This is not so much as exhibition as an eruption; a whole life spilled across the gallery floor. Never one for putting away childish things, Anthea McWilliams has emptied her dressing-up box on the floor and rolled around in it: emerging in a string of pearls, lipstick all over her face, her mother’s shoes and a well-thumbed Gene Kelly biography.
Actually it’s a lot more ordered and nuanced than that. McWilliams’ central reservation – what she calls her “Hoard/Horde” – is the outline of a specific life. These are manifest memories, individual madeleine moments that trigger a synaesthesia of associations. It is a hauntological obstacle course; objects clamber over one another, vying for your attention, like eager school children: “Me sir! Remember me, sir!”
As Jane Eyre was haunted by Mrs Rochester’s “mad woman in the attic”, patrons of Lisburn’s R-Space Gallery may well have been traumatised by artist Anthea McWilliams emerging to the sound of Basements Band’s version of “Feeling Good” from a trapdoor in the floor like Sadako from Ringu, wreathed in balloons like champagne fizz and throwing terpsichorean shapes about the gallery.
The exhibition is three ply. It is a celebration of a singular life and her 60th birthday this month. It is also the celebration of thirty years of contemporary dance practice. And it is a celebration of the ten year anniversary of the artist’s peculiar, quixotic dance marathon. In 2008 to celebrate her 50th birthday, McWilliams set out to dance all the way from Malin Head in Co. Donegal to Mizen Head in Co. Cork. A distance of 500 kms, it took her three months, the longest performance of her life.
Though only a part of the exhibition, there are echoes of McWilliams’ extraordinary journey everywhere, from the printed wall-charts that itemize it: “one major loan” “one major break-down” (I think she means the vehicular kind) “twenty dead animals” “twenty three tins of tuna” (not counted among the dead animals) to the video footage of the surreal interactions with the people she met. There is grainy film of the artist in the jaws of a digger in the backyard of the “The Big Apple Bar” in Ballyforan in Co.Roscommon. Sat next to her is Pat, a large man who looks distinctly uncomfortable: he was the All-Ireland Disco Dancing Champion of 1985, but that seems like a long time ago for Pat, and he is disinclined to shake a tail feather. On her journey McWilliams found herself continually assailed by a conspiracy of Pats: outside Clady, near the border she is mistaken for an armed robber – her dancing clobber lending her the look of an all-terrain Ninja – and she is confronted at a petrol kiosk by another man named Pat about her suspicious manner. We witness spidery time-lapse footage of her dancing in front of the derelict Border Inn. It’s hard to disagree with the Pat’s – she’s clearly up to something! And that’s why she has titled her first book to be ‘Borderin’ on the Ridiculous.’
McWilliams, the artist, claims she finds it impossible to write: “It pains me, the shackles of stillness press into my muscles, the hood of solitariness envelopes my mind and I’m manacled to the power of the story.”
It just doesn’t tally with the evidence: the walls are black with her writings. She is clearly in love with names, places, lists and puns; their meaning also dances. Under the heading “Claptrap of Random Demands” she lists long strings of aspirational commands: “Pose me,” said the question.” “Shake me,” said the foundation.” “Rock me” said the bottom.” “Dance me” said the distance.”
In “Pun Fun with Place Names” she produces another wall of words based upon the places she danced through and some she has yet to: “Bury me in Toome” “Time Please in Tempo” “That’s fair e’ Muff”.
Even on a wall dedicated to her formative years, featuring family snaps and flyers we find room for hand drawn calligraphy: her name in the Art-Deco style of Biba (another early obsession). This is a room dedicated to a woman who is dazzled by words. Even her Hoard/Horde is littered with books, magazines, post-cards, all of them wrinkled, their spines broken, dog-eared with love. This is a life disgorged, spilled like shopping: a Rupert the Bear annual, a letter from the Screen Actors Guild promising a signed photo of Gene Kelly (photo now lost); a book on Geology with one or two stones resting on it. Distant, disparate objects with a single thing in common: Anthea McWilliams. It is a life in keepsakes and little treasures; the portrait of the artist as collector and a keeper.
And then there is all that dancing. This is a remarkable and inspirational story, an arbitrary statement of intent, of joie de vivre. If George Mallory climbed Everest “because it’s there”, then Anthea McWilliams took on a more difficult challenge – Mallory was left alone, he wasn’t constantly assailed by men called Pat asking him what he was doing!
A UTV television interview about her project flummoxes the two presenters – one of whom is so baffled that she calls her “Andrea” for the first couple of minutes. The male interviewer looks dubious throughout. Later he will be seen dancing with Anthea with macho competitive vigour on the Ormeau embankment bridge. The female host simply runs out of steam – this is far beyond her ken. “You must have got some strange looks,” she blathers. “I wonder what you’ll do for your 60th birthday.”
This. She’ll do this.
Review by John Patrick Higgins
Dance.I.Am continues until 30 November 2018
Anthea’s book ‘Borderin’ on the Ridiculous – one woman’s story of dancing up Ireland’ will be published in 2019.
Its not every day you turn 60! Its not every day you can celebrate a landmark year in professional dance practice in N.Ireland. So this exhibition is my tribute to myself and all those people and places I have worked with and in, over the years spanning these decades. Now its time to publish my book - I'm taking orders!
Ken Bartley, owner of ArtisAnn Gallery:
Excellent exhibition - great achive. This show must tour!