The Stone We Each Carry : Sandra Johnston

Fortner Anderson
October 09

In interpreting the oft-times private gestures, rituals and actions of performance art, the public relies in part on the mien of the performer to find meaning and engage with the performance. During the performance of Sandra Johnston, an artist from Northern Ireland, the public at Viva sat enthralled as she invested her action with the intensity of a spiritual conversion.

Day 1 : Act 3

Before the performance, Johnston set up a makeshift table to one side of the performance studio. Behind her was the ancient brick wall of the metal working shop. With this configuration, the public observed her from three sides.

Onto the table she brought together a small collection of food, hand tools and day-to-day objects including a small glass of coffee, two spoons, a pen, a loaf of industrially produced bread, saucers and a can of paint remover.

Throughout the largely improvised action, in her encounters with each of these objects, Johnston incarnated a poise and a gravitas which conveyed to the public the mental and sometimes physical struggle to discover the potential of meaning and beauty within these objects.

In one striking image early in the performance, Johnston held a small pane of glass, removed from a window in the studio. The two sharp corners of the pane rested in the palm of her hands as she approached a powerful fan that had been set up next to her table. The window pane rotated slowly pushed by the strong current of air as she stared intently at it and her shadow that was cast upon its dusty surface. Throughout there was the palpable tension that the glass would fall and shatter, but Johnston put it aside.

It later became the surface upon which she created a repulsive and toxic mixture of hair, shaving gel, butter, paint remover and paint, that she subsequently spread on bread. First on two slices to make a sandwich, then she added a third piece on top with more of the mixture, then another slice and more of the spread till the sandwich stood a dozen slices high. She then carefully compressed it, forcing it into a wad a few centimeters thick. Through this mixture of bread, butter and congealed paint, she inserted a large steel eye bolt, and then threaded a nut onto the bolt to secure the bread in place.

The making, the spoliation and the ingestion of food figured prominently throughout her performance as Johnston ingested a sachet of sugar, took a sip of coffee, quickly ate a tiny piece of apple. These almost furtive actions enhanced the perception of the risk of self-harm that she would also ingest a bit of the sandwich.

In one of the final and most powerful of the images created by Johnston, she appeared to flirt close to doing herself just such harm. Crouched upon the table, she placed in her mouth the saucer which had previously been used to collect paint remover and congealed paint. As she leaned forward, poised on the balls of her feet, she spilled the glass of coffee over her head. It splashed over her and onto the floor, and some was caught in the saucer between her teeth. With a terrible grimace, she leaned even further, threatening to fall forward onto the concrete floor. The coffee and toxic mix in the saucer dripped to the floor. She finally released the saucer which fell and shattered.

The memories that informed the creation of these images remain hidden from us, but last night Johnston allowed us some fleeting sense of what must be their stark and terrible weight.