‘Mothlight’, by Skye Gellmann

Jana Korb reflects on a video of Skye Gellman’s performance of Mothlight for an essay assignment for the third module of the inaugural DOCH online research course into contemporary circus.

The task was to review this performance by taking notes and, afterwards, observing which of those notes fell into the categories of ‘description’, ‘interpretation’, and ‘judgement’ before compiling the review.

I really rather would have written a review about a show from my community – but they are so rare, and at the moment there is none, I could think of. So I wrote about Skye Gellmann as suggested by the course material.

My descriptions were by far the most frequent (compared to interpretations) – this might be due to the fact that I usually am very quick to judge, and this time I made myself observe before I started to judge. But I also noticed that some of my description were interpretations as well: e.g. I observed that the artists were wearing gendered clothes. But this is an interpretation from within our society’s codes… And of course it is saying a lot about myself, that I notice it in this way. Others might not have noticed anything about the clothes, might have just described them as neutral black.
It is very interesting to distinguish between observation, interpretation and judgement so precisely!

A walk-in performance by Skye Gellmann, the first thing I noticed in the were the other spectators, and I started to watch the performance by watching what others (and the camera) were watching: my gaze was drawn to a slightly pulsating cocoon hanging in the air in a space that seemed to be covered by spiderlike strings and slimey threads. Only after this I started to take in the whole space, which was covered by these threads like cocoons and spider webs.

Although they were quite successful copies of organic animalistic webbing, these strings and threads were the opposite of natural: they consisted of plastic wrap, meters and meters of clingfilm, wrapped around furniture, hanging from the ceiling, creating a labyrinth of plastic – and last but not least being wrapped around the two performers, who were hardly distinguishable at first.

The use of this much plastic created a very uncomfortable feeling, and made me wonder about the intentions of the artist – does he reflect the use of plastic, or is it just a convenient choice to mimic nature – mixed with my rage about them wasting so much commodity that couldn’t be reused.

The evolving physical theater / dance piece seemed a bit one-dimensional, taking place in this dominant space of plastic waste. The two performers, one female and one male, freed themselves from their plastic cocoons and interacted expressively but unemotionally, sometimes citing traditional circus and show elements: massaging the porteur after acrobalancing on him, involving the audience for a slack rope walk, walking on a ball etc. But also other genres were drawn on, like the rules of soccer (do not touch the ball with your hands, only feet and head allowed) and a boxing ring. The audience seemed to be expectiong more circus style tricks, as they broke into applause, when the woman accomplished the “trick” of standing on the shoulders of the man for the first time. After this there was no more scenic applause – might be they grasped that it wasn’t “that kind of a show”.

The interactions of the performers with each other seemed detached in emotion, but in movement were intimate sometimes and cruel some other times. The most touching of which was a contact improv walk through the space, where gravity seemed to disappear: the male performer leaning on the shoulders of the female, cheek to cheek, the wall serving as the floor of his feet, just like the spider web and the ceiling. Other scenes involved a playful dance between strands of plastic, intimate and forceful massage of one another and playing with a ball (from the same material). The scenes were loosely lined up one after the other.

On the whole the artist created a very bleak athmosphere, which was reinforced by his choice of costumes (nothing extraordinary, just gendered black training clothes) and the absence of any other illusory elements (make-up, black box, music…). Just the light created a lot of drama within the atmosphere: a raw spotlight, the performers carried around and set down where needed.

On the whole the show was very much like a research lab showing: starting out from mimicking insect life, but quickly abandoning this and turning to movement research within the plastic labyrinth. Within circus context maybe innovative at the time, but within performative arts not very unique or intriguing.