Do you remember it - or weren't you there?
Curated by Cally Trench and Philip Lee
A personal review by John Bunyan
For a performance artist, the physical and ephemeral nature of their work presents a dilemma.
Cally Trench and Philip Lee are well aware of this dilemma and the compromises that have to be made to preserve the integrity of the unique performance, while making the knowledge of its happening and impact available to a wider audience.
However, 'compromise' is definitely not a word they use in their strategy for addressing the dilemma. As artists, they have taken ownership of the challenge by inviting seventeen other artists to create works based on their experiences and memories of Philip and Cally's performances over the last three years. The result is this exhibition.
For a visitor completely unfamiliar with Cally and Philip's work, I suggest that they start with Helen Udal's video War Angel. We see Philip's naked body, blindfolded and covered in slip, in its most representational form. This video, reinforced by the curators' timelapse film, Exercise Slip, gives us an anchor point from which to explore the less representational works.
Ingrid Jensen's three hanging drawings on muslin, Philip Standing I, II and III, are penetrating, immediate yet joyful representations of a slice of a performance. Her sketchbook drawings have the same immediacy. Her Drawing Machine, in which she draws on a till roll, provides the most immediate, innovative and witty representation of a performance, with the freshness of a comic strip, but not the burden of an externalised narrative.
Other works have a clear representational connection with the performances. Tony Moody's Birth of the Universal Child reflects on the foetal position taken up by Philip in some of the performances. This is an emotive and memorable, even iconic, pose. It also appears in Cally Trench's painting Philip Lee, and Zahed Tajeddin's stoneware sculpture Words, where a naked male figure rests uneasily on a bed of pointed ceramic pencils. The figure seems uneasy both because of the partly open foetal position and the way the hands are not closed on the ears to block out all sound, but are held slightly proud. The subject appears dynamic, in a state of transition. The pencils are sharp, not just in their ability to puncture the skin, but in what they may write.The most dominant drawings in the exhibition are Cally Trench's life-sized representations of Philip, Philip Supine and Philip Prone. Unnervingly clinical in their accuracy, every skin blemish, hair and vein is represented by Cally's deft use of an engraver's crosshatch technique to render the subtle tones necessary to give the drawings depth. The works speak of a complete and total trust between the artist and subject (Philip is not an artist here; there is no performance) that goes beyond what is conventionally expected.
Alison Carter Tai's text in the catalogue, The Remarkable Philip Lee, gives a written representation of her recollections and thoughts about meeting Philip prior to a performance, and the performance itself. We can ask for no better background and account to use as a pivot from which to consider the exhibits. The more expressive works then become more easily understood.
Jane Grisewood's drawings, Mapping Blindfold Slip I ,II and II, work surprisingly well and have great impact, with the two different drawing media referring to the two performers. Marco Cali's Questioning Poem gives us a quick-fire delivery of single words and reactions.
Two works of photography, i wasnt there, she was by Lydia Julien and Document 201 by Claire Norman, are small single images that require close scrutiny. They are precious, like pieces of jewellery. In these photographic works, the artists present alternative modes of delivery, consciously avoiding 'conventional' photographic documentation. Their intention appears to be to obscure our reception of the performances, and both artists speak of 'distance' as a strategy in their work.
Philip Lee's Measure for Measure Flipbook (in collaboration with Judy Goldhill and Cally Trench) and White Phenakistoscope give us disjointed viewer-participation methods of unsatisfactorily consuming re-created records of Philip's body in motion.
Steve Perfect's sequence of drawings challenge and disturb the relationship with the performances. They are brilliant, confident and consummately skilful, as well as disturbingly visceral and 'Steadmanesque' in their cartoonic clarity. For me they may be the strongest works in the exhibition.
There are more abstract works. The use of mud in Judy Goldhill's Reed Paintings 1 and 2 interestingly references the clay slip that is poured over Philip. Mary Yacoob's Surveying The Form is almost completely abstracted from the performances. For me, it has no point of reference contained within it and the linkage is only clear if its derivation from sketches and physical measurements of Philip's body is known.
Perhaps the most subversive of all the work is Marco Cali's Script for a Blind Performance, a detailed written account of a performance presented with visual high impact on coloured A4 printed sheets of paper. Its subversion lies in its use of script form. A script cannot be an account of something that happened. It is the very converse. It demands to be taken as a plan for what will happen. The performance must follow the script, just as a dance follows the choreography. Without the script the performance cannot take place. It has the authorial ascendancy. However, we know this cannot be the case. The author of the work knowingly exposes his intent. The pretender unmasks himself and laughs at us, the audience. He is the court jester.
I like this exhibition very much and I applaud the intent that Cally Trench and Philip Lee share behind its inception. They ask us whether it is successful in terms of 'ekphrasis', its ability to convey the emotional impact of the original event. My answer is yes, it is. This process is easy in terms of the writings. It also works with the representational works on show. With the others we can gain very much, but at times it has to be vicarious. We pick up the emotional impact of how the artist was affected by the performance, rather than the performance itself. We have to take that on trust and we find our trust rewarded.
However, there is one comment that Cally and Philip make in the catalogue essay that I have genuine trouble with. It strikes straight to the heart of my being:
Conventional documentation and description do not have the potency of the original performance, and lack its immediacy and viscerality. However, the works in this exhibition are not documentation and do indeed form part of a potent afterlife. This is because they are also works of art, and so have the power to move, engage, and transform the viewer.
In my opinion, many of the works in this show are documentation. That does not mean they are not art. That they have been produced with clear artistic intent defines them as artworks, certainly, but it does not devalue their function as documents, or suppress their status as such.
There is nothing wrong with a document in terms of its ability to 'move, engage and transform'. Some of the most potent and iconic images and writings of civilisation have come from documented sources. Artists do not have an exclusive ownership of this power. Documentation cannot convey all the aspects of a performance that go with having been there, but neither can the works of the invited artists. The value of their art lies in their degree of intervention in the experience. It is not that they recorded, or even translated. They were asked instead to transform, and this they have done with true relish, integrity and originality.
I also challenge Cally and Philip's use of the word 'conventional'. They seem to argue that if a record of an event achieves conventionality then it loses impact and therefore any status as art. This assumes that a document produced through conventional means will always be considered conventional by the viewer or consumer, and that produced unconventionally, by an artist, will be considered unconventional. However, conventionality is not a factor under the control of the performer, artist or documenter. It is decided by the audience, reader or viewer, and then, seldom consciously.
Conventionality depends on the social context shared by the producer of the work and its audience being uniformly understood and perceived. A challenging artwork by contrast depends on a disjunction or mismatch in this shared context. Ambiguity exists in the multiple possible readings of a work. A void opens up in the otherwise continuous space in which the artist's intent is communicated. Originality is the daughter of this process.
What is conventional is in continual flux, not just over a period of time but in the split second it can take for an artwork to move from obscurity and non-understanding into the popular zeitgeist, for unconventional work to become conventional. When lifted out of context, the conventionally produced document can achieve unconventionality.
My argument is not a criticism of this exhibition, which I think is very successful and displays truly fresh and original work. However, I ask myself why Cally and Philip are afraid of the 'conventional' document. Many of the works in the exhibition will eventually become conventional regardless of how creative or interventional the artists have been in their creation.
I am a photographer. As a documenter of life and events I fundamentally believe in the power of photography to participate in the process of moving, engaging and transforming, and that these are not the sole domain of the artist. Cally and Philip, you have nothing to fear from conventional documented records of your performances! You might enjoy what they do for you.John Bunyan