‘We shall send the Viege Rouge as far away as possible so that we shall never hear of her again.’ – Tutor of Simone Weil

Monday, 25 April 2011

Intimacy in performance art: Liz Rosenfeld and Laurie Anderson

Recently I've been fortunate enough to have a couple of experiences with art which not only makes space for the viewer, but requires your presence to complete the work. There is of course an extent to which another's presence is always required - if a tree falls in an empty wood am I deaf etc. - but we can fairly safely assume that when the National Gallery is locked up for the night, Klimt's couple are still locked in their eternal golden embrace. I wanted to write about Liz Rosenfeld's recent performance at I'm with you, a fantastic monthly event of queer performance work which was very special this time around, taking place in an old leather factory in Stoke Newington.

Liz's piece, entitled Trust Me I'm Yours, involves the 'viewer' - or more properly in this context, 'experiencer' - being blindfolded, then guided by an attendant into a room in which a female voice is already talking, apparently reciting a text. You are sat down in a chair and the speaker takes your hand. It is such a warm hand, and such a relief given the circumstances. Listening, dates begin to appear. (Coincidentally, she read an e-mail written on the date of my birthday last year, Sunday 23rd May 2010.) Narratives form, around artistic practice, vegan cooking & bike-riding: familiar themes of life in alternative and queer communities, then descriptions of jerking off when thinking of the recipient. This makes you wonder about the nature of the relationship between the person you cannot see and the person you are sitting in for. Is it uncomfortable? This piece asks you to sit with every emotion you have and let it go, in your own perfect silence. There is something so liberating at being forced to shut up and engage, whilst being deprived of a major sense which would often be relied on to make judgements. Despite the invisibility of the artist and the initial anonymity of the people involved, there are still presences at the centre of this work, and stripped of their identities, we are drawn into the questions about sexual desire, identity and memory we all share, beyond specificities. I wondered if for Liz, deep intimacy requires a kind of blindness, a willingness not to judge. I felt very safe, and equal, and actually, a profound relaxation. It is peculiar how instantly Rosenfeld could create this sensation, and surely it's surprising given her potential power relation to me. I would argue that it's in the anonymity & joy in submission that the work posits a queering of intimate relationships. After five minutes - I would have liked to have spent at least fifteen in there - you are guided back out again, the voice still speaking, without seeing the person who held your hand.

Wandering through the ingenious exhibition of the work of Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark and Laurie Anderson currently mounted at the Barbican, the viewer is not quite assaulted by, but nonetheless demanded to engage with, a variety of installations and experiences. [This exhibition was superb and deserves a much fuller write-up than I will give it here: it's on until 22nd May, so go!] For now I want to focus my attention on Laurie Anderson's work; much of the work in the show dated from her pre-pop star period, and I was interested to see that she had been producing humorous and forward-thinking work from the early 70s. Her work with violins and miked incidental sound led to the production of interactive musical installations such as The Handphone Table [1978]. The participant sits and places their elbows on the table, activating a fragment of recorded sound which travels through your elbows to your hands, which transmit the sound when cupped over your ears. Such a simple idea, and such a revolution of the way we experience music. Shifting position can adjust the volume and tone/ inflection of the sounds, but furthermore, it takes what once was a public experience - since even hearing a record usually meant playing it in a room which anyone else could enter - and makes it private in a way that headphones can't. The differences in our bodies means that no person can possibly receive this fragment of sound in the same way as another person. Intimacy is an echo down space and time, and here it is startlingly contextualised in its materiality. Similarly, Anderson's filmed hologram of herself telling a story, which is then projected onto a tiny white sculpture, cannot be viewed by more than three people at a time, simply because it is small enough that it demands close attention. Anderson described this piece as a way to give performances without being present. It is an eerie experience because despite the great reduction to the body of the artist, her presence remains deeply compelling. Yet when the image stops showing, the stump of white preserves her anonymity in a way that 'coming out of character' at the end of a performance doesn't. The functionality of this piece suggests the infinite possibilities of material, and conversely, the undisclosed potentials for truer relations with one another through minor adjustments to our interaction. The absence of the artist's body in these works does not declare its unimportance; on the contrary, obscuring its visual image brings us, each one, to our sensory core.