Tonight a Danish audience can experience the British artist Tris Vonna-Michell staging one of his evocative performance works. The occasion is the private view of the group exhibition Never Odd or Even, which has been curated by Solvej Helweg Ovesen for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde. Usually, Vonna-Michell performances take place in a room with dim lighting, a sparse selection of props (slides, photographs, found objects, etc.), and of course the artist himself, who will – by means of his characteristic, rapid, insisting voice and style – draw his audience with him through a wide-reaching web of stories that appear to be based on personal experience with the places and scenes described, but which also become interwoven with major chapters from history, e.g. from Berlin during the Nazi reign. His seductive mode of delivery has been compared to that of a well-spoken stockbroker, not least because his speedtalking is too rapid to ever be understood in its entirety. With his use of the subconscious flow of non-linear narratives, myths, and rumours, Vonna-Michell plays on our inability to ever truly achieve exact knowledge – whether about historical or personal matters.
Tris Vonna-Michell, born 1982 in Rochford, currently lives in Stockholm. He contributed to the Berlin Biennial, 2008, and The Generational: Younger Than Jesus, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York City, 2009.
Kunstkritikk caught up with a busy Vonna-Michell, who managed to answer six out of the ten questions in the time available.
How are the preparations for the performance going?
It’s going well so far, been rummaging through boxes to find objects for the performance. Found some new ones too, but several well-used objects are still missing – that might play a role in the narration.
What are we going to see?
A small table set with a few selected ornaments and debris from past journeys, colour co-ordinated fabrics, plus a light-blue egg timer that I bought today. Most of my older timers are now defunct, they seem to tick endlessly or abruptly ring prior to the allocated time. I usually buy a new timer for each performance. Aside from the table construct, there will be a projected DVD-work. I’ll perform standing, moving between the two works – it’s a new set-up for me; performing with a specific visual timeline in the background. In the past my performances have had minimal set-up and a more random reliance on images.
Your performances rely on the spoken and written word investigating the way in which histories are told. What role does literature take up in your work?
Generally it’s the starting point for most works, but once certain threads start to materialize I tend to distance myself from it, but in short – literature plays many but revolving roles in my work. Depending on the context and demands of each work – whether they evolve into spoken word narrations and/or veer off and become more installational pieces, shifts my relationship to literature.
Occasionally, you make use of an egg timer to determinate the duration of your monologues. Sometimes you ask the audience to set the time frame. What do you get from these external constraints?
When I started performing, it was always with an egg timer as my aide. I actually tried to work within the chosen duration, and at that stage in my work I needed to have these constraints and enforced constructs pushed upon the content of the work, otherwise I felt the energy and cohesion lessened and I found myself often resorting to other ways of narration. Such a time constraint re-negotiated my use of repetition and opened up the act of composed telling into a much more fragile state of narration.
How would you describe your working method?
Just about bearable.
You currently live in Stockholm. How do you perceive the artistic environment there?
In terms of production, especially for sound, there’s a lot of interesting and knowledgeable people around, and willing to collaborate. Stockholm has gradually become very useful for that aspect of my work, which I’ve also become more dependent on over the years and curious to explore. So in some ways I’ve adapted my practice to the city, but it’s a good place to work.