In a small seminar space in the Queens building, performance artist and director Tess Denman-Cleaver is talking about a much wider sense of place, evoking the receding shore, cold waters, and broad skies of the North Sea. The description of her experience of sea-swimming and island exploration off the coast of Northumberland, which has formed the basis of her current Sea Trilogy project, seems oddly framed within the bounds of the classroom. Yet Denman-Cleaver’s art and dramatic practice is primarily focused on exploring boundary spaces: where the land meets the ocean and where performance space meets environment. The aim of her work, she tells us, is to develop “a recalibrated understanding of performance and of landscape.”
She is a captivating speaker; playful and gently comic, while simultaneously retaining a keen intellectual edge
The Land-Sea-Self talk, organised as part of the “Ecopoetics” open seminar series, swiftly threw away any boundaries between performance, lecture and academic discussion. Denman-Cleaver segued seamlessly between anecdotes about nude sea-swimmers, Heidegger quotations and a spoken-word performance involving the projection of traced coastlines. She is a captivating speaker; playful and gently comic, while simultaneously retaining a keen intellectual edge and emotional gravity beyond her years.
She explains the genesis of the Sea Trilogy work in the R-hythm project, which set out to situate a performance on Holy Island which would toy with the ways in which natural objects of the landscape might be brought into the performance space. Walking the circumference of the island, noting its tidal changes and local specificities, she found that locating the boundaries of the ‘stage’ seemed unnecessary, if not impossible. The mistake, she realised, was to view the place as a “world of objects” into which the artist would simply “insert a performance”.
Out of this experience on Holy Island came a “recalibrated” understanding of the performer as an object among objects and of the landscape as a constant and endless performance. The second work of the trilogy, Sounds and Guts, attempts to draw into the artwork a plethora of voices relating to the sea, to swimming and the artist’s Northumberland locality. Such a vision perhaps finds a parallel in Alice Oswald’s popular poem Dart which similarly collected the “voices” of the river Dart and its many human users in order to trace the river across the Devonshire landscape.
Tess Denman-Cleaver is not, of course, the first artist to liberate performance art from the auditorium or to explore the interplay between performance and environment. Andy Goldsworthy’s outdoor sculpture performances or Richard Skelton’s plein air musical compositions spring to mind. Yet these practices have traditionally used their relation with the landscape to emphasise the transience of the natural world through performance, as Goldsworthy’s delicate leaf-sculptures are so quickly dispersed and eradicated by the elements.
Stripped of hearing and speech, we gained a heightened awareness of the landscape
Denman-Cleaver’s work, however, seeks to draw attention to what exists before the moment of performance and what remains after the event; the aspects of the landscape which are merely gathered for a moment in the performative event and continue to exist beyond it. In this sense, her performance pieces refocus theatre away from human performance, throwing the surrounding environment under the spotlight.
After the performance, she asked the audience to join her in a walk around campus. Only we would be using sound-cancelling earplugs, totally deaf to the world around us. Following the initial smiles and embarrassments of deafly navigating a busy Queens Drive, we began to settle into the strange experience, taking notice of the environment around us. Stripped of hearing and speech, we gained a heightened awareness of the landscape that normally functions as the backdrop for our daily conversations and routines. We came to realise, as if for the first time somehow, the constant presence and influence of the spaces of Streatham campus within which we perform our daily lives.
Tess Denman-Cleaver is a PhD researcher at Newcastle University and artistic director of Tender Buttons performance company. The third installment of the Sea Trilogy, titled Deeply Morbid, begins to tour in spring 2016.
The Art History and Visual Culture research seminar series, chaired by João Florêncio under the theme of “Ecopoetics,” brings together speakers from a wide variety of disciplines to explore the ways in which the realm of the visual intersects with ecological debates.