Saturday, 14 February 2009

Conversation between Robin Deacon and Rachel Lois Clapham

For Performance Saga, Robin Deacon presented ‘Approximating the art of Stuart Sherman’, a long term project in which Deacon explores the art of the late American performance artist Stuart Sherman through documentary film, interviews and performance re-enactment. Here, Robin talks to Rachel Lois about the artists’ influence on him.


Rachel Lois Clapham (RLC). Do you see your work on Stuart Sherman as research, re-enactment or revival?

Robin Deacon (RD). The initial idea was documentary, certainly with regards to the research. But documentary is a lazy term as of course it is always more than that. I do think the work is more than documentary performance. But I am always wary of being too present in the work. I have to ask myself where do I slot in to Stuart Sherman? Should the work be the story of me and how he has influenced me? Is that inherently interesting? On the other hand, is a definitive biographical account possible?

‘Talking Head’ documentaries have already been done very well by people like Errol Morris. So for me it is important to differ in terms of format; I go back to actual documents of Sherman’s work and try to do something different with them. For instance, I recorded Anthony Howell citing his own writing on Sherman, alongside clips of original footage showing Sherman doing the actions Howell was describing. That worked really well.

RLC How do you think your work impacts upon that of Sherman’s?

RD I don’t think what I am doing will super-cede or replace Sherman’s work but I am concerned with the question of how you re-enact, how do you transcribe someone else's work? Especially as I am re-enacting the work of an artist who is no longer here. I did contact Stuart’s lawyer, he was supportive, but I am conscious of fundamentally not having Stuart’s permission. That is something that intrigues me more than worries me.

RLC: Have you considered the fact that Sherman may have wanted his work to disappear?

RD: Towards the end of his life Stuart started to distribute his work. He donated items to the New York MOMA. The Fales Library, New York, have already started to put his old VHS stuff on DVD. Whether or not these donations were in order to disseminate his work, to archive it, or just out of generosity on Stuart’s part I am not sure. But I do have the sense that he was concerned with posterity. He did document his work, and did many performances just for camera, not for an audience; there is a sense of his planning regarding documentation. But the question is do people go into libraries and seek this stuff out? It is one thing to preserve and archive, another to give access. The whole notion of accessibility is so much a part of the web based archive. If you type in Sherman’s name into Google my name will now come up, which is distressing to think about.

I also wonder if in the future I will be seen as ‘The Stuart Sherman guy’. That is something that has happened to me with previous biographical performances, for instance with my work on Colin Powell. I have always been filtered through somebody else.

RLC: How did Sherman’s death affect you, and the project?

RD: Stuart died in 2001, I saw him perform in May that year. In terms of my relationship with Stuart I didn’t know him, I wasn’t a personal friend. I don’t really want to pretend to know him more than I do.

RLC- There are many performers here in Performance Saga who explore the overtly personal nature of their relationship to the older performance artists they are responding to. You go down a much more formal, institutional route in your work. I wonder if this difference could be one to do with gender?

RD: I do have a personal investment, because of his influence on me. But I am just conscious of the fact that there are people who are better placed than I to talk about Stuart because they knew him, or were friends with him, and have worked with him.

RLC: Where and when did you first encounter Stuart Sherman’s work?

RD: I saw Stuart’s work first in 1993, at Cardiff School of Art and I was struck how it wasn’t a guy standing in a room naked for 12 hours holding a fish in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other.... or some such thing. Stuart did a workshop with us at that time and I was improvising, posturing and being very over the top. He came over and said ‘You don’t need to do that, relax’. I remember that very clearly. He taught me that you don’t have to be parading around ‘performing’ all the time.

RD: Later, I saw a performance of his called ‘Spaghetti Spectacle’ at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff. He had a suitcase full of pasta related objects and a set of miniature weighing scales. He laid them out and started weighing the Spaghetti. It was fascinating. His work was an important lesson in how to structure a performance, how to use space and time. The scale of the thing really stayed with me too. I had always loved working with things like model trains- still do- so the miniatures were a point of conversion. From then on all my performances were on little tables, with little cassette recorders on them. It was something for me to hold onto.

RLC: Sherman’s work has been described as being ‘outside meaning’ or ‘beyond understanding’ How do you negotiate this in your re-enactments?

RD: Howell talks of meaning coming in waves in Stuart’s performances. It’s true, you cling onto certain moments, then they slip away. I got beyond trying to work out what is going on in his work. It was like watching David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ (2007). The more I watched that movie, the less I understood and the more I got drawn into it. In Stuart’s work too, meaning ceased to matter. It is about recognising certain objects or moments. His work showed me that meaning can come from someone doing something with deliberate purpose, or apparent function, even if you don’t know what that function or purpose is. I haven’t really seen that anywhere else. I miss that about his work.

In the re-enactments, my sense of understanding is not about giving meaning, it is totally formal, all about the structure; about what objects go where and when. That’s because I can’t second guess what his meaning is. There are big gaps. For instance, the table performance I re-enacted last night was from Stuart’s ‘Spectacle of the Erotic’. So, the performance relates the erotic but visually there is just a guy standing up in front of a table moving loads of objects...

After Stuart had performed his ‘Spectacle of the Erotic’ Stuart apparently said to someone who was there ‘Well, now you know everything about me’. This notion that you can reveal something about yourself in formal terms, rather than emoting to the audience, is something I find absolutely fascinating.

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