16000:2 TEETH(OF)MY CHILDREN was my second performance at Tempting Failure and the performance I had prepared for as I had known about it further in advance than the first performance. I have previously mentioned the development behind this work, but will briefly recap.
I decided that I wanted to work with my children’s milk teeth as a material. I am fascinated with the notion that these teeth came into existence inside my body. They left me inside my children’s body and then as they left their gums, they returned to me under the guise of the tooth fairy. It was my intention for this action to question, where does the mother’s body end? I am fascinated with the body as a site that is autonomous and also a site of creation; that all bodies regenerate and create new cells, and that my body grew other bodies inside it. This still seems mysterious to me despite the fact that I have lived through it.
So, for this performance I laid out the ephemeral traces from the previous action. I wanted to hold the memory and the energy of the past experience within the space; to trigger the memory in any people who had witnessed the first performance. I wanted to feel like I was just continuing an exploration, opposed to starting a brand new work, and I felt that the materials really were the key to the continuation.
I stood next to the pile and one by one I dropped single sheets of paper to the floor. As they floated to the floor they landed randomly. I had no control as they floated through the space. This action allowed the paper to be active in the space. It made visible the boundary between me and the audience. There were also moments where the paper would bounce off the body of a person. This physical contact, for me, created a connection between me and the audience. I wanted them close. I wanted it to be an intimate sharing, opposed to a showing. Eventually the floor was scattered with sheets of paper, overlapping but also some with gaps between.
I then reached again into my vagina and pulled out a glass vial containing 10 of my children’s teeth. For me this was the only way that seemed appropriate for them to enter the space. I wanted to make it clear that they were not my teeth from my mouth, but the teeth from my children, from my womb. This knowledge would activate associations and meanings in the action that would follow. This was important to me. Kneeling on the floor, I held the teeth in my palm and I held them out for the audience to see. These teeth felt like incredibly powerful, emotive artefacts to me. Maybe it was because I had been away from the children for a week by this time, and I was missing them? As a material they really did seem so heavily loaded. I was so deeply connected to them.
I held the teeth in my left hand, and held it outstretched. I took the the one by one and pushed as hard as I could the sharp edge of the teeth into my skin. I felt that I wanted to return them to my body. I wanted my arm to engulf them. The pain that came as they pierced the skin seemed to root me, to ground me in the moment. My arm felt heavy as I held it against the force and I pushed the tooth into the skin. I leap frogged the teeth up my arm, like a game. Such a childlike action against the cutting of the skin felt odd. Like the duality of light and dark manifested in one simple playful action. As I moved up my arm, across my chest and down my other arm, the odd tooth would loosen itself and fall to the floor. When I got to the wrist of the right arm only one tooth was left imbedded into my wrist. I held my arm at a right angle to my body and tried to hold it up until the tooth fell to the floor. It wouldn’t let go and there was this real sense of tension as I wanted to commit to the action, but my arm felt too heavy, to painful to outlast the grip of the tooth.
Photo Credit: Julia Bauer.
Work supported by Tempting Failure CIC and Arts Council England.
My arm shook violently and I was taken back to my experience at Thomas John Bacon’s masterclass a few months ago. Here I was, reaching the limit of my body in this action. I wanted to show the vulnerability that comes through failure. I wanted my struggle to be seen. This wasn’t a forced struggle but a real experience. The tooth that wouldn’t let go seemed like such a powerful metaphor, especially within the context of parenthood. Eventually my arm dropped to my side. I intended that I would mark every tooth that landed on a sheet of paper with a fingerprint of menstrual fluid from the previous performance, using saliva on my finger to wet it like paint. As the tooth on my wrist outlasted me, I marked my arm where it gripped. For all the teeth that landed in the gaps, they were returned to the cycle and it would keep going until all the teeth were captured upon the stark white sheets.
For me this performance felt so different to the previous one. There was less space in my mind for thought, as I had no choice but to be in the action because of the challenges that came with the action. This is by no means a negative thing, in fact I feel that it was a hugely affective and powerful experience. I was struggling with my body, showing it’s limits and it’s struggle. I was vulnerable and I was using a heavily loaded and emotive material. Based on conversations with people who witnessed the performance I learnt that these elements meant that people felt a strong connection to the action. There was an empathic connection, which in my mind is a marker for success in a work. The things I learnt at TJ Bacon’s masterclass really have stuck with me, and were clearly evident for me in this work and all other durational works I have done since. I feel like his influence has helped me realise why I am interested in these physical boundaries, and the difficulties that come with endurance and duration. The notion of surrendering to the action which I learnt at the masterclass really is, for me, the epitome of action based performance opposed to theatrical performance. For me, my experience was real; there was no veil, no act, no exaggeration. I opened myself up, I struggled with my body and I shared it with an audience. This was such a powerful affective moment.
The emotions built throughout form me and when it came to the end of the action I struggled to contain them. I felt like I needed to expel some of this energy. That I couldn’t just keep it in. To mark this I pushed the stack of paper over covering the teeth and the traces. Burying the action and dispersing the energy. It was a release.
A month later my arm is still marked. Scarred in fact with the traces of one of the most powerful things I have experienced within my own art practice. I feel proud of these marks and I feel that the performance has continued through them. It is happening in my mind whenever I look at them.
Helena Sands, artist and Legacy Producer for Tempting Failure wrote a beautiful response to the performance which can be read here.
Tempting Failure has been an inspirational experience. I would like to publicly thank Helena for her response and also Thomas John Bacon for all of his support. Through his masterclass and the platform of Tempting Failure I feel like I have learnt so much. I have confronted my insecurities, and have developed confidence to know that my work has a place in the world; that I don’t need to justify it. The more I push myself and open myself up to my practice, the more I feel like myself. I can’t put this back in the box, there’s no turning back. For me, body based practice not only makes sense, it feels like my language. It is a part of me.