Jerwood Encounters: SHOW: A Written Document

2158 words

Louisa Elderton

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How should the works be documented and how will this affect the reading of the works in the future? Should documentation be seen in relation to the works while they are in the gallery or should the remnants (stage set, objects, materials) left on display paint a good enough picture? [1]

In her essay on the current Jerwood Arts exhibition, Jerwood Encounters: SHOW, curator Sarah Williams discusses the ephemeral nature of performance art, focusing on the subsequent practical and philosophical issues that can arise when attempting to capture and harness this ephemerality. The documentation of a live moment is a curious thing in that it seeks to prolong what is short lived, immortalising it as a way of directly fighting against the ephemerality of passing time. It is a form through which to represent the past, and written documentation actively enables the live moment to linger on, manifesting in the imagination of the reader. But how accurately might the written document reflect the actuality of the live moment; what if the work is durational, with the writer only experiencing a tiny fragment of the whole piece; what if the writer misinterprets the intentions of the artist, subsequently misrepresenting the piece; and indeed, how does one represent the dynamics of communication between artist, artwork and viewer, so implicit within a live situation?

Ekphrasisis the term used to describe the written and often dramatic description of a visual work of art. It derives from the Greek ‘ek’ and ‘phrases’, meaning ‘out’ and ‘speak’, and is a form of discursive practice often employed by the art critic. As a form of art writing, art criticism explicitly concerns itself with establishing, by means of written texts, the value of individual artworks or art movements. Indeed, the character, or elegance, of the prose itself is considered to contribute to its sanctioning process. As a genre of writing, art criticism emerged in the context of the Eighteenth Century Salon exhibitions – a new public mode of display – and has prevailed through to the present. Today, it is perhaps less the practice of the connoisseur and more of a democratic occupation, given the wide-spread publishing opportunities that the internet provides.

My intention in employing ‘Ekphrasis’ as part of this response to the performance artworks in SHOW, is not to ascribe a critical or value judgement to the works, or even to consider these works within the broader oeuvre of the artists’ practice, but instead, to use the written word as a means of articulating and thus documenting these specific live performances by Edwina Ashton, Jack Strange and Bedwyr Williams. In turn, I hope to play with the notion of where a performance artwork or a live moment can exist, also considering how this might influence the different experiences of time that these works deliver: time present, time past, time imagined, between times. What might be established subsequently is how these descriptions will affect the future understanding of these works, these live moments; will it prolong them, capture them, and represent them, or alter them, disjoint them, corrupt them?

Here is my response to the three works, as encountered at the private view of SHOW: [2]


Edwina Ashton

Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging), 2011


Duration: three hours, intermittently

Performance times: Tuesdays and Thursdays 2-5pm

A gallery set comprised of uniquely crafted and disparate objects faces the viewer as they enter the cave of Edwina Ashton’s Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging). Brightly lit, these objects cast their shadows onto the surrounding walls, marking an ethereal extension of their physical presence. Crafted from everyday materials that have been discarded in the Jerwood Space basement, here, one man’s rubbish morphs into another man’s treasure.

Dry reconstituted-paper egg cartons are stacked, creating a beautifully textured and monotone strata pattern; a mini keyboard rests upon a cardboard box, on top of which aluminium take-away cartons are stacked – they have been squashed or crushed, and glint under the spotlights; wooden cubes have been screwed into the walls, and what seem to be empty loo rolls are tentatively balancing upon them; planks, broomsticks and brushes are crafted into bold sculptures, as the original form and function of these materials is rendered obsolete; an angular arched stage sits on wheels, ready to be pushed, pulled, or perhaps even performed upon.

These objects are not alone, and they are not lying stagnant, collecting dust. Instead, they are being investigated, touched, moved, prodded, pushed, and placed. A creature is present within this cave, engrossed in a process of organisation and reorganisation. This creature is a giant blue lobster. Its black body loosely flops as its sculpted claws cling to the chosen objects. Tentacles hang limply from the crustacean’s head, as a fluorescent mesh coats it outer shell.

This is a cave full of possibilities, with any number of object configurations waiting to be teased out and realised. The scene is not contrived, but rather reconfigures what has always been present within the Jerwood Space, enabling people to see these materials in a fresh light – to notice them for the first time. There is a sense of material pre-existence that pervades the space, and an atmosphere of purpose in how this creature considers each object.

Is it a space for play or a place of work? It seems that there is no reason or rhyme to the organisation of objects that the lobster is undertaking, but what is clear is that the environment is changeable, shiftable, malleable. It is almost a live editing process that plays out before the viewer’s eyes, as the environment is continually reordered and replaced.

Ultimately, it seems that the work is unfinished and incomplete, and that it will reveal itself slowly over time. As if staring into an aquarium, there is no point for entry and no language with which to engage the lobster, and thus the audience assumes the role of passive observer. Perhaps we appear to the lobster as just another object thrown into the mix, adding to the potentiality of this playhouse. Not being invited to touch or engage with the objects yourself, you are left with a fighting feeling of wanting to scuttle back to your own cave, where you can make your own mess, experience matter within an environment of your own making, or rather build something new out of something old.


Jack Strange,

Zip and Zing, 2011


Duration: five minutes, intermittently


Performance times: Monday-Friday 10-5, Saturday-Sunday 10-3

It is a stark and minimalist scene that initially confronts the viewer encountering Jack Strange’s Zip and Zing. A vast white wall protrudes from the architectural structure of the Jerwood Space and stretches across the breadth of the gallery. It is seemingly functionless, with two perfect circles cut out of its surface, approximately forty centimetres in diameter and sitting meters apart, and a door at one end that surely leads to nowhere. As the eye wanders over these minimal shapes and forms, trying to make sense of this bare composition, there is a twitching, a happening; the circles are moving, or rather, what is behind these shapes has been activated. As if signifying the beginning of a theatre performance, two white felt curtains are lifted from behind the circles to reveal them not as whole forms, but instead as absences, spaces of nothingness, holes.

Should I approach these holes? Stare through them to see what lies behind this barrier? As I ask myself these questions, they are inadvertently answered…

Two limbs slowly protrude and then extend through the openings. Two legs. These seem not to belong to the same creature; they are mismatched. One leg is coated in delicate white lacy tights, the other in navy-blue trousers; one seems to be male, and the other female; both are human. As they come to their full extension, the knee joints bend, lowering the foot to the ground. Momentary rest…

The absurdity of this scene, with these two legs isolated from any corporeal context, is strengthened by the convoluted construct implicit in the composition of the work; what is on the left should be on the right, and what is on the right should be on the left – legs akimbo. What lies on the other side of the wall; what is the nature of this beast? These disjointed limbs have started to jig. It is an incredibly subtle movement, almost latent, but it is there. They unnervingly vibrate up and down, creating an atmosphere of tension that slowly builds as the movement is repeated. Does it signify nervousness or excitement, irritation or anticipation? Is this twitching an expression of an emotion at all?

The work presents a space where dualities collide, or where a slippage occurs. This is both a performance artwork but also a moving sculpture; it is comical but also uncanny and unsettling; it seems to exist in two spaces, both beyond but also behind the wall; it is experienced by those viewing the work, but also by those who are the work – the volunteer participants.

The most absurd aspect of the performance is the normality that ensures after five minutes of observing the scene. The strangeness of the initial protruding limbs is neutralised and your eagerness to peek through the holes to discover what lies behind the wall, is alleviated. You stop comparing the legs and begin to see them as part of a whole – a giant stretched creature perhaps. And then suddenly, a change occurs. The legs begin to retreat, retracting back into their lair, back into the hiding place. The curtain comes down and the stage, once more, is still.


Bedwyr Williams

Urbane Hick, 2011

Performance, installation and limited edition book

Duration: 30 minutes


Performance times: The live performance occurred at the exhibition opening (15th March 2011). The resulting installation runs throughout the exhibition.

An audience has gathered to view Bedwyr Williams’ Urbane Hick, forming a semi circle around a central altar-like plinth. Upon this stage sit two men facing one another, head on. The artist himself sits alert and upright in a posture chair, his hands resting on uniform stacks of books that have been piled high. Two of these books lie open with the artist’s fingers gently brushing the newly printed pages. Opposite him, a mysterious and silent man merely observes the artist’s behaviour, never uttering a word. He is dressed in a suit and hat, and an air of authority hangs around him, with dark glasses shielding his eyes.

The artist speaks directly into a microphone, openly sharing what seems to be a stream of conscious musing on the artist’s relationship with the art world, or more specifically, his financial relationship with the art collector. But he is reading from a sheet; this speech has been pre-planned – carefully thought through. His words are satirical but also poignant and serious. He mimics the dialect in which the ‘posh’ person pronounces his name, “Bedwyr, Hi … Hi, Bedw-uh”, also pondering the implications of selling his live moments, considering the staleness that sets in at their re-performance, and the banal specially-invited audience who covet the presence and the physical mark of the artist. They can buy his time. Multiple layers combine to form the structure of these musings; the description of a performance is embedded within the performance itself.

A portrait of the artist slowly builds, not just through his physical presence on the plinth – his elevated body becoming the work itself – the touch of his hands on these books, or the words that he speaks, but through the relationship that is established with the two projections that sit behind him on either side. A tyre of fire turns and burns brightly. A farmer stands deadly still and stares across his freshly ploughed field towards cut-throat razor blades that anthropomorphise into legs, repeatedly striding towards something. Perhaps they are walking towards the city, towards the ‘art scene’, representing the dark aura that hovers around the Urbane Hick as he nears the concrete jungle. Through the presence of these projections, a dialectical relationship exists between the activated and the still moment, between the remote rural and urban environment, and between the experience of time in the present and the future.

The notion of documentation pervades the performance. The piles of books that the artist so gently touches are titled Bedwyr, I Think I Missed Your Performance, and document almost all of Williams’ performances to date, collating photographs, scripts and writings that represent the live moment. The work of over ten years rests between the leaves of these books, to be discovered by whoever opens the pages. Similarly, the performance itself is being filmed: we too are being watched. Although the artwork itself is ephemeral, losing itself to the past with every second, it is being recorded, attempting to capture its essence in a digital file for the future.

[1] Sarah Williams, An Essay on SHOW.

[2] The Jerwood Encounters: SHOW private view was held on 14th March, 2011, 6.30 – 8.30 pm.