Shana Moulton, recent resident artist at Primary Nottingham, grew up in a mobile home park for the elderly in Oakhurst, California. It is something to bear in mind when considering the residency and also Moulton’s wider practice which often centres around her alter ego Cynthia; a hapless soul who suffers from anxiety, restless leg syndrome and deep rooted feelings of inadequacy.
Moulton’s residency marks the end of the series ‘Multiple points in this crude landscape’, a commissioning strand in Primary’s programme with previous artists including Jonathan Baldock and Edwin Burdis. Between November 2014 and February 2015, Moulton produced two new performances which can be read as chapters in Cynthia’s life, and combined inform the larger episodic work ‘Whispering Pines’ (title borrowed from the name of the mobile home park). This series of videos and performances charts Cynthia’s misadventures in consumerism, new age spiritualism and the constant need to better herself. Looking at the unnerving suburban setting of ‘Whispering Pines’ one can’t help but think of Moulton’s work in relation to that of David Lynch; master of sinister undertone achieved through hackneyed acting and eerie sound tracks evident in his TV series Twin Peaks. I’d like if Shana Moulton met David Lynch.
The two performances were staged in front of a live audience within three weeks of each other. Both included video projection, live performance and the soothing sounds of DNTEL remixes of the incomprehensible singer Enya. Cynthia appears in real life with minimal props and in projected imagery occupying psychedelic landscapes. With technical precision she crosses over between the physical and virtual realm seamlessly toying with slippages between the conscious and subconscious. As the first performance begins Cynthia teeters on a pregnancy ball while a projection of dancing pharmaceutical logos consumes the 6m by 7m wall of Project Space 2 in the former Victorian primary school. She is dressed in a full length patterned skirt and loose shirt in a clashing pattern. The shirt is held in place by a medical back support (one of many medical devices used in her work and no doubt encountered by a young Moulton growing up amid aging bodies). She resembles something from the hallucinatory Magic Eye books as if she were about to reveal herself as a winged horse or floating turtle should you squint your eyes in the right way.
Cynthia is mute. The look of concern constantly on her face is accentuated by thick, raised eyebrows and vibrant blue eye shadow. It is through facial expression that she communicates her constant bewilderment and in this respect could be linked to silent comedians such as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin who rely on expressive physicality to convey the insurmountable battle to conquer their everyday surroundings. They never succeed. But we, the audience, are endlessly entertained.
Cynthia now sits on the floor enthralled at the projected image of glowing synaptic nerves. The word ‘Fibrolymia’ looms large. Fibrolymia is a long-standing medical condition that causes pain all over the body and results in fatigue, difficulty sleeping and problems with mental processes. Poor Cynthia, I thought. Her emphatic quest to better herself spurred on by her belief in prescription drugs, holistic therapies and yoghurt had actually caused enduring pain and constant hallucinations.
For the second performance, the audience returned three weeks later to the same space where Moulton this time had created an elaborate installation. A patterned backdrop hung behind a worn out armchair in the centre of the space in an altar-like configuration. Cynthia was back, dancing in front of the audience, her movements echoed by the image of disembodied medical devices dancing perfectly in sync behind her. She donned a dry cleaning bag, zipping it up to her forehead. The now animated bag wheeled a dividing screen, usually found in hospital wards, around the space. If the first performance was to observe Cynthia - undertaking rituals such as eating a Danone yogurt in the belief that it will stimulate healthy digestion - the second performance seemed to delve into the inner workings of her mind. The contrast of the homely armchair with the sterile medical screen and shrouded body, tinged the strange ritual with a sense of unease.
As Enya’s warbling engulfed the space the projected image switched from dancing medical devices to a domestic setting. Cynthia physically left the room, and appeared instead as a projected image of herself on the armchair. The music lifted and Enya beckoned. The digital, malleable body drifted over the armchair eyes to the ceiling, floated over the hanging backdrop, to finally hover above the audience before disappearing out through the roof.
As the music lulled signalling the end of the performance, I wondered if Cynthia had transcended to a higher plane. Was this the final chapter in ‘Whispering Pines’? A lesson from Cynthia in how to embrace a new spiritualism - one centred on consumerist rituals and prescription drugs? It remained ambiguous and will do unless, hopefully, there is another chapter.