Once More Into the Breach

Feature in Issue 20-2 | Summer 2008

Robert Ayers enjoys the familiar and the unexpected at the National Review of Live Art.

The people at the National Review of Live Art claim that it is ‘Utterly unique, never the same twice, consistently surprising …’ and they aren’t exaggerating. Even for a regular like myself, these few days in February are not merely an assault on the senses – with more than 60 hours of programmed work over a gruelling five days – but also an assault course for body and mind as well.

Every year I come away with aching limbs, profound fatigue, and impressions ranging from horror to delight. This time around was no exception.

I was delighted by the US-based artists in residence who had been corralled together by the (curiously absent) Jamie McMurray under the banner Depicting Action. Ranging from luminaries like Suzanne Lacy through New York pals like Dan McKereghan and Gertrude Berg to people I’d never encountered before like Mariel Carranza, they were a constant presence throughout the festival, conjuring a strange and constantly provocative set of works in a series of odd artists’ booths – part proscenium, part cage – that they’d had constructed for themselves.

By contrast, and talking of cages, among my least favourite works here were a couple of more or less static pieces by another of the artists-in-residence, Kris Verdonck. In one he had a young woman lying in a three-dimensional bed of nails (the effect was indeed of a particularly cruel cage) in another he had the same young woman, dressed as a mini-skirted café waitress, floating upright in a glass tank of water.

Her heartbeat and breathing (through an air hose) were amplified. This didn’t go altogether smoothly, and more than one of the repeated stagings of this piece were interrupted because of her distress. These pieces were abhorrent even in their conception. Men putting women on display has a far too significant history – and present, unfortunately – for it to be acceptable when served up as blithely as this.

Again by contrast, I very much enjoyed Lisa Wesley’s new performance, Something in the Blood. Wesley is a mesmeric performer when she wants to be, and this combination of autobiographical recollections and a script concocted from her email exchanges with plant collectors around the world provided her with the perfect platform for an almost whispered delivery that is able to draw a theatre full of spectators into a lovely intimacy. At once deeply touching, utterly bizarre, and laugh-out-loud funny.

You could not imagine anything more different than another of my favourite pieces. Nan Hoover, who will be 77 this year, has been a pioneer of artists’ use of film, video, photography, and light since the early 1970s. The piece that she presented here could not have been simpler: she walked slowly through a sequence of overlapping coloured light beams. But she did this with such presence, and such assured conviction, that even late on Friday night she was accorded an utterly rapt silence by a largely young and excited audience. Sometimes an artist can import her own reality to a situation, even if that reality seems utterly out of keeping with what is going on around her. It was thrilling to see Hoover achieve this in Glasgow.

There were so many other things. Things that I loved, things that I disliked, things that I missed, things that I ignored. Things that I never managed to find. Things that went on rather irritatingly while I was trying to have a conversation in the bar. Things that happened out in the garden in the dark. Things that happened in the greenhouse.

But that is the nature of the National Review of Live Art. Almost too many things happening all at once. Nobody can take it all in. And that, ironically, is what makes it Europe’s most important performance festival. Days, even weeks later you find yourself pondering things you saw and heard, and conversations you had, and you start to comprehend the real meanings of the experience. It is at that stage that you realize that the NRLA is worth so much more than the physical ordeal that it entails.

The National Review of Live Art 2008 took place at the Tramway, Glasgow, 6–10 February as part of the New Territories festival. For further information, and for dates of the NRLA 2009 (posted autumn 2008), see www.newmoves.co.uk

This article in the magazine

Issue 20-2
p. 28