sat 20/07/2024

Rose English, Camden Arts Centre | reviews, news & interviews

Rose English, Camden Arts Centre

Rose English, Camden Arts Centre

The artist who, arguably, made Miranda Hart's success possible

Still from 'Ornamental Happiness', 2006, by Rose English

I think of Rose English as the performer who made Miranda Hart’s success possible. I remember seeing her back in the 1980s, improvising solo at a theatre in Chenies Street. She had the audience curling up with embarassed laughter as she took off her heavy boots, stuffed her large feet into dainty ballet pumps and slipped a delicate tutu over her too, too solid frame.

While gallumphing around the stage trying to look as elegant and etherial as an anorexic ballet dancer, she addressed various topics such as ambition, longing, appearance, desire, gender and so on.

It was a truly feminist performance in that it changed our perceptions about how women should and could behave; rather than sneering at her for being large and ungainly, we found ourselves sympathising with her plight, much as we are now able to enjoy and empathise with Miranda’s clod-hopping clumsiness.

It's a shame that Camden does not offer an overview of the many performances which English has taken part in or produced over the years since she emerged in the 1970s. Instead, they focus on A Premonition of the Act, the result of 10 years spent planning what the artist variously describes as a chamber opera, an art installation and a circus.

Flagrant Wisdom, photo: Trinity Mirror NorthThe main gallery is dark save for the spots which illuminate a story board that lines the walls. Photographs of Chinese acrobats, images of molten glass, pictures of electricity being generated in the lab and photographs of the glass cabinet at Rosenborg Castle, near Copenhagen, are accompanied by words and phrases such as fragrant wisdom, nonchalant balance, horizontal synopsis, luminescence, flicker and flame. Gleaned from various performances since 2003, they seem to refer tangentially to the images they are paired with. Accompanying the glass cabinet is a vessel full of vessels, while opposite a woman balancing a vase of flowers atop a tier of pates is written elaborate bravura, overarching elements. On the other hand, questions such as Is this the opera I was longing to write? and Is this the work with ancient light in it? apparently refer to the project as a whole.

These magical pages seem as concerned with alchemy and esoteric wisdom as with art; and as you peer at them, your ears are filled with the celestial sounds of 10 voices singing the various phrases, rather like angels chanting snatches of prayer in dreamy ecstacy. Written by Luke Stoneham, Lost in Music follows you from one gallery to another as you trace the various threads of this ambitious project which, so far, has only been realised in parts.

As a result of her story board, English was invited to China to work with performers from the state circus and, on video, you can watch members of the Zhejiang and Shanghai Acrobatic Troupes practice their astonishing flying, catching and balancing skills. These include spinning plates on the end of bendy poles and balancing towers of glasses on their hands, feet, foreheads and noses while contorting their bodies into poses that most people would find impossible even without these additional encumbrances. 

On display in Camden are the glasses, flutes, stems, bowls, plates and a diabolo designed for the Chinese acrobats by Simon Vincenzi. And on video, you can watch Ornamental Happiness (main picture), a 30-minute version of the larger project, performed at the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2006; to the accompaniment of Stoneham’s Lost in Music, two Chinese women balance innumerable tiers of tinkling glasses simultaneously on all their extremities.

Flagrant Wisdom, photo: Colin DavisonIn 2009 some of the acrobats were invited to perform Flagrant Wisdom at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland (pictured left, and above right: Rose English positions glasses on the acrobat's nose). On video, a young woman demonstrates her astounding powers of balance in the foyer of the Centre using a set of glasses blown specially for the occasion. You can also watch a blob of molten glass blown into the form of a heavy jar; once cooled, it becomes the plaything of a Chinese acrobat who balances it on his head, neck, leg and arms before rolling it from one hand to the other across his chest and shoulders.

The most fascinating aspect of the exhibition is the way it splits into two parts. On the one hand there’s the artist’s vision of a mega performance involving live music and a large numbers of acrobats, which slowly evolved over many years and which we encounter in the form of an installation full of poetic evocations and allusions. On the other hand, we are able to witness on video the remarkable skills developed by troupes of Chinese acrobats over many years.

It may seem a shame that Camden is unable to host a live performance of its own. Yet when all is said and done, one can only take so much plate-spinning and glass-balancing, no matter how skillful. Ironically, Rose English’s vision of a magical event turns out to be more compelling than the actuality, since it allows you to share the dream by fashioning it in the imagination, in any way you want to.

When all is said and done, one can only take so much plate-spinning and glass-balancing, no matter how skillful


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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