Monday, 29 October 2007

Review: Death is certain

Eva Meyer-Keller, Death is certain, as part of Retroflex, Performance Space @ CarriageWorks, 13 October

"What I am doing is very small" declares Eva Meyer-Keller quietly as we gather in the intimate but un-theatrical surrounds of CarriageWorks' exhibition space, Bay 19, "so it's best if you stand." Duty done, she turns immediately to her work, approaching the first of two large tables in the centre of the space. This table is covered in a neatly laid out collection of tools, implements and odd miscellaneous items; a strange cross between a hobbyist's workshop, a kitchen, and a torture chamber. A coiled electrical cable with copper wiring exposed. A gas cylinder. Several boxes of matches. An impressive collection of knives, arranged in ascending size. Toothpicks. A bottle of brandy. Hairspray. Cigarette lighters, cigarettes, and an ashtray. A hair dryer. Plastic cups. Cling wrap. Dental floss. And in front of all this, a large number of strawberries. Waiting. Loaded with potentiality. Meyer-Keller dons a black apron, places her handbag under the table, slips on a pair of latex gloves, and goes to work.

Delicately removing a strawberry from the collection, she efficiently removes the leaves before tying dental floss around the helpless strawberry. She takes her construction to the second table, currently bare and covered in a white cloth. Also waiting. The strawberry is placed on the table, the dental floss secured to the table with sticky tape, and as she moves back to her work table, she flicks the strawberry off the table. Caught in its dental floss noose, its fall is abruptly arrested, its non-existent spine snapped. Death for this strawberry was certain, even if the manner of this death was almost an afterthought.

Meyer-Keller calmly continues her murderous work - there's a lot of strawberries to get through after all, and she can't keep us all night. The implied and actual violence delivered so calmly and politely is quite striking. Death is certain, and therefore its execution can simply be another job that must be done within the given time frame. A strawberry run through with a toothpick. Another run over by a toy truck. Another is crushed in a door jam with a sickening silence. Another burned at a miniature stake. Drawn and quartered. Skinned alive. Melted with a iron.

The deaths get more and more elaborate - asphyxiation by carbon monoxide is enacted using a plastic cup, cling wrap, a lit cigarette, and a straw. A death by drowning created by floating the hapless strawberry in a paper boat floating in a bucket of water, then creating a tempest with a hair dryer. Fate has nothing pleasant in store for these innocent pieces of fruit.

The flesh of these strawberries takes on a surprisingly human quality as we watch them seem to bleed, leaving red stains all over the hitherto stark white tablecloth. Meyer-Keller efficiently wraps another fruity victim in a napkin, lays it gently on the table, and presses firmly down until the napkin turns red. The absurdity of this deathly art turns viscerally horrifying in an instant. When she begins to slowly and skilfully skin a strawberry with a scalpel blade, the ethical question of what it means to watch this simulated suffering becomes uncomfortably present. If, as Steve Baker suggests, the presence of the suffering or wronged animal in contemporary art makes "the question of the human abrasively visible", then its also difficult to avoid the question of human suffering when faced with these fruity stand-ins. With the simplest of means and the most precise and clinical of performances, Meyer-Keller has created a deeply moving and frighteningly funny meditation on human violence. With an artful blend of pleasure and horror, she conjures a damning ongoing history of human cruelty, demanding that we who watch urgently address the question: can we ever become more than monsters?

2 comments:

Alison Croggon said...

Sounds amazing, and gruelling... I suppose our capacity for empathy is one of our few good points.

David Williams said...

thanks Alison. It was indeed pretty amazing, but not exactly grueling. Relentless perhaps, but so much of it was surprisingly funny that the moments of shock, startlement, and creeping horror became more like punctuation within the clear syntax of the piece. Like Jerome Bel's 'the show must go on' (which Meyer-Keller was in Australia to perform in), we know the rules pretty quickly, but the performance's effect and affects far exceeds a mere description of its structural principles. In 'Show', we know that the show will go on until the pile of CDs is depleted. In this case, there are a fixed number of strawberries, and the show must go on until they are all exterminated (previous versions of the work in Europe have used cherries instead, but they're out of season here apparently). All of the strawberries must die horrible deaths for our viewing pleasure, but many of these deaths have a dignity, poignancy or sheer excessiveness that takes us somewhere else entirely. As you wrote of Bel's work, it "gives us ourselves." She gives us our deaths, hopefully to exorcise the possibility of them really occurring.

Two things I neglected to mention in the post, 1) the piece is short, only 30 minutes; and 2) the most ordinary death in the piece is one which almost the entire audience misses. She eats a strawberry while we in the audience, pyromaniacs all, watch a strawberry soaked in brandy (napalm?) burning long after being hit by a homemade flame-thrower (hairspray and cigarette lighter). All most of us got was the last swallow, as the evidence of death is neatly erased.

Its hard to contemplate eating strawberries casually after watching this show...