Some vignettes on shadows and best kept secrets

Posted on 24th May 2014

As with early hand tinted cinema films, certain sections of a performance may appear in ethereal colours, augmented by ultra violet light, or accentuated by mutlicoloured shadow play. The initial effect is as fleeting and arbitrary as it is accidental; no two types of special lighting produce the same unpredictable results. The intention of enhancing a performance with so much expressionistic colour is an extension of a lifetime of painting and a deep rooted addictive relationship with colour. In silent films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919, Robert Wiene) with its wildly painted, unnatural, cardboard sets and lopsided views, the performance is an attempt to similarly fuse a living situation with a painting that forms a habitable environment (backdrop, mural, fresco) in which an evolving image or situation comes to life. One can only wonder at how films such as Caligari would look if they were originally made in full colour and not hand tinted in cyan, purple and sepia. In studying the sort of palette used to imbue early cinema with a semblance of life I have decided to ‘colour’ my own performances in a medium that is typically void of colour because most practitioners have not evidently given this consideration.

Originally, I noticed that objects suspended from ‘invisible’ thread (fishing line) formed silhouettes on the blank walls of spaces when a strong light was shone at them. Lines were painted with fluorescent red paint that glowed intensely as the objects spun and dangled. The first shadows I encountered were pale grey and a fuzzy black like the corona around a lunar eclipse. I observed that shadows could also appear as chocolate brown or mauve when cast by alternative lighting sources such as candles and tapers. These crepuscular hues reminded me of the accumulation of tarnish which builds up on the surface of a silvered daguerreotype plate (earliest form of photographic image introduced in 1839). With the application of black tube light or ultra violet illumination I achieve a whole range of blue-purple shadow effects of objects and cut-outs hanging from wires. The move into full colour is premeditated, and by fusing a red, green and blue light source I am able to produce shadows in a fabulous yellow, lime/bottle green, pink, and cyan. Such an explosion of colour gives the performance a potent quality that I am keen to interact with and exploit. I view this as a rapidly changing image show in which the magical world of shadows has a pulsating affinity with the painting I am making. If you will, the shadows are the living embodiment of the painting and their paradox is ephemerality.

The idea of the painting as a sort of scene that forms a tableau vivant has been travelling with me from one performance to the next for about 30 years. Images painted on huge sheets of paper attempt to record the objects and their aura (effulgence) in the space when viewed in dramatic light. The paintings do not tell any specific story or have a literal meaning. To look for significance is a pointless exercise. Instead, they are often fractured and dislocated image lists that attempt to capture the essence of the many totemic fetishes and objects I use in the performance. They are merely created to evoke a quality of disturbance and focus on the enigma which talismanic objects invoke. Therein lies an embryonic culture that beckons through the wetness and visceral nature of the paint for our attention like the dispersing vestiges of dreams sucked into the forgetfulness of rationality. By painting them I am imbuing images with some form of relevance that is beyond everyday comprehension. The notion of generating an animus from living paint is on a par with the legend of the homunculus, the miniature human being grown in an alchemical flask (the original test tube baby?) by an alchemist as some form of divine experiment. The movement and application of paint will certainly veer towards animal/bird and human forms within the realm of a transformative ritual. In some instances a rather esoteric observer remarked that my work gave birth to ‘golems’ and ‘homunculi’. I am only semi-conscious when doing it, of what I am actually articulating in the paint. It’s almost as if whatever emerges during the painting episode is idiosyncratic and particular to my surroundings and the objects I bring in. The notion of a painting made during a performance being regenerative appeals to me as I often over paint and morph my images without knowing how or why. The results are always ‘astonishing’ to use the description given to me by the late great Scottish painter, Alan Davie (1920-2014) who felt an affinity with my images whenever I showed them to him at his studio in Hertfordshire.

Concealment is a deliberate aspect of many performances in which certain ritual objects and drawn/painted images are modified, transformed, or hidden from public view, to be revealed at a later stage for hand picked spectators or unwitting visitors as a private and intimate gesture of initiation. In 1986 I created a 3 day long performance at the Midland Group in Nottingham as part of the National Review of Live Art. The performance which lasted for between 4-6 hours per day was called, ‘Within/Wanting/Without’ and took place in a large white gallery room in which all the windows had been covered with heavy boards. There was no way of telling what time of day it was (the performance took place in October) unless a clock was regularly checked. During the days prior to the performance I approached a building site on the street behind the art centre and persuaded the bemused and nonplussed workers to bring in as much rubbish and waste as possible, until the entire room was filled with a huge stinking mound. Amongst the pile were several broken toilets that reeked of caked excrement and attracted a noisy swarm of flies, to which the festival organiser remarked quizzically, ‘What’s that buzzing noise?’ I covered the surface of the stack with a great amount of spilled yellow powder pigment and over the 3 days began sifting through it, arranging objects and materials in aesthetic groups that formed human associations, traces of being, and subtle connections. At times I was completely buried underneath the refuse pile, my face blackened with make-up mixed with flour and water globules resembling melting/burnt flesh. Towards the end of the performance I started to wrap items in rags tightly bound with string made from old knotted laces and twine, mostly from shoes I had worn. These formed a collection of mysterious power objects which hinted at the foetal forms, that I was later to paint on paper (in 1987). My interest in Vodou has introduced me to the many fetishes of Africa, in which the ossified skulls of birds ( ducks, toucans and hornbills) are often ‘disguised’ by wrapping them in rags, or silenced with a padlock. Since the 1986 performance, I have been bundling up objects using brown industrial packing tape covered in red fluorescent paint, oxblood leather offcuts, newspapers, mouldering found articles of clothing and fabric. The desire to hide items away and mummify things still persists and I remember a curious activity from my childhood.

Perhaps, when I was 9 or 10 I made small drawings on scraps of paper (monsters, cityscapes, impossible machines) and poked them between the cracks in the floorboards of my bedroom in a late Victorian terraced house. I had the intention of the little drawings being discovered many years later by another inquisitive child or a builder lifting the floorboards to conduct routine inspection work. Having found articles that had become lodged in cavities of walls between rooms (bird skeletons, tattered articles of clothing, a playing card, the skull of a squirrel) I have always maintained a fascination with the hidden intentionality of miniature art works as secret messages. I am also aware of things that have been deliberately immured as acts of sympathetic magic: 17th and 18th century charms against witches such as filled/sealed Bellarmine jars brimming with urine and nail parings, felt heart shapes and brass pins, dried out leather boots, children’s shoes, mummified cats, rats, dogs and other unfortunate creatures that somehow became trapped and died within a void. In a performance, drawings and poems are made to be momentarily glimpsed or sometimes given to people at random as a memento of the event. Similarly, whilst visiting the Greek island of Symi in 2005, I travelled to the Panormitis monastery and found an astonishing collection of stoppered bottles with hand written messages inside them which had all been washed up on the local beach. There must have been hundreds of bottles, spanning decades or even a hundred years. The pleasure at finding something that has been deliberately hidden is a conscious aspect of synaesthesia present in my work. I may give the audience a clue or hint that something is waiting to be retrieved. Often though, these pointers are subtle and random. I much prefer the person to literally stumble across the item or in the case of the performance, ‘The Deviations of Nature’ (2010, The Orangerie, Cologne, Germany) to find me in situ happenstance – I lodged myself deep in a basement enclave between two brick walls, partially obscured from view in a dark recess. Such behaviour takes me back to the school playground and the boundary wall that flanked the saw mill of the adjacent timber merchant. I have written about this wall in other published articles but it is a source of endless rumination for me and may well be the origin of a very eccentric manner of play otherwise known as performance art. The desire to hide behind this wall amongst the broken bottles, weeds and rubble, was hugely enthrallihng to a small boy who delighted in tremendous mischief. Having a safe haven or hidey-hole was crucial because it meant that I would not be challenged or beaten up by the other children for my apparent misdemeanours. I also recall that the wall served as a screen to the daily machinations of the playground and a place where children were drawn to act out curious games involving group urination– to see who could piss the highest. Invariably some aimed too high and like the myth of Icarus were burnt, not by the sun, but by the splash of their own urine as it sprayed into grimacing faces. There literally was no other place as secretive or conducive to fantasy than behind this Victorian brick wall. Here mock surgical operations and examinations were enacted with twigs standing in as surgical appliances and instruments. Drawings were chalked onto the surface of the wall that depicted people with bulbous penises for noses, crude and barbaric caricatures appeared and were left for others to adapt. A similar quality of stumbling across a secret occurred recently when I prized a stubborn daguerreotype out of its leather tooled case to find a series of grotesque women’s portraits (better than Dubuffet’s idiosyncratic efforts) crudely pencilled behind the photographic likeness, by the mawkish looking teenager who originally owned the image in 1845.

During the period 1997-2000 I used a rented room painted entirely blue in the house of the performance artist/ drummer, Paul Burwell (1949-2007). I painted all the furniture in matching Californian Blue paint which was on special offer at the local decorator’s shop. Whilst in the room I usually worn faded blue overalls and inserted a daylight simulation light bulb (which is blue) into the sporadically dangerous power source. Naturally, all the paintings I made in that room were either in red, pink or brilliant colours and I seldom used blue. I pinned up reproductions of Cezanne’s late landscapes and still life’s, most of which are rendered in tones of blue and green. The experience was so intense that Paul Burwell tried to encourage me to migrate to a collapsing shed at the bottom of his garden and become an ‘ornamental hermit’ living in an urban grotto. My aversion to growing a beard was the main determining factor in resisting this somewhat peculiar suggestion. The Blue Room – as it became known – was the origin of many mysterious images and I only gave it up when it became too stifling and claustrophobic (it was chock-full of my work) after a period of about 2.5 years. Thus, my ‘Blue Period’ ended.

The use of red painted boxes in performances (such as ‘The Wunderkammer’, 2010 Glasgow,UK) which contain stacks of drawings that fluoresce in UV light is also something that tempts members of the audience to open them up and have a peek inside. By taking some of the drawings out and displaying them alongside the boxes (providing a magnifying lens) the effect is truly effervescent. Literally, hundreds of drawings on scraps of recycled packaging (flattened matchboxes, creased packets, torn envelopes, offcuts of cartons etc…) create a dizzying neon spectacle. At some stage during the performance they are either all exhibited or put away from vision so if they have been missed the opportunity to view them again may not come around until the next performance. Whilst visiting the museum of prehistoric art in Basel, Switzerland, recently came across a very beautiful ancient Egyptian box with a tiny sliding drawer that opened to reveal three mummified mouse cadavers inside. The mouse mausoleum as I call it, had 3 wooden mice carved on the lid, all crudely hewn with ludicrously elongated noses and tails.

In the late play, ‘QUAD’ (1982) by Samuel Beckett, the players are dressed in coloured, hooded, robes, they pace manically back and forth in an enclosed square for a quarter of an hour. In the middle of the quad there appears to be a plug hole or drainage system. I have wondered about the significance of this hole in the centre of the enclave, noting that the mute performers all avoid stepping on or over it. Outside of the quad there is the possibility of danger and we do not see further than the perimeter of the space. The wordless actions are played out in a repetitive cycle that brings to mind a prison exercise yard, or confinement. Likewise in performances of extreme duration the space becomes a sort of arena in which the performer plays out a bizarre series of movements around certain key objects, changing and modifying them on each consecutive circuit or simply, allowing them to ‘be’.

An artist who I find inspiring is Valentin Manz. I initially encountered a huge book he had painted and altered with collage at an exhibition in Islington. The book was an old ledger from the 19th century and Valentin had covered nearly every page with a seething red paint, forming a visceral, primordial lexicon or beastiary of unknown creatures. I left a note on the front page stating my admiration and he called me some 20 minutes later for a chat. The following week I visited him in his cramped, cluttered studio in Dalston, London, where he gave me 3 petrified fungi, taken from a forest in Bavaria. I have used them in several performances since and they are now painted bright red like the pages in his ledger. Valentin also gave me a shaman’s tasselled leather pouch, which I use to store secret drawings during my performances, occasionally taking them out to show people who have connected with me on a deeper level of awareness. Valentin has had numerous exhibitions that I have attended and even a residency at Brooklyn Glass, New York, where I visited him with my Father in 2005 to see the quirky anthropomorphic objects he was creating from recycled glass heated in the furnace. He’s an incredibly inventive artist who makes metamorphic sculptures from urban detritus. In one installation he told me that he used over 30,000 staples to attach cardboard boxes together to form a labyrinthine environment. Some of the archaic-looking totems I used in my performances, ‘Widdershins’ (York St John University 2011) and ‘Unscene Underbelly’ at The Other Art Fair, London 2013 were originally created by Valentin. These crude, lumpen, misshapen beings seemed perfect for my rituals and Valentin kindly offered me a small selection of his best examples, which I painted black and red, anointing them with pungent oils and libations during each consecutive ritual action. Valentin wanted me to use them in the performances like actors and had already given some of them names. In a performance in Novi Sad, Serbia, I used a very old photograph of a crowd of hundreds of people all staring directly at the camera. The photo dates from the 1890’s and has no information to indicate where it comes from. I employed it as an absent audience, holding it in my hands aloft, bringing this miniaturised sepia mass of people into the performance as silent ghost witnesses to the event. When ‘real’ people started to arrive and watch the performance unfold I gave the photograph to a young man thinking that he would take it away as a souvenir, but he gently placed it on a table facing towards the window so that the phantoms could stare out onto the bustling street. Many of Valentin’s totems have deep cracks and grooves in the wood in which I stick protuberant objects such as iron nails found in the river Thames and fragments of painted bone. Valentin’s paintings on irregularly shaped offcuts and found surfaces form the boisterous syntax of an unintelligible, apocalyptic utterance that would not seem out of place in a scenario like that described in Russell Hoban’s magnificent novel, ‘Riddley Walker’ which I first tried to read in 1984 and then re-read in 2013 whilst visiting the Isle of Anglesey. Valentin creates monstrous mutations and entities from splodges of cheap encrusted paint scored into with crayon and ink. He is great at gouging and scratching his paintings, revealing the skeins of skin beneath. These pictures resonate and form a disquieting impression on the viewer. Valentin Manz should be my Siamese twin in art. He is the modern approximation of an Arcimboldo for me.