The artist Alice Anderson invited me to respond to her solo booth with La Patinoire Royale-Galerie Valérie Bach at Art Brussels. Entitled Nuhé, the work is a durational performance that lasted the entire length of the fair. Rather than a precis of her practice or a review of the piece as such, I proposed a ‘witnessing’ of the performance – that is, a written account of being with the piece and an attempt to transfer some of its ideas into word – that has now become part of the documentation of the work.
This is the text:
Booth D13, Art Brussels, Tour and Taxi, Brussels
There is no roof to the booth, so I can see the mechanics of the building it has been constructed within – exposed ducts and lighting tracts snake above, the is visible brickwork and windows look out.
The booth itself is a three-walled square, open to the audience from one side only. It is approximately 20 square meters of space in total but I am not allowed to enter.
Seven poles around 2 meters high are placed in a circle around the booth, each is approximately 20 cm in diameter. Three have been encased completely in copper wire. Neatly finished in the thin metal, they resemble large drill bits, totemic elements of machinery. Their surfaces are mostly smooth, giving then a shiny metallic casing, but also criss-crossed in places for matt effect, nevertheless weaved perfectly.
North South East West. A performer works individually at the other four poles.
The internal core of these four pillars show themselves to be tree trunks or thick branches, knotted and patinated. Immediately I understand that they will be worked upon until they too are completely covered. The four performers each hold a spool of copper-coloured thread. They pass the fine wire around the trunks, passing it around the back, to the front, and between their hands in a rotation. One stands on a box, reaching high to the top of her pole. Another creates a full body motion from his action, his arms stretching wide and his torso rolling through as he circulates around. Though they are bound in a common task, each performer works solipsistically, alone, creating their own rhythm and motion, using their own technique and pace.
Through the temperature of their movement I can sense how long each has been performing – the speed with which they work seems to be inversely proportional to their absorption in their task; at the beginning, the heat each generates is fierce, their labour is clear and self-conscious; as they become absorbed in the practice, they cool, the force of the gesture slows, conserving energy, and yet, become more focused, as if the trick of time is to absorb the body into the work, transforming the task into a process of automation and meditation.
Their action is ritualistic, seemingly unaware of its audience and context – of the flow of people walking past, stopping, watching, whether for a moment or some time. The performers are engrossed in their action. I am incidental. They don’t perform for me, instead they work intently, intensely, automatically so that I can sense the transience of my own viewing. They were here before I arrived, they will remain after I leave.
North South East West. Ritual extends from the largest-scale social and political processes to the most intimate aspects of our self-experience. It is a process of transformation, a rite that transforms from one state into another. Here, it changes not only the wood into metal, but performer into material – gradually they change from being the makers of the work into the work itself – copper, wood and body all acted with, and upon, in a performative circuit.
Nuhé. The orientation of the poles points to something outside the fair to which the performers are attuned. A nuhé is a Colombian Kogi temple from the Sierra Nevada. The construction of a nuhé is the physical architectural expression of the community – a gathering place that is both spiritual and political. A site of gathering. A temple, a cosmic observatory. The nuhé is both the structure within which the transformation takes place and the portal through which is possible to see the spiritual.
I think again about how the fair contains the work. Like in a casino or shopping mall, time and light are rarely allowed into this space. It is self-contained and immersive. Here, standing still, I am afforded time to configure myself in relation to this space. The strangeness of the constructed box, containing a different kind of ritual, small in the volume of the building. How the building sits on the site, warm in the unusually fierce heat of the April sun. The building in the site, the city. the cosmos…
Nuhé. This is a performance related both to the theatre of the fair and tethered to a ritual from far outside of this place. I am simply its witness and I must decide how long to stay, where to stand, and how to connect it to the larger space the booth next door, from the cafe the other side, from the fair itself… to the ancient ritual that exists elsewhere.
Performers memorialising the structural elements of the work through their motion, and working in parallel with one another, morph to the knowable tree branches into totems of the unknowable and intangible.
I am witnessing both a vanishing and a making act – the natural wood is bound, it is gradually, ritualistically disappeared, petrified in copper. Such an act creates new space. Mummifying and building, a task that is both primitive and wholly contemporary. Copper was the first mineral material used by mankind – mailable and ductile. Its power lies in its conductive mutability, it transfers electricity and heat.
Here, copper is the material that records, the material of memory itself. Pulled thin, into tread-like wire, it becomes a material to weave and with which to create a physical structure connected to the ground it sits on as much as the clouds above.
North South East West. Copper totems capture and distribute the vital energies of the four poles.
Through the ritual of disappearance, I witness the making of new meaning, invented by the materials themselves.
Nuhé. The nuhé works with two verbs, to see and to seize: “you will see what exists and you will seize what of that suits you.“