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<i>CROSSING</i> - Alastair MacLennan and Sandra Johnston

CROSSING - Alastair MacLennan and Sandra Johnston

Slavka Sverakova, 2011-05-20

CROSSING, performance, 2 hrs 30 min. Alastair MacLennan and Sandra Johnston. Friday, 29th October, 2010, 12.00 -12.10 o’clock, a room in a disused Police Station, Queen Street, Belfast.

Two viewers allowed at the time into a dark small room for ten minutes only. High up on the blackout window pane two small sources of light turned the black darkness into shades of dark grey mist, in the centre two figures moving slowly clockwise held one tall glass filled with water with their right hand palms. Each palm attached to just one end of the vertically positioned glass at all times, while, in a synchronised movement, turning it 180 degrees at given intervals.

Being led by a helper through a dark corridor to a dark room is an unsettling entry. Grappling with apprehension the initial anxiety gradually gives way to thinking about anxiety when watching an endurance performance of dark figures in a darkened space. Each bit of recognized imagery remains lingering over the next one. This cannot be documented, moreover, to consider a private subjective memory a document is, at its best, in the realm of oral history. The art object and its viewer become conspirators for the tyranny of the present stepping outside their respective comfort zones to heighten experience. Experience requires a conceptual apparatus t keep the relevant sensory activity highlighted and the irrelevant suppressed. Absence of light is a strange condition for watching, strangeness seems presenting itself as a critique of the values of ordinary viewing conditions. If consciousness cannot be reduced to neural activity, then looking, seeing involves the whole person, not just a sensory stimulus. Addressing the whole person is welcome strategy when the people are fragmented by polarized viewpoints. This meaning of the Crossing is a voice for crossing over the differences.

The physical demand on the artists binds soon with doubt s: Will the glass break? Will the water escape? Will they endure for long being enslaved to few precise gestures of manipulating their bodies while holding the glass with water in the same way all the time? Their calm disciplined action and the short viewing time soon cool down both the anxiety and some of the doubts. Moreover, the eye adapts and registers more and more mimetic details of the whole that appeared at first as cathartic, allowing in turn, to subdue emotions. Some narrative motives enter instead. On the adjacent wall their bodies dwarfed into, at times abstract forms, at times fully fledged, recognizable, shadows, forging a visual essay on the real in relation to abstraction In slow deliberate steps, joined by the glass with water, the bodies adopted contraposto and immovable gestures by their free arms, she holding it near her chest, he stretching his left arm along the body at the side, both ready to rescue their right hands if a fatigue overwhelmed their grip. Like two carved figures of some old-fashioned weather station, they moved slowly together attached to the object charged with controlling them. . The relationship between the two performers was one of co-operation, based on free will and a desire to succeed. The force of their decision was the clearly proclaimed responsibility for a fragile phenomenon in a fragile container in a fragile light. The power of water, when it turns into floods and tsunamis , was not overlooked. Possibly to avoid sensationalism and link to the media, the performers locked it in a suggestive association, a small scale understatement: those few drops escaping in spite of their strong control.

I heard few drops escaping onto the floor, stopped instantly by the hand that held the opened end. That small amount of water heralded the limits of man controlling gravity, water, nature. It also signals re-arranged values. Not so long ago, water was not one of the precious resources. With the growth in population everywhere it is becoming the most precious of them. Increased preciousness of clean water expands the performance from the room to the reported shortages in various parts of the world. The contemporary anxieties feed on the sense of the diminished ability of people to responsibly manage their lives and environment. The two artists address this by focusing on risk taking, bravely controlling their bodies, in a superb, flawless timing and with exquisitely carved gestures. In this way they challenge the prevalent “precautionary” risk- averse fatalism that deifies fear. The performance reverses the sense of loss of autonomy and of absence of freedom by foregrounding responsibility both in life and art.

Simultaneously, the puzzle and solution are presented. The darkness softened by two tiny lights and the ten minutes viewing slots only, defined the experience as intensely private, clearly opposing the concept of art as a spectacle. For centuries, music understood the salient points of difference (and advantage) between a spectacle, say an opera, and a chamber music. In visual arts drawings held a similar position, most of the time. Performance art explored both with various results. The Crossing invented a type of intense body art that does not depend on blood, fire or self harm. The performers mirror each other posture, gesture, rhythm, strength, even breathing, without falling into some mechanical repeat, because they act simultaneously, staying acutely responsive to each other. The small differences between them strengthen the art’s connection to ordinary existence. Admittedly, it is neither labour nor work, it is an action with traces of both, and with a touch of play. Such a constellation does not guarantee, by itself, any depth. Searching for such a guarantee needs to start with connectivity of the ten minutes experience with the world at large. In a parallel to the butterfly wing effect, those ten minutes demanded of me adjustment to bad viewing conditions, to a slow simple repeated act of two dark bodies “chained “ together by a glass full of water and their resolve not to lose a drop while taking risks.

There were few unexpected “gifts”: the set -up fluently crossed over from the intention to meet a chance and play. At times a light ray glittered on the glass, which embodied that ray by letting it slip over its surface. It alone cut through the thick dark mist of twilight and silence, like a tamed lightening, like a sparkling precious stone. So singled out, the private realm receives an absolute value – absolute because it cannot repeat ever again. The private realm is the preferred condition for this performance in its focus on intensity of subjectivity. Opposing the bland generalised appeal to many, it connects to some ideas beyond the descriptive realm, specifically to the idea of simultaneous illumination of the real and the reflected ( as a physical fact and as a metaphor).

The slowly advanced recognition of the authority of art, of light or its absence, moved my feeling of discomfort to a state of relaxed “going along” with expectation for the next moment. The rhythm the two performers chose was at the same time ordinary, like a slow dance to a music in their heads, and unnatural (to me, because I did not hear that music). I imagined all the stages in between the two static positions that coincided with the 180 degrees turn of the glass. Science recognizes the law of gravity, of optics, of the speed of light and sound without giving them role in morality or aesthetic judgement. As art, the Crossing increased consciousness of authority and responsibility of freedom and their respective aesthetic powers. The light sources shrouded the presence into insecurity. Is it a day or night light? The question of time virtually wiggled out of the ten minutes slot because the sensual measure of time became insignificant. Ensuing touch of infinity was enhanced and welcome by a dreamy space and a slow fluent rhythm of the action. The performance was calmly aiming at the sublime. Assisted by absence of the grotesque, and the comical elements, it savoured its inherent beauty. Minimalist kind of beauty, not a rupture, more of the revival of classical rules: simplicity, order, proportion, clarity. (This last quality may appear unbelievable in the light of my discussion of the bad viewing conditions; nevertheless, what they allowed to perceive was clear).

The free will and control of the two performers challenge the society that blames other/ external forces for its fear, a pattern well rehearsed in classical art and drama ( Sophocles’ Antigone comes to mind here). Without freedom there is no responsibility, conversely being responsible increases freedom. The autonomy of art increases personal freedom also of the viewer to make responsible choices.
To achieve that, it was a necessary condition for the performance to address individuals and not large audiences, to reject populism, celebrity culture and demagogy, all known forces that govern much of western culture.

By trusting the aesthetic experience the artists reversed a number of dominant dogmas about art theory and role of art in society (specifically the dominant view of instrumental value of art). The private encounter without verbal translation and in an almost subliminal constellation of conditions is trusted as genuine and direct. Although fragile, an intense brief aesthetic experience enhances consciousness while crossing over the ravines of indifference, crooked thought and habitual passivity.

Responsive to the site, sensing the reaction of the viewers, the two performers evoked a condensed rehabilitation of fragility of experience (Aristotle) that mapped, albeit incompletely, on some of the verbs/nouns, MacLennan listed on the handout: stepping... concealing... carrying... moving... resisting... ensuring... connecting... returning... and crossing.

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