Amanda Coogan

Studio Visit  |  February 2012
Amanda Coogan is a visual artist who makes live performance art. She works from her studio at her home in Dublin. Originally, she studied traditional painting in Limerick School of Art and Design but said that her transition to performance art happened very organically. The fact that she was brought up through sign language was a very important factor as it was natural for her to communicate using her body.
Amanda says that performance art is a very particular experience, both for the artist and the audience. There is an immediacy to the work that must be experienced first-hand; the audience embody the experience and breathe the same air as the performer. There are thousands of photographs that document Amanda’s live performances but she doesn’t show documentation as work. She says that if you look at documentation of a performance, you are missing something. There is an intimacy for the audience with performance art that does not come with looking at two dimensional works.
To get an idea of one of Amanda’s performances, click on the video link below
We Shall Glorify, 2009  
It seems that there is amazing stamina involved in being a performance artist and I asked Amanda how she stays in control of her body throughout her durational performances. She said it’s not that she has extraordinary bodily strength but that there is an endurance and a commitment that are essential in order to make a durational performance. When she immerses herself in a performance she relinquishes every day time. There is a significant relationship built between the viewer and the live performance artist. Amanda says that to “deny that humanity is to miss a huge chunk of what a live performance actually is”.
A recent work Amanda made, entitled The Passing, was a 24 hour performance commissioned for the opening of a new wing of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She described it as a “soft but physical” performance. It involved walking up and down the stairs of the gallery for 24 hours in a long red dress. An everyday activity, but when done for this amount of time Amanda said it becomes something quite different.  The performance was done as part of the opening weekend where Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24 hour looped video, was being shown so the museum was open for a full 24 hours.

The Passing, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist

She said that at some stages of the performance she did struggle quite a lot. She then added that everyone goes through moments of struggle with different art forms but because performance art happens to have a very intense time frame around it, because it is made in public in front of an audience and because it is a bodily experience, the struggle can sometimes be visibly perceptible. During the performance she found that she could control her body – it continued to move up and down the stairs – but her mind began to hallucinate. This made her feel out of control and she continuously grounded herself by making eye contact with the audience.
As part of this piece Amanda is collating some text about the performance which offers an insight into her process and experience of the work. She describes a moment during the performance, about 18 hours in, when she is finding it very difficult; “I decide I might be able to do the eye gaze. I pick a young man near Mari. It’s electrifying. I look at him. He’s scared. I slowly blink meaning ‘I’m nice don’t worry’.  He’s so beautiful. I’m breathing him in and out. We stay like that for a while. It refreshes me. It’s better than honey or water.” Honey and water were the only sustenance Amanda allowed herself during the performance.
The audience is an essential part of performance art. For Amanda, “the audience are the oxygen.” Performance cannot be done in a studio – it has to be done in a very particular context.  She said “with durational performance the work happens on site. You put a few bricks in place before hand but actually, it’s time, energy and the audience that construct it.”
The clothing Amanda wears for her performances are integral to the work. She has clothes tailored to the exact needs of each performance whether that need is to show her body in a particular way or to use the dress as a tool in the performance. She says that because of certain ways she uses the clothes they keep her grounded and alert.
In her recent piece Spit Spit, Scrub Scrub, made for Dublin Contemporary 2011, the clothing was really important to the work. It was essential that the material of the dress took over the whole room as it was inspired by the story of St. Bridget: St. Bridget was told that she could have all the land her cloak could cover to build her convent, so her cloak magically spread out over acres of land.

Spit Spit, Scrub Scrub, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist

Amanda said that the making of Spit Spit, Scrub Scrub was a slightly new departure for her because just before making it she had been performing in Robert Wilson’s interpretation of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, in which she saw herself as an actor as opposed to a live performance artist. Wilson’s approach to performance is very structured and rigorous whereas in her own work she doesn’t usually have such a strict outline. This influenced Amanda’s method in making Spit Spit, Scrub Scrub as she decided on two or three sections of music that accompany the performance that were to be clearly choreographed. On the other hand the work was also influenced in the opposite way because she felt the need to break from the strict movements and “allow for the nuance of the live moment and the collision of the pillars of live performance; site, audience and time, to influence it, allowing for unknowns to enter the performance.”
Another important aspect of this piece was the music. As Amanda was not performing herself every time she said she wanted it to have some sort of structure for the performers. When the work began to form, Amanda was living in Manchester and she recorded the noises of the train journey from her flat to the theatre where she was working. She said that Merce Cunningham, the famous dancer and choreographer, used to say to his dancers that during a performance, to open up the energy, they should visualise themselves on a train on a track that goes on to infinity,  goes through their body and back to infinity. This is why Amanda chose to include the audio recording of the train journey. She layered this with sounds from nature and dropped in fragments of music.
When I met Amanda she was working on editing a film that incorporates video recordings of six separate live performances done by six different women, including Amanda. These performances are part of her yellow series and were done in St. Mary’s Abbey, Dublin, in 2010. The film will show the screen split into six, each section showing a woman wearing a long yellow dress that she continually washes over a period of four hours. “The ritual of repeatedly submerging and scrubbing the fabric they wear becomes an act of cleansing and rebirth”. The film will show the same time frame of each performance side by side. At some stage during hour three, Amanda said that all of the performers have a moment of struggle and this, for Amanda, is a highlight because it’s something they must come through and the audience members witness this happening. It forces people to confront their physicality and humanity. The film is the same duration as the four hour performances because she did not want the durational aspect and the endurance of the live performances to get lost. It was premiered at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival this year.

Yellow – an Artfilm by Paddy Cahill and Amanda Coogan – production still 2012. Image courtesy of the artist

I asked Amanda what her thoughts are on the difference between the theatre and live performance art. She quoted anthropologist Victor Turner (1920 – 1983) who she said bluntly stated that performance art is “making, not faking”.  This no doubt referred to the fact that because in the theatre the performance is repeated every night for weeks, they cannot actually do things like shoot themselves the way performance artist Chris Burden did.  However, Amanda said she sees this explanation as too simplistic for both art forms now as there are a lot of real experiential performances happening in the theatre and a lot of fabrication happens with performance art. Amanda says “what were two distinct disciplines now cross over and blur each other’s edges.”
Amanda’s essay ‘What is Performance Art?’ is available on here on IMMA’s website

More of Amanda’s work can be seen on her website

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