Ben and Holly are not in love, are not married, and do not live together. Yet throughout the Edinburgh Festival 2006, the pair sat down for a daily dinner date at 7pm and invited everyone to watch. For their most recent exhibition Table for Two, the young performance duo spent the month together; sleeping in the same room, eating and drinking the same food at the same time, logging their eating and toilet habits. By sharing everything going in, and monitoring everything going out, the pair created a kind of human version of Wim Delvoye’s digestion machine ‘Cloaca’—echoing its nihilism, while eating, breathing and shitting performance art. But unlike Delvoye, the pair simply simulated each other, submitting both their bodies to the same internal and external conditions.
In this—and many of their previous performances amassed over a four-year collaboration—Ben and Holly’s shared existence is validated by one another, regardless of the presence of an audience. However, Holly is quick to point out that their practice is ‘ongoing whether we’re in each other’s company or not’. The pair work with and for each other—their performances appearing as a tongue-in-cheek response to Albert Camus’ statement: ‘If there is any man who has no right to solitude it is the artist.’
Working last year in Glasgow as part of the CCA’s Creative Lab programme and with ArtsAdmin at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, the pair initially met at Central St Martin’s School of Art and Design in London, while both engaged in sculpture practice, and turned to developing collaborative performances.
The instinctive actions and quiet rituals of Table for Two make up much of Ben and Holly’s relationship, while the situations and objects they encounter serve to counterpoint, challenge and jeopardise their bond. Benign acts, such as eating together, sharing a bed or chatting become ways in which the pair reject or affirm their relationship. ‘I feel as though the collaboration enhances my existence,’ says Holly, adding that working so intensively with her performance partner is ‘almost like spending time with myself, Ben mirroring me in some way.’
Yet Ben counters this. ‘I often don’t feel like I exist when I’ m working with Holly. It feels like I am work,’ he says. ‘My sole purpose on this Earth is to be an efficient performance art machine.’
The body as a container through which all existence is experienced, and also as a document of experience itself is, for Ben and Holly, countered by the necessity to relate it all to a constant other. Dependence, or conversely the need for independence, is pronounced in their work, as each artist becomes the other’s witness and audience. Although perhaps not confined to the category of live installation, Ben and Holly’s work does indeed embody what the critic Robert Storr outlined in his 1999 essay ‘No Stage, No Actors, but it’s Theatre (and Art)’—an installation as the creation of a totally immersive environment. Yet this immersion is not solely for our benefit. In cases such as Table for Two the immersion is visceral. As with the control in a scientific experiment, the only variables are Ben and Holly’s experiences before they became ‘artists Ben and Holly’, when they were simply Ben Connor and Holly Darton.
Isla Leaver-Yap is assistant editor of MAP