Brian Catling walks out of step from other artists. Also a filmmaker, poet and academic, he has been exhibiting and publishing internationally since the 1970s, haunting zones mostly unregulated by institutions or the art market. His work balances an elementally-inspired gravitas against a very black sense of humour, two poles exemplified by his involvement with the loose international performance collective The Wolf in Winter, and his no-holds-barred ‘Cabaret Melancholique’. Now divested of the Beuysian mysticism which had lingered (or malingered, perhaps) in his work up until the mid-1990s, Catling’s current direction is altogether tougher; in his performances, he comes across as part-Kray twin, part-dispossessed Modernist sculptor, inhabiting a Hammer Horror nightmare that press-gangs lost British music hall traditions of illusionism and ventriloquism into the service of morbid corporeal obsession. His latest work, Antix (2005), was carved out slowly across 16 nights. Uncompromising, its imaginative density and sinister ire pushed the shifting relationship between performer and audience into an uneasy space.
Catling and his audience arrived at the gallery via very different routes. The artist sailed pleasantly in a homemade boat along the River Thames to the capital from his residence in Oxford. Visitors, on the other hand, had to make their way across the dangerous and badly-lit Mile End Park in east London in order to reach the show, which began each night after sunset. (Aptly, both Catling – a native Eastender – and his friend the writer and London chronicler, Ian Sinclair, had worked as gardeners maintaining the park for the local council in the 1970s.) On reaching the gallery foyer, I was invited to peer into the brightly lit, mirrored interior of a mysterious, large wooden construction. Its function became clear when I entered the exhibition space and was confronted by the unexpected sight of a digital image of my face in a frame slung around Catling’s thick neck – the frame was digitally linked to the camera device in the box and the image changed with each new visitor.
The room was starkly lit by a neon strip light. Around its perimeter ran a walkway, along which the audience could move or sit, built from precisely-carpentered wood, and covered in a dark veneer of the mass-produced kind that lines provincial magistrate courts or newly-built Roman Catholic churches. In the centre of the room was a slightly-raised dais, and a desk reminiscent of a judge’s bench, all clad in the same wood. A number of objects were positioned on the floor, and a pulpit was suspended from one of the room’s supporting pillars. As I sat against the wall, Catling placed the frame on the desk and slowly circled the room.
Throughout the performance the artist – smartly dressed, his white hair neatly combed – exuded a minatory presence. Although he remained silent (save for a moment on the final night where he threw his voice around the room to uncannily alarming effect), Catling used the gallery like a sound-box, deftly manipulating the acoustics of wood and concrete to give even the tiniest scuffle a booming resonance. There was a sense that the audience had invaded a private space, and was barely tolerated. When not immersed in manipulating the objects in the room – a hinged dunces cap, a wooden overcoat, the lower half of a jawbone, a bowl-shaped incense burner, a golden silk headscarf, the frame and a mechanized ivory rib-cage – Catling either paced the floor territorially or sat very still, staring out. His engagement with the objects seemed invested with arcane ritualism, yet they also could have been props for a deranged illusionist’s act. For all the melodrama, his handling of the marmoreal bone or polished wooden constructions articulated something pleasingly straightforward about their formal qualities – how they operated in space, or in relation to the human body – in a way not dissimilar to Franz West’s ‘Adaptives’ (1974–ongoing) or Erwin Wurm’s sculptures.
The atmosphere was thick with a sense of implicit violence, heightened by Catling’s evident instinct for theatre. This erupted at one particularly disturbing point each night. Having glared across the room, the artist began to circle the dais, dragging behind him the golden silk headscarf, his pace growing quicker. As if about to mete out punishment for some unknown transgression, he walked faster and faster until suddenly, he snatched a young woman from the audience, covered her head with the fabric and led her to the middle of the dais. After a few moments, he opened a panel in the wooden desk, bundled her inside and slammed the door – an extreme gesture with horrific implications of abduction, identity-theft and borderline misogyny. Although the woman was evidently part of the act, the episode brutalized readings of the images of the audience in the frame around the artist’s neck, which could now be understood as either a threat or a missing persons appeal. This in turn echoed against objects such as the jawbone, or mechanized rib-cage that Catling occasionally set in motion which now conjured ideas of animism, puppetry – and by extension, control.
Antix fed allusions to authority, dominion, objecthood and the body, into an uncanny vortex of illusionism: vanishing acts, sleights-of-hand, automata. In its violent mood swings it could also be read as a spectral form of performance critique; an occultist rereading of Vito Acconci or James Lee Byars – or, in its singularity, the howl of a wolf in winter.