Mirror, mirror, on the wall

Marlene Renaud-B’s Dis/sociation

(Photo by Henry Chan)

The floor space is crisscrossed with wires. There is a table, camera on a tripod, two flourescent tubes, a baby monitor, microphone, and a large mirror propped against the wall. Marlene lifts off the plywood table-top, and leans it against the wall. She spins and climbs her long limbs over and through the empty table, round and round like a rectangular hoola-hoop, until she’s breathing hard, and fighting with it.

She places it back on the floor, turns the lights out, gets under the table. The camera is set up to catch her image, film it and project it on the wall. It is an infrared camera. Her image is black and blue and shadowy. It looks like she’s hiding in a closet. She takes the baby monitor and drags it across her skin. It sounds like magnified sandpaper.

She moves to lift a tube of florescence. Waving the tube over the baby monitor, it causes interference, distortion. The baby monitor creaks and groans into the microphone. A discovery made late at night? Who knew florescence could make a baby monitor sing?

Marlene moves to the mirror. There is another microphone taped to the back, she flicks it, and it starts to boom and groan. She wobbles the mirror, pulls it until it’s leaning on top of her, crouches down on the floor, the mirror on top. The sound is of a giant, treading over a rocky landscape. She lies down, rolls over, props it up and rests there, her body and its reflection like hands held together at the fingertips.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Marlene spreads out a canvas sheet, takes four jars of water down from the shelf. She draws a line down the centre of the cloth with lipstick, places two jars on either side. She lays the plywood table-top on the jars. Over this precarious set-up, she  lays the long mirror, it bends ever so slightly in the middle, drooping at the edges. Marlene stands on top of it all and starts jumping like a child. I want to stop her, scold her like a child. Don’t do that! It’s going to…

And then it does. Smashes gloriously in elaborate shards all over the canvas. She picks up a projector. It is running the footage she recorded earlier, under the table, hiding in the dark. The footage is reflected back at an angle onto the walls and ceiling. Like one of those spinning children’s nightlights that project stars and moon, trees and birds and butterflies onto the dark walls at night.

It all happens so suddenly. The effect is startling, raw, jagged, my heart is racing. It’s gutsy, inarticulate, emotive, and yet somehow very cerebral, in its controlled, dispassionate delivery.

Marlene pulls on a rubber face mask. She tucks her fingers inside the eye holes and pulls them out and pours the water from the jars into her eyes, like reversed tears.  She empties three jars this way, then yanks off her mask and spits water out of her mouth, aimed at the ceiling, like a fountain.

(Photos by Henry Chan)


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Blooming Suspense

Lovisa Johansson’s Jumping Lullaby

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Two dozen alarm clocks are set out on the floor. Lovisa is asleep next to them, in her oatmeal night-clothes. One alarm clock goes off, starts to cry like a baby. Wah-wah-wah. Lovisa stands up and winds herself into her long red baby wrap. She is shushing the alarm back to sleep, soothing it with her voice, until she’s tied her wrap. She tucks the clock into her sling, as another one goes off and starts to cry. Two clocks inside her sling now, she bounces on her feet and sings to them in Swedish. The clocks stop crying. She puts them down again, unwinds her sling, then sleeps again. All the clocks tick away in unison, telling the same time.

The clocks begin to go off again. She ties on her baby wrap, starts holding each one to her ear, over the racket, to find out which ones are crying, then tucks those ones inside her sling, constantly shushing and singing to them, her Swedish lullabies. This goes on, in some manner or another, for a long time.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Durational performance has such an interesting effect. It gradually drains you of all resistance, all cynicism and rationalizing, until you actually just surrender to the on-going experience in an authentic way as if it was your own, because in some sense it has become your own by virtue of its length.

The action is obvious. There is no trickery here. No semantics or sophistry to decipher and protect yourself against. There is nothing to figure out. Just observe and endure. There is only the attempt to recreate, with a little edge of irony, the experience of coaxing your baby to sleep. This is what it’s like. Can you remember? Yes, I can. I remember the hours and hours of putting my son to bed. The bouncing until I had the calves of a marathoner, all the deep knee bends. There are women all over the world right now doing this very thing. Frozen in a posture that is painful to them, wishing their babies would slip off the last sticky shelf before sleep, faking their own sleep in an attempt to convince their babies into joining them. That’s the only trickery here. The trickery of the mother, who wishes her baby to sleep, and release her from its clutches, to sleep herself, or join the dinner party down the hall, now going on their third bottle of wine. Hush, little baby, don’t you cry. Momma’s gonna bake you an apple pie.

Even as Lovisa begins to cry through her singing, there is no manipulation here. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it takes to carry a baby through infancy into early childhood. And someone once did it for you. Did it for all of us.

And if, at any point, you found the performance had to bear, the constant crying like a flock of seagulls, cawing annoyingly in your ear, don’t for a moment think it’s any better for the mother who does it every night. The red of Lovisa’s baby wrap is no mistake. It is the colour of sacrifice. And like a wound, it extracts a price.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She will only stop when she has all her clock babies in her sling and the last one has stopped crying. She lays them out on the floor and stretches out on top of them, at once soothing and smothering, her own exhaustion taking over, transforming her into a bear, a whale now. Sleep with me, my youngsters. She is beyond wanting anything else for herself, now, but sleep.

The agony of suspense at the end is whether they will cry again.

When, after several false finales, there is silence, it blooms as beautiful and fragile as peonies.


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creme brulee, if you dare

Helene Matte’s L’essence de la Vie

In bright blue workman’s coveralls, Helene begins by sweeping the floor. A cosmetics suitcase, metal ladder, a circle of black plastic taped to the floor. She has comic delivery. She pulls seven members from the audience, slides between their legs, declares it a boy, or a girl, then hands out licorice cigars.

Every action is punctuated by a wind-up kitchen timer, which goes off, and is then reset, continuously throughout the performance.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She lifts to her face a potty training seat, the kind that fits snugly over a toilet seat, and peering through it, mugs for the crowd, sticks her tongue out like a child. This is particularly funny because she holds the pose for a long time. It’s simple and effective. She’s doing the inappropriate. Demonstrating unsocialized behaviour, a common complaint of children. But she is showing the face we all want, at some point, to show. I know this face. I feel it beneath my own, I feel it wanting to get out and misbehave, in the most puerile way. Fart and moon and dance around holding my crotch. My inner clown.

She is wearing a tight dress made of a print that makes me think of Polynesia, with a red t-shirt underneath and slits cut out for her breasts. She gets the audience to sing an impromptu medley of Mama Mama Mama. She directs us to sing different notes and rhythms, it sounds tribal.

To a calypso beat, Helene does a spoof of tribal dancing, all hips and pelvis, still with the potty training crown on her head. She passes out a coconut treat.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

The timer goes off again. She applies a white cold cream to her neck and chin, she takes off her dress, smears white cold cream over her ass, then a smear of red paint across her ass and knees. Her red t-shirt has “drama queen” written on it.

Helene has a read thread hanging from her vagina like a tampon string. She attaches it to a small doll which can record what she tells it. “Now you do what I say, not what I do.” She asks an audience member to hold the doll, then backs up into the centre of the room, the thread unspooling out of her vagina, until the end comes out. She ties this around her waist and winds herself up again, spinning towards the audience.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She gets down on her knees, sticks licorice in her ears, and a black licorice cigar up her ass. She gets a man from the audience to throw Smarties into her mouth from a distance. Finally, after twenty excruciating tries, he finally gets one in her mouth.

The timer goes off again.

Helene puts on an old-fashioned wool bathing suit, balaclava and toque, sets up logs for a campfire, hauls out a fire extinguisher, and crumples newspaper like she’s about to start it. She is holding a breast pump and brings out one more log for the fire, pricked with sparklers.

Reciting a poem in French, “L’essence de la Vie”, she pumps her breast. “What makes us advance, destroys us, because when we advance, we advance towards our death. That’s life.”

She climbs a ladder, hangs a sign from a construction site, “installation sous tension, danger de mort”.

She pours thick molasses in a ring onto the black plastic circle taped to the floor. She ties her head up with string, recites the poem again, in English this time, douses herself with milk from a red plastic oil can. Then she passes around some more deserts. Homemade crème brulee. Says, “Please,” very sweetly, begging for help in handing them out. She’s covered in milk. And wet. And she’s just been through hell.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She surrounds the audience with tape, like we’re at a crime scene. On the tape is the word FRAGILE, repeated over and over.

This desperation, drained-out, burnt-out, just humiliated feeling, then having to serve sweets, be sweet, home-made desserts. She’s drinking straight out of a can of maple syrup now.

The plastic circle, bordered by molasses and full of milk, has an orange light shining down on it, now a slide of a baby breastfeeding. The milk makes a perfect projection screen.

A wind-up lullaby from a crib, Helene lights the sparkle log, sits at the top of her ladder. The timer goes off again. She stands under a rigged-up bucket for another three minutes. The timer goes off. She pulls the cord and is showered in safety matches.

This is not, I don’t think, a piece for deep analysis. It is a piece to witness and to feel. It is a wave you have to let crash over you. And I am sitting here looking out over the aftermath and thinking, yes, I know what it’s like to feel, in motherhood, a maddening exhaustion, when you think you might be going insane. When you feel like a beast, a monkey, a pig, or a cow – une vache. You feel like you’re kneeling in front of a crowd of strangers, with licorice sticks in your ears and a candy cigar up your ass, and you’re trying to catch Smarties in your mouth, thrown at you by a banker, or a gynecologist. You feel like your life is brittle, in tinders, a bucketful of matches, waiting to burst into flames. And meanwhile the timer rings every three minutes, you can’t fucking concentrate on a thing, the constant interruptions are driving you crazy, you can’t think, and at the end of it all is this godawful mess of spilled milk, the sickly sweet smell of molasses, and you’ve made treats for all the kids, for everyone, in fact, and with milk on your face, your boobs hanging out, you must try to be dignified, as you pass them around.

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To be so intimate…

To be so intimately involved in your children’s lives is to know what they acquire, bit by bit, day by day, but also what they will lose. I started watching Victoria Singh’s performance-based video somewhere near the end of its 22-minute loop. There is a close-up of her son’s mouth. Two wet black holes in the gums where he’s lost two milk teeth. The loss of baby teeth – a quote crosses the screen. “Steiner calls this ‘dentice’: the birth of conscious intellect.” The bloody holes where her son’s baby teeth used to be, and the blunt saw-edge of a new big tooth pushing through the gums, brings to my awareness a new kind of brutality, the price that is extracted in our acquisition of “conscious intellect”. Every step of progress also signifies a loss, often more brutal in nature than we recognize, signified by the teeth, like little tombstones, outliving the body as they do.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Watching this video, I am affected by a sense of the passing of my own son’s childhood. All the magic that has already taken place, never to be repeated. What lessons in ephemera our children teach us.

Victoria Singh has created a 22-minute loop entitled “SON/ART: Kurtis the 7 Chakra Boy”, with her son Kurtis, filming and photographing him over a 7 year period, from the ages of 7 months, to his 7th birthday. Every year is devoted to one of the 7 chakras, and the actions of the year inspired by what each chakra represents. The images are accompanied by Derek Champion’s wonderful soundtrack.

It starts with red paint, pushed with his bare hands across a high-chair table, then in the bathtub, a red rose, a tropical flower.

There is another close-up of her son’s mouth, eating a segment of orange, his clean, square teeth, the glistening fruit. A shiny thread of juice runs down his throat. His small pudgy hands. “I ate dem ole up, Mommy!”

For yellow, there are feathers tickling his belly, his giggle like sunlight. Yellow is for courage and personal power. That year Kurtis learns that Dumbo had a feather to give him courage.

The next chakra is green. It stands for compassion. Victoria shows her son in nature. She has placed him in environments where he will acquire her values. Without this intentionality, what do children learn? And how?

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Blue is for thyroid, and throat, and communication. His face is painted cobalt blue.

For purple, Kurtis has learned to knit and weave. The knitting is to focus his third eye. He grows lavender plants, and his third eye is anointed every night with lavender oil.

For the last chakra, white peacock feathers make an appearance, and we are back at his teeth, the birth of conscious intellect. We have seen his gorgeous face mature, his body grow.

At the end of the loop he receives his certificate from Linda Montano, a certificate for Performance Art Saint. As a graduate of her on-going “Another 21 Years Of Living Art”, Linda tells Kurtis – live-streaming from another location – that, because of his involvement in this project, he gets to share his creativity with other people. “Creation is love, and creation is healing,” she says. “And creation promotes inner health, outer health, and world health. Amen.” I couldn’t agree more. “I’m so happy,” Linda says, “this is a great day in my life.” And Kurtis, now 7, sounds unimpressed.

He’s already busy with something else, his curiosity snagged on something new. Once you set a person on the trail of creation, it’s often hard to stop.

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March 24, 2012 · 10:55 pm

Madame Curie Discovers the Milky Way

Lovisa Johansson’s Milky Way

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Have I ever seen anything as true as Lovisa Johansson’s durational piece entitled, Milky Way? Three hours of uninterrupted repetition, she sits on a white cushion under a spotlight, in oatmeal-coloured, short-sleeved undershirt and long johns, her red-blonde hair in a long, fuzzy ponytail. Penned in by a tight circle of milk bottles – one upside-down and draining its contents into another, like hour glasses keeping time in ounces of milk – she lets them drain, then changes the nipple and flips them, continuously.

Her attitude is one of incredible patience. It is almost hard to watch, how trapped she is by the action, the circle of bottles, and yet, how devotional she seems, too. Overtop it all, a soundtrack of wetness, of dripping liquid, like a leaky faucet, or a broken toilet. She doesn’t even have room enough to stretch out her legs. The action of changing the bottles requires precision. She wipes the bottles with a dish towel she has slung over her shoulder. Every nipple is shook out in the same manner, before it gets changed and the milk-timer flipped, then she swivels on her cushion to the next one.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

It could be three o’clock in the morning. Your baby has a fever. Your friends are all out on the town, at a black tie event, collecting awards. But you are in the spotlight at the kitchen sink. The tap is leaking. Your body is shaky from lack of sleep and there is this delicate business of sterilizing the bottles, filling them with milk.

It is done, as is the whole performance, with a numbing resignation to boredom, the necessary restraint required of the nurturing repetitive gesture. Drudgery and chores. And yet, there is something of the scientist at work, Madame Curie on the cusp of a great discovery, hard at work in her lab, in the middle of the night.

She has the serene, exhausted look of a medieval visionary mystic.


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Dramatic Impersonations of Motherhood

Alejandra Herrera Silva’s Challenge

I am always amazed by the vulnerability of performance artists. I am also moved because I am a mother and this is a performance about being a mother. Alejandra Herrera Silva is a Chilean performance artist, living and working in LA. Her performance is immediately visceral. Everything is white and glass and milk, like purity itself. Then she introduces spilled red wine, a touch of lipstick, and everything gets messy.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She is ballsy, like a mother. She co-opts the participation of a seeing impaired man. She has a jug of milk she wants him to pour over her head. He delivers just the subtlest amount, a dribble. It is altogether a different feel from when the handsome young man did it a while before, attending the gallery with his attentive girlfriend. Then it felt more typical, like the obvious spilling-onto-the-woman of something, mess and bodily fluids, and she has to take it, of course, but somehow it felt more uncomfortable, like Dejeuner sur l’herbe, because he was clean and dressed and dry – pouring apologetically, but still clean and dressed and dry, nevertheless – and could take whatever pleasure, or discomfort, he wanted with his sight, from seeing it, the effect of his actions.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

With all the mess, there is a lot of cleaning up in her performance. Always the purity, always the mess, always the clean-up, the wine, the broken glass, the brush, the dust pan, irrational temper, then comes resting, then comes the constant calling, Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mamamamamama!

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Alejandra’s performance is cyclical, every new series of actions revolving around a word embroidered on a white cloth. There are 20 words in all, each one given to the artist from women around the world, of different ages, a word that, for them, sums up their experience of motherhood. The white embroidery thread resists the staining effect of the wine, and so emerges only when the cloth is soiled. You can only read the words against a background of blood. They are words like Perfection, Pain, Decision, Hope. When a cloth has been thoroughly soaked, it is trimmed to fit into one of twenty identical frames, and hung on the wall.

Women are so well versed in blood. Every month we read our body’s messages written in blood. We know thin blood, thick blood, blood clots, blood loss, and blood that fails to come. How often do we see this represented in art? Not the political blood, but the private blood – though, of course, they are interchangeable.

Every time the dark red wine dribbles down Alejandra’s face, over her chin, down her neck, blooming like a flower suddenly at the bottom of her white shirt, it feels intimate and transgressive. It is a mild transgression of our sensibilities, to see blood so reminiscent of the mundane blood of women’s lives. On one side: transgressive; on the other: mundane.

Occasionally, the artist changes her wet and purple-red stained clothes and dons another identical set of white ones. She undresses and dresses again with a perfuntoriness that is domestic and refreshing. This is not preening for the camera – what mother has the time for that? The title of Alejandra’s show is Challenge, that is her own word for motherhood, and an apt description of her performance as well. It is a three hour performance, an exercise in endurance, discipline and stamina – with an edge of desperation, sharp as cut glass. The floor is covered in shards. She sweeps them up and drops them, with a kind of anthemic tinkling, into a large glass medicine jar labelled, Desafio – the Spanish word for challenge.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She holds up a glass pane with the statement, “Women postpone motherhood for their careers.”

Could we all please stop for a while and pay attention?

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New Maternalisms and the great big boob with a cherry on top

I arrive at the Mercer Union building (1286 Bloor Street West) just as The Milk Truck takes the corner at Bloor and St Clarens. A giant breast on top of a delivery truck, a flashing red cherry for a nipple. The truck is white and pink and blue, with stripes and polka dots. I think ice cream truck. I think yum. It is 6 pm on Friday, March 23rd, 2012. A weekend of performance art is about to begin – live, durational, and video pieces – collected under the title The New Maternalisms, curated by Natalie Loveless, in conjunction with The Fado Performance Art Center.

Jill Miller has brought her Milk Truck from Pittsburgh. It is a social action piece. The milk truck is available on call, like a breastfeeding ambulance service, for women in the city who encounter negative reactions, or are prevented from breast feeding in public. They can call, email or text the truck and The Milk Truck crew will arrive and set up an impromptu party, along with comfy chairs, a colouful throw rug, to challenge the idea that breastfeeding isn’t a public event, as much a right as dining out in a restaurant, or eating a sandwich on the bus.

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