Monday, 21 July 2008

One or Two Things: Part One

Gail Pickering, 'Mad Masters', South London Gallery. 26 June 2008, 7 pm

Gail Pickering, 'Mad Masters', 2008, performance view, South London Gallery

The vast exhibition space of the South London Gallery was filled, for Gail Pickering’s ‘Mad Masters’, with large plywood structures draped in coloured material. Between and out of these strange shapes, young female dancers moved with a kind of exaggerated clumsiness, in distorted versions of military routines – like a march or a salute. They were accompanied by an energetic percussion, played on a range of instruments including cow bells and a violin bow, by the musician David Aylward; they were also accompanied by a young American woman who sat on top of the tallest plywood structure, and read a story.

I can’t tell you what the story was about, because the performance itself was so overwhelming that ‘Mad Masters’ seemed both greater than the sum of its parts, and weaker than them. It was an exhilarating explosion of sensory effects, in other words, that nevertheless rendered each effect impossible to understand.

This is partly because each element in Mad Masters had been abstracted from the world. The material draped over plywood, for example, suggested the structures were flag poles, or sailing ships, or ceremonial buildings; in the end, they were none of these things. Sufficiently formless to become simply forms, the structures were just physical obstacles in the dancers’ way. Likewise, the music was like nothing I have heard before – a syncopated disharmony that was both compelling and unrhythmic. The dancers moved in irregular patterns that were impossible to pin down, and even the narrative was incomprehensible. The narrator sat far away from the other performers and spoke in a monotonous, US drawl. In the context of this reduced and distorted reality, her words floated above the action, and remained untethered to what was happening below.

Gail Pickering, 'Mad Masters', 2008, performance view, South London Gallery

And yet, amid this confusion there was a strong sense of purpose. In keeping with its title, the constituent elements of ‘Mad Masters’ seemed to comply with a logic that was both external to the performance itself, and impossible to ascertain from watching it. The wooden structures were complex and looked like they were difficult to build, even if their function was unknown. The dancers, moving with severe precision and blank faces, looked like puppets controlled by hands we could not see

In Pickering’s current solo show at Gasworks (12 June - 27 July 2008), two video pieces also explore the implications of a common – and perhaps arbitrary – purpose. In‘Hungary! And Other Economies’ (2006) a group of porn stars is transported around rural France, dressed in geometric costumes and reading passages from a play about the Marquis de Sade. It is never clear whether or not the actors’ flirtations with each other are for show, which of their words are their own, or indeed why they have been instructed with this strange accumulation of tasks in the first place. Similarly, at the start of ‘Dissident Sunset’ (2007) a gathering of would-be revolutionaries searches for a movement to follow. ‘Like something to put on a T-Shirt?’, one of them suggests.

It is humour like this that gives the audience access to Pickering’s bewildering circus of effects. In ‘Dissident Sunset’ one-liners make the audience smile, in ‘Hungary!’ the actors’ laughter shatters the brittle incongruity of the tasks they perform, and in ‘Mad Masters’ the sheer exuberance of the percussion rippled through the audience as we stood in single file against the walls. The result is a kind of communal ‘punctum’ (to use Roland Barthes’ term), which pricks the bubble of individual allegiance, and joins the audience and the performers in a moment of cathartic unity.

The title for ‘Mad Masters’ in fact comes from an ethnographic documentary by the filmmaker Jean Rouch, who made ‘Les Maitres Fous’ in 1954. His film shows a Ghanaian ritual that was designed to exorcise the violence of colonialism, and Pickering’s piece was a restaging of this film. In other words, Pickering re-presented Rouch’s representation of a Ghanaian rite, which represents European invasion. This makes ‘Mad Masters’ a representation of performance itself, and of the echoes of performance performed ad infinitum. In this light, it’s not surprising that the purpose of the work was so distorted that it seemed arbitrary – purpose had become performance itself.

Energetically combined, the confusing and abstracted forms in ‘Mad Masters’ suggest that performance is more than a social ritual; it is a social need. The piece is one link in a chain of events, not concerned with the masters at the start of that chain but with the waves of influence that they set off. In this piece, as in other works by Pickering, the performers seem locked into a gesture of representation. They are compelled to perform, and exist only inside these layers of performance. Do they submit to this regime voluntarily, or is it the only way to survive? And is the audience really being drawn in through moments of cathartic release, or are we already involved? Perhaps those moments are our reward for compliance.

At the end of ‘Mad Masters’, nobody knew if the performance was over –the audience waited in silence to see if something else would go on. Normally when that happens it’s because the artwork lacks impact, but in this case it suggested the opposite. In the aftermath of this theatrical display, everything could have been part of the performance; everything, in other words, was twisted out of line with reality, as if performance was the only reality left. Personally, I was drawn into this half-sinister world. Like the revolutionaries in ‘Dissident Sunset’, we all need something to follow.

Mary Paterson

Please only reproduce this text with permission from the author and Open Dialogues,

No comments:

Post a Comment