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Resilient Responses: Performance Exhibition in Lockdown

Sophie Norton looks at Tate Modern’s latest online exhibition on human experiences of lockdown.

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Image Credit: Guillaume Valli, Resilient Responses, Public Programme, Tate.

Our exposure to artwork has been largely limited to online exhibitions this past year. However this means more than simply scrolling through captioned images on a screen. Resilient Responses is an online exhibition that responds to human experiences during lockdown, through performance art. The work involves artists Ekin Berna, Thomas Heyes, and Rowdy SS (with guest Rebecca Bellantoni). The 50-minute video including performances and brief interviews from the artists was filmed in the empty tanks at Tate Modern, and is available to stream until 4 March.

All of the performances focus on expressive movement, and involve experimental noise at uncomfortable pitches and volumes. The first segment is by Ekin Berna. In the opening sequence she stands attached to a large parachute which is secured to her back with a harness and long ropes. Sinister music begins as she wades towards a wind machine with slow and deliberate movements, as if in a spacesuit. Meanwhile voices recite a monologue in various loud and whispered tones.

Next we see Thomas Heyes, hunched in a dimly-lit space while a faint static noise increases in intensity and volume, and a subtitled voice shouts. Cut to a topless Heyes convulsing his torso before a grainy projection of a road filmed from the perspective of a moving vehicle. Heyes’ convulsions transform into a sort of contemporary dance, while intense static noises and flailing movements create an expression of extreme physical discomfort and anxiety. He leaves and reappears within the video projection itself, dancing in the brightness provided by the vehicle’s headlights. His movements are lurching, and possessed. The silence that follows the climax of this sequence brings relief, in sharp juxtaposition to the chaotic noise.

Then, a collaboration between Rowdy SS and Thomas Heyes, who press on either side of a concrete pillar. They squirm around its base and cling to the sides, as if stuck magnetically. There is silence except for their grunts, breaths, and their shoes squeaking against the floor. Two more figures are introduced, who intentionally disrupt the silence. The situation generates a mounting unease. Are the other people a threat? Will the original figures complete their goal? What is their goal? More uncomfortable music; grating and sonorous, with undulations reminiscent of an irregular clock. Feelings of claustrophobia increase as the figures change environments and twist to press up between the ceiling and floor as if to escape the confinement of a decreasing space. The noise of clanking metal and screeching continues, punctuated by odd sounds that  sound almost like echoing laughter.

Lastly, Rowdy SS: dressed in red and dancing through a concrete environment. A quiet radio-static announcement replaces music. The figure gracefully moves as though free from gravity. While he encounters different environments, his dance becomes more intense and frenzied. The figure interacts with a red cube, and then a raised square composed of glasses all containing water, which tumble and smash. Their noise echoes, crashing like synthesised cymbals. An automated voice speaks, and the video cuts back to Ekin Berna, now walking backwards while facing the parachute. The voice repeats the phrase: ‘Now I move in waves’, with various word combinations, to finish.

Bruce Nauman exists as a technical influence for these performance artists. His ‘highly experimental approach’ explores the human experience, particularly in uncertain contexts,and his bizarre film sequences are notable for their lack of explanation, which beg the viewer to consider their own interpretations.

Ekin Berna names Nauman’s Mary Falling as an interesting image; thinking about resistance in the course of a fall. She discusses the trauma that is isolation, and its effect on us all. Thomas Heyes was keen to explore existentialism and further Nauman’s work with the concept of time, recalling how he “considered sound and silence” when conjuring themes of loneliness and alienation. His work expresses a physical response to something which can be seen but never reached. Heyes explains how the collaborative work was a reference to Nauman’s ‘Good boy, Bad boy’, having two isolated characters working together, and likens the movement to the idea of fighting something that cannot be fought. Rowdy SS tries to “create a space for imagination” for people without access to movement, space, or an invitation to chaos. Through the work, he wants to create something that resonates with all of us on an individual and collective level, which is hopefully healing.

After watching, I was left feeling unsettled yet understood. It is a fantastic series of performances that question and validate feelings of isolation, restlessness, and human resilience, which I urge everybody to watch while they can. As an extension of the exhibition, there is an online meditation workshop held by Ekin Berna, which can be accessed until 21 February. The video encourages repeated movements and a self-awareness of the body in a similar performance as those seen in the exhibition above.

Resilient Responses:

You can watch the workshop by Ekin Berna here:

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