This summer saw the opening of the 55 Venice Biennale, a long established date in the international art world diary. We sent artist Sarah Baker to Venice for the glitzy opening week with a brief to report back on what went down at the private views, parties and after parties. As it transpired, Sarah was most taken with the work of Marcia Farquhar whose performance included putting on a selection of clothes and recalling their personal significance and memories taking ‘who was wearing what’ at Venice, to an entirely new level.
The ultimate Venice Biennale opening- week experience is to accidentally find yourself hanging out on the pavement sharing a bottle of grappa among a small group of interesting people, whilst connections spark long, engaging conversations, fruitfully bringing about new friendships. This is how it was that British artist Marcia Farquhar met Canadian rock legend Peaches.
Marcia Farquhar on meeting Peaches in Venice:
“Venice was extraordinary because I encountered people I felt very fortunate to – people who represent something I can value. One night I was hanging out with a friend of mine who had Peaches as a houseguest. We were completely not at one of those parties, but on the pavement, drinking wine out of plastic cups. I had a really great feeling about Peaches. It was a relief to meet somebody so intelligent and full of a great artistic presence. For me it’s not where people come from, it’s where they are coming from.”
I myself was not at this particular soirée, but I did have my own collection of chance encounters in Venice that week, one of which happened to be Marcia Farquhar’s Acts of Clothing. I even sang during the performance. I was sure that Peaches would have been jealous of me for that.
The truth is that Marcia Farquhar talks so well, you just want to listen to her and do what she tells you to, singing included. Throughout Acts of Clothing, Marcia dresses and undresses, creating an articulate rendering of scenes, each provoked by a new item from the rail, as she morphs between anecdotes extracted from her life. She speaks with an elegant and cool tone but her insights are edgy and honest. The speed with which she delivers is poetic, a seasoned stand-up comedy, an artful Charlie Parker tune – always changing but staying on beat. But mostly she’s just fucking funny. She comes up with winning lines like “You can’t take academic success to the dance floor”, and “All I had to do was wear this dress and not say anything”. These genuine phrases are all backed up with family histories and her authentic, feminine perspective.
As she hovers along the catwalk, changing outfits, she verbally creates new settings, as if we’re watching a film shot in front of a blue screen and the backdrop continually changes. It’s very economical – the entire artwork consists of an Argos rail full of clothes and a catwalk made from whatever is available. If she is donning a particular dress she wore at a party, we imagine her at that party – dimly lit, a DJ, and people on the dance floor, a complete mise en scène. Cut to a prudish dress that her mother gave her and we can visualize the setting: a cartoon mother’s lower half with a teenage incarnation of Marcia disdainfully hiding under the kitchen table in the dreadfully un attering dress.
Marcia on fiction and fantasy:
“I leave the truth as a possibility of being a lie so that the fiction is always hovering around truth; I never want them to be particularly identified as being true. If you think of how we tell anything biographical it comes from our own vision, our own experience. Everybody’s version is everybody’s truth in a way. I was brought up with the master narratives, Catholicism and Marxism conflicting in one way, but rather consensual in another because they both, for example, forbid Disney and Barbie Dolls. I have always found the world of illusion and simulacra fascinating. I guess I would be a bit of a disappointment to my father and mother. Ha!”
At Marcia’s performance we, the audience, are in the position of children, slightly below her and looking up – surrendering to her authority. Every last word has complete sovereignty; we are all under her spell, waiting in anticipation for the next cracker, a joke on life. But really deep down in Marcia’s performance, past all the laughs and face pulling and arm waving, the eloquence, the tempo, the anxiety, the colour, there is a political position, a commentary on society and anti-authority that is dripping with anarchy.
Marcia on performing live:
“ The contingency and the chemistry of the audience are key and actually make it very terrifying a lot of the time, or at least on the edge of comfort. We’re all alive in the same moment right there. It’s like Christmas dinner, you know, it’s planned to go a certain way but it could end up in a terrible row. There is a lot of preparation but it’s actually what occurs in that moment that is determined by the collaboration. I have always been more interested in bands and performers who are quite open to that moment and not so formulaic. I used to love the Ramones, they were very messy live, you felt as if anything could happen.”
As an attendee at Acts of Clothing one must be careful not to interrupt or come in late, because Marcia will address any disturbances. Most of all one must take care not to get so caught up in the narrative and try to provide a soundtrack to the party scene when requested. One might find herself – as I did – the only one in the room willing to provide a skeletal and out of tune version of ‘Ms Jackson’.
It’s not that Marcia’s life really has a more extraordinary narrative than the next girl’s, it’s that she remembers the nite details; for example, what song was playing at a party, and is able to translate these stories to her audience, engaging profoundly with them. It seems a simple idea – to make work about something as personal and everyday as your own wardrobe. However, it’s the very thing that we present to our public – the façade we use to establish who we are and from where we hail. For Marcia, inspiration sparks from the superficial objects themselves – these individual items of clothing become a masterwork that is a time-based live sculpture activated by the artist.
Marcia on the Visual:
“ The performance takes place on a very blank canvas; the catwalk is as blank as it can be, and the clothes as they drop become the colours, become the paint, if you like; they become the activity and so it changes from something quite disciplined in rows hanging up on the rail in a very particular way to something that lets go of itself in the random play, because they always fall differently. It’s a process that makes something in time like a painting or like a sculptural happening.”
Of all the impressive and expensive Venice art I saw, it was Marcia’s performance that I was still thinking about weeks later. The very same day that I exchanged emails with Marcia to arrange a post Venice interview, I also got a lucky phone call from my friend Maxx with an invitation to ‘Peaches Christ Superstar’ at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown. Given the Royal Festival Hall’s 2,500 capacity, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I had to practically climb over Marcia Farquhar to get to my seat. It was all aligned in the stars. At the after-party, Peaches greeted many people, art stars, musical legends, fans, the press, but I could hear a higher sense of genuine mutual recognition in her voice when she warmly greeted Marcia: “Marcia, Marcia! When can we hang out again?!” Because Marcia Farquhar is the life of the party. And I bet Marcia will always remember what she was wearing the night she met Peaches.
Marcia Farquhar on Peaches Christ Superstar:
“It was a Tour de Force of nature. Every little girl’s dream come true.”
– MARCIA FARQUHAR PERFORMED ACTS OF CLOTHING AT ARTS PAVILION BOURNEMOUTH, PALAZZO ZENOBIO, VENICE BIENNALE 55