Sacred: US Radical

Feature in Issue 22-4 | Winter 2010

Moving waxworks, speaking holograms, and a born-again Velvet Underground playing the tunes. Dorothy Max Prior finds things aren’t always what they seem to be…

Sacred 2010 was the sort of satisfyingly eclectic mix of tantalising forms and fascinating artists – established and emerging alike – that we have come to expect of Chelsea Theatre’s annual jamboree.

This year saw an influx of shows that first saw light of day at New York’s legendary PS122 venue. These included Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s Pullman, WA and the New York City Player’s ADS by Richard Maxwell, both of which I saw; and Cupola Bobber’s Way Out West, The Sea Whispered Me and Sara Juli’s The Money Conversation, both of which I missed. Missing things becomes a kind of festival experience in itself with these full-packed seasons full of fleeting one- or two-night appearances: other artists that I sadly missed including Stacy Makishi, Robin Deacon, Leibniz, Natasha Davis and Sacred’s artists in residence, Julia Bardsley and Andrew Poppy.

That said, I was happy with what I managed to see! Young Jean Lee’s offering is a strippedback, house-lights-up, relentless confessional/ interrogational play on the language of interpersonal relationships: well scripted and well executed, but perhaps not quite as radical as a UK audience schooled on Forced Entertainment and Station House Opera might have wished for. But an artist I’d be interested in seeing/hearing more from.

Maxwell’s ADS was a first encounter for me with this seminal US artist, and again I saw shades of Forced Entertainment’s confessional style, although I know that Tim Etchells is a fan of Maxwell’s work, so this could well be a chicken-and-egg debate! Regardless, it was a show brimming with restrained beauty, challenging our notion (pertinent in this age of video calls and Skype) of ‘live’ and ‘mediated’ presence. There are no ‘present’ actors sharing the space with us; the first-person text is delivered by life-size, realistic ‘holograms’ of a selection of NYC citizens of various ages and life experiences. Each ‘hologram’ (actually, a reworking of the Pepper’s Ghost projection trick), seemingly as solid and sturdy as you or me, stands and delivers his/her heartfelt thoughts, most often starting with the phrase ‘I believe’. It is only as they step from the soapbox and fade away do we really take in that they are but ghosts in the machine. Ironically, the first person up believes that the ‘faceless and bodiless’ non-contact of Facebook and YouTube are a downhill path for mankind. Subsequent confessors believe in love, success, yoga, spirituality, baseball, saving the world – or in nothing. It’s like an expose of Shakespeare’s humours or Steiner’s temperaments: we are all individuals, yet ‘types’ manifest the world over, and ultimately humans have more commonality than difference. Everyone is beautiful!

Meanwhile, the bar downstairs is being transformed into ‘a sweatshop for the soul’ as David Hoyle’s Factory sets up (work) shop. Creating interesting thematic pairings has become a feature of David’s recent installation/performance work, and in this piece (drected by Nathan Evans, with a host of talented collaborators) the Factory refers both to Andy Warhol’s decadent 60s space and scene (a nice tie-in to Sacred’s US Radical theme!), and to David Hoyle’s working-class Northern English heritage. Once ‘clocked in’ we have the opportunity to take part in Chelsea Girls-style screen tests; to make our own screenprints; and to listen to the Velvets reincarnated (featuring David as a kind of Andy-Lou hybrid; Thom Shaw spaced-out but gorgeous as tambourine tickling Nico lookalike Simone Simone; and Sonic Sideshow’s Nathaniel Slade doing a pretty mean Sterling Morrison impersonation). David Hoyle’s work is always political (the personal is the political, right?) but on this occasion there is no pussyfooting: channelling the spirit of a Socialist Worker electioneer circa 1969, he’s straight in for the kill on the Clegg betrayal and the current government’s failings. But as always, humour is paramount; and the band do a pretty mean version of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ to boot. Radical! Oh what fun politics can be! Power to the purple and pink people!

On another evening, the theatre space was transformed into a hall of ghastly delights as Marisa Carnesky (in collaboration with American musician/artist Rasp Thorne) took her obsession with waxworks – as previously manifested in Dystopian Wonders at the Roundhouse CircusFest (April 2010) – onto the next stage in The Quickening of the Wax. The audience is divided into two groups. The first group get to encounter a series of grotesque living waxwork displays (including one of a woman exposing the bloodied foetus in her womb), then the ‘tour’ is interrupted by blackout and a blood-curdling scream, and we are invited to sit and watch group two going through the same experience. The nature of voyeurism, you will have gathered, is a key theme. What distinguishes this show from Carnesky’s earlier explorations of the same themes is the playfulness: none more so than in the wonderfully absurd ‘tea break’ freezes in gruesome action – mid-sizzling on the electric chair, or whilst chainsawing a woman in half – in which everyone downs tools of torture and Marisa fetches cups of char for the weary waxwork museum workers. Sterling stuff!

Sacred: US Radical – a season of contemporary performance took place at Chelsea Theatre, London, 22 October – 20 November 2010.

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Issue 22-4
p. 27