‘Multiple Points In This Vague Landscape’
Jonathan Baldock and Florence Peake At Primary, Nottingham
Jonathan Baldock does uncanny things with fabric, creating absurd tableaus from semi-abstract shapes and disembodied heads. The sheer meticulousness of his craft suggests a serious and focused attention to making which can transform the most innocuous objects into taut, tactile and slightly unreal versions of their original forms. Since working with choreographer Henrietta Hale at Wysing Arts last year, he has been turning his eye for the uncanny towards performance. For his ongoing exhibition at Primary, he worked on a one-night-only performance choreographed by artist/dancer Florence Peake.
Although the Pembroke born artist is best known for his soft-sculpture installations, he has a background in painting which he shares with Peake. Peake’s work has often involved objects, and shows a very fluid relationship between object and performer, sculptor and sculpture. With just 2 days of rehearsals before the performance, they’re both learning about the possibilities of each other’s discipline. I went along to see the one-off performance at Primary, where the installation will be on show until the 7th of June.
The installation where the performance plays out is dominated by a gigantic yellow face. The entire head, standing well over 8 ft tall, has been arduously hand stitched. Its eyes have been removed, leaving two gaping holes and red-rimmed sockets. Piles of fluffy wodding are strewn around the stage like innards. Other objects occupy the floor before the monumental head: a huge cushioned red lump, swathes of grey fabric and a circle of sherbet-yellow sand. A collection of ceramic sticks laid out neatly on pieces of brightly coloured fabric of varying size and shape suggest a kit for picnic as much as they recall a surgeons tools. The smell of incense and a low soft humming begins to fill the room. Despite the unsettling connotations of this scene, the world which Baldock has created for the performers, full of kooky outsized shapes and cheerful colours appears soft, silly, even comical and almost, *almost*, harmless.
The performers costumes cover them almost completely from head-to-toe. At times they move so slowly that they could be part of the set they inhabit. It’s the uneven shifting of weight, as well as the exposed hands and feet, that give away the fact there is a person underneath. For much of Act 1, the two sit peacefully holding balls of wadding while using hooked, semi-circular needles to slowly draw out thin strands of wadding. At the first, these characters seem quite benevolent with their silly ‘emoticon’ faces, and their absurd ceremonies. *At first*.
In Act 2, the tone shifts. While one character continues to sit and stitch, the other holds two long poles as he performs a series of rapid but controlled gestures that look like a martial arts performance. As he moves, the poles draw scrape lines through the sand he stands on. The poles could be drawing tools, or weapons, or simply extensions of the characters arms. What the function poles serve is unclear, but the intent is deadly serious.
In Act 2 there is no ambient background noise. They prove that they are also capable of sudden aggression, as the pair set to work attacking one of the sculptures with violent curiosity: repeatedly stabbing and jabbing at the object with ceramic implements. Every stab that penetrates the surface emits an ear-splitting squeak which sets your teeth on edge. The fact that Baldock hand stitches his sculptures, and that his performers use knitting needles as their weapons can hardly be coincidental. As they hack away at the harmless, inanimate object, it’s as though they are distorting and parodying the process of making. Sewing – associated fixing and mending, is suddenly coupled with piercing and stabbing and tearing apart, so that making and destroying become the same sort of action.
Photo Credit: James E Smith
Through the 3 Acts they gradually undress one another – but this only reveals robes beneath robes and masks beneath masks. Gradually exposing more skin, the performers become more human and less like animated sculptures. In the final Act, they stare out at the audience from behind the gigantic yellow head – acknowledging the audience directly for the first time. Up until this point, they have been oblivious to us, wrapped up in a world of their own. Now that we’ve been noticed, the atmosphere shifts again. At first the prolonged staring elicits a few nervous laughs from the audience. As they continue to stare, it goes beyond a joke. Gradually, people realize that this is the end of the performance. There are not going to be any further theatrics. They are not about to enact final climatic ceremony. This is simply the end.
Although the final scene feels like the most intimate moment of the performance, we are kept at a distance by the many layers of disguise. It ends with two pairs of eyes looking out from behind two masks. Two masks, which belong to two performers, which are staring out from the holes in a gigantic yellow mask. The gigantic yellow face, in a vaulted hall surrounded by soft props and implausible tools that serve no real purpose.
Written By Hannah Roast