I missed Helen Benigson’s private view. It was a shame because promised were women weightlifters (note the prefix: a woman-weightlifter isn’t just a weightlifter, she’s a woman-weightlifter) a spray tan therapist and a performance by Benigson’s alter ego, rapper Princess Belsize Dollar. This all sounds like totally my bag. A friend of mine did make it to the private view. She said it was awesome, except for the performance by Princess Belsize Dollar, which she reported as ‘poor’. Now, I found this really interesting. I’ve seen Princess Belsize Dollar quite a few times before, so although I missed it on this occasion I’ve a fairly good idea of what went on. It is true to say that as a performer Belsize Dollar is no Beyonce. The vocals are flat, the dancing is stiff and self-conscious and the sound system isn’t up to the job. In short, if you’re expecting M.I.A., you’re going to be disappointed. However, and here’s the thing: Benigson isn’t a rapper, she’s a visual artist. Princess Belsize Dollar is a persona very consciously created by Benigson as a tool through which she is able to investigate certain ideas and phenomena. Well, you might say, Butler-esque and very pleased about it, we’re all created persona, all performing this thing called ‘me’. And that might be true. But we’re not necessarily aware of it as a performance, and when we are, that awareness is a fleeting intellectual awareness that doesn’t in truth allow us the detachment we need to investigate what is really going on. Expressed another way, when Grayson Perry puts a dress on, does he suddenly become a woman? I’m over simplifying of course, but you get my drift. In a word, the Belsize Dollar performances are flat and it is flatness that Benigson is investigating in her visual practice. What’s clever about it, and what also reflects a truth about persona and identity, is that it’s not altogether clear where Benigson ends and Belsize Dollar begins. Hence the confusions.
‘Anxious, Stressful, Insomnia Fat’ is a chaotic installation of video, sculptural and sound works. The press release calls it playful. That must have been written by a man, because it seems to me anything but. It seems to me, if you’re a woman and you’re in a delicate emotional state you might want to visit another day. It’s an investigation into a paranoid state of mind bordering on hysteria. It’s a condition that contemporary culture offers to its women, entraps us in, you might say.
The sound is a woman’s voice, variously sped up and slowed down, loud and echoey. ‘Please,’ she says, ‘really worried, stressful, anxious, so scared, so worried, please help me, anxious, so anxious, really worried, please… anxious, stressful, insomnia fat’. Behind this is the white noise of what could be a huge volume of traffic, or a set of TVs, or children playing. It’s a desperate delirium. And whilst that’s raising our stress levels to sky high, we’re looking at objects including a birthing pool, a running machine and two brushed chrome shelves of gynaecological equipment: surgical scissors, grey kidney-shaped bowls, one of those big plastic incision tools they use for smear tests still in its plastic wrapper and other mysterious objects for prodding, poking, medically judging us. Playful? It’s horror movie.
Videos overlay and intersect. There’s a sumo wrestling match; a woman, presumably the artist, having a foot massage and filmed to show just the feet and the masseuse, an Indian woman in a sari, probably a beach hawker. There’s a vinyl wallpaper of a woman bending to pick up weights. Another image of a woman’s head in profile, cut to suggest surgery. Over the top are laid discs of prosthetic nipples such as those used by cancer survivors treated with mastectomy. They decorate the place like horrific baubles. Also, stills from a female health app, the sort used to record fertility: ‘my period today was light, I slept for 7 hrs 30 mins, I feel anxious, most common: happy’. That last the damnation. They make you feel anxious and then they tell you you’re a failure to feel so. Not directly, but insidiously, by comparison.
It’s all symptomatic of the obsessive creation of self we’re supposed to go in for. This measuring, noting, labeling, this fitting of ourselves into a polystyrene box as though we were a chicken wing on a conveyor belt, until we don’t even know who we are any more. As though we don’t really even exist. As though the avatars aren’t any long representing us, but as though we have become the avatars. This is a nightmare you don’t wake up from.