'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The Monsters at the Barbican

That Viktor & Rolf are a funny pair. Fashion meets art, meets a little bit bonkers actually. One of my friends went on a yoga holiday with one of them a few years back.

I enjoyed the show much more than I'd expected. Apart from the myriad of spooky dolls and the fantastic headless PVC S&M ghosts at the beginning, one of the best things about it for me is the events that go on until 10pm every Thursday. I went last Thursday to see a performance piece by Kirstie Macleod. Kirstie's showing a film in our current exhibition - They Paved Paradise at Beverley Knowles Fine Art, and she's doing a performance at our private view next week.

Be warned though... maybe I'm a bit of a dozy muppet, well ok, there's no maybe about it, but despite getting to the Barbican a good three quarters of an hour ahead of the start time of her performance we still managed to miss most of it because we were waiting in the wrong place and by the time we'd figured out where we were supposed to be waiting there were so many people in there it was standing room only and I had a great view of the backs of heads and zero view of the performance. The events programme seemed to be a little inaccurate and the staff, whilst being a complete delight, were kind of vague in such a way that you didn't realise how vague until it was too late.

A performance I did catch was by an artist called Edward Fornieles. This was one of the most unsettling things I've ever seen in an art gallery. I don't know if you'd think it was 'good' but it was very powerful. The (male) artist explained to the audience that the (female) performer was to be undressed by us, the audience, from the jeans, t-shirt, pumps she was currently wearing and re-clothed in the red cocktail dress, black high heels, tights and string of pearls that lay beside where she stood. She was going to resist. He stressed that if the audience didn't get fully involved then the piece wouldn't work.

The drum roll began and the second it stopped about a dozen members of the audience leapt on this woman and began yanking her clothes off. She behaved as though she was fighting for her life. Before long she was upside down. All I could see was her feet, at the height of everyone else’s heads, thrashing around wildly, held in a vice like grip by a big guy in a combat t-shirt. As it went on her fight would come in bursts. As her energy became depleted she would fight with everything she had for a few minutes and would then give up and become limp and malleable in their hands before her spirit revived and the violence erupted once more.

It was utterly horrific. Viksie and I were standing watching it from a balcony above so saw it from an aerial perspective. That made quite a difference to the psycho-physical experience as it were. Being above or below. It's a power dynamic thing. Like church domes designed to make the congregation feel humble and thus controllable. If you're looking up at something you automatically feel subservient to it, consciously or not. If you're on a level with it you're equal to it and if you're above it you're able to look down on it with an element of detachment, to stand back from it and watch it with more of a sense of clarity. In this case we were above it, detached, but not in control.

I'm sure some of the 'audience' members, at the start at least, must have been staged. It was just too immediately violent to be believable given our self conscious English reserve, not to say repression. But in many ways that didn't matter. In fact it was completely beside the point. The 'performance' became a real event. Something real was happening. And it wasn't about what the woman was wearing. It was about something much more primeval than that. Something base and shocking that exists in all of us, that with all our self-important rationalising and heady ways we've become cut off from. So cut off that the people involved on a physical level didn't seem to be able to see it at all. The people who were tearing at this woman were laughing and seemed to be having a fun old time of it.

From where we were a woman was being violated by a marauding group of people who'd lost all sense of self-awareness, personal responsibility, individual consciousness. She was in distress and that part of it certainly wasn’t an act. Sure it was consenting but it wasn't an act. The whole performance lasted about 10 or so minutes until finally they'd got her re-clothed. The drum roll stopped, the audience backed off and the woman got to her feet, her dress on off to the side, her hair wild and distressed, her demeanour completely exhausted, disorientated, lost. It was ghastly. I was absolutely fighting with myself not to cry. You cannot cry at the Barbican for God's sake Knowles, my inner control freak yelled in the face of my own potential humiliation. I didn't thankfully, but I was completely shaken up, horrified in fact, stunned into uncharacteristic quiet. Viksie, as well, was aghast.

We staggered off to a local veggie restaurant in shocked near silence. Only a couple of glasses later did the inner doors begin to groan silently shut again and the conversation returned to the bearable lightness of weddings, boyfriends, work, outfits.

If good art is to wake us from our deluded revere and show us how things really are, even if only for a few minutes - then this was good art.

If good art is to feed us the notion that life's a bowl of cherries and everything's going to be ok - then this wasn't good art.

I leave it up to you.

The House of Viktor & Rolf
Barbican Gallery
18 June to 21 September 2008

They Paved Paradise
Beverley Knowles Fine Art
5 July to 30 August 2008
Ilona Szalay, Kirstie Macleod, Charmain Ponnuthurai

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