Howl by Aphids at the Festival of Live Art

Howl takes the moment of reception of key works of art – canonical works, disruptive works – and inscribes that moment onto the body. Onto the performing body. Onto the bodies of the three artists Lz Dunn, Lara Thoms and Willoh S. Weiland. Onto bodies parading, bodies enjoying, bodies defiant, bodies objectified, bodies often naked. Howl takes the moment of reception of key works of art and expresses their impact on the complex surfaces of the body.

And yet. Performing the body as the site of artistic reception is profoundly complex and even dangerous. From the moment Lz Dunn marches from the distant space wearing even more gold than Deborah de Robertis in a shroud falling to her pubic hair line and nothing else, then rests her body on the bonnet of a red sports car, and defiantly sets one leg after the other to present Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde in her own flesh, it is utterly explicit what is being paraded. The body, with its every fold and pose, in a dazzling array of costumes and vehicles, at pleasure and at inertia, performing each work with admirable audacity. Later, each work would be explained to us via a most distractingly distributed booklet. At that moment, our attention was heightened, we were focused, our arousal displaced by the sobriety of Mozart’s Requiem, our own bodies sitting as comfortably as possible on a demountable seating bank.

The Meat Market is a safe place. The audience was well-behaved – indeed, at times the audience was downright subdued, uncertain whether to laugh, chortle, whoop, stand up even when instructed, raise our arms even when led by the artists. It struck me as utterly obscene that such deliciously, arrogantly transgressive moments were met with such inert responses. Perhaps, as an audience body, we had been conditioned to this as we entered the space: as we were guided across the seating arena, we were told carefully and deliberately not to “disturb the penis,” the massive phallus in loose-leaf gold resting precariously on the cobblestoned ground to define the primary stage. This careful direction conditioned our expectations, as well as locating us in the feminist counter-position (no matter how ironically), careful to maintain the social etiquette not to disturb the expression of male dominance. Ultimately however, the mixed message of defiant parade and Do Not Disturb kept us seated most sensibly as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain became a hilariously mouth-frothing urinal boat, or Marco Evaristti’s Helena y El Pescador became a choreographed object dance for three, or Julita Wójcik’s Tęcza became a balloon-popping sparklefest.

Recasting the contemporary queer body as a site of artistic reception was a radical and impactful act – an impact punctuated by a production quality that proclaimed the work as monumental from its opening moments. The artwork of high production values proclaims itself as authoritative, powerful and canonical. It calls its means of production to attention. It speaks loudly of the process it must have gone through, the claims it must have staked, the grants it must have secured to afford us our ticket price. It enters into a dialogue with the work whose reception it displaces. In parading its admiration, disdain and passion for one particular canonical line, it changes forever our experience of those works because its subversion has been so polished, so proud. We need feminism to continue to stake the highest claims, to act within and well beyond its means to reset the radical, even or indeed especially when a work of art purports to offer a final word. This is what each of Aphids’ chosen works has in common: each proposes itself as a circuit breaker, a new direction (for Lynda Benglis at least), a question asked and answered. But art constantly asks new questions, and even the most defiant ‘fuck you’ to the art world can attract the most unexpected response.

On the whole, my Festival of Live Art experience was mixed. I was looking for reaction; I was expecting to sense my own and that of others. I was elated by one work, which I continue to experience and work through. I was deeply disappointed by the laziness of another work, and have actively avoided discussing it. To refuse to take risks is the antithesis of what FOLA wishes to create. Howl has created extreme responses: anger, confusion, passionate and unstoppable discussion which continues to confront me. ‘How dare they cheapen that work’. ‘I found it too reductive.’ ‘I found it too elitist.’ ‘I was hit across the chest by it.’ ‘I didn’t know what the contract was.’ ‘I don’t know why the audience was seated – we should have been free to move, to walk up and down, to go to the bar, to be a parade audience.’ ‘It’s problematic… It’s seriously problematic.’ ‘The work wasn’t quite ready.’ ‘I wanted to be on that bonnet… I wanted to feel that audacity on my body.’

And, my very favourite: ‘Have you seen Howl yet? I need to talk to you about feminism.’

Brilliant work, Aphids.