International Visiting Artists: Claudia Bucher & Andrea Saemann

FADO Performance Art Centre is pleased to present the International Visiting Artists series, with a focus on Switzerland. Claudia Bucher and Andrea Saemann will each present a new solo performance work. Join us the following afternoon for an informal gathering where each artist will talk about their individual practices.

In order to personally experience performance art history, Andrea Saemann’s work utilizes a process of the “performance copy”—repeating aspects or entire performance works by other artists. This allows the artist to enter into a work on a very visceral level with her body, and constrict her field of action, allowing for intense focus on even the smallest of gestures.

“I work because I am impressed.
I recognize: authority is a performative achievement.
I see: a constricting frame opens up possibilities, to experience the world differently.
I benefit from that procedure.
In order to experience performance art history, I repeat single aspects or entire pieces. The process—to enter with my body into a performance copy—liberates unusual energies, on the battleground of autonomy versus heteronomy. The process of copying constricts my field of action and opens up new perspectives and sights on the world.”

Andrea Saemann

“I perform in order to engage with my thoughts—and my questions, too. I think in images. I focus on the space surrounding me, myself as sculpture within that space, and on how an action can change the relationship between my body and my environment. As I interact intensively with a material in the here and now, a transformation occurs. I‘m interested in the moments of transition—when beauty changes into ugliness, when clean becomes dirty, when gentle turns aggressive—and the opposing associations they evoke.”

Claudia Bucher

© Claudia Bucher, Untitled Performance, 2012. Photo Henry Chan.

Second Performance: Andrea Saemann

On the far wall of the gallery is an arrangement of blank, white pieces of paper, of varying sizes, attached to the wall with squares of green tape, a chair next to a white plinth, an overhead projector, and a table with collapsible legs, up-ended and leaning, like a tall picture frame. 

Saemann enters the space and the audience grows quiet. Saemann is at the back of the room, painting on a long, blank strip of brown hand towel from the public washroom, hanging on the wall by a square of green tape. She is painting with water; the water appears light brown on the oatmeal paper. She is wearing those Aussie ankle boots, beige pants, and a white sleeveless hooded shirt. She paints vertically onto the paper the word: VERENA. She moves to the opposite side of the room and paints on another long strip of paper, taped to the wall, the word: MONIKA.

Saemann announces that this is the WARC gallery and it stands for Women’s Art Resource Centre. “I don’t work alone and the work I’m doing happens between Verena and Monika. I start with Verena and finish with Monika and, in between, it is always me.”

On the floor are two rectangular pieces of plywood with Velcro straps. Saemann attaches these to her feet, like wooden snow shoes, and begins to walk, lining the boards up to measure her steps. She’s at the edge of the audience, her line of progress forces people to move. She takes three steps, then lifts and crosses one foot over the other and makes a ninety degree turn, again lining up the boards to make sure her corner is correct. She bends and traces the outline of her corner on the floor with a blue piece of chalk. She continues to make the shape of a rectangle on the floor, lining up her shoe-boards with every step, marking off the corners. She makes this pattern five times, the corner markings shifting slightly with every repetition, imperfect. She moves slowly, the boards seem heavy, cumbersome; her progress is methodical. Even lining up the boards as well as she does, there is human error and a shifting of the perimeter. The sound is organic; the noise of the wooden boards on the wooden floor is peaceful, the sound of a person alone in a house, cleaning out drawers, or a janitor rearranging the wooden pews after a church meeting and the congregation has left. The fifth time around, Saemann gets a bit wobbly. Tired, I suppose, from her heavy shoes.

Saemann makes her sixth trip around, then pulls the Velcro off and props one board up against her plinth. She takes a sip of water, then turns on her overhead projector. It shines a bright square of light against the wall, containing a cross-section of the table, its shadow slanted in the light.

Saemann stands next to the up-ended table and begins to tell a story about a dream. As she speaks, she uses a small wooden stick to illustrate her story on the table top, which has been covered with a thin layer of grey clay, smoothed out to look like a flat surface. The texture of the marks in the clay – the effect of her materials – is primitive, organic. It evokes drawings in the sand, cave paintings. Her story, too, is dream-like, primitive, mythical, archetypal.

“We are in a boat,” Saemann says, “rather a ship, on the river Rhine. The ship is on its way and I know it’s time to say farewell to the inmates, because they are getting retired, and it’s the last time I am going to see them.”

She tells a story about being trapped on this boat (she draws a bird’s eye view of the front end of a boat) and jumping ship and swimming to shore and getting away. She wants the inmates to know they can follow her, but it becomes treacherous, the bank is mossy, slippery and steep. She walks on and the ridge is high and at the top of the ridge is a bench and on the bench is an elderly lady, sitting. She climbs up and is so thankful that the bench is there for her to sit on. It is a church bench and there is a church service going on, but inside the church it’s more like a cave, without a roof.

“And I’m so thankful for these benches because of all my sadness of saying goodbye to these inmates on the ship, and I could just sit and breath. And I felt the water rise up out of my body and my eyes, and I would cry.” Where her story ends, Saemann leaves the stick she’s been drawing with, in the clay.

Now she pivots the overhead projector to shine on the pieces of paper taped to the far wall. She peels the tab of green tape off the top of one page, flips the page down to reveal a picture on the other side, then tapes it back to the wall. On the backs of all the pages are colour photographs of paintings on the walls of another gallery somewhere else: yellow, teal, green, red, pink – beautiful abstract shapes. Saemann returns to the overhead projector and places an acetate on the surface with the outline and shape of a deer, drawn in black dots. This image is projected at the plinth and the wall.

Saemann goes and sits on the plinth with her back to the audience. The deer is projected onto her back. She puts on her white hood and lifts the board she used earlier as a kind of snowshoe, and wraps the Velcro strap around her head, so the board hangs vertically against the back of her head, also reflecting the image of the deer, mainly its head. So now Saemann sits, transformed into a deer, looking at the display of photographic images taped to the far wall.

Saemann sits with her back to the audience, reflecting the deer, and begins to make a noise like a shushing, a stuttering attempt to articulate, to make language, an effort to communicate from a place that is perhaps pre-lingual, all intuitive, animal-like. She sounds like someone who is either disabled, or in a shamanic state, trance-like, groaning out of sound to form new words, never previously uttered: water is one.

It’s as if she is speaking for the first time, in the slow first dawn of language, as an animal might speak to you, in a dream, or a fairy tale. Gradually a description evolves. Saemann stutters: “She, she, she makes this blue, this dark blue. Then a lighter blu bla ble ble ble, then a bit lighter blue, then a black, and a light blue.” 

Saemann struggles her way through a description of what she sees, staring – as the transmogrified deer – at the photographs on the wall. “Then she takes that glossy paper, she makes folds in that glossy paper, light blue, blue paper, and puts that on top, and dar, dar, dar, dark… And then comes that rose, I always thought that when there was pink that I should bring it to Monika, because it belongs to her, but then I rose. I like pink. I myself like pink, and then goes with her finger in that pink.” It’s as if a deer has wandered to the window of Monika’s studio and fallen in love with her, watching her work, produce this strange thing called art, and is attempting to pay homage in a language that is foreign. This process of paying homage is intrinsic to Saemann’s work, who admits to working exclusively in relation to other artists, in a continuum, reacting to and re-enacting their work, mimicking them, never working as if in a vacuum, without overtly acknowledging her influences. Art, Saemann believes is never a solo statement – even in the largely solo world of performance art – but rather a dialogue and a conversation, a reaction to everything preceding and surrounding the solitary artist.

“Then with a pen she makes lines, blue lines, one line after another line, horizontal line, blue pen, longer lines, shorter lines, shush, suddenly make vertical lines, with blue pen, lines on, and then black.” After a while, Saemann gets off the plinth, take the board off her head and says, “Thank you” – her performance complete. Lingering in the air is the sense of some strange, shamanic rite, or ritual, something dream-like, ancient, and close to magic; when animals spoke; when art was experienced from the perspective of the totally innocent – as only lines and markings and colour.

In her artist talk the following day, Saemann says that it wasn’t until she was forty years old that she realized she was a performance artist. She is interested in questions like, “When does performance art stop for women when they grow old? When they are no longer beautiful? How much of it has to do with the body?” She made a list of performance artists whose work she felt she should be familiar with, but actually knew very little about, including: Carolee Schneemann, Alison Knowles, Joan Jonas, Martha Rosler  and others.

Saemann set a project for herself to meet these artists, interview them, and then plan a festival where she could invite the artists to perform, and then use their work in her own work, as a mirror, a mimic.

Over the course of this project, she interviewed Carolee Schneemann about her performance piece, Interior Scroll. A piece “where [the artist] pulls what’s inside outside” by way of pulling a scrolled text out of her vagina – an iconic performance image Saemann had seen in a book but wasn’t that drawn to, or curious about. It was only after learning about the artist – in her interviewing process – that Saemann’s understanding of the performance represented in the image grew; and she wanted to further understand the work through re-enacting the performance. (Upon hearing the news that Saemann had re-enacted her piece, Schneemann was initially upset, but also grew accepting of it once she’d heard Saemann’s own reasoning for and ideology behind the re-enactment.)

Talking to Schneemann, Saemann realized that Interior Scroll was far more language-based than she’d previously assumed (the interior scroll is actually a dialogue the artist has with a structuralist filmmaker who doesn’t take her work seriously, saying that at best she is, as a performance artist, a mere “dancer”); it is much more than simply a visceral (or political, or transgressive) action of the female body. “It is so much harder to bring words across,” Saemann says in her talk, “than images.” And yet, through her investigation of the piece, it was the words that came across to her as the more powerful aspect of what is an already powerful image, but one that could possibly be dismissed as merely provocative. 

Saemann’s re-enactments are a tribute, but also a challenge, a mirror. Saemann likes the word re-enact, but is it even possible? How can you re-enact someone’s performance? You can only imitate it. Interior Scroll was Saemann’s only attempt at a literal re-enactment – all the other performances have been interactions, using other artists’ work as a jumping-off place, as an influence, something to respond to.

Talking about her performance from the night before, she describes how engrained it is in her now to react to other artists; and that these two artists (Monika and Verena) had invited her to do a performance in the space of their group exhibition. Saemann was so energized by it that last night’s performance was an attempt to bring it to an audience not familiar with their work, and unaware of what her own work would be referring to, paralleling, or in conversation with.

Often the material Saemann is working from, in her own re-enactment performance pieces, is photograph evidence. She feels the need to elaborate, or respond to, or begin a dialogue with photographic evidence from other performances because the photograph – for her – is not enough; but then all that is left of her own performances is a photograph. In a sense, that is all we have to keep from live performance. Live is magic, precisely because it is lost as soon as it’s over. That’s what makes her work so eerie – it is an homage to an invisibility: a re-creation of something that is un-recreatable. Her process seems to reinforce the power of the photographic image – and yet relies on the live performance. Saemann reinforces the link between the two by showing how they are locked in a relationship of reciprocally disappearing origin.

What is the purpose of these performances? What is she stating politically with these imitations, these transient attempts at preservation? Saemann seems to be stating that authorship is not clear; her interest in myth is its lack of authorship. Who wrote the myths? Authorship in myth doesn’t exist. Similarly, imitation is shaking up the notion of authorship. Her responsiveness, her dialogue with other works, is her content.

Her performances, like stories, often contain a middle, beginning and an end. When asked why she doesn’t let these moments exist as performances in their own right, she says, “I want a circle around the centre, I don’t want to be the centre.” She doesn’t want the possibly erroneous certainty of singular authorship. She realizes the hubris of posing as an author who lives and creates alone. For Saemann performance art is a history, a continuum; it is not a blank space.

Christine Pountney lives and works in Toronto and has published two novels, Last Chance Texaco and The best way you know how (Faber & Faber). Her third, Sweet Jesus, came out in September with McClelland and Stuart. She is currently exploring the world of children’s stories and will soon begin a serialization of Madeline stories on her forthcoming website.

First Performance: Claudia Bucher

Claudia Bucher is interested in making clean things dirty, the gradual transformation and the final, vivid chiaroscuro that arises when you take what is clean, almost sterile – a white sheet, a white dress – and introduce nature – mud, berries, black ink. Her work is thought-provoking and yet aesthetically pleasing; very female in its complement between beauty and decay.

In the courtyard of the 401 Richmond Street building, there is a white sheet on the wet, freshly rained-on paving stones. At the front end of the sheet is a large nearly perfectly round glass bowl, two-thirds full of water. People have gathered around the sheet and sit on the few benches available, some stand, and some are seated on the fire-escape staircase overlooking the courtyard. Bucher comes out dressed in white, wearing raspberry lipstick, and her hair in a loose braided bun. Her eyes are green; she is wearing white leggings and her feet are bare. In her right hand she holds a bottle full of some dark liquid; in her other hand, a white cloth bag, like a pillow case, containing something bulky.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

Bucher puts down these objects, kneels in front of the bowl and fits her head inside and starts to blow bubbles. The futfutfut of the water becomes laboured and her breathing gets heavier, mist fogging up the glass. There is a sense of difficulty, the sound evokes a flushing toilet. Her body heaves as if she’s gagging, or about to vomit. Several images come to mind involving duress and water, forced submersion, a kind of torture – waterboarding.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

The exposure of the artist in a posture of obvious discomfort strikes me as feminist. It is part of the experience of the lived female body that almost, by necessity, needs to be brought to our attention and witnessed by the audience. Bucher sinks her head further into the water and holds her breath for a very long time. It makes me uncomfortable, I begin to feel nervous for her. She chokes back two spasms of wanting to breath. I am reminded of a story of nuns punishing girls in an orphanage by holding their heads down in a bucket of water. Suddenly, her head lurches up. Bucher stares at the water, surprisingly calm. She sits back on her knees; the water dripping down her face makes her look sad. She is passive, resigned, accepting – but still defiantly in control. This, too, feels like a feminist gesture.

Bucher opens her dark glass bottle and pours some black ink into the clear water. It spreads like purple cloud formations, unfurls like a cloth at the bottom of the bowl. She holds the bottle of ink very still above the bowl, lets it drip slowly, then pours the rest of it in.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

Bucher opens her white bag and takes out a hanger, a pairing knife with a black handle, and two long lengths of clear plastic tubing, the kind used in a hospital, or a lab. She props one end of the tubing against the inside edge of her bowl, an inch below the surface of the inky water. She takes off her white dress and puts it on a wooden hanger, then hangs it from the branch of a tree in the courtyard. The dress looks clean, doll-like, pretty against the wet green leaves. Bucher takes the free end of the other tube and threads it into the ankle and up the inside of her left legging, pulling the tube out at the waist and pushing it down her other leg in a looped way to create the impression of veins. She winds the tube up the inside front of her tight, white tank top, out the top, and puts the end in her mouth.

She has two lengths of clear tubing, which she attaches with a length of orange piping that has a small hand pump at the centre, similar to the pump used by a doctor to tighten a blood pressure sleeve. Bucher stands staring out at the audience and begins to squeeze the small orange pump until the inky water starts to travel, snake-like, smooth and black, through the clear tube. It travels in coils across the floor, over the white sheet.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

As the ink travels up from the floor to pass through the orange pump that Bucher is squeezing rhythmically in her hand, there seems to be a faulty connection. Air gets in, divides the black line of ink, separates it with air bubbles. The dark line as it travels back down towards the floor to slip under her white clothes and travel up her leg is stalled, broken and uneven. Talking to Bucher afterwards, she admits to enjoying the unforeseeable details, obstacles and events that emerge during live performance. This small failure of equipment introduces a tension. It staggers the sequence, time slows, the audience feels the subtle shift in the air – the suspense of what will happen next.

The journey the ink now has to make to arrive at her mouth is laborious. This, too, takes on a particular significance. Is it a metaphor for all things medical, having to do with the body, especially the female body? Childbirth, abortions, hysteria, PMS, depression – so many wild stabs and invasive techniques foisted on the female body. So many failed attempts. And of art and expression, of drawing and writing, how often is the circuit to free communication blocked or thwarted? And where does the impulse to make art come from? Does it come from our blood? Our bodies?

There isn’t enough pressure to move the ink up her leg. Bucher is sucking on the tube, trying to get the ink to travel up to her mouth. A few small bubbles make it, but eventually she puts the hand pump on the ground and uses her foot to pump it more energetically. The ink starts to move again, shoots through her clothes, up and across her stomach and into her mouth. Her cheeks puff out, she gags. Is she swallowing? It’s hard to tell. After a while the ink spurts and dribbles out of her mouth and onto her shirt, staining it a dark grey, the purple of eggplant, or plum. Around the edges, a dirty yellow, like a bruise. She seems to be choking, her breath noisy and heavy through her nose. It’s still hard to tell whether she’s drinking or spitting the ink out. There is suffering, or the performance of suffering. For a long time the inky stain on her lower belly is the same shape as a uterus – another happy, unforeseeable coincidence.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

Halfway down her leg, a pool of ink collects in a curve of tubing. Her crotch too is leaking ink, like menstrual blood with the dark, ominous potential to write or draw. The water level has hardly gone down in the bowl. The process feels interminable, arduous. The action begins to take on an aspect of the grotesque, again a kind of torture. The artist’s arms are trembling from the discomfort, the ordeal of it all. The whole front of her shirt is dark purple now, her chest is splattered and her arms. Ink runs down her legs and onto her feet.

The tube eventually empties out, the other end lying just above the water level now. Bucher stands there breathing heavily, looking out at the audience directly, recovering from the invasion of her mouth, and we feel the calm and recovery. And now comes the outrage. She takes the knife and opens her clothing roughly and slits the tubing and pulls it out – a rejection of methodology. From her belly, her inner thighs, the equipment and technology is wrenched out with relief and exuberance. When she is freed of the discomfort, the coldness of the liquid, the discomfort of the performance, there is an atmosphere of rebellious un-encumbrance, and a tangible impression of renewed strength. Bucher leaves, walks over to the fire escape stairs and climbs it to the top floor of the building and disappears in through a window. The white sheet on the ground is splattered with ink. Her white dress, bright in a spotlight, hangs pristine and innocent from a tree. The audience takes a moment before applauding.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

Bucher’s performance is about the body, about the plasticity, in particular, of women’s bodies, the invasion and manipulation of them, and all the technology surrounding our expressions of mind and body – and how disfiguring and painful all this intervention can be, and how often it is concealed beneath the skin or clothing, until it becomes so unbearable it must be torn out with forcible puncturing; and how all this violence stands in contrast to the white, un-violated purity of the dress, hanging from that perfect symbol of nature: a tree.

That Bucher uses black ink, as opposed to red, allows for the obvious reference to veins, but also a secondary reference to art, to writing and drawing; of making art, female art, and at what cost, and with what censure; and how the mouth is the locus of repression, and how the mouth can be silenced when it is crammed full of other people’s inky words and art and technology.

What’s left is the cut tubing, the orange hand pump, the empty glass bottle that had contained the ink (now a transparent purple), an empty white cloth bag, the knife on the white sheet, the stained sheet like a shroud. How much of women’s experience does this describe?

On the wall inside, as I walk down the corridor to witness the next performance, I notice a quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Things stand outside our doors, themselves by themselves, neither knowing nor reporting anything about themselves.” There is something of the unexplained in performance art which allows it to resonate long after it has been witnessed; it is able to capture the imagination and linger in our feeling sense to the very degree that it defies articulation.

At her artist talk the following day, Claudia Bucher explains her relationship to materials. She has worked with mud, berries, charcoal and sugar – creating, with all of these, images that are unpredictable, but also very beautiful. She has twirled like a ballerina with a tutu made of five pounds bags of white sugar, punctured and spewing their white powder in a circle around her. She had collected slime from a lake and dragged it on a white sheet like a royal bride down a palatial corridor. She has done laundry in a bucket of berries, transforming the white clothes into purple clothes and hanging them on a line.

If you were there, she says, you could smell the berries. They smelled very sweet. Of working with sugar, she said, “I could explore it outside me, inside me, it was disgusting to get too much, but I like how white it is, white and clean.” She admits being interested in “the moment when something beautiful, clean and white, happens into something opposite.”

She has performed with charcoal on white paper, dressed in white, following along to a Jane Fonda workout video, holding the charcoal in her hands and enacting against the wall all the movements of the aerobics workout, until a vivid and totally energetic drawing rises up behind her, like the wings of an angel, and she herself is smeared in sweat and black dust.

Bucher came to performance and installation work via sculpture. She became interested in the relationship between sculptural objects and their surroundings; and feels herself to be a sculpture in her own installations. The connection in the Jane Fonda piece between her white clothes, the charcoal, and the wall all grow together. She likes to leave the evidence, like a sculptural object, of where she’s been at the end of a performance piece. The main point for her, however, is the process. “The work is doing it,” Bucher says, “that’s the actual work. It’s not the object you end up with.” However, she did sell the final drawing from one of her Jane Fonda performances. She was happy to do this – it was a novelty, a happy unforeseeable outcome.

Working in this spontaneous way, Bucher says, “often unplanned things happen when you use volatile material, mud or cloth. The cloth rips, slime spills out.” In her piece where she dragged lake slime across the floor, the cloth ripped and she was able to stop and pile the mud on her head like a crown, or a wig. She uses these unforeseeable moments to enrich the performance.

Bucher likes to set up part of her performances, and allow for part of them to be outside her control. The challenge she looks forward to is finding out how the material will talk to her. “Material will do that, and it can help me to know how to work with it. When it is so clearly planned or predictable,” Bucher says, “it can be harder for me to be with it.”

For this reason, it is easier for her to change a performance, or make new works to make the performance more exciting, than it is to repeat them. “It is a way to avoid,” she says, “the disappointment of the happy accidents that make a performance not repeating themselves.” This insistence on originality makes Bucher’s work unpredictable and exciting; and her flare for juxtaposition, and her attraction to visceral materials, makes her work both challenging and aesthetically impressive.

Christine Pountney lives and works in Toronto and has published two novels, Last Chance Texaco and The best way you know how (Faber & Faber). Her third, Sweet Jesus, came out in September with McClelland and Stuart. She is currently exploring the world of children’s stories and will soon begin a serialization of Madeline stories on her forthcoming website.

Writing Blue

Writing Blue is the smell of interpretation. Composed of materials that many "know", blueberry candy offers a flicker of nostalgia. Grounded in blue cypress like a hunch that comes from speculation, it is the lavender that offers overwhelming explanations.

Top Notes

blueberry candy

Middle Notes

lavender, mens shaving cream

Base Notes

hyacinth, blue cypress