You don’t normally stand directly in-front of someone and gaze into their eyes for several minutes. There are unwritten social rules where you look someone in the eye when holding a conversation, but you don’t look too long, but what is too long? There’s the cliché of gazing into your lover’s eyes adoringly, but you always glance away, you smile, laugh and flirt. So to break these rules, to gaze into FK Alexander’s eyes for the duration of the song feels both uncomfortable and an absolute privilege – who doesn’t want to break the rules? But if the eyes really are windows to the soul, can we tolerate that level of connection? This performance forces us to face our own voyeurism, in both art and everyday life – when someone isn’t looking back you can safely stare. Alexander doesn’t allow us safety – she’s staring right back. But the way she held my hand offered some comfort, a little intimacy; I hug friends and family in greeting, but there’s something particularly special about holding someone’s hand, and I only ever do that with my husband.
I was first in line for Alexander’s award winning performance, waiting outside the room, already overwhelmed by Okishima Island Tourist Association’s noise music that broke through the walls. There was a frisson; I was anticipating what would lie beyond that door, and there I was, walking in, straight to that black X on the floor, greeted by the warmth of Alexander’s smile.
Alexander and I are friends, but we drifted apart years ago, spotting each other now and then at MSP concerts, keeping in touch via social media. I watched her from a distance with that digital gaze as she burned possessions, smashed cars, pushed coal, and bled Beckett onto a wall. Her work is concerned with “wound, recovery, aggressive healing, radical wellness and noise music.” Aggressive healing. Radical wellness. This isn’t a Hollywood ending. This isn’t covering up the wound. This isn’t all better now.
It had been a pleasure seeing her blossom as an artist, but I was at a distance – protected by a screen until that night I was holding her hand, looking into eyes framed by glitter, feeling the pain of noise music as Alexander sang with Judy Garland’s last recording of Over The Rainbow. As the song reaches its crescendo, white light strobes across our bodies and this is the end – Alexander kisses me on the cheek and I return to the audience.
Someone else steps up as Alexander removes her layers then puts them back on, going through the preparation each time; the ruby red shoes we all know so well, more lipstick for another cheek. She takes their ticket, holds their hand and presses the microphone to her heart. She gazes into their eyes and sings and I watch someone else in my place.
I watch, now the voyeur. Every time, the same thing: holding a stranger’s hand, gazing into their eyes, singing just for them. And I endure; I have fibromyalgia and I often struggle with sensory input like bright lights, loud sustained noise, people talking – all these things can hurt, as if I’m allergic to life. I feel the noise music reverberate through my body and I wonder if I can stay the full hour, wonder if this will send me into a flare-up. I stay, and I watch. I find myself almost addicted to the finale – every time it comes it feels like a balm, like a high. I need that high. It sends shivers through me.
Alexander has performed (I Could Go On Singing) Over The Rainbow as a 5 hour endurance piece. I think of artists and what we demand of them. Perform for us. We don’t care what it costs you. An audience of vampires. I think of the Manic Street Preachers video for If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next – trapped in a room, performing the song over and over until it makes them sick. I think of They Shoot Horses Don’t They. And I think of Garland – give us that crescendo, give us that high.
“Be good, drink this,” says Dirk Bogarde to Judy’s semi-fictional character, Jenny in the film I Could Go On Singing. Be good.
“Have you come to take me home?”
“No, I’ve come to take you to the theatre.”
“I’m not going back there. I’m not going back there ever ever again.”
“They are waiting.”
“I don’t care if they’re fasting.”
“Jenny, it’s a sell-out.”
“I’m always a sell-out.”
“You promised. They’re waiting.”
“To hell with them. I can’t be spread so thin. I’m just one person. I don’t wanna be rolled out like a pastry so everybody can get a nice big bite out of me. I’m just me. I belong to myself. It’s just not worth all the deaths that I have to die. Do you think you can make me sing? I sing for myself.”
Do we enjoy seeing artists destroy themselves? We romanticise it, wallow in the gruesome details, forgetting they’re human. We worship them, then drag them down, and freeze-frame – forever young. Preserved. We can gaze upon them without the threat of a gaze returned.
In Alexander’s performance we have our poison-cure – art taken so far you suffer (but is it the art itself or the demands we make?) and art as antidote to that suffering. That’s what my need for the crescendo exemplifies – healing through art. Many years ago, when I was recovering from depression and Christianity, I was learning to live again. What I came to realise is that art makes life worth living. Art is our mirror, showing us horrors and transmuting it. Art is process, denying a beginning and an end. Art is that kiss on the cheek, both meaningless repetition and meaningful connection. Art holds tension and contradiction as gently as Alexander holds your hand. Gazing into each other’s eyes, hands clasped; you’re in this together – daring to dream.