Bizarre, absurd and confused might be some of the impressions you will leave with after experiencing one of performance artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s films. The British artist is famed for taking iconic moments in cultural history, such as Michael Jackon’s Thriller music video or the film Born Free and re-working them into improvised, spontaneous performances. And last week the Centre for Creative Arts in Exeter played host to this Turner Prize nominated artist as she gave a fascinating talk on her journey through this medium, her motivation and theories, and key works that have stood out for her along the way.
The filmed performances are highly experimental and even a bit strange, a reflection of the artist’s own energy and desire to live experimentally the whole time. Nowhere is this shown more than through her controversial changing of names, born as Alalia Chetwynd but best known as Spartacus Chetwynd, and now recently Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. Many have seen this as a PR stunt but the artist claims it is because the names are a more appropriate for the space she is in at her life at the time. The robustness of ‘Spartacus’ acted as a shield whilst she was trying to define herself as an artist, but now ‘Marvin Gaye’ and the free-spirited thinking he represents is more apt. Like her work, one can read into the name changes trying to find some big political statement or profound artistic experimentation but in actual fact it’s just meant to be seen as satirical and fun.
The making of films came off the back of wanting to document the performance, making it an inclusive experience rather than an exclusive one. Chetwynd says this was a big breakthrough for her that you didn’t have to have an audience in front of you, that through filming the performance it would be documented for future generations, her voice would still be able to be heard and still including people. Although the artist wants to make the performance an inclusive experience, I found as a viewer the bizarreness, lack of coherent narrative and static camera angles meant that I often did not know what was going on. Her 2011 film ‘Odd Man Out’ is a prime example of the strangeness of the performances, the piece is collage of different cultural references, literally taking the viewer through into different rooms as if on a ghost train ride. The experience is a comment on the voting system, the first room is a voting booth and then depending on the vote you would be taken into a different room, showing that when you vote it imminently has an effect. The film of this performance definitely resonates the haunting qualities that Chetwynd wanted the performance to embody but loses much of the interaction that many of the statements are framed around.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd ends the talk about how her work has transcended into the “real world”, and how she was asked to design a soft play area for children near Dagenham. The space challenged the artist as it had many logistical design problems that had to be overcome; such as, the area had to be fun and safe for the children but also be a long enough course that would allow the parents to have a coffee, which is where the centre made its money. This commission shows how performance art can and should bring an element of experimentation and fun into our everyday lives. If the talk has left me with anything is admiration I have for Marvin Gaye Chetwynd for not taking herself seriously, wanting to promote good energy and generally as she said “getting with the groove”.