With her show opening at Kunstraum in London tonight, the artist's choreographed performances capture bodies in flux
A slender body lies on the floor in the dark. A single spotlight highlights the sheen of the off-white Lycra that covers it, glints off the black plastic of the five-inch platform heels strapped to the feet. To a bleak, pulsating soundscape – punctuated occasionally by the echo of rattling voices as the beat speeds up – the figure moves slowly and deliberately through a series of poses: face down, feet drawn in to create a right angle; folded backwards, bent legs rocking side to side, body arched upwards like a drawn bow.
As this performer continues to cycle solemnly through these twists and contortions, another, sat nearby, begins to evenly read a list of words: 'Heart. Phosphorescent. Pelt. Calcium. Salt. Fibre. Rust. Sub. Revolve. Striated. Hydraulic …' The seemingly random enlisting of verbs, body parts and chemicals makes the enacted movements seem even more distant and detached: an animated jumble of limbs and elements hovering outside of time. By this point though, 20-odd minutes in, a conspicuous stain has appeared on the perfect pearl of the Lycra suit, a strip of orange-brown dirt on the knee. This is not, the scrape reminds us, a body in the abstract, as if an idea floating in space; she's a female performer, writhing on a basement floor surrounded by an onlooking crowd, as part of artist Mary Hurrell's EROTIC MECHANICS (2016).
As the title suggests, this performance is, in part, a cool-handed dismantling of the sexual charge of the body: a technical manual for sensuality. The poses are drawn from media representations of the female body, isolated and rearranged in a stilted pseudo-nightclub situation in an attempt to cryogenically suspended desire for an extended moment to allow an atomized study of motion, possibility, restraint. But Hurrell seems well aware of the fiction of objectivity, of the friction of the physical: it's never just the body or even a body, but my body, somebody there. Hurrell's performances, videos and installations draw on the equivocation between precision and fluidity, abstraction and specificity, plan and execution – turning this into an unsettling sweet spot for re-imagining our bodies and the unspoken boundaries of our daily interactions.
The London-based artist's work draws equally on aspects of Butoh theatre, concrete poetry, minimalist sculpture, modern architecture and electronic music, perhaps recognizing their shared concern for physically shaping experience. The sounds she composes for her pieces echo the style of producers such as Holly Herndon or Actress, although – as she told me in conversation recently – 'the way I'm thinking about sound is that it is another body moving in the space. I'm not trying to make music. I feel like sound is the most direct way to work with emotions, physicality and space in a very succinct way.'
Lycra and platform heels are among the simplest of impedimenta that Hurrell has used to aid and encumber her performers. She often creates bespoke clothing that looks like a cross between the blank surgical gowns of George Lucas's sci-fi pharmatopia THX 1138 (1971) and the shiny, knotted surfaces of bondage gear. The artist's 2016 performance at DRAF in London, for instance, involved a layered costume of pink leather, red cloth and white straps, like a hooded straightjacket or cocoon, which the performer successively shed – an alien larval strip tease. Or, for an event last year in Manchester, Mappings (8J Peripheral - Internal/External - Distance - Horizon Machine - Parts) (2017), the performer walked around wearing chunky clogs made of white wax. Humanity distinguishes itself, in part, through its use of tools, clothing and materials, prosthetic extensions to protect and sustain the body; Hurrell has referred to the sculptures and props that appear throughout her work as 'internal prosthetics'.
'I'm trying to slow space and time down. To mould these materials – the sound, the body and the garments – compressed into a polysensual experience. The garments and shoes are implements to change the body's movement into something more difficult or awake.' It recalls the way Paul Virilio, analyzing the mobilization of the human body in Speed and Politics (1977), described the essential aim of war as being to 'force him [the enemy] to interrupt his movement'. Though Hurrell's interruption isn't, of course, a violent assault but a sensory one, which asks us to pause and re-examine what we consider possible in the present. Hurrell's work might, on the surface, have a sleek, sparse science-fiction aesthetic; but, more importantly, it also has the conjectural imagination of that genre, tapping into our projections of the things we might surround ourselves with and the way we might act in the near future.
Hurrell's newest body of work is an interwoven trio that began last month with the performance 1 (Pitch) (2018) at Centro Botín in Santander, Spain, and continues in London with her month-long show ‘2 (Aerial)’ at Kunstraum this month, concluding with a performance at Flat Time House in April. At Kunstraum, a mound of glass and rubber, with swatches of dark red and pink, appears like a strange fountain, sat alongside a video that overlays images of two bodies, as if an attempt to merge them. In making these new works, Hurrell considered the mutability of seeing, feeling and knowing, and tried to image how – tethered as we are to our bodies – we might gain or move towards another perspective. Each part of the trio explores a different facet of this problem. The two-person performance in Centro Botín acts as a meditation on fixed points of view, while the Flat Time House piece evokes its potential opposite – a body unmoored. The Kunstraum exhibition, opening this week, reflects on ideas of the transition between states. Experience here is treated as a fluid – what Jean-Paul Sartre described as, 'a liquid seen in a nightmare'. In Being and Nothingness (1957), Sartre wrote about the viscosity of slime, its non-quite-solid not-quite-liquid state as 'a phenomenon in the process of becoming'. This might be at the heart of Hurrell's steady and seductive assault on our sense of time, mixing, melting and distilling the contradictions and possibilities of a body – your body.