Photo by Joseph Morgan Schofield.
(no) lasting damage
First published in 2019 in (re)collecting (f)ears, a book of essays reflecting on a series of site-specific performances undertaken by the artist selina bonelli in the summer of 2019. (re)collecting (f)ears was published by ]performance s p a c e[ and is available through Unbound.
What does it mean to collect fear? In the dying days of a British summer, a strange figure slowly makes their way down a two-hundred-foot wall. One arm raised, the other outstretched in the direction of travel, they are at once exposed and made small on this hulk. A thick clumping salve of petroleum jelly trails their raised limb, while their mouth traces another line, this one black and runny, a kind of bisected treacle soundwave.
From a distance, this action appears as a kind of erotic semaphore; a lust for communication; an act of care for a sacred relic; a sustained communion with time and memory.
With what force and pressure does this figure meet the wall? Do their lips and palm caress, or do they drag? Beneath the jelly and treacle, do they taste history?
We gather, on the edge of Romney Marsh, searching for the words to call fear. I describe a terror that tastes of nothing, smells of nothing, and has no colour. I assign these qualities to that appalling void acknowledging the utter inadequacy of my language to hold this fear. Later I think death is the end of metaphor.
The wild berries have ripened and fattened, but the long hot summer has sweated them of flavour – the bloated ones I pick as we begin to walk into the Marsh taste neither sweet nor sour. We are strange pilgrims, walking with secret purpose. A picnic blanket covers an inflatable boat; a friend in a pink wig carries two twisting rusting iron stakes; a last-minute decision is made to leave the dining chair in the van to minimise the suspicions of dog walkers and bird watchers.
Union Jacks fly over gated, fenced communities of static caravans. Beneath one flag on the edge of the community, kids pick fruit and one screams something on my leg. They regard us with something between confusion, suspicion and curiosity, and we walk in parallel for a while until they turn and climb back in through the fence.
Enroute, selina speaks to the crossings endured by refugees and migrants. Gulls crest the winds, white birds float or fly, as brown and black bodies drown.
The Sound Mirrors occupy their island within the Marsh. On the occasional open day, or when a costly temporary license is bought, the Mirrors are accessed by a small swing bridge. Today is not an open day, and so the small body of water between us and the mirrors constitutes a threshold – selina offers the choice, to sit with the picnic, or to trespass and test the law. While I understand this as an ethical choice, or at least an ethical rehearsal, it feels more like an adventure; as I suspect, or rather I expect, my body, my skin, my perceived gender and class will protect me from any trouble.
Reperforming the abandoned function of the Sound Mirrors, in our own limited way, we set up a rudimentary early warning system in case of unexpected visitors, and we begin to cross in the dinghy, inflated and manoeuvred by selina. We cross willingly – everyone says yes. There’s a momentary thrill as warning is received and bodies are sighted, but they turn out to have come for the performance.
Time is unmoored and floats on the reserve of memory.
The lines of jelly and treacle appear as a fresh trajectory traced onto the first mirror a record of a time gone lacerated in cement; the story of our age edited or reinscribed by selina. Feeling and intention rest uneasily upon the hulk of history. The past, even abandoned, is forbidden territory. Before the Mirror, in this September Sun, this structure asks who may access the past, and who may abide it.
The structures amplify sound, and I become conscious of the slightest sonic intrusion on this slow and determined work. Light aircraft fly overhead, the uneasy spectre of war haunting leisure. I am privy to the fragmented conversations of strangers, dog walkers meeting, families playing. I wonder if these sounds are made clear to selina, if the clarity of the Mirror overwhelms, or if they become yet more white noise. selina etches a chalk line onto the Mirror, even though I am twenty or thirty metres away I hear its scratch.
The body is a supplicant in the ruins. Birds call and we rustle and selina falls into the long grass before the wall, rolling back and forth. There is something alienating about the wall its distance its vastness its weight.
I reposition, moving into the shade beneath the wall and I appreciate its colours –yellows and reds and greys invisible in the sun, a reminder that light does not always illuminate. selina is to the right of my vision and yet when they bend and pull the chalk down the wall, I hear the sound in my left ear.
A pillowcase drops through the portal, hanging like a body from the gallows, bleeding white feathers. selina drops blue powder paint through the hole and it falls across the pillow and the walls and the pillow is beaten against the wall again and again and the feathers are carried on the breeze and look like snow or like peace doves shot from the sky spreading like so much radioactivity from the Nuclear plant down the coast.
This action, the first in a triptych the artist will never complete, is completed. selina breaks for water to check the time and guides us to the next structure. It is strange to hear selina’s voice now. We move and lie down in the long grass beneath the second Mirror, which is far smaller than the first. I am closer to it, and so history, which before stretched outside my field of vision, is rendered in our scale.
selina wraps the structure in golden thread, dressing the structure like a horse for a military parade. This entanglement also appears as desperate care: the thread, delicate as it is, binds the ruin and holds it together. Tied to the thread feathers dance, turning, spinning, calling forth the wounds of war.
Their body slides down the mirror. Ceramic plates shattered long ago scrape concrete and flesh. Rosewater drips through a wicker bag balanced on selina’s head. Sweet-scented tears run down their face, cutting clean lines through the smeared sweat and exhaustion and red earth.
This is the image that meets the police and the guardians of the Mirrors who arrive to halt the performance. The guardians are perplexed. You appear as a spectre. They say things like they are monuments to history, by which they mean that the Mirrors testify to plucky heroism, ingenuity, resilience – to a kind of national exceptionalism which is mythic and virulent. Your haunting is not welcome here.
The performance is over. One guardian calls it in with a kind of relief there’s been some misguided activity, but no lasting damage.
Your work called us into an alternate time; ripping open the sutures of the last century, events circled as birds or helicopters. The Mirrors ricochet in and out of focus, anchored to and repelled from your body, and at once the histories of the nation and the artist are torn open. Your work speaks to the vastness of personal and national misrememberings, to the lies and fears that lives are built upon. Fears are collected and dropped again, for fear is not so easily forgotten.
There has been no lasting damage. For whom can this be true?