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The Pigs of Today are the Hams of Tomorrow

Plymouth Arts Centre  22,23,24/1/10



Why should we attempt to preserve something as intrinsically impermanent as Performance Art?  And if we agree that it should be recorded, how can we best capture its essence in the present?  

The exhibition currently running at the Plymouth Arts Centre is a response to the questions raised at the recent Live Laboratory Symposium held at The Royal William Yard. The Symposium was part of ‘The Pigs of Today are the Hams of Tomorrow,’ a collaborative project between Plymouth Arts Centre and the Marina Abramović Institute for Preservation of Performance Art.

The exhibition showcases recordings of performances at the three-day event, allowing them to be witnessed by other audiences. The display attempts to revoke some of the ephemerality of Live Art, turning the performances into something that others can experience, learn and draw inspiration from.

In a room on the ground floor of the Arts Centre, photographs hang by clips from taut wires. ‘Untitled Performance Stills’ (pictures above and below) are instances from re-enactments of remembered Performance Art pieces ‘donated’ by audiences and restaged at the Plymouth event by the Performance Re-enactment Society with Hugo Glendinning and other participants. 

The space occupied by the exhibition resembles a darkroom - the photographs looking appropriately like memories lifted from a fixer tray and left to dry. There are a wide range of evocative images.  In one a black-shirted figure clutches a tiny, white baby shoe; in another a woman determinedly trims white feathers that, attached to her hands, resemble fingers.   

Exhibition Tour of Remembered Works,’ is a recording of the people who ‘donated’ their memories accompanies the exhibition.  Instead of playing their voices directly into the room, the viewer listens through a single set of headphones, giving the feeling of being addressed personally and intensifying the experience of listening to the recollections.  In places the interviewees’ sentences have been manipulated to become sonic art - a sentence from one contributor is repeated ‘in the round,’ a contrast to the abrupt cuts made to other dialogue.

The memories give context to the photographs, transforming them into something new.  Hearing how the pieces have provoked various emotional responses including admiration, empathy and humour also adds to the intensity of the ‘Untitled Performance Stills’ exhibition.  A female speaker’s voice catching with emotion as she remembers the artwork depicted by the baby shoe is particularly moving.

Untitled Performance Stills’ works hard to create many ‘presents.’  On their own, the images provoke the viewer to create their own narratives.  The recordings add context to the photographs and hearing the words by themselves requires the listener to create their own images from the speaker’s recollections.

On the same floor are videos featuring Abramović and the work of the Red Ape project (picture left).  Also included is footage of seven works by new artists selected by Abramović and created at ‘Performance Market,’ an event held within Plymouth City Market.  The performances, which all fit within the context of the market, include Bill Wroath dressed in a meat processor’s white overcoat and hairnet who subverts the methods of industrial meat production by sewing pieces of pork back together with butcher’s twine to reform a whole pig.  He offers his work as a way of making amends for the reduction of animals to mere cuts of meat. In another piece Ania Bas tours the market offering a range of services for no charge to market visitors.  A passer-by chooses a pat on the back from the proffered menu, the obvious pleasure this gives going some way to proving the old adage that the best things in life are free.

In a darkened ground floor room, the sound of a knife being sharpened by Italian artist Davide Balliano is accompanied by a video of black and white abstract forms, glints of light and grey shadows.  ‘Death Will Come and Will Have Your Eyes, 2010’ is based on a poem by Cesare Pavese, who writes that when death comes, you will finally see and recognise yourself.  The viewer sits on a solitary chair mounted on a plinth directly facing the screen, as if waiting for this final acknowledgement. 

The sound from Balliano’s piece affects all of the work on show in the room including ‘I know it’s just a state of mind’ a virtual performance staged in Second Life by Eva and Franco Mattes who use avatars to create ‘Synthetic Performance’ (above right).  The rhythmic sharpening provides, in places, an unintentional beat to which the naked figures fall down repeatedly.

In ‘Routine 2010’ by Francesca Steele, the nude, female artist uses her body as the medium for her performance.  Steele silently places herself in strong, assertive poses against a shadowy, fully-dressed man who she also manipulates into desired positions.  The tension within Steele’s work, which explores gender roles and relationships, seems to be increased by the sound of knife-sharpening emanating from Balliano’s artwork.

Humour can be found in the exhibition too.  A video of the Complaints Choir’s performance of ‘A Good Ole Whinge,’ a list of moans elicited from Plymouth citizens set to music by Nicholas Grew and produced by Lucy Walker, is on also on show. Devised by artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, listening to the Complaints Choir is a surprisingly uplifting experience – the artwork turning the negative sentiments into a positive shared experience that the viewer can relate to.

Perhaps, however, the enthusiasm exhibited by the choir members in their video is a rather abrupt juxtaposition to the studied, considered moves of Snežana Golubović in ‘Love Steps’ (above: PAC and right: The Royal William Yard) which occupies the same space.  In her dance piece Golubović silently steps in to and out of 100 pairs of shoes.  It is a subtle artwork, Golubović’s face remaining impassive despite the fact that she claims to ‘wear’ the personal experience of the shoes’ owners as she performs.

The experience of watching Performance Art from a distance is no doubt different to witnessing it live. The viewer is aware of camera angles being chosen and cuts being made.  Some of the meaning along with the immediacy and intimacy are unavoidably lost, but the exhibition is a fascinating insight into how the legacy of performance art pieces can be used to inspire and create different meanings long after the ‘present’ has past.


Heather Smith 5/2/10.   Thanks to Hannah Protheroe and Marco Anelli.