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Second Performance: Andrea Saemann by Christine Pountney

On the far wall of the gallery is an arrangement of blank, white pieces of paper, of varying sizes, attached to the wall with squares of green tape, a chair next to a white plinth, an overhead projector, and a table with collapsible legs, up-ended and leaning, like a tall picture frame. 

Saemann enters the space and the audience grows quiet. Saemann is at the back of the room, painting on a long, blank strip of brown hand towel from the public washroom, hanging on the wall by a square of green tape. She is painting with water; the water appears light brown on the oatmeal paper. She is wearing those Aussie ankle boots, beige pants, and a white sleeveless hooded shirt. She paints vertically onto the paper the word: VERENA. She moves to the opposite side of the room and paints on another long strip of paper, taped to the wall, the word: MONIKA.

Saemann announces that this is the WARC gallery and it stands for Women’s Art Resource Centre. “I don’t work alone and the work I’m doing happens between Verena and Monika. I start with Verena and finish with Monika and, in between, it is always me.”

On the floor are two rectangular pieces of plywood with Velcro straps. Saemann attaches these to her feet, like wooden snow shoes, and begins to walk, lining the boards up to measure her steps. She’s at the edge of the audience, her line of progress forces people to move. She takes three steps, then lifts and crosses one foot over the other and makes a ninety degree turn, again lining up the boards to make sure her corner is correct. She bends and traces the outline of her corner on the floor with a blue piece of chalk. She continues to make the shape of a rectangle on the floor, lining up her shoe-boards with every step, marking off the corners. She makes this pattern five times, the corner markings shifting slightly with every repetition, imperfect. She moves slowly, the boards seem heavy, cumbersome; her progress is methodical. Even lining up the boards as well as she does, there is human error and a shifting of the perimeter. The sound is organic; the noise of the wooden boards on the wooden floor is peaceful, the sound of a person alone in a house, cleaning out drawers, or a janitor rearranging the wooden pews after a church meeting and the congregation has left. The fifth time around, Saemann gets a bit wobbly. Tired, I suppose, from her heavy shoes.

Saemann makes her sixth trip around, then pulls the Velcro off and props one board up against her plinth. She takes a sip of water, then turns on her overhead projector. It shines a bright square of light against the wall, containing a cross-section of the table, its shadow slanted in the light.

Saemann stands next to the up-ended table and begins to tell a story about a dream. As she speaks, she uses a small wooden stick to illustrate her story on the table top, which has been covered with a thin layer of grey clay, smoothed out to look like a flat surface. The texture of the marks in the clay - the effect of her materials - is primitive, organic. It evokes drawings in the sand, cave paintings. Her story, too, is dream-like, primitive, mythical, archetypal.

“We are in a boat,” Saemann says, “rather a ship, on the river Rhine. The ship is on its way and I know it’s time to say farewell to the inmates, because they are getting retired, and it’s the last time I am going to see them.”

She tells a story about being trapped on this boat (she draws a bird’s eye view of the front end of a boat) and jumping ship and swimming to shore and getting away. She wants the inmates to know they can follow her, but it becomes treacherous, the bank is mossy, slippery and steep. She walks on and the ridge is high and at the top of the ridge is a bench and on the bench is an elderly lady, sitting. She climbs up and is so thankful that the bench is there for her to sit on. It is a church bench and there is a church service going on, but inside the church it’s more like a cave, without a roof.

“And I’m so thankful for these benches because of all my sadness of saying goodbye to these inmates on the ship, and I could just sit and breath. And I felt the water rise up out of my body and my eyes, and I would cry.” Where her story ends, Saemann leaves the stick she’s been drawing with, in the clay.

Now she pivots the overhead projector to shine on the pieces of paper taped to the far wall. She peels the tab of green tape off the top of one page, flips the page down to reveal a picture on the other side, then tapes it back to the wall. On the backs of all the pages are colour photographs of paintings on the walls of another gallery somewhere else: yellow, teal, green, red, pink - beautiful abstract shapes. Saemann returns to the overhead projector and places an acetate on the surface with the outline and shape of a deer, drawn in black dots. This image is projected at the plinth and the wall.

Saemann goes and sits on the plinth with her back to the audience. The deer is projected onto her back. She puts on her white hood and lifts the board she used earlier as a kind of snowshoe, and wraps the Velcro strap around her head, so the board hangs vertically against the back of her head, also reflecting the image of the deer, mainly its head. So now Saemann sits, transformed into a deer, looking at the display of photographic images taped to the far wall.

Saemann sits with her back to the audience, reflecting the deer, and begins to make a noise like a shushing, a stuttering attempt to articulate, to make language, an effort to communicate from a place that is perhaps pre-lingual, all intuitive, animal-like. She sounds like someone who is either disabled, or in a shamanic state, trance-like, groaning out of sound to form new words, never previously uttered: water is one.

It’s as if she is speaking for the first time, in the slow first dawn of language, as an animal might speak to you, in a dream, or a fairy tale. Gradually a description evolves. Saemann stutters: “She, she, she makes this blue, this dark blue. Then a lighter blu bla ble ble ble, then a bit lighter blue, then a black, and a light blue.” 

Saemann struggles her way through a description of what she sees, staring - as the transmogrified deer - at the photographs on the wall. “Then she takes that glossy paper, she makes folds in that glossy paper, light blue, blue paper, and puts that on top, and dar, dar, dar, dark… And then comes that rose, I always thought that when there was pink that I should bring it to Monika, because it belongs to her, but then I rose. I like pink. I myself like pink, and then goes with her finger in that pink.” It’s as if a deer has wandered to the window of Monika’s studio and fallen in love with her, watching her work, produce this strange thing called art, and is attempting to pay homage in a language that is foreign. This process of paying homage is intrinsic to Saemann’s work, who admits to working exclusively in relation to other artists, in a continuum, reacting to and re-enacting their work, mimicking them, never working as if in a vacuum, without overtly acknowledging her influences. Art, Saemann believes is never a solo statement - even in the largely solo world of performance art - but rather a dialogue and a conversation, a reaction to everything preceding and surrounding the solitary artist.

“Then with a pen she makes lines, blue lines, one line after another line, horizontal line, blue pen, longer lines, shorter lines, shush, suddenly make vertical lines, with blue pen, lines on, and then black.” After a while, Saemann gets off the plinth, take the board off her head and says, “Thank you” - her performance complete. Lingering in the air is the sense of some strange, shamanic rite, or ritual, something dream-like, ancient, and close to magic; when animals spoke; when art was experienced from the perspective of the totally innocent - as only lines and markings and colour.

In her artist talk the following day, Saemann says that it wasn’t until she was forty years old that she realized she was a performance artist. She is interested in questions like, “When does performance art stop for women when they grow old? When they are no longer beautiful? How much of it has to do with the body?” She made a list of performance artists whose work she felt she should be familiar with, but actually knew very little about, including: Carolee Schneemann, Alison Knowles, Joan Jonas, Martha Rosler  and others.

Saemann set a project for herself to meet these artists, interview them, and then plan a festival where she could invite the artists to perform, and then use their work in her own work, as a mirror, a mimic.

Over the course of this project, she interviewed Carolee Schneemann about her performance piece, Interior Scroll. A piece “where [the artist] pulls what’s inside outside” by way of pulling a scrolled text out of her vagina - an iconic performance image Saemann had seen in a book but wasn’t that drawn to, or curious about. It was only after learning about the artist - in her interviewing process - that Saemann’s understanding of the performance represented in the image grew; and she wanted to further understand the work through re-enacting the performance. (Upon hearing the news that Saemann had re-enacted her piece, Schneemann was initially upset, but also grew accepting of it once she’d heard Saemann’s own reasoning for and ideology behind the re-enactment.)

Talking to Schneemann, Saemann realized that Interior Scroll was far more language-based than she’d previously assumed (the interior scroll is actually a dialogue the artist has with a structuralist filmmaker who doesn’t take her work seriously, saying that at best she is, as a performance artist, a mere “dancer”); it is much more than simply a visceral (or political, or transgressive) action of the female body. “It is so much harder to bring words across,” Saemann says in her talk, “than images.” And yet, through her investigation of the piece, it was the words that came across to her as the more powerful aspect of what is an already powerful image, but one that could possibly be dismissed as merely provocative. 

Saemann’s re-enactments are a tribute, but also a challenge, a mirror. Saemann likes the word re-enact, but is it even possible? How can you re-enact someone’s performance? You can only imitate it. Interior Scroll was Saemann’s only attempt at a literal re-enactment - all the other performances have been interactions, using other artists’ work as a jumping-off place, as an influence, something to respond to.

Talking about her performance from the night before, she describes how engrained it is in her now to react to other artists; and that these two artists (Monika and Verena) had invited her to do a performance in the space of their group exhibition. Saemann was so energized by it that last night’s performance was an attempt to bring it to an audience not familiar with their work, and unaware of what her own work would be referring to, paralleling, or in conversation with.

Often the material Saemann is working from, in her own re-enactment performance pieces, is photograph evidence. She feels the need to elaborate, or respond to, or begin a dialogue with photographic evidence from other performances because the photograph - for her - is not enough; but then all that is left of her own performances is a photograph. In a sense, that is all we have to keep from live performance. Live is magic, precisely because it is lost as soon as it’s over. That’s what makes her work so eerie - it is an homage to an invisibility: a re-creation of something that is un-recreatable. Her process seems to reinforce the power of the photographic image - and yet relies on the live performance. Saemann reinforces the link between the two by showing how they are locked in a relationship of reciprocally disappearing origin.

What is the purpose of these performances? What is she stating politically with these imitations, these transient attempts at preservation? Saemann seems to be stating that authorship is not clear; her interest in myth is its lack of authorship. Who wrote the myths? Authorship in myth doesn’t exist. Similarly, imitation is shaking up the notion of authorship. Her responsiveness, her dialogue with other works, is her content.

Her performances, like stories, often contain a middle, beginning and an end. When asked why she doesn’t let these moments exist as performances in their own right, she says, “I want a circle around the centre, I don’t want to be the centre.” She doesn’t want the possibly erroneous certainty of singular authorship. She realizes the hubris of posing as an author who lives and creates alone. For Saemann performance art is a history, a continuum; it is not a blank space.

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Christine Pountney lives and works in Toronto and has published two novels, Last Chance Texaco and The best way you know how (Faber & Faber). Her third, Sweet Jesus, came out in September with McClelland and Stuart. She is currently exploring the world of children's stories and will soon begin a serialization of Madeline stories on her forthcoming website.

Andrea Saemann image gallery