Gwen Dupré responds to Ultimate Dancer’s Hevi Metle, a durational sonic performance of six hours, six minutes and six seconds which draws on a feminist approach to alchemy.
Hevi Metle was made in collaboration with Michelle Hannah, Angela Goh and Juliana Capes and performed at the BALTIC by Michelle Hannah, Leah Landau, Juliana Capes and Louise Ahl.
Hevi Metle focuses on a feminist approach to alchemy, where each slow movement and resonant sound works towards a metallic transformation.
You are absorbed into vapours of emo-goth culture, which is exuded from silver chains, inferno print combats and hoodies from which faces lurk, as you step into this communion of decadent hedge-witches, who are draped in mesh and alloy hairgrips.
Hedge-witches, unlike sorcerers and ritual magicians, use ordinary objects in their spells, making do with scavenged items and things close to hand, subverting hierarchical power structures in the process.[i] The artist behind Ultimate Dancer, Louise Ahl, documents her corner shop potions of butter, lemonade and salt,[ii] where such brews work towards an alchemical shift; everything in this room has taken a metallic turn. Silver and gold are known to be the alchemist’s spoils; the concoctions appear to have successfully calcified everyday items into shining baubles. Metal bodies touch metal surfaces and metal surfaces vibrate staccato incantations into the darkened room.
Metal seems to abase the flesh, impersonal and forceful, belonging to the surgeon’s knife or the abattoir’s cooling room. Mirror-like, it can distort reality, becoming a trickster’s tool for the creation of illusion, making things oddly doubled, wonky and appearing different than they are.
Yet metal’s reflectivity also incorporates ideas of contemplation, introspection and ritual. For example, in Feng shui, metal is a yin, female element of dynamism, energy, and inward motion, and has historic associations with the symbolic sensuality of the planet Venus and the gravitational pull of the moon.
This paradox, of the potential for deception and the deeper complexity of alchemical magic, is held in tension throughout the performance and appears to be embodied by the stilted gestures of the flute player who slides, ungainly, around the edges of the room, at times gentle, at times stuttering like a malfunctioning replicant.
Outside this binary, there is something that appears to guide the action beyond sleight of hand or the suggestions of communion with the divine anti-feminine. Despite the cryptic satanic clues dotted throughout the work, there is an air of a more ambiguous mystery, an occult sensation that hangs about, palpable yet remaining indefinable. For instance, when Juliana Capes, the visual describer, gives an integrated verbal account of the scene we walk into, it is a calming and poetic narration, and it is as if we have stepped into a living fairy tale, full of age-old secrets and obscure cosmic truths.
When she goes around the room to give the ‘Touch Tour,’ her decorative chains make her jangle like an enigmatic crypt keeper. But just as we are beginning to feel comfortable, in a vaudeville-esque show of misdirection, one of the performers, Leah Landau, becomes possessed by the demonic spirit of a swaggering Australian comedian in the act, ‘Interlude from down under’. Leah, in jester-guise asks: WHAT’S UP NEWCASTLE? I SAID, WHAT’S UP NEWCASTLE?
No one answers. A feeling of satanic panic builds. Out of the mic the inane voice booms about the hallowed walls of the performance space. The audience have been completely enraptured by the unfolding events, which have stretched over hours (amounting, by the end of the performance, to six hours, six minutes and six seconds), but no one dares to answer her. There is a growing feeling that to answer would be to invite a curse upon oneself, or indeed upon everybody in the room.
Paranoia is summoned not only by this, but is built throughout the performance. The inhuman gestures and songs of the gothic troubadours become genuinely unnerving the more they are repeated. The longer the show goes on, the deeper the mystery of it all. Repetition defines each act of the performance; in ‘Twelve verses to make you rot’ every recital of the etched brass plates, which sit upon alloy music stands, is a potential double of the next while simultaneously an echo of the last – and so on. The result is an eerie haunting of the present moment by both the moment before and the moment after.[iii]
‘Satanic Panic’[iv] is the term used to refer to the feverish cultural hysteria of the 1980s that arose from a belief in an evil conspiracy to indoctrinate the vulnerable through the media they consumed.[v] The ‘feminist alchemy’ of Hevi Metle seems to directly respond to these satanic fears, connecting the echoes of paranoia to the deeper-rooted and historic suspicion of womxn. Gesturing to the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular, the work offers homeopathic solace through its unapologetic flirtation with dark rituals.
The title too, provides a provocative hint. At the time of ‘Satanic Panic’, heavy metal musicians were accused of inciting their listeners to devil worship. In reality, listening to bands like Black Sabbath was more indicative of a teenage rebellion against middle class normality than anything else. This kind of novel mutiny relates back to the hedge-witch’s refusal to use impressive or exclusive materials for their magic, and encompasses the rejection of ‘appropriate clothing’ by those who adorn themselves outside the norm: metal-heads, emos, goths, and neo-pagan enthusiasts alike.
Hevi Metle’s defiant embracing of a goth aesthetic and its refusal to justify its own strangeness challenges paranoid attitudes and tempts permissibility. In fact, like its namesake, this work has nothing to do with Satanism at all, but is a rebellious artistic act that emblematises a turning away from expected modes of conduct, a conscious communion with the dark, and a metallic interchange towards deeper truths and new realities.
Ultimate Dancer’s Hevi Metle was performed at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, on 12 February 2020*, from 2-8pm. See here for more information. Follow Ultimate Dancer on Twitter via @Ultimate_Dancer and Juliana Capes on Instagram here. For more information about the collaborators mentioned, click the links in the body of the article above.
*Please note this performance occurred before the lockdown commenced.
Further Reading & Notes:
[i]Rae’s Hedge Witch: A Guide to Solitary Witchcraft (London: Robert Hale, 1992).
[ii]Taken from the synopsis of Hevi Metle’s sister performance, Lite Metle by Louise Ahl.
[iii]For more on repetition, see Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[iv]Listen to the series, UNCOVER: Satanic Panic, 2020, CBC Podcast, for an audio narrative on the turn of events in the towns affected by the hysteria. Available to stream or download on all podcast platforms.
[v]For a good compendium on the unfounded suspicions, and all-round ‘behind the curtain’ account of the ‘Satan Panic’ years, including the relation between suspected devil worship and heavy metal music, see Kier-La Janisse & Paul Corupe’s (eds) Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (Toronto: Spectacular Optical Publications, 2015).
This review was commissioned under our new theme Night / Shift
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Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.