Artworks that attempt to seriously interrogate aspects of the religious or the spiritual often run the risk of tipping over into triteness. In the hands of a less capable performance artist, in particular, pieces that tackle these ‘big’ themes too earnestly can easily become parodies of themselves, leaving viewers shuffling uncomfortably around the action trying to hide their grimaces. Holly Slingsby’s current show at Tintype Gallery avoids the tumble into such hackneyed territory, instead managing to raise pertinent questions around the role of religion and myth in contemporary culture.
Slingsby has constructed an ad-hoc, intentionally homemade set in which she, and sometimes additional performers, undertake a series of slow, deliberate actions – often interacting with one of the many equally rudimentary props (crusts of bread; a plastic garland spray painted with cheap silver; a cardboard flag and harp; light up candles; little squidgy globes; and multiple other objects) positioned around the space. There are crudely stitched costumes on hooks too – all made by the artist.
As I walk in, Slingsby is silently haunting Tintype’s large window, much to the puzzled amusement of three passers-by. By the time I arrive at the Essex Road space, she’s been performing without a break for nearly five hours, hence the bread and half drunk glass of milk which double as props and snacks. Unsurprisingly, she’s attracted a fair amount of attention in the few days since the project opened – some laughter, some fascination and one marriage proposal from a besotted teenager. Dressed in a long, gypsy-style dress and a cruddy Egyptian headdress that looks as if it’s been plucked from the deepest depths of a cheap party shop (I hope she’s not going too close to any naked flames), Slingsby clambers out of the window area and gradually pads back towards the roughly-made, cardboard arch decorated with what look like very hastily painted heraldic symbols. All the time, she’s gently rolling a toy eyeball round a metal plate, not acknowledging my presence in the slightest. It’s extraordinarily odd and borderline creepy, but leavened by the absurd, Argos catalogue costumes and crappy, primary school play-esque props and set.
Slingsby talks about “cannibalising and regurgitating visions of the divine” in this current work, and she’s certainly drawing from a remarkably diverse range of reference points. The Book of Exodus; sixteenth century triumphal processions; shamanism and medieval frescoes are all chewed up and spat out in the artist’s own, distinctive visual language. There’s a particular violence and intensity, inherent in many religious rituals and implied by this explanation, that isn’t present here, though. Slingsby’s deadpan expression and slow, measured pace put pay to that. The wonderfully engaging objects, set and costumes are funny – so much so that those viewers who visit on the days when there are no performances might imagine a Life of Brian-style play has just been staged here. I leave in two minds, wondering if this humour and intensity could have been injected a little further into the live element of ‘Behind the Curtain’, or whether the performer’s solemnity is an effective and necessary counterpoint to the show’s more comedic components.