Text by Emily Sack
“Do you hear me?” echoes a haunted voice in a vacuous subterranean space while a man crouches in a cell unable to escape the persistence of the creeping and persistent speaker. This is just one of many vignettes encountered in Mark Storor’s most recent collaborative performance acknowledging the experience of homosexuals in the prison system, both as prisoners and guards.
Meeting at a gallery in Central London, visitors are then transported in vans winding through the streets to arrive at a secret location. The disorientation is highlighted by the darkness and a permeating sense of uneasiness. Having surrendered all mobile phones at the meeting point thereby losing connectivity with the outside world, audience members are isolated and stripped of a network beyond the strangers attending the same performance. Once arriving at the secret performance venue, a heavy industrial door is opened and visitors are herded down the stairs to a fluorescently-lit waiting room. After an uncomfortable silence a stern prison guard orders the audience to form a single-file queue and leads the way to a series of performance spaces on either side of a long corridor.
Each of the mini-performances, like single-act plays, feature different actors and inspire disparate emotions. The initial space features a film of a man attempting to escape a crate by prising planks loose with his bare hands. Another holds two men and a house made of loaves of bread. A most peculiar scene has two men stepping on tiles covered in soap while being persistently splashed with buckets of water. Despite the strangeness of the vignettes presented, two were exquisitely beautiful: a floor covered in soil with flowers attempting to grow, and a heart-wrenching scene of a man embracing a deceased man sprawled in a massive pool of blood.
The audience experiences a tumult of emotions feeling empathy for the actors though bewildered by the circumstances. There is a strange sense of uncertainty that arises from the juxtaposition of freedom and restriction. In the corridor the audience is ordered to remain in a queue and follow the guards; however, once enclosed in each individual performance space, the audience is free to move about the space and examine each situation from all angles, creating a sort of theatre in the round. Once visitors become immersed in a scene another guard enters and orders the journey to continue and lingering is discouraged.
Mark Storor spent three years investigating the experience of homosexuals in the London prison system conducting interviews with prisons and guards alike. There seems to be a dystopian stripping of identity, a loss of individuality among both parties. Or, perhaps worse, the defining of a multi-faceted individual by a single characteristic. The aptly titled performance plays with the meanings of the words ‘tender’ and ‘subject’: implying both the sentimentality and emotion felt by the prisoners and the tenderness of a bruise, while subject can refer to a specific individual or the topic as a whole.
Overall the performance was a bit heavy-handed and perhaps a bit too abstract, though certain scenes certainly evoked beauty and sadness and strength. Returning to street level, somewhere near Farringdon Station, it becomes apparent that the performance occurred in a disused meat-packing facility. The outside reality feels like an extension of the underground world, and regardless of how each visitor personally relates to the scenes below, all are left with Storor’s research question: “in a hostile environment, where everyone has a role to play, how do you maintain a sense of yourself?”
Mark Storor: a tender subject, An Artangel Commission, 16/03/2012 – 31/03/2012, Secret Location, London. www.artangel.org.uk
Aesthetica in Print
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