Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Creative Resident Profile: Robin Poitras (AJP)

Andrew James Paterson

Regina-based artist Robin Poitras is another of the 2008 Festival’s Seven Creative Residents, who have been invited to develop and create performance works and/or actions specific to either of the 7a*11d’s two host galleries or to the public spaces of Toronto. Poitras’ body of work encompasses dance, theatre, and visual art. These labels or categorizations become blurry and arguably redundant, as it all culminates in performance.

Poitras’ work or practice has been characterized by ritual and processions, by specific focus on materials that the artist feels have multi-faceted histories, reverberations, and associations. She is fascinated by mythologies and by dreams; and she has an ability to create powerful single images that can permit multiple suggestions and/or interpretations.
Light, colour, movement, rhythm, and also cinematography are key elements of her considerable body of work and ongoing practice. Poitras combines a dancer’s discipline with a visual artist’s belief in the power and beauty of images.

In 1986 Poitras founded New Dance Horizons, of which she continues to be the Artistic Director. Being both a dancer/choreographer/performer herself and also a director, she has fruitfully collaborated with a wide range of visual artists, choreographers, musicians, actors, and other artists. In 2000, Robin Poitras organized a three-day dance festival called Stream of Dance, which showcased a blend of styles and disciplines including ballet and powwow dancing. Robin Poitras has never been one to shy away from blending different disciplines and also different audiences.

Poitras is not a subscriber to Western beliefs in superiority of mind over body. She subjects her body to endurance tests of her physical limitations. She transcends the physical body while simultaneously moulding it, or sculpting it. She is a believer in thinking as a bodily act and not as a detached egghead ivory tower form of gamesmanship. She is unafraid to explore terrain dismissed by many women (as well as men) as being essentialist or biologically-determinist, although she is too open to chance in order to be pinned down by such labels.

A significant multidisciplinary and community-based work by Robin Poutras is The Pelican Project. This processional performance is heavily influenced by Japanese culture - it is based on a series of five Dragon Procession performances designed for children. These performances take place annually at festivals such as Lanterns on the Lake in Regina. It consistently involves workshops for its participants and collaborators, from which have evolved performances utilizing pelican “prosthetics” such as beaks and wooden shoes, and pleated paper costumes as well as paper lanterns. A march or procession occurs at Wascana Park, and the wooden feet create strong memorable rhythms. Sound generated by movement is a commonplace of Poitras’ works.

The Pelican Project was echoed by an outdoor performance that Poitras presented on a lovely pre-Halloween afternoon in downtown Toronto’s financial district. Poitras formed a trio with two other female artists - Brenda Cleniuk and Leanne Lloyd (both from Regina). Dressed in identical black outfits and wearing comfortable red shoes, they held umbrellas over their heads in unusually sunny weather and fastened belts hosting bells around each leg. The three-piece orchestra would sit in wooden stools in different site-specific arrangements and shake their bodies enough so that the bells would ring harmoniously. The ringing was particularly sonorous at the performance’s first location - in front of the Design Exchange which had originally been the stock exchange. The ringing commenced at noon - high noon. Ringing bells of course carry many associations -meeting time, feeding time, mess time as it is called in the military. The stock market’s daily opening is announced by ringing bells, as is its daily closing. The stock market has of course been oscillating quite wildly in recent times - the stock market has been downright Fluxist.

The closer the performers could sit to each other, the more harmonious the bells. In front of the Design Exchange they were in one of my favourite keys - that of “D”, and their movements were almost perfectly synchronized. When the performers moved across the street to a deserted fountain area, they had to sit further apart and intensity was lost. But they could sense this and so they picked up the slack, enough to attract the attention of a Security Guard who requested that they relocate. So they moved up another level, and then walked through them lobby of a large CIBC bank. Were they disturbing the peace? (On an earlier day this week, another 7a*11d artist - Sakiko Yamaoka - did lead a sleep-in in various banks including this one.) No, but people did stare. Perhaps the three women belonged to some religious cult? Or were they nuns of a sort? They were silent, except for their ringing. Poitras and her co-performers had undertaken a vow of verbal silence in the heart of the financial district, a district in which constant chatter is a given. Many denizens of that district stopped what they were doing for a moment and pondered the three identically-dressed women.

In 2000, Poitras commenced a body of work titled Invisible Ceremonies, works combining performance, dance, spoken word, and ritual. Many of these works, such as Ursa Major, attempt to forge connections between conscious and unconscious by deploying recognizable shapes and outlines Or perhaps preconscious is a better word here - animistic, instinctual, and elemental. Poitras at least flirts with occult elements. Poitras
“plays with symbols and the fairytale as part of a multi-pull deck of historical, social, scientific, and poetic thoughts and images…to trace some of the origins and mythological inheritance that perceives the way women are viewed”. (from the artist’s notebook, 2003. Quoted in Brenda Cleniuk, Robin Poitras, pub. Caught in the Act; an anthology of performance art by Canadian women, eds. Tanya Mars and Johanna Householder, YYZ Books, 2004, page 372)

Poitras uses a stage or playing area as an installation space, a space for gathering and arranging materials and referencing art, science, and nature. She does not see these fields as separate disciplines but rather as being complexly interconnected or co-dependent. Poitras has particularly referenced non-white Western cultures (particularly Japanese and First Nations), and their various public rituals. Materials and fertility are at the foundation of many if not most of Poitras’ works, often in relation to site-specific locations and to landscape. An important work is Memez Ovum, drawing on stories and mythologies about Prairie winters and source ideas such as frozen embryos, the moon, Snow White. And cryogenics. The hyper-rationalist worlds of science are never a violation of nature but an organic or bodily extension. Thinking and deducting and experimenting are all body acts. Memez Ovum also drew on the works of visual artists who have made significant amounts of work examining the colour white, not as a default base or non-colour but as a vividly expressive and idiosyncratic colour, with as many shades and sub-shades as the primary and secondary colours. White of course is the colour of snow, and Poitras in her notes describes Memex Ovum as “an ode to winter picnics.” It is dedicated to her mother, who initiated her daughter into winter picnics and transmitted a love of snow and fairytales and natural magic.

The belief that crucial life-materials come from the body rather than being simply ingested into or superimposed onto the body is central to the performance that Robin Poitras presented at Xpace Gallery for 7a*11d on October 30th, 2008. Her material of choice was honey. When I asked the artist why honey, she regarded me patiently and informed me that she collected bees as a child. Bees may seem to be a seasonal nuisance, as far as most people are concerned. However, bees make honey and bees are endangered. Honey is a first (if not the first) food, a major source of fertility, and a timeless remedy for illnesses and immune systems. A body devoid of honey is a body in trouble.

. The 7a*11d festival catalogue lists Poitras as presenting untitled: a work that draws on past works. This title referred to the flexibility granted to the Seven Creative Residents by the festival - a trust that they are capable of arriving at something substantial during their residency, a presentation(s) based on their interactions with both the performance site and their reactions to their working environments. But this performance was so much more than that.

As the audience re-entered the gallery from the epical preceding performance, Poitras was on a ladder applying a paint-roller to a white wall. What was on the roller was not paint but honey. Sweet and very sticky honey. She was painting the letter “X”. In the centre of the gallery she had a bucket and a pair of stilts. Very simple - minimal and particular materials and/or supports.

She first rubbed skin against the X she had painted onto the wall, making sure that the honey was appropriately sticky. Then she climbed down from the ladder, sat in the middle of the floor, raised the bucket and poured honey all over herself. The honey ran down her entire body and formed a major puddle on the floor. The honey not only dripped from but soaked right into her skin. She remained still and never looked at the X that she had “painted” on the wall to her left. She slowly rose and mounted the stilts. She moved backwards through the puddle of honey and very slowly but steadily around the playing area she had defined, maintaining the necessarily perfect balance. She stopped in the centre by the puddle of honey and slowly climbed down from the stilts. She lay the stilts down, and walked slowly toward the wall to her right. Robin Poitras pressed a hand against this wall, and held it there. Then she withdrew the hand, revealing one very clear fingerprint. Then she exited. Her timing was perfect, as was her concentration. This was not a performance that could have lasted forever and ever, with an arbitrary point of conclusion. This was a performance that moved from point to point, or station to station. There was no dead space in Poitras’ performance, no unfocused moments in which she made decisions concerning what to do next. These directions were in her head and in her entire body. This was a performance that a purpose to accomplish and that purpose was accomplished.

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