TIME TIME TIME Interview with Tanya Mars by Paul Couillard
FADO (Paul Couillard): I'd like to start by talking about how HOT fits into the TIME TIME TIME series. Formally, the piece is a durational work taking place over two 12-hour days. But I'm equally interested how, in terms of content, HOT looks at issues of aging. You recently turned 50. Can you talk about coming to grips with age and mortality in a performance work?
TANYA MARS: It was interesting to make a piece that required hard physical work -- long, repetitive, carpal tunnel work -- at this age. However, my performances have always involved physical limitation, even if it wasn't totally apparent. In PURE VIRTUE, for example, I forced myself to do ridiculous things in a Queen Elizabeth I costume. Just to bend over in an Elizabethan costume is difficult and painful. To lie down is next to impossible, and to get up is awkward and funny. Elizabethan clothing is also very heavy and hot -- wearing it is exhausting.
FADO: You've been particularly concerned with physical endurance as it relates to the image that 'woman' is expected to represent.
TANYA MARS: And the physical ability of the body, though not in the same way as Simone Forti or Marina Abramovic, who deal with physical limitation as their main focus. When I first started to make work, around 1974, I was responding to what I thought was a very dour, humourless kind of durational, physical performance art. I thought, 'Why can't performance be funny?' I teamed up with Bob White (from theatre) and Odette Oliver (from dance) in 1978, and we began to do pieces that were interdisciplinary. That work was characterized by some as too entertaining to be performance art, but it also dealt with issues. It was political in a more didactic, text-driven, theatrical way than the '70s aesthetic of [Joseph] Beuys and Forti and Deborah Hay. I continued this work into the '80s with my 'PURE' series: PURE VIRTUE, PURE SIN, PURE NONSENSE culminating in my most theatrical work, PURE HELL.
FADO: By theatrical, you mean the structure, hiring actors --
TANYA MARS: Hiring actors, having a director, having a rehearsal period, having a decent budget... PURE HELL was staged at the Power Plant, so I had a curator, Barbara Fisher, who was a producer. She raised the money an did an enormous amount of work to make PURE HELL happen. After PURE HELL, I didn't want to do theatrical, proscenium work any more. Also, doing large-scale work became very problematic because it is so costly to mount and prohibitive to travel. It's no surprise that many, many performance artists avoid props, and large-scale productions. There are, of course, always exceptions: Vanessa Beecroft uses many bodies; Matthew Barney creates big budget spectacle. But for the most part, performance is spare.
When I first started doing the PURE series, it was me and the dress, and the most difficult thing I had to deal with was oversized luggage. But if you want to do something more elaborate, if you want to deal with many bodies in space, this becomes untenable as a performance artist. You have to engage a dance company or a theatre company in order to make that work.
FADO: There's no such thing as a performance art 'company' in Canada.
TANYA MARS: Not anywhere. Elizabeth Chitty tried to implement something like a company for herself in the late '80s -- but it was difficult. There were no precedents in the visual arts, and the funders were skeptical.
I think here in Canada, Robert Lepage has been most successful in creating spectacular, large-scale visual theatre, and that his work has many performance art sensibilities. But he's largely subsidized by Quebec. He's their 'golden boy'.
FADO: There's Rachel Rosenthal in Los Angeles.
TANYA MARS: Yes, but she comes from a theatrical tradition. Pina Bausch is from a dance tradition. The Wooster Group is theatre; they are experimental and pushing the envelope, but they've made a choice, like the Hummers here in Canada, to say, 'OK, we need more money than what an individual artist can get.' I've never had a company. I've worked from small scale and gotten very ambitious sometimes, creating spectacles. Ultimately, spectacle is too costly. No one can afford it. Not artist-run centres, not even public galleries. I think this is because performance art is not particularly sale-able. It doesn't have any enduring objects. And we haven't established box office. Audiences expect performance art and contemporary art to be free.
FADO: You do an enormous project, and when it's over, it's gone. What have you got?
TANYA MARS: Nothing. Well, you usually have a lot of crap to strike.
After the PURE series, I started to do pieces in site-specific locations -- a locker room, a ball field, a park... These performances weren't durational, but they were certainly about the space. This shift in my work was not very well received, and people would ask, 'Why is she doing that?' which I found very amusing because when I started to do the theatrical performances in the '70s, people said, 'That's not performance.' Throughout my career my work has fallen between two stools. I love drama and the theatrical. I love making a beautiful picture.
FADO: And you're a good writer, so text and narrative have also been important.
TANYA MARS: Yes, but I always knew that my work was performance art. I knew how it was different from theatre. And I'm not a good actor, but I have presence.
FADO: I think of you as an extremely successful artist, but you're saying your work hasn't always been fashionable.
TANYA MARS: No, it sometimes gains respectability -- but often it hasn't been perceived as either serious or cutting edge. It took me ten years to gain any kind of respect. The first time I staged Queen Elizabeth and PURE VIRTUE was a cabaret event at the Rivoli in 1984, and I got off the stage and for the first time since I had begun to make work, people were rushing up to me and saying, 'It was fabulous.' Then over the next ten years I got many grants, until about 1994. I think a lot of what happened in terms of publicity and credibility was timing. I was at the right place at the right time. I was doing funny, narrative, feminist work after feminism had gone through its growing pains and realized it could not go on being self-flagellating and didactic and negative.
FADO: You were doing work that could be marketed.
TANYA MARS: Not marketed in the sense of lucrative, but yes, 'ordinary' people liked it. They liked the characters, the attention to detail and the visual components. I think they also liked that it was about something, I'm thinking here particularly of PICNIC IN THE DRIFT, which was maligned by theatre critics and despised by contemporary artists, but got a very positive response from audiences. It moved them.
FADO: In the PURE series you were skewering the traditional feminine image.
TANYA MARS: And neo-Freudian feminism, which I took a big poke at in PURE NONSENSE. By that time, feminists had developed enough self-confidence about their position that they could find it funny. Nothing is so cut-and-dried that we can't take a critical look at it. That's important to me not just as a feminist but also as an artist and a human being. I enjoy -- no, I thrive -- on satire.
FADO: With the PURE series, you were making contemporary theory accessible in a way that people could enjoy as something other than a plodding, politically correct analysis.
TANYA MARS: That was the goal, anyway. I have a love-hate relationship with theory.
It's similar to the way I feel about theatre, I love theatre, but I can't stand all the rules. What I love about performance art is that you can break the rules. That doesn't mean people will necessarily accept performance, but I don't worry about that any more. When I started teaching performance, I had to open up my ideas about what performance was. I could no longer just say, 'I hate that Marina Abramovic work.' I had to revisit video and performance, and when I did I realized that I was drawn to it. As a young artist, I found a lot of early '70s work alienating. What I like about '70s work now is the boredom factor. Not that I like to be bored; I don't. But I like the idea that one doesn't have to be predictably entertaining to entertain. In other words, another kind of time and movement can be as compelling as quick, witty repartee.
FADO: Frank Moore talks about boredom as a tool. Boredom is a gateway, a state that can lead you to look at the world in a different way. Often I find that entertainment is great in the moment, but nothing sticks. Whereas the images that at first seem impenetrable might stay with me and grow and grow.
TANYA MARS: 'A picture is worth a thousand words.' Clichés do bear some truth. The strength of performance comes from the visual. It's a visual art form. Every single performance artist I know cares about what it looks like, and the body inside that image adds the power of presence. I don't think that I'm making tableaux, but I am making three-dimensional pictures.
In HOT, I conflated two diverse aesthetics. I took the formal qualities of the '70s endurance aesthetic, and married them with theatrical, narrative work. While visual things have always been important to me, the thrust of the 'women in power' work was its narrative structure and political content. The impetus driving HOT was the picture, the activity. I wasn't thinking in terms of what the work was 'about.' It was task-driven work. I had 5,000 mousetraps, and I wanted to set as many mousetraps as possible in a given amount of time with red cinnamon hearts. That's it.
Once you've made the politic your driving force, to say, 'I'm really concerned with formal elements, and I am trusting that the politic will come along with the imagery' takes a big leap of faith for people. When people asked 'What's it about?' I said HOT was about aging and unconditional love because I had to say something. I knew I wanted to talk about my relationship with my dog, which is really important to me because it's so unconditional. Love is really problematic for a 50-year old woman -- though I suppose it can be problematic for anyone at any age. Nevertheless, when you're 50 and you don't have a partner, or you've just lost a partner, as in my case, you wonder if you'll ever have a partner again. I was noticing that a lot of women my age were in the same boat. I looked at the Women's Cultural Building crew and I could see that the ones who weren't having relationships with humans were having relationships with their pets. I think Carolee Schneeman made a film about her cats a number of years ago, when she was around my age. Rachel Rosenthal has a big relationship with her dogs. We need companionship, and if we aren't getting it from humans because we're old and slightly overweight females, then we'll get it somewhere else. My dog Woofie doesn't care if I have bed head. He doesn't care if I'm stylish. He'll listen to me endlessly and if I repeat myself it's OK.
FADO: Where did you get the idea to set mousetraps?
TANYA MARS: I started with the mousetraps at the AGO in November of '97 with Molto Jag. Cars were the original impetus. I was looking to make an object, and I thought, 'If Max Dean and John Scott can do car pieces and sell cars, maybe someone will buy my car and I'll be able to recoup some of my costs.' Well, no one was interested in my car, so I ended up storing it in someone's garage for a while and then getting it carted away. That was a big disaster, but I kept the mousetraps. I was fascinated by them. They didn't really work at the AGO, because the space we were performing in was cavernous and there were only 500 traps, which sounded like a lot at the time, but not enough to make the kind of visual impact I was hoping for. Plus, it was impossible to have any lighting. It was like a glorified hallway with a glass ceiling and poor acoustics --
FADO: Beside the restaurant, with people sitting there eating, waiting to be entertained.
TANYA MARS: Yes, it was like dinner theatre, very strange. Although I did it for 5 hours, and I liked that. It was my first inkling to do something long. My previous theory was, '15 minutes maximum and then get out. Keep them laughing. Keep them wanting more.' I was challenging myself, asking whether audiences would be interested in repetition. I dealt with many layers of repetition.
FADO: In HOT, you had the video loop, two different audio tracks, the disco lights circling, the pink pools of light --
TANYA MARS: The LED, the repetition of the text --
FADO: The pattern of your movement --
TANYA MARS: And the pattern of the traps on the floor. I didn't know if people would be able to transcend their boredom and see something else, but I would say that I succeeded in capturing an audience and making them love this picture and want to be in it. Usually I'm cynical and bitchy about everything, but I can't say that I have anything to be cynical or bitchy about. I'm getting very positive feedback. I was really happy, because I had done this piece before both in Montreal and Winnipeg, but I hadn't managed to achieve the 'picture vision' in my head.
In Toronto, I think I created a mysterious, mystical other world. Every single person who talked to me about it said, 'I walked through the curtain into the space and I was disoriented. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, and then I couldn't leave.' I was also told, 'I felt compelled to come back.'
FADO: How did you feel about the time aspect? Two twelve-hour days is pretty grueling.
TANYA MARS: it was really hard, but addictive. I loved it, actually.
FADO: You didn't stop to eat or even go to the bathroom.
TANYA MARS: I did go the bathroom once on Sunday morning, because I had drunk a little more water than usual.
I liked the challenge. It was hard, but it became like drawing in the studio, or when I make props for a piece. The picture evolved over time, not just for the audience, but for me. The repetitive Satie music, and the phrase 'Do you love me' on the video track became like a mantra. Whenever I started to lose focus because of a distracting audience activity or fatigue or hunger, I would get pulled back in by the repetitive elements. And I got very interested in what was happening visually. I loved making the commitment to the image, and I think that's what people ultimately responded to, my commitment to the activity. In the back of their minds, they were asking, 'Why is she doing this?' Our society gravitates toward phenomenal activities, leaping over canyons and that sort of thing. [Mars notes in 2002: this is even more prevalent now with 'Fear Factor' and other 'reality television' shows.] I'm not interested in hurting myself or dare-devilling, but I am interested in transcendence.
FADO: There is risk in the piece. Those traps can go off. You can hurt yourself.
TANYA MARS: I did get snapped a few times, but the risk is small. It's not life-threatening.
FADO: It's a dark space. There's fatigue. And as you set each trap, you add potential energy, like charging up a battery. Each trap is another charge, building and building until the image is ready to explode.
TANYA MARS: It's a growing investment. If ten traps go off accidentally at the beginning, it's no big deal. After 12 hours of setting 1,000 traps, if I drop a little cinnamon heart, it could set off a large chain reaction. So you're right; while it's serene and boring, it's full of tension.
FADO: There was also a tension in your performance. Your way of setting the traps -- picking them up, setting them so precisely, walking over to where you wanted to place them, putting them down gently -- was elegant. Your movement became like a fine line drawing that traced through the space. But that wasn't the only rhythm. If you dropped a heart, we'd hear you saying 'No no no no no no,' or when you found a bad trap it was almost violent the way you would throw it to the edge of the room. Your emotions changed. You didn't stick to one trance rhythm.
You also structured the piece to reveal your physical breaks. Every hour you would go to your exercise mat and do your stretches, without going 'offstage.' What you had to do with your body to keep going for 12 hours was part of the piece. When you got down on the floor and you were gong 'ugh -- oh,' it was laid bare for the audience, which added meaning to the piece.
TANYA MARS: I remember the first three hours of the second day were excruciating. I was physically tired, and my muscles weren't stretched. It was really hard to keep going. On my break I would lie down, and getting down there was just... You were laughing because it was funny. It wasn't so funny to me, but when you laughed it made me realize, 'This is pretty funny.'
Was the piece funny? I always feel humour is one of my signatures.
FADO: I would say that HOT was 'amuseing', with an emphasis on the word 'muse.' It was funny in a way that made people think. People may have felt many things, but they wouldn't necessarily burst out laughing. The room had a presence to it, almost like a sacred space where people felt hushed.
TANYA MARS: You're right. People didn't feel they could meddle. There was uncertainty whether or not they should talk. I did talk to a few people, but it distracted me. By the second day, with so many traps set, I really needed to keep my wits about me.
FADO: There was a moment on the second day where you seemed quite distracted as a result of audience intervention. Then you snapped into focus, and there was no problem for the rest of the performance. Seeing the whole piece, I felt the performance turned on that moment, where you recommitted to the task, and then suddenly there was no stopping you. I think people could feel it when they walked in the room, even if they didn't know what had happened.
TANYA MARS: We communicate things without words. HOT has the fewest words I have ever put out in a piece. 'Soft Warm Safe' on the LED, 'Do you love me,' on the video, and the countdown at the end.
FADO: Negotiating the relationship to the audience in such an intimate piece can be tricky.
TANYA MARS: There were moments when I was very self-conscious. Often I would feel I had to be up and moving rather than sitting down to set the traps, that that was the 'performance.' When someone walked in the room I felt compelled to entertain them. I wanted to set every trap delicately. But sometimes I was dancing to the music. I guess that's acting, but it wasn't acting for the audience. It was more like private acting, like singing in the shower, or dancing to your records in your living room. I was making the work, and I was inviting people to watch me do that, to be part of it. Sometimes I was full of self-doubt, sometimes I was elated, sometimes I was just tired, sometimes I was thirsty.
FADO: This is one of the most interesting things about time-based work for the performer. In a short, scripted piece, the imperative is to get the plot out, and there's no time to question anything. With durational work, there's room to be aware.
TANYA MARS: And to change things. I started to play with the image. I had a number of objects -- a fan, a pair of boots, a bag of bones, a megaphone -- all prearranged in a certain spot. But I started to say, 'Maybe I'll put the boots over here, and put the traps around the boots so I can't get to the boots.'
Tanya Mars' performance HOT was presented in Toronto as part of TIME TIME TIME, a 12-month series of durational performance art works by artists from the UK, US and Canada.
TIME TIME TIME presented works ranging from 12 hours to several days. Ritual, endurance, attention span, community-building, altering states of consciousness, boundaries between public and private, narrative, linearity and transformation were explored in the series by artists presenting their compelling, urgent visions of ourselves and our world at the end of the 20th Century.