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Sarah Spanton - 'Princess: Clock Ticking'

Body heat

by Ramsay Burt

April 28, 2005 -- Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds

"Princess: Clock Ticking" was a durational performance with long and short 'cycles'. For much of the day the Princess was sitting at a table in an upstairs gallery showing paintings of women by twentieth century British artists. With paper, scissors, and pins the Princess slowly made objects which she hung out, like washing, on an erratic black line that cordoned off a space in the centre of the gallery. Then at two advertised times she danced the 'short' cycle. Durational performances, where people can come and go freely, always initially make me uncomfortable. You need to get up close to find out what is going on but first you have to sit and work out what the rules of engagement are. An important aspect of the piece was, nevertheless, the many ways the Princess engaged with her audience.

So, looking on from a distance, you could tell she was a princess because a somewhat angular gold tiara sat on her rather doll-like wig of dark brown hair. Next to her hung Paula Reago's wonderful self portrait smoking a pipe in The Artist in her Studio. The Princess's pink nylon nighty, pink knee-length stockings and fluffy pink slippers clashed with Reago's deep violet gown, but each in her own way was subverting feminine stereotypes.

Because Spanton has a very fair complexion, the pink made her appear anaemic. She is also quite tall and has fairly narrow hips so that although 'pink' signifies femininity something about Spanton's Princess seems somehow not quite right. Indeed, throughout the performance, there appeared to be a curiously ironic distance between what she was trying to be and what the conventions of 'pink' allowed. The fact that Spanton appeared to be and yet never quite fully became the pink Princess created a space in which everything could be read allegorically: and in particular as a biological allegory.

I realised this when the short cycle began with a tape recording of a textbook account of the process of ovulation. The little paper objects were made out of photocopies of line drawings of ovaries. The erratic black string of the cordon was a temperature chart. The short cycle was about fertilisation and conception.

During her dance, the Princess eyed up her audience, batting her false eye lashes as she made eye contact with one bystander after another; then, having chosen her man, she took the cap off her biro and wrote his height, build and eye colour on one of the objects before pegging it back on the line. The short cycle ended when she 'donated' an 'unfertilised' object to a female bystander, telling her:  "It isn't quite worked out but its precious so I'd like you to have it".

The short cycle also included a sexy little dance. Except, of course, it wasn't at all. The Princess smiled disarmingly at her audience, arched her back, looked upwards, and wiggled her hips - half way between Shirley Maclaine in "Sweet Charity" and Audrey Hepburn in "The Nun's Story". Her dancing was very focused, the movements were clearly articulated, but performed with an awkward detachment that failed to convey any intended eroticism.

Like a lot of British live art, "Princess: Clock Ticking" exploited this performance of failure in a knowing way which in this case enabled the piece to be read on different levels - as 'pink' but also as ironic critique of 'pink'; as biologically female but also as masquerade. Spanton may have 'failed' but she worked hard, executing her material faithfully, pushing the limit of her admittedly limited technical competence as a dancer. Somehow that made the whole performance unexpectedly powerful and touching. What has stayed with me are those moments when eye contact, smiles, and warmth of personality turned what was a very clever act into something much more intimate and individual. Something about you and me.


Edited by Staff.

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