“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” goes the last line of Emmy The Great’s Easter Parade, a song otherwise full of references to Sunday School pupils, Jerusalem and, of course, men with holes in their hands. Whether as irreligious references to the risen Christ or as the spirits of names carved into stone plaques, churches are possibly the most logical place of all for ghosts to be found. Yet the Church of St Thomas the Martyr in Bristol, chosen as the venue for Submerge Festival’s triple bill of works titled Ghosts, feels pleasantly untouched by the fingerprints of spectral visitors.
The 18th century building has a smooth white interior, a high domed roof and stained glass in very softly tinted colours. Gothic splendour, it is not. In fact, if you closed your eyes just right you could start to drift into a Room With A View-tinged fantasy. Or at least, you could if the Florentine sunlight hadn’t been swapped for weather that’s left the South West feeling like the soggy bottom of Britain’s pie.
Luckily, the dreary gloom of the fading afternoon is entirely lifted by the first performance. Illuminated by a single red spotlight, the Chinese gong about to be played by Rrose becomes the golden orb the world outside is lacking. Performed in gradually louder movements, James Tenneys’ experimental percussive piece is enchantingly meditative to listen to. At once like a gentle undulating purr and a growing roar, it sounds like the burbling noise of a helicopter taking off – only, well, rather beautiful.
After this calming start, the audience heads out of the Classical interior and into the pub just across the alleyway. It happens to actually be a pub I once went to a lot *when I was strictly over the age of 18* and I go on a little nostalgia trip looking at The Strokes poster above the bar. Suffice to say that with its sticky ginger cake floor and black walls it’s pretty much the architectural antonym of St Thomas’s religious understatement. It also suggests the two reasons why people stopped going to church, but kept going to pubs: warmth and beer.
At the point where sleepiness is starting to become a possibility (see above) the two performers, Hellen Burrough and Philip Bedwell, step out into the centre of the room. In one of the most memorable passages of Jane Eyre, Rochester says, “I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communication would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, you’d forget me.”
It’s unlikely Charlotte Brontë had in mind naked performance art involving needles and bleeding when she penned those lines, but if she had then it might well have looked something like Union by Burrough and Bedwell. Even the final insecure line, “As for you, you’d forget me”, is represented in the pain of the needles pushed through the skin that connect a series of cords between the two performers. This is a bond both ever-connecting and loving, yet also capable of causing incurable pain. It’s the latent pain of separation that inevitably accompanies loving someone. Each time they’re not there you wonder if the cord this time will snap, and you’ll be left to bleed. But against all this talk of bleeding and strings snapping, Union is a tender and soft depiction of a marriage in which two individuals are strong enough to be vulnerable in front of the other.
After this we trudge back through the rain and into St. Tom’s for the final performance. Olivier de Sagazan’s Transfiguration sees the artist turn himself into a clay-covered artwork. One of the criticisms of performance art is that ‘it takes itself too seriously’, but one notable feature of Sagazan’s piece is its playfulness. Through building up layers of clay, paint and hair, and then smashing all of it off, there’s a lot here about the constraining nature of modes of behaviour and ways of being. The use of false hair, painted faces and ripped-up clothing may well make the piece particularly pertinent to a female audience. Yet there’s also a childlikeness to the way the performer splashes and grabs at the wet materials. The monolithic lumps of clay at times take on the shapes of animals – elephants and spikey hedgehogs – and its possible to detect a side to this that is fun. As right there should be, as one of the points of smashing things up – including the ghosts that haunt us – is that it’s really good fun.
Ghosts was on as part of Submerge Festival in Bristol. Click here for more details.