The first in a series of three performances curated by Hilary Murray for ArtBox and linked together under the name Democracy, Atoosa Pour Hosseini’s Mirage took place on a pitch-black evening of December last. As its name suggests, ArtBox is made up of one single self-contained chamber: the entrance from the street brings you directly into the white-washed space with no intervening passageway to bridge access from the outside and the rectangular room’s most remarkable feature is the expansive window that makes up much of the fourth wall. Murray has been Director and Curator at ArtBox since its opening in 2014, in which time she has mounted solo and group shows, performances, a month-long residency and a number of collaborative ventures – including with the nearby LAB and Oonagh Young – with the purpose of bolstering local engagement with the visual arts. As outlined on its website, ArtBox is a not-for-profit initiative supported by Dublin City Council’s Vacant Spaces Scheme and, stripped bare, it becomes a kind of fugitive venue, a gallery not by design, but as an answer to a vacuum, a quality that makes it particularly well-suited to the evanescence of performance art.
As Murray gave a brief introduction, the audience, initially huddled together in clusters, intuitively organized itself into two defined groups, the first adjacent to the long brick wall to the right of the entrance, and the second at the front of the gallery, along its street-front window. A small number of materials had been laid out on the grey concrete floor, suggesting a delineation of space between us and the domain of the two actors, Pour Hosseini herself and, performing with her in this piece, artist Anja Mahler. Marking out two corners, parallel with the front and back walls, were a laptop positioned on a tall white plinth and, across from this, two bags of charcoal powder resting on a square white base just above ground-level. In between these two objects lay the projector, in a square outlined with white tape. This ascetic arrangement had its own poetic subtlety, a compound of normally irreconcilable constituents, drawing attention to the chasm between the terrestrial and the digital.
When the gallery lights dimmed and the room was in almost total darkness, Mahler, dressed in black, at times with Pour Hosseini but predominantly on her own, began to lay out seemingly arbitrary measures of red tape onto the walls and the floor of the gallery. Sometimes one would help the other in securing a long stretch by walking the tape onto the ground but mostly the task was carried out by each of them separately, with no interaction. Gradually, each artist assumed entirely discrete roles, with Pour Hosseini working from her laptop while Mahler assuredly continued to lay down strips of tape, forming geometric shapes in disarray, implicating an agreed upon disorder that somehow demanded compliance.
At the back of the gallery, on the wall opposite the window, the first few frames of footage came into view, signalled by a vertical strip of red film leader coursing down the screen. This drew a curious kinship between the red tape Mahler was fixing to the floor and the celluloid film used as raw material here. On the makeshift screen, a moving shape came into view in flickering images marked with scratches and imperfections; emerging from extensively re-edited and re-filmed footage, a figure dressed in a beige Mac could be made out walking with aplomb toward the camera across a desert landscape. At times, Mahler paused from her work and stood near or in front of the projector’s light, so that her silhouette could be made out on the wall, thereby creating a new, live image over the film scene, obliterating one figure with another.
The sound of something akin to a kango hammer played for long stretches but would then stop abruptly, creating an absence in which the pummelling noise of what came before seemed to reverberate on. After some time, Mahler took one of the bags of charcoal powder from the white base and, while standing fully upright, started pouring small amounts of it on to the ground, causing eruptions of black dust that the projector’s light cast on to the wall, a startling, unique effect that cast a murky and billowing edge at the bottom of every frame. This she did a number of times until there was enough charcoal on the ground for her to spread it into the shape of a perfect black circle. On her hands and knees, Mahler skilfully outlined an arc, filled it in and then mirrored it above itself. Every now and then she ceremoniously rose to her feet and shed more black powder on to the ground, each time as though she was engaged in some self-ascribed ritual.
The unfeeling desert scene projected on the back wall dissipated early on and in its place, silent footage of a group of friends relishing a day of summer heat emerged. Here, the camera captured its subjects in hazy sunshine and close-up, resting in togs under the shade of a tree, devouring strawberries, swimming right up to and looking into the lens and then turning around and swimming away. A sense of camaraderie pervaded, an idyllic picture of union and a spirit of togetherness, a democracy of sorts, at intriguing odds both with the austere film sequence that preceded it and the performance’s other facet, its sure-footed routine and dark aspect.
When the black circle was complete, Mahler drew out a cable with a contact mic attached and rubbed it into the powder on the ground, amplifying the substance’s grainy texture. This jagged sound gave rise to the suggestion of restless activity, of energy born from earth that is, like a mirage, discernible but intangible. Unlike an hallucination, a mirage is not a figment of human imagination. Instead it is an optical phenomenon, that a camera can record, created when light rays are refracted. However, what makes it so beguiling is that the form the image takes is determined by the viewer’s interpretive bent. Is there a way to use this as a metaphor for the art of cinema, and indeed for this performance, where the potential for meaning, and its power, rests with the spectator?
Leaving the sequestered gallery and stepping into the dark and inclement night, I had the feeling of having attended more of a kind of ceremony than a performance, where the purpose of codified ritual lay, at least in part, in shared albeit short-lived experience. Pour Hosseini’s performance as a whole, and her commanding, notably subsidiary role within it, provoked a heightened awareness of the enduring strength and force of the mystic and primordial, offering ways in which they can continue to have an impact, particularly if we are canny and curious enough to know how to use the materials at our disposal to find a way to channel them.
Mirage took place on 3 December 2015.