21st January 2012 — 21st January 2012
Curated by Ali MacGilp, this evening of performance featured six London-based contemporary artists whose individual pieces were created in response to the unique culture of Amsterdam and its seedy central district. A bizarre conglomeration of prostitutes in windows, beautiful wonky old buildings, notorious coffee-shops and stoner tourist trade, the red-light district of Amsterdam provides the perfect background to this exploration of a place, its identity and the elements of its world that we may ordinarily overlook.
What was really interesting was the sheer scope of the exhibition; for each artist's response to the environment was so completely different, as was the way in which they chose to present their work and engage with the audience. On the one hand we had the domestic intimacy of Rhiannon Armstrong's Everything You Ever Wanted To Say But Didn't, and on the other the formal lecture set-up of Laura Wilson's Brick Project. We had Mark Wayman playing a kind of pseudo tour-guide in Re-Occupy and Adrian Lee confusing / amusing both gallery visitors and passers-by with his comic, provocative one-man protest. Adam James and Andrew Graham took the actual audience as their subject matter and re-played it to them in their piece Vlo, whilst Tobias Collier presented a continuation of his self-branding project in a way that was both intimately engaging and epic in its projected form.
There was no official 'start' to the proceedings (which seemed to baffle some of the audience) and it was fascinating to observe how the crowd appeared to engage or disengage with the performances, depending on how they were presented.
Taking to extremes the maxim that 'no publicity is bad publicity', Lee loitered around the gallery entrance, taunting passers-by with his "wanton self-promotion" posters, "Ban This Filth" placard and blacked-out leaflets of banned books. Dressed in his finest 'disgusted from Tunbridge Wells' attire, his calls to the local crowd to "walk away from this muck" led to much confusion, mirth, a brief encounter with the local constabulary and the odd pervy drunk who couldn't wait to come inside to find out just what kind of filth was on offer (no doubt disappointed to only find a bunch of arty types hanging about watching stuff). The irony of this publicity protest may have been lost on some of the Saturday night crowd on the Warmoesstraat, but it certainly was not on most of the gallery goers inside.
Mark Wayman's Re-Occupy similarly sought to engage passers-by as well as those who were deliberate participants from W139. Taking place in the middle of the former Occupy Amsterdam site (just a stones-throw from the gallery) he led the crowd on a virtual tour of the now largely defunct camp; re-imagining (and thereby temporarily re-occupying) the square. Carefully putting back all the tents into the exact same spaces they had actually occupied by engaging our imaginations with his highly detailed descriptions, his ability to make us see what was no longer there exposed the way in which we take our public spaces or experiences for granted, and how we often fail to notice the obvious until it is gone.
To those in the know (and the locals of Amsterdam) this was a highly accurate oral replication of the actual Occupy site, but to the visitor there was the added dimension that this may indeed have been merely Wayman's vision of what the protest camp may have looked like, and that his 'performance' as a virtual tour-guide was no more than a carefully orchestrated fictional charade.
Back in the gallery, both Armstrong and James/Grahams' performances sought to engage the audience in a dichotomy of personal encounter and observational distance; allowing people to dip into and out of the performances (in the case of James/Graham without necessarily being aware of the role which they were playing), whilst relying on their participation to create the very works themselves. This dual experience was beautifully achieved in Armstrong's Everything You Ever Wanted To Say But Didn't Part 1 and The Archive Of Things Left Unsaid.
Set up in a corner of the gallery, Armstrong had recreated a cosy and very British sitting room space, complete with handmade crocheted blankets, doilies and homemade biscuits. In this cordoned off area, she held as series of brief one-on-one encounters with a number of different voluntary participants. These encounters were based around a collection of deeply personal stories taken from her long-established archive of things left unsaid; an archive which audience members were encouraged to add to in the other half of the piece. The playing out of these intimate conversations, however, remained in the public space; enabling other members of the audience to observe the exchanges but not necessarily hear what was going on, and providing an interesting experience of public versus private space and personal versus public information. It was fascinating to watch both the behaviours and reactions of the people participating in the conversations and those contributing their stories to the ever-growing archive. I was left wondering though whether the stories from Amsterdam would then change the feel and presentation of the piece in its future incarnation. Maybe next time there will be a typically Dutch sitting room set up in the corner of a Japanese gallery taking these (universal) stories from a specific place to another space?
Wilson's fascinating lecture on the history and geography of bricks and brickmaking held particular resonance for the setting as much of old Amsterdam (and its curiously wonky buildings) is constructed from this ancient material. Her formalised talk gave the audience yet another kind of performance/engagement experience, as well as providing a new layer to this story of the city; a story which refuses to pander to the global stereotype of Amsterdam as merely the scuzzy mecca of European sex and drug tourism. Instead, Wilson's piece helped to reiterate the strong history of craft and engineering skill behind this picturesque and beautiful place, whilst celebrating the universality of the common brick.
Collier's Anthropic Principles added perhaps the final dimension to this experience of a place by linking the local penchant for tattoo parlours with the greater cosmos. Inviting the audience to closely observe as he tattooed himself under lamplight whilst the giant projection screen followed this process in negative format; making his arm and former brandings look like the Milky Way. There was also an element of the experience which mirrored the kind of exchange taking place in the windows of the local brothels, for we, the audience, watch in complicity as his body is branded and put on display for public consumption.
The evening ended with the movement-based conclusion of James/Graham's observational foray into the behaviours of certain characters from the local area (collected in the week prior to the show) and members of the CLIMB LIKE A CUCUMBER audience (collected on the night by way of a live-feed and a kind of brainstorm drawing undertaken by the pair throughout the evening). The duo then acted out and mimicked elements of movement, and snippets of conversations, based on the behaviours they had observed both from the gallery and from the streets; again exposing the contrast between the private and the public, the internalised and externalised behaviours of the local people, and the different roles played by the audience as both participant and observer.
From the personal to the universal, from contemporary culture and politics to the historical grounding of a city, this ambitious evening of performance touched on many of the different aspects that contribute to the notion and identity of a place. Leading the audience through a mix of observational/participatory experiences, and revealing aspects of the city no doubt frequently overlooked by the outsiders' eye, the success of CLIMB LIKE A CUCUMBER, FALL LIKE AN AUBERGINE lay in its ability to expose and question, in a diverse variety of forms, our sense of the city and its myriad experiences.
For more information on the individual artists involved, please follow the links below:
Tobias Collier www.tobiascollier.com