words Kieran Long
Shades of Guantanamo and Iraq penetrate the V&A in Lucy Orta’s latest work. Kieran Long was one of the boys in the hood.
I had begun to suspect this was a mistake – both for my own and the artwork’s sake. Whereas most of the other participants in this performance were out-of-work actors, musicians and models, I was reasonably identifiable to more than a few members of the audience at the Sense and the City festival at the Victoria & Albert museum – architects, academics and designers. As we stood in martial formation, composing ourselves and awaiting our entry into the galleries, one architect approached me and said, in his rather dour northern tones: “Do you do this for a living?” Others simply burst out laughing.
This was my debut as a performance artist. Lucy Orta’s work has had a flurry of publicity recently, with installations at the RIBA and two new books featuring her work. Orta has a chair at the London College of Fashion, and her work explores the potential of clothes to create connections in groups of people, whether physical or optical. Her performances often involve rather military formations of performers, and this piece, which took place just days before the handover of sovereignty in Iraq, as well as being a meditation on occupation, had clear references to contemporaneous events at Camp X-Ray and Abu Ghraib, arranging the performers in various matrices in the galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum.
I had agreed to be one of 40 performers for Nexus Architecture, a new piece commissioned by the V&A. We had one day of rehearsals, in which Orta arranged us and blew her whistle when we were expected to move, turn round or lie down. Her approach to motivating the troops was similar to that of a PE teacher dealing with an apathetic class. When one woman fainted during the rehearsal (standing in the same position for 20 minutes at a time was clearly too much for her), there was a glimpse of humanity in the necessarily efficient arrangements, as she was given a glass of water and taken away to another room to recover. It made us all want, briefly, to be the one allowed to sit this out in the nurse’s room. This special treatment revealed how far we had already lost our individuality.
Orta told us very little about her motivations for the piece. In fact, half of my colleagues didn’t really seem to care what it was about, the others were self-consciously giggling at the strangeness of standing barefoot in a gold lamé and khaki jumpsuit in a public place. Most of the time we were mere clothes horses and photographic subjects. The bewildering number of people recording the event added to a feeling of increasingly compromised subjectivity – we were mere points in a geometric arrangement, only worthwhile in our contribution to the entire effect.
The only recourse was to a laconic Dunkirk spirit that developed between the participants. Factions formed and groups dealt with the strangeness of the situation in their own ways, some by deliberately subverting the uniformity imposed on us. One girl, while the rest of us were lying ramrod straight on our backs in a line on the floor, adopted the foetal position. She also refused to put on the leather hoods we were sometimes required to wear on the grounds that it would have flattened her magnificent Afro. The person at the very back of the line ambled as if paddling in the shallows of a beach, rather than striding purposefully to war, or away to detention.
At the other end of the scale were those clearly born for this kind of thing. One particularly aggressive-looking man, with the sides of his hair shaved in a kind of negative tonsure, was consistently chosen to stand in the front row. A very patient and mild-mannered woman was chosen to lead the line through the galleries and did a sterling job. These people were the de facto prefects, the rest of us were mere rank and file, without names, without any way of expressing our individuality. Personally, I submitted to this obscurity without a real problem – but the temperament of the performer types in the piece didn’t go well with this. The others in the group – many clearly used to being the centre of attention – pimped and preened, chatted and fidgeted. My problem was that the carefully balanced relationship of individual to crowd in Orta’s work was being defused by the fact that people kept recognising me.
The performance occupied two spaces in the V&A. The first was the sculpture court near the entrance, a naturally lit, airy space with various Roman-looking busts, Greek gods and a huge tomb. The second space was the Raphael galleries, a dark, chapel-like space with an altar at one end and huge Raphael cartoons from the Queen’s art collection. The reactions of the audience were diverse, but overall ran according to the two spaces. In the first, the light in the space, and the location closer to the entrance of the museum meant that people wandered around, making phone calls, drinking glasses of wine. The Raphael gallery hushed everyone, and the mood was reverential. People felt comfortable sat only on the very perimeter of the room, and it was only then that one realised the power of the performance. Architecture, performers and observers combined in a quite spectacular way.
It’s almost impossible for me to judge this artwork. Being part of it means that I could neither see it, nor gauge to what extent it moved audiences. Being part of it was worthwhile just for the look of mild panic on the faces of people in the toilets when 15 people came in en masse in tank drivers’ uniforms. We weren’t allowed to keep the clothes.
Lucy Orta’s next installation will be Dwelling X, a series of temporary public sculptures in Nottingham in late October 2004.