Thomas John Bacon’s Tempting Failure comes with significant cultural baggage; initially programmed by Bacon for Bristol’s Bierkeller Theatre, it was pulled out seven weeks in advance due to the venue’s reconsideration of its content, dismissed as ‘unsuitable’ given its focus on body-based work. The cancellation sparked heavy debate; Bacon released a twitter tirade, and Artsadmin/Manifesto Club’s Manick Govinda wrote an eloquent and impassioned article on the problem of censorship within performance art . Tempting Failure found a more natural and fitting home some 120 miles East in Hackney Wick’s Performance Space. At 3000 sq foot of studio, the space provides the perfect local to host these 13 artists seeking ‘…to engage with a shared ethos; to tempt failure’.
Themes and practices of malfunction, breakdown or collapse have permeated much performance of the last 40 plus years – from the Wooster Group to the comedy of Andy Kaufman. Yet finding grassroots venues to programme such risky work, free from stakeholders interest and the need for ‘bums-on-seats’ is problematic – especially in the context of body-based art. Performance Space plays a key role in promoting and supporting a variety of forms of live and performance art.
In light of this, it was surprising to find that much of Tempting Failure programme is reliant upon representation as opposed to a more embodied and visceral practice of the event/encounter. The evening is both a provocation to the formal language of performance- looking at failure as an fruitful avenue of artistic possibility- and a representation of a landscape of artists engaging in discourses on the nature of the body in social and political terms.
The curation of so much work involving nudity, and specifically, the act of disrobing, tends to undermine any potency in the device, reminiscent of a kind of performance-by-numbers. Mark Leahy’s Hand In Glove acts as a refreshing break from a saturation of bare flesh, as Healy presents himself dressed smartly in trousers and white shirt, complete with dickie-bow. Hand In Glove is a sharp and charming work; it intercuts male bodybuilding poses with prose and psychoanalytic theory in order to explore these intersections in a variety of tones. If the work suffers somewhat from a shambolic delivery, muffled by moments of poor diction, the carefully interwoven text is both violent and evocative. Such intersections are also explored in Daniel Abulhawa’s True Love Waits, an endearing durational piece looking at playful, improvised encounters in the Sunday drizzle. Despite the work’s reliance on an active engagement, there is also a lack of tenacity for a complete interventional experience.
The programme contains some striking moments. When invited to ‘step into the space, spit and make your mark’ in Mark Flisher’s Spitting Distance, the audience shrink, embarrassed and culpable, only to revel, moments later, in discovering numerable forms of engagement within Flisher’s form. During Ernst Fisher’s PASSION/FLOWER (joined by Nicola Canavan), the rhythmic beating of their self-flagellation is beautifully juxtaposed with the static visual language of Holly Johnson’s own performance Laced. This moment of symmetry between the performative rituals of Flisher and Johnson uncovers a potential for dialogue between these artists and their pieces which felt far too tame in the evening’s programming.
Tempting Failure creates an open space without any naïve arrogance over its mix of content; it’s a programme that requires a willingness to share and experience failure, and it is unsurprising to note that the audience on the night- a mix of artists and baffled onlookers- was one largely accustomed to such work. Yet the manner in which failure is presented, and perhaps even encouraged, misses some of the more confrontational and truly dangerous elements of the performances and their own development.
As I sat upon a metal staircase at the end of the night observing Canavan and Kilby connected chest-to-chest with rope and hooks, wrestling, pushing, pulling, bleeding and staggering, I felt a strange desensitization to the act unfolding before me. Within the formal ethos of Tempting Failure, there’s a displaced sense of what is at stake; in investigating the body in juxtaposition with identity and constructs of the Other, there’s a questioning of its social practice as much as its metaphysical identities. Given the formality of the event, and its emphasis on failure, an orthodoxy of rigidity overwhelms the work. The commitment, energy and fine detail present in the work paint a varied and intriguing landscape of body-based live art, yet the scope for development of the work remains wide. Despite the importance of failure both as a formal device and a necessity for progression, the evening seems to have tempted it too far, forgetting the importance of success as a form of intervention in this equation.