Bower of Bliss: An Improper Architecture by Linder – Saturday 14th March 2020

Bower of Bliss: An Improper Architecture by Linder

Cerys Whiles

Once the performance has started, the audience are permitted to move upstairs to the site where it is occurring – the very transition, the intrusion into the Bower, becomes a part of the experience. There is no clear-cut boundary where the “art-space” starts, and instead the slowly pulsating sounds from the Bower bleed into and around the spiralling staircase that the audience ascend. Given the infamous criticism of the College architecture as “improper”, which the subtitle of the piece references, one may imagine the inclusion of this journey in the work as an allusion to the fallopian tubes, with the Dome as a great pregnant belly. This gives a whole new meaning to theatre in-the-round. There is no clear direction of where to stand, and visitors position themselves timidly around the periphery. It is clear now, under the fluorescently lit Dome, that we have entered a different sphere of interaction, a womb-like space which is dominantly claimed by its female inhabitants.

Several dancers saunter around the room with one spraying perfume. Their motions are at some points frantic, at others sensually slow. Stylistic references from contemporary dance, hip-hop and ballet synthesize seamlessly. From the very start it is evident that a multiplicity of senses has been considered in this work, all contributing to an immersive experience that no photograph or video, or indeed memory, could fully capture.

The sound is live not only in the musical understanding of the term, but feels alive – the tempo ebbs and flows, throbs, and climaxes in waves more akin to a female orgasm than the singular crescendo one is so often accustomed to hearing in musical structure.  The atmosphere of spontaneity and danger permeates the space, and therefore the ideas of the femme-fatale, of the demonisation of female desire, and of “irresponsible femininity”, are made tangibly present through the soundtrack. Various instruments are used often unconventionally, including a double bass, Linder’s own coughing through her mask, and the entire, fully-gowned Inter Alios choir, who linger around the space almost mournfully before gathering to sing a longer piece. Their plain black attire forms a sharp contrast to the bright, boldly patterned and textured costumes of the dancers.

These sounds (except for the choir) are manipulated by composer and musician Maxwell Sterling who transforms them into a less familiar, electronic, and futuristic noise. “Noise-music” is a more apt description, as though the music is carefully composed, there is no hierarchy between the different elements, and instead the audience is forced to contend with the richly textured barrage of sensory information, as sounds intertwine. It seems almost akin to the latter half of Pauline Oliveros’s Bye Bye Butterfly, only much denser and more fast-paced. The chaotic tangle of wires and devices is not just a sonic necessity but an aesthetic spectacle all of its own, as is the flying hair of the double-bass bow, which seems to mirror the performers’ hair and that depicted in the large Sarah Cawkwell drawing behind.

The dancers caress and use a wide variety of objects to extend their reach (including flora, kitchen utensils, prosthetic limbs). Two of the dancers spin chaotically, squabbling over the same prop. The incorporation of the tools from the domestic sphere and female sexuality is a motif of Linder’s, especially within her photo-collages. There is a particularly poignant moment when one of the dancers, who has an amputated arm, grasps at a golden prosthetic hand and gracefully throws and catches it like a ballerina’s ribbon or a dance cane. This visually looks like a golden chalice, and thus evokes a section from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen the main textual reference for the performance. Here, one of the “temptresses” of the Bower offers the “heroic” knight Guyon a golden cup which contains wine and the juice of the “riper fruit” (which could be interpreted as an allusion to the temptation of Adam in the Garden of Eden). Guyon then violently casts it to the ground. In contrast to Spenser’s version, it is the female performer herself who throws and catches the cup before it reaches the floor, thereby reclaiming sexual temptation. Moreover, given that disabled bodies are so often medicalized in a way which erases their sexuality, the significance of this reclamation of desire is doubled.

The performers interact, their bodies at times entangling. Their expressions become increasingly erotic, with peeping tongues sparkling under the colourful lights. Branches of blossom are held by the performers, notably a ballerina on points. These are collided with increasing violence, making the flowers shower over the performers and the floor. Since the floral imagery is one of the stronger aspects of Spenser’s description, the performance would feel incomplete without it. The garden motif has historically been used to demonise women’s sexuality in both the cases of Spenser’s Bower and the Garden of Eden. But since this vegetation was gathered from the gardens at Murray Edwards, where the college’s all-female student body are permitted to make full use of everything that is grown, this environment has been repossessed for a feminist cause.

All the while, there are two performers towards the back of the space, one continually re-dressing and altering the other’s costume. This performer leaves and moves on stage at various moments, and others visit the “seamstress”. She not only ties on elements to the costume but scribbles quick gestures in pen over the dancers’ tights. One may consider whether this could pose a commentary on the history of the gesture within art, which is so often used in masculinist discourse surrounding Abstract Expressionism. This trope has often placed the male as active and dominant artist, dismissively comparing female Expressionists to male peers, or excluding them from equal canonical status. In Linder’s performance, however, women actively control and construct their own and each other’s body image and gestures. The dancers, while responding to key cues, had a large degree of improvisational autonomy.

The performance ends with the women lying down, yet even in their slumber they seem far from vulnerable. The atmosphere has shifted from danger to a euphoric, almost post-coital calm or fatigue: and yet many thoughts have been awakened as the audience, in their excited discussions, reluctantly disperse.

Cerys Whiles is an undergraduate studying History of Art at Cambridge University and a volunteer of the Women’s Art Collection.

Bower of Bliss: An Improper Architecture, 2020
Performers, Lauren Fitzpatrick, Kirstin Halliday, Gia Jones, Lilian Wang and Ashley Young. Music composed and performed by Maxwell Sterling with Kenichi Iwasa and Inter Alios choir of Murray Edwards College and Churchill College. Costumes designed by Louise Gray.  Commissioned by Kettle’s Yard with Women’s Art Collection as part of Linderism. Watch the Bower of Bliss: An Improper Architecture cinematography by Fatosh Olgacher.