Language is thrilling and pivotal to the artist Nicola Singh, and her words and those of others are used with precision to create multiple meanings in her work. Sweet Spot is the title of her recent installation at Jerwood Space, London, but the connotation here is less racket sport and more female body, specifically the voice.
Singh is one of three early-career artists selected for 3-Phase, a programme of development delivered by Jerwood Charitable Foundation, WORKPLACE, Gateshead and Eastside Projects, Birmingham. This accolade is a tribute to the commitment Singh has given to her practice since completing her MA in Curating Performance at Sunderland University in 2011, when bringing artists together shaped her subsequent ideas. Since then, she has appeared in a dizzying number of events, projects and partnerships in various guises: artist, DJ, writer, educator, mentor, performer, researcher and sound producer.
Listening to the disembodied, deep tones of Nicola Singh’s voice that persist throughout her 3-Phase exhibition, I’m made conscious of my hunched posture; as she accurately claims, the monologue “puts you in your body”. The spoken words were taken from Singh’s recent practice-based PhD at Northumbria University, where she innovatively performed her thesis. Trained as a singer and interested in how sound and words operate, her prosaic, unwavering delivery is all over the space. The words are sensual, arousing: “I push my buttocks open, my lips are open and I drool, I drool on you… Open my legs, drop down, legs apart”.
Something had clearly occurred at Jerwood Space before the exhibition opened, hinted at by white crime-scene body outlines and peachy domestic objects, all suggestive of a body’s presence. Singh describes these as “small moments that act as sites for performance” and the props were later used in a live event with artist and musician Jenny Moore and regular collaborator Harriet Plewis.
Her exhibition ‘the sounds here are bouncing around us and Susan and Anne and that object‘, staged earlier this year at Newcastle gallery BALTIC 39, had the onomatopoeic phrase ‘Slapping Noises’ stenciled out of wheat fronds on the wall, in a font reminiscent of heavy metal band typography. Other words Singh uses are spoken, sung, printed or acoustically and digitally manipulated, and the titles for her projects illustrate her methodology and humour.
Singh’s relationship with Gateshead’s Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art has taken many forms: student, performer, exhibitor, invited speaker and regular freelance artist for educational activities. In her own words she “loves” working with children as “there is no bullshit” and workshops are a two-way exchange.
Singh almost always works with other people and artists want to work with her. After a recent Embodied Listening workshop, part of artist Sonya Dyer’s ‘Claudia Jones Space Station’ project, I spoke with a mother and daughter who had been drawn in by Singh who promised an “unexpected experience”. They had originally intended to visit the gallery shop.
Born in Newcastle and with strong connections throughout the North-East, Singh is well-known within the fresh and pulsating artistic community. Much of this thriving activity revolves around the NewBridge Project, BALTIC 39, Vane, and Northern Charter where Singh has her studio, alongside other performance artists Susie Green and Tess Denman-Cleaver.
In 2010 Singh co-founded the performance company Tender Buttons with Denman-Cleaver, its current artistic director. The pair have known each other since they both attended Dartington College of Arts, where Singh studied Experimental Music and Visual Art (2005-2008). Denman-Cleaver marvels at Singh’s work ethic and her “care for the people involved, the complicated cobwebs of collaborations she maintains, and care for how ideas are borne out… this includes the delicate phrasing of an invitation to collaborate, the food and blankets she provides when you get together, and her attention to the difficult questions of authorship that arise within collaborations”.
For Singh, such collaborations are reciprocal and sociable. Sunday afternoons are spent singing, sharing curry and having “movement conversations” with other female artists. She works within a feminist discourse and feels most at ease with these invitees, orchestrating scenarios for them to work with and within.
In person, Singh is alluring, articulate and fashionable, and her performance costumes (wrestling masks, day-glo pink shell-suits, floating capes, bleached denim) are equally striking. She speaks openly about the adrenalin of performance, “harnessing the energy”, “owning the space”, which is the “bedrock” for her activities.
Northumbria University’s postgraduate artist community has established itself with a strong reputation for performance, led by practitioner Dr Sandra Johnson. In a formative durational performance at BALTIC 39 in 2014, whilst she was studying an MRes in Fine Art, Singh responded to the exhibition RIFT with her hypnotic work ‘Chasing Waterfalls’. Wearing a flowing garment and mimicking waterfalls, her movements were soundtracked by Enya’s equally mesmerising ‘Orinoco Flow’.
In the past Singh has said she will “resist as much as I can the urge to make an exhibition”. An exhibition instead is “an expanded performance” and her upcoming solo project will be at Eastside Projects in autumn 2018. When probed on what this might be, the gallery’s director Gavin Wade coyly says there are “no fixed plans, which is how Nicola and I like it!” Also coming up in the new year at Sidney Cooper Gallery, Canterbury, is a new exhibition using Dada artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s poem ‘Appalling Heart’ as a starting point. As Denman-Cleaver aptly says about Singh, “her shit is on fire atm”.
3-Phase was at Jerwood Space, London, 8 November – 10 December 2017. Nicola Singh’s solo exhibition will be at Eastside Projects, Birmingham in autumn 2018.