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Performance artist Poppy Jackson takes us on a journey to the ritualistic underworld of visual culture


Image credit: Penetrating Gender, Poppy Jackson with Benjamin Sebastian, at performance s p a c e London 2013. Photo, Marco Berardi

Becoming a performance artist has enabled me to live a rewarding life and embody the figurehead  facing my own destiny.

For those uninitiated into this ritualistic underworld of visual culture, performance art is best described as “a limitless medium”[*1]. The beauty of my field is its openness and accessibility; everyone can make a performance art work - no special skills, equipment or training required - and because the body is the medium, we can all relate.

The complication begins here: using the body as medium tangles one’s arts practice with their life in irreversible ways.

My own work foregrounds the physicality of materials and spaces in relation to the body. I am fascinated by my body’s biology and use performance to make sense of its natural processes; using experiential methods that oppose the predominant clinical approach through which we learn about ourselves. My work also critiques the patriarchal landscape we live in that attempts to shame normal physiological processes.

I was fortunate to study at the legendary Dartington College of Arts. Within its isolated grounds, students researched the body in context through literal blood, sweat and tears, and socialised with such immense artists as Gustav Metzger, Deej Fabyc, Andre Stitt, Pauline Amos, Roddy Hunter and Sinead O’Donnell. One time a tutor performed purposefully under the influence of narcotics, the performance ending with our hasty evacuation as he set our studios on fire! Life and work foregrounded lived experience in the body rather than head. I began to view the body as an autobiographical archive and performance as personal archeology. The world opened up again as the playground it is when we are children, where through play and interaction, magical things start to happen. Within this state of surrender and attunement between the self and one’s surroundings, performance art becomes a means of achieving autonomy and self-actualisation. For me this feels like the signpost to how humans are supposed to live, and I have taught performance art techniques to psychologists, sixth formers, trainee Doctors, art students, actors and school children.

The main misconception about performance artists is that we are attention seeking extroverts, whereas most performers I know are compelled toward this demanding and financially unstable life from a place of trust, honesty and connection. I was so terrified before the first live performance I made naked (WIN, Grace Exhibition Space, New York 2012) that I was physically sick. Because it is rooted in the body, all external labels fall away in that live moment. A renewed sensitivity to the white suprematist, machismo, homophobic, transphobic, ableist and agist culture we grow within (that involuntarily shapes, wounds and influences us), arrises, making anything but love feel alien. It's easy to get hooked on the magic, that energy, on building a liminal space for transformation to happen that is performance art. Whatever the outcome (by their nature performances cannot ‘fail’), performances are always a marker on the timeline of your life.

I relocated to London after practicing in Los Angeles and Belfast (at Sinead O’Donnell’s permission-grantingly productive Queen Street Studio, working in below freezing temperatures above the noise of a boxing ring and bingo hall). In 2011 I became an Associate Artist of ]performance s p a c e [, co-founded by Bean and Benjamin Sebastian; our first action together aptly being the demolition of a room. ]performance s p a c e [ (which I will refer to as ]ps[)is an artist-lead, anti-institutional project space dedicated to the research and dissemination of performance art that lies outside mainstream education and gallery structures. To the artists it draws together, ]ps[ is family and home. I cannot begin to describe the value of this space and the experiences it has activated. How can your life be the same again after witnessing a man’s shamanic hand movements (Boris Nieslony) transform the breeze block wall into an intricate buzzing interface between us and the entire unknown; living five public days investigating female and transgender identity in a glass box (with Nina Aresnault and a live snake); watching a body burst from an ablaze paper house (Benjamin Sebastian); being nose to nose with a paint smeared, bleeding, hooked through head (Kris Canavan), seeing through ash-covered eyelashes a pregnant body (Bean) lick sounds and words beyond meaning? “]ps[ critically and physically pushes the boundaries of body, time and space” sums up the level of support and nurture, liberation and challenge of its artists and audiences that ]ps[ generously fully dedicates itself to. The works I have experienced and lived through there are burned into my memory forever, but ]ps[ exists most strongly in my heart, and through its guidance I became an adult.

The last five years, that form a gap in between performing to a live audience for me, held significant life changes. I have created many works in this time period, but my last work for a live and public audience was 2016’s Bell’s Through Rain, for DRAWN at ]performance s p a c e [, presented in the shock of the death of my Dad and onset of ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The active birth of my daughter Elora in 2018 restored me to full health. I have also rooted into a home after ten years of transient living. Now we are all resurfacing from the pandemic’s recent challenges. My artwork enabled the lockdown home birth of my daughter Wanda, after the Hospital Trust’s removal of my birthing choices due to COVID-19. ]performance s p a c e [ too went through some huge shifts, the space relocated to Folkestone, founder and Director Bean left to pursue sustainable building, then a new venue opened in London and radical performance artist Joseph Morgan Schofield joined as Assistant Director. 2021 sees the rich offerings of the ten year anniversary celebrations of ]performance s p a c e [ - numerous live performance events, screenings, podcasts, workshops and residencies.

I am so excited to be on the edge of PSX: 10 hour Live Event; where on 21st August I will be performing alongside ten exceptional artists. These include the consistently groundbreaking Anne Bean, who has been a sustaining and inspirational force generously guiding me through the intensities of grief and early motherhood.

I’m wondering what my relationship to live performance will be now. The invincibility of youth, mixed with the conviction of an artist driven to fully know their medium - in this case their own body - to every pinnacle and breaking point made for some pretty intense living. In just two trips, for example, I menstruated on Brooklyn sidewalks, performed with 1000 ladybirds, a Chicago alley pigeon, sprinkled pubic hairs throughout MoMA (a homage to a Jean Michel Basquiat action made in the museum), collected numerous contributors menstrual blood and sat naked astride an American Hay Barn with nothing to stop me falling to the ground, to say nothing of my personal life!

Obviously at this point in time, my one and three year olds are my biggest source of inspiration, joy, purpose and love. I am wondering how performance will take form within the enriching, powerful and all demanding place that motherhood has initiated me into. What do I want my performances to be now? What do I need to see? What do I want to be? What do I need to exorcise and leave and take on and become? Through the making is always the only way and I am thrilled to find out what performing, held within PSX’s collective of ten artists energies, will hold. Grounded within my actionist and feminist roots, I want my performances to have wings towards the future.

poppyjackson.co.uk

Poppy Jackson - LIVE
]performance s p a c e [ presents
PSX - a decade of performance art in the UK
Saturday 21st August, 11am - 9pm
At The Ugly Duck
49 Tanner St,
London SE1 3PL
Info and booking: performancespace.org

[*1] Joseph Ravens, conversation with the artist at Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery, Chicago 2014

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