American photographer Francesca Woodman’s life was curtailed by her tragic suicide aged twenty three in 1981. The beautiful imagery she left behind, often self-portraits in black and white, was ethereal and jarring, Expressionistic yet oddly rooted in the everyday. In Woodman’s hands, even banal domestic scenes of kitchen tables and chairs became ominous portents, with an emphasis on long tapering shadows.
So Cryptic’s These Delicate Things, directed and designed by Josh Armstrong is a tribute to her life and art, named after a line from a letter she wrote to a friend prior to her death. Performer Sally Owen steps out in slow-motion, tending to white ceramic bowls lining a large cabinet, which seem as fragile as she a reflection perhaps on the older woman Woodman never grew old enough to be. A second performer, Michael Popper, joins her and the two move carefully and in sync, yet never touching and always just out of reach. They undress slowly down to underwear, yet there is no tenderness. Lighting by Nich Smith is harsh, violent blues and pinks.
To the side, The Astrid String Quartet in white clothes play Shostakovitch’s haunting String Quartet No 15 in E Minor, which is soft and meditative, before turning spiky and pizzicato, culminating in ferocious violin stabs which pierce,and then ebb away. When Owen returns, she is clad in a restrictive stiff card headdress, which could be a wimple or symbol of bondage. Popper remains sat at a table, takes a package out, and the slow reveal is that of a curling, phallic eel, which he cradles in his lap, magnified on a large screen. A disturbing image which is hard to erase.
The second half is easier to place, although no less sensual nor portentous. Dancer Penny Chivas, encased in the glass cabinet, is naked but for a mask of brittlelooking leaves, a homage to one of Woodman’s most famous photographs. She is a moving sculpture , an emblem of a trapped animal. It is not difficult to draw a parallel between Chivas’ encased woman and the pain of depression weighting down on Woodman. This time, the quartet, now in black, play a more contemporary piece, Gavin Bryars’ divine, moody String Quartet No. 2 Ephemera, like skulls, spines and feathers are magnified onto the screen, juxtaposed with more aesthetically pleasing butterflies.
Chivas seems at one point to decapitate herself, almost disappearing into a trap door, before emerging in feathers and blurring into another identity the use of a mirror suggestive not of narcissism, but total self-annihilation. It ends with her collapsed, wrapped in plastic like just another piece of meat, processed and packed, ready to be consumed.
In this moving but somewhat chilling piece, Armstrong recognises and acknowledges within his symbolism that the drive to create can also be the same, very human impulse that impels someone to destroy, as with Francesca Woodman: sadly, we can only wonder at what else she could have made, had she held on. Her delicacy was her downfall.