Sinéad O'Donnell's Unlimited commission CAUTION explores notions of identity, similarity and difference through journeys, actions and performance in real-time and online resulting in an exhibition of installation and performance. Colin Hambrook took part in the performance in the Royal Festival Hall on 1 September
Of all artforms Live Performance Art is the most likely to take you out of your comfort zone. It is the most challenging medium, in terms of making its audience examine their relationship to who and what they are engaging with.
I've spent several days mulling over the Unlimited commission 'CAUTION' presented by Sinéad O'Donnell with five other international performance artists.
Responding to a space within a function room in the Royal Festival Hall and armed with an assortment of objects and materials the six individuals went into a series of - on the face of it - ad-hoc actions and responses to each other, which outside (and possibly inside) of the performance space would be read as challenges to 'normative' behaviour.
There was a charged atmosphere in the room and a sense of interloping on an intimate journey between six artists. Near the entrance Poshya Kakil was engaged in wrapping a structural column within the room with differently coloured spools of wool. Paul Couillard was busy carving letters into a green wooden table while Sinéad O'Donnell proceeded to to take a saw and to cut small chunks from the table top.
Mariel Carranza had taken hold of a large chunk of raw meat and proceeded to sew sections of the joint together with needle and thread. In a corner Shiro Masuyama, dressed in a white radioactive protection suit and mask was balancing small square chunks of blue polystyrene material on top of each other to build four towers on the corners of a chair. The sixth artist Sylvette Babin was dressed in a check jacket which she compulsively tore at with a scraper, collecting the large distressed off-cuts of wool into a porcelain bowl.
In trying to make sense of what was happening in front of me brought me in mind of a quote by Quentin Crisp: "Everyone knows the uses of the useful, but nobody knows the uses of the useless". It's an observation that comes to me in moments of nervousness when I feel dislocated and unable to grasp a sense of self. It's a comfort to remind myself that no-matter how useless or incapable I might feel, there is always another reading beyond immediately obvious value systems.
The performance put me in mind of how much of what we do in our everyday lives is ultimately pointless. Whether it is to fulfil a brief, to conceal or control potential for harm or disfavour; whether it is done to serve a rule or enhance a value system, at the end of the journey when the tillerman gets paid, how much meaning is left?
As the actions developed I began to notice clues in the fabric of the room, signs that perhaps I had been invited to stay for a reason. The tense visceral beat of the action continued. Paul took a sheet of ice which he lay on the table. He lay his hand on the ice and proceeded to create an imprint over the next 30 minutes, as Sinéad - her face smeared with red paint - continued to saw bits from the table, doing her best not to rock Paul's concentration. She talked briefly about women in Islamic countries being congratulated on their wedding night, by being told "to paint their faces red".
On the wall were a number of scrawled instructions; potential plans for the performance as it developed. Sinéad wrote a small note: "I am exorcising the rapist from within my heart." After that searing interaction, all the actions appeared to relate to trauma and displacement; and the emotional turmoil it creates. Sylvette continued to tear away at her outer layers adding to the meaning in terms of boundaries, invisible, territorial, physical, geographical.
Mariel lay on the floor and began pounding the raw meat on to her chest. How do you resolve a sense of your own reality when the world continually objectifies who and what you are? More metaphors arose, presenting the impact of distress on the sense of self when your cultural references are pulled apart.
Shiro walked over to a point where a gap presented itself in the sheet covering the entire surface of the floor. He proceeded to force himself under the sheet and to try to work his way further and further, obstructed by Mariel took on the task of walking in a circle around the room carrying the meat. Sinéad bared her chest and began to work a sheet of pink plastic into a bridal veil, using pieces of the sawed wood for a makeshift frame for the veil she taped around her head.
The ritual sense of repeated actions, building and transforming slowly, existed in another dimension, somewhere between the coming together of six people from four continents, searching for shared awareness of each others' experience. There were many ways of reading the work, but to my mind the discourse running through CAUTION can be summed up in a quote from Sinead O'Donnell: "None of us are free if we are all not free together."
Sinéad O'Donnell's CAUTION continues on a daily basis in The Royal Festival Hall until 9 September.