The unique performance given by Sue Tompkins on the opening night of her exhibition of new works revealed many of the most compelling aspects of her practice, both as a sculptor and as a vocalist. The former Life Without Buildings singer develops a more mesmerising technique with each solo performance she delivers. Often Tompkins weaves snatches of popular song and borrowed texts (such as excerpts from Bob Dylan’s ‘One of Us Must Know’ or the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’) into a personal song/narrative. She then deliberately undermines the emotional pull of the love songs she references through odd phrasing, foot movements, lengthy pauses and the insertion of seemingly banal phrases and half-sense fragments. Sometimes, she will stop mid-performance to smile at a member of the audience, to ask if we can hear her, or to tell us that it is okay if we want to leave.
However, for this most recent performance Tompkins stepped away from her strategies of détournement to deliver a brief set of three recognisable cover versions. Accompanied by the Glasgow-based artist Alan Michael on electric guitar, Tompkins began with a few lines of resonant but apparently jumbled verse. The improvised chords played by Michael to accompany this first section were derived from the Richard and Linda Thompson song ‘Calvary Cross’ (1974). She followed this with the rather startling choice of Bruce Springsteen’s strident stadium rock anthem ‘Dancing in the Dark’ (1984), re-configured by Tompkins as a remarkable, life-affirming confessional.
Springsteen’s song was recast as a sensitive discussion of depression (I get up in the evening/ and I ain’t got nothing to say/ I come home in the morning/ I go to bed feeling the same way). It also became a consideration of personal identity, even of ‘womanliness as a masquerade’, as described by psychoanalyst Joan Riviere (I check my look in the mirror/ I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face). The tension between natural and manufactured forms is a recurring theme in the exhibition, in objects including ‘leaves’ cut from dark woven cloth and gold cardboard and two empty plastic Spa mineral water bottles on a shelf. A Polaroid stuck to the wall depicting a flash reflecting in a mirror condenses the idea of representation as a false reflection. The ‘spark’ generated by social connection is implicated by its absence.
A sampled loop of the opening bars of ‘Calvary Cross’ plays constantly in the corridor outside the exhibition space, echoing the improvised version of the song performed on the opening night. The live act also haunts the large pages of foolscap paper that are pinned to the walls, each annotated with a small, puzzling phrase. The typed phrase ‘BE MY WIFE’ for example, refers explicitly to the 1977 David Bowie song which concluded the opening night performance. Without having seen the performance, the delicate arrow-like folds in these paper sheets may seem to point in unclear directions. The absent real and the romantic Other entwine in this work in a way that is beguiling, incomplete and very life-like.
Sarah Lowndes is a writer living in Glasgow