Paul Maheke: A fire circle for a public hearing
13 April – 10 June, 2018
Review by Fiorella Lanni
When A Fire Circle For A Public Hearing opened at Chisenhale Gallery last April, it was quite frustrating to learn that Paul Maheke was not going to perform live for the whole duration of the exhibition. Despite being completely absent from the stage, Maheke’s body is still present through a video work that plays on a continuous loop. Shot during a residency in the Dominican Republic, the artist dances underneath a camera that is attached to a moving fan. Because the the video is shot from above and with the rotation of the fan, his body is abstracted and distorted, instigating a disorienting and dizzying image. The effect is in line with the rest of the exhibition. Maheke is one of the many presences behind the show. His ‘absent’ body creates a dialogue with the other performers through an irregular and flickering presence. Confronting the audience with queer anxieties around gender and black culture and exploring the tension between the visible and the invisible in a captivating manner, his work within installation, video, sound and performance art, he questions concepts of erasure and integration of marginalised cultures within Western history, inviting the audience to formulate their own understanding of potential pasts and futures.
A Fire Circle For A Public Hearing is divided into three performances that look at different performative elements such as speech and movement in space. Titled ‘I took everything and made it my own (the ghost and the appropriationist)’, Part I combines deconstructed narratives that range from the work of Bruce Nauman to the performances of Felix Gonzalez Torres and from the writings of Judith Butler to the lyrics of Grace Jones. The script also includes parts of a letter the artist wrote to an ex-boyfriend. All these storylines are meshed together in the form of a homogenous account.
Set within a space that resembles a theatre stage, the visitors are confronted with a large mural of a cosmic landscape painted directly on the wall. The mural depicts the planet Jupiter. In astrology, Jupiter is associated with knowledge and abundance, yet in the performance, Jupiter finds a material incarnation in the character of the oracle, who often repeats ‘I am the lived and experienced knowledge’. The oracle occupies multiple dimensions; it is a memory of the past that never takes a form in the present moment. The oracle has no real, visible existence, however it connects with the other characters, such as the possessed drag king, who embodies several identities at once: the female, the male and what is in-between. Both the oracle and the drag king reflect on ‘identity politics’ without having a specific physicality.
These characters occupy the same territory, which becomes a space for reinvention and articulation, a space that goes beyond colonialist and hierarchical frameworks. The gallery space takes diverse elements and connects them together in a non-hierarchical way. Meaning is revealed in space. Time is plastic and prophetic. The artist places himself somewhere outside, away from the centre stage. While the performers jump in and out of a character, Maheke is the only one who does not embody someone other than himself and who always occupies a physical presence on-stage through the video work.