I have intimated variously that I am not entirely sold on ‘Performance Art.’ Oh I entirely believe that artists ought to perform their work, but I feel that the audience should be able to relax and appreciate the piece, rather than discovering that somehow they’re part of the artwork they’re supposed to be appreciating.
Hence you will not find me joining Lancet Foredeck in inscribing my verses, one line at a time, on a procession of buoys marking the deep water channel in the estuary, on the somewhat overenthusiastic assumption that anybody will ever go out there to read them.
Still I have taken part in the occasional work, but never as the principal. One instance was where Shadon asked me to help him out. He is, at best, a mediocre poet, but discovered that if he could distract people from listening too closely to the actual words, he could pass himself off as a modestly accomplished artist. Thus he took to performance art as the poetical equivalent of the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of the skilled prestidigitator.
He asked me to take part at something he was organising at Madam Dolbart’s establishment. I agreed, not entirely for artistic reasons but also because the pastry served at her affairs are without doubt the finest in Port Naain. It is a real pleasure to browse her buffet table.
The first issue was that it was going to be a formal performance. This involved people wearing wigs and suchlike. Fortunately Madam Dolbart’s friends tended to have such garb, because Madam was fond of period dress, and Madam herself had a selection of nicely maintained garments and wigs for her performers.
So on with the performance. A performance chamber was improvised in a small withdrawing roof off the main dining room. The audience would be lured in from the buffet by a masked Timpton Lumber who could be seen playing the bladder pipe whilst a small dog capered to his piping. Once the guests were seated, a winged messenger of the gods would appear blowing a horn and this would announce the arrival of Shadon who would engage Timpton in carefully scripted but apparently spontaneous ‘witty banter’. This, obviously, was in rhyme. My part was to contribute by both assisting in the writing of the banter, and also acting as narrator and straight man, feeding them both lines that they could extemporise from. Given that Timpton hadn’t been announced the audience were supposed to guess who the masked figure was. My job was to ensure that the guesses got wilder and wilder until Timpton was finally unveiled.
Let us be honest, it did not go well. Firstly the messenger of the gods was a nice idea but spoiled by overly ambitious execution. The messenger, Milli Davine, is a poet in her own right, and can indeed play the horn. She was an excellent choice for the messenger. To be fair she was an excellent choice if you wished to have a bare-breasted messenger. The problems started by Shadon deciding that he wanted a bare-breasted winged messenger. If you wish to present your audience with winged messengers it’s easy enough to get a set of wings with the proper harness that straps firmly about the torso and thus appear to sprout from the back. Unfortunately as you can well imagine, such a harness needs considerable camouflaging. Indeed so constricting is it (it has to be to adequately support the weight of the wings) that it is often not entirely possible to be sure the winged creature is male of female.
But Shadon had in mind the classic sculpture of Etan’s Revelation. The messenger there is both winged and ostentatiously female. Milli Davine suggested that she could replace the harness with gum, and Shadon agreed to let her try this.
Even as we prepared to start the performance, Shadon, somewhat nervous about how the performance was going to go, had fortified himself with several glasses of excellent wine at the buffet. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary he insisted to Milli that everything was going to be all right.
Milli was at least wise enough to take her place hidden from the audience by a screen which was then allowed to move aside to reveal her in all her glory. That bit went well and both Shadon and Milli were gratified by the applause. She had no problems until she tried to move or do anything that involved chest movement, such as, for example, blowing the trumpet. The gum, softened by the warmth of the room, did not support the wings as had been hoped and the right wing especially seemed to sag more every time she moved
Yet this was the least of our problems. Timpton Lumber arrived smelling of drink. He refreshed himself enthusiastically at the buffet and by the time it came to perform he was, to put it bluntly, drunk. He discarded his mask and instead of playing the bladder pipe for a cavorting dog, he merely sprawled on his chair telling discreditable anecdotes about prominent persons in Port Naain society.
When Milli blew her horn and Shadon appeared, Timpton basically ignored them, being half way through a convoluted story about the cuckolding of Radsel Oeltang. Radsel wasn’t present but his lady wife was. She was not entirely happy with this and would doubtless have leapt up to belabour Timpton with her fan had her sister not gently restrained her. I frantically tried to feed Timpton and Shadon the lines they were supposed to build on but Shadon panicked, tipped Timpton’s chair back so he went sprawling on the floor. Milli had to move to dodge him meaning one of her wings fell off and the dog ran off with it. Struggling to stand up, Timpton, infuriated that his story had been interrupted, kicked out at Shadon and succeeded in catching him on the knee and bringing him down. Thus the two of them proceeded to brawl on the floor, cursing each other loudly. At this point Milli proved her worth. She pulled the blue curtain down on the two protagonists, which both hid them from the audience and muffled their words. I joined her and hand in hand we stood on the curtain, pinning our two colleagues down as we recited what we could remember of the spontaneous witty banter.
This done, we bowed and I gracefully removed Milli’s remaining wing. Then with immense formality we escorted the guests out of the withdrawing room and back to the buffet.
Those wishing to read of Tallis Steelyard’s other ventures into Performance Art are advised to purchase a copy of ‘Tallis Steelyard, a harsh winter and other stories.’