10 March 2011
Debbe Caulfield writes about two in-your-face live-art performance-installations from the Access All Areas event on 4-5 March 2011 at Club Row Gallery, London
Hosted by the Live Art Development Agency, Access All Areas was a two-day public programme, a showcase and inquiry into the work of disabled artists whose medium is Live Art, where the artist’s most important piece of kit is their own body.
Often described as radical and provocative, Live Art is literally in-your-face. As a newcomer to the genre, though not to disability rights work, for me Live Art is arguably the most effective way to engage with audiences on some of the trickier aspects and interpretations of disability; the real, deeper stuff.
Judging by the examples at Access All Areas, there is no room for sentimentality or politics in Live Art; it’s uncompromising and confrontational. Here, disabled people aren't seeking permission to be themselves in front of you, all over the place, they're insisting on it. You have no choice. Get used to it.
Did I enjoy it? Was I meant to? I'm not saying it was a comfortable or comforting experience, or that the artists were a mere bunch of exhibitionists; far from it. Serious matters were dealt with seriously and intelligently. This is what happened…
Martin O'Brien’s durational performance-installation: Mucous Factory
Beyond the plush purple curtain, there’s a space that echoes and reeks with make-shift authenticity: Naked walls; white lights; high windows; physio slab; silent audience. It is a room from my weigh-me, X-ray-me, hurt-me-to-keep-me-alive childhood. In the centre, a trampoline! A toy? Fun? Here?
A slim young man, the artist Martin O’Brien, wearing only red pyjama bottoms lies on his back, head downwards, slapping his pink bare chest, hard. Beneath the bench, empty specimen pots line up in rows. After slapping himself for fifteen minutes or so, the artist gets up, wrenches a globule of phlegm from his guts and neatly deposits it into a pot. After two rounds of slap-cough-spit, he screws down the lid and sets the pot on a shelf. Six down, 43 to go. A long day stretches before us …
15 minutes of slap-cough-spit is followed by two rounds of bouncing on the trampoline. Jump-cough-spit. Jump-cough-spit.
Life-saving routines such as this featured heavily in my childhood. Strip-weigh-XRay. Strip-bend-straight. Years and years of it, purpose unexplained, to me at least. Then suddenly, age 16, it stopped. But guess what? I didn't die. With cystic fibrosis it is different. Like a nuclear bomb factory, when the beep-beep stops, you're in trouble. Here, when the slap-cough-spit-jump-cough-spit stops... Who knows?
Unexpectedly (just what was I expecting?) Martin leaps onto a high table near the back wall. The first thing he does is shake purple glitter over his body. Then he styles his hair with phlegm. It’s got to be good for something. He bends over and, for what seems like for ever, holds an upside-down, backwards-facing pose. For whose benefit, I ask myself, and for what purpose? There’s got to be a purpose. Doesn’t there?
So here’s the artist gazing into eternity, his face between his legs, peering at us peering at him. All the while, a nozzle attached to a tube, which is attached to a machine, is inserted into his anus. I’m slightly alarmed that this activity feels so … normal and ordinary. Does it hurt, I wonder. Whatever, he’s OK with it.
Noëmi Lakmaier’s durational performance-installation: Undress/Redress
There’s an enclosed space, a shed-like construction, within a large room. It’s empty apart from a slab-surface in the centre and two chairs in corners. The interior is stark white under a fiercely bright light, like an operating theatre or a fish-tank. Two of the walls have large pane-less picture-windows in them.
Inside the booth an every-day scenario is being enacted: A disabled woman, is being assisted in getting dressed and undressed.
The artist lies on her back on the slab, dead-still. A smartly dressed man with a curled moustache and greased-down hair is taking her clothes off slowly and with meticulous care, item by item: skirt, stockings, knickers…. With military precision he folds and arranges them into neat piles; blouse, belt, boots...
For a brief moment, she lies naked on the white slab, with two identical sets of clothes and accessories on each side. Then the re-dressing begins.
The entire ritual proceeds in total silence, focusing all our attention on the activity and the appearance of the players. Dialogue would be a distraction. The absence of communication amplifies the tension between strange and ordinary; power and passivity.
When the re-dressing is complete, he puts her in a chair, then leaves. Once outside (free from his burdensome chore?) he becomes animated, mingling and chatting with event-goers. The contrast is striking and a little unnerving. I try to imagine what Noëmi is thinking. I wonder if she’s OK. She’s an artist, I tell myself. She has everything she needs.
This ultra-performance is packed with paradox. It quietly challenges what we think we know about relationships between people who need assistance with personal ‘care’ and those who provide it. It asks some big questions such as: Is the person holding the power the one who exercises it? Is there an inherent inequality in this type of relationship? Is one party free while the other is trapped, or are they both trapped?
The clothes-off/clothes-on cycle suggests there are neither questions nor answers. There is just 'is'. Perhaps independence, choice and control, bring about continual power struggles. Or not. One can at least be a bit picky and choosy about which battles to fight. This is not passivity. Giving in is not the same as giving up.
Looking straight through both windows, I notice a group of three people deep in conversation, outside the booth. They’re paying little attention to the drama inside. Like a laboratory rabbit, the artist seems to be awaiting her fate with quiet dignity. Is this how it actually is?
Throughout the day I’m alternately drawn and repelled by this installation. It demands my presence yet it is agony to watch. I go to see it twice. On one occasion the artist’s eyes and mine meet. I resist the urge to speak to her, to tell her I think she’s amazing. But I’m feeling drained and a little self-conscious, so I walk away. Because I can.