Monday 20 November 2017

Questioning rather than provoking - artist Amanda Coogan

Having deaf parents gave Amanda Coogan a grounding in physical language and civic duty. Our reporter meets the boundary-pushing artist who is the subject of a new film

Performance artist Amanda Coogan says she 'needs all the stimulus that is Irish culture'. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Performance artist Amanda Coogan says she 'needs all the stimulus that is Irish culture'. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Amanda in her installation on Bull Wall 'How to Explain the Sea to an Uneaten Potato'

Hilary A White

It's safe to say the pedestrian-crossing at the junction of Georges St and Dame St is probably the busiest in the country. The green man appears and hundreds of bodies gently weave past one another to reach the other side. Sticking out immediately is a blonde-haired figure in a bold scarlet jacket who cuts through the swarm, moving determinedly towards the Irish Film Institute.

That could only be Amanda Coogan, surely.

Up close, she is equally animated as well as being fresh and spirited, greeting me with a hearty handshake and a broad, radiant grin before launching into how she's off to the Venice Biennale the next morning and can't wait to be there "just as a punter" to cheer on her friend, Dublin artist Jesse Jones.

Laughter - much of it self-directed - fills the room where our interview is being staged. Neither her energy levels nor her appearance would immediately give away the fact that she is a 45-year-old mother-of-one used to putting her body through endurance feats in the name of her art.

Amanda in her installation on Bull Wall 'How to Explain the Sea to an Uneaten Potato'
Amanda in her installation on Bull Wall 'How to Explain the Sea to an Uneaten Potato'

It probably shouldn't be much of a surprise that Coogan cuts quite a dash on ground level. For some 15 years now she has been one of the country's foremost performance artists, receiving international renown for her challenging, avant-garde live movement installations.

Everything she does is fundamentally set in the world of the here and now, with no product per se to purchase via a red sticker or a gift shop. It must be slightly strange, then, for her to be the subject of Long Now, a new feature-length study by documentary filmmaker Paddy Cahill that covers her ground breaking 2015 retrospective at Dublin's RHA Gallery that ran for six weeks and saw the Dubliner perform for five hours every day. Is it?

"Myself and Paddy have worked together for years," Coogan says, "and we've always been really interested in how you might appropriate a piece of long durational performance in another medium. He challenges the audience. It's not a biopic of an artist that could easily sit on telly. It opens with 13 minutes of just me in an 'ecstatic' moment. No talking. Because he knows the work so well and he's such a great documenter, he's quiet and unobtrusive. I'm really honoured by it all."

The film is a hypnotic and spell binding piece that lays down something in concrete form to mark the singular vision of its subject. Coogan herself is constantly in flux, always moving from one project to the next and always seeking out the elusive, the childlike and the challenging. That aforementioned opening shot - taken while she is four-and-a-half hours into a performance - bristles with a woozy energy that is extraordinary, partly down to the elegance of Cahill's camerawork but mostly due to the furious concentration and kinetic aura of his subject.

"I'm an artist but I'm also many other things," she thinks aloud as we discuss her many years at the forefront of her discipline, and how the artist changes in approach and temperature over that time.

"I'm a mum, I'm a wife, I'm a daughter, I'm a sister, a friend, a colleague So there are all of these different layers. The work is very transparent to those changes in me because it is really the materiality of it."

At the very core of her oeuvre has been one constant - the female form. Her work is "unapologetically gendered", there to celebrate femininity, sure, but also to reframe and re-contextualise it. This has led, over the years to moments that have turned heads in a nation only recently developing a palate for performance art as something somewhere in between, but separate from, physical theatre and installation art.

She's initially taken aback when I ask is it important to her to be provocative. "Like what?" she gasps, genuinely unaware of what I speak.

Where to start.

There was the 2003 piece, Kylie, that saw her pay a distorted homage to the Australian starlet by vigorously polishing one half of her derriere.

There was also The Madonna series of images (2000-2010) which famously featured her baring a single breast in a variety of garbs and poses in what was a wry commentary on women in religious iconography.

The Fountain, meanwhile, saw her urinate from a stage at IMMA.

"Oh yeah, absolutely," she laughs, as if suddenly remembering. "But in the studio, if I, as a nice, 45-year-old, middle-class, married woman, hit a taboo and am a little frightened by it, that's the one I have to follow. I don't make entertainment, I don't make nice images. It's not interesting to me."

She remembers a couple of pieces she made when her son Daniel (10) was an infant that elicited drastically different responses from the sexes. It drew on the manner in which infants "bubble" from their mouths.

"It's pre-linguistic, I think. It's them learning how to use their mouth. The tongue or the spittle comes out, and I thought it was - without thinking about what it means - really beautiful and I started using that in the work. And it's kind of gross! So I think that's challenging sometimes to men. The feedback that I've got from some men is, 'I can't even look at that, it's too gross.' And on the other side, the women kind of go, 'yesss!'"

She continues by saying she'd call it "questioning" rather than provoking. Given the politics continuously swirling these days about women and their bodies, there is lots to ask.

"There's something with us Irish people," she says. "We actually do like to question things. We get frightened of it as well, but we do 'kick against the pricks'.

"When you're working in temporality as I do, in liveness, I think Irish people also connect with that. It's super-Irish to watch a ball going anywhere along a field or horses going down a track, etc. We just love it. We love that we don't know, and this is the richness of our personality.

"I'm not off the Richter Scale at what I'm looking at," she continues. "We interact with the world with our body. It's political for me with a small 'p'. A real important thing for me is I'm a woman making images of women, and that's scary from a feminist perspective. Old-school feminism would say you don't partake in image-making of the female body. And then in the current wave of feminism, we are looking at women imaging the female body and taking ownership and proposing these images as coming from out of a woman's body and experience."

Naturally, she comes at these things from obtuse angles. If commissioned to do a piece, say, about the National Maternity Hospital fiasco, she believes that it would be "like looking at the sun directly" and would thus blind her. Coogan needs firmament, room to be "immature" and "an eejit in some ways".

That said, Coogan has always tended to champion the oppressed and gravitate towards the undermined, a symptom, she reasons, of her childhood growing up as a "coda" - a child of deaf adults.

The first-born girl in the family, studies show, tends to become the designated interpreter, and so it was with Coogan, who was the oldest of three growing up in Tallaght and then Ballinteer. As anyone who has seen her present sign-language translations on RTE will understand, ISL (Irish Sign Language) is her first tongue. From a very young age, she was "a link" between her parents and the day-to-day invoices and phone inquiries that domestic life entails. It surely made her rather organised and confident beyond her years, but while she and her siblings were not rebellious as such (very few codas are, she observes), she was no goody two-shoes.

Memories of those years send her into hysterics. "We got away with a lot! You could play your music really loud, be on the phone all night, maybe sneak out the window - and your sister could let you back in again at all hours. We had loads of capacity for noise because we were never told to keep it down! But there was always this deep respect that actually if you did those things you were being really mean to your parents."

Everything she does now stems from being a sign-language user. It all came through the body - whatever she was feeling, she had to describe it physically. She feels extraordinarily lucky for this but also recalls the stigma quietly directed towards the deaf from Irish society back then.

"It was a different world," she winces, reminding me that deaf children were institutionalised and eventually ended up being included in the Ryan Report investigations of child abuse.

And then, "a kind of liberation" occurred in the deaf community around the late 1980s that saw them take ownership of ISL. Coogan and her parents were at the frontline of this activism, and she found herself facilitating meetings with politicians that pushed for more rights and resources for the 5,000 deaf Irish people like her parents. "It was us agitating for basic recognition as normal human beings who just can't hear and have a different language."

"Recognition." This need in her to fight alongside a beleaguered community has also hung around. It is detectable in works that take their titles from the torch songs of Nina Simone lyrics ("run to the rock", "brick in the handbag"), in collaborations with deaf communities abroad, and in symbolic parallels drawn with civil rights causes. If Coogan's childhood taught her about physical expression and embodied language, it also gave a "zealousness of equality" and desire to be recognised.

Her training took her all over the world, from NCAD on Thomas Street to a masters with the great Marina Abramovic in Braunschweig, Germany. There were also stints in the Czech Republic and Greece, and she is still constantly back and forth to the UK and mainland Europe with work these days.

"But I need to be here to make the work," she insists. "I actually need all the stimulus that is Irish culture in order to make it. I have to be in the maelstrom of the way we're thinking or what our conversations are or what's going on here.

It is Ulster, where she received her PhD in 2013, that she has called home the last couple of years since husband Jimmy Fay took a position as executive producer of Belfast's Lyric Theatre. This, she tells me, is his "dream job". On a more general level, the freelancing pair are enjoying the feeling of "being able to breathe again" after some lean recession years.

Belfast is "energetic" and only 90 minutes away from her parents in Dublin. She has found a great studio that she shares with other artists who often come knocking on her door only to find her in the midst of workshopping an outlandish new piece.

Often, she'll run her work by Fay (who has a long background in theatre) and their son Daniel (10) (or "anyone willing to listen", for that matter). Both are great support but have "absolutely" done their share of eye-rolling over the years, she giggles.

After all, at any given time, Coogan might be found "clomping about on the ground" or twirling something over her head noisily, she admits. But then this is just what she does and ours is not to ask about the routes she takes towards inspiration. And while she's here, she's going to let me in on a little secret. It turns out that her grounding in the playful, the immature and the sensuous is perhaps not so unique to her or other artists. In fact, it can be found inside all of us, she says "It's that window into the world that secretly everyone actually loves," she marvels quietly, "whether you're an accountant singing in the shower or whatever".

Amanda Coogan: Long Now screens at the IFI, Dublin on Tuesday with sign language interpretation by Coogan. For more info or to book, go to www.ifi.ie.

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