Body of evidence
Performance artist Amanda Coogan tells Aidan Dunne why it is important for her to take physical risks .
Amanda Coogan's Headbangers was one of the highlights of last year's Liverpool Biennial. A hundred performers, all garbed in uniform blue, jumped around madly like fans at a football match or a rock concert, but they were actually responding to a passage from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Philharmonic Concert Hall. The appropriate cultural response to one sort of event was grafted inappropriately on to another.
In the video of the performance screened during the biennial at the Bluecoat Gallery, we saw just the fans in a frenzy. For her current exhibition at Limerick City Gallery of Art, A brick in the handbag, Coogan has reworked the installation so that it now incorporates herself. As indeed it should.
On one projection screen we see the crowd and, on the opposite, smaller screen we see Coogan conducting them, a convincing usurper of the archetypal authority figure of the - usually male - orchestral conductor. She does it with the unnerving passion and ferocity that are absolutely typical of her performance technique.
These qualities come through consistently in the various videos and photographs that make up her Limerick show. In person, Coogan, blonde and fair-skinned, has an easy charm, a charm bordering on gentleness. As you talk to her you realise that there is an underlying toughness there and, professionally, the toughness comes to the fore. As an artist she is relentlessly tough on herself, and quite ruthless in the way she subverts received images, using her own body as the site of reinvention.
One can see why she gravitated to the renowned performance artist, Marina Abramovic, as a teacher. Abramovic pioneered performance that hinges on physical and mental endurance. Some of her work entailed clear physical risk, but generally Coogan's involves risk of a more subtle kind. An apparently innocuous action, such as eating chocolate, or indeed head-banging, if extended and prolonged, can lead the performer and the audience members, drawn into engagement, into strange psychic terrain.
Some of the photographs in the show feature Coogan post-performance, after The Chocolate Cake in 2000, for example, during which she ate a huge cake at one sitting. Dishevelled and wearing a beautiful dress stained with chocolate and vomit, she looks distraught and, she says, she was. Or, again, in Venice in 2003, soaking her feet at a water fount after a three-hour stint in punishing heat.
"With some of those images, I had in mind the kind of paparazzi shots where they get people after the party, you know? Off guard," she says.
In her performance the body is, as the visual documentation attests, image, but even more it is a reservoir of energy. She felt that the video of Headbangers wasn't quite right "without my image and my energy". That could sound egotistical - she alludes wryly to the inescapable "show-off" element of performance art - but it is exactly right. On stage, so to speak, in the throes of performance, her presence really is electrifying. Her image and her energy are the core of everything she does, and she works on both with exceptional commitment.
THAT FACT THAT Coogan was a hearing child born to deaf parents (part of an oppressed minority, as she sees it), has been a major factor in her artistic work. Her first language was signing, and while signing comes into many of her pieces, it also prompted her to see the body as a medium of communication and expression from early on. More, communication was always addressed to the eyes. Her background is also relevant to her recurrent use of the music of Beethoven, whose status as a deaf composer is exceptional in European cultural history.
Coogan started by studying painting in Limerick.
"I was making these expressionist paintings, but it occurred to me that I was more interested in jumping around the canvas than in what was on the canvas," she says.
She went on to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin with a single-minded determination to learn about performance. She appealed to head of sculpture Brian King to bring in a performance lecturer, and he did (Alanna O'Kelly). After graduating from NCAD, "still hungry to know more", she sent off hundreds of letters.
"I'd heard Abramovic taught at Braunschweig, and tried there," she says. "She took me on."
Abramovic is known as a demanding teacher. It was tough, Coogan acknowledges.
"I went over with this very Irish attitude, a certain casualness," she says. "That didn't last long. I realised that you've got to be prepared to do it. We exercised physically in the mornings, and in the afternoons we'd perform, I mean do it for real, then discuss the performance pieces. And you got torn apart, really picked over. It pulled you up a gear or two."
Vitally, the students were exposed to the public. "You can work indefinitely in the studio and never learn what it's like to work with an audience."
In the event, she found she loved it. "Something happens in the live context. You throw energy at an audience and you think 'this could be draining', but it comes back at you, as though there's a loop. You can see that the audience feels it as well, the flow of energy between you. Sometimes it can be too much."
During a three-hour stint of headbanging in Milan - not a good idea, surely - she went beyond pain, as she puts it.
"I had to go to a different place in my head to get over it," she says. "But it was extraordinary, the sheer power of it."
Many of her works deal with cultural and religious icons. For example, her Madonna in Blue, a tableau vivant, presides serenely over an audience, proffering a breast. Wearing only a souvenir apron, she posed as Michelangelo's David in a suburban back garden. Her Molly Blooms, in a pose based on the statue of Justice in Dublin Castle, turns her bared bottom to the audience and farts. Kylie satirises the cult of celebrity and the obsessive concentration on body image. The Quiet Man disturbingly re-enacts a sequence from the film of the same name, in which John Wayne drags and "tames" a protesting Maureen O'Hara across the fields to the enthusiastic endorsement of an accompanying crowd. Usually there is humour underscored by something darker in the images and the performances.
For The Fountain in 2001, Coogan urinated on stage at IMMA (an "extremely difficult" piece, she admits). The title refers to Duchamp's landmark artwork, a mass-produced urinal. With her transgressive action, Coogan had in mind the way aspects of experience, specifically women's experience, have been traditionally hidden away from view in Ireland, behind a veil of shame and secrecy. As such, she sees it as a natural pendant to her Madonna images.
One of the striking things about her work is her extraordinary attention to costumes, which are often elaborate and are custom-made (she credits Snip 'n' Sew in Stillorgan). She speaks of the preparatory work as "painting".
She'll work on an idea over a period of months, "working with the video camera, trying out colours, movements, backgrounds, really painting the image". The process distances her from herself as image.
"It's definitely not me. I've called her 'she' and even 'it', as in 'it needs' or 'she needs'," she says.
She maintains her association with Abramovic, taking part in performance projects and attending Cleaning the House workshops. These gruelling stints of fasting and exercise generate incredible funds of energy and ideas, according to Coogan.
"You come out of it and you're in this extraordinary state," she says. "You have so many ideas. Enough to keep you busy for years."
In fact, Coogan's work has been gathering pace for some time now, and it doesn't look like slackening off any time soon.
Amanda Coogan: A brick in the handbag is at Limerick City Gallery of Art until February 25th (tel: 061-310633)