Rose English, Plato’s Chair, Vancouver 1983. Photo: Eric Metcalfe
(Presentation for Hear Tell: Describing, Reporting, Narrating, TaPRA Documenting Performance, Tate Exchange, 13th May 2019)
At the Richard Saltoun gallery in London, March-April 2019, there are three CDs with headphones mounted on a wall, at which a visitor can listen to audio recordings of different iterations of Rose English’s solo performance Plato’s Chair, made at venues in Canada and UK in 1983 and 1984.
On the opposite, facing wall a 90-minute video is being projected of the same work, shown in its entirety, performed in Vancouver in 1983.
Still photographs from the performance, artist’s notes (featuring lists of words in French and English such as ‘repetoire’/‘repertory’, ‘le vide’/‘the void’, ‘la chaise’/‘the chair’, ‘la malle’/‘trunk?’, ‘elle’/‘she’ and ‘le théâtre’/‘the theatre’), and variant reprographic collage ‘programmes’ (featuring bull-fights, wrist watches and other such motifs) that were created by the artist thirty years or so ago to hand out to individual audience members at Plato’s Chair, are displayed on the other walls.
There is also a bench where visitors to the gallery can sit to watch the video, which focuses almost entirely on English herself – a tall, young, white woman wearing a sleeveless, ankle-length, black shift dress and grey pumps – performing various actions (sometimes with objects, sometimes not) on and around a small platform in front of a floor-level audience.
Other elements of the performance that eventually come into focus include a folded screen over which are draped various garments (costumes) to the side of the platform; an old-fashioned traveling chest on the platform itself from which objects are taken during the show (a lace fan, castanets, a white bird’s wing, horse hoof shoes etc); a blue chair, which is sometimes placed on the platform and sometimes off; the knees of the front row of the audience, glimpsed occasionally when English goes up close or amongst them (the video documentation is being done from the side of the performance area); and a technical desk in the shadows to the other side of the audience where English’s assistant operates – i.e. sets up, plays and rewinds – sound cues on cassette tape, mostly orchestral segments from Bizet’s Carmen (it is possible to hear the clunk of the mechanism, and sometimes there is a noticeable delay from the lead-in tape before the cues start, although when the music does come on, which it does frequently, it is quite loud).
As well as performing physical actions, English speaks throughout the performance, during some passages in a complicit stage whisper, at other times in a more stentorian rhetorical voice, sometimes using a hand microphone, sometimes not.
Her speech is mainly concerned with telling her audience what it is that she is doing, both what she had been planning to do and what she is actually doing right this moment, as well as how she must look and sound to them doing what she’s doing, a doing that includes this same act of self-description.
For example: ‘As I walk towards you in my dressing room [an imagined area of the stage] I know that somehow, somehow I’m emitting a presence of almost colossal size. And so, not to overpower you too much I will run, run and run again quickly to the very back of my dressing room. There I go, and here I am and suddenly I’m enormously big, I’m almost overpowering you with my presence. It’s really hideous. We’re all stuck together in here very close, it’s very hot and I’m very very big and I’m just standing up here talking in an enormously loud voice. Is this really what we came to see?’
The effect of listening to one of the wall-mounted CDs while watching the video on the facing wall – in spite of the fact that these are recordings of different performances (and there is considerable difference between the performances: English improvised and modified the work from show to show), and in spite of the fact that any coincidence or synchronisation between the audio and video recordings is entirely accidental, and in spite too of a certain amount of audio bleed from the video – particularly during the Bizet sections – the effect is that English could be describing – here, in the headphones, in London – what she was doing – there on the wall, back then in Vancouver in the early 1980s – as the video and audio memories roll around each other’s looping iterations.
Except, there is a displacement, something in description itself, departing as it does from this scene here, to attach itself – as if it could – to that scene all of the way over there, across the room, in the 1980s, at a different performance entirely.
A piece of memory: a photo I used to have on my phone, when I first had a smart phone, my mother and my sister Julia returning from a run, action shot, coming down the road past the recent new-builds just up from our house, Kodak colour, tracksuits, sunny day, Leeds late 70s, 1980 at the latest.
Appearing into the image, without hesitation: here we come, running.
On screen at the gallery (Western Front, Vancouver, 1983): the performer has something between her fingers, concealed – a pebble? – which she sniffs occasionally. She’s talking to herself it looks like, pondering, walking backwards and forwards. She’s thinking out loud over there, but here on the audio (CD No.2, Drill Hall, London, 1984) she’s whispering again, for them, the audience, they’re laughing. Laughing at her, over there? On screen, she’s telling her audience she’ll be speaking this evening mainly of the void (‘The void. The. Void. “The void”. THE void. “I’m interested in the void.” “I have a tremendous interest in the void.”’ Etc), but here – on the audio, at an earlier point in the show – her topic, she says, is the ‘soul’. On screen: she is running around the platform, sprinter’s arms. On the audio: Bizet’s Carmen, a long bit, she may be doing the exact same action in a place we cannot see, the one an iteration of the other. On screen: the audience’s knees. On the audio: voices, laughter, another audience. On screen: close-up on the chair, it is dvery blue, the most luminous thing in the show. On the audio: her voice, assured, confident, shaped sentences: ‘Nothing could be further from the truth’, said three times, ‘and I’m not going to beat about the bush any further, and get rrrrrright down to it’. Her topic this evening. Telling them straight. ‘Deep down in my heart. What I really want to deal with. Nothing, absolutely nothing.’ Whispering now: ‘You’ve probably noticed that you’re at a theatre.’
In the Vancouver show, the work is performed at floor level which enables English to walk easily among the audience, and also to ask her assistant for a ‘long bit’ of Bizet’s Carmen, during which she will – frequently – circumnavigate the central platform where the chair and her trunk of props are placed, recalling perhaps those sorts of spaces that stand beside other sorts of spaces, the space beside the altar of the Lustral sacrifice around which the officiant might go, or the space in front of a museum display into which a guide might bring a group of visitors in order to show and describe what is there for them to see and understand – the miracle of art perhaps, expressed through the transformation of base materials – before moving them on to another station, which is what description is really there to do.
As the video shows, English is in almost constant motion – even when she is on the spot and speaking, her arms and shoulders are moving as if she were inhabited by a wave, an impulse to dance – although her every movement seems also to express a kind of hesitancy, a pre-vision and revision of decision, for instance as she handles those objects – the gun, the wing, the tiara, the fan, the castanets, the handkerchief – figuring what to do with them, pondering to proceed, this hesitancy removing her from her audience into a momentary privacy – or so it can appear from the documentation, where she appears to be alone, unattended, for stretches at a time – before she goes back at them with a declaration of intent: ‘I know in my heart of hearts I must say farewell to the past.’
And then she straps on a horse’s tail (the ‘sort of thing that I used to have to wear’) and parades in it. She fans herself distractedly with a bird’s wing. She puts on Mickey Mouse ears (‘cheap gimmicks, completely against my art, which of course is completely serious’). She takes off her pumps and laces up her horse-hoof shoes, which is quite complex and fiddly to do, and barely has time to complete a couple of circuits of the platform in them before a playback of Frankie Lane’s ‘Rawhide’ finishes (‘the whole process was deeply humiliating to me, slightly injurious and, frankly, very dull’). If the non-human animal is, by this repertoire, fragmented, objectified and denatured, then no less is the human performer whose know-how is derived from melodrama, vaudeville, comedy, opera, ballet, dressage and rhetorical oratory, and whose personal collection of mimetic appurtenances may be glancing back to the promise made by this particular human performer at the start of her show not to say anything this evening, ‘under any circumstances whatsoever’, ‘in any way whatsoever about the topic, subject, and the matter of death.’
Which indeed she does not, not this evening.
She doesn’t really say much about the ‘void’ either, but she does seem to be telling us that before this theatre there was another theatre, and another theatre before that – ‘the presence tonight of my old costumes plunges me into a morass of despair and disappointment’ – from which presumably she draws the wherewithal to switch between describing and explaining things for her audience and suddenly weeping loudly into the lace hanky and then, just as suddenly, asking again for a music cue – a ‘long bit’ please – usually, the same bit from Carmen (the bull fight, the fan, the castanets may be coming into focus for some, as might something of the ill-fated eponymous female figure at the centre of that repertory mainstay), and circulating the platform once more, giving herself time to decide, or simply perhaps for the pleasure of doing that.
She appears also to find a kind of pleasure – during the second half of the Vancouver performance – in bringing from behind the platform a large, heavy, wet log, a hunk of tree-trunk basically, that takes some holding onto (she needs woollen mittens to do so: ‘something really quite exciting about a performer pushing herself really to her limits’), and which she tells us is sourced from ‘the great outdoors’, nothing ‘the kind of things that go on out there’, a place she will be obliged to return at the very end of the show (‘I got up onto the stage and I said to my audience I am leaving now, I am going back into the wide world, I’m leaving through this door here, I’m leaving this arena of artifice and deception…’), although for now, while we are here, perhaps something can be made of it, which she proceeds to do, producing a small penknife and whittling at the log in a brief gesture of bladed toleration.
The blue plastic chair meanwhile is not of course Plato’s chair, it is any chair found in the venue where she shows the performance, but then the whole performance – literally – goes around it, so it is Plato’s chair indeed, and in this instance it is blue and luminous (although on the audio recordings, of course its appearance is neither here nor there) and in a speech at the very end of the show she will tell us that she found it in a dream – a museum dream – and that she stole it from there, from the dream museum, and she will say something of what it means, fundamentally, according to the script she has composed for herself to share with her audience tonight, for her life and her work.
At other points, though, she asks things such as: ‘why one should choose to represent anything at all, really, ever. Why one would want to make anything at all.’
Denise Riley, in her book-length study of our ordinary acts of self-description, Words of Selves (2000), writes of the ‘vast if productive trouble’ of identification, of our everyday claims to be ‘something or other’ and the sometime hesitancy of those claims, our recurrent failure to convince ourselves, and our sense then that we are failing somehow in solidarity, in love, in commonality, and in what we owe – personally and politically – to others such as ourselves.
Riley, however, finds political optimism in unforeseen solidarities that cohere around these hesitancies and the more provisional categories of social being they invoke, amplified by what she refers to as discursive ‘irony’, whose ‘political astringency’ arises from the very reiterations of self-description, whether the identity in question is one of gender, or race, or nationality, or any other.
As she says: ‘That salutary deflation of some excessively vaunted category, so that it suddenly seems bizarre to itself and from then onward cannot endure its own repetitions, just is irony at work.’
Including, we could say, the category of the human.
If irony has to do with how we listen into the true nature of things, it is also a slippery mechanism, hard to account for, hard to get, a kind of ‘toleration of knowing’ that operates across the serious and the non-serious, its mode a whispering that moves in and around, always in motion, and that seeks an answering attention that can tune into what moves like that.
In irony, the absolute beginning of the personal life announces itself, intruding upon the complicit, whispering monologue of self-description in the tones of a disciplinarian, finely sensitised to the others who are there, even as it remains – damn near exclusively, it may seem – oneself of whom one speaks.
One performs social being as if putting on costumes, borrowing instinct from practiced imitation, not ironically, I hasten to add, but begging the question to what extent I am committed to ‘some effort at authenticity’.
For Riley, there is a limit – a ‘harm’ – to ‘excessive reiteration’, which self-description can become wise to, alerted by listening, reflection, echo, a sense of uneasiness in the hearing of the over-said, although Riley also wants to champion something like a cultivated ridiculousness, what she calls a ‘careful stupidity’, a ‘determined’ getting hold of the wrong end of the stick and a ‘dogged’ not letting go of it, disattending discursive content and finding fascination in the shape and sound of words, in the word become ‘thing’ and the folly of such affection, the tip into risibility, into comedy, into the blatant absurdity of an act that would perform its self-description, even as it would attempt to describe – self-describe – its performance, and everything the performance is supposed to be saying, for the others who are already there.
Riley, marking as it were her own turn from comedy back into philosophy, borrows some remarks from Schlegel to comment on how irony will arise from ‘the strongest and most serious engagement with hurt’, and it is from this point that she moves towards those modes of ‘differing solidarity’ that may accrue around a ‘politics of irony’ which, she proposes, ‘can only be a practice without calculation, or else an inclination’; ‘it must lack a programme and a manifesto’ – ‘I cannot,’ she says, ‘obviously, declare that I am an ironist.’
Anymore, perhaps, than Rose English, with her stand-up turns of phrase and her monologist’s patter – ‘I don’t know about you, but…’, ‘At this point of the evening…’ – can convincingly declare herself for whatever career identity she aspired to at that time in her life, although she was not afraid to put something out there, stating after her recitation of the museum dream (the dream in which she acquired, she says, Plato’s very chair), that what she took from this episode was ‘some sort of indication that I had to give up my career as a comedian, frankly floundering, and become a philosopher. That wasn’t quite what I had in mind for my life, but because I’d got a few gigs lined up I thought I’d sort of weld the two together and that is what I’ve been trying to do tonight.’
So she describes her act, actor-figure that she is, constantly double-taking her audience, turning away and turning back to speak, clicking her fingers for something that should be there, an echo perhaps at the edge of decision, mining – it would appear – back then in the early 1980s, something of irony’s default temporality which is, as Riley would say, a ‘constant and synthetic present tense.’
Echoing ourselves, we are pressed to opposing sides of some future room, by time, desire, kindness, error, ignorance and the devil knows what.
And in the same month as the English exhibition, my mother, as human as they come, on the phone from her room in the place where she lives, describing the tree outside her window: ‘Very old, it has a head on, old branches, separated off, out along the branches of the tree which have turned black because of winter, it has a long, long tail, I don’t know what to call it, it just looks weird, but it’s very frightening. I stare at it every day.’
Guy Brett (2014) Abstract Vaudeville: The Works of Rose English, London: Ridinghouse
Rose English (1983) Plato’s Chair , Western Front Archive, Vancouver. https://vimeo.com/120214820
Rose English (March-April 2019) Form, Feminisms, Femininities [exhibition], Richard Saltoun Gallery, London.
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (2019 ) Poetics of History: Rousseau and the Theater of Originary Mimesis, trans. Jeff Fort, New York: Fordham University Press.
Denise Riley (2000) The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony, Stanford: Stanford University Press.