NOTTINGHAM, U.K. — Seeing both notebook and pen, a fellow spectator says with some disbelief: “Are you reviewing this? Well, good luck!” My challenges are well apparent, thanks to the inexplicable outbreaks of dance, song and puppetry. Music fluctuates between something gently cosmic to a hard-rocking riff by Megadeth. Films run on two jumbo screens; one transports the proceedings here to a local urban cave, thanks to the magic of the green screen. Another cave, sculpted, is planted in the show’s midst. And crowds follow the action to and fro, blocking sightlines and adding to the atmosphere of planned mayhem.
We are in the East Midlands for a major new performance called “The Green Room” by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, a name which has become a byword in the UK art scene for ramshackle exuberance. Marvin is a she, who went by the name Spartacus Chetwynd until last year. In 2012 she was nominated for the Turner Prize, so her new nom de guerre flies in the face of all received wisdom about brand equity. And, despite the help of more than 20 cast members for this gig in Nottingham, Chetwynd still also takes part: hard to miss thanks to the slit in her green dress which allows one breast to neatly fall out.
The venue is Nottingham Contemporary, the first UK institution to give this artist a solo show. But as a performance artist, the displays only make real sense when animated by her motley troupe. In the gallery space you can find remains of the many-limbed “Cat Bus,” which came to life in public at Frieze in 2010. And next door is the “Brain Bug,” around which performances will center during the show’s run. (“Are you staging a long term exhibition of this?” one might ask. “Good luck!”)
But if genius steals, then Chetwynd is a performance art Picasso. Fans of Studio Ghibli will recognize the grinning feline carriage from an enchanting sequence in My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Meanwhile, the cerebral parasite next door reconstructs an entity from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997). And back in the lively performance space, pop cultists may identify the model cave as the temple from Catwoman (2004) and note that the extensive footage pertains to the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978). This may be aggressive appropriation, but it taps the roots of creativity, which so often can be homage. Children, at least, will have no problem with Chetwynd’s derivations.
It is interesting that if an artist makes reference to an earlier artist, that can be a quotation. Whereas if she remodels and repurposes a slice of pop culture, it’s pastiche. But the fact is that Chetwynd does both. This new performance of hers, which ran for three and a half hours, also owes plenty to 14th century painter Giotto. Some ten be-robed priests and priestesses throw hieratic shapes and flow around the room as if straight from some renaissance altarpiece. In an oft repeated highlight from the show, one priestess is lowered back onto a scrum-like formation of colleagues. It is a minimal piece of spectacle which looks increasingly unsafe as the evening wears on.
Burden is a key theme here. It is present in the artist’s debt to Giotto, her debt to Star Wars, and the debt with which, as a former student of first anthropology and then painting, Chetwynd once had to grapple. It is tempting to say that the more success one has as an artist, the more one owes to one’s forebears. An arrangement of sand-colored cardboard boulders make one think of the weight of an overdraft or credit card bill, just as much as the holy land as painted by Giotto. But Chetwynd retains a sense of fun; the rockery is home to a number of cheaply sewn together cat puppets.
Half a dozen green-clad performers (billed as “debtors/puppeteers” ) coax their pets into ravaging a pair of prone figures on the green stage which gives this new piece its name: “The Green Room.” If you turn your back on the action, you can watch the cats appear to float through the air against the footage from the city caves. Chetwynd has said she likes the knowing humor of inexpensive special effects. But one fears that to begin to take all of the above too seriously is to begin to miss the point. Many have pointed out the silliness of this artist’s many previous under-rehearsed happenings.
In fact, comedy is everywhere. Behind the screen, the artist has built a makeshift saloon, and here you can meet a family of Wookies. Most will recognize Chewbacca from Star Wars (1977), but less well-known are his wife and daughter, who made just one ill-fated appearance in an unapproved Christmas spin off. This hairy family demonstrate the artist’s talents for costume. The youngster is short, pink, and just as mournful as dad. The tackier end of the world’s favorite space opera is also the most fun.
Things get quite out of hand in this saloon when the Empire calls time on the much loved bar from Tatooine. Chetwynd’s assembled cast begin to protest with stamping feet and clapping hands. The singing is not far behind: heavily bearded Marc David almost steals the show with a fully committed rendition of one of the Holiday Special’s highlights, the song Goodnight, But Not Goodbye. The chaos on the bar floor evolves into a conga. There is dancing on tables and a queue for a proffered kiss by a drag queen.
There are at least two transvestites in the show who both look over six foot tall. Along with a gruff Chewbacca, who occasionally abducts audience members, they ensure this is a tough show, not a piece of whimsy. The exhaustion which cast and audience share towards the end of the evening is a redeeming feeling. We have all, it seems, made it through, and become part of this happening in one way or another.
“The Green Room” was performed on February 7; further Brain Bug performances by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd can be seen on March 1 and 15 at 2pm. The exhibition continues at the Nottingham Contemporary (Weekday Cross, Nottingham) through March 23.