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22.09.2014 INTERVIEW

Rose English. Foto: Maria Bordorff.

Reconsidering the Big Show

Kunsthal Charlottenborg is currently exhibiting the work of performance artist Rose English in the first ever exhibition of documents and props from her work since the 1970’s, when she began her practice working across the borders of theatre, installation, dance and performance. The Eros of Understanding includes props, images, video and story boards, from performances like the internationally renowned solo performance My Mathematics from 1992. Much of Rose English’s work has contributed to an important debate about gender politics and identity, and the exhibition traces the reemergence of the horse as a critique of the male gaze throughout English’s body of work. Kopenhagen’s columnist Sebastian Jordahn met Rose English for a tour of the exhibition space and a talk about horses, the 70’s and "the big show".

AF Sebastian Jordahn

The exhibition is almost like a retrospective, but parts of your work have been reconstructed. Is it more of a reconsideration than a retrospective?

I think it is. Of course all these works, apart from a few, have been used in previous works of mine. They’re all props from these ephemeral, fleeting moments from my past and the exhibition form places them in a different dialogue with one another. As a result, different aspects of the work become prominent. It’s really interesting placing a work like ‘Untitled (Country Life)’ from 1975, which was originally perceived as an installation, against later works where I am working on a much larger scale. This is a work I made which is untitled but I call it ‘Country Life’ and it features portraits from this particular magazine, which is a lifestyle magazine particularly about country matters and appeals to a certain class of people from British high society. Every month this magazine would feature portraits of a young woman, about to be married or available for marriage. The work is simply about breeding – and how we breed women in the same fashion as we breed horses. 

What Stine Hebert, the curator of the show, proposed was to concentrate, not on an overarching retrospective but to trace a particular trope in my work – which is the horse.  But it also shows how I sort of reuse certain objects or props from before, throughout my practice.

I really like your fascination with the horse. When did you become so interested in this particular animal?

There have been a number of works, both about horses and equestrian culture, which are from the 1970’s so this exhibition really spans a 20 year period, where the horse reenters my work. It hasn’t been constant but it just keeps reappearing in different guises. I worked with horses such as the staged performance I made called ‘My Mathematics’ where I embody an alter ego or a persona called ‘Rosita Clavell’, whom I assumed for this work. She was an equestrian with delusions of grandeur about her past and remembered having her own troop and orchestra. The work was also a meditation on the nature of form – the horse appears in the second half of the performance and Rosita Clavell quizzes him on the nature of numbers and form. So my fascination with the animal is also about this extraordinary tradition of circus horses. Since the age of Shakespeare, there was this perception of the horse as being an educated animal. Professors often examined these horses and supposedly they could do numbers and arithmetic’s, but of course those were all tricks. So it’s also about pedagogy, the performance.

As a symbol what does the horse mean to you?

I don’t think of the horse as a symbol. The horse and the way I have explored it relates to a complexity of things. There have been many sorts of equestrian themes in my work. For instance, the story board for the horse opera. I always work, initially, with a visual score, and from those synthesize the words that are then sung. There’s a horse in the opera called ‘The Horse who Knows History’. In ‘My Mathematics’ the horse was called ‘Mathematics’ and his epithet was ‘the horse who studies his own form’. All the horses have had certain epithets, which I suppose is their symbolic value. I suppose I’m also interested in the imprint of horses on our history, which is apparent in this work where Katja Schumann and her horse, rode into Charlottenborg and into the exhibition room, and left the figure eight – or symbol of infinity. When I was working on the Horse Opera during the mid 90’s I hoped to invite her to perform and so when this exhibition was planned it felt appropriate to invite her to leave her trace as well. Hopefully over the course of the exhibition, the imprint will stay clean and sharp but gradually it will fade.

Your human/horse hybrid costumes have a kind of fetishistic quality to them don’t they. How did they come to be?

At the time of the performance to which these props belong to … I was very object orientated. I made them all – using real horse hooves and hair for the tails. I was really interested in the correlation between the training of ballet dancers and dressage horses, which both have their root in a Baroque court spectacle and both are rather extreme activities. I conceived a work, which would involve six dancers, all of which were used to being on demi pointe and pointe. I wanted them to perform in a dressage arena at an actual horse show so that the work would be viewed in a site specific context and watched by people who usually watch horses.

How was the reaction of the crowd?

It was more the organizers were totally freaked out, even though we had permission to perform. I naively thought they would think of it as homage or something. They were really appalled and tried to stop us performing. The audience was fine; it was just another thing to come across for them I suppose. I find that sometimes when work isn’t mediated too heavily, the public will just accept it.

How was it starting your practice during a time when a lot of genres were being defied and artistic boundaries were blurred?

My experience of that was actually that happened more overtly and exuberantly in the 1970’s. I began my practice around that time. It was at that moment it felt that people were working across the barrier and outside institutions. Inside the institution it was difficult – my own experience of art school wasn’t great, until of course I found a school, where a multidisciplinary approach to working was more appreciated. But it was the ‘hey day’ of the adventure of the interdisciplinary. Artists collaborated a lot back then; many were working with musicians and dancers. Performance art wasn’t necessarily given the name ‘performance art’, the labelling came later. It was just an experiment at that time – for me it started at school where I performed in my friends pieces and they in mine. There was an ease of transgressing into the intersections of the artistic genres.  My experience of the 80’s was that it had all become slightly rigidified again – strangely.

Do you think today there is resurgence towards staying within a certain set of rules or is it expected to work across the grid?

It’s a strange combination of things.  It’s actually matter-of-fact. There’s so many artists who engage in interdisciplinary practice. In my observation many do it within a particular field. So artistic fields still remain – because the institutions, and their ideas of what constitutes an artwork or a dance practice, have remained.  All these different forms require different conditions and it’s difficult for institutions to provide these conditions for an interdisciplinary practice. So people would tend to stay within a fine art milieu but work across fields with music but not necessarily present it in a concert hall. But of course this doesn’t apply to all artists, so there are multi various platforms for interdisciplinary artists to work on.

Your work contributed to a very important discussion of gender politics and identity. I’m curious what you think of today’s performance artists?
There’s definitely a resurgence of interest in something that has the label performance art, even if those labels have shifted and changed along the way and a lot of people are working with performance without ever labelling themselves as such, which is totally legitimate way of working I think. There’s a flourishing of artists working with the live moment and I think there’s really interesting work out there that is being embraced by institutions. Contingent with that there is a recognition going on, that the collection of performance work made within the last 40-50 years has been under historicized in terms of museum collections and the work that can be collected. There’s a whole generation of curators and institutions that are interested in really bringing this body of work forward.

With relation to performance documentation and the ephemerality of your work – what do the documents and reports of your performances mean to you?

They're equally as important as the performance actually because they’re a trace and a fragment, and I think the fragment can be as potent as the whole. It’s not similar, there’s no attempt to represent that ephemeral work. But sometimes by arranging those fragments or the material evidence of that performance in configuration to each other it can give rise to a sense of the idea, and the idea is what endures – either ephemerally or in material culture. That’s why I cherish those objects – and they are art works in their own right I believe. I was very interested in the material object back then and it’s great to see these traces prioritized in this exhibition.

What does “the big show” mean to you?

I’m not so sure I think about it so much now but there was a time when I did. Contained in the show was often this quest for this elusive thing – the big show, which is referencing everything from the Broadway musical to Shakespeare. Often within my performances I am searching for an earlier version or aspiring to make this huge type of spectacle. So I am investigation my desire for the big show, whilst endeavoring to do so.

Rose English: The Eros of Understanding (installation view), 2014. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

Rose English: The Eros of Understanding (installation view), 2014. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

Rose English: The Eros of Understanding (installation view), 2014. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

Rose English: The Eros of Understanding (installation view), 2014. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

Rose English: Rose on Horseback with Tail, 1974. Foto: Courtesy Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert.

Rose English: Quadrille, 1975. Foto: Courtesy Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert.

Rose English: Pegasus, 1975, Sølvgelatine print på papir. Foto: Michael Bennett.

Rose English: My Mathematics, 1992. Foto: Gavin Evans.

Rose English: The Eros of Understanding (installation view), 2014. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

Rose English: The Eros of Understanding (installation view), 2014. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

Rose English: The Eros Of Understanding (installation view), 2014. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

Rose English: The Eros of Understanding (installation view), 2014. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

Rose English: The Eros of Understanding (installation view), 2014. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

Rose English: Princess - The Bride of the Idea, 1994. Foto: Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada.

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