Rose English’s exhibition at Camden Arts Centre makes multiple allusions and references to performance art. English has a forty-year practice as a performance artist. This time, the exhibition itself includes its active, performed element at the very end, as part of ‘Postscript’, an afterword to the gallery’s current exhibitions and residency programme. ‘A Premonition of an Act’ is what comes before, a premonition. The exhibition deconstructs the performance before it has even happened and before it can be seen. In a loose and nearly abstract way, objects, texts, video and sound compositions that inspire and develop the idea of the performance are integrated together in two contrasting displays, mapping an ongoing, research-based project that has spanned a decade.
The content of the piece specifically investigates Chinese acrobatics, the making of objects and musical composition, as performative acts. English has divided the work into two contrasting spaces. Visitors first enter a darkened room, surrounded by a perimetral display of images paired with text and handwritten notes, each set dramatically illuminated in rectangular spotlighting. These pages act as an anecdotal storyboard for the total installation; photographs of Chinese acrobats, glass-blowing processes, and performances involving nearly superhuman talent are annotated and analysed in the artist’s writing, vaguely tracing the intellectual, aesthetic and conceptual underpinnings of the project. Playing in the background is an operatic composition ‘Lost in Music’, written by Luke Stoneham and thus far only realised in parts (it will be performed in ‘Postscript’). The opera creates a quasi-spiritual and ethereal atmosphere; delicate tinging sounds and gentle instrumental rhythms punctuate operatic vocals of high and low pitch, producing an entrancing effect. In the centre of the room is a random grouping of empty chairs. Barely perceptible in the darkness, they offer a place for visitors to sit and listen to ‘Lost in Music’ but also function to highlight the absence of the performer in the performance, or the detachment of voice from body. The performative act of singing is reduced to a wholly auditory experience and thus a pure space for listening is produced.
On a table display in the next room are some of the specialised glass objects designed for and utilised in Chinese acrobatic arts, as referenced in the images from the first room. In a three-frame video entitled ‘Ornamental Happiness’, visitors can watch Chinese acrobats engage objects and their own bodies in incredible acts of balance and precision that suggest the impossible. There is little verbal communication between practitioners. Here the emphasis is on the performative powers of the body, whereas the first display highlights the performative strengths of the voice. Synchronised together, they merge to attempt a union of breath and body into a total performative act. This marriage of body and breath is never fully consummated, however, as they remain partially isolated in their respective spaces.
The involved installation documents English’s persistent interest in analytical performance by poetically deconstructing the conjectural performance itself. By revealing its preconceived component parts but not decisively describing their relationship to one another, ‘A Premonition of an Act’ gives the visitor agency to imagine what that ultimate act might be.