On the MA Show

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Rosie Dahlstrom: ‘Delphyne and the Oracle’, performance and installation, Chelsea College of Arts, July 2019

From 26th June to 4th July, we finally got into our MA Show spaces at Chelsea to start installing our work in time for the grand opening on Friday 5th July. Then the show was open to the public from the 6th – 11th July with the de-install taking place on Friday 12th July. Now that several months have passed I now feel able to properly discuss the work I made: the installation, costume and performance collectively entitled ‘Delphyne and the Oracle’. It was the biggest piece of artwork I’ve ever created and I loved it.

There were several ideas I wanted to tackle in my MA Show presentation. I wanted to continue the Delphyne project, and as a climax somehow bring the figure of Delphyne to life as much as possible, but I wasn’t sure if this would be a sculpture of a figure wearing a costume like a waxwork, or more of a focus on creating an environment in which she might inhabit. I came across a small room at the back of the Morgue space which hadn’t been used for a long time, it was filthy, full of cobwebs, dark and dingy. I fell in love with it and as soon as I had decided on it as a space, the decisions came together from there. It was also fortunate that my friend Lisa, who is the longtime face of Delphyne character, was in the country at the time of the MA Show and not Japan or Korea, where she usually is, and I managed to wrangle her into coming to London to participate.

So I had my space and my performer. I was really fortunate to have both, as I couldn’t really get Lisa to dress up as Delphyne without an associated environment that was her domain, as I wanted the viewer to invade her space rather than her trespassing into the open; and I couldn’t have any other person dress up as Delphyne as all my characters are fundamentally linked to one individual, in face, body and personality. So during June, I got cracking on priming the little black room white, and making/sourcing the elements for the ‘Oracle’ cave-space and the costume.

These were the elements that I had for the space:

  • Golden plastic lizards around the walls
  • Gold floor and walls
  • Gold fabric to cover ceiling
  • LED lights dotted around to create an otherworldly effect in red, pink and gold, and spotlights on different features
  • Giglets scattered around
  • Cigarette packet that says ‘Fumer tue’
  • Half-empty pill-packet of sertraline antidepressants
  • Large digital print of ‘The Unborn’ basement door backdrop
  • My Dollphyne doll and packaging on a gold plinth, which I’ll come to discuss
  • Gold teeth

And the elements I made/found for the costume:

  • Halo headdress made of plastic cable-ties
  • Gold leotard
  • Gold lizard gloves
  • Gold lizard feet
  • Gold crocodile-effect lizard tail attached to leotard
  • Large gold phallus necklace
  • Sword
  • Manacle and chain made of steel

It was challenging working with a live performer. In the past I would conduct photo shoots in my home/studio with my models to create my own imagery to paint from, which is a collaborative process but one that stays intimate, personal between me and my friends. Exposing Lisa, as Delphyne, felt very vulnerable, even to me who wasn’t going to wear a skintight gold bodysuit. The process of ‘bringing a painting to life’ meant exposure, and I was in uncharted territory. As I was winging it, I couldn’t really explain to Lisa what I wanted from her performance, just instructing her to do whatever felt natural, which was pretty vague instruction. To my mind, Lisa was Delphyne, so whatever she did would be what Delphyne would do. It wasn’t so much a character as a borrowing of an identity.

Eventually, after much discussion and after Lisa had tried on the costume in full and seen the cave-space, we decided on a few rules for the content of the performance. This was needed as during the documentation photo shoot Lisa was quite uncomfortable and didn’t seem thrilled about the prospect, and I was actually worried she would pull out. We agreed that she didn’t have to wear the elements of the costume she found too much (i.e. my big gold penis necklace). In terms of the performance, we decided that Lisa would not acknowledge any visitors, ignoring them, as if they existed in another dimension. If they asked her a direct question though, she could respond. Otherwise she was to move slowly about the space, play with her tail, her sword, other items, pose, look bored, daydream. The idea was that the visitor was stumbling upon a moment in Delphyne’s life, acting out in real time, and she spent her life waiting, guarding, anticipating. So that’s what Lisa did, looking rather sulky about it.

The performance at the MA Show opening event ended up going very well, with a constant stream of people creating a buzz, word spreading that there was a gold dragon in the Morgue. This allayed one of my fears that no one would bother to look inside the room properly, as it was not in an obvious location.

Lisa was a trooper, she had a 15 minute walk around every hour and the rest of the time was acting fabulously, with visitors saying that she never broke character, commenting on the eeriness of sharing the claustrophobic space with this creature. Also no one fell down the cobbled-together stairs, which were rather treacherous and nearly shut down my whole installation at the last minute because of Health and Safety concerns. But we worked it out.

I guess part of why I wanted to create an installation/performance was to investigate different methods of shifting or assuming identities. Things like film and TV, museum displays, stage sets in theatre, cosplay, social media profiles … what we do to take breaks from being ourselves, and how these mythological/fictional/composite characters enable that imaginative release. I liked the idea of doing a ‘cosplay’ of a creature no one had ever heard of, which totally defeats the point of something like cosplay, a social shared fantasy game. And the creature uses Lisa’s face, body and personality like a parasite, it has none of its own, and can’t exist without her. So when Lisa dresses up as Delphyne, she is at once disguising and enhancing her own identity.

I was unsure what to do after Lisa’s performance when the show was open the following Saturday to Thursday. In the end, which wasn’t totally ideal, I decided to just have the elements of the costume lying around the space, as if Delphyne had momentarily undressed or shed her skin. The presence of the creature could still be felt as the space was so atmospheric and otherworldly, and as I had my painting in a different building (‘The Martyrdom of Delphyne, oil on canvas, 2019), and I had the Dollphyne sculpture, I felt the character’s physical appearance was well enough represented. I also quite liked the mystery of it, the impenetrable secrets. The installation, even without the performer, still had a sense of its own internal logic: everything in there was there for a reason, and this could be felt even when there was no way of knowing the reasons. This is a quality I really notice and admire a lot in other artists’ work.

Looking back, it surprised me how much fun the install period was. It was definitely the most fun show I’ve ever made in terms of the build-up: the work itself was fun to make, painting things gold is fun, but mainly it was the social aspect. Everyone from my course was there doing the same thing, have meltdowns, eating lunch together covered in paint and grime, getting drunk on the grass outside, going to the pub after the uni closed, helping each other with their work. And it was beautiful sunny weather. I’ve made so many fantastic friends on the course and being able to hang out with my MAFAmily is always a pleasure. I definitely miss that.

There is an obvious satisfaction of things coming back around like a circle. I first saw the Morgue space when I came to the Chelsea Postgraduate Open Day on Valentines Day 2018, and immediately decided I wanted to use it for creating or showing work at some point during the MA. My undergraduate university, the Glasgow School of Art, also had a morgue in the Printmaking building; it occurred to me later how satisfyingly macabre this link between my chosen institutions was. Additionally, the first piece of new work I made on the MA, in October 2018, was painting a suitcase gold; the last thing was to paint a whole room and its contents gold. The gold suitcase from the ‘Lost Idols’ piece was included in the installation to hold Lisa’s water, book and other supplies she may need during the performance.

The MA Show was a beautiful, circular moment of growth, moving forward with new friends and abilities, while also being reminded of how lucky I am for my previous relationships and experiences. The exhibition and the Delphyne performance will remain very special to me for a long time.

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View the film documentation of ‘Delphyne and the Oracle’ (July 2019) here.

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