performance artist

Playing to the Gallery

I don't need to tell you that Artists are, generally a very snobby lot. Despite the lack of a traditional working model with formal titles such as 'manager' or 'director', they are still bound into a bitchy heirarchy based on their gender, success and chosen discipline.

For example, artists are either Fine Art, or they are not. All artists generally look down upon designers. And for the sake of fairness all artists and designers generally look down on everybody else. Got it?

“It’s very important, even to this day, how one defines oneself. I always define myself as an artist who happens to use traditional craft techniques and templates… because if you’re a craftperson and you want to expand, you’re forever shackled to that definition.” Grayson Perry

So Painting, Sculpture and 'MultiMedia' are seen as more creative than Graphic Design, Illustration, Fashion and Product Design. However, like a bohemian game of snakes and ladders, points can be gained and lost easily. A good degree can move you up, but little or no success takes you down ten points. A successful career in illustration for example, is worth more than being an unsuccessful sculptor. Then there is publishing, lecturing, shows and galleries all playing their parts. Then as you drill down further, even within Fine Art you have the figurative painters, like me at the bottom, with sculptors and film makers above. And sitting right at the top, like a bunch of avant-garde angels are the performance artists who are looking down on everyone.

The performance artists demand attention - it takes commitment on both sides. They demand your time, a place and as many senses as can be assaulted within their frame. I remember visiting the Turner Prize in 2012 when we meandered through the spaces of Luke Fowler, Paul Noble and saw the wonderful piece by Elizabeth Price. Then we were abruptly brought to our senses by Spartacus Chetwynd's performance. She brought the whole of the gallery to a halt and even dragged in bystander Noel Fielding to play a part. It was disruptive, challenging and immersive.

But, overall I am deeply embarrassed at my lack of knowledge in this genre. And with the prolific Marina Abramovic due to launch her memoir in 2016 and Laurie Anderson guest directing the Brighton Festival this year - Performance Art is big news.

So, when Helena Vortex invited me behind the scenes to sit in on a rehersal for her sold out show, Infamous Rising, I jumped at the chance.

Described as 'a journey through one woman's psychotic episode', Infamous Rising explores: 'pseudoscientific whitecoats and Jungian archetypes, an astronaut's dramatic fall to earth, an all-encompassing obsession with the colour orange, how to become the perfect man, a partial transformation into a faun, and the and rise to the Drag Kingdom.'

In reality Helena and her fellow performers interact with each other and a psychedelic backdrop incorporating stills, moving image and sound. The overall effect combines balletic movement with a hypnotic soundtrack and a feast of visual imagery that charts the journey of Helena's rebirth into the drag king Ace Heartbreaker.

It's heroic, sexy and very very clever.

I leave with a renewed sense of admiration for Helena and all performance artists. They are post-modern masters, blending together a diverse range of references and media to craft their vision. Performance requires discipline, collaboration and a mastery of the physical, visionary and aural. Unlike a canvas that can be transported anywhere, they work within the confines of the space, its context and also with time. They have nowhere to hide and put themselves literally in the centre of their work, inviting adulation and criticism like no other form of art.

In short, they deserve their place at the top of the creative tree. As works of art themselves they have destroyed any boundaries between art and life and exist at the cutting-edge of culture.

So as a dedication to all performance artists, here is the ultimate avant-garde angel - watching over all of us.

Grayson Perry quote from "Face to Face: Interviews with Artists by Richard Cork"

Photos are from rehersal of Infamous Rising at The Iron Duke, Brighton 19th Jan 2016.

Infamous Rising is on until Saturday 23rd Jan. Tickets are onsale here

Read my blog with Helena here.

Artist in Residence - Helena Vortex

Helena Vortex is a performance artist, working with concepts around gender, identity and queerness. Initially, she hesitates when I say our chat has to happen in her home because it’s a ‘super-mess’ but then I am warmly invited into the self monikered ‘Bat Cave’ where Helena, just back from her run, changes from her exercise gear into a full length slinky cocktail number.

AB: You don’t have a defined workspace in your home do you – how do you feel about that?

HW: I have to get out all the time. Because we have a really small space and I’ve got lots going on – so it’s quite a good time to meet in some senses because I’m absolutely going insane.

AB: Yes – you’ve got this tension going on. Which is exactly what I want to explore.

HW: I put my headphones on and say I’ve got to lie down and listen to some music to try and switch my brain over and its like that’s not even allowed really. Because, we’ve got such a small space I can’t even say – Ok I’m going to the attic or another room and go and shut the door so they know I’m not to be disturbed. They come in and out – in and out.

AB: So you find that physical interruption into your space is a distraction?

HW: Yes, it’s really hard. Particularly as I think now I’ve gone up a gear. There is so much available to me and so much to do. I could totally run with my performance stuff. But it’s just so hard, and I don’t have an agent or somebody that can do this stuff for you. But that’s generally an Artists issue isn’t it? Struggling with the businessy bit.

AB: So, does your running help you? It gets you out and gives you space.

HW: Yes, I don’t find it easy at all. But I know on a cellular level, exercise is really good because it’s freeing. And I think it’s one way of having a sort of power - an autonomy, because you have some sort of power in your body. Also, I think about being creative and about being an authentic self. So for me it’s about ‘what’s the best version of myself’. What would that look like? And to me – the best version would be fit and eat well and that kind of thing. Because that's one way of getting power isn’t it?

AB: Yes, and control.

HW: And control. It’s trying to claw back some sort of identity. So you have your kids, you do that hideous Primary School thing, and I actually spent, oh I don’t know – too long - being hidden. No one knew me and actually I didn’t know myself in that time. But I’m through that now and I thought I’ve had all this time with an identity that I didn’t particularly feel comfortable with - but, nevertheless it was an identity.

So I made a performance. My background is fine art and I always identified with being an artist, but for some reason chose not to be for a very long time. So I was looking after family and then suddenly I thought I really want to express myself so I started doing these little performance things. I projected things onto my body, about dying and being born at the same time and pictures of my home projected on my body and pictures of kids and orange and things like that. So I wasn’t quite sure, but I pushed myself over.

Image from The Fall

Image from The Fall

AB: It’s taking that leap of faith to start and say as an artist this is where I am – and its not quite right. But, for me – I just had to get over that point of producing stuff that I don’t like.

HW: Yes that’s really cringey isn’t it?

AB: But I’m glad I did it – because a year on –I’m in a better place than not doing anything.

HW: Oh my god can you imagine it? And because as soon as you start talking about art, it becomes exciting. We can re-connect and there are other women you can connect with and it becomes really bloody exciting and you think why didn’t I do this years ago?

AB: I know.

HW: I think once you have a child its like being pushed through fire. Because you can’t go back. Once that has happened you’ve changed. And then maybe, ageing is another fire to go through as well and how are you going to experience that? And the re-connecting with creativity.

I have a friend – who I clean for. I am the world’s worst cleaner! You should see our bedroom – Jesus Christ! It’s so bad I need to have a holiday – that’s why I want to go and stay round peoples houses - like yours.

AB: you can come round next time.

HW: So, my friend, Jo, who is 75. She is fantastic – she’s an artist, but she can’t go out. So we have these fantastic conversations. I’m supposed to clean, but really we spend the whole time chatting. Really talking. Some awesome conversations from a woman who is you know – just further ahead. About sex and art and she send me loads of stuff about for example, Kim Cattrall who is in her 50s saying you must have your own work. And you must have autonomy of your own body and all this sort of stuff. And how important it is to really, really get on with it.

AB: To get on with it!

HW: Crucial.

AB: So, your friend Jo, she’s an influence. Any other influences? Is it other Artists or just interesting people?


"I’ve always suspected this, and I now
I believe it to be true: Artists are the
people to be with. Artists, performers,
visionaries, radicals and mystics .”

'Cos no-one else understands do they? They don’t though! You can laugh but you know I’m right. It’s true. Look at us – come round for a cup of tea and let’s talk about going through a fire.

AB: Yes!

AB: So when I was looking at your stuff and your website. I went to Ace Heartbreaker and Treble and Vortex. What kept coming up is this idea of icons. And the birth of an icon with you creating these characters that are glamorous and sexy and aspirational. You’re not dealing with the mundane are you? Is it about escapism?

HW: No, not escapism – more about different versions of self. So this time last year I was thinking about the other choices I could have made in the versions of myself. And I was thinking about slightly fantasy versions and also Jungian archetypes - the magician or the outlaw and things like that. Archetypes I have identified with in my life. This is aside from the mother identity – so it’s different versions of self. And mostly it was that man character. It was really interesting and exciting and maybe I could have been that? Maybe I still can? And then there is this super space 60s thing – that’s quite a strong influence.

AB: Like Barbarella?

HW: Barbarella – oh yes!  They’re my two favourites.

Cosmic vs Domestic

Cosmic vs Domestic

AB: So the glamorous lounge lizard?

HW: Yes he is really strong masculine construct that came from 50s America – a post war invention that the Beatniks copied that from a black identity. It’s really really great being that character, you get lots of attention and its quite fetishized because when I inhabit it – I LOVE it so much. I had it tattooed. So yes I just love it so that would be my alter ego.

AB: Is he more flamboyant than you?

HW: No – he’s got the masculine thing that you don’t have to say anything – they never have to explain, you don’t have to say anything. You just do it. Or don’t do it. Maybe he’s got an interesting past – but they never talk about it.

AB: Being an enigma.

HW: Being an enigma. They don’t complain and they don’t explain – that version of masculinity when they don’t give a shit. That is a great character to inhabit.

The Legendary Ace Heartbreaker

The Legendary Ace Heartbreaker

AB: Are you still exploring him – or is fully formed?

HW: He’s pretty fully formed but the exploration now is in the performance and making it better. But I could do it all day long – this drag king thing. I love it. It’s really on the rise. It’s becoming a massive thing. I really wanted to go to Texas, but it would take so much work to get there. I just need to get my act together. Literally.

AB: How long have you been working on him?

HW: It was a couple of years ago and I was having a party. I wanted it to be a Russ Meyer, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Valley of the Dolls, Supervixen thing. I was going to go as Tura Santana who I have a massive girl crush on. But then I thought I’m just slightly too tall to be an Ultra-Vixen. So, I thought well I can’t not go to my own party because I’m slightly too tall. So I’m going to go as Russ Meyer.

AB: Is an Ultra-Vixen one of your other selves?

HW: I tried being an Ultra-Vixen but I’m just not quite right. I like Tura Satana she is American and Japanese I think, with black hair, she wears black, big boobs, black gloves, drives a black Porsche.

AB: Sounds great!

HW: AND she’s a karate expert.

AB: Maybe I could be her then?

HW: Yes definitely you could! There’s this really famous film, where there’s three Go Go dancers on the run in the desert, and she ends up at this weird ranch strangling this man and chucking someone else out a wheelchair. She’s so interesting. She’s the basis of the woman in Kill Bill. Anyway I love her. And being a fan or hers means I’ve met loads of other interesting people who are fans. So anyway, I thought I couldn’t be her so I’ll be Russ Meyer, and I had so much positive feedback.

AB: So it was other people that re-enforced that for you?

HW: Yes – just at this party, I thought I’d try it and then it was ‘Oh god. That really works.’ Then I had a friend who is a writer, but also does a bit of spooky tarot. And we did this thing with a pendulum and it said you will find your fame and fortune as a drag king.

The Pendulum that helped come up with Ace Heartbreaker.

The Pendulum that helped come up with Ace Heartbreaker.



AB: But this was after the party?

HW: Yes after the party. They gave me a pendulum and we asked it all these questions and that’s where we got the character name from. So it was really spooky how it came about.

AB: Can I bring up the Gothic then? Cos we’ve got tarot, we got shamans. Is it a Romantic Gothic, the aesthetic of the Gothic, or a bit of both? Do you like to explore that dark side?

HW: I like that cosmic thing as well. That would be my interpretation of Goth. Having visions and tarot and a pendulum – I like that and think that may part of an artistic sensibility. Because even though it sounds a bit ‘woo woo’ I thinks it’s very profound and about how we just don’t have the language for what a profound experience is. What it is to really feel and touch and sense things.

AB: So it’s about experiencing something inexplicable?

HW: Exactly. There’s this and there’s that and there is this entire bit in between. Its not rocket science. And in fact I think the smartest scientists would agree with this – there is so much that we don’t have the language for that is really there. But it’s just too much for our little heads to cope with. So yes, it’s perfectly ok to be in touch with that – the other. I think there is an agreement that many people make that they are going to experience the world ‘like this’. We are going to have all these signs and signifiers for stuff so we all kind of speak the same visual language. So you know if draw something that looks like that and like that then you know it’s a cat. But they’re only symbols, its only an agreement that makes life easier.

AB: You’re absolutely right

HW: Artists get it. They understand it’s an agreement. And it’s also similar to some types of madness because when people have mental health issues they tend to slip outside of that agreement.

AB: Very much so and I think how we deal with that is fascinating.

HW: Yes, that’s a whole different conversation.

AB: Yes and that idea of the artist as a mad genius.

HW: Or a magician.

"I like to think of artists as alchemists,
turning the mundane into the beautiful."

Interesting objects clash everywhere in Helena's home.

Interesting objects clash everywhere in Helena's home.

AB: That’s exactly what it is.

HW: And make something for an audience to resonant with. I think all fine artists can take what is around us and transform it.

AB: Yes, it’s a way of thinking. 

HW: It’s definitely a way of thinking.

AB: Is there anywhere you like to go by yourself to allow yourself to experience something or do you like that interaction with others?

HW: Definitely the interaction with others. If I’m by myself then I’ll sit down and listen to music. That’s where I am at the moment. I can’t really read or do anything bitty like a mood board. If I had the space to have my records I’d love that whole ritual of putting a record on. Oh god its so difficult. It’s like you and your stepladder. My computer doesn’t work, on my tablet I can’t get into my emails.  Everything on my phone is so small I can’t fucking see, so I have to use a magnifying glass. Its just AArrrggggg sort it out. It’s so hard for us to get there. My computer doesn’t work I can't get into my emails. To get in your space you have to climb a fucking ladder. It’s hard.

Music helps to 'switch the brain over'

Music helps to 'switch the brain over'

AB: Oh I know. The mundane reality of life intruding on your art time and time again.

HW: Which is why it’s great to have a space. Ideally everything would be white; I’d work with texture. A winter palace – I’d love that.

AB: The snow queen? In control and slightly aloof?

HW: Yes, and I think that’s cultural. I think if you are English – you are culturally partly aloof, partly a bit shy. Don’t show off too much and also being calm. We just keep it all under control comparatively. We’re not Latino, we’re never going to smash everything up are we? And in my space, maybe some books, maybe a bit of Art. But just white. I think I’d start off with it just white. Start off with a nice chair and a table and just think for a bit.