Gifts of the Spirit, review by Andy Field
Everything talks in Gifts of the Spirit, even the building. The crumbling walls of this hauntingly atmospheric space do not conceal the scars of its various uses; factory, science museum, gallery. Ron Athey’s piece might be the product of all three - an elegant machine made out of people and a curiosity with people. A busy production line that we the audience move around quietly and curiously, both admiring it like an object and experiencing it like a séance.
Filling most of the space is a giant white cross mapped out in paper on the floor, upon which sit a collection of un-uniformed writers, dressed in black and sitting or kneeling, pens held like a breath. They are the exposed heart at the centre of this human machine, surrounded by typewriters and scissors and microphones, and it is their feverish writing that causes it to gently whirr into life. Responding to Athey’s reading of his own autobiographical texts, they write with a messy, vulnerable instinctiveness on the large pieces of paper covering the floor. This writing is then cut up and hung around the space, like fragments of carpet waiting to have the dust beaten out of them. From those scraps lines are selected, typewritten and finally sewn together into entirely new texts that are carefully spoken into a microphone.
As we observe this elegant ritual actions and sounds accumulate around us; the scratching of marker pens, the clicking of typewriters, words spoken, chants sung, all accompanied by a restless circling refrain of counting. We find ourselves pulled into a near-suffocating ocean of thoughts and confessions. An operatic cacophony of entranced scribblings. A chorus of words on top of words, cut and pasted, edited and re-edited, read and reread. A collective expression of the desire to know and be known, layering itself up into a kind of agonising white noise. A feedback loop that howls as piercingly as a microphone held too close to a speaker.
Amidst all this “Othon” with his hands bound in boxing gloves plays a grand piano; an almost hallucinatory vision at the centre of this hypnotic ritual. Wrapped in layers and layers of suffocating fabric his clumsy fists reach for the keys, sometimes delicately, sometimes with a fury under which I thought the piano itself might buckle. He is constrained, denied the ability to play the right notes, to say the things he means. And yet despite, or perhaps because of this, what he makes is beautiful.
The piece as a whole binds itself to his playing; all the noises of the space, the flurries of movement, the strange beauty of this human installation contained in a decaying shell of a building and the strangled articulacy of the entranced writers moving across its floor. Through this knotty tangle of contradictory thoughts and feelings something more unified begins to emerge. A shared confession of hope and fear and love and anger expressed as a single voice, or perhaps even a single note. Wrapped around the sound of the piano, these haunted thoughts begin to sing.