Performed live to camera in the empty tanks of the Tate Modern during lockdown, join artists Thomas Heyes, Ekin Bernay and Rowdy SS with special guest Rebecca Bellantoni, as they respond through movement, sound and spoken word. Their rich multi-sensory responses encourage us to consider what it means to be human and resilient.
I have a theory: British people, biologically, cannot enjoy performance art. Performance is vulnerable and ballsy. It counters every British value of tight-lipped, mind your business, self-deprecation. When I make eye contact with a stranger my brain says: Antarctica is nice this time of year. So at 32 seconds into this 50 minute premiere, when Ekin Bernay is staring down the lense with the same unwavering gaze babies give you on public transport, I’m thinking “get me out of here”.
When you get past the initial fight or flight, these three Resilient Responses are (when in a bad mood) boring and confusing, and (when in a good mood) meditative. Writing this, I’m feeling the latter. Bernay is rigged up to a parachute which fights against an industrial size fan. She is piggy in the middle of a dramatic push and pull and visually, it’s cool. Thomas Heyes contorts and struggles in front of a dark, first person film of a car driving through the city at night. It feels lonely. His shouted spoken word is overtaken by loud muffled white noise, and only in its conclusion, when the noise stops, do you realise just how hypnotic it is.
Rowdy SS dances through the concrete halls of the Tate and I’m reminded of how dystopian and Bond villain-esque the building is. It’s hard to separate art from architecture here and immediately everything feels 10x more serious, simply because it’s framed on all sides by 30ft concrete plains. He’s dressed head to toe in red, complete with a blindfold, and moves with such a sense of deliberacy, I’ve literally closed TikTok because I feel I owe him my full attention. Unfortunately, I’m confused as fuck. He’s crawled his way to a stage that lights him from the torso down and frantically dances around the ring like a boxer. I feel like I’ve missed about 8 chapters of the book. Also, that maybe it’s in a foreign language? The clues like the blindfold, the boxing ring, the red outfit and glasses of water, go completely over my head. As I have much of my adult life, I’m fighting the thought “you’re a bumbling fucking idiot”, because I’m just not understanding this. Rowdy SS’s bio says he explores themes of emotion, energy and identity, and I think this is my beef with performance – it’s too vague, and I’m too anal. I want to be spoon-fed meaning…and then go to the gift shop.
The final 10 minutes of this premiere is each artist in conversation- Bernay explains how the paralysis of being in the middle of the parachute represents a struggle against a storm and links this to the trauma of the Covid experience. I love this metaphor, but even with the parachute as a prop, I wouldn’t have decoded that on my own. Heyes discusses themes of loneliness and fighting something that can’t be fought– another fantastic narrative. SS Rowdy speaks eloquently, pointing out that over lockdown, some of us haven’t had the space to move, which draws us to an important conversation about class divides in this country. Covid has thrown the wealth gap into a glaring, bright light and WFH shows us space is a luxury afforded to few. I love each of these meanings, but even with 4 years of formal art education, I couldn’t have debunked the works without the artist’s explanations. One of my core beliefs is that you don’t have to like all art and you don’t have to understand it. For this premiere, I am just happy that artists have the energy and drive to create in response to Covid and that against all odds (cough, a tory government), art funding is available. I want all artists to get paid…even the bad ones.
Going into the experience of watching performance art under a critical lens at home was a first experience and certainly an interesting one at that. Resilient Responses made me feel uncomfortable and confused yet allowed me to analyse the human response towards isolation. Bruce Nauman’s work that explores the human experience acts as an influence for the pieces within Resilient Responses that combine expressive moment and sound to affect the viewer in a compelling and almost poignant way. The performance being carried out in tanks adds to the atmosphere of alienation and closure from the world, with the performance itself being locked inside. However, some segments worked better than others in portraying the desired cocktail of isolation, alienation, and question of identity within the face of the pandemic.
The first segment begins with Ekin Bernay tied to a parachute and slowly attempting to move forwards, away from the hold it has on her. Ominous noises accompany the performance, alongside voices repeating various statements, one in particular capturing my attention: “A state of emergency.” My initial impression was that Bernay was embodying the state of emergency that our bodies and mental consciousness were rapidly suspended in due to the pandemic, and the continuing differing realities of trauma that people experience as the world shut down. This piece introduces the exhibition and completes it, with the final segment featuring Bernay tied to the parachute again. However, this time it is connected to her chest and she is pulling it closer and moving with it. The voice now states: “Now I move in waves.” Her movements become fluid; she isn’t resisting anymore, rather she just allows for the movement to organically overtake her. This is the piece that primarily resonated with me, as Bernay successfully captures the manner in which humanity as a whole was forcefully enveloped within a wave of trauma, and this wave has shaken reality. While everyone experienced this in their own unique way, Bernay wishes to portray what we do after a traumatic experience and the result of resisting or accepting it, and through her melding of movement and sound exemplifies this for the viewer.
I faced more difficulty when exploring the segments featuring Thomas Heyes and Rowdy SS. Individually, Heyes portraying an almost dystopian vision (accompanied by audio that reminded me of an echoing emergency announcement) successfully managed to ignite discomfort and portrayed resilience within the body through the twists and contortions of limbs that are encasing someone within. The combination of high-pitched sound and vacant silence alongside the dark environment brought forward a response of loneliness and fear. However, the joint segment between the two while managed to portray two individuals working together to push against a common enemy – symbolic of humanity against coronavirus – also made me feel slightly confused precisely due to this use of distorted perspective of movement. Similarly, the segment featuring Rowdy SS didn’t capture me as intensely, with my mind jumping back and forth as to whether the man was dancing or fighting an invisible entity; whether he ultimately undergoes a personal transformation as a result of the woman’s instructions of moving towards oneself or just descends into a black abyss.
Resilient Responses successfully captured my attention and being able to watch it at home – even though restrictions are easing – allows for the message of the exhibition to brew stronger. The fact that we are viewing this from our own “tanks” and are going through a common experience allows for the collaboration between Bernay, Heyes and Rowdy SS to nestle in feelings pertaining to the isolation from personal communities and loss of potential opportunities for new connections and growth, as well as how this trauma can be worked through and allow us to move forward with fluidity and growth.
I’d like to begin by stating for the record that I am quite a fan of the Tate. I wouldn’t say in a hard-core I-keep-super-up-to-date-with-what-they’re-doing kind of way, but when teenage me first discovered the excitement of London and the easy thrill of a free gallery, Tate Modern was one that I usually frequented. It’s also important to know that I’m trying to say yes to as much as I can at the moment. In a time when it feels like cultural experiences are a little hard to come by – in the ways that we’ve been used to, anyway – I’m keeping an open mind when opportunities present themselves.
Resilient Responses was never going to replace, or even try to mimic, the experience of being in a gallery. The bare, concrete space in which it was filmed certainly screamed of the Tate (and in some my university, UEA – if you know, you know), but in every other sense was unlike any art I had previously consumed. The 50 minute long film is a barrage on the eyes and ears; a sometimes uncomfortably overwhelming offense of overlapping sounds, lights, and shadows. Written and performed during the pandemic, the vignettes (supposedly) speak to the exceptionally universal experience of living through the past year.
Truth be told, I’m not sure I really understood what was going on. There, I said it. I so wanted to be provoked, moved, or somehow touched by the combination of movement, sound, and spoken word that the event’s website described. Maybe I’m just not the right target audience, but it did feel a little unnecessarily confusing – a bit of a contrast to the usually so accessible nature of the Tate. By far the most interesting aspect of the film was the five or so minutes at the end of the film in which featured artists, Ekin Bernay, Rowdy SS, and Thomas Heyes speak briefly about the work they presented. I honestly would have preferred a greater emphasis on this discussion and I think this would have increased the accessibility of the film also.
The film featured work from Thomas Heyes, Ekin Bernay and Rowdy SS and special guest Rebecca Bellantoni. Each artist played heavily with the expansive emptiness of the tanks below the gallery, using light, shadow, and echoes to produce a genuinely quite extraordinary viewing experience. Thomas Heyes’ roughly 10 minute long piece culminates with such a cacophony of grating, echoing, clanging noise that its abrupt ending had my ears ringing with the following deafening silence.
The subsequent section saw a collaboration between Thomas Heyes and Rowdy SS. I might be about to absolutely ruin my future career as a renowned art critic, but this section of the film honestly reminded me so much of those videos you see on Facebook or Tik Tok with the caption ‘Do You Want To Know What It’s Like To Have Siblings?’. You know those videos where it’s just siblings doing the weirdest stuff together in absolute silence? We see the two performers writhing about the space, their bodies simultaneously completely reliant on each other and completely incompatible. No words are exchanged between them. Maybe I’m outing myself and my siblings as too weird to be relatable but honestly I haven’t been able to get that image out of my head since.
I guess this is speaking to the absolutely disorienting experience of being so suddenly removed from the vast majority of people that are important to us during the pandemic. I suppose I have understood something then… it’s just not the medium for me.