Performance Art Archive:  Lorna Stewart

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Lorna Stewart
Performance on
Friday 13 May 2005

8.30 p.m.

Admission Free

 With the support of Arts Admin

Lorna Stewart is an English artist who graduated from the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff with a first class degree in 2000.  She won the Helen Gregory Memorial Scholarship in 2000 and received the Arts Admin Bursary in 2003.  Lorna Stewart works both as a solo artist and in collaboration with other artists.  She has regularly performed both nationally and internationally including at the Birmingham Ikon Galley as part of Fierce Festival 2004 and also performed in Nipaf, Japan, in the Recontre Festival, Quebec, the 11th Performance Art Conference, Essen, at The Ocean Club, London, and in The April Festival, Belgrade.  She also performed in a film by Jayne Parker and Anthony Howell called ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ for BBC2’s Dance on Camera season.  Lorna Stewart also dances tango, teaches and has performed for the Tango Volcano band and is a member of Tango Art.

There is always a sculptural aspect to the performance work of Lorna Stewart.  She is often inspired by Greek and Roman sculpture, and she has an interest, which she shares with Bruce McLean, in the notion of the plinth as an armature for a performance.  One is also reminded of the “singing sculptures” - Gilbert and George - and how they have used a table as a dais.

Traditionally the plinth raises the statue above its viewers.  But when the statue is a living one, this puts the body in a precarious position.   In an early piece, For Jenny, curtains opened to reveal a cornet balanced upside-down on a high, narrow plinth.  After a minute they closed, only to re-open to show the naked artist balancing on her head on the same plinth for the entirety of a minute.  With her knees bent, her position echoed the shape of the cornet.  It was a mystery how she got up there and was an action imbued with suspense and danger.  After that the curtains closed.  When they opened for a third time, there was darkness and the sound of the last post played on the cornet by the artist.  The piece was an elegy to a cornet-playing friend who had died in a car accident.  Stewart attempted to learn how to play the cornet in order to perform the piece.  She sets herself tasks which are just a little too hard for her to do.  Yet the tentative nature of her cornet-playing contributed to the poignancy of her tribute to her friend.  She says of her work, “The accuracy required for it to be executed invests each piece with the drama of its difficulty, the slightest error having the potential to bring about failure.”  In another performance, Self-improvement, she balanced upside down as a lectern for the amount of time it took for a person to read a long and complicated text spread open on the soles of her feet: another instance of difficulty and vulnerability creating suspense. 


More recently, in Mappa, she stands naked on a small table holding up a silk napkin in a position that suggests power and divinity.  She then drops it, spins and attempts to catch the napkin.  If she fails to catch it and it floats to the ground, a double projection of Ben Hur begins to play, triggered by the remote controls in the hands of two men in evening dress.  She may be obliged to half-crawl, half-slide off the table in order to stretch for the fallen napkin.   Her now abject position is trampled over by the thundering hooves and the armed wheels of the projected chariots.  The films only become frozen when she retrieves the napkin and holds it up again - in an action that renders her sublime once more, and triumphant, though ironically it also guys the attitude of Pontius Pilate - who drops his napkin to start the chariot race.  If her assistants make mistakes, the tension mounts.  The frozen images inevitably become out of synch: the near repetitions that result read as variations of an image rather than as errors.  As a twist, when the race is over, the projections freeze and the artist also becomes frozen.  One man, the person whose race ended first, places the napkin in the breast pocket of his tuxedo. 


In addition to her interest in sculpture, Stewart is an accomplished tango dancer, and the Room is privileged to premier Afilador - knife-grinder - a performance that has developed out of a visit to Buenos Aires.  She attaches to a bicycle a drive-belt that connects a grindstone to the cogs used by the chain.  With the back wheel off the ground she activates this device which lifts her off the ground, thus supplying her with the armature for a performance and rendering her cycling stationary.  She takes a knife and starts sharpening it on the grinder, which she works by continuing to cycle. The action of her body coordinates with that of the pedals and the grinder; the whole suggesting some fantastic machine such as one might read about in a novel by Raymond Roussel: deviser of cruel, if fictitious, machines, often designed to destroy the body.  However there is also a reference to leading and following - Stewart is motivating the movements of the bicycle, just as the man motivates his follower in the tango.


Although she does not speak Spanish as yet, or know how to sing, she attempts to sing a tango in Spanish at the same time as she pedals and grinds.  The song is called Amablemente.  It is about a man who comes across his girl in a lovers’ hotel, in the arms of another man.  He takes her home, and then “with tranquillity and great kindness,” he stabs her thirty-four times.  Stewart has thirty-four knives to sharpen and sings the song thirty-four times.


Anthony Howell, April, 2005

The Room is at 33 Holcombe Road, Tottenham Hale, N17 9AS

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