17 July 2010, DAAD, Berlin
Arriving for Ian White’s Democracy, the audience is ushered indoors and through into the main gallery space where they take chairs, stand or sit on the floor to form an obedient horseshoe around a white table. On the table there is an elegantly positioned white digital radio.
Picking his way through the crowd, White sits on the floor. He is dressed in a plain white T-shirt, blue jeans and white hi-tec trainers. Slowly, the radio begins to emit sound and we hear the BBC World Service. From Our Own Correspondent is being broadcast. Until now, White has been motionless, staring out with a customary performance art vacancy. He then stands with his right arm looped around his back and lifts one foot from the ground. He maintains this position for some time until he wobbles with the exertion of the extended pose, sits again and repeats the action while we hear accounts of Nicolas Sarkozy’s media image and planned developments for the Appalachian trail. Behind him on the white wall a powerpoint slideshow begins: images of Queen Elizabeth I, an immaculately tended stately garden (a site, I later discover, designed for said monarch’s castle at Kenilworth by her suitor Robert Dudley) and close-ups of the bearded features of the classical statuary that ornament the garden. But before the series of images is even half complete, the artist is on his feet again, has unbuckled his belt and unencumbered himself of jeans. Standing in his briefs, one foot still through a denim leg, he lifts his arms to assume a quasi balletic / Karate Kid crane kick stance with leg lifted before toppling forward. Through a repetition of this action it becomes clear that he is making his way towards the exit. The crowd part to let him pass and he makes his egress, Levi leg trailing. The audience applauds this ‘ending’, animates in typical fashion and begins to dissipate rapidly. Yet the powerpoint presentation continues. Gradually images of a shopping centre, odd oblique shots of the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz, a detail of a hypodermic syringe painted by Francis Bacon, and then another inserted into an arm, strewn garments in a bedroom and finally self-addressed postcards are introduced into the montage.
At an immediate level, the piece feels like a very personal articulation of a relationship to authority in many forms: the state, commerce, architecture, hegemonic sexuality, the institution in its myriad incarnations. This dovetails with the documentation and scripts of the preceeding works from White’s trilogy (‘Ibiza’ and ‘Black Flags’). White’s related publication reveals the works’ respective treatment of salacious holiday sex anecdote and the Tate’s interpretation policy, but Democracy possesses an underlying uncertainty despite the vehement and lugubrious stare worn by the artist throughout.
There is a respect in which this stare presents a nagging obstacle because, unlike the colliding matter of the images or his costume’s ubiquitous specificity, its vernacular quality seems less self-aware. It is the glazed performance mode that we all know well, suggesting that the performer is elsewhere, the audience will not be acknowledged and something very profound and internal is taking place. As soon as this familiarity creeps in, one realises there are a number of other performance art hallmarks at play that remain uncriticised. In the protracted stance there is endurance, self-abjection in the removal of his jeans, and heroic failure in each ballet stumble.
Once these characteristics have exposed themselves, inevitably one is inclined to speculate why they seem to go unchecked when so much of the rest of the work apparently aims to flag our complicity with grand narratives and power structures.
Despite the feeling of unease provoked by this the mental yo-yoing that is induced, the work is, on reflection, compelling and enduring. DAAD provided a rare opportunity to see work by an enigmatic figure in the world of contemporary performance and an artist who has been working in a consistent and esteemed manner within this field for some time. Though perhaps better known as a curator and writer, among artists that include Emma Hedditch, Karolin Meunier, Achim Lengerer and Falke Pisano, White reflects a particular vanguard of scholarly performance practice that aims to interrogate the construction of subjectivities in a complex and unfolding sociocultural terrain.
Giles Bailey is an artist based in Rotterdam