Part 2: ‘Old Dears’ at the Chelsea Theatre London, 27th and 28th of November 2015

As indicated in my previous post, I want to continue discussing this LADA curated ‘Old Dears’ event, in the light of some themes opened up by Liz Aggiss’s show The English Channel (see post here)

Penny Arcade.

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The spirit of ‘carnival’ that I identified in Aggiss’s piece was perhaps less obviously present in the performance given by the legendary Penny Arcade. At 19 Arcade was an Andy Warhol ‘superstar’ and since then has been a key figure in the New York ‘underground’ (the art scene –not the tube/subway) and toured internationally with landmark shows such as BITCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WHORE! Currently she is in the UK touring a new piece Longing Last Longer but for ‘Old Dears’ offered an improvised monologue entitled My Life as History.

This late night show rounded off the first evening of ‘Old Dears’ following Agiss’s performance and a presentation of three short films from the LADA archive of works by Lois Weaver, Monica Ross and Bobby Baker.

An immediate link with The English Channel was evident when Arcade’s assertion that she ‘hates academics’ met with a muted objection from the front row (although it made three of us academics sitting in a row, smile), and Arcade responded this was her show and she was going to say what the fuck she liked.

This prompted a riff on how people have frequently objected to her ‘tone’ and as well as relating this to her Italian heritage, she advised younger women to take note of it –because it might resemble their ‘tone’ when they have experienced life as a women artist for over 45 years. After calling for a series of lighting changes, she went on to speak for some time in total black out, reflecting back on some of the highs and lows of her career and looking into a future, in which after four decades of making highly respected and influential work, she will be dependent on meagre social security payments.

Changing focus (and lighting states) and again responding to a member of the audience, she spoke about looking after her mother during the final months of her life. Arcade underlined how important it had been to her to be able to do this, despite, or rather as she stressed because their relationship had been a fraught one indeed, as portrayed by Arcade – bitterly so.

After the blazing theatricality of The English Channel this performance felt at times both introspective and less affirmative. However, it would be dishonest in a programme of performances focused around older women not to explore some of the past disappointments and future anxieties that haunt the dark when your life ‘is history’. Further, it was notable in the panel discussion the next day that when asked to name women who had a significant impact on their careers several of the speakers started with their mothers. In all cases they indicated a more positive relationship than that portrayed by Arcade but her message concerning the importance of reconciliation with those that (for good and/or for ill) have shaped us is a vital one.

Arcade has more than earned the right to use whatever ‘tone’ she chooses, and as in this performance she interspersed combative remarks and flashes of acerbic wit with moments of vulnerability and emotional generosity.

Marcia FarquharIMG_5990

Formally and thematically Marcia Farquhar’s piece Recalibrating Hope: (h)old dear and let go, performed in the bar area of the Chelsea the next day appeared to sit exactly in between Aggiss’s and Arcade’s performances.

Aggiss explored her own past mostly through the medium of the work of other artists and performances whilst Arcade spoke directly about her own experiences and as noted above ended by speaking about her mother. In Recalibrating Hope Farquhar started by talking about her relationship with her mother and for the most part focussed on stories from her past growing up in bohemian Chelsea of the 1960s and 1970s. However, Farquhar’s overall ‘tone’ was more theatrical than Arcade’s and she used her collection of 7” records of pop music to provide a loose structure for the show which also signalled the influence on her work of the various artists she encountered (directly and indirectly) during this period.

Apart from some elements of audience participation The British Channel was carefully plotted and rehearsed, while Arcade commented that she had ‘not prepared anything’, and her monologue grew out of the moment in response to the audience and interaction with the lighting operator. Recalibrating Hope started with Farquhar announcing a determination to read from a typed script to keep herself focussed but she proceeded to constantly interrupt herself and to go off on tangents, many of which were obviously  spontaneous.

Aside from the distraction provided by her failure to find the Sandy Shaw record she wanted to play, these interruptions embraced comments about the panel discussion that immediately preceded this piece; references to The English Channel (including possibly the quoting of some of the wilder dance moves, although this may be co-incidence); remarks on the demonstrations against the Government plans to bomb Syria taking place in London that day and responses to, and interactions with the audience and with the sound technicians.

Throughout the piece Farquhar was also working on an illuminated sign made from a light box and a tin foil baking tray, which at the start declared ‘Give up’ but by the end had been altered to ‘Give Up and Go On’.

I could spend some time interpreting this as a carnivelesque sign of simultaneous negation and affirmation but will just say the apparent contradiction it signals the contradictions embraced and explored in the show as a whole. Farquhar’s desire to resist ‘all that oppresses and restricts’ and to tell those who have judged, admonished or attempted to control to her to fuck off, battles with her tendency to self-reflection, the warmth of her empathy and a desire to be polite. Equally, while she detailed some of troubles and lasting griefs of her past and traced their scars in the present, the speed and keenness of her wit and her impeccable comic timing made the show as a whole into something gloriously affirmative. This was an incandescently funny and scorchingly honest performance from a unique and genuinely eccentric artist. It was also unquestionably live art; retrospective yes-but equally a work totally in and off the moment.

Rocio Boliver and Company

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The aspect of carnival which embraces and celebrates the materiality of the body in all its ages, shapes and sizes and in all its functions, liquids and secretions was most obviously in play in the one hour installation /performance arising from the Boliver workshop entitled Between Menopause and Old Age: Alternative Beauty.

Visiting the UK from her base in Mexico, Boliver is what is sometimes termed a ‘body artist’ playing on and with the boundaries of her skin and on the border between abjection and pleasure. Collectively, the performances in this piece played on the profound culture ambivalences projected onto women’s bodies (and internalised) especially as they age, creating a series of surreal and sometimes savagely comic images.

The main performance space featured Rocio in a pool of light, topless and wearing a stained nappy adorned with feathers, and with (possibly?) faeces smearing her thighs. Helpers used multiple needles to pierce the skin of her body and face and these were attached to complex web of wires which when pulled tight made her skin stretch taut in a manner that suggests the distortions created by too much plastic surgery.

In other areas, a woman wearing fake plastic breasts, the nipples replaced by tiny penises, a split kipper covering her be-legined crotch, sewed on ‘pubic hair’.

Another woman dressed in black and white taped herself to a chair and then struggled to get free all the while hampered by the excess weight of several large bags of flour in a black plastic bag.

A women in bra and pants and a gimp mask climbed around the space, grunting.

A couple sitting in the corner with their backs to us surrounded by a circle of (real) roses, one who was veiled head to toe in black cut a heart shape with a razor into the bare flesh of the other who was dressed only in a red satin skirt. The woman in black then used white paper napkins to make prints of this bloody shape.

On the landing leading to the main space two women cut away bits of each other’s black leotards to reveal flesh, scars, breasts, all of which were weighed and tested as it they were choice cuts of meat.

Meanwhile a woman (who I recognised as Katherine Araniello) used her wheelchair to block us coming and going up the stairs and through the doorway into the main space, her face sometimes alight with mischief but always with the determination not to give way, except on her own terms.

All the performances throughout the course of ‘Old Dears’ amply demonstrated the point made by Nikki Millican in the panel discussion on the Saturday afternoon, concerning the particular power and resonance of work by older artists (of any gender).

For me a specific set of resonances humming between the other pieces and Between Menopause and Old Age: Alternative Beauty were suggested by remarks made during this panel (which as noted in my previous post, included Lois Keidan, Judith Knight and Nikki Millican, Liz Aggiss, Anne Bean, Claire MacDonald, Geraldine Pilgrim and Lois Weaver.)

While each panellist offered reflections on their careers in relation to feminism(s), these were framed and in many cases decidedly influenced by a project developed by MacDonald entitled ‘The Red Thread’.

MacDonald conceived this as a way of ‘mapping’ the women who had impacted on her life as an artist and thinker, each one represented as tags hanging on a silken red thread. Macdonald invited the other speakers to contribute to a collective red thread, the one rule being that these should be figures with which they had some sort of direct, personal encounter.

Geraldine Pilgrim (who holds a place of honour on my own ‘red thread’) offered two novelists and its not clear whether she had actually met them or whether true to the mood of ‘Old Dears’ as a whole, she was choosing to ignore the rules. These were Jean Rhys and Angela Carter both of whom are famous for their re-interpretations of female archetypes in a manner that shares some commonalities with Bakhtin’s theories of carnival but re-articulated through a distinctive and original feminine/feminist lens.

It is possible that this ‘thread’ has retrospectively informed the meanings and connections I have made concerning The English Channel, My Life as History and Recalibrating Hope.

Thinking about Carter’s writing certainly informed my reception of Between Menopause and Old Age: Alternative Beauty which can be seen as creating from dark, alternative fairy tales, satirically commenting on and artfully re-inventing the roles accorded to older women in these and other ‘folk’ stories; the ugly sister, the vain, wicked stepmother, the witch, the crone and the hag.

Tying up some threads

Despite my love of Rhys and Carter’s writing and my own use of Bakhtin’s ideas, I am often wary of feminist/women’s work which draws on archetypes because these are slippery things, that even in re-invented mode can as easily trap as liberate. All else aside, deploying such symbols can fall into an essentialism that ignores important differences between women and I have to acknowledge that while it was striking that differences of class, sexuality, physical abilities and nationality were all represented in ‘Old Dears’, it was, as so often the case, an overwhelmingly ‘white’ event.

Without intending to detract from the urgent necessity of addressing this latter issue (across the arts), as Gayatri Spivak famously indicated the very concept of feminism as a politics requires at least a ‘strategic essentialism’. And having started thinking about archetypes, the remarkable force and energy of the performances over the two days of ‘Old Dears’ possibly offered an insight into why, once upon a time, older women were sometimes so feared, they were perceived as ‘witches’.

I can imagine the participants in this event dancing with the devil but this would be the one that according to Bakhtin, appears in the medieval ‘parodical legends and the fabliaux’, a ‘gay ambivalent figure expressing the unofficial point of view [..] There is nothing terrifying or alien in him’. Even so, I’m sure these artists would assert their right to decide upon the steps and call the tune – if-that is- Marcia Farquhar can find the disc.

Bahktin also states that in the schema of the carnival ‘Fear [..] is defeated by laughter…. Complete liberty is possible only in the completely fearless world.’

What was so exhilarating about the shows in ‘Old Dears’ was that even at their most serious they were all laughing at fear; the fear of aging, or failing, or offending, of pain, of insult and ridicule, of their own bodies and histories, of archetypes and even of death itself. And in doing so were refusing to play by anybody’s rules but their own.

This might also include the ‘rules’ of some strands of feminism, which as Weaver stressed in the panel discussion is always plural not singular.

But please, those of us who identify as feminists, let’s disagree, challenge, argue and express anger and disappointment at each other –all this is appropriate because our concerns are serious. But let’s never, ever be afraid to laugh, either at the world, or at ourselves.

None of those participating in ‘Old Dears’ are afraid of laughter and their performances very clearly showed exactly why this title was a joke.

Gerry

Ps. Duh – just found programme for ‘Old Dears’ at the bottom of my bag. Artists collaboratimg with Boliver were Katherine Araniello, Giovanna Maria Casetta, Katharine Meynell, Sheree Rose, Teresa Albor, Kate Clayton, Sarah Kent, Wanda Zyborska, Pascale Ciapp and Helena Waters.

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