My best, oldest friend in the universe is a painter. He makes big abstract paintings. I think of these paintings, in the vernacular of theatre, as triple threats.
They are first of all, beautiful paintings; secondly they are so big it is easy to looks at them as flat modernist sculpture; and lastly the process that goes into creating them makes performance process look like a cake walk. The Achilles heel in this practice however is he doesn’t know when a painting is finished. Most of the time he is guessing, and he mostly gets it right. But he is never really completely sure.
Anna Berndtson’s performance Churned feels like a triple threat. It’s as beautiful as a painting (if the clam shell was a cattle feeding trough, she would be the milk maiden in a new version of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus); she’s hard at work creating what basically will be a food sculpture, carving from one material the likeness of another; and she has promised the audience a feast for our eyes lasting five and a half hours, a performance.
After the first few minutes watching Anna, you have to sympathize with her. It is easy to see she is working HARD. She has to work hard for the performance to work. And right from the start of the performance, I am thinking about the ending. There is a point coming – the artist knows it and we can all feel it – when the performance will be undoubtedly and clearly, over. We will know exactly the moment the artwork is completed because the artist will have churned cream into butter. Despite this definitiveness, I can feel the measured suspense in the room.
When the audience is granted entry into the gallery, Anna is already in place. She is standing in a steel tub (a cattle feeding trough) into which has been poured several inches of heavy cream. She is wearing a beautiful blue satin evening gown that is gathered at the waist with a sash, and has a few crystal embellishments here and there. It is like her, elegant and understated. Her hair is in a neat up-do.
She is stepping in the cream – not stomping and not trying to walk – just rhythmically moving her feet at a consistent pace. She is intensely focused and is using her energy in an efficient way. Her movements are precise, although precise doesn’t seem to be exactly right word to describe what she is doing. I’ve never made butter, but it seems to be to be a combination of athletic stubbornness and sheer luck. At some point, the chemistry will cross a tipping point, and liquid will become solid. Until then, you churn, trust, and carry on.
There are only a few inches of cream in the trough, but it is not long before it begins to rise. Its volume is growing. She keeps stepping and stepping. She changes her position regularly but she doesn’t change her pace. Sometimes she kneels down in the cream and uses her arms, right up to the elbows, to stir and stir and stir. Sometimes she pushes the cream past her knees like she was paddling a canoe. Sometimes she perches on the edge of the trough and bicycles her feet out in front of her. It feels ancient, what she is doing. Making something with her hands (and her feet). Providing for the family. Turning a modest material into something new and useful. I lean into Italian artist Francesca Fini’s ear and whisper, “First we have coffee, then we have whipping cream, next we have butter.” Francesca tells me she is thinking of running out and getting a baguette.
It’s not long before the cream starts to take on a thick goopy texture, not exactly whipping cream but getting there. But before you can see the change in the cream’s viscosity, you can hear it. A thick slap slap slap as Anna paddles, kicks and flaps her arms and legs. The task is endless and appears futile, although the appearance of something close to whipping cream surprises and delights like a major story arch, changing the direction of the plot, affecting every character.
We can see the cream thickening before our eyes, but it stays in this not-quite-there state for the greatest length of time in the performance. For hours, it seems there is little change, except of course in the artist’s appearance. Her once pristine evening gown is covered in a smooth thick white coating of cream, and the circle of spilt milk around the tub is ever widening with each splash. A long rivulet has almost reached the back gallery wall. The gallery smells a bit sweet.
More than 4 hours into the performance, without any warning, it changes again. Suddenly it is quite difficult for Anna to even stand up because her dress is so weighted down. She is gasping and panting more now. Her muscles must be spent from the constant repetition. She switches gears a bit and adopts a kneading motion that almost looks more like she is making bread than butter.
Just as quickly, it changes again. The cream is not sticking to her dress anymore; it is sliding right off because it has the consistency more of curds than cream. Anna stops, bends down and scoops a handful of the curds into her dress and wraps the fabric around it, using it like cheesecloth to squeeze out the excess water. After she has squeezed out as much of the water as she can, she unwraps the package to reveal a ball of butter. After slowly smoothing it with her hands, she slowly places it on the floor in front of the tub. She repeats this process for the last hour of the performance with the entire contexts of the trough, creating piles of butter and piles of butter. It’s excessive, almost a bit silly, but it’s so pleasing. There is so much butter. A bounty. She finishes the performance in a standing pose, holding a large amount of butter, as a sculpture. We are told that the performance is finished, and are asked to leave the space. We are denied the pleasure of tasting the butter, but instead are given the perpetual image of Anna in pose.
It’s the second to last day of the festival, and at the end of Churn, Anna appears to me as a monument of the festival, representing all of the actions of the past week, where many things are been magically transformed into other things, but not before they have been worked, labored over, processed and whipped into shape.
Photo by Arjuna Capulong
Shannon Cochrane is a Toronto-based performance artist, and cultural producer. She is the Artistic and Administrative Director of FADO Performance Art Centre (www.performanceart.ca). Established in 1993, FADO is an artist-run centre that presents, champions and disseminates the work of Canadian and International performance artists year-round. Shannon is also a founder, co-curator, and organizer of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art (www.7a-11d.ca). Run by a collective of performance artists, 7a*11d was established in 1997, and presents an international festival every two years. The tenth 7a*11d festival will take place in October 2014.