Tim Crouch / England
09.08.08 at Elizabeth Leach Gallery
2008 Time-Based Art Festival, PICA
Photo by Axel Nastansky
All Rights Reserved, PICA
Posted by Dusty Hoesly
Tim Crouch’s performance work ENGLAND engages audiences in self-reflection and catharsis, telling a fractured, tragic narrative that implicates participants in the tragedy and in the meaning-making of the story. In condensed form, the story follows a person who is dying of arrhythmia, whose boyfriend travels the world collecting art and becomes increasingly unstable at watching the narrator dying, and the final meeting between the narrator and the family of a foreign heart donor. Crouch and his stage partner Hannah Ringham look directly at audience members throughout the performance, walking amongst us in the Elizabeth Leach Gallery initially, then addressing us as we sit in chairs for the play’s second half. I feel more connected to the characters and heartbreak because the actors are standing right in front of me, making eye contact, trying to cope through calamitous circumstances.
Crouch and Ringham alternate lines, a back-and-forth telling of the narrator’s thoughts and dialogue. They always look sincere, usually smiling as they speak, cheery even when the words are sad. Often the dialogue is funny. Mostly keeping their arms at their sides emphasizes the unmediated connection with the audience, renouncing gestures that may appear overly theatrical. They begin by telling us the history of the Leach Gallery, the work of Sean Healy currently presented there, and then launch into the narrative, one which takes us to London and Suffolk, as well as Istanbul, Munich, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Rotterdam.
Throughout the piece, they repeat several lines which reverberate with new meanings each time they are said: “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here,” “You saved my life,” “Don’t touch them [paintings],” “I have no language,” “Something’s wrong with me,” “This isn’t me,” “Look,” “Listen,” “Breathe in.” A line like the first one attaches itself to the narrator’s gratefulness for the boyfriend’s attentions, for his gratitude at engineering the heart donation, as thanks to the donor for the heart, and appreciation for the audience helping to create the art in the first place by attending and participating. “I have no language” initially refers to the fact that the boyfriend speaks multiple languages while the narrator only speaks English, but later it can also refer to our inability to properly thank someone who saves our life, a gratitude that seems to transcend words. The simple command to “Look” can refer to looking at art in the gallery, looking at the architecture of the gallery space, looking at the artists directly, looking at the story or a situation in the story, interpreting the gallery art or the narrative itself, self-reflection, etc. Each repeated line invites multiple interpretations.
With a sound of airplanes overhead and construction noises, we move from standing in the gallery to another room where we sit down, the two actors facing us at the front. It appears the narrator has survived his heart condition, received the heart transplant he was unlikely to get. Here he is thanking the wife and mother of the donor, a man named Hasam, in their native country. The question arises whether the boyfriend helped engineer Hasam’s death (he’d been in an accident) in order to take his heart for the transplant. The wife accuses the narrator. A conversation that begins as thanks becomes a trial, especially as Ringham begins to look at Crouch more than she looks at us, addressing each other for the first time, and as we watch this process like a jury, deciding guilt and indentifying now with not only the narrator and boyfriend’s grief but also the widow and mother’s grief. Language becomes further frustrating because the narrator’s dialogue must be translated to the women, and vice versa. In the previous gallery space, I had prepared for a death that never took place and I was wholly unprepared for the death that did occur.
At one point earlier in the show, the narrator tells us that art hanging in his hospital offers him hope, something beautiful to look at–art as therapy. We experience this performance art like therapy. Crouch and Ringham talk to us like we are the intended audience for this tragic story, like we are intimate friends and they have to get the story off their chests. Their direct gaze places us squarely in this tragedy, where the concerns of these globe-traveling characters are our concerns at home. How do we process death and dying, injustice and love, through language? With this beautiful, sad, and cathartic new performance, Crouch gives us art that can save lives.
Posted by Dusty Hoesly