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international: arnolfini

negotiations and love songs

tim atack encounters manuel vason’s performative portraits

Brisol-based musician, performer and writer Tim Atack participated in the RealTime-Inbetween Time review writing workshop in 2006. His band angel tech can be found at

Miguel Perreira and Manuel Vason, Collaboration #2 Miguel Perreira and Manuel Vason, Collaboration #2
courtesy of the artist

Here we are at the symposium attached to Encounters, Manuel Vason’s exhibition of photographs at Arnolfini in Bristol. The pictures were produced as joint projects with the great, the good, the bad and the beautiful of the live art world and Franko B is reflecting (loudly) upon the nature of collaboration and the ethical difficulties of sharing a work. Sometimes, he says, when a performer needs an image it would be easier for them to “give a photographer three grand” and then walk away with the negatives. But this is not what Manuel Vason does.

five times—no more

How best to describe the creative process initiated by Vason? The word ‘symbiotic’ might sound a wee bit OTT, conjuring up images of the photographer as some sort of arty pilot fish swimming about the gills of Ron Athey, Monica Tichacek or Luiz de Abreu. But Vason originally came to the world of performance as an ingénue, almost completely unfamiliar with the live art territory, stunned by these odd bodies in extreme contexts, bewitched by the unspeakable and the seemingly unrecordable. And it’s this challenge that propels Vason’s own practice forward as he takes some serious time to get to know his subjects: discussing their work at length, going on little adventures, repeatedly shooting the breeze before shooting a single frame. When the crucial moment of capture finally arrives Vason creates a scant five exposures. Sure, as the shoot progresses Polaroids litter the floor, consulted, criticised...but when the shutter atop the tripod snaps, it does so five times—no more. For subject and photographer, the pressure is on.

These exposures are not necessarily representations of an existing performance, not ‘documentation’ in the sense of the word usually employed by live artists. They are not the meta-data of a moment, shot for funding bodies, archivists or future collaborators. Whilst familiar motifs and concepts may well crop up (Sachiko Abe’s gossamer webs of cut-up paper, Veenus Vortex surrounded by charred carboniferous debris), these are performances for the camera, unique and brief—as brief as the snap of a shutter. A selection of these moments has been collected into a book (also entitled Encounters) published by Arnolfini, and its launch is accompanied by several related events: the aforementioned symposium; performances by three of Vason’s collaborators; and an unusually dynamic exhibition of 16 large prints. It’s an immersive weekend.
Monika Tichacek and Manuel Vason, Collaboration #2 Monika Tichacek and Manuel Vason, Collaboration #2
courtesy of the artist
controlled viewing

In Douglas Adams’ and John Lloyd’s comic dictionary The Meaning Of Liff, a ‘Frolesworth’ is “the amount of time one must spend looking at each picture in an art gallery in order that everyone else doesn’t think you’re a complete moron.” Take it from me: the Encounters exhibition seriously messes with your Frolesworth. The gallery space is in semi-darkness and rigged so that each print is spotlit only in the physical presence of a viewer: pressure sensitive pads depress beneath your feet, and a light gently warms over both you and the nearest image. You’re a little theatrical show of your own, you and that photograph. Move along and the light thins to nothing. Try to step closer? The light fizzles away.

On my first viewing I’m treated to my own—strictly unofficial—performance by Franko B. He strides up to the remarkable domineering image of his own whitened, blood-flecked face and appraises it from a variety of angles; except he can’t. He finds out pretty rapidly that he’s not allowed to stand close-up next to his own right cheek, or assay his majesty from a distance. The light only loves him when he’s upon the appointed spot, when he begs an audience with himself. Franko B harrumphs, shakes his head, and moves on: and I can see that interfering with one of the central freedoms of gallery-going may well annoy those who like to get so close they can smell the pixels, or stand so far back they’re practically in another postal code. Equally, you could argue that the technical trickery makes Encounters a bit like walking around iPhoto made flesh, a giant slideshow by anything but name. But for me, the staging has a remarkably positive effect: presented in such a uniform manner, without explanation or index cards, these frameless pictures develop frames uniquely their own.

As you walk around the gallery each approach involves a different negotiation. Here’s Alastair MacLennan, enthroned atop a cliff-face of rubbish and muck on a Belfast landfill, king of the seagulls. The print is one of the more pronounced enlargements and from this panoramic distance he appears foreign, feel the desire to approach and the instinct to turn away, simultaneously. Here’s Kira O’Reilly holding a slaughtered pig in a pieta, surrounded by a motley collection of Svankmajer-like taxidermy, lilies and pickled specimens; much like the performance that inspired it (inthewrongplaceness) the picture is oddly inviting, sweet like the amine tang of decaying flesh, whispering of a great many mortalities.

Here’s Marcela Levi, her steady unrelenting gaze above a mouth made into some alien orifice by means of a brace of thin black hairgrips, a sphincter dentata. I feel the need to return to this picture and step more carefully, more gently on the pressure point than I did the first if I hadn’t properly paid my respects. In contrast, I feel like I’m seriously intruding upon the tarred-and-feathered Miguel Pereira, sad, pathetic and plastered against a blank wall like a dying bird. And the portrait of Anne Seagrave, channelling an almost visible electricity through clenched fingers and arms at right angles, invites me into a sort of meditative response of my own, rocking on the light switch, moving the steel grey image in and out of darkness. The freedom of interaction is much more pronounced than it might at first appear; upon leaving, we’re even invited to give these photographs (uniformly named Collaboration) titles of our own, scrawling ideas on postcards. It’s fruitful stuff: the images invite stories, backstories, the non-sequiturs of dreams.

tell and show

The symposium is much concerned with the collected problems of documenting the live event and the interesting complications generated by the beguiling love stories Vason and his collaborators have fashioned. Rebecca Schneider delivers a keynote speech as mischievous and sparkling as her contribution to Vason’s book, musing upon the tease of photography: “The photograph says: you were never there, and even if you think you were, you probably weren’t.”

Luckily, over the course of two days, we’re given the opportunity to ‘be there’ in no uncertain terms. Niko Raes produces Shattered Dreams, a compelling performance in which his naked body, suspended from the ceiling, is rigged so as to confound itself: as one limb falls, another must rise and vice versa, making a Sisyphean task of attaining any repose. His slow, deliberate movements have the constancy of Brownian motion and, ultimately, a very visible pain, Raes’ breath becoming increasingly laboured. The tension is only spoilt by some distracting and somewhat pointless analogue bloops and burbles on the soundtrack.

Veenus Vortex’s Worth Her Weight is a durational performance examining the personal language of desire and mythological representations of the body. A prone female form is slowly gilded over the course of several hours, the gold leaf attached by means of raw egg and saliva. Whilst the central image of a female form entwined around a cloven-hoofed double of herself is a remarkable one, the room is full of all sorts of vague symbols and ideas and for an examination of desire it seems strangely unfocussed; the entire atmosphere again wrecked by an unpleasant clunky collage of a soundtrack, this time played so loud it practically kicks your cochlea to death.

The final performance of the weekend is Ecstatic by Ron Athey and is, in contrast, a model of extreme, almost overwhelming focus. On a central altar, Athey vigorously brushes a wig of blonde hair on his head. This action somehow punctures wounds beneath the hairpiece, leading to a flow of blood. He then removes two glass panes from the end of the dais and laboriously, slowly, slats them back and forth across his naked body, over and under each other, his blood forming coagulating patterns on the glass like fluid fixed upon microscope slides. He then leaves. That is the sum of his actions, and despite the fact that mid-show the Arnolfini fire alarm sounds and the work halts for a few heartstopping minutes—a moment that feels like a slap to the face—the visceral simplicity of the performance prompts in me a series of reactions I can only describe as synaesthetic; I can almost smell the iron in the blood dripping across the raised podium, the motes of dust spilling from Athey’s wig are like tumbling musical notes, and by the end of this brief, unique moment I’m light in the head. I was there. And even if I thought I wasn’t, I probably was.

Manuel Vason, Encounters, Arnolfini, Bristol, UK, June 6-July 1

Encounters, Manuel Vason, Performance, Photography, Collaboration, Dominic Johnson ed, Arnolfini Gallery Ltd, UK 2007

Brisol-based musician, performer and writer Tim Atack participated in the RealTime-Inbetween Time review writing workshop in 2006. His band angel tech can be found at

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 2,3

© Tim Atack; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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