Rose English born 1950 The Beloved 1985

The Beloved was a performance by Rose English that took place in Galleries 56–9 at the Tate Gallery three times during 19–21 September 1985. The performance was ninety minutes long and took place against an elaborate backdrop including two freestanding bridges made from timber and metal, a self-propelling electrical dodgem car with rubber wheels, a mechanism for a flying costume, a table and two chairs, and other miscellaneous props and objects. English’s performance interrogated the relationship between speech, performance and theatre, as she interacted with the audience and activated the objects in the overpopulated backdrop. The context of the gallery divorced the theatrical props from their function as mise-en-scène, while drawing parallels between the action of the theatre and the representation in the visual arts.

English’s performance was part of a group exhibition and performance programme titled Performance Art and Video Installation, which also featured Dora Birnbaum, Nan Hoover, Anthony Howell, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Hannah O’Shea and Silvia C. Ziranek. The exhibition was described by Alan Bowness, Director of Tate Gallery from 1980 to 1988, as aimed at ‘demonstrat[ing] to our public the continuing relevance and interest of live art’.1 The choice of artists reflected diverse approaches to creating mixed-media, time-based work at that moment. English wrote and directed the performance, the producer was Luke Dixon and lighting was designed by Dennis Charles. English also hired an assistant called Alyson Silverman, who performed alongside her, in a minimal role. The Beloved was first performed at London’s Drill Hall in February and later at the Bush Theatre, in the same year. It also toured to other galleries and theatres including Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna in Kunst Mit Eigen Sinn; de Lantaren, Rotterdam in Perfo 3; Midland Group, Nottingham; and Theatre Workshop, Edinburgh Festival.

English framed The Beloved around the conceit that she could not remember the true meaning of the word abstract. She said: ‘It is much more profound or complex than “non-figurative” or “non-representational”.’2 This experience, as she explained to the audience, was the impetus for the performance: ‘It was the fact of forgetting it that sent QUIVERS OF PLEASURE coursing down my body as I lay there I said to myself, forgetting, forgetting the true meaning of the word ‘ABSTRACT’ is a great, a GREAT SUBJECT, for a little hit show.’3

English’s provocation highlights the artist’s interest in complicating commonplace meanings and associations. This aspect of English’s performances was explored by Liz Rideal in her article in Performance Magazine, where she argued that the artist makes the audience ‘wonder about the thorny problem of defining performance […] as art? as theatre?’4 English, she suggests, was undertaking a post-structuralist exercise, illustrating the fragility of terms used to describe differences between theatre and performance. As Rideal is forced to concede, ‘basically it’s live’.5

English began the performance by pretending to be asleep on stage. This quiet starting point dissolved the usual aim of a show to grab the audience’s attention.Furthermore, rather than use the performance to tell a story or let a narrative unfold, English punctured the fantasy of the performance space by addressing the audience directly and exploring the set, while remarking on the nature of having a set. The freestanding bridges, which critic Guy Brett described as ‘the epitome of a kitsch theatrical prop in splendid isolation’, provided a perversely ostentatious spot from which the artist declared her love for a dark corner of the stage.6 The transcript of the performance captures the moment:

Some of you may not have noticed this little corner over here, because of course it’s so much more eye-catching down that end of the stage. But that’s just a little theatrical device [gesturing emphatically at the bridge] … this little corner over here [becoming tender, whispering] it’s completely won my heart … [speaking loudly], it’s completely won my heart over, and therefore I will address it from the bridge [standing on bridge, addressing corner]. Small corner, shy one, shy one, shy one, corner, corner, do not disappear quite yet please, thank you my love, thank you dear one.7

Humour was a crucial element of the performance, extending from English’s speech, to her costumes and through her actions. Whether the action was exaggerated (for instance, consuming a large slice of chocolate cake while wearing a tutu), belated (waving a magic wand to announce a scene change that had already taken place) or ridiculous (driving onstage in a dodgem car), each undercut the seriousness of the performance space while creating an exciting and immersive experience. This was also achieved through English’s interaction with the audience, which included berating and interrogating them. While English might be said to have been challenging what it is to perform well, the performance was captivating and in fact tested the terms of this experience. An important part of this was the gender dynamics between performers, and between performers and the audience, as ideas concerning the power involved in looking and being seen, as well as active and passive roles, were circulating in feminist-influenced theory at the time.

English took an active position in the performance, while the second performer, Silverman – who played the role of an assistant – had no lines and only carried the props at English’s command. Although this seems to create an unequal power relationship between the two, Brett has suggested that the presence of the second performer creates a different dynamic with the audience. He argued that if the assistant becomes the witness, the audience are forced into a more productive dialogue and therefore they become both more immersed in and actively responsive to the performance.8 In an unpublished interviewed with Michael Archer, English expanded on this idea, describing the relationship between herself and the audience:

I think there’s an agreement to witness, predominantly, but also to participate in something that is going on […] I think there’s a degree of consent, in terms of us both, to pursue a certain direction and a certain line of investigation, which would not be possible without those witnesses being present. I don’t see any function in stopping somebody from thinking. If you make them feel uncomfortable then they stop thinking.9

English’s use of comedy in The Beloved allowed the artist to connect with her audience, to elicit their responses and share experiences, rendering the performance space a more communal site. In this way English occupied a theatrical scene, inviting the audience there with her to remark on the constructed division between the performer and the audience as well as the fragility of what can be considered ‘real’.

Philomena Epps
April 2016