Tuesday, October 28, 2014

These Immovable Walls: Performing Power

These Immovable Walls: Performing Power
Pauline Cummins, Maurice O'Connell, Sandra Johnston, Philip Napier, Katerina Seda, Dominic Thorpe, and Carey Young. Curated by Michelle Browne
Dublin Castle
1 – 12 July 2014

Review by Darren Caffrey
Black is all you see. It remains hanging in the mind long after. The work offered by Dominic Thorpe is set in darkness. Overall, the set-up for his performance Proximity Mouth can be said to operate as a system. It begins outside. When the door opens, the previous viewer is released. Only then are you welcome to enter.

Inside, there is a waiting room with five red velvet chairs side by side, each facing a closed door. For a long time, this building housed the nation's Children's Court. Presumed to serve the needs of citizens, from this spot children under state care were institutionalised 'for their own good'. The building today is the place to experience a performance work by an Irish artist.

This performance artist is not working alone. His actions are assisted by a number of appointed guides. These individuals serve the operations of the performance in two ways. Primarily they operate the gateways from beginning to end, ushering in and out each viewer from room to room and to exit. In addition, their presence appears as echo to the ghosts of Ireland's past, specifically those individuals forgotten in their own time, by time.

4353 asylum seekers are currently housed in 35 semi-permanent sites dotted around the country, the majority of them are from Africa. This performance work is assisted by some of those individuals. This is never actually made explicit, instead the greeting is friendly and welcoming. Even so, the exit is about informing of the due process which takes place in the name of Irish citizenship.

With no sign yet of the performer himself, a lady enters the waiting room and takes you upstairs to another room. Before entering this darkened room you are requested to observe the tone of the performance which takes place on the other side of the door. 


When the door opens, the performer is standing beside a large window. Hunched over, his standing body turns slowly to reveal a shining glimpse of light from outside. The light is reflecting in a large pane of mirrored glass turning with his each turn. Soon it encompasses a direct mirror of the room behind you and you are framed by the space which you are in.

The performer continues to turn and you disappear out of view. This slow shuffling continues in a process of illumination and darkness, a transition aided by the heavy curtains which appear as fixture of this grand space. Only one other viewer is present with you in the room. They too appear to be holding the hand of their guide. Acting equal part guide and guard, when they move, you are to follow. Soon a girl of maybe eight or ten wearing a brightly coloured dress asks if you would like an aeroplane or a boat. Examples of each sit on a table alongside a printer and stacks of paper. The phrase Get the boat leaps in the mind and out of the mouth comes the direction for this girl to take up a page bearing the addresses of all the places where men, women and children seeking asylum are sent to await a verdict.

With the careless liberty of a young girl she does as she must. Soon you are again standing in front of the man with the mirror gripped in his teeth. Still fogging the mirror, his breaths mark the struggle to turn with this thing balanced on his feet. You see yourself holding a paper boat in one hand and the hand of an African lady in the other and the darkness once again comes as the curtains close. In no time your guide leads you out into the corridor, where the stairs lead you and your guide down, and you are again outside on your own with only the memory of such darkness.

Questions of sovereignty, independence and contested history produce a backdrop for These Immovable Walls: Performing Power, presented this summer in Dublin Castle. The performers themselves have for the most part taken to engage in activities which lay siege to commonly held human feelings, such as isolation or ambition. The car parked in the courtyard is one of three works which makes reference to a specific aspect of the history of the site. While a suitably dressed assistant paints, with a brush, the regal Jaguar beige from an open can of house-paint, on the edge of the courtyard whispers of a subsequent Union Jack decal dictate that poor taste is exceedingly close to excess in the minds of the public. 


The performances of Philip Napier, Maurice O'Connell and Katerina Seda all took place as a two-day installment, meaning that the intimacy of performer and space could never fully translate to the viewer. To experience the work was to accept also that before and after diminish when weighed with what happens in front of you. What is the role of absence in our understanding of power and its performance? Napier's Soon asserts itself as a consistent presence. Parked up, the car appears to play with the idea of spectacle. The shiny chrome features which detail the cars perceived excellence are deliberately masked off, leaving only tones of beige and a man doing a job on a car.

Immanence, presence or absence may all be a matter of individual perspective but what if viewer participation is defined by a transaction? First Class by Katerina Seda claims to offer a range of once-in-a-lifetime services, leading you into the State Apartments where a taste of the red carpet treatment will cost you at least a fiver. The priciest item on the list is offered at €500. For this you will be permitted to make a call from a mobile phone while touring the once stately home-from-home. For an additional €5 you may wear a pair of complimentary slippers. Indeed, if money was no object you could really gorge like a head of state. Seda offers us the chance to ridicule the performance of state symbols, not withstanding the element of commerce. 


Still Life by Carey Young also taps into the operations of power by association. In particular, she employs memory as a belonging, according to the accumulative properties of both. This performance is carried out in full by an actor. As the actor delivers a will pertaining to the issue of inheritance, we are challenged to evaluate what's on offer. As the executive for this staged event, the actor stands alone. Meanwhile, the audience represent a host of subscribed witnesses. What was on offer was not all that much, only just ideas and fragments of forms not actually present as forms, but rather as details described in tones of measured English. The idea: by recalling the various items described, including a grey vase with wax drips in its centre, the audience may claim to possess them or share them in part with those others in attendance.
On the walls of this State Room, the portraits of men in ceremonial garb look on as equal amounts legacy, and fiction. On the floor, the carpet shows stains created by the spills of previous functions. Maybe it's soup. It is this idea of supplementing fact with new readings and new fictions which makes Young's performance stand out. The fact that she remains removed from the performance only enhances her effective description of absence. In light of such absence, it is the public witness whose participation completes the exchange. Still Life lasted only long enough to take away with you the impression of some sort of power, certainly nothing real.

Sandra Johnston occupied the State Corridor of the drawing room with her performance, Entitlement. Viewed from the hallway or the rooms adjacent, tourists looked on with curiosity as the ongoing performance limited their tour. In a darkened corridor the performer holds a miner's lamp which traces a cable up and down the length of the hallway. Her action is quiet and all that is apparent is that she is looking also. Her focus is forensic, taking each detail of the tour-quality setting and examining its disappearing secrets. Johnston in her accompanying statement takes the visit of Maggie Thatcher and the public statement she made at the time about starving out terrorists as the point of departure for her own investigations. 


While the cordoning off of the darkened hall with velvet ropes presents the performer as spectacle, like the items on display in the rooms surrounding, and offers the performer a sanctioned space, the performance of Maurice O'Connell was free to roam. Bearing various forms of authorised access, including paramedic and security guard badges and qualifications, the viewer may not even be aware who they are speaking to when they ask for... say directions to the gift shop. This sort of invisible performance, while difficult to locate, is surely the best approximation of power and its structural use within society. The point that the performer in this case behaves as an individual within an existing fabric of contexts is not lost on O'Connell. His work titled Audi Vide Tace (Hear, See, Be Silent) takes the Latin motto of the Freemasons and repositions it as the key which literally opens doors to the working life of a place such as Dublin Castle. Appearing also on a panel discussion, O'Connell plays part-interloper, part-interlocutor well. Next to the students of feminism and local history his act stands as that of a jester, but with a secret to tell. 


The Spy at the Gate proved difficult to find as this performance was scheduled during the discussion mentioned above. And so the work of Pauline Cummins cannot be discussed here but what also cannot be ignored is the overall fluidity of the event, bringing together a variety of contexts and allowing them to remain without disturbance. Tourists who would normally represent a body and frequency of ritual were matched and met and party to the unusual goings on at the castle in Dublin's city centre.

In the accompanying fold-out pamphlet, small nuggets of information have been snuck in about the castle and its history. From settlement to protected enclave and finally as the showpiece it is now, the site also marks where the River Poddle once ran. A mix of folklore and official heritage, as well as foreign invasion and administrative procedure, it is apt to play host to this performance of power. In the fluid exchange of visitor and viewer, everybody wins. I have no doubt that similar events are likely in the future.

Performance art may well be able to speak the same language as politics and the extended performance of state power. After all, both maintain power over a subject. This power can be the means to promote policies as much as it might showcase the material of an art performance. In each case, the performer is themselves subject to a vulnerability to the audience or the public. All of which means that it is not so much the performer's activities which concern as their ability to sustain the illusion of distinction.

Ultimately in These Immovable Walls: Performing Power, it is this very distinction which permits the viewer to experience the material conceptually rather than through a raw alienating exposure to potentially disturbing content.

Symbols of power, such as the raising of flags, showing of artefacts and guarding of ground might represent Irish performance art as much as Irish politics. In this light, it may be that These Immovable Walls: Performing Power is an attempt to resolve the emotional weight of Irish politics and citizenship. From political histories and up to present day feelings, this presentation of performances draws its references on the basis that emotional struggle is something which takes its own time to settle, no matter the individual or collective will. What is clear is that the fabric of Irish politics must change if it is ever to represent the voices of those without access to the tools of its own resolutely outdated performance.
All photos by Joseph Carr, images courtesy of the artists.

Darren Caffrey is supported by an Artlinks Bursary.


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