Experimentica- Day 5 - Authenticity, fragments of Wales, and the spectacular body

On this last day of Experimentica in Cardiff, several of the pieces directly engaged with issues of Welsh identity, but in a surprisingly fragmented way. Rowan O’Neill’s ‘Cerdded Adre’ (‘The Long Walk Home’) is an auto-historical telling of the performance’s own coming into being, interspersed with short, self-contained performance moments accompanied by O’Neill singing in English and Welsh. These include the soaking of her grandfather’s cardigan in salt water; a slow and painful walk across strewn rocks and shells; and the dousing of earth with milk to create a muddy paste which is smeared on the wall and on O’Neill’s body. Throughout, the piece has an easy, conversational style and is punctuated with self-deprecating humour: as O’Neill prepares to wipe the milk-soaked earth on the wall, she says quietly, ‘This isn’t shit.’

‘Cerdded Adre’ wrestles with ideas of Welshness, performance, and fakery. O’Neill brings together accounts of the ‘Welsh Not’ used to punish the speaking of Welsh in schools; cultural critic Raymond Williams’ critique of the exploitation masked by the idealisation of the pastoral; and Iolo Morganwg, founding figure of Welsh bardic culture (embodied in the Eisteddfod festival), and also voted ‘Greatest Welsh Faker’ in a 2003 poll. O’Neill reflects critically on her own choices and intentions as an artist. What comes across is the sense that the only way to be authentically ‘Welsh’ is to realise that Welshness itself is a performance.

In ‘Capeli Crannog’, sonic arts collective Gwrando create a shrine to lost Welsh music. Dozens of record players and countless old records (predominantly church songs) were salvaged from streets, skips, and charity shops – representing an attempt not only to recycle these objects as objects of beauty, but also to recover the discarded cultural refuse which they represent. The space is arranged like a chapel, lit in the style of arched church windows and decorated everywhere with lilies. Sound fragments from the old records are electronically layered over each other, playing at different speeds and using their gaps and static as percussive elements. One of the collective begins to sing live hymns in a resonant, powerful voice. Beneath her singing, the loops, skips, and scratches build to a climax, ending with different vocal and instrumental versions of ‘Amazing Grace’ pouring out of every record player in the room. This attempt to recover what has been lost is decidedly contemporary. It feels as if what is recoverable is only the distance between, the glance toward, the view from here and the desire to look back.

Each morning of Experimentica, Chapter have hosted an artists’ breakfast for discussion and sharing of ideas. In Sunday morning’s discussion, one of the themes was the use of pain and extreme acts in live art. I was struck by the way in which the presentation of the body in pain can fall on different and contradictory points on an axis between authenticity and inauthenticity. These acts can symbolise the real, the unfakeable, the live presence of the performer and the co-presence of spectators. But they can also symbolise the spectacular, the theatrical, the sensational hook which draws in audiences and solidifies an artist’s fame.

These tensions were at work in Helena Hunter’s ‘Tracing Shadows’, the final performance of the festival. In comparison with the rest of the work in the programme, Hunter brings a veritable arsenal of theatrical tricks: projections and pulleys, meticulous control over sound and lighting, and darkness as cover for theatrical sleight-of-hand to create surprise images for the blinded audience. And yet its central concern is Hunter’s barely visible body, her naked back twisting and straining in the most of sparse of light. In brief glimpses through the blackness we see blue ribbon pouring onto her body, a child’s dress appearing in the darkness, and Hunter’s body writhing and breaking in an attempt to fit into the impossibly small dress. These elements create a fairy tale world that combines the seductive and the destructive, the childlike and the adult, desire and the artificiality of desire. Like fairy tales themselves, this is completely contrived work which falls very much within the mechanisms of the theatrical, and at the same time it is eerie, compelling, and haunting.

Theron Schmidt has been writer in residence throughout Experimentica 07, and is part of Writing from Live Art (www.writingfromliveart.co.uk), a Live Art UK initiative.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You write very well.