A Premonition of the Act: Rose English at Camden Arts Centre
(12th December 2015 - 6th March 2016)
A low, round, revolving stage is lit from above. An audience circles it in tiers of a violet hue. From a darkened aisle two women walk out, slowly, their leotard necklines sparkling. A woman—the artist, Rose English—proceeds to the circle’s edge dressed in a black robe. She holds a champagne glass on a saucer and passes it to one of the performers; a procession. The performers revolve to the crescendos of hymning emanating from the darkened aisles; words like flagrant, flutter, flicker, flower, flatter, flame, screaming, talking, music, wisdom. The tension rises as the women begin to balance increasingly complicated glass structures on their feet, their hands, and their heads as they bend, flip, slide and roll around the moment that never comes: when everything blows into shards. Like much of English’s work in her latest exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, watching this video my attention too revolved around two points: the collision, and the audience.
Known for her theatrical performance works, ‘the unsung queen of British performance art’, English has been making work since the 1970s when she first emerged as a prominent figure from Britain’s feminist art scene, although her new solo exhibition A Premonition of the Act, remains emptied of any performance in the flesh. In each of the two video works in the exhibition, every audience member on screen is shifting, grazing, watching with you. Both works document bygone events; Ornamental Happiness filmed at the Liverpool Biennale in 2006, and Flagrant Wisdom filmed in what appears to be a professional gym, then in Sunderland’s National Glass Centre where each performer takes a turn at rehearsing their own throwing and sliding and turning and balancing heavy glass vessels on their bodies. All the while their fellow rehearsers mimic you watching from the sidelines in a double-screened montage. Everyone anticipates the smash that never happens.
Between these two films the largest room in the exhibition remains the calmest. Here, a group of chairs are clustered together in darkness under the sound of hymns falling from the speakers in the rafters, encircled again by the artist’s notebook pages pinned to the faraway walls, almost all of them penciled with phrases like ‘electric glass’, ‘synaptic circus’ and ‘liquid embrace’, each one spotlit in a pool of amber light. The room itself becomes a sanctuary from the adrenaline-fuelled act of the near fall, between each teetering disaster at either end of the gallery.
In the final room during Flagrant Wisdom the bystanders check their phones, and so do I. The tension first encountered in Ornamental Happiness has at this point diffused, and I pick up my bag to leave. Is it really possible to bottle such tension? For now, A Premonition of the Act is as close as you’re going to get.