We enter a white room in the gallery. The performer is dressed in a fitted black t-shirt and skinny black jeans with bare feet. This has become a sort of uniform for action artists who want to appear neutral and unadorned. She has black hair and a strong physique. She is embracing a stack of large white china plates. The technician is adding plates to the stack, a few at a time. The stack of plates grows until it reaches slightly above the performer's head. Suddenly one of the plates near the bottom of the stack bursts. The sound effect is like a gun shot.
A sound track plays a woman and a man saying the word “violent” over and over again. They are annoying mechanical-sounding voices. I resent the way the voices are directing me to read the piece. At her artist talk presented on Wednesday night we learned that some of O' Donnell's work deals with a history of domestic violence. There is no doubt we are seeing an image of a woman struggling with domestic violence. She regards the plates with a steady gaze. In having directed the assistant to add plates she has implicated herself in the creation of this situation. The plates stack well, and in some ways the porcelain column is quite stable, but we feel it could go off balance and tumble down at any moment the performer decides to let go of them. The stack of plates is the image of a spine, an adversary, a family member, a lover, an equal. The stack of plates is robust and fragile at the same time. The performer strokes the sides of the plates, always assessing the shifting gravity of the stack. At times her movement are tender and sensual, but always with the edge of her challenging gaze. It is almost as though she is thinking the words “I dare you.” She slowly rotates around the column. The sound track starts to distort in my brain and I start hearing other words: “prime one”, “mind one” and nonsense words that block out the original meaning.
I try to imagine what the performance would read like without the soundtrack. It would be a different piece I think because we would see the plates as less adversarial, and more fragile. The audience members react in unique ways. After several minutes a woman starts reading a paper, some people look away and others are riveted. I force myself to focus on the image. It is an enforced meditation. I start counting the plates. There are well over a hundred. I start looking at the positive and negative spaces in the image. As the performer rotates around the plates she starts to move closer in. The image become more intimate and my perception shifts the image of the column as an “other” separate person to being a symbolic dopelganger of the artist herself. I start to see the performance as an artist's inner conflict with a self-destructive side.
One of the references that comes to me as I'm watching the piece is the the video clip that Pauline Cummins showed of two women wresting with a window exploring the competitive relationships that females can have, particularly if they are trapped in a domestic living space with one another over a long period of time. I also though of Bergman's film Persona which contains an narrative of unease with a tense relationship between two women. In her pre-performance art years the artist secretly began photographing herself in her home, a site of trauma and domestic violence. She would take photos of herself inserting her body between spaces in the furniture in. In O'Donnell's current performance piece the woman seems trapped by her situation and we are watching her negotiate her survival strategies. She is strong and aware and she chooses her moment to let the plates fall. The crash is deafening. The spine is broken and inert. I snap photos of the corpse. The performer/survivor leaves the room.
It is challenging for a contemporary audience to stay with one image for a half an hour. We are used to the car chases and multiple cuts of today's television and movie narratives. We crave changes in the visuals, thousands of images bombarding our minds with sounds that caress our ears and convince us to buy laundry soap, luxury cars and hair dye. This kind of action performance is antithetical to that kind of media. It forces you to bring something to the piece, to meet it halfway, to give it your own challenging gaze. The viewer wrestles with the imagery. It is impossible to distance yourself from the action unless like the lady reading the paper you take a clear strategy to retreat and take your mind elsewhere. The performance could have lasted much longer. How long would the audience have stayed with it? How long would it take before the performer could not hold her position?
Letting go of the plates was a dramatic action of release. It was the climax we were waiting for. The sound of the crash cause a baby in the back room to begin wailing. We were relieved the performer did not step on the shards of the broken porcelain in her bare feet. We were relieved and released from the performer's embrace.