Saturday, 7 March 2009

‘Ready, Set, Word’

image (c) the artist

Sight is the sense that dying people tend to lose first
Site Gallery
6 February 2009
Written and directed by Tim Etchells.
Performed by Jim Fletcher

A table has four legs. A prison cell has four corners. A window is an opening in the wall of a room built by people who want to see outside. A hostage is a prisoner used to bargain with. A bargain is a deal or an arrangement where one person has one thing and the other wants it and the first person has something that the other wants and they make an exchange so that each is more happy. A fart is gas that escapes from a body.

In ‘Sight is the sense dying people tend to lose first’ at Site Gallery, US actor Jim Fletcher stands at the front of the main gallery space and recites- from memory- an hours’ worth of free association monologue written by artist Tim Etchells. The monologue swings wildly from disturbing advice ‘You should not leave a body on the sofa, or in the yard. Because rats will come, and besides, it will smell bad’ to wry aphorisms ‘Factory is a place in China’. From hopeful affirmations ‘There is a god that looks after drinks and fools’ to banal observations ‘Shit floats in toilet water’. Etchells’ monologue is the product of an enquiring mind and an almost alien, all pervasive gaze in which the stuff of human life, be it shit, socks, sun or fire, is equally strange and equally significant. Fletcher delivers all Etchells’ statements - regardless of their controversy, comedy or poignancy- in the same deadpan manner that is equal parts seriousness, flippancy and tenderness.

After a while, sat in Site Gallery faced with the vast array of possibilities of Etchells’ monologue, my mind wanders. I get to thinking what ‘Sight is the sense...’ is about. It seems unlikely that the meaning of the performance lies in the individual sound-bites themselves, given that the equally in/sincere statements are treated so indiscriminately by Fletcher and Etchells alike: Etchells’ blasphemous bringing together of farts, torture, traffic directions, Christianity and death onto one page without clear rhyme, reason or im/moral purpose; Fletcher’s ultimately democratic or blanket delivery. Both artists deliberately flatten the monologue in their own way. My mind turns to this flatness, and then, half way in, having lost my way in the sheer volume of statements, I see the words through the trees. Meaning drifts away from the individual statements and onto the fact of their utterance. ..

‘Sight is the sense...’ is a linguistic performance, one in which the central actor is the script, where words are rolled around in and as meaning in and of themselves. It is an encounter between art, writing and performance that highlights how performance is embroiled in writing; how it utilises, authorises and glances off the written word. The work highlights the distinction between Etchells and Fletcher and their respective words; how Fletcher, in repeating or citing Etchells’ monologue, harnesses the efficacy or utility of words and makes Etchells’ script his own. It shows how Fletcher’s after Etchells’ words are catapulted out as hermetically sealed objects, dubious ready-mades that crash onto the floor of Site Gallery, settle on the rafters or are caught by the audience - as tautologies, truisms or performative utterances. On the other hand, the work gives us a glimpse at the inner life of these words-in-performance, including possible mis-firings or infelicities of text: how ‘Some men have sex appeal’ perhaps most accurately imagines sexually unappealing men. How ‘Summer is warmer than winter’ slips by unnoticed as a banal ‘fact’ with no attendant meaning. How a ridiculously broad sweeping statement can perform complex ideas: ‘theatre is mainly pretending’. ‘Sight is the sense...’ is a space in which the subjectivity and objectivity of utterances are interchangeable; a place in which fiction and fact might be considered equally empirical, experiential and quantifiable.

Concentrating on the words themselves in Etchells’s performance reveals the inherent space or gap in between the words themselves. These gaps – what Jacques Derrida calls the supplemental, Peggy Phelan the liminal – are the potent and active flip-side, or force, that endow the actual words with their agency. ‘Flat’ or ‘formal’ is not a pejorative here. Highlighting the gap between language and meaning is what makes the ‘Sight is the sense...’ more porous; through these gaps the audience can project and intervene into an otherwise tightly sealed script or sermon. It is in and by language then, that ‘Sight is the sense...’ is shown to be fallible, embodying a flawed desire for coherence and meaning. It is a work that wades through words to perform the inability of language to communicate directly, to depict even a small part of the world and our experience in it.

Rachel Lois Clapham

Text extracts taken from ‘Sight is the sense that dying people tend to lose first’, copyright Tim Etchells.

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