‘Witness Matter’ is one of those shows that starts before you enter the gallery: on a screen facing out onto the street, you see a hand grab a handle, followed by the sound of a loud slam. With this video, a live feed showing VITRINE’s two entrances, London-based aritst Leah Capaldi leads us into the two-person show she shares with the Beirut-based Stéphanie Saadé. Both artists work performatively, but at a sculptural remove.
In Capaldi’s case, this is the latest point on a trajectory that has seen her move from performing, when she graduated from the Royal College of Art four years ago, to superintending the performances of others, to her current approach in which she looks to cast her viewers simultaneously as performers and voyeurs. As we enter the space, our hand becomes the one that opens the on-screen door. Once inside, we arrive at a video fish tank (one part of her whole-show installation Chorus, 2014) in which the artist’s hand – and other parts of her body – can be seen floating among the goldfish. Does this suggestion of dismemberment allude to Godfather-style ‘sleeping with fishes’, making the gallery a crime scene? On a second screen, a live feed alternates with recorded material so that, over a seven-second cycle, we intermittently see our own faces and feet, interspersed with footage of items of gym equipment being pulled into alternative positions, which become a kind of prop to facilitate glimpses of bodies in various arrangements. All the action, it turns out, is, or was, in the gallery in which we find ourselves: that’s confirmed by a three-hour film of the making of the three-minute tank loop. In a separate room altogether, we find the tank itself, the residue of a performance.
If that suggests a smooth-enough route around the show, then matters are complicated by the alternation between Capaldi’s relatively organic content – flesh and fish, wood and water – and Saadé’s metallic, industrial forms. Yet the Lebanese artist,
like Capaldi, is at least as concerned with the process of making as with the final result. A metal rod, for instance, is cut into pieces and recombined, its scars permanent. The works in her series ‘Re-Enactments’ (2013–14) look like readymades but turn out to be versions of found objects which Saadé has re-created in an attempt to understand the logic behind the originals. Other pieces, which she terms ‘shy’, locate something that emerges from a kind of everyday performance and reproduce it in a different context: a wall holds nails, which replicate a found pattern that elsewhere supports an unknown object, or underlined passages in a book are reproduced without the text which was so emphasized.
Other works are less polite: for instance, the nuts and bolts in one gleaming combination were stolen from a DIY store. Elsewhere, for the shelved line-up of Strange Parts (2014), Saadé has cut out the welded joins from metal furniture and powder-coated them – reducing them to bare elements of combination. To go back a decade before either artist was born, these feel like the found sculptural equivalents of Erica Jong’s ‘zipless fuck’, a term from her 1973 novel Fear of Flying that describes a perfect and wholly unencumbered sexual encounter. These joints form a neat leitmotif for a show that couples two artists who explore how what appears disparate can merge: the object with the subject; the original with the copy; the performance with the sculpture.
Has either artist arrived at a distinctively original vision? Not entirely: Capaldi’s path is close to that of Bruce Nauman, to whom the entrance piece explicitly nods, and plenty of artists have laboriously copied the accidental or produced ‘remakes’ in ways parallel to Saadé. Yet this remains a captivating show, which demonstrates a definite chemistry between the two artists’ approaches to staging performances that draw in, maybe even implicate, those who witness them. I was reminded of William S. Burroughs’s feisty counterpunch: ‘There are no innocent bystanders ... what are they doing there in the first place?’