Features IpswichPerformance Published 5 November 2018

SPILL Festival 2018

A mushrooming community: Ava Wong Davies writes on the intimacy and kindness of the works at this year's instalment of performance art fest SPILL.
Ava Wong Davies

‘By Mushrooms’ at SPILL Festival 2018. Photo: Yao Liao

Watching performance art can often make me like I’m groping around some malformed thing, waiting (hoping?) to be led into glass-clear meaning by the jutting edge of a idea, but mostly feeling lost in the denseness of it all.

There’s a process of rewiring and rejigging your head required when you transition from theatre to performance art – a necessary shift from searching constantly for meaning to letting it all wash over you. It’s similar to the experience of reading something like Ulysses (not a wanker, had to read it for a university module) – allowing the mass of the text, the matter of it to run through your fingers, listening for the bumps and peaks and dips in the sounds and voices and allowing for that to be your guide instead. Pulling your head out of linearity and trying to see, really see this thing as a whole and the way the different edges catch the light simultaneously.

SPILL’s programming this year has a real generosity and kindness to it – something the Jodee Mundy Collaborations’s Imagined Touch relies on. There’s a clear metaphor to be made here about putting on the clouded goggles and noise-cancelling headphones and being led by hand into a room of shifting sound and colour, but I won’t bother. In trying to emulate the experience of being Deafblind, the company takes the risk of centring their show on potentially unwilling participants – a performer grabs your hand and pulls you into a room and you just have to trust that they won’t let you fall or trip. It feels completely alien to put your trust immediately into someone you can’t even perceive as an actual human. And it is, occasionally, a little too abrupt – a piece of braille is placed under your fingers and then snatched away – I would have liked to linger longer, have a moment to breathe it in properly. But then there is a moment of such pure beauty that I immediately forget my trepidation. I am led to another audience member and we place our hands cautiously on each other’s arms, feeling their elbows. I am more hesitant, but my partner, just an anonymous blur of red and black, reaches up to my face and touches my nose, fingers a strand of my hair, traces my jawline. It is so unbearably, overwhelmingly intimate.

If we’re searching for a through-line in the festival, then maybe it comes down to the explorations of structures and communities – the lifeblood, the reality that runs under those larger concepts. Libby Norman’s Breaking Up with JK Rowling is exactly that – a sometimes-warm, sometimes-cynical exploration of fandom and maturity. They lie on a massage bed in the middle of an installation scattered with ripped up Harry Potter books, and a camera under the bed projects their squished face onto a screen as they monologue. It oscillates between archness and absolute sincerity, tracing a life punctuated by pirated Potter films and voracious after-school reading sessions, interspersed with strange, haunting interludes recounting sexual meetings. And then at the end, Norman sits up, face reddened, and we rip open their Potter books and we black out words on the page until we’ve made smut out of childhood treasures. It feels correct, not transgressive – playing with the way fandom is so often a gateway into sexuality and queerness is such a rich, layered idea that it feels perfectly natural. Wang Yue’s City Square, oddly enough, works as a strange, distorted companion piece to Norman – her film traces the shifting landscape of a city square in Guiyang, China, the concept of which presupposes a sense of distance, and yet we are constantly returned to images of water running and wind rushing, rooting the piece, giving it this extraordinarily human, circulatory atmosphere.

And then Vivian Chinasa Ezugha’s URO is a truly stunning, Sisyphean piece of work. There’s so much in it – occupying the light, bright, main space of Ipswich Art Gallery, on a rectangular piece of tarp, Chinasa Ezugha stands in a loincloth, reckoning with an enormous, ugly piece of wet clay. She claws at it, places pieces on her back incrementally, slips, falls, gets back up again, slaps water on the quick-drying clay, heaves mounds of it across the tarp. She sips water and then gets back to it. Pieces fall off and she resignedly tries to slap it all back into place. Her breath, haggard and exhausted (only two hours into a six-hour durational performance) cuts through clean gallery air. It oscillates between distressing and emboldening. Body and clay become one – she morphs in stature, growing more horrendous and distended. As the performance goes on, it only gets heavier, less easy to mould and shape, more difficult to lift. And then there’s a strange moment, twenty minutes in, when gallery attendants bring out cushions for the viewers//voyeurs to sit on. The audience is entirely white, save for myself. The copy tells us the piece is about depression, but like the mound of clay (uro), it inevitably morphs into something else. Testing the limits of these so-called neutral spaces. Non-black bodies gazing from a distance at the sole black body in the middle of the room. Sure, it’s been done before. But that isn’t really the point, is it?

So then we end with Yao Liao’s By Mushrooms, a tender processional piece through the streets of Ipswich. We put on headphones. We listen to a gentle, lilting soundscape. The woman in our head suggests that maybe we should walk out of SPILL Central and walk into Ipswich’s main square. Because maybe we will find some mushrooms. It’s just a suggestion, though. We don’t have to do any of this if we don’t want to. My friend and I don’t need to be convinced. We sprint out of the building and pick up two foam mushroom hats by the square’s fountain. There’s a square of mesh we can peer through, but we don’t have any peripheral vision, really. It’s again, all based on trust. We’re led by volunteers with drifting white balloons through the city. We take pictures of each other and we get pictures taken of us but it doesn’t feel invasive, because our heads are covered and we are just mushrooms, not people. Sometimes the woman in our headphone suggests certain things. We form a conga line, we dance, we hold hands, we speak to strangers – these things that would make me blush if I were without my mushroom head and yet with it I feel untouchable. You’re made far more aware of your body and how you’re moving, yes, but you also feel lighter. And a little mushroom community forms. Afterwards, we all walk back to SPILL Central together with the mushroom heads under our arms and we chat as a group, temporarily bonded, until we reach the building and we slowly disperse again, smiling and nodding, walking into the darkening city.

SPILL Festival was on in Ipswich, Suffolk, from Thursday 25th October to Sunday 4th October. More info here.

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Ava Wong Davies is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine