Alexis Blakes’ rock to jolt [
] stagger to ash is a powerful space making gesture, an opening onto, and an affirmation of what has been suppressed, erased and devalued within a patriarchal culture that has feared the spiritual, erotic and life force carried within. Blake took as her starting point the outlawing of the lament in Greece during the 6th century BCE, a ritual practiced by women as a way of collectively mourning, protesting and working through loss. The wailing voices and bodily movements once believed to tear a portal between the living and the dead, were deemed too unruly and incongruous with the founding of a polis based on democratic ideals of rational thought and speech. “Putting a door on the female mouth has been an important project of patriarchal culture from antiquity to the present day,” say writer Anne Carson, whose translation of fragmented verses of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho are woven into the manyfacets of rock to jolt [
] stagger to ash. And what of the spaces and practices for a shared processing of loss within our contemporary culture? Activating the grand staircase and naturally lit, classical featured mezzanine of the Stedelijk museum, Blake unfolds an intervention into the present, in which two singers, four
dancers and a sound artist become vectors for a transhistorical, transcultural choreographic ritual of a shared unleashing.
] in a thin voice
The voice is key to this process of unleashing as vocality in Western traditions of thought has been ascribed to the feminine and the body. The voice, and woman’s voice in particular, in relation to speech, is understood to be without meaning. It is pure sensorial material that emerges in the fleshiness and vibrations of the throat. In this way, the voice is perceived as quasi animalistic, dangerously bodily and seductive. A tabloid newspaper publication — designed with Dongyoung Lee and Sandra Kassenaar — consisting of archival research Blake culled from sources across cultures, historical moments and geographic locations, indexes the devaluation and fear of the woman’s voice, as well as female anatomy such as the uterus, vagina, and labia. And yet, a complex terrain emerges between these historical and contemporary images and narratives, whereby attempts to control and denigrate within patriarchal structures appear alongside acts by women using their bodies and voices to deflect harm and incite fear, protest and action. From one moment to the next throughout the duration of the performance, different bodily vocabularies from this archive come in and out of view. The dancers and singers continuously move into stunning configurations that mediate and modulate a range of affects, which are at times discordant one with the other: from taunting, confronting, aggressive chants and movements, to moments filled with sensuality, supportive tenderness, and sorrowful quietness.
you burn me
you burn us
The power in releasing and hearing unbridled embodiedness emerges and is felt through the performers’ movements and soundings: stomping on the surface of the stages, beating their chests, using their breaths in a rhythmic manner, toying with the syllables of words, like the slithering sssssww of ‘sweat’, and working with the feedback the sound artist inputs upon what they generate. The reverberations of their bodily gestures and voices often echo and resound throughout the space, for instance, with the seducing dissonance of the siren, or with the lulling melody of a Black Sea lament song. The feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero reminds us of the inherently relational character of the voice, for just as it emerges from the uniqueness of each body, its destination is the body of another. The voice intimately connects the in- and the outside, the self with the other.
As a visitor, one cannot take distance from what unfolds, since the embodied anger, sorrow and desire expressed by the performers resonates deep within. The intervention is one that interpolates, moves and concerns all those present. Standing majestically on a stage, swinging a speaker that is rigged to her mic in swooping circles above her head, one of the singer’s repeats in an anthem-like, accusative manner, “you burn me”, “you burn us”. The statement is taken from the ambiguity Carson identified in one of Sappho’s poetic fragments, between the pronoun ‘me’ and ‘us’. Blake seized on this conflation to stress the inter-dependence of self and other, reinforcing poet and activist Emma Lazarus words from 1883, that “until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
] we live
Carson uses brackets in her translation of Sappho’s fragments as a placeholder for text that was lost in time due to ripped or eroded paper. For Blake, these brackets symbolize the fragmented nature of history and the absence of countless historical narratives. And yet, as her piece makes poignantly clear, that which is repressed, lost or censored persists and morphs through the stubborn recalcitrant of the unruly and the dispossessed, travelling like wavelengths from one body to the next through expressive acts of embodied transmission. The body as a living archive of past and present violence, pain, desires and pleasures is beautifully held in the imprinting of images and words from the research material and even onto the streetwear of the performers that was designed by Elisa van Joolen with Mika Perlmutter.
Blake’s installation within the exhibition space further restages the bracket. Upon entering, one encounters a bare and dimmed room and is immediately engulfed with a smell of decay, which was created by smell researcher and artist, Sissel Tolaas. For Blake, decay dovetails the process of lamenting, in her words “decay like lamenting is always changing and morphing, and a sign of our impermanence.” The smell of decay is brought to bear at the end of the performance, when in a ritualistic manner, the four dancers move like one organism past all those present. Holding the four corners of a white sheet, they swoop it up and down turning it into a wave that breaks each time to the sound of a resounding beat. The movement releases the smell — nano-embeded in the fabric — into space and serves as a purification gesture after the intense moments of rage, tenderness, sorrow and eroticism; moments of remembering and working through a history of women’s unacknowledged power. The performance is one that stirs, confronts and touches.
As the bodies of the performers quietly descend the staircase in a wave-like formation and disappear from view, the smell and resounding beat remain, reminding us that the work of reconnecting with the power of our unexpressed and unrecognised feelings that vibrate within, and between us, is to be taken-up everyday, a new.
Text by Anik FournierCREDITS
CONCEPT, CHOREOGRAPHY, COMPOSITION, DIRECTION, TEXT: Alexis Blake
GRAPHIC DESIGN: Sandra Kassenaar, Dongyoung Lee
GARMENTS: Elisa van Joolen with Mika Perlmutter
SMELL: Sissel Tolaas
DANCERS (choreographic input /performing): Shari Ashley Labadie, Alice de Maio. Polina Mirovskaya, Gianine Strang
SINGERS / COMPOSERS: Sanem Kalfa, Logan Muamba Ndanou
SOUND ARTIST /COMPOSER: Ghaith Qoutainy
SOUND ENGINEER: Hala Namer
SWINGING SPEAKER: Hala Namer, Ghaith Qoutainy
PRODUCER: Helena Julian
PRODUCED BY: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
CURATOR: Britte Sloothaak
SOMATIC THERAPIST: Amanda Macrae
SUPPORTED BY: Mondriaan Fund, Outset Contemporary Art Fund
rock to jolt [
] stagger to ash was realised for the Prix de Rome Visual Arts 2021
Poem fragments in text : If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Translated by Anne Carson. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.