Amanda Coogan's I'll Sing You a Song from Around the Town is one of the most ambitious performance art events ever staged in Ireland. It opened last Friday at the RHA and will run for six weeks. But it's not a conventional exhibition. Through those six weeks it will continually develop, diversify and grow. Coogan's initial performance runs for the first week. Then, a collaborator assumes her role while she initiates a second performance, and so on. By the final week, six durational performances will be running simultaneously. The ideal way to get a sense of it is to drop in occasionally, ideally once a week.
Are people likely to do that? It's hard to say. Performance art is still a hard sell, even to habitual gallery goers, but if anyone can make it happen it's Coogan. It's no exaggeration to say that, more than any other artist, she has managed to convince the Irish art audience that performance art can be accessible, involving and meaningful. Relatively few artists have managed to do that internationally. Those who have include Yoko Ono and the Serbian artist Marina Abramovic.
In 2010 Abramovic was the subject of the first ever retrospective devoted to a performance artist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her show, The Artist Is Present, was a breakthrough not just because it was a first but also because it became a sensation, drawing fantastic attendance and generating enormous publicity and discussion. That was due in no small measure to Lady Gaga, an early visitor whose enthusiastic endorsement worked wonders, as Abramovic later acknowledged. Suddenly she had rock-star status. Collaborations with Lady Gaga and Jay Z ensued.
As it happens, back in 1999, Coogan went to Germany to study with Abramovic, a notoriously hard taskmaster. Coogan, then still in her 20s, was already exceptionally committed to performance. She knew that the kind of durational performance that Abramovic rates requires not just aesthetic boldness but physical and psychological resilience.
As Abramovic observed, Coogan, “a girl from the far cold country called Ireland . . . [with] loose long blond hair . . . worked intensively and developed rapidly to create works that are layered with metaphors and references, and at the same time confrontational and very tough.”
Perhaps that toughness is the most surprising aspect of Coogan's work. But at the time, performance art in Ireland still had a distinctly laddish profile. While they were and are sensitive, caring souls, the two most prominent exemplars then, Alastair MacLennan and Nigel Rolfe (the latter coincidentally showing at Green on Red and at the forthcoming Foundation 15 Quantum Leap festival in Tullamore) are also, in terms of their work, old-school blokes. There's a certain earnest, masculine gravitas to their approach. As she began to make very focused, sharp, polished performance pieces in the early years of the century, Coogan introduced a note of bawdy, irreverent humour.
She interrogated representations of femininity in high art, religious iconography and popular culture, for example, and in doing so she often set herself up as the fall gal. From Abramovic she had certainly learned a degree of ruthlessness, and the ruthlessness started with herself. “The ego has left the building,” she said of the effect of one Abramovic’s more gruelling workshops. Abramovic famously tests her own mind and body through what she does, and Coogan has proven herself more than capable of doing so too. It soon became clear that she also had real visual flair. She has made many meticulously staged durational performances, but while doing so she has also displayed a knack for shaping single, memorable images, crystallised from the flux of action.
She has such an ability to devise and produce images that she could, if she wished, settle for that. In fact she initially studied painting, but was drawn to performance. Still, talking to Mike Fitzpatrick, she noted that: "I still think most of my work has very painterly qualities. When I construct an image, I think in terms of 'painting' it. I see very little difference between the way I construct an image for a photograph, video or live event."
The live event, though, retains a particular importance. The early conviction that led her to Germany remains. She loves the reality of performance. She wants to persuade the spectator into an unsettling, risky space in which performance is happening in real time. It is a means of breaking through what the film historian Eric Rhode once described as the viewer's "habitual sense of superiority". More than ever, we are consumers of imagery, consumers of everything, and Coogan wants to drag us back to existential engagement.
The lived encounter between performer and audience generates an energy that is unlike any other experience, she believes. It’s “very powerful and unique to the practice of performance”. It cannot be conjured up in a single image. Duration is key. And more and more, one feels, as with Abramovic, in a culture of relentless instantaneity and compression, extreme duration, a slowing-down and extension of time is key. If you’ve been wary of performance art, this could be the opportunity to take the plunge.
- I'll Sing You a Song from Around the Town, a sculpture and live performance by Amanda Coogan, is at the RHA Gallagher Galleries I & III in Dublin until October 18th