My Skin of Rabbit Glue and Chalk

Still from a film by Siân Hutchings, 'Quietly Beneath'

I close my eyes and there is nothing. The film has started without me. But I can feel something on my skin, a tension and an impression that presents what I see, once I open them again, to a different view. This is a tactile view that does not see dance, bodies, space or materiality as recognisable and pre-existing things. Instead, it is a materialisation of what there is, generated in the practice of perception, listening and viewing, as a reciprocal touching of frames in motion: feeling limbs conjoined, bodies without heads, chalk traces and cracking canvas, moving slowly, inventing shapes.

Sîan Hutchings’ Quietly Beneath is a film of dance that re-orientates my view away from the movements of the human body towards what it moves and what moves with it. In the course of six minutes, these co-movements make a scene, an environment of movements and materials that generate a new and unknown form. In this sense, the work does not show dance, bodies, pigments, gesso, chalk or rabbit glue, the protagonists that move and are moved within its frames. It does not narrate or demonstrate their individual movements nor their co-existence. Instead, it performs their collective gestation from movements that realise them together: the pigment suit of canvas giving form to a body that cracks its skin, the skin of feet making a path through chalk that leaves traces on body and floor recording their impressions in a passing score, and the mobile bodies affecting the possibilities of each other to make a deformed form of dance. 

Still from a film by Siân Hutchings, 'Quietly Beneath'

Once the sound starts its breathing I notice how I held my breath. The silent image held my gaze outside my body. Through the soundtrack I come to inhabit my viewing and start to move with the protagonists, without seeing them as individuated shapes, but as an extension of sound and paint, chalk and bodies that touch mine. The choreography is not a managed manoeuvring of bodies into a formed routine, but a pressing of things against them, to negotiate limits and relationships on a surface of rabbit glue and chalk that functions as a shared but ephemeral skin. Thus the work has no authorship and the dancing has no body. Instead, elements of painting become elements of performance and make a dancing-singing concatenation as an act of being in movement and sound together, dispelling of their separate forms and names, and generating the body of painting itself. I cannot see this body, it has no certain form. I can only follow its processes and deformations, and participate in the vague tactility of its skin. 

The images are dark and of a reduced spectrum that as monochrome lends nostalgia to a very present amalgamation of bodies and things. Like a future perfect that imagines a different past where dancing is the movement of humans and non-humans together, generating an unformed joining of things, rather than the ideal of a romantic pairing of singular subjects.  This deformed and unformed body of painting moves within beiges and greys, blacks and whites in the plural but not exceeding it. This is a narrow band that focuses the viewer on movement rather than on what there is.

Still from a film by Siân Hutchings, 'Quietly Beneath'

The frame is never filled but disappears into opaque peripheries as into an invisible bandwidth, out of which the movements come and into which they go. In this way the film dances the visual, its logic of representation and formedness, away from the light into a darkness of drying and crackling gesso, generating a glacial disintegration and patterns on a desert floor. In turn and as a consequence, what moves is rarely seen as a graspable whole, but is constituted at the edges and through disappearing. It is present in the absent and through what remains: the patterns in the chalk, the cracks in the dried-out pigment, the dust on textile and in hair, as well as the impression one dancer’s body makes on that of the other.

The ‘itself’ and the ‘myself’ are not here, only their process, and that is ambiguous, incomplete and unreliably conjoined with everything else. Only in the last part of the work do we see whole bodies as forms, with limbs and heads, entirely in the frame. By now, however, they have so definitively given up their individual formedness as to be boundaryless and co-extensive even if in full view: a mass of movement together, enabled and constrained by their skin of rabbit glue and chalk.

I see this film at the same time as reading Margrit Shildrick’s essay You are there, like my skin.1 The connection is in part coincidental and in part contrived but definitively serendipitous. It enables the articulation of the relationship between dancers, canvas, rabbit glue and chalk as a form of concorporation: as a co-extensity of the skin that covers human and non-human things together in a dynamic embrace that limits, protects and forms a boundary, but that also performs a chaotic opening into a plural, malformed body that is ambiguous, neither rabbit nor human, painting or dance.

Still from a film by Siân Hutchings, 'Quietly Beneath'

This reading sees a work that does not perform but transgresses the form and disrupts the body, the notion of painting, its singular authorship and conventional material process. It opens a view beyond an established sense: the convention of dance and of choreography, and the status of things that habit can have us holding on to even in the face of its disruption in order not to see the monster that lurks quietly beneath.

Above all, it is the corporeal ambiguity and fluidity, the troublesome lack of fixed definition, the refusal to be either one thing or the other, that marks the monstrous as a site of disruption.2

This monstrous is not the beast of a conventional imagination or historical description, but a more subtle disruption and unforming of a perceived norm. It articulates and thus gestates a form without a pre-given frame, whose skin expands beyond one certain and individuated body to leak out and take in other bodies and things. Such a body performs a different embodiment, expanding the self in a different skin that does not limit and enclose but provides a surface for the reconfiguration of the self as a self with others and other things: to make an unknown shape that causes alarm and consternation among those who would like to see a certain world, but whose force of transformation and transmutation is inspiring of a different solidarity and a plural real.

Still from a film by Siân Hutchings, 'Quietly Beneath'

According to Shildrick the conventions of Western discourse and thinking represent the self in distinction to the other and to other things as a discrete and finite form. It is sovereign, contained within one skin, and makes a separate shape that legitimates its name and status: how we approach and know it from its form. The body that defies the cultural boundary of the skin defies standards of normality. It disrupts representation and an orderly organisation of the real. It is a monster, a mad form, unrecognisable and thus dangerous in its evocation of another possibility.

Shildrick discusses this other possibility through a feminist phenomenology and in relation to conjoined twins. She focuses on the medical and cultural effort to separate them, to re-attain a certain form and avoid the notion of a different being together: a physical and psychic interchange that is always there.

The bodies dancing in Hutchings’ work do not entirely defy separation. They disappear and reappear in different forms and different conglomerations, but they keep vestiges of their own form as through concatenations they explore the possibility of an expanded skin. To be with paint, chalk and rabbit glue as an interdependent and co-mobile body that tells us about a correlative world rather than a perfect form, and whose visual appearance does not fit into a recognisable category but calls for its own name: to perform a phenomenological being in the world as a possible body forming itself, conjoined, expansive, unburdened by expectations but making them instead on the viewer to suspend theirs.

And so, from darkened frames and with a near monochrome spectrum, the film brings into sight a skin that wraps in more than one body that is not functional for itself but performs alternative functions that cannot be represented but only performed. Quietly Beneath does not represent dance; it is not a piece about dance, or about painting, or bodies or even about rabbit glue and chalk. Instead, it is about the skin of flesh and canvas as a surface on which we meet each other to make shapes that communicate through indentations, traces, marks and breath.

This text was written to accompany Siân Hutchings’ film Quietly Beneath, produced as part of the Graduate Artist Residency at Tyneside Cinema.

Salomé Voegelin

By

Salomé Voegelin

Salomé Voegelin is an artist, writer and researcher engaged in listening as a socio-political practice. Her most recent book The Political Possibility of Sound: Fragments of Listening, 2018, articulates a politics that includes creativity and invention and imagines transformation and collaboration as the basis of our living together. Voegelin is a Professor of Sound at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.