L A B O U R
all images - photographed by Marco Berardi. Courtesy of ]performance s p a c e [
Labour is an assembly of eleven Irish performance artists situated in a warehouse in Hackney Wick as part of a trio of events in London, Derry and Dublin. The press release states ‘participating artists will perform simultaneously for eight consecutive hours, reflecting the duration of an average working day. Set within the shadows of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries, Labour explores current shifts in the political and economic climate within an Irish cultural context.’ The show’s London location seems appropriate, a battered old industrial setting beside the shiny new ‘Disneyland’ of the London Olympics, blending together the sounds of the outside road workers with the repetitive noise of each artist as they begin to create rhythms from the menial tasks they engage in.
Nearest the entrance Chrissie Cadman lies in a bath tub wrapped in white sheets on which she has scribbled words. She gradually begins to rock back and forth at first calmly, but over time more urgently, testing the strength of the tubs metal legs and sonically intensifying the seedy aural devices of the sexual-act-next-door. Later she frantically soaks and subsequently rings out her sheets in a fervent display of washer woman gone rogue. Her figure, at times cloaked in the wet sheet, denies the viewer the bare movement of the body and instead presents an abstracted frenzy of violent action and visceral force. This washer woman attempts to break from her chains to the domestic tub but rather than be freed she is conjoined with it.
Amanda Coogan haunts the central staircase in the space like a vagrant spectre. She wears a modified cloak constructed of 5 or 6 insulated white coats joined together, the kind you'd get at a BHS store on the first few racks in. When layered together it renders an uncanny sci-fi quality, reminiscent of a character that has stepped out of a Matthew Barney production. She moves slowly with poise and elegance, as does her intense gaze, often holding the viewer’s eye as her head circles like a remotely controlled CCTV camera. At moments her elevated status and cold aesthetic present her as an authority, the White State, the Ice Queen, but we are quickly reminded as she begins to bubble turquoise liquid from her mouth and wipe the stairs with her long cloak that no one here is removed from duty.
Anne Quail presents, what appears to be, a woman in mourning. She gathers up tea bags like they are 10 pound notes freshly dropped from the sky in a great clump and at points she leans her head against a white steel pole clutching the tea like a child holding a broken doll. Her sombre posture harks back to a grief-stricken widow of a traditional Irish Catholic wake, where there are tears and whispers of condolences. While Quail is silent in her lament, she is often sound-tracked by her neighbour Ann Maria Healy who sings sad songs whilst sitting at a long table covered in a white linen cloth deliriously grinding 2 stones together. The performed irony of producing nothing whilst sat before an untouched pile of grain accentuates the ‘devalued form of female labour’ that Healy, through her work ethic, exemplifies - she owns nothing of what she produces and might as well not produce it at all.
Helena Walsh carries out a ritual in an opposite corner of the space. It is as complex as it is cryptic but with observation over time it’s clear there is an ordered cycle of events taking place. She marches around a 3 metre circle of soil wearing a beanie hat with sharp sticks poking through it like some horror film version of the crown of Jesus. She has various tools strapped to her customised tool-belt - scissors, a makeshift ciborium and a plastic cylinder that she sinks a plunger into at the same speed as her pacing. At one point in her routine she stops marching and below her bare vagina she pierces a bulging condom with one of the sharp sticks from her headwear. Within her large circle of earth she spills white powder out of the condom in a trajectory not unlike a man pissing, spelling out a word, in a rough fashion on the ground ‘Pleasure’ (in this case). The action becomes even more political when Walsh pulls the beanie down to become a balaclava and transforms from disillusioned churchgoer to a paramilitary Antichrist pouring blood over the newly-formed word. Paradoxically the female form and her graceful movement operates at a fraction of a terrorising pace which make the actions more digestible than fearful. The puncturing of oracular objects, the 'hosts' covered with spilt blood and defiled, the framing of the eye with the balaclava gives a Bataillian twist to her acts, as if a blonde priest is waiting round the corner ready to be urinated upon and then asphyxiated.(1)
The coal-stained Aine Philips meanders through the space with a mobile speaker attached to her shoulder narrating the shocking stories of past female workers. 'You're not allowed to wash your hands' the narrator asserts in a machine-like voice of a totalitarian regime. As she walks past, a small troop of eager listeners cling at her side to hear more. Behind this the Singer sewing machine table of the artist Michelle Browne comes into view. Browne crafts infants' clothing from a huge roll of dark navy fabric along a huge table, the blueprints laid out in front for the observer. Subtle political messages begin to stand out, ‘The Fallen’ is scrawled on the back of a school uniform skirt and we are left wondering who, what and when. Close-by, the emerald dress of Aine O’Dwyer becomes apparent as she aggressively deconstructs the strings of a harp, with loud twangs. This is the second character in her repertoire, as during certain intervals she changes in a semi-transparent corner into a chapel boy’s white smock and rocks excitedly on a white rocking device encompassing her whole body in non-stop movement. The rocking creates white marks on the floor and whether intentionally or not a layered drawing takes its place, a secondary product documenting the history of her action. This activity really is captivating, a smiling grown woman with the innocence and reverence of a convalescent child but something like a doll, a distorted image of some Victorian playroom in Georgian Dublin.
How to make a work levitate? From the position of her seat Elvira Santamaria Torres inflates grey and white plastic balloons, ties them with thread and floats them into the air carrying with them a cherry tied approximately halfway up the string. The viewer’s eye is drawn up to the ceiling where other attempts squash up to the rafters longing to break out. The extension of material, thread, helium filled plastic, roses and cherries, cleverly lifts the scale of the group’s actions to twice or three times the height of the viewers.
Through all of these actions an interactive spatial game takes place, performers change tack, conjoin, separate and link up areas within the warehouse with their expandable props, forcing the viewer to be involved, to have to move, to skip out of the way. Refreshingly, no artist is here to shock an unsuspecting audience and there is no sense of competition between performers, the ego is filtered through a malaise of sorrow and diligent hard graft. The longer I stay the more impressive the feat of the artists becomes - enduring a bitter cold and standing near-still for lengthy periods at a time. The acts become more complex, the relations between them more developed. One imagines that in some not so distant dystopia that one has walked into the underworld of a metaphysical production line, that the very nature of ideas have become laborious to produce, the mission for output is unclear and that whoever is in charge must be watching from an unseen vantage point. It reminds me of being in UAE in 2009 and meeting a prominent performance artist who despite showing videos of her provocative works in Biennials around the world is prohibited from attending them by the patriarch in her family. As well as art production she also works in Sharjah Ladies Club, a place where the irony of female freedom is at an all-time-high, women can wear and behave in whatever way they wish as long as it is within the confines of a particular building and private fenced-off beach, unseen to society.
The performances on show today raise a question - what is it about the female body that compels so much of our gaze? Laura Mulvey asserts that the female form is the ultimate visual object for man, the controller of the gaze and that the woman is a castrated form of man;
‘To summarise briefly: the function of woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious is two-fold. She first symbolises the castration threat by her real absence of a penis, and second thereby raises her child into the symbolic. Once this has been achieved, her meaning in the process is at an end’ (2)
To some degree this exhibition is a quasi-feminist statement on the historical futility and waste of Irish female labour and as Mulvey presupposes the perceived otherness of woman’s existence. In Labour processes are carried out, energy is expended and great endurance is displayed, but the ephemeral nature of ‘just another working day’ and the fact this space will be bear no signs of what has happened here tomorrow is both thought-provoking and moving.
LABOUR continues in
VOID, Derry, 24th, 25th Feb & The Lab, Dublin, 9th, 10th March.
(1) Bataille, Georges, The Story of the Eye, Penguin Classics, 2001, originally published 1928.
(2) Mulvey, Laura, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975, p. 6.
Chrissie Cadman, photographed by Marco Berardi. Courtesy of ]performance s p a c e [
Amanda Coogan (left), Helena Walsh,
photographed by Marco Berardi. Courtesy of ]performance s p a c e [
Ann Maria Healy, photographed by Marco Berardi. Courtesy of ]performance s p a c e [
(right to left) Elvira Santamaria Torres, Anne Quail, Ann Maria Healy,
photographed by Marco Berardi. Courtesy of ]performance s p a c e [