When you experience something that seems to defy classification, you tend to experience it in a more vivid, more visceral fashion. The more you struggle to find a suitable narrative to explain it, the more deeply involved you become.
What’s more, whatever you experience in this manner, tends to touch you and stay with you in a way that other, more intellectually mediated, experiences do not.
Recently I saw Nigel Rolfe do a performance piece called European Dream at the Green on Red Gallery, in Dublin.
You walk into a darkened gallery, where people are milling around in the gloom, you immediately begin to feel slightly uncomfortable.
From loudspeakers, somewhere in the back of the space, you can hear distorted military music. Every so often you hear the sound of a hand slapping flesh.
After a few minutes you start to get your bearings. You begin to see that there are projections on three of the walls.
The wall in front of you features an image of what looks like a prison cell… except it is too large to be a cell., and there are strange bluish stains on the walls. Perhaps this is some kind of interrogation room… or worse, some kind of torture chamber… the image is somehow reminiscent of images of Abu Gharaib.
Suddenly you hear that slapping sound again, and you turn to see that, to the left of the wall featuring the large prison cell, is the image of a huge pair of hands. Blue powder is sifted from one hand to the other, until every so often the top hand slams down on the lower one, creating a gaseous explosion of blue pigment.
In contrast, on the wall to the right, is the image of another hand covered in gold leaf, this hand does nothing more than open and close majestically. In front of the central projection is a small desk, chair and desk lamp… perhaps an interrogation is going to take place? At this point the artist enters. He is a tall, imposing figure. His head is shaven and he wears a white shirt and black trousers. He sits at the desk and pulling up a shirt sleeve, begins to lift slivers of gold leaf and apply them carefully onto his hand. After ten minutes the hand is completely covered. This is the image projected on the left. He then carefully empties a bowl of blue pigment onto the table. Leaning forward on the table he looks around him at the audience in the darkness. Suddenly he plunges his face into the pigment…and rolls his head around on the desk.
When he eventually raises his face, he pulls himself erect, and with his knuckles still on the desktop, once again he looks at the audience, one by one with a look of sheer malevolence.
The effect is staggering, without quite knowing why, you feel that you are staring evil right in the face.
Your mind is working overtime, as you try and figure out what is happening at which point, Nigel Rolfe steps forward into the crowd, and urgently explains that the room behind him is one in which, in less than 24 hours, on November 3, 1943 over 18,400 Jews were killed with Cyanide gas.
Choking back the tears, which begin to run through the blue pigment on his face, he explains how gold was extracted from the bodies, and how the strange blue marks on the walls of the chamber were from the use of Prussic acid, otherwise known as Zyclon B or cyanide… in some kind of gruesome historical irony, this is the same ingredient used in the pigment that artists call “Prussian Blue”…
It is clear that the performance has taken its toll on Nigel Rolfe, in tears he leaves the stage. The audience applaud, but are all clearly in a state of shock.
It is one thing to know something intellectually. It is quite another to feel it emotionally.