TROVE, The Old Science Museum, 144 Newhall Street, Birmingham, B3 1RZ

  • Dominic Johnson 2
    Title : Dominic Johnson 2
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    Title : Dominic Johnson 12
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    Title : Dominic Johnson 3
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    Title : Dominic Johnson 4
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    Title : Dominic Johnson 5
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    Title : Dominic Johnson 6
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    Title : Dominic Johnson
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Dominic Johnson, Departure and Fierce and Dominic Johnson’s Human Salvage, review by Andy Field

The doors were locked when we arrived for Dominic Johnson’s Departure. Through the glass façade we glimpse a handful of beguiling figures scattered across the large warehouse space; flashes of gold and white and red light up in the dark. A large crowd had gathered by the entrance and the air crackled with anticipation. Something is about to happen.

Standing outside in the cold gazing in curiously at figures in concealed behind makeup and masks I can’t help but think of Joseph Beuys legendary 1965 piece How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. There too the audience stood outside peering through the gallery doors whilst Beuys spent three long hours whispering advice on painting to his furred companion. When finally the guests were let in, Bueys spent the rest of the night sat with his back to them, cradling the dead hare. Yet the image of that performance that persists is of Beuys’ gold-leafed face up close, peering down into the camera lens. That image now is the piece in most people’s imagination. Any event becomes defined by its traces, even slowly consumed by them.

Dominic Johnson’s piece plays out this curious relationship between the ephemeral event and that which survives it. Once we finally enter the beautiful, part-derelict space attention immediately moves to Dominic himself, sat bare-chested at a table whilst his hand is slowly tattooed with a series of abstract patterns. This is a performance of traces, or maybe of the act of tracing. Of writing onto Dominic’s body in a way that will persist long after we’ve all left the building. Tattoos survive beyond death. In the past the skin would be peeled up and displayed, a tangible memory of a person now gone.

Whereas the conventional relationship between a performance and its remains is perhaps somewhat one-dimensional (the documentation only serving to record or preserve the live event) here it is utterly symbiotic. The event is an exquisite, almost ritualistic celebration of the traces it will leave behind on Dominic’s body. As such the whole event is constructed around that which will persist beyond it. The amplified sound of the tattooist’s drill occasionally emerges from the piece’s ambient musical soundtrack and fills the room with its brilliantly agonising buzz; a piercing reminder of the effort required to paint these patterns permanently into the flesh. The pale glow of camera phones flutter, capturing the occasion from every conceivable angle, a digital archive dispersed across the country.

Yet at the same time as playing out this curious relationship between a performance and its traces, the piece also reclaims the act of tattooing as not simply something suffered in expectation of the art leaves behind, but an event in and of itself. Certainly, the incredible mass procession that Dominic led us on through the dark streets of Birmingham’s jewellery quarter at the end of the piece felt like a moment at which to cherish this simple, private procedure that we had been offered the generous opportunity to share in together.

That procession led us on to Human Salvage - a night of performance and music hosted at Stan’s Café‘s warehouse space at the old A E Harris factory elsewhere in the Jewellery Quarter. Here the tender, durational liveness of Dominic’s earlier piece fizzled into something altogether wilder. The night was immaculately curated, from Dickie Beau’s achingly sad performance of a remarkable old found recording to Lauren Barrie Holstein’s thrillingly furious finale. Then drinking and talking. Then music. Then dancing. The night continued to unfold whilst Dominic’s hand still tingled with the memory of the needles that earlier had marked it.

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