What if I took your place by William Easton
Lina Issa is talking about her work at Iaspis. The audience sipping mint tea listens as she begins to tell about her experiences of taking on other peoples lives. In neat and concise terms she explains that she put out an ad inviting anybody to apply if they would like to swap their lives with hers, at least for a while, and that tonight we could hear her and their stories.
There is something utterly disarming about the performance, Issa is by turn confessional, intimate, generous and thoughtful and she smiles throughout, well almost. The first story is about a woman who has recently lost her lover and her job and who has asked Issa to bear her sorrow for a day. As they both describe the swap, the exchange that emerges seems mutually cathartic. Sitting on the woman’s sofa Issa weeps, like Goldilocks she tries the bed for size, visits a local shop and weeps again. The woman feels a sense that her load has been lightened. Next up is a photographer who has asked her to follow his own practice of walking along motorways collecting rubbish, that then become the subject of his work. There is perhaps less empathy between them but the care that Issa puts into choosing the right detritus along the frozen hard shoulders of Stockholm’s highways is matched by his fear for her freezing in inadequate shoes but wearing his jacket. The third story is the most visceral, a three-day and three-night swap between a young woman who expresses a desire to step out of her life. What she wants is to simply take some time off, from her mobile, her Facebook, her blog and her boyfriend. She has left detailed and necessarily incomplete instructions on how to fit into her life including the right embrace and position to hold whilst sharing the bed. The story is told with frankness and enthusiasm but there is also the hint that perhaps they have both hold something they are able to retell. The narrative is fragile, as if in its own telling something might vanish, be lost or be manhandled. This throws into relief the next two stories as told by a curator and a young arts administrator. Here the exchanges are certainly more perfunctory. The former consisting of an hour where Issa worked with a planned exhibition at Moderna Museet whilst the curator baked a cake, the latter where Issa acted as a sort of second self to a young man as he carried on his daily business. Without the somatic elements that we so apparent in the other parts of the work these two swaps seemed to more firmly place Issa’s work in a more conceptual framework, where the acts are more a proposal or explanation of phenomena, in short hypotheses. But in no way did this detract from the performance, more it revealed a tension between the immediacy and agency of the act and the distanciation of an implied or self-referenced art context.
I met someone the following morning who had also been there and he expressed his feeling for the evening; that it felt that we had been invited home to someone. Rather than the more typical seminar or artist’s talk there was familiar geniality to the presentation. The word familiar seems apposite; another comment on the evening was that the various new forms that Lina Issa takes on are like the animal familiars from Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Issa herself in discussing how she might otherwise show the work in the future suggested a novel with her collaborators as characters. It is a beguiling idea that the fleeting moments that she occupies the lives of others are enough for the construction of a fictional persona. Many novelists have worked with much less. There is a famous story that H.E. Bates discovered the family for his Darling Buds of May, watching a large family leaving a small village shop at high speed and climbing into a hand painted blue bus. A tiny moment turned into the base for a series of novels with all the main characters already defined, clothed and ready to write. Issa has much more to work with. But what seems more important is that by imagining the translation of her actions into book form, that she might be able to retain the intimacy that is so much part of the work and her performance. What makes this work pertinent is in part, the friction between the personal and forms of cultural expression where the risk is that the latter can subsume the former. One can only hope that this does not happen, as it was truly a privilege to see Lina Issa tell her stories. The familiar, the personal, the experiential framed the work. The content rather than being an object of cultural analysis was affecting. In short it felt quite certainly that one was in the presence of a genuinely exciting work and an artist of the highest integrity.
I must thank Lina Issa for generously allowing us to use the image from the seminar for this blog.
- Posted: Monday, 1 March, 2010