Performance / Reviews

Catachresis in Pieces at Whitechapel Gallery

31st May 2012

Reviewed by Bojana Jankovic


Political rhetoric

Political speeches have always been a popular source of quotations; they lend themselves easily to analysis, scrutiny, scandal and (artistic) appropriation to such an extent that it seems futile to even mention it. In an age where the number of people who could produce a word for word quote of President Bartlet is probably equal to the number of those who remember with the same accuracy anything that President Obama said, it could be argued that the institution of political speech has turned a full circle – from a rhetorical endeavor and political craft to a discipline which, while still sharp, reflects the moment in which Alistair Campbell suddenly became a replica of Malcolm Tucker.

Sally O’Reilly is no amateur when it comes to this subject  and her performative lecture Catachresis in Pieces, dissects the ins and outs of political speeches  with articulation and confidence.  The text navigates through rhetorical theory with ease, and O’Reilly, being an authority on the matter, doesn’t even have to try and mimic an academic. The shifting point comes  when the lecture attempts to formalise into a performance; it turns out that on stage, exposing a political discipline as appropriated high-brow pop, demands more than simply defecting to easy  tricks.  O’Reilly resorts to cutting and re-editing actual speeches until they have lost all sense and context, and then giving the material a suitable, over-achieving academic explanation, thus ridiculing both the subject matter and academia itself. This pattern is then repeated, with small variations and changes in speakers, over and over again. What this results in is a series of naive attempts at montage, with various high power legends, including JFK, Malcolm X and Churchill having their words not twisted but simply annulled.  The majority of the time passes in excerpts of Nelson Mandela saying nothing but numbers or Edward VII projecting silence on the radio. On several notable occasions the author stages ‘real time’ conversation with snippets of documentary material, which unfortunately results only in clumsy, and not particularly relevant, fake dialogue.  Somewhat unexpectedly the performance text turns out to be most engaging  when it ventures into the actual lingo of different speech theories and techniques – but these moments are far too rare.

To add another shade of concept to the performance, the lecture also constantly references ‘the wall’  - a barrier between the past and the future over which many, including politicians, try and glance. This hindrance is not purely metaphorical; it’s the major part of the video, which includes close-ups of various props neatly arranged in front of it.  This Wall, that  starts out as a potential symbol of how easily manipulated both the audience and the speeches are, especially given enough time, by the end, following a series of not too successful attempts to use it as a theoretical fact, becomes an ill-chosen plot that makes the lecturer, and not the politicians, seem detached, and over-concerned with silly concepts and impressions.

It should be taken into consideration that Catachresis in Pieces is a short piece, perhaps just a possible sketch for further research. The form however is not an excuse for what seems as a bit of an easy ride for O’Reilly – and is essentially just a sarcastic remark on one of her specialist subjects. That the performance managed to spread traces of semiological confusion despite its simplicity is a sign of how crucial it is to treat all disciplines included in a piece with equal amounts of respect.

Catachresis in Pieces from Sally O’Reilly on Vimeo.


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Sally O'Reilly

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Whitechapel Gallery