A wonderful artist and human being Sinéad O’Donnell had a solo exhibition, Crossing Permissions, at Millennium Court Centre, Portadown, Northern Ireland from 1 February to 27 March 2019. According to the press release:
A journey through the performance art body responding to feminine place and landscape in A journey through the performance art body responding to feminine place and landscape in Asia, Latin America and Ireland. The exhibition documents a year long process including to camera performance in video & photograph, drawings & sculptural forms developed in Tokyo, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, San Paulo, Fukushima, Bangkok, Solo & Portadown.“Crossing Permissions” press release
A catalogue was produced alongside the exhibition. I contributed an essay on Comfort titled “Consumption.”
Food does more than fill the belly. It nourishes both the body and the soul. Hence this year’s theme for Undisclosed Territory #11, a performance art festival founded and organised by performance artist Melati Suryodarmo. ‘We Are What We Eat,’ an idiomatic phrase, invited the participating artists to use food as a material and expression in their performances.
Comfort was the second performance on the 7 x 7 metre concrete platform on the evening of 6 November 2018 at Studio Plesungan, Solo, Indonesia. With her right hand firmly grasping the handle of a broom, O’Donnell stormed onto the concrete platform. The artist performing before her, Hanif Alghafary, had made such a mess: white kerupuk kampung (Indonesian tapioca crackers) crumbs had been used to draw a circle on the platform’s centre, which was topped by a mountain of whole kerupuk kampung in the middle.
However, instead of using it to sweep, the broom was quickly abandoned and put to one side of the platform. O’Donnell picked up the broom three times throughout her twenty minute performance that evening, but never once was it to sweep, but always merely to put it down again. A white dinner plate with the word KELAPARAN, Indonesian for “starving,” written on it in red ink was nestled on the kerupuk mountain that Hanif left behind. Two palm-sized bags of white rice and white flour respectively flanked the plate. Thus the stage was set: at the peak of food abundance, represented by Asian and European food staples and the everyday snack of the Indonesian people, an empty plate shines like a white flag of surrender, a cry for help to feed.
O’Donnell’s staging, read in relation to her biographical account, narrates an individual starving in the midst of abundance. In very literal terms, of course, the kerupuk, flour and raw white rice were not edible. The kerupuk has been spread all over the floor and stepped on by Hanif and O’Donnell. Both flour and rice need to be cooked before they can be consumed. However, the irony lies in the state of starvation in the midst of plenty, not unlike O’Donnell’s early blindness to food choices other than potatoes.
There is an element of violence here that is almost inexplicable, a question working both literally in material terms and metaphorically in emotional terms on how starvation can still occur in this time where more food than ever is being produced and people are more connected than ever through transport and technology. When she broke through the bags of rice and flour and poured them upon her sticky, Vaseline smeared body, the material adhered to her skin and clothes but slid off the empty plate that continued to accuse in bold, red words.
The almost melodious sound of the rice hitting the plate reminded me of some of her earliest performances in 1999 and 2000. In these performances, the nude O’Donnell surrounded herself with porcelain plates, breaking them into pieces loudly with a mullet. In Domestic Engineering (2009), she performed again with plates, this time breaking them against each other. In Comfort, the sound of the plate was softer, less jarring and the plate remained whole at the end. This time, there were no white porcelain shards littering the floor, only white rice grains and white kerupuk crumbs, food items that are not edible and could not fulfil their function as fulfilment in any way. In Comfort, the break may not register upon the material of the plate, but the plate still bleeds blood red, KELAPARAN.