One of the joys of working on the Art360 Project is visiting artists’ studios. Each studio space has a personality of its own and, through its order and display, contains traces of the artistic life of its owner. These private spaces, which are rooted in thought and creation, carry with them a magnetic quality tied to the artist.
We are excited to share our experiences from Art360 artists’ studios, and hope you enjoy a brief glimpse into the archive of performance artist Rose English.
Rose English’s studio is framed, floor to ceiling, by a lofty shelf stacked with neat folders and boxes with labels such as ‘My Mathematics’ and ‘Giant Eyelashes’, with several items stating ‘FRAGILE’. Knowing that English often works with glass, I am particularly wary of these!
As it transpires, glass has been a central component of English’s performances. The acute composure and precision executed by a troupe of Chinese acrobats in ‘A Premonition of the Act’, choreographed by Rose English and shown at Camden Arts Centre in 2016, underlines the artist’s fascination with the relationship between people and objects. During this performance, acrobats balance trays of filigree glass on the soles of their feet, the palms of their hands and even the bridge of their nose. It’s an impressive feat and I am lucky to see some examples of English’s glasswork displayed amongst an array of props and performance images that gesture towards the baroque.
Positioned on the table at the centre of the studio are a series of props which capture the humour and vivacity with which English performs. I am immediately fixated on the iconic giant eyelashes displayed in their open silk box which were worn by Rose English’s persona ‘Rosita Clavel’ in the performance monologue ‘My Mathematics’ (1992). Not too far away an enormous pair of rusting scissors sit ominously, and I am told they were used mid-performance by a chosen audience member to trim English’s elongated lashes. It is surprising to discover that the eyelashes are extremely light, and English explains her close collaboration with costume designers in the realisation of nuanced personas.
Trajectories of thought can be drawn together through English’s archive. From the intricate eyelashes shaped like miniature riding crops, to the framed photograph capturing a moment from the dressage performance enacted by dancers, ‘Quadrille’ (1975, 2013). The elegance and control of the horse, like the absolute composure of the acrobats’ form, comments on the language of the body. English’s captivation with the equestrian figure resonates throughout her archive.
We look at a photograph dated 1890 in the artist’s monograph ‘Abstract Vaudeville: The Work of Rose English’ of Argentinian equestrienne, Rosita de la Plata, standing proudly beside her horse. English shows me an example of a storyboard she has created, the visual evolution of the persona. At the centre of a selection of images and texts sits this same Rosita de la Plata and the source of ‘Rosita Clavel’ becomes clear. As I look around the studio my eye latches on to a multiplicity of textures and media, the skirt made of magnolia leaves worn in Berlin (1976), the staged portrait of English and her horse standing mid-air (this effect was achieved without Photoshop!), the fur muff, the moustache, the gold pipe. Through these fragments of identity Rose English’s performances can be reimagined and the ephemeral moment preserved.
In our forthcoming film of Rose English in her studio, the artist describes the archive as containing the vestige of the idea that leads to the ephemeral act of performance. Through the layers of material in the archive: the notebooks, transcriptions of monologues, photographs, film documentation and costumes, English’s performance obtains a new vitality. Her archive is more than a repository, it is active with stories, influences and collaborations that provoke thought and inspire humour.
The materials housed in Rose English’s studio underline the importance of the archive in telling the full and brilliant story of British art for present and future audiences, we hope you’ll agree!