Pulling back a thick curtain made up of hundreds of hanging threads, this is what the casual exhibition-goer will see: a slender young woman, dressed in an elegant floor-length gown with a sumptuous furry collar, diligently wrapping a long spool of yarn around a perspex cube. As they pull back the layers of threads to see into the space – a kind of artificial forest clearing – they will notice that inside the innocuous plastic cube lies the gore of a bloody, butchered heart.
This grim vision is a performance installation called Carmine, and it is the contribution made by 28-year-old British artist Kirstie Macleod to 20 Hoxton Square’s February 4th exhibition, Oral Tales. Based on the original folklore behind Little Red Riding Hood, Carmine may seem macabre, but it is Macleod’s attempt to harness the power and immediacy of performance art for the purposes of conveying a narrative. “I have loved storytelling and fairy tales ever since I can remember,” she says.
Macleod is not the only artist pushing performance art to its grim limits. In the artistic hub of Hackney, a profligacy of cheap warehouse spaces and green spaces has attracted the next generation of cutting edge artists. Some performers have developed a penchant for the grisly. And in the cold depths of winter, when the idea of taking refuge from the elements in a warm gallery seems inviting, there is a surprising amount going on.
In Hackney Wick, the Decima Gallery – made famous by collaborations with performance art pioneers Gilbert and George – is planning a special event for 13th February, Chinese New Year’s Eve. And an award-winning annual live art project called You Me Bum Bum Train is in the throes of planning an event in east London set for this July – last year it took place in an old Shoreditch factory called Cordy House. And even the East End’s most famous mainstream gallery, the Barbican Centre, is following the trend, holding a series of Performance Storytelling evenings throughout February.
“It’s certainly a very exciting time for performance art,” says Eloise Fornieles, a Hackney-based performance artist. She has just returned from exhibiting Carrion at the Haunch of Venison in Berlin, a 72-hour performance installation, in which the artist loitered, naked, in a gallery filled with discarded clothes. An animal carcass was hung in the middle of the room. Eating nothing for the duration of the performance, Fornieles proceeded to lance the hanging meat with letters of apology collected from the audience. Although the piece has now been shown in three different countries, it was originally exhibited at East London gallery Paradise Row.
Performing a piece of art instead of merely painting or sculpting a representation of it is what makes it powerful, believes Fornieles. “The strength of the medium is in its immediacy,” she says. “You experience it only really when you’re there. It’s just one of these practices that’s innate in human ritual, and so part of being human.”
Fornieles will also perform at 20 Hoxton Square’s Oral Tales evening, which forms part of TimeOut’s First Thursdays initiative – a project that sees galleries across London open late on the first Thursday of every month so that working people can come together and get a taste of the local art scene. Adam Waymouth, co-director of 20 Hoxton Square, says his gallery has never put on performance installations before, but expects them to become a regular part of its future programme.
“Performance pieces are a bit more than what [members of the public] would normally get in the gallery,” he says. “If people are giving up their Thursday evening, then they should be rewarded for going out of their comfort zones.”
Oral Tales, 6 – 9pm, 4th February. At 20 Hoxton Square, N1. Closest tube Old Street.