The Fruit of Their Actions
Laura Edbrook engages in the psychology of a recent work by artist duo Smith/Stewart
Their pattern of engagement:
Six people gather under stark flood lights, forming an anxious love polygon. Standing two or three feet apart, they shuffle awkwardly on the stage. Their glassy eyes, fixed on the distance, dart as they struggle to maintain a fixed gaze; their throats twitch. From above, the blazing light beam centres the narrator.
It illuminates her posture. It isolates her as an individual. A woman who…
She holds the air in her lungs as she watches them. The smouldering feeling inside her spreads under her skin. Her chest burns. With taciturn control, she withholds thought. Her glazed eyes listened, watching by looking away. She communicates with a few discreet and wholly involuntary responses to her swelling war of nerves.
What have we done?
Only a few moments ago she was alone, but her slanted vision now follows the movement of a hand, reaching to grasp their other. Performed as the driest of routines, it’s now better with a little passion. As an intimate observer, she witnesses the mechanics of their encounter, the microscopic details of their affair. Seep—Lick—Suck—Gasp—Gulp. Red lips blossom and glisten with saliva. Here, there is no such thing as love, lovely love, just experimentation and fantasy. No actions can be mistaken for genuine tenderness; no touch, no contact or romantic involvement, desire or intimacy. It is only a physical act, a kiss. Lips apart, eyes closed, together their heads pulsate hypnotically back and forth. The physical rhythm binds the group. It is a gentle humming waltz, and with every turn another partner. She waits, her mouth turns dry and her lips begin to crack. It will soon be her turn. Then … borrowed fluids moisten her parched lips. It’s a convenient arrangement; husbands cannot always be lovers. In their relationship, he is the man and she is the woman; in their relationship, she is the prize and he is the lover; in their relationship, he is the stag and she is the hen.
As their waltz turns they all dance to the same tune. And now, another lover makes his bow.
In their relationship, she is male and he is female.
In their relationship, he is the receiver and she is the giver.
In their relationship, she is the gaze and he is the object.
Her role among them was never clearly defined. Their relations had developed from an abstract prompt earlier in the day. Having now fostered a mutual dependency there is a complicit bond of trust between them, negotiated on the strength of small hints or gestures, and the most inscrutable expressions or evasions. As an active partner in the events, her role has implications; her collaboration is essential; she wants her conduct to be exemplary.
She chooses to treat this exercise with utter professionalism, it is now her show, after all. Eyes glazed; she feels uncommon emotions as she knows the others are watching her.
Privately she hesitates with the dilemma of what she will do if they reject her. How would this pause be accounted for? She then tries to recount a time from her past when she felt desired. Inside, thinking about the befores and afters, her head spews it’s own micro-drama. Or so the story went.
Give me your hand.
We can do it together, in this space.
In our space, we meet her on screen. Among the others, her lit face confronts us in the middle of the room. No barrier protects against her advancing gaze. Compelled to survey the participant’s performance to camera, as sections of the polygon fall off-screen, the onlooking audience tentatively step into their structure of sensory communication. Their nearness can be felt.
Tell me your name.
What would that change?
We already know things of her. We have found a mirror in her mind; she could now be a construct playing only for us; with her history fictionalised by us. In this scenario, she is a survivor, and it is because of this that we can identify with her. Her sentiments are the echo of ours as we suffer her vulnerability. In our space, we watch the others do the same, and they, in return, watch us.
Each subject is a participant.
Each viewer is a subject.
Each subject is a viewer.
What have we done?
The performance requires the camera to perform, not merely as a recording device, but stage and audience simultaneously. The stark, unsettling mise-en-scène, the improvised uniform pattern of repeated movement; the task-based choreography, and proceeding exposing documentary footage sets spontaneous, intimate and realistic components against the contrived and theatrical.
The relationship between performer and character, fact and fiction, real and performance, rehearsal and rehearsed. Unsure of the existence of any rules of engagement, we are ignorant to how these people came to be in their situation, informed of the story only by their physical behaviour.
What made them act this way?
What we look at is a representation of a point in time when the work existed. The ‘everybodys’ (and not ‘performers’) we see are ‘neutral doers’; they perform their act in a non-virtuosic fashion, appraising relations between the spectacle and the spectator, and implicate the onlooker.
As a present subject, we become constituents of a past incident. As a spectator in the gallery, one feels the same excitement and reverence as the exercise’s participants.
What is intimacy?
In one exercise, participants act by agreeing to enter the artists’ engendered, intimate space, it is the fruit of their actions that culminate in the work. Unspecified instructions act as a trigger, and there is no higher order or purpose structuring the action on screen.
We learn that this is not theatre; subjects do not know their manners in advance. Solicited out-with their inhibitions, it is their reaction to the experiment, and consequences, that is documented. The subjects are ‘revealed’ as they engage in their activity because they engage in their activity. The results present a loaded circumstance; a concentrated ceremonial presentation of the dynamics of social relations, attitudes and beliefs, of the widespread collectivity of social intimacy.
Necessitating subjects in a work has potent social implications. The contributing strangers have now left a mark on each other’s internal history. Bidding their goodbyes and resuming their previous disassociation with one another they will remain bound by this event, mutually sustaining their juncture of shared history.
Because there is no love without goodbye.
Laura Edbrook is the recipient of the New Work Scotland Project 2010 MAP residency