With ticketholders directed to the Artists’ Entrance, this work of performance art begins before you encounter the performer. Audience members are corralled backstage, briefed and walked up two flights of stairs to the stage of the Purcell Room. A kind of friendly ‘company’ energy begins to take shape as the anticipation of what will ensue mounts amongst us spectator-participants. And then there we are: on stage, facing the lights, looking for our mark taped to the floor as briefed.
FK Alexander, the Glasgow-based performance artist who describes her work as ‘about wounds, recovery, aggressive healing, radical wellness, industrialisation and noise music’, is present but neither oblivious nor engaged. The sense is that we, the fellow players, are on stage but we are still in backstage (or pre-stage) space with her. Two ominous (fairly clownishly dressed) technicians stand at the mixing desk – stern or expressionless in black clothing and mirrored shades, like a farcical rendition of German metal: this is Okishima Island Tourist Association, a noise band. Their throbbing soundtrack of high-volume industrial techno music/noise blares and Alexander tends to her accoutrements prior to her singing along to the poignant recording of Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow, made just weeks before she died. Alexander moves about a small space in her stocking feet (before she puts on her lipstick, ruby slippers and sequined jacket to perform each rendition). The audience members are each given a paper ticket of the kind used for a carnival ride and are told that, should they wish to have a turn, they should stand on the mark and hand Alexander the ticket. Once the transaction is made, she will ‘sing’ Over the Rainbow to them whilst holding their hand.
Unlike terrifying or cringe-making audience participation moments one might have experienced elsewhere or associate with such direct performer interaction, I Could Go on Singing isn’t gruelling or awkward. On the contrary, it feels privileged, safe and thrilling; although if you do stand on the ‘x’ hand-in-hand with Alexander, the sensation is intense but I, who generally do not enjoy audience participation, did not find it scary or embarrassing.
FK Alexander repeats the same ritualised movements each time. The variation is in the energy and presence of the singular ‘audience member’ who gets to be the object of her focus. The audience members can move where they like on the stage but not into the seats of the audience section of the Purcell Room. Mostly the view is of the back of the recipient of the song and of Alexander’s face. Her carefully studied gestures and mannerisms don’t technically appear to change and, yet, each individual interaction does feel as if there are subtle differences; the hunting for which becomes absorbing and entrancing. However, as our attention is keenly placed on each new, but repeated, performance, our awareness and senses feel heightened. As we are likely to be observing from behind the recipient of Alexander’s individually-focused singing, we behold a range of body language and breathing; some hesitant, some eager; occasional attempts to control nerves, other seeming efforts to contain emotion. With eye contact and hand-holding, it is fascinating to experience the promise of a performance ‘just for me’ whilst also seeing the transactional, repetitive, quasi-compulsive and gruelling aspects for the performer who smiles as she transacts and then dutiful delivers and courteously dismisses with a kiss on the cheek leaving a smear of the greasy red lipstick that she reapplies in her ritual between renditions.
It’s hard not to think of Marina Abrović but also this work reminded me of the ‘screen-test’ films Andy Warhol produced in his Factory with icons like Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper or Edie Sedgewick making direct eye contact with the lens. The work calls to mind themes of connection, expectation, risk, humanity and artifice, on one hand, and the projection of oneself (in a moment of apparent intimacy) onto the mythology of a celebrity life and early death, on the other. The fact that our moment of ‘intimacy’ is with a modern woman lip-syncing to a deceased ‘legend’ known for her tragic existence adds a layer of pleasing perplexity. A further layer is presented by the knowledge that the material upon which Alexander draws was recorded just 120 days before Judy Garland’s death; and, yet, is a song introduced to the world from the original singer’s childhood voice – but which we now hear as both a most personal serenade and against an angry wall of noise music that occasionally transforms to the dramatic applause of addictive audience adulation.
These multiple levels give rise to a melancholy and sympathy that is both moving and puzzling as to why that is. At just 60 minutes, the show is exactly the right length: it does not require a spirit of endurance but nor will you mourn when it’s over. Fandom of Judy Garland is not essential but at least a passing familiarity with her cultural significance is.
Review by Mary Beer
As part of Something to Aim For’s first season of work, Art in Action, FK Alexander’s I Could Go On Singing receives it’s London premiere at the Southbank Centre from 24 – 26 Feb 2020.
FK stands hand-in-hand with self-selected members of the audience while singing along to a recording made just four months before Garland’s death. Audience members may volunteer to have ‘Over the Rainbow’ sung to them, holding FK’s hand, in a one-to-one experience witnessed by the rest of the audience.
Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX
Running time: 60 mins
@STAimFor | #STAFArtInAction | www.somethingtoaimfor.com
New strategic arts initiative Something to Aim For, which supports artists with lived experience of discrimination creating socially engaged work, has announced its first season including works from international cabaret icon Le Gateau Chocolat and radical performance artist FK Alexander. From self-destruction to self-expression, from isolation to austerity, the artists tackle pressing social issues with their own distinctive performance styles including cabaret, performance art and grime and rap.