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Spectacle: A Portrait of Stuart Sherman / 2013

White Balance: A History of Video / 2013

The Conversation / 2012

The Argument Against the Body / 2011

Robin Deacon presents Stuart Sherman's Hamlet / 2010

Approximating the Art of Stuart Sherman / 2009

Too Beautiful to be Wasted / 2009

Prototypes / 2006 - 2009

They Used to Call it a White Elephant / 2006

Dispatches / 2005

Live / 2005

Shelf Life / 2005

What is a Performance Artist? / 2005 - 2006

Whatever Happened to Colin Powell? / 2004 - 2005

Harry and Me / 2004 - 2005

Double O / 2001

Acme / 2000

The Costello Show / 2000

Hard Water and Other Objects / 2000

Confessions of an Idiot / 2000

A Proposal (1999)

Revulsion and Revisionism (Early Work) / 1995 - 1998

Imagining myself as a catalogue model for a range of imaginary merchandise (2010)



Once upon a time, the instinct was to always generate - to generate work, hence to generate documentation, to generate evidence of output and have some semblance of being, or feeling like a practicing artist. But after years of careful management of some imagined objective perception of his artistic works, he started to wonder to what degree his own sense of his work overlapped with the way it was seen by others, other than himself. Now, any artist who is honest with themselves will admit the presence of works in their oeuvre that they are less than happy with. Perhaps you will look at videos of previous works and feel a sense of profound embarrassment that you went through with this, or at the very least feel a sense of distance from works that seem to reflect a profoundly different time and place. You might get lucky however, and find a set of intriguing images that belie the weakness of the work.

In the past, he had enjoyed playing with this idea of categorising elements of his body of work as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or other. When he first began to develop a burgeoning online presence through the construction of a website, he started to wonder about what sort of approach would be required to debunk and demystify his practice. He considered doing this through a heightening of narratives detailing perceived mistakes and missteps rather than the form of archival revisionism that precluded full disclosure in favour of what he saw as a dishonest strategy of edited highlights. So for him, no filtration was to be permitted – just (as he saw it) the making of a gift of pure access to his every creative instinct, no matter how misguided or ill judged. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it began as a joke to himself. He started to create a page on his website that delineated in pitiless detail a series of bad ideas, bad performances, rejected proposals, stillborn efforts and any other business implying death on arrival. This was to be a repository of absolute shame, failure and guilt serving as a reminder that the entertaining of or eventual production of irredeemably bad work will always remain a clear and present danger. But he decided that he was not going to be ashamed or embarrassed of any of this, even the really bad stuff. And even if he was, he had to stand by it, because he did it. Or at the very least, gave the idea of doing it some serious consideration. So for a few years, this mildly amusing form of self effacement served to keep his burgeoning ego in check. But in recent times, something had shifted – he had recently started to notice a tendency that the very performance works that his audience would like would be the ones he felt less than happy with. And the ones that he held as significant were the ones that people didn’t seem to ‘get’. In simple terms, the work that he perceived as bad was more often than not perceived by his audiences as being good. In public, he would of course spout the usual diplomatic platitudes – that there was some sort of consciously tiered structure of seemingly primary and secondary output. And of course, the stuff you like is the stuff I like – the stuff I want you to like. But in reality, he was often internally incredulous in the face of at some of the more positive responses he received to older work that he re-contextualised to be his weaker efforts in hindsight. Of course, brutal honesty is not always the forte of the performance art community, but these responses were from peers he respected, who had been just a frank in negative terms regarding the works that he valued. No doubt many seasoned artists may feel a certain distance from work in their past, that they have become distanced from through accumulation of experience through time.

But these feelings of estrangement were very much in the present. And more worryingly he had lately found himself losing track of the notion of intention in terms of his creative process. Increasingly, he seemed to be unable to account for his own thought processes – they seemed contrary as drives relative to what he always thought his inherent instincts as an artist were. He would wake up and find that over determined conceptual frameworks for performance pieces would tumble out of him fully formed – and while there was absolute clarity in these ideas, they seemed somehow alien in origin. They certainly seemed to be his ideas, but none of them were ideas he especially cared for. So the question of good and bad was now irrelevant – it seemed that all his ideas were bad, and the sense that only he could perceive this was becoming unbearable. In going ahead and presenting these performances anyway, he began to test the limits of the premise that he was now subject only to some subconscious servitude of the audiences wants and desires. As a matter of course, he began all his performances with profuse and sometimes tearful apologies – an emotional plea for the audience to understand that ‘this is not what I intended…’ The applause was rapturous.

He started to go back to his archive, and spent evenings replaying the taped performances in question, trying to work out this disjuncture of relative responses to his work. He had previously felt the intermittent urge to undertake purges of his archive that involved replacing tapes with digital copies, just as a means of freeing up space on his overcrowded shelves. But now, a more destructive drive seemed to be making itself apparent. He gathered a series of cutting implements – scissors, knives, surgical blades and set to work. Clearly, the instinct now was to delete - to physically remove the evidence of the bad work from existence. Firstly, he stumbled upon some reels of 8mm film documenting a performance he made as a student. He could see a small image of his performing body, picture by picture, and 24 of these images gave a concrete visual sense of a one second block of time that he could barely remember. A weak sense of analogue nostalgia prevented him from cutting something that was designed to be cut in the first place. Besides, he couldn’t divine any particular feelings towards the work either way, and as had no means of playing it he couldn’t make a genuine judgement call as to its value. The same could not be said of the box of mini DV tapes he opened next. The neatly applied labels listed the titles and dates of works that he certainly wanted to forget. He doesn’t need to play them again to know this. He opened the case, took out the cassette and snapped back the grey plastic housing to reveal the shiny strip of tape within.  The sense of time and image he had taken from the 8mm strip was impossible to ascertain here. Pulling out the tape from its housing, he cut – through his own body perhaps – and cut again. He continued to methodically cut through the tape, with the intention of making things irreparable. So, the pieces of tape that congregated on his desk were black, exact squares - and at this point, the artist makes a strange mental connection. He chuckles to himself and imagines the following scenario. The artist would absentmindedly place one of the squares of tape on his tongue. He would sit back in his chair close his eyes and relax. In a few minutes, a strange visual echo would make itself known - for a fraction of a second, an image flashes behind his eyelids. He can not only see and hear the performance, but is unmistakably ‘there’. The shiver he feels as he comes to may well reflect the coldness of the venue as he remembers it. He opens his eyes. He imagines how it would feel to find a way to bypass the ‘once removed’ feeling of watching video documentation of his work. Is this what is happening now? He places another square in his mouth - and another, and another, unsure as to whether the performance is going to be re-assembled in chronological order. Logically, when he closes his eyes this and subsequent times, the images appear for a longer periods, depending on the amount of documentation consumed. As well as lasting longer, the images formed become increasingly vivid. But as he feared, the order is jumbled, disjointed. What’s even stranger is how remarkably normal it all starts to feel. As he reaches for the last few squares of tape, he wonders why the experience is starting to feel so emotionally devoid – its as if he is merely seeing what a camera saw, objectively recording in terms neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’.

Since the complete ingestion of his bad documentation, he would often have a recurring dream of turning up at a venue at a designated time to present a performance and having nothing to show. In his dream, the assembled audience was always enormous, and strangely seemed to give the sense of always having been there. He would then proceed to do some sort of routine, but only as a means of filling time and space. But it was never clear in the dream what exactly this performance consisted of. There was certainly a beginning, middle and end. But what was troubling, and yet intriguing was that it didn’t seem to be a performance about anything (not even the fact of having nothing to show), which was quite alien relative to the content heavy nature of his waking practice. It certainly wouldn’t culminate in any form of applause or even audience response. So this wasn’t a terror of being shouted down, booed or being mercilessly pelted with rotten vegetables by a paying audience outraged at this sense of lack - but rather a silence coming out of the impossibility of response. He realised that this was the performance he had been trying to do all along. 

The title of this partial work of fiction is ‘Ingestion’, and may also be subtitled, ‘The Potentially Hallucinogenic Qualities of Mini DV Tape’.

Robin Deacon, December 2011