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Two writers' responses to Live Art Falmouth 2008 pt1:
The psychological disintegration of celebrities has been the norm for Reality TV entertainment for some years. Old-school ‘Variety’ always did generate laughs from knowing self-deprecation: Ken Dodd’s and Les Dawson’s riffs on ugliness were always backed up by their own physical comic ugliness. At what point did we start laughing at victims instead of with? For me, the exact moment when I laughed at someone on television was a particularly grim edition of ‘Jeux Sans Frontières’ when a Belgian contestant dressed as a giant walrus was hospitalised after a bad accident. I remember quite vividly that Stuart Hall’s laughter echoed around our living room as blood poured down the contestant’s nylon whiskers and soft padded tusks…
The true nature of the walrus was never in doubt, even to my childhood perception – it was only ever a euro-berk dressed as an even bigger pseudo-pinniped-berk. Nonetheless, it was a metamorphosis of sorts. A generation of adults across Europe, now of pensionable age, still bear the scars of those deadly televised 1970s play-conflicts, their jaws and knees smashed forever by falling on some distant foamy carousel whilst dressed as a giant ‘Knave of Hearts’, and trying to collect more water than a ‘banker from Düsseldorf’…
Two performances at Live Art Falmouth recaptured the thrill and poignancy of this crazy moment when humans take it upon themselves to act, literally, like animals.
Kayleigh O’Keefe’s films and performances reverse Kafka’s metamorphosis: instead of waking to find themselves transformed into a giant insect, her heroines drift from their boring futile lives into day dreams which reveal the glamorous or angry animals within.
For her T'Story O' Me Life, O’Keefe draws upon that staple of daytime TV, the nature documentary. In a darkened room, we witness a film loop of a spoof interview with a shark expert. The interview is interspersed with footage of the same expert, dressed in a fairly rubbish home-made shark suit, pathetically attacking swimmers in the local public swimming pool (actually, ‘attacking’ is too strong a description, more like ‘gently drifting towards’!). Eventually, the expert comes out of the water, punching the air in victory. This very funny short film is looped again and again, and in repetition the sense of personal triumph locked into the absurdity of the action grows stronger and funnier.
What makes O’Keefe’s work so gripping, however, is that she brings us crashing back down to earth. Also with us in the darkened room, a different woman in a swim-suit sits on the floor, mending her torn tinfoil shark costume (picture above), watching endless episodes of the ‘Jeremy Kyle Show’, drinking heavily and quietly sobbing into Kleenex. The rebelliousness and high comedy of the film are now starkly contrasted by the spectacle of the sad and vulnerable live female character, who is always mending and at the same time always doing more self-destructive damage to herself, equally trapped in a loop of repetitive actions, mirrored by the endless inevitable arguments of the Reality TV show guests.
The ambiguity at the heart of this performance is fascinating: as spectators to this simultaneous display of fulfilled fantasy and unfulfilled reality, we look on and laugh whilst the performer sobs, heartbroken. Our shark expert tells us about the strangeness and otherness of sharks, whilst at the same time her naughty dream is to be them and act like them. Jeremy Kyle provided a fleeting and entertaining catharsis for his audience, but their reality is self-debasement and despair. The meaning is never clear, and is open to our own subjective interpretation, but O’Keefe’s performance gives a whole new tragic-comic twist to the phrase ‘victim of a shark attack’.
In Bill Leslie’s performance ‘How Can I Understand You’, (picture above) Leslie is a big old ape in a big old ape costume, more chimp than gorilla in its vocalisation, invention and eventually utter frustration and anger with the human world of objects and their meanings.
The ape’s confusion, its attempts to move beyond exploration and destruction, and its panoply of grunts and whoops are all extremely funny. The ensuing mess is exciting in its anarchy. We laugh both at the absurdity of the ape’s actions, the child-like innocence of its joyfully destructive abandon, and at times its utter bewilderment.
What is also funny is the situation behind the characterisation that Leslie has set up for himself, as he struggles between an enactment of the ‘ape mind’ and his own knowing interventions as ‘performer-as-ape’. In one delightful moment, the ape stands with its foot on the rim of an old tea chest, which we know is on the verge of collapse. Herein the dilemma for Leslie: the ape wants to step forward, but is frozen by a heady mix of the fear of the unknown and a strong desire to experiment; the performer-as-ape knows very well of the impending disaster (and quite possibly broken limbs) which will ensue if he stands on the chest. Leslie is stuck, and we can only hold our breaths with anticipation at the ensuing comic pratfall. Although the set-up is quite simple, these moments of dramatic tension elevate the performance, as with O’Keefe’s, into a gripping and compulsive spectacle.
Leslie throws another element into the mix by filming his actions as he goes along. The ever-present video camera serves as a constant reminder that we witness three actors at any one time: alongside ‘ape’ and ‘performer-as-ape’, we also have ‘filmmaker-as-performer-as-ape’. The perspective shifts a further degree, and the remarkable conclusion, a screening of the film shot during the performance, is even funnier in its anti-documentary absurdity. This is not to say that absurdity masks meaning: the final filmed document still has a lot to say about all of the actors mentioned above, their characters and motivations.
It is very entertaining, and great fun too, to have the human world exposed through the filter of the imagined animal world. Other established live artists have addressed this subject before, as with Oleg Kulik’s ‘dog’ performances, and Joseph Beuys’ ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’, but O’Keefe and Leslie are both artists at the beginnings of their careers. Separately, these subtle, witty and engrossing performances exemplify the depth of creative talent which lurks untapped in the art colleges of their creators (University College Falmouth and Dartington College of Arts respectively); together they show the best examples of what can be achieved when young artists are given the backing and platform to realise their considerable potential.
Words and images by Mo Bottomley
I remember the Safety in the Home obsession of the 1980s. In school we had to look at a picture, colour it in then identify the potential hazards. Was the cat about to be mown down? Was mummy’s apron dangling just a little bit close to the gas flame? Maybe it was a ruse to divert kid’s attention away from the possibility of nuclear annihilation? Now it’s energy use, knives and strangers we need to control in the domestic sphere,but there is still a 10 year old in me that tremors when I see Dorte with her head very close to a toaster.
The appliance is plugged in and worse, 6 bags of sliced bread are piled on top of it. In another corner, her partner Christiane peeps out from behind a garrison constructed from bags of flour. She is flanked by two hand-held whisks, also plugged in. Between them is a dicey tangle of electric cable and extension sockets. Unperturbed, the two edge across the floor towards us, pushing bread, flour, whisks and toaster before them. They halt and start a calculated construction of barricades. Bread is taken out of bags and piled up wedge by wedge. It’s spongy Value Pack bread and excellent for building with. Meanwhile, the flour bags are being reconfigured so we can see Christiane more clearly.
I think at this point they are going to turn on us, but they turn on each other. Breads actually going into the toaster now and being popped out, just to relish the springy pinging sound it seems. Dorte thumps, tears and shreds, while her adversary lays into the flour bags. The food fight is unleashed, with strict rules and a vanguard of electro-human hybrids.
It’s a blessing that Live Art Falmouth is a DIY affair with no Health and Safety proscriptions. I wonder, what is the risk assessment for artist whisking lit toaster balanced on the back of second artist? So far the audience has got away with watching in trepidation, but now the action starts to close in. They’re right up in our faces, whisking into flour, popping bread out at us, then Christiane really lets rip by detonating her flour bags all over herself. It looks like fun. Dorte hurls bread at the floor in response. They gradually burn out ‘till both are slowly kneading the cake mix before them, quite spent.
It’s not only the artists who are burnt out. There’s an acrid smell coming from the whisks, or is it the toaster? Both are aimed at us, flex trailing behind them through the carnage. The BomannClatronic devices are still fully functioning; a tribute to the durability of German design.
Images by Susanne Partoll
MORE LAF TO COME