Michelle Hannah: New Romantic

Artist, performer and self-professed star child Michelle Hannah lets us into her cosmic world

Feature by Jac Mantle | 28 Oct 2013
  • Michelle Hannah

A woman stares intently ahead, her face bathed and beaded in a heavy orange glow. Red hair slicked back from her forehead and black eyes obscured by sultry lashes, she appears to be in another world. “I am the sun and air,” she sings slowly. Her voice is powerful, technologic, metallic.

Combining the androgynous theatricality of the New Romantics, Manga-style contact lenses and evening gowns “in the most Twin Peaks format,” Michelle Hannah cuts a figure worthy of her idol David Bowie.

Her performances echo the glamour of days gone by, when 'film stars' were worshipped instead of 'celebs.' In her slowed-down, appropriated renditions of pop songs such as How Soon is Now and Blue Monday there’s a note of intensity, extremism. Though she’s a fan of karaoke and watches The X Factor there’s nothing of the cringe-making amateur about the 'self-identity' Hannah performs.

Instead she draws on the sounds of Laurie Anderson, Kalup Linzy and Linder, and the original concepts of cabaret – to repel as well as entice through artifice – before it became a hyper-familiar sexualised parade. Hannah makes herself strange and ethereal by distorting her voice with a voice processor, painting her hair and face and wearing creepy contact lenses.

For her performance and video SONNE she covered her face in 24 carat-gold dust – appearing under the glow of a red spotlight as sweat, as though she is staring into the blinding light of a dying sun. “It’s like a cry of help to technology, I guess,” says Hannah. “Or like Nam June Paik said he wanted to find the humanity in technology, something like that.”

When we meet she has just performed her new work HERLAND at an event held at Talbot Rice Gallery in association with its Nam June Paik retrospective. It’s the first time she’s videoed herself while performing live, made all the more difficult by wearing ‘blind’ contact lenses that prevent her from seeing and make her eyes entirely white. 

“I’m trying to figure out why I’m using them. I think it’s because it makes it more an internal thing, the performance,” she says. Playing with an interface between an internal and external landscape, light and darkness, runs through her work. When singing she often appears oblivious of the audience and likes to give the impression of being in her “own cosmic world” both on and off-stage, telling me how she meditates “cause I’m just a big old hippie.”

She’ll explore the idea further in an upcoming performance at Queen’s Park Railway Club, styled as a femme fatale sculpture and singing non-stop for two hours, unable to see the audience. The place will be decked out with mirrors and Hollywood spotlights, transforming the little gallery on the railway platform. She’s covering Kraftwerk’s The Hall of Mirrors – “about how even the greatest stars find themselves in the looking glass” – and Illusions, sung by Marlene Dietrich’s character in Billy Wilder’s film A Foreign Affair

“She’s singing to a crowd but she becomes so involved in it that she catches a glimpse of herself in the window at the back and just slowly walks through the crowd and goes to the window. She’s singing to herself like everyone isn’t really there,” says Hannah.

Denying herself the narcissistic pleasure offered by dressing up, performing and seeing herself being watched is further complicated by the fact that the audience can watch her without her seeing them – though they might observe themselves doing so, in the array of mirrors.  “It’s complete narcissism in a way but [being blind] adds another element to it, I think,” she says.

Hannah’s friend Craig Mulholland will be doing the backing track, exactly like the original as “he’s a total Kraftwerk nerd.” As usual Hannah will distort her voice with a vocal processor, hinting at cybernetics and futuristic technology. As well as spending hours watching videos on YouTube – “I’m probably just a frustrated pop star! I’m too old to be a pop star!” – her major influences are sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“That bit at the end where Hal gets turned off and he’s slowly dying... The only thing that happens at the end is he starts singing. That last sort of humanity and terror of technology. There’s nothing else left to do but sing, and then he slowly dies. If I can capture those sorts of moments every time I perform...”

As sci-fi greats come to seem less fantastical and pre-teens make avatars, selfies and myriad other digital likenesses in their bedrooms, performing one’s 'self-identity' as art is no doubt challenging. Hannah draws a distinction between this and the alter-egos that she’s created in the past, for example when she started her own cult. In marked contrast to a lot of the more object-based art being produced – which she finds “pretty masculine, dare I say it,” – she believes in making work that draws on the personal.

“I do find it quite painful to sing, to be honest. I’m not embarrassed to do it. I don’t go through the motions, you know, I feel every word and I guess that’s what resonates, hopefully, with other people!”

She’ll soon be breaking out of her bedroom to do a Micro Residency at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop in the company of what she jokingly calls “proper artists,” who work with objects and materials. “The kind of artists I look to are peers, you know. And generally female artists or queer artists, who are in their own world. Maybe we’re making work for the future and not for this time... she says, to justify herself!”

The outcome of the residency will be exhibited some time next year – hopefully it won’t clash with Glasgow International, says Hannah. She’s already planning a show in a former car showroom with Opera Autonoma, the collective she’s in along with Craig Mulholland, Claudia Nova, Jim McKinven and Carmel O’Brien.

She and Mulholland are also busy making an EP for their new band, Picana Electrica – coined after the electric cord that delivers high voltage, low current electric shocks, enabling prolonged torture. “That’s the kind of essence,” says Hannah. “He’s a total genius, Craig, with sound and stuff. I think I’ll go more down that route in future maybe, the music.”

Though she’s adamant she’ll steer clear of the kind of live art where everybody gets naked, Hannah foresees that performance will continue to be a big part of her cosmic future. 

“It seems to last a lot longer than having an exhibition, I find, ‘cause people are like, 'Oh, I saw you perform last year.' It becomes a little memory distilled in people’s minds, which I really enjoy. And I’m not afraid to make it emotional or beautiful. I’m a big romantic, I don’t care. That’s what it’s about.”


www.queensparkrailwayclub.co.uk/ www.edinburghsculpture.org/programme/news/micro-residents-201314 http://michellehannah.org