two blokes in a room, drawing on each other

Osunwunmi in bristol at the beginning of something

Alex Bradley, Hetain Patel, Migrate

Alex Bradley, Hetain Patel, Migrate

Alex Bradley, Hetain Patel, Migrate

THERE ARE TWO MEN IN THE ROOM. I DO BELIEVE THEY ARE WEARING NEAT BLACK UNDERPANTS. THEY GLOW UNDER THE EXHIBITION LIGHTING, TAWNY SLENDER ANIMALS, ONE SLIGHTLY MORESO THAN THE OTHER. Behind them, through the small window, the harbourside gleams in shades of orange, as though the day were turning—there is a sense in this room of perpetual sunset.

Gallery 5 in Bristol’s Arnolfini is small for a gallery, about the size of a child’s bedroom. There is dark blue carpet on the floor. The window facing the entrance is covered in sun-screening film. During the course of Migrate the walls to the left and right of the door, facing each other, are mirrored.

“Migrate

A duration performance by Alex Bradley and Hetain Patel

Migrate, verb; to move from one specific part of something to another.

Cells that can form pigment migrate beneath the skin.

Over two days (the artists) will occupy Gallery 5 using henna to transform themselves and their environment. Through this process, the artists will explore how the perception and meaning of the body can be altered and redefined… this collaboration of bodies, one black, one white, will dissolve opposites and suggest more complex relationships.”

The men are intent, they look at each other, they are serious, and it is impossible to cross the sight lines between them. One draws on the other: lines accumulate on flesh in a rough looking, crusty green paste. The other watches the growing effect on his body in the mirror—back, arms, feet. Each will draw on his own skin as well. There is a heavy, sweet smell, a slight chemical catch in the back of the throat. A dish of little silvery cones is on the floor. One of the men—just now he caressed the other with a slow cursive line—walks over to it, picks up a cone and breaks off the tip. He returns to his companion and, squeezing out the contents of the cone, continues to inscribe, scrawl, scribble with the henna on the other’s skin.

Each figure echoes off into infinity in the flanking mirrors, becoming dimmer, smaller, vaguer, as do the reflections of the watching audience. “The artists will create a durational performance, the traces of which will remain as an installation.” The next day the room will be empty except for a set of eight polaroids of the two, placed on the floor.

People came and sat on the carpet to watch—we were asked to take our shoes off. The men’s concentration was all on each other, the audience merely observing. I couldn’t work out what my response was supposed to be. It felt obtrusive, for instance, to go up to one or other of them to look more closely, to try to make out a word or a sentence or an ideogram. What if I got in their way, or tripped them up, or smudged them? As a spectacle it was…muted. Partly because they didn’t speak, and also, in spite of the constraint between audience and performers, the action was quite informal, improvised, and the lines being drawn were neither particularly careful nor elaborate. That dun-coloured light filtered in from the window and time didn’t seem to be moving very fast. I wondered how they were going to pace themselves to have enough skin left to paint on till the end of the day. I wondered if they would not have been more comfortable with something to rest on, take the weight off while drawing on hard to reach places. I also felt that what I had read in the program notes didn’t mesh with what I was seeing. These two were hardly opposites, and what was that about dissolving? A binary would have to be there in the first place if you’re going to dissolve it.

It bothered me, when I thought about it more, that the work had that careless, personal informality. I thought of festivals, families, women; I remembered some of the intricate henna painting I’ve seen, the virtuosity of it, a real celebration of the decorative impulse and the domestic circumstances it arises from. I thought of how, on really dark skin, henna is almost impossible to notice except on the palms of the hands. So I guess what was bothering me was that the work as I had seen it, and read about it in the program notes, wasn’t evoking much for me except the act of two blokes in a room, drawing on each other.

Because I couldn’t get to grips with the performance I went to see Alex Bradley who lives just round the corner, to ask him about it.

He was still covered in cursive scrawls! “Look what he did. Look what I did. Look how those lines change when I move.” It was strange how the character of the marks had changed away from the gallery, on a person going about his daily life. Now they were loose, naively charming, careless, free, as personal as handwriting, and Bradley stood, a decorated man. A person who has been used as a surface and used another back, exchanging subjectivities.

He said he’d received compliments from the Singh brothers when he went to the corner shop—with a T-shirt on, of course— “Nice henna!”—and that the ladies had inspected him and asked all about it, genuinely interested. (He didn’t say whether the compliments had come in the same tone of voice one man might use to compliment another on his handbag.)

What does it do to a body to be marked in this way? Imagine the following is a mind map, with little arrows instead of commas: becoming an object, exchanging subjectivity, cultural exchange; translation, literacy, literature, numerous arthouse films; masking, disguises, signifying, different types of gesture; claiming and marking, dominance, permission, exposure, vulnerability; tattoos, scarification, body modification and primitivism (cave painting, hunter-gatherers); prosthetics and the ultra-body. I’m sure whole dissertations could be written about this if one were so inclined.

As our conversation continued I began to understand that Migrate had been the beginning of something. The curator had made it possible for the artists to perform a significant, open-ended gesture in front of an audience, inviting interpretation. It’s the beginning of a dialogue between Patel and Bradley whose further implications, whose other shadowy protagonists, will become more apparent as time unfolds. The performance has been an action that accumulates meaning as the traces of it cause reaction in the artists’ lives, and cause their dialogue to progress. I’m struck by the fact that the thing, the significant action, whatever it was—two blokes in a room drawing on each other—turned into something more real for me once it was out of the gallery; maybe that’s a defining aspiration of live art practice? I would have liked the program notes to help me understand this—the problems I had with the work stemmed mostly from thinking about it as a finished thing. But it’s great that a curator will do this, will prioritise making, doing, an action, above proposal writing as the thing that makes new artwork happen; will support the beginning of an unpredictable process through the gallery system, and enable it to unfold in an open-ended way.

Migrate, Alex Bradley and Hetain Patel; We Live Here, Arnolfini’s Associate Artists program, Gallery 5, Arnolfini, Bristol, UK, Sept 23-24

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 46

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

1 December 2006