Performance Page 9
UPDATE: Phoenixes etc
Phoenixes, Satyrs, Pigs and Horses
Performances 1997-1998 by Anthony Howell
It is time someone mentioned what I've been doing, and, since I have been doing it mostly in far-flung places or in obscure cellars in the East End, few of our worthy critics seem aware of it, so it might as well be me who does the mentioning.
In March 1997 I performed a piece called Birth of the BBC at the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade, Serbia. This was practically a political piece ridiculing the attempts of British Broadcasting to introduce democratic television to a country which has channels run by a genuine opposition and none of the bland, suppressive uniformity of the British media. In it, I declaimed a text extolling the virtues of indirect censorship as practiced by the BBC - rejection on the grounds of poor-quality footage, on the grounds that too few questions have been posed for idiots, on the grounds of a perceived lack of commercial viability and ratings appeal. I began this speech in my best suit, took off my tie, burnt it, stripped off my shirt, burnt my vest, then my underpants and my socks while my suit refused to be a suit any more. It wished to be a separate jacket and trousers, the jacket arranged like a cross to the north, the trousers arranged like a crescent to the south, and then, among smoking pyres of underwear, my laces revolted from my shoes and also wished to be separate entities, just as I was verbally mourning the fact that regionalisation and privatisation were carving up the broadcasting business, but no worries, I was here in Belgrade to launch the birth of the BBC, that is, the Balkan Broadcasting Company, an utterly suppressive monolith built on the British model which should certainly please the Balkan powers-that-be, and finally naked, I whipped myself with my laces in penitence in a city where many having nothing but laces to sell now, and then burnt the phoenix logo of the BBC, as I hopped and squawked, with a shoe to my nose like the beak of a phoenix as everything smoked and my socks let off a stench. More about this performance and others in my book Serbian Sturgeon (click for publications).
At the end of April, in the same year, I performed The Businessman, the Turncoat and the Satyr at the Museum of Modern Art in Skopje, Macedonia. The curator there had told me that the museum boasted a generous marble terrace running for some 150 metres from the East to the West. Skopje lies on the pilgrimage route from Europe to Asia: so those heading for the monasteries of Mount Athos will pass through there, as will those heading for Jerusalem or Mecca. Dressed in his suit, my businessman walked very quickly up and down the terrace, then gradually his pace became slower and finally he was moving like an automaton, so slowly no one could see him moving. Then he came to a stop, midway between East and West. Very systematically he removed his clothes and put them on backwards so that his tie hung down his back, and even his shoes were turned round, his heels in the toes and his toes in the heels and the laces tied around sole and foot to keep them on. Now he had become the Turncoat in a A Little Night Novel by Milorad Pavic. This describes a monk on Mount Athos who betrayed some Serb officers to the Gestapo - because the Gestapo had threatened to burn down the monastery if the whereabouts of the Serbs were not disclosed - and the monk's loyalty to his monastery was greater than his loyalty to the fugitives - and so the officers were caught and shot. But after that the monk wore his cassock and his shoes reversed.
The Turncoat moves in a wobbly, spasmodic way, a movement forced upon him by the circumstance. The terrace seems incredibly long now. Noises of car-horns, a goat's bleat, birdsong, dogs barking and a car's distant alarm, get weakly reiterated by his voice, and these half- articulated sounds echo between the dark pillars which support the floor above. He reaches the Eastern end, and just then, as the sun reaches the clouded horizon and the sky begins to show some more suffused patches of pink, the call to prayer begins, sounding from minaret to minaret. Allah, Allah Akbar... Allah...
And this is his trigger for ripping off his clothes, tearing them off as he shuffles forwards again, casting the jacket aside, kicking off this shoe and then that, never ceasing to move forwards though along the terrace, ridding himself of belt, trousers, casting off his shirt, showering buttons everywhere, then vest, socks, underpants - everything comes off - and the length of the terrace is littered with these items. But all the time he has been moving forwards and then, having reached the Western end, backwards again, as he does this, so that when he stands naked at last, the backs of his knees come into contact with the low balcony to the East, and he turns, pours wine into a goblet, takes the wine into his mouth and steps backwards, balancing on his toes, reeling back, being one of the naked satyrs I have seen, executed in bronze, in Belgrade Museum, and squirting the red wine out of his mouth; an arching spray which lands on the stone floor of the darkening terrace. He takes another mouthful and steps backwards again, all his weight pitched backwards, his eyebrows 'satirically' arched. He holds this out-of-kilter position for a minute before stepping backwards again and holding it with the other foot back, a living statue to Pan, whose high country this is. At the Western end he turns and the dying sun mingles with the wine spilling down his chest. He steps backwards, steps backwards again, into the deepening darkness. He squirts wine, steps backwards and is gone.
After this I returned to the UK, and in November 1997 I performed The World Turned Upside Down with two weeners, which are pigs somewhat larger than piglets, in the cellar of Hollywood Leather in the East End of London. The title comes from old chap-books with woodcuts illustrating a reversed world. These were seen as educational. Children were shown pictures of women beating their husbands. What is wrong with this picture? Then they were shown pictures of pigs slitting the throats of their butchers. Oh, I know, I know now. It should be the other way round! Pigs can't climb stairs, so we couldn't get very big pigs into the cellar. Still, the two smaller ones snuffled around and made lovely grunts and dolphin-like squeals as I stood in my suit, stood on my head in my suit, took off my suit, put it on the wrong way round, stood on my head, took of my suit, put it on upside down, at each stage stating the situation - "Well turned out, facing front, right way up!" or "Upside down, inside out, back to front!" There are, I discovered subtle differences between inside out and outside in. Cheery art afficionados leaned over the half door we had made down to the cellar, peering in like ruddy-cheeked farmers. Then they went upstairs and ate pork sausages (Weiners) and drank good wine...
But I wanted to work with a large pig, and the opportunity came in Belfast this year, at the Fix Festival, organised by Catalyst Arts in June. The organisers found me a very large sow called Joan. I don't know whether she was a Tamworth or some related Irish variety, but anyway she had ginger bristles and lovely ginger eyelashes, and she was immense. I decided I no longer needed my suit, and performed sculpture for her which I thought a pig would appreciate, or at least which I thought I would appreciate if I were a pig. The piece was called Pig Sculpture. My mother, who was a vet and who died two years ago, would have been proud of me. I made small, tucked up sculptures with my own body, then turned them on their side or stood them on their heads, sculptures which were never taller than the back of my partner. I squatted on my hands, rolled over onto my back in the same position, holding each position for as long as possible. This work was based on the performance cubism I have always been interested in, turning actions or positions through 90 degrees and now upside down or on their sides. I had drenched my genitals in the cheapest cologne I could find in Belfast - very cheap it was too - and Joan seemed to view these with distaste, I'm glad to say, and became more interested in interacting with the audience. She also made very good drawings with her bristles which she rubbed off against a post. Finally, as the piece came to a conclusion, she let herself down onto her elbows and took a nap. I thanked her for her participation, and just at that moment eight bullet-proofed members of the R.U.C. turned up in an armoured car, having heard that someone was annoying a pig in the shopping mall.
Finally, another animal piece was Homage to the Horses of Saint Petersburg, performed in the Manège, the Central Exhibition Hall of Saint Petersburg, in August. The word "Manège" means riding-school in French, but it's a long time since horses were schooled in this long building which now has a marble floor. The Manège is fronted by a classical portico held up by a double row of columns, and on either side of the steps leading up to it, one of the Dioskouri attempts to control a prancing stallion. It's not far from the Hermitage, and next to Saint Issak's Cathedral. The building used to be a taxi-depot before being taken over and turned into an exhibition space. I was invited out to perform at the 2ndFestival of Contemporary Art and Performance, a wild and woolly affair, where 'do your own thing' was the order of the day. Art in Russia is still in reaction to authority, so the atmosphere was reminiscent of Fluxus events in the seventies. I want to work with horses, since the city seems so grand on the face of it, so distant and so stately. But the tourist horses are dogs. They hang their heads, lank and skinny flanked. I count their ribs as they doze by the column with the high cross in the huge square behind the Hermitage. Then I sit with the curator and get nowhere. Where will I find two strong white horses? The Dioskouri and their prancing steeds represent a homage to the genitals. Later I go out to Catherine's park with Yaroslava, my Siberian friend, to inspect some horses she has found for me. Baikal and Pirat. Baikal like the lake larger than England somewhere in Siberia. These are fine white creatures, and quite as Greek as the statuary they will emulate. We trot them round and round, Dimitry and me, then wind them through the trees. Baikal flexes his hog-maned neck. Dimitri needs to be more assertive with Pirat. There's a long wait for a bus on the way back on a broad street by a canal. But none of the authorities ranked above the curator want my horse performance to go on. No shoes, no dung, no genitals. Nevertheless I'm determined to do it and at last manage to inspire the curator. On the day appointed, my horses have their shoes removed outside the Manège by a farrier, and Dimitry and I strip out of our clothes before leading these beauties into the riding- school. In the days of the czars, the Cossacks would gallop the length of it, halting an inch away from the nose of their ruler. Now the live figures echo the statues outside it. And the horses dung in the hall symmetrically and simultaneously for the first time since before the revolution. We trot them in circles on the marble floor and then take them out of the building and around it and up the ramps onto the floor below the portico, naked once more and walking the horses. We circle the columns in symmetry. Ghosts of czars and horses nod approval. There's applause. And I must say I'm pleased with these horses. Ultimately everyone including the police intended this sublime event to happen. The curator wrote a letter and the space was cleared and the clashing sounds were turned off so that the hooves of the horses could appropriate their building as was proper. The pair of them have proved I think that the world can be a better place, for no one got in the way and nothing was forbidden at the last minute. Our nudities stopped the traffic. We were at one with ancient Greece and Russia. Ha ha ha. But Russia was truly at one with her horses. Everyone was pleased with them. Sometimes at work in the world are beneficent forces.
Anthony Howell, August 1998.
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