Art and Music      
Christopher Ward London


Dynamite Fighter


Performance artists: Adam James, Jennie Fagerstrom, Malin Stahl, Anita Wernstrom.
Curator: Alexandra McGilp


Performance Art pieces largely break down into two categories; either too little is happening or too much. Dynamite Fighter belongs, adeptly and with deliberate forethought, in the latter camp.

The piece takes as a point of departure the intriguing, conflicted figure of Wakefield-born boxer Paul Sykes, who died last year. Despite touring America under the powerful wing of shock-haired promoter Don King, Sykes ended up a homeless alcoholic and became the recipient of Wakefield's first ASBO. These latter stages of his life resembled a tragedy of errors. Unable to comprehend the legal limitations imposed upon him, he was continually re-arrested and, when alcoholically incapacitated, often targeted as a victim by local boot boys (an especially sad indignity for an ex-fighter).

Dynamite Fighter unfurls within the confines of a small cinema space, wooden pallets and piles of tyres approximating the shape of a boxing ring - a pleasingly grubby environment containing a trio of patrolling dominatrices, a free-roving, vocally expostulating pseudo-tramp ('Paul') and a lengthy series of dialogue-heavy film projections. Musical accompaniment alternated between a semi-broken gramophone playing excerpts from Holst's Planets Suite and Dalston's finest band, "Lark", who had recreated their entire rehearsal room in an adjacent chamber, their Fall-esque music being intermittently piped into the performance room's speakers. Meanwhile, the aforementioned patrolling trio proffered orange segments to the audience from upturned hub-cap platters.

Such muchness!

To covey the existential pathos under which Paul spent his last years, boyleANDshaw draw upon the infamous scene from Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange in which main protagonist Alex and his gang of "droogs" assault an old tramp in a dimly lit urban underpass. In order to cleverly invert this reference, the "droogs" are replaced by Korova Milkbar waitresses (dressed in costumes based on those from Kubrick's film), who serenely terrorize the tramp figure throughout the piece. Something of a conceptual leap, it brings a whole sense of otherness and multi-dimensionality, to the work.

While the piece offers a multitude of stimuli and disparate elements, it succeeds in being both genuinely weird and emotionally/intellectually compelling - a testament to the skills of the creators and their quartet of performers. This was a continuous, four-hour show, but such is the event horizon that it felt more like two (for the performers, it probably felt like six). I confess that my appreciation of this art form tends to the barbaric. If it holds my attention it's good - so bugger the concept. For me, then, this piece had sufficient visual, theatrical and balletic charms to please, per se, but it was no conceptual slouch, either.

Working outwards from a number of choreographed pre-sets, the performers improvised their interactions with considerable intuitive élan. When left "tramp free" (as 'Paul' wanders, disconcertingly, through other parts of the Royal Academy building) and not proffering oranges, the waitresses performed a languid series of stylised, sexualised, self-defence manoeuvres - occasionally freezing into ominous immobility. As soon as 'Paul' returned to the ring area, aggressively and brokenly reminiscing with the resentful obliquity of the inebriate, they neatly moved to impair his movements. When he attempted to 'bed down' they shone blinding lights into his face, pushing him back into the same motions they had previously forbidden him. Human ASBOS, metaphorical thugs. Gad-flies.

If there was a weakness it lay with the films which were sometimes distractingly "busy", and although Lark's music provides a suitably menacing undertow, it's probably superfluous to the success of the piece.

But successful it certainly is. Put simply, I had never heard of Paul Sykes before seeing this show. It will be some time before I forget him. Moreover, if, as has been mooted abroad, Performance Art has recently suffered a period in the doldrums, then the vitality of this piece is undeniable evidence of a new and exciting awakening.

Keiron Phelan

Utopia - Roundhouse
Threadneedle Prize
Prestel Publishing
The Open College of the Arts
Art & Music Newsletter Subscribe