Vida Simon: Excavation Drawings

Performance-installation in a hotel room October 10 to 15, 2006, Hôtel de la Montagne, Montreal /
Fuse Magazine, 2008

Vida Simon's Excavation Drawings was a performance which took place in a hotel room over six consecutive days. An art-audience visited this space outside the normal cultural circuit, waiting in the lobby to be escorted up to the room where the artist was living, dreaming and drawing. The room’s surfaces were covered with newsprint; the floor, walls, sofa and all the furniture. On the evening I visited, a tear in this neat ‘inside skin’ makes a hole through which I could see the dresser mirror. The windows look out over downtown. If one wished one could go out onto the balcony and look down de la Montagne towards St-Catherine (around the corner is the hotel where John and Yoko conducted a worldwide media event). The artist made eye contact, a kind of welcome or acknowledgement that we are not strangers, or don’t have to be, that we are both confined and not necessarily confined in a theatrical construction. In this instant there is a deft and precise articulation of the special rules of this real but exceptional situation. For a few minutes we are to convene within this exception. Then the performer slides into the chair-space under the desk, curls her back against us and is gone. My companion and I explore the room which is littered with charcoal drawings, some simple, like note takings, some worked and heavy with soot. A few drawings are pinned to a line stretching across the room.

Eventually Simon comes out from under the desk to write stories on the paper-covered floor at our feet for us to read (one story is about the chamber maid who came to visit, who came to work, and may have been alarmed by what she saw). She works on drawings and interrupts this concentrated activity at one point to hand us walnuts as a gift. She never speaks. Simon works with charcoal in our presence, erasing, rubbing, drawing and writing, erasing again, until each piece of Arches paper has, it seems, held and released a thousand thoughts and images. These stories-as-drawing emerge from the process of living, eating and sleeping in this place. Some are about growing up not far from here; sometimes they are surreal and autobiographical, sometimes more political. They are about a personal history of this place but also touch on matters of urban culture, economic disparity and in another mode of inquiry (in academia) they might be defined as urbanism. As visitors we witness a slice of this inquiry, the accumulated dreams-on-paper, stories told through the writing and gesture. In an inversion of normal artist-run performance practice we only see a fragment of a longer process (a half-hour out of six days) rather than an event which is a highly compressed and heightened moment or 'show'. I find this distinction important. Even if we could consult the archive of drawings, a whole is not accessible since many drawings took place on every sheet.

Excavation Drawings also involves a writing collaboration with Canadian poet Erin Moure. A text on Excavation Drawings is available in the room. Though physically contained in a pamphlet on a table by the door, conceptually this text expands outwards into a new geography. Like the clothesline of drawings, it cuts a rich diagonal across this plane, across the room and out into spaces beyond. In conventional terms this is a cross-disciplinary collaboration. Better to say they breathe together for a while. A little duet in which our reading crosses her drawing crosses her writing and enucleates a few more layers of this imagined space laid-up over the richness of this real space. Moure’s text, in English, French and Galician, draws on her own preoccupation with translation as a boundary-crossing and redrawing act. To translate is to redraw language on a different ground, on a different basis of knowledge. Why this deliberate subversion, sub-version? Moure writes,

To be hearing then a translation practice opening, a practice of interpretation conducted under closed-air conditions: the sound of charcoal, motion, rubbing that extends and opens time’s small room or “cabina.”… There is an element thus of swim in this excavation of erasure and setting down, till all that forms the “pictural” is the gesture itself, the floating bowl que reborda fluídico, and real spoon, “a dream of ash teeth”… the burnt fist of wood, madeira queimada, and the calcination, out of ash, (is there still, yet, metaphor) comes gesture, as if ash is not the end but is a diction, a fistula, passage outward.

What is left of Excavation Drawings is the last layer worked out of each drawing and the last draft of Mouré’s text. Layers of charcoal and typeset words become a metaphor for memory. Or become memory. The material itself becomes a sign of transformation and occasionally of mortal dread; soot caked on the inner surfaces of being. Charcoal dust is transformed into depictions of charred forest, of shelters, of graves. Simon performs in striped pajamas, simultaneously whimsical in the rhyming of a childlike morning playfulness and ominous as a faint echo of concentration camp uniform. This work seems to treasure the complexity of multiple meanings. At the same time the process is articulated by an awareness of the theatrical devices being used. I am not very interested in drawing, but I come and sit, and I am 'drawn to' by Simon: drawing becomes storytelling, communication in the present tense, rather than object making or archiving of experience. Performance art (which I am only tentatively more interested in than drawing) is twisted out of its cabaret event-splash cliché and becomes an action of meditative duration with which we interact for a few moments.

I was interrupted in writing this review by seeing a interview with Jean Genet, recorded in the writer’s last years. The interviewer prods for biographical details. Genet squirms and gently rebuffs. What further meaning is to be taken from the facts of his life as a piece of theatre? Is his homosexuality a political act? He likens the interview to a police interrogation. Eventually, exasperated by the situation he asks the film crew (who can’t be seen) if they would not like to put an end to this, push him off the chair, flip this ridiculous and conventional construction. The interviewer has tried to reinforce the image of Genet as a rebel and iconoclast but Genet seems to know that the real subversion lies elsewhere than the surface image of rebellion reinforced by biographical anecdotes. How do you pass the time? I eat in restaurants and watch people… Where do you live? In Morocco… You have a house? I live in a hotel…

Genet sees a distinction between the image of rebellion which the interviewer is trying to mine and the actual forms and boundaries which hem our thinking and need to be carefully and knowingly stressed into rupture. He refuses to be corralled on the surface of things, insisting on the right to provoke below the surface and across boundaries in such a way that no single work remains safely in its genre, but rather they become ‘events’ (as opposed to a representation of a position), spilling across boundaries to provoke conversation in the realm of the social. I like this as a definition of performance. I see the image of hotel room which Genet pokes towards the interviewer as a refusal of family and normalcy, an acknowledging of class division, of passage as the only permanence, of separateness and solitude as givens of human existence. To ‘inhabit’ a hotel is emblematic of the normalness of these things; an unbinding of the static fabric of normalcy. In this sense the room is a trope, a word at play. And John and Yoko’s hotel room down the street is much different yet at play in the same way. And Simon’s room also.

Do performance art practitioners sometimes only mimic the postures and the tropes of outrageousness, supplied by the archive of performance practice; repeating the event-style of the happening, the shock of the stressed body or the cabaret of transgression? We have entered the era of the professional marginal artist where the image of marginality we cultivate may to some extent only be conventional thinking, marginally funded. The challenge to artists is to weave a path out of this ‘marginal as normal’, to understand the theatre of culture in a different way and to activate or engage it on layers other than the most obvious. It is precisely this block which draws me towards performance. In this sinking ship I search from room to room for portholes which lead away from a repetition of formal strategy. In this context the evolution of Genet’s subversions (sub-versions) are a useful reference.

In this preoccupation I have learned something from Vida and Erin in their excavations. With Excavation Drawings the points of escape come in between the layers of language and the mapping of knowledge; in the translation. Not on the biographer’s surface, not on the surface of the everyday, not on the surface of polished professional moves, but in the poetic excavation. Heroic upheaval can sometimes be passed over in favour of a careful dig in the light of a subtle understanding of this theatre of culture -- the activated space between the work and the visitors. Simon’s Excavation Drawings begins this exploration at a place where I would not have expected it. A little escape hatch has opened in a wall made of paper.