Art, performance, landscape
On Sunday 9 October 2011 I and some friends attended Red Earth CHALK at Wolstonbury Hill near Brighton.
This performance/installation piece used the landscape of one of the highest hills in the South Downs. The piece drew on the fact that the site has Bronze Age earthworks of various kinds that some archaeologists suspect had earlier origins.
The Red Earth team is coordinated by Simon Pascoe and Caitlin Easterby but in this instance drew on the talents of Badamkhorol Samdandamba, a professional singer of traditional Mongolian songs and http://www.jinen-butoh.com/index.html a practioner of the Japenese dance-form Jinen Butoh. These were supported by musicians - Dirk Campbell, Paul Johnson and Vanessa Vine. Singers formed two choirs and students from Brighton City College assisted as stewards/performers.
We arrived to a lane full of cars and strolled up the hill to Chantry Farm. The large crowd, for such an esoteric event, was encouraging. We chatted for a moment as people assembled, the lovely late autumnal sunshine being countered by the noise of the A23 and the gusty wind.
A bell was rung and we gathered round two immense green flags which flanked Simon and Caitlin who explained that we were about to be taken on a journey 'into the enigmatic landscape of Wolstonbury Hill'. We were asked to resist the temptation to take photographs (hence the lack here - some are available on Flickr)and to maintain 'mindful silence' in order to maximise our appreciation of the experience.
We then walked up the hill away from the road and Atsushi appeared on the skyline above us. Dressed in billowing robes and walking with a shepherd's crook, his movement provided a focal point that helped the last few chatterers get into the performance.
As we approached the ridgeline the musicians began playing various forms of wind instrument (possibly French pipes?) and we arrived to find a small flock of sheep penned in one corner of the field in front of us. The sheep were released and as they ran down the hill in front of us bells round their necks clanged, adding another layer to the soundscape. The crowd thinned out to move on and we could see the landscape of Wolstonbury before us. The ridge which we had climbed continued to the left and right, curving away from us in a horseshoe shape and surrounding a bowl directly in front of our viewpoint. The highest point was to our left and the entire landscape was dotted with white flags, wooden posts and firebowls. In the centre of the hollow in front were two concentric circular hurdles made of wicker and surrounded by a ring of firebowls. This central work, known as FOLD had been constructed in the spring with local green-wood workers. This landscape was simultaneously familiar and strange - suddenly one considered a 'typical' piece of English countryside in a very new way.
As we turned right and moved slowly down the ridgeline, we could glimpse Atsushi who was moving in parallel to our procession. His movement was now spectacular - before the release of the sheep he had strode proudly - now he moved awkwardly, twisting painfully through every faltering step, without ever seeming to repeat a movement. As we descended I suddenly became aware that I could no longer hear the road noise and that the sounds were now almost entirely natural or created by the performance.
We gathered at the base of the ridge above a small group of trees and at this stop were treated to a traditional Sussex folk song The Shepherd of the Downs from the Brighton Steiner School Community Choir. This distinct moment of 'Englishness' provided an interesting contrast to the more exotic elements of installation and Atsushi's performance.
We then moved down a steep-sided chalk gully, doubling-back on ourselves toward the bowl with the hurdle. The path initially closed off our view of the rest of the landscape and the slippery chalk proved challenging as the crowd funnelled into a smaller and smaller space. Many of the performers spread out above us on the bank of the bowl but Atsushi had disappeared from view.
We gathered at a gateway as the performers began to play horns above us and once we had gathered it became apparent that the sheep were not the only group being shepherded! The gate was opened and bells, whoops and whistles chased the crowd through and into a circle around the hurdles in the centre of the bowls.
This space around FOLD was the main performance area and once we had gathered and (most people had) sat down The Brighton and Hove Russian Choir performed Oh So Vechora (Oh Since the Evening) and then were joined by the Steiner School Community Choir to perform Ahk ti Step' Shirokaya (Oh Broad Steppe). These rich, multi-layered pieces brought a sense of calm and expectation after the excitement of being shepherded, the sense that e were now audience of a 'performance' was reinforced by Polina Shepherd wearing an evening gown! They were followed by the first performance by Badamkhorol and the reappearance of Atsushi, now dancing his way to the centre of FOLD and beginning the next stage of his 'journey to the underworld'.
Badamkhorol's songs, and her traditional Mongolian costume, were incredible. She sang Flowers of the Yellow Steppe (recognised by UNESCO as one of the oldest 'Long Songs' in existence. The sounds, mixed with those of the wind, the flapping flags and the fires transported me straight back to Ladakh, where I had spent 6 weeks as a teenager amongst Yak herders in the Himalayan foothills.
Atsushi's dancing, got more and more intense and, as the other performers began to play drums and cymbals, he removed his shirt and began to pour white liquid - chalk dissolved in water - over himself. Immediately transforming himself into an ethereal, almost non-human presence at the centre of the ritual/performance.
Badamkhorol began parading around the circle throwing powdered chalk from a wooden bowl. As the pace increased the performers began to follow her with cymbals and invite audience members to pick up other sets of cymbals and join in. This led to a huge, frenzied climax point followed by a stillness that was almost as intense as the noise.
In this Atsushi lit a long torch and began to dance with this, seeming to fight off invisible spirits around the circle. After a few moments he began climbing out of the circle out toward the highest point on the ridgeline above. On the slope above the circle performers began to ring huge tubular bells that were suspended on frames.
With this the performance at FOLD ended. The spell was temporarily broken as we stood up, and followed the flag bearers up the steep slope at an angle from Atsushi and accompanied by Badamkhorol singing.
Once we topped the ridge again (now at the opposite side of the horseshoe from where Shepherd of the Downs had been performed) we found ourselves on a path marked by pairs of firebowls and climbing toward an incredible sunset in the darkening sky.
Atsushi and Badamkhorol were now at the centre of a procession of musicians that was moving more slowly than the flag-bearers leading the audience. This meant that we arrived and were in place on the banks of the henge to witness their arrival.
This final and climatic part of the performance used the henge as a setting and had performers playing gongs strung from frames around one half of the circumference. These were played with increasing ferocity as Atsushi made his way to the centre of the henge - silhouetted against the sunset and danced his way over the skyline.
Thoughts and reflections
Having admired Red Earth's work and been involved in a previous performance I was incredibly excited to finally be involved in a full-scale work performed in an archaeological landscape. Also, as an archaeologist, I had spent time thinking about and discussing the archaeological aspects of Simon and Caitlin's practise: the link to the landscape and earth works, the re-use of ancient spaces for performance/ritual and the engagement with the audience as participants were all things I was intrigued to see in-the-flesh. The one bias that this gave me when attending this particular performance was that I was less prepared for the overt and implied links made between the Sussex Downs - an artificial steppe landscape - and Mongolia - the epitome of steppe landscapes.
I thought the use of landscape was utterly incredible. When one hikes a route across a terrain, occasional stops serve to create moments of reflection on the views and topography. By circulating and stopping in one small piece of landscape one gained a vastly increased appreciation of the interrelations within it and the changes in the views to the territory beyond. This was greatly enhanced by the route chosen and the placement of the installations - toward the end we moved from the enclosed hollow to the summit of Wolstonbury with our view expanding across the entire landscape first to the east and north, then to the south and eventually to the magnificent sunset over the eastern horizon.
The sense of a journey, initially accompanying Atsushi but becoming increasingly invested as members of 'his flock' was also very strong. I had mixed feelings about how difficult it was to clearly understand the metaphors of this journey: Was the shepherd journeying to the underworld to make some sacrifice (of himself?) for his flock of sheep/people? Were we journeying through Sussex as a metaphor for journeying to Mongolia? Or using the connection to a Mongolian ideal to connect to a Sussex past?
As with so much art, all these interpretations and more are true. I have to admit that at times my sense of confusion interfered with my immersion in the performance and I certainly felt some elements (such as Badamkhorol's performances - especially her costume) created a sense of distance from the landscape rather than an embeddedness in it. Until I fully understood Red Earth's intention to make an explicit connection with Mongolia I had thought that 'otherness of place' was being used as a (not entirely successful) metaphor for otherness in time.
One fascinating aspect of the performance was the spectrum of engagement: from Simon, Caitlin, Atsushi and Badamkhorol at the centre, to the musicians, pyrotechnicians, choirs and students who had been rehearsed but had less influence in the planning. The largest group was the paid audience who's diversity in age, enthusiasm and appreciation not only affected their appreciation, but that of those around them. Finally, there were the intrigued outsiders, those out walking a dog or for an evening stroll or run. These people, faced with a strange set of sounds, sights and people on their local hill reacted in a variety of ways, some politely curious and some quite clearly disapproving from a distance.
Big ideas and future plans?
I find Red Earth's ideas, methods and practice extremely powerful and refreshing. For me, they have a very important message for archaeology. This is about the lessons that can be learned from experiencing ancient places in new ways. One cannot possibly have an authentic 'Bronze Age' experience of any landscape, but conversely, one cannot write (or read) oneself into anything but a detached understanding of a henge.
By experiencing abstracted rituals/performances in these spaces we can begin to build embodied understandings what it might mean to engage in large group activities, with layers of insider/outsider members. As long as one keeps the conclusions from such activities well within their limits they can profoundly affect one's personal understanding of the past.
I would very much like to see what Red Earth could do with the Mesolithic. With no 'sites' to work on and perhaps without metal instruments (is this aspect of authenticity important?) what would be possible? Would words or more overt narratives be required to achieve the basic cognitive understanding an audience would need before more immersive sensory appreciation could be effective?
Where to go from here?