The National Review of Live Art

Feature by Jasper Hamill | 17 Mar 2006

It is a brave soul that dares to shout "you're naked," at an emperor convinced he's clad in the most exquisite finery known to man. At points throughout The National Review of Live Art, a five-day marathon of performances and happenings, I often longed for a plucky little boy to shout out and bring the whole edifice down with a few innocent words. Unfortunately, most of the audiences - except the super serious performers themselves - contented themselves with a sly giggle or an incredulous gossip over a beer, for whilst much of the weekend was ridiculous, it was proper to maintain a mien of detached intellectual fascination at all times. As always, the weekend - aside from the interminable Disneyland queues - was as much an excuse for people watching as it was for the earnest contemplation of Live Art. My particular favourite was a man, tattooed all the way up his baldie head, who'd given himself a set of metal lower teeth, like Jaws from James Bond; yet despite his fearsome demeanour, was as nice as pie.

On the whole, the work on offer was less sanguinary than past years. Despite the best efforts of Ron Athey, who underwent facial surgery live on stage, and a couple of nutcases who ritualistically rubbed smashed glass into their faces, a calmer praxis than previous years prevailed. One lady, taking her cue from Caroline Schneeman, unfurled enough bunting for a thousand maydays from her fanny, much to the delight and consternation of the assembled audience. Another man, using a giant strawberry as a prop, danced with a lady then spilt black dye down his top, whereupon the woman pulled his trousers down, rubbed his leg suggestively before cracking an egg into his mouth. His previous skit involved attaching what look like branches to his nails, in a similar fashion to Rebecca Horn, and following the instructions of an on-screen hand, its fingernails painted red, perplexingly executing a few forward rolls and scurrying about the floor frantically.

There was, unfortunately, a wee bit of a disaster when Kris Canavan attempted to bury his naked body in a great cum-shot of wax and powder. He lasted about fifteen minutes as a corpse, laying convincingly still with his perfectly powdered bottom poking into the air, when the scary man with metal teeth, seemingly telepathically, called the show to a halt and the performer squatted behind an ornate screen, weeping at the embarrassment of it all.

The weekend, overall, was a combination of profundity and ridiculousness. Performers, by using their body, propound to transcend barriers of language and culture, suggest they are tapping into a universal language somewhere beyond words. The truth is, perhaps, that they just end up using a symbolic language of their own, every bit as arcane as Eskimo is to a Glaswegian. For me, the most effective piece of the exhibition was a documentary film, detailing the preoccupations, mores and desires of Japanese women within a society where lingering traces of patriarchy still persist. Resorting to language - in the form of subtitles - it was nonetheless universally emotive. Work involving traditional Korean techniques, in which the singers are trained to overcome the sound of a waterfall, was performed beautifully under a stunning, shimmering projection of an artifical waterfall, managing to combine ethereal beauty with a consideration of the body in relation to natural phenomena.

Most effective was the work of the elevator artists, particularly Cayetana Payno Del Rio, who stood for a portrait, glimpsed through a selection of frames to indicate the multi-valence of the processes behind a portrait whilst recognising that no one point of view is to be given privilege over another. The Elevator group was an ad-hoc collection of up and coming artists which proved that live art is continually vital and does not have to indulge the arcane or bloody to be effective. Overall then, a weekend both obtuse and straightforward: an unparalleled glimpse of a seditious, occasionally nonsensical medium.

The National Review of Live Art took place at Tramway from Feb 8-11.