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Correspondence (The North Wall, Oxford)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Performance art is a fantastically difficult art form to review in a fair manner, given the absence of the usual rules that determine how one is supposed to interpret and react to what is being presented. A literal description of Correspondence will hopefully illustrate the problem: An artist, Mark Rowan-Hull, paints a series of abstract pieces live on stage, accompanied by the Amit Chaudhuri Band. Rowan-Hull improvises and reacts to the music to create original and interesting new visual works.

The obvious line that is drawn here is that Rowan-Hull provides the visual interest, whilst Chaudhuri and band provide the sonic interest. At some points this clicked nicely, but more often than not, one arm was carrying the other. The evening began with a charming introduction from Chaudhuri in which he explained his musical education, this project and his new album This is Not Fusion. Confusingly, a great deal of what followed was precisely fusion, and the brand of ripe, arts-bar fusion at that. References to Clapton and Hendrix were evoked, as were an extremely poorly-judged Euro-pop monologue about living in Berlin, and a bizarre faux-country & western TV theme tune.

Where Chaudhuri’s input was more successful was in the more propulsive second half. That many of the more self-conscious influences were abandoned in favour of straight-up Rags fitted far better the free-form atmosphere of the evening. Looking around the audience, I saw that most were watching the scene with a reverential inscrutability, “what does this mean?” but some, like me and Rowan-Hull, were bopping their heads and enjoying the groovy battiness of the whole thing.

Rowan-Hull is an undoubtedly talented artist and there were times when watching him apply his paint to the plexiglass screens was absorbing and sensual. He was unfortunately let down by the staging and lighting that often left his work obscured by the band. Fixing this relatively simple problem would have improved the experience no end.

And the star rating? To large extent, it is irrelevant. Correspondence, and performance art in general, is not well suited to easy categorisation and comparison with other live works. Currently, I think that it is a mixed bag of treasures, but also that one’s appreciation of it is going to depend entirely on how comfortable one is with the lack of rules and points of reference. For some, the old gag about the drying paint is going to apply, some will be utterly transfixed. I was in the middle, too aware of the technical flaws to fully relax and go with it, notwithstanding some beautiful moments in the second half. Good on the North Wall for continuing to be the host laboratory for this kind of experiment.

- Josh Tomalin

For more details of the programmae at this innovative venue, please check out www.thenorthwall.com


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