The fields were slowly melting in a mirage of soft rain that had been falling steadily for over an hour. I turned off the engine, leaned back into the seat and turned my head to look out the driver-side window in the direction of my house. The fields looked greener than usual. The sky flat and grey.
It is a view that I am familiar with, but one that I do not think I will ever tire of looking at as I, from time to time, leave and return home. For many years the field to the left of the house has been home to the “pets”, the cows and sheep and lambs. This year it has been pasture for sheep and lambs, and their laconic bleating has been more counterpein than counterpoint to the birdsong, until today that is, when I saw that the field was empty, without them. (From the kitchen window one afternoon late in winter I watched a fox struggle up this same field in a snow storm. It had a wounded, perhaps broken front leg, and I could see that it was exhausted, likely starving and near to death. I watched as it held its paw out of the snow, and even though it was four or five hundred metres away I could see all of this in uncanny detail as if the white of the snow on the field and the dark grey of a leaden sky had somehow enhanced my poor vision. The animal eventually made it over the top of the hill and was absorbed into the storm, into whiteness. Later that evening I found myself hoping that it had found some small pocket of shelter at the foot of a hedgerow where it had curled up and closed its eyes for the last time, trying to imagine what final “vision” it may have seen moments before its death, like ‘The Little Match Girl’ in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale who ‘wished to hold her grandmother fast’).
A tree had recently been brought down by gale-force winds. The hole that this left in the column of trees that divides one field and the next held my attention in the way that a fresh gap in ones teeth does after an extraction by the dentist. My attention absent-mindedly worried around this unfamiliar break in the treeline as I formed a few half-hearted thoughts about getting out of the car.
It was here, in the rupture of this “abrupt edge”, that I saw a grey-clad figure moving unhurriedly in the field where the sheep and lambs had until recently been. Unhurried, but purposeful, moving from one spot to another close by with what appeared to be a spade. At first I thought he may have been burying something, but when he moved a short distance and repeated the action (like turning over a clod of earth) I saw that this wasn’t the case. He continued like this, as though joining distant stars on a sheet of paper, until the field and the action took him behind the trees lower down the hillside, only for him to emerge a short time later into the clearing again doing the same thing.
I do not filter all human action and behavior through the history or future potential of performance art (as I see it), but there are moments when life as it is lived around me and certain aspects of performance come together in ambiguous and intriguing ways, creating their own “abrupt edge”. Watching this man, creaturely focused on what was likely a mundane task of field management, was precisely one of those moments. His action laid bare for me the structure and feeling of a certain type of work, and a view of what it can often be to “be productive”. The mans actions appeared casual, so much so that he only ever used one hand on the spade to turn or stab at the ground. The work was purposeful, if strange and inexplicable. There was method, but one that saw him follow what he saw, his own “songline” rather than mechanistically working from left to right, top to bottom. Farm workers are pragmatists, where work is concerned at least, and so it was clear from the nature of the action, the repetition, and the poor weather that this had to be done when it was being done, not any later. Trust was absolute to the task being done correctly, thoroughly, accurately. And if the man was talking to himself I will never know, I could hear only the rain falling on the car, but in every sense of the word I saw and believed that his actions were essential: to the ongoing culture and continued well-being of the field; to the economy of the farm; and ultimately, to the society that relies upon it “to produce” in order to safeguard the prosperity and health of its citizens.
1. The “abrupt edge” is a phrase which occurs in ornithology, and denotes the point at which two types of vegetation come together, and where a bird might safely take advantage of them both. This can be a forest at the edge of a field, an isolated grove of trees – Fay Godwin’s photograph, Ridgeway, Barbury Castle Clump (1974) and Paul Nash’s painting, Wood on the Downs (1930) in the collection of Aberdeen City Art Gallery immediately spring to mind – while closer to home, the hedgerow and berry bushes of a garden can act as this boundary between safety and vulnerability, between the hidden and visible, inside and outside, between shadow and light and between the rich plant life that enjoys the sun and that which flourishes in the shade. From this edge a bird can keep an eye out for predators and fly the corridors of insect life that rise from the earth. It is a domestic space, the space in which the work and rest of daily survival unfolds in order for the species to thrive, so it is perhaps no surprise that the greatest number of species and individuals live at the edge, where the trees turn to moorland, meadow or open field.
2. A Book of Silence (Granta Books, 2008) by Sara Maitland is an autobiographical account of her life and strong Christian faith seen through the prism of a scholarly account of the cultural history of solitude and silence. While I find it difficult to share some of her conclusions, I admire her honesty and the strength of her conviction. She writes at length in one chapter of the book about the “Desert Hermits”, and how at one point the Sinai and Sahara were so “busy” the notion of solitude “out there” was under severe strain. What interested me in particular though was the way in which Maitland discussed how earlier Christian spirituality was highly experimental, and similar in so many ways to the early experiments of significant figures in performance art as it emerged as a distinctive field of practice in the 1970’s: nest in a pillar of rock, live in a desert, fast, deprive oneself of sleep, don’t speak … ‘and see what this does to your interior life and your relationship with God’. Works such as Five Day Locker Piece, (1971, California) by Chris Burden, And For Today, Nothing (1972) by Stuart Brisley which ‘took place in a darkened bathroom at Gallery House, London, in a bath filled with black liquid and floating debris where Brisley lay for a period of two weeks …’ or any number of works by Marina Abramovic, while different in intent, share some of the actual physical and psychological characteristics of this nascent eremitical Christianity and its relationship to silence as an effective tool for inducing profound experiences. Burden writes of Five Day Locker Piece: “I was locked in locker No. 5 for five consecutive days and did not leave the locker during this time. The locker measurements were two feet high, two feet wide, three feet deep. I stopped eating several days prior to entry, thereby eliminating the problem of solid waste. The locker directly above me contained five gallons of bottled water; the locker below me contained an empty five-gallon bottle.” While all of these artists at one time may have shared an interest in “primitive” rites, shamanic practice and “old knowledge”, these performances were, like the extreme asceticism of the early desert hermits, exercises in power (self-control, mastery of the senses, the willingness even to contest with death) as they were acts of contrition or self-abnegation. And it is in this self conscious and performed “will to power” that we must look for their political reality – their consideration of contemporary society and its relationship to ideas of Self and Other.
3. I stumbled upon Fay Godwin’s photograph sometime ago in, The Land: Twentieth Century Landscape Photographs, selected by Bill Brandt. (The Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd., 1975) with essay’s by Jonathan Williams (poet and photographer), Prof. Aaron Scharf (writer and academic) and Keith Critchlow (environmental scientist and architect).
4. I wondered at one stage as I looked over this piece of writing what a Tooth Fairy might leave were she to visit a little boy or girl and discover an enormous fallen tree instead of a milk-tooth underneath the sleeping child’s pillow.
Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance Art: from Futurism to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance: Live Art since the 60’s. Thames and Hudson, 1998.
Sayre, Henry M. The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde since 1970. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Kaye, Nick. Art into Theatre. London: Macmillan, 1995.
http://www.tracegallery.org (a comprehensive archive of international performance/installation art practice)
http://www.thisisliveart.co.uk (Live Art Development Agency)
http://www.newmoves.co.uk (an annual and ‘National Review of Live Art’, Glasgow)