Rose English: A Premonition of the Act

Art Free
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Performance art is hot right now – which makes you wonder what Rose English must make of it all. Working since the 1970s, the British artist is known for highly theatrical ensemble performances involving everything from naked bodies to elaborate costumes to live animals. She paved the way for the current crop of bright young things. So for all you would-be superstars making waves in the London art scene by mixing traditional forms of choreography with experimental approaches, just remember: English got there first, did it with less hype, and usually did it better. 

All of which means it’s rather disappointing to find that her current exhibition contains no live elements whatsoever. Instead, the focus is on a complicated ongoing project, ‘Lost in Music’, which exists in several iterations and across different media. For this show, it consists of an opera score playing in a darkened room, the recorded voices singing out phrases to do with light and sound while pinned about the walls and dreamily spotlit are pages of research combining pictures of Chinese acrobatics or electrical luminescence with poetic snatches of English’s own writing. In a second room, videos show an acrobatic troupe rehearsing breathtaking acts of glass-balancing (pictured) while a nearby table displays examples of the specialist glassware used in this Chinese tradition. 

There is, in other words, an awful lot going on. You just about get a general sense of the project’s potentially fascinating scope – all about moments of balance and illumination, about transitory forms taking shape against the chaos and flux of existence. Still, it’s frustrating not to see any final, live performance. To be fair, the question of how to present English’s work over a three-month exhibition is a conundrum; but stitching together what feel like disparate chunks of a work in progress, giving us a sort of preliminary sketch, isn’t a satisfying solution. 

By: Gabriel Coxhead


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