Text on Gallery, written for The Showroom London, 2016
This text was written to coinicide with performances of the installation 'Two Times' conceived by Manuel Pelmus and performed by Jonathan Burrows, as part of the exhibition 'Everything we see could also be otherwise' at The Showroom London, 2017
I'm lying in a gallery with nobody there,
or at least the man filming me is there
but when I begin we're alone just the two of us,
and he is watching in a technological way.
By filming me lying alone as an object
he sends out a statement
into that future place of having happened,
where the visual arts sorts and orders its own.
The camera man's technological gaze is calming,
and although I'm trying to be present in this moment,
it's nice to think it will matter more that it did happen
than that it is happening.
This art time makes me feel blessed by a less dirty kind of being there,
like I'm absolved from my habit of audience
and my barely controlled ego.
I'm occupying the bed photographs of the artist Mladen Stilinović
as a rolling passage on the floor from one to the other of eight positions
alternating eyes open and closed,
which original images have the title 'Artist at work'.
The idea is conceived by Manuel Pelmus who called our performance 'Two times',
itself a reference to the book by Stilinović,
where he writes 'does this have a future?' in faint pencil on each page.
I speak the words 'does this have a future?' after each roll,
which is in part a comment upon the dancing museum
but is also perhaps a way to distinguish us from other gallery sleepers,
not least Yvonne Rainer's plan to lie beneath Rousseau's sleeping gypsy,
which the Museum of Modern Art thought too Tilda Swinton
and so never showed.
Such are the harsh conditions of negotiating gallery collections,
so different from the usual thievery of dance
where nobody really notices what's been and gone and is here again,
and again but in different clothes.
I'm alone so the timings of my rolls are good
the way timings are good when you're alone,
like practising a piece of music at home and you sound good.
I hang on to a thought I came up with that I don't quite understand,
that I should try to practice being public in private,
which is not at all that insular privilege
of being private in front of an audience.
Reversing the obvious statement helps me keep things open
whilst holding the conversation close between me and the watchers,
but it's a paradoxical game and I doubt it.
Rolling back I see three people have entered the room,
the choreographer, the gallery director and a man in an orange puffer jacket
who we might call a real spectator.
I'm mindful that I must not demand this man's attention,
as though success here could only be defined by an equality with other objects,
bringing to mind an image from yogic philosophy of becoming as stone.
Such a transformation had begun while walking from the tube,
during which I adopted a manner that seemed oddly familiar
and which you might describe as a gallery body,
being a particular mode I'd experienced before in similar situations.
It returned now as fully formed whole-body sensation,
with my head floating, eyes peripheral and waist dropped lightly away,
causing me to progress in a smooth and gliding manner.
This suit of armour protects me from the proximity of watchers
giving me a balance between myself and art,
between the subjective and the objective,
although as I said before in fact nobody was there when I entered.
The above description veers towards the cynical
as though mocking my own attitude in that moment,
but I recognised this gallery body with a genuine sense of pleasure.
It felt at once totally fake yet quite real,
as though greeting a version of myself previously rejected
and now found to be less compromised than I'd thought.
Tiny decisions made in position and timing as I'm performing
become consequent despite the absurdity of the gallery situation,
which play of choices I'm aware may have real value
or could be just a fantasy of my longing for consequence.
In moments I feel quite skilfull and at other times stupid,
as though my effort is transparent.
I recall other times of enduring similar shame
and console myself with the thought that meeting shame may be vital,
like a hidden but liberating engine for anyone who dances.
This image came to me originally from the choreographer Tom Plischke,
who asked 'Do you ever feel ashamed when you dance?'
and the question felt reassuring.
Tom made a solo during which he quietly wet himself,
causing a dark stain to spread through his woollen tights.
I roll again to face the wall and pause and am momentarily preoccupied
in wondering whether my eyes open but turned away changes anything.
I suppose this is what Ramsay Burt meant about the somatic,
that awareness of it arrived by accident of people doing less
and so having more time to sense, and I have plenty of time.
I am at once a representation of immense privilege
and at the same time oddly even recklessly vulnerable,
senselessly lying here a man of almost 60
in a small gallery surrounded by council houses,
worrying about art and feeling great joy and dignity.
To the gallery attendant who has entered I try to be companiable,
so as to avoid adding to the burden of her self-consciousness.
For her the gallery is always emptying
and I share the lonely relief that it must cause,
and the sense that this is just a job.
Stilinović was thinking about labour when he took his photographs,
which critique the artist working too hard for the market,
and here the market comes and goes with a valuing eye.
Dance itself is effective in these situations because its value is evasive,
being essentially uncollectable as an investment opportunity.
I'm working hardly at all and that is the subject.
My clothes are new, bought to make things feel more neutral
like a generic surface covering.
I've heard it expressed that nudity can be the most neutral state
but I hallucinate my shirt riding up and am concerned,
as though my naked back would be too personal,
and the floor is cold under a covering of paper
which paper is itself a work of art.
The risks of performing are often overstated
and anybody watching would neither notice nor care,
but mutual fear and mistrust is part of it
so it probably matters that I am concerned.
It's the shamanistic side of things
like a mild irritant, easily dismissed but effective.
And then the word performative,
which means something that brushes past and alters
but refuses to be holdable and may not exist at all
or only as a formula,
and when it has occured you don't know how to say it
because the word is tired but things do happen.
Many glance and dismiss me now,
which feels right but unusual after the bear pit of theatre.
Neverthless I enjoy that people are performing beautifully their resistance,
and I'm aware that I would do the same;
that I am doing the same.
A fly hovers and I think about meat,
such that the question 'Does this have a future' becomes idiotically resonant.
A Russian choir sings from the next door video artwork while a train passes,
and I roll again feeling momentous.
When the phone alarm vibrates in my pocket I am sad
but stand to find my spectacles.
The walk out says I have ceased to be involved in something important.
I avoid the glance of the gallery attendant but am glad she is there,
each no longer an object.
With thanks to Manuel Pelmus, Emily Pethick and The Showroom Gallery, What, How & for Whom collective and the Kontakt Art Collection.
© Jonathan Burrows 2017