Two lovers lie in bed sleeping. Their duvet is a ploughed field, fabric folds replaced with the undulating peaks and troughs of soil furrows. An air of the uncanny pervades ‘Bed in Field’ (1971), a series of photographs of British performance artist Rose English and her partner of the time tucked into a pastoral landscape. The images seem matter-of-fact; so much so that they appear pleasingly familiar, yet at the same time there is something unsettling – almost alien – about the lunar terrain of their bed. Are they dreaming of reconnecting to mother earth? Or of being transported to another planet, away from patriarchal histories of land ownership?
Nearby, a naked woman is rolled up in a plump pink duvet-like mattress, tied with a satin bow. In the collage ‘Baroque Harriet 3’ (1973), she finds herself cut-and-pasted into a monochrome print of an eighteenth-century rococo interior. Lying face-down on an elaborate sofa, she appears to be asleep, perhaps deeply bored of her frivolous surroundings. A replicated, cropped portrait appears in the painting on the wall behind her. The caption below explains that the room had been ‘rebuilt and redecorated after war damage’; it’s as if the woman is taking precautions against further threat, her plush costume acting as a buffer. Another set of photographs nearby show Harriet captured from various angles against a grassy backdrop, presented to the viewer as if an awkward gift to be unwrapped. One can’t help but think of artist Penny Slinger’s own provocative photo-collages from the same year, such as her ‘Bride’s Cake’ series.
Playful ceramic figures jump across the wall, hung as if suspended in a choregraphed dance. First trained in ceramics, English made these small ‘Porcelain Dancer’ pieces in the same year as ‘Baroque Harriet’. These porcelain women exude irreverence and joyful sexuality, embellished with jewel-like enamel glazes, metallic touches and exposed vaginas. They leap in balletic poses, their tiny gaudy eyes conveying more than a tinge of irony. A display case nearby offers a shrine-like presentation of ceramic feathers strewn amongst playful porcelain nipple coverings (some decorated with caressing hand motifs) and cache-sexes, alongside close-up photographs of the pieces placed carefully on their respective body-parts.
These dancers were in fact worn as necklaces for English’s performance work ‘Divertissement’, studies for which are documented in a series of photographs nearby, also from 1973. The images reveal two naked women, Jo and Diana, modelling a range of bizarre accessories – from a heart-shaped doily covering the vagina to a ballet shoe headdress – and adopting performative poses against a lace backdrop. They ape an affected femininity, playfully taking on titillating, stereotyped roles. The ceramic body coverings from the display case reappear in these images, now suggestively laid out on a white coverlet. In the live performance, Jo and Diana tied these porcelain coverings to each other with ribbons, dancing together in a room filled with the heady scent of flowers.
Fragments of Georges Bizet’s ‘March of the Toreadors’ (from his opera ‘Carmen’) act as the soundtrack to these formative years of English’s career, escaping from the back room of the gallery devoted to the artist’s later performance work. A video of the 1983 performance ‘Plato’s Chair’ plays on a loop, while three sets of headphones line the opposite wall, offering separate audio recordings of different performances of the same work. The film features English dressed in a simple black dress and trainers, sporting – in no particular order – a tiara, a pair of Minnie Mouse ears, fingerless gloves, a horse’s hooves and tail, and at points carrying a large log and a rifle. She moves on, off and around the stage, borrowing from different theatrical modes as she stops and starts a succession of improvised monologues, embarking on a vaudeville-style show of alternating props and costumes. There is a sense that English is revelling in her dominant position as a woman on stage, enjoying the musicality and ambiguity of language. The artist herself described the performance as an ‘existential monologue’, in which she ‘interrogate[s] certain key words, such as representation, the repertoire, the soul, the void’. The exuberant one-woman-show calls into question any objective truths, taking as its springboard Plato’s query concerning the ‘ideal chair’ and its existence only in the subjective realm – opening up this serious question to the realm of absurdity.
Although the three additional audio recordings should in theory offer further layers of repetition and variation, creating a sense of the plural subjectivites of re-performance, instead they are rendered redundant (and academic) by the vivacity and ad-hoc texture of the filmed performance looming opposite. The video presents a nuanced, fluid approach to notions of identity, gender politics and burlesque and doesn’t need its recorded counterparts.
Structured simply in two parts, the exhibition sets out to understand English’s early work as an artist in her twenties in the context of the later performance work for which she is more widely known – and vice versa. The show reveals English from the beginning as a serious trickster, combining fantasy, humour and critique to challenge patriarchal models of femininity. Subverting fetishised perceptions of women, she offers both herself and her audience alternative visions of female perception and imagination. Through this focused presentation of English’s early and late work in dialogue, the show highlights her pivotal, pioneering place within performative practice from the early 1970s. Her work still resonates in the present.
‘Rose English: Forms, Feminisms, Femininities’ is part of Richard Saltoun Gallery’s year-long programme ‘100% Women’, dedicated to supporting under-recognised and under-represented female artists. One might wonder if a year is enough to redress the extraordinary gender imbalance that pervades the commercial (and indeed institutional) art world, or even whether it is productive to isolate female artistic practice in this way, but for now, it’s worth it to see English’s work given its due.