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35/ “THE ARTIST GROWS OLD”

The Artist Grows Old 21.05.13 photo by Ivor Houlker

performed for “This Is Where I Am”, curated by Poppy Jackson and Josephine Were, ]performance space[, London, 21st May 2013.

Last year, for a while, I started to feel old. I read a book by Philip Sohm, “The Artist Grows Old: The Aging Of Art And Artists In Italy, 1500-1800”. I wrote my name on the inside cover and added my age beneath it, and only after several days crossed out 35 and revised it down to 34 when I realised that I had myself down for older than I really was. It was only a couple of months before turning 30 that I really felt like a full adult, but at 34 I felt almost ancient. And I had a little bit of an artistic crisis, I started to think: I have been making art for a while now, I have got quite good at it, but I remain as obscure and unknown as ever. This started to bother me a bit. One evening I wrote a gloomy joke about my limbo - “SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE THAT TREE FALLING IN THE FOREST”. I started to compose further slogans in the same vein - “WHEN THE VALUE OF MY ARTWORKS AS ARTWORKS EXCEEDS THEIR SCRAP VALUE, WE'LL CALL THAT PROGRESS”, “IF ALL ELSE FAILS, I CAN ALWAYS BE AN OUTSIDER ARTIST”, “THE GREAT UNKNOWN” - with the idea of perhaps collecting them all in a book, to be entitled “ARTISTIC CRISIS”. I never made the book (the project seemed possibly unhealthy), and of course I soon pulled free of my pessimistic state. When I really did turn 35, in October, I felt positively young again, I felt girlish! And come New Year's Eve I still felt the same way and made a book about that, with diagrams, “FEELING GIRLISH”. But thinking back to that other book that I never did make, I continued to feel an affection for the project and wanted to realise it in some way. So I decided to remake the unmade book as a performance. I'm not quite sure if the performance was intended as an exorcism or as an apotheosis. Probably both.

“This Is Where I Am” was an event with eleven separate, simultaneous performances, in and around ]performance space[, with a set duration of 90 minutes. Mine was one of the six indoor performances, the other five being around the edges of the room and mine in the middle.

To begin with, a neat arrangement of materials: till roll, plastic bowl, pens, scissors, “The Artist Grows Old” book, stone, ribbons (3x turquoise, 2x green), jar of sequins, jars of glitter (gold, silver, blue), bottle of beer, glass tumbler, bottle opener, fringe squawker (gold), table skirt (silver), towel, white cloth, box of bath salts (narcissus), packet of bath salts (lime), expensive talc (English fern), cheap talc (baby powder), packet of charcoal, Fortnum & Mason carrier bag filled with seaweed. All these things looked very beautiful placed on the floor in the middle of the room!

I first of all made paper scrolls of the four slogans mentioned above. I had the upturned plastic bowl on top of the Philip Sohm book to rest on, which looked very nice. That done, I took the bowl over to the sink and brought it back full of water. I took out the dry pieces of seaweed, rehydrated them in the water, and laid them out on the towel. Then I cut the emptied bag into ribbon-like strips. I enfolded the charcoal in the white cloth and crushed it with the stone, tipped the black dust into the bowl of water, and stirred it together with the fringe squawker. I also mixed in the lime-scented bath salts. I took the table skirt and chopped it with the scissors into separate silver strands. I unspooled the green and turquoise ribbons, pulling them gently out from the inside with my fingertips.

I opened up the book and squeezed onto a double-page the entire tub of baby powder, and on top of that I emptied out the sequins and the silver and blue glitter – quite a mound of stuff on the open book. Then I made a pause, I opened the bottle of beer and poured myself out a glass. I had thought, why not for once rather than turning it black and pouring it over myself, try just drinking a little beer in a normal fashion in the middle of a performance? And I would take the opportunity to pause and take stock of how the performance was going. So I did that, and then I went outside to collect the branches I had stowed there beforehand, and brought them in.

I now arranged the branches into a pyre and set about dressing the pyre. I draped the seaweed, the ribbons, the table skirt ribbons, and the F&M bag ribbons over the branches. Then I took the book and blew the sequins, the glitter, and the baby powder from it to cascade in clouds over the pyre. Then I scattered over the narcissus-scented bath salts (subtle reference: the second chapter of “The Artist Grows Old” is entitled “Narcissus Grows Old”). Next I draped the four scrolls over the pyre, and then I threw clouds of the expensive talc over it, and finally I threw on the gold glitter.

I stood the book up beside the pyre, and placed the bowl of blackened water beside the book. Then I removed my t-shirt and crawled beneath the pyre. I lay face down, reached forwards for the bowl, and tipped the black water through the pyre and onto the back of my neck. I turned over onto my back and remained lying beneath the wet pyre, holding my position until the 90 minutes were up. I tried to watch the other performances, but couldn't see a lot from under there. Because I had gone through the opening stages nice and slowly, I didn't have to lie there too long – maybe half an hour or so. And just as I was beginning to feel cold, the shutter doors were winched up to signal the end of the allotted time. I stood up and took an armful of branches and carried them outside into the yard where some people were starting a bonfire, and I threw the branches onto the fire and I threw the scrolls on too.

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