Concept Drawing by the author: Narrative Strings in Belmore's performance art as described by scholar Marcia Crosby
The earliest stage of my writing/research/thinking process starts along two main paths: either looking at an artwork or , or thinking about an interesting passage from somebody else’s writing. Those two things are like a diving board – they let me jump in with enthusiasm. I often make little drawings as I go, working out ideas visually. I just got a new book in the mail yesterday and decided to share a passage that got me thinking and doodling. Here it is:
“In relationship to performances that reference specific historical events, it’s important to bear in mind that the ephemeral nature of performance art (in general) does not lend itself to ‘telling’ specific historical narratives or producing meanings or explanations; having said that, performance can disentangle histories in very particular ways. That is, an artist at one level may refer to personal, local, cultural, or national narratives of prolonged abuse or trauma (as fiction or empirical fact); and the body, its gestures (and other media) may expose the imbalance of power relations of a personal trauma. In an aboriginal performance that is focused on trauma or violence, performer or spectator may gather any number of the narrative strings of colonialization: lateral violence in the home or community, the dissolution of family, residential schooling, decimating diseases, diaspora, the emergence of fluid or unstable aboriginal communities – any events that make up the complexity of colonialism historical and ongoing woundings. That said, such narratives are a referent or perhaps only ‘one arrangement’ of an oscillating constellation of other possible elements to the performance, which raises questions about power itself. The performance ‘breaks up at the very levels of comprehensibility and acceptance… The situation of oscillation becomes even more problematic when it is a question of being there, in action, in front of a certain number of witnesses, of presences.’
Given the contingencies of performance art, Belmore does not use the form as an attempt to make meaning or create closure in relation to the specific historic events she references. She is well aware that in its capacity to elicit both a somatic response and to call up specific memories, the language of performance art is transient, it is gesture, trace remains of anecdotal evidence; it cannot be objectified and can hardly be explained, and it is viscous in its contradictions. The duration of a work draws a momentary horizon line, pointing both to what is known and that which is emergent and thus yet incoherent.”
- Marcia Crosby, “The Multimedia Work of Rebecca Belmore: a Disturbing Uncertainty,” from the book Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art, (Denver, CO: Denver Art Museum, 2010) pp. 22-23.
As I was reading that passage above, I pictured first the linear historical narrative, represented by a book. Then Marcia Crosby’s choice of words made me think instead of history not as a narrative, but as a jumble of threads, like a pile of spaghetti, that Belmore’s performance pulls individual narrative strings and briefly arranges them in a way that gives a momentary physical experience of what is known, emergent, and/or incoherent. If you have any experience with yarn, wires, the physics of strings, you know that they can be separated out only briefly. Unless spooled, they will retangle again with the slightest movement. Tangling is reduced if you keep them in the smallest possible container that will hold them. To continue the metaphor even further (at the risk of being ridiculous, I know) we might say that performance takes the tangle out of the tiny “historical” box that we attempt to store trauma at a remove from ourselves, and moves that tangle into a public eye to tangle even more, have strands pulled out that give us glimpses of order and potential. And when the performance is over, the tangle goes back into its metaphorical storage box. Perhaps the pile is less tangled, or the strands have become color coded. Perhaps the box is a different size, creating more tangle or keeping it under better control. And perhaps each factor is different for each person experiencing the performance artwork.
Richard Martel, “The Tissues of the Performative,” in Art Action: 1958-1998 (Quebec: Editions Intervention, 2001) 32.