework. But framework there is, bookending the performance. At the beginning she asks us to look straight through one wall of the studio, describing a familiar Bristol vista: pastel terraces, industrial cranes on the harbourside. Then she turns her attention to the opposite wall, making it transparent; imagining through it the landscape of Nigeria, and a sunrise that appears over the treetops like (click of the fingers) that. “My task tonight”, she says, pointing from Europe to Africa, “Is to get from here…to there.”

Sure enough, her final action of the evening is to dance from one wall to the other, in a relaxed and confident African shuffle that seems both full of movement and somehow rooted, static. Shoga’s youngest daughter sits centre-stage, hair and shoulders garlanded with strings of plastic multicoloured lights moulded in the shape of flowers, calmly bobbing along to the rhythm…reminding me of Brazilian Candomblé ceremonies (rituals with Nigerian roots of their own) where the mysteries of the universe are decorated using bargain-basement electronics. It’s a beautiful, simple tableau that seems to celebrate the awakening of a confidence with which Shoga has been flirting all evening.

In Sunday’s woodside discussion, I hear Annette Foster’s performance, Destiny, also described as a flirtatious act. But despite all the evidence I don’t personally experience it as such. In this one-on-one encounter, you’re seated in a boudoir atmosphere of muslin and mirrors. Foster stands with her back to you, laced into a bright red crinoline, hair in blonde ringlets. She glimpses you in a mirror and giggles silently, hand to mouth, batting her eyelashes, repeatedly breaking off then returning her gaze, demonstrating the faux-naif attentions of a cultured but subservient woman of the 18th century. But there lies the rub: the trappings make her performance resemble an historical artefact. In this work Foster is addressing “intimate reactions, sexuality and the history of hysteria”, and you can well believe her mannerisms are rooted in an era that diagnosed mental disorders as diseases of the womb. But as such I don’t find her sexual, or predatory, beautiful or even contradictory; there are too many clauses between Foster and I. When the music warps and her smile drops it seems a logical comment on the proceedings, expected and modern. The performer’s repetitive actions, her inevitable return to smiles and giggles, are the back-and-forth pacings of a caged animal in a zoo.

Much more powerful her manifestation in the woods later that weekend, out in the wild. She approaches slowly, zig-zag, through a dark copse of spindly trees, an anachronistic figure in her bustle and curls, becoming less intangible the closer she gets. She reads fragments of folk-tale text from the scrolls concealed beneath her undergarments and then retreats into the crepuscular gloom, skirts swishing across the forest floor. Her presence here is unnerving, half-formed, speaking of the dark violence and strange misogynies of fairy tales.

Earlier this year at the National Review of Live Art in Glasgow I sat through over two hours of short films and presentations by Marcia Farquhar. I note the timespan only because it didn’t feel very much like two hours; more like an afternoon idled away in the company of a friend. Farquhar has a warm, disarming presence and slightly scatty way of constructing performances, coupled with a way of delivering anecdotes that is best described as ‘heat-seeking.’ Personal stories duck and curve speedily, striking home at unexpected moments to hilarious effect. Farquhar never fully explains what she’s attempting with her art, never completely illustrates a point—and the work is all the more rewarding for it. Tonight, in Black and White and Red All Over she assesses the weekend’s brief as if more interested in circumnavigating it, ruminating on colour and feminist texts, on the original meaning of the word ‘glamour’, infusing the entire operation with a wonderful and completely intentional edge of “Will this do? Does this do it for you?” She dolls the audience up in the interconnected ‘paper cut-out’ dresses that I’ve seen in Farquhar’s home movies of a decade ago, made for seven people to wear simultaneously: “I don’t know quite what’s going to happen now. I have no ideas”, she says, and we believe her. So, like giddy argumentative kids, our arms connected in outfits that feel sometimes like impromptu straightjackets, we prance around the auditorium aimlessly, happily, before spilling out onto the cold quayside, jumping up and down on a bridge filled with Saturday night revellers, some of whom shout out: “Angels! Christmas angels!” The director of the ICA, I think to myself, would have this as lacking depth and cultural urgency. But how would he truly be able to judge? He’s opted out of wearing the dress.

Live Art Weekender, Beautifully Twisted, artists Folake Shoga, Annette Foster, Marcia Farquhar, Traci Kelly, Francesca Steele, Claire Thornton, Monika Tichacek, Arnolfini, Bristol, UK, Oct 24-26

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 36

© Tim Atack; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2008