Performing land, performing the elemental

Through the eighties and nineties artists connecting with the elemental in nature, converged on Brighton, Inspired by, if younger than, the land art generation, some of these artists gradually co-elesced into a locally rooted network of ecologically informed practice, though also one significantly influenced by eighties mixed-media concerns: performance, video, shamanism and ritual, electronic soundscapes, and land art sculptural props.

Walter Bailey Sculpture
Absolute Zero, Brighton 1999 (Photos: Walter Bailey)
During the may 1999 Brighton Festival, two performance pieces, Red Earth’s Dark Matter and wood sculptor, Walter Bailey and dancer Charlie Morrissey’s Absolute Zero, highlighted this less travelled path of the ecologically hewn arts world.

It’s this time last year; the last Brighton festival of the millennium is in full flow. Any number of arts events are happening all across the city by the south coast sea. Amidst these, two stand out as the home grown productions that they are, and drawing in Brighton’s wilder cultural fraternity of a certain age and disposition.

Up by the woods of Stanmer Park, a short distance out of town, a current version of the Red Earth collective have decamped, mingling yurts with benders and tents, to prepare for their Dark Matter performance piece; the last in a trilogy of performance crossovers developed in collaboration with Indonesian dancers. Meantime downtown, another collective project, Absolute Zero () has taken over the Corn Exchange building for a sort, and what turns out to be a sell out run. What distinguishes both these performances works is the coming of age and focus of a small group of artist types who found each other during the late eighties and early nineties. From there this group has developed a wholly idiosyncratic, inclusive take on performance, which embraces elements of land and nature art, as well as any number of other media, and in so doing have pushed the envelope of how worked elemental material – wood sculpture, for instance – can be a constituent part of larger performance works, rather than an endpiece in itself.

Water Crossing, Brighton 1998
Water Crossing, Brighton 1998
(Photos: Red Earth)
Red Earth began life in the dying days of the eighties, and operated as a collective for many years, before its identity took firmer hold around its mainstay organisers, partners Simon Pascoe and Caitlin Easterby. Wood sculptor Walter Bailey (www.walterbailey.co.uk) and dancer Charlie Bailey, the central energies to Absolute Zero were a key part of that early, loose, free-floating collective in the early days. As the individual’s voices and vision have matured, distinctive paths have flourished. If Simon and Caitlin were pursuing art performance in the wild, a journey to Java in the mid-nineties has been a life expanding experience fuelling radical creative re-orientation, in their work and art exploration with one of Java’s leading experimental dancers, Surprapto Suryodamo. From later 1997 through to last years Brighton Festival the fruits of this collaboration have been working their way through a series of Red Earth’s elemental performances around and about the Sussex landscape. During this time, the group presented three main performing performance pieces, exploring how elements of Javanese animism can be re-created on terrain, which is thousands of miles away and consisting of a completely different history. To this end, each piece has used a remarkable broad wash of media; the poise and grace of traditional Javanese dance, electronic and ambient soundscapes, fire and flarework as dramatic props, video backdrop projections to intensify the dance experience and pieces of sculpted wood structure, both on the stage, and as parts of the pathway when, as in their Alum Halus piece, the audience was spirit-guided through a forest on a literal and symbolic journey deeper into the woods. This may not be particularly unusual in the post eighties; mixed-media zeitgeist, but Red Earth, with their commitment to ritual, ‘nature’ and land, placed these performances outside the orthodoxy within the site-specific locations. For the first of these Water Crossing , they commandeered a part lake in Brighton, producing an exquisite interplay between dancers on the three stages in the lake, and the water’s marble stillness. For Alum Halus they had created several evocative sites within a small wood, whilst Dark Matter the piece revolved around an era of open grassland on the edge of the Stanmer Woods. With perhaps varying degrees of success, all of these wove a subtle path into the other elemental realms of animated sensousness of the living world all around, which Red Earth sought to unveil for us. This specific incarnation of the Red Earth story appears to be finished. It is clear that working with and getting to know the Javanese world has touched them deeply. Given this, where they go from here, moving on from these experiences, must be an interesting challenge. (for a full overview/interview with Red Earth’s Javanese performance period see the Interfacing Spirit Worlds feature in Fourth Door Review 4


Absolute Zero, Brighton 1999 Since Walter Bailey and Charlie Morrissey, as well as Simon and Caitlin are all eighties generation contemporaries, perhaps it isn’t surprising that their work looks out for making connections with other media. Given that the generation of land artists – overwhelmingly, with the exception of Andy Goldsworthy, about a decade older – had already done much significant work from the late sixties through the seventies, as that latter decade fell away, the widening creative possibilities of a range of technologies, from video to electronic music to new media were becoming self-evident to many artists curious about new possibilities. What’s unusual about this, is the respect and sympathy they appear to feel with that earlier generation of one-time avant-garde artists exploring the then new, and marginal of what’s become known as ‘and art.’ Saying this, Walter Bailey is primarily seen as a wood sculptor, and worked for some time in the eighties in David Nash’s north Wales studio. For Absolute Zero he had not only returned to a group project, but had supplemented wood with a very different natural material, water in its frozen state, that is, sculpting with ice. The result was a grouping of ice and wood figures; the translucent ice torso’s refracting light as and when the carefully choreographed lighting caught them in its beam, complemented by equally elegant, latticed beech people, the wood charred to reinforce the contrast between light and shade.

Bailey’s sculptures were, in one sense, merely props to the performance, and the dance was designed around a large water pool in the middle of the Corn Exchange building. But with the figures as focal points rising high above the pool, and through the course of each evening’s performance gradually melting, they were the evident counterpoint to Morrisey’s choreography. The three dancers explored the threefold phase-transition states of water, whilst the audience freely wandered around the rest of the auditorium space. Each state complemented by a change in the form of dance – ice’s solidity, water’s liquidity, and the gaseousness of vapour, respectively brought forth phase transitions from floorspace through pool to delicate rope acrobatics. An elemental soundscape by Kaffe Matthews (annetteworks.net) completed the mixed media hybrid.

Water Crossing, Brighton 1998Absolute Zero was a big hit with the festival and there was talk of the production being toured. If it happened inside the containing space of a built environment, the focus of attention was the world outside. As with Red Earth’s performances, it set out to explore how different media and disciplines can fruitfully combine to create new artistic spaces. Pretty much by definition a group activity, the dynamics of such projects can be fraught with difficulties. Which is why, perhaps, they don’t happen too often. Yet when they do, and when the natural world is a part of the performance process, they bring wholly new possibilities to the term ‘multimedia’; possibilities which can deeper pit relationship to non-human nature. This could be seen to be in contrast with the orthodoxies of multimedia, which seek to place a variety of media into the single CD-rom container. Here the hybrids are out of the box, unpacked and in front of our eyes, integrating the electronic and diverse mixed media, yet acknowledging the physicality of the world. Oliver Lowenstein

A version of this piece originally appeared in the summer 2000 (no 20) edition of Landscape & Art, the newsletter of the Landscape & Art Network