First Performance: Claudia Bucher
Christine Pountney

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.

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