Happenings

 

Happenings and Multimedia Events

I regard the destructivist multi-media events devised in Edinburgh c. 1964-1968, and mostly performed there, as some of my most important works. Some were filmed, at least in part. The black and white films give no sense of course of the colours, indeed they are very different altogether from the actual events but I like the way they are transformed into something else. I believe I was the first artist in Britain and possibly Europe not only to use explosives but integrate explosives creatively within multi-media events. I saw no categorical boundary these works and my painting, drawing and writing, all continuing through these years. 

 Before moving to Edinburgh in 1963, as Lecturer in Modern Art at the University of Edinburgh (1963-1978), I had been contemplated the evolution of painting into ‘total theatre’, with dancers, poetry, music, and extending my painting out of 2D, and the 3D it had often already attained, taking it now on into time,  and locations and movement. During 1964-5, in Edinburgh I experimented a bit with poets, dancers, light, and paintings themselves, and with surrealist acted episodes. Some of the subsequent happenings were performances in theatres, including the Edinburgh Traverse Theatre and London Mercury, Some were performed in several stages, in changing venues and different days. Unlike many performance artists I preferred less to perform myself than to conduct events off-stage, film-director like. From youth on, fascinated by film (legacies of Eisenstein, film noir), I conceived obsessive images, extreme close-ups of objects, montage, wide tracking shots of bare landscape in studied camera angles, cut into varying time-lengths, without conventional narrative but as trans-rational composition. Undecided as a student whether to become a sculptor or painter, the traditional separation between these, and other arts and activities, disappeared in my mind. My happenings worked with real people, with destruction- creation-motion, and with transience – both of humans and inorganic physical reactions (explosions, disintegration, dissolution, tides, flames, decay). 

 Early 1950s. As a student I occasionally experimented with manic dramatic actions, akin to what would later be called ‘happenings’. Photo stills posed for a newspaper preserve some idea of one of them. 
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 December, 1954 (photo Beaverbrook newspapers)

Ivor Davies and Peter Leyshon (centre and left) leapt in the air; Brian Savigger and a North Wales student (far left) played trumpet and guitar; Raymond Pope (left of centre) bicycled; Jean Emory, Josh Walker and Roy Powell (right) improvised freely with stools on their head. From the late 40s I’d been fascinated by Surrealism and was perhaps influenced by Goya’s quasi-surrealist etching ‘Now they are seated well’, showing women wearing stools on their heads. The media of early experimental film, photography and theatre were another inspiration, in contrast to the college’s academic syllabus of Life Drawing, Anatomy and Perspective.

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December 1954 (photo: Beaverbrook newspapers)

Cardiff College of Art. Bicyclist and others clustered round a palatial prison gate, carrying Arts Ball placard; figures high up defended it.

 
 

EDINBURGH, mid to late 1960s. MULTI-MEDIA EVENTS

An illuminating critical analysis of these, from ‘Detonation Demonstration’ (August 1966) to ‘Adam on St Agnes’ Eve’ (1968), appears in Andrew Wilson, ‘Engaging Thought and Action: Notes on the Work of Ivor Davies’, in Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art, ed. H. Roms (Brussels: Occasional Papers, 2015), pp. 14-30, esp. pp. 22-29.

Prelude to Anatomic Explosions, Edinburgh, September 1st, 1966

Stage 1. Edinburgh interior. A curved white surface; projection of a male anatomical figure. As spectators walk round, the figure distorts into hyperbolic curve. Same anatomical figure projected onto living man standing against a white surface; he moves away leaving only the projection. Stage 2.  Territorial Army headquarters, Edinburgh. Audience prepares to watch an event in which I gradually detonate a number of objects: first, a boot filled with leg-like scaffolding tube; second, the same anatomical figure with variegated colour substances enclosed in each organs; third, a manikin suspended from the ceiling. I tear John Bunyan’s face away from the anatomical figure revealing the 1890 moustaches of the diagram. Paint explodes onto stretched paper. I remove my boilersuit and walk away in a dark suit. Aftermath Uninvited hippie distributes flowers, rather annoyingly. The unaccustomed audience examine the debris. A lady with a handbag and hat approaches paper stretched on frame and tears the flaming paper away. Adrian Henri walks among the ruins. Close-up of the ripped anatomic body.

Like ‘Beach’  one of my destructive events performed in stages. A further stage followed in London: Anatomic Explosions.

The living individual human body exposed as perilously close to its anatomical clinical diagram, dis-articulation, and fragmentation; but also curved and distorted by manipulations of the eye; its outward image easily destroyed by weapons of destruction and time.



‘Anatomic Explosions’ September 1966, Free School Playground, Ladbroke Grove, London.

I designed this as part of the London Destruction in Art Symposium, DIAS. It represents a further stage, from ‘Prelude to Anatomic Explosions’.

The large roll of paper, a metal curved cubic globe, teddy bear, scaffolding tube, expanded polystyrene fashion dummy and the already partly destroyed anatomical figure from Prelude, now wearing a larger-than-life portrait of Robert Mitchum instead of ‘Prelude’’s John Bunyan -- these objects were hung from the surface of a bombed building. The figure like a cephalopod – just head and legs – in the first-floor window. Photographers and film-makers of the event seemed also to participate and direct, e.g. asking me to stand in the lower window space. Fragments of paper fell as leaves from the first high-up detonation; the face disintegrates; successive explosions in different ways and different sounds, transform the material and fragments move through space. Control and precision is important, as it is all accidental. The train and the incidental debris had formed a natural background to the action of destruction. 

 

‘Silent Explosion’, 30th September, 1966, Mercury Theatre, London.

(photo)

Mercury Theatre, Ladbroke Road, London

‘Silent Explosion’, the ‘Glamorous Blood Opera’ (never filmed), used massive screens of paper stretched tightly between the proscenium and the audience, and forming backdrop. I first cut through paper screening to reveal in succession two glamorous performers in evening frocks. First, New York pianist and composer Susan Cahn crooned sentimental American songs and, while she continued to do so,  ANC activist and broadcaster Jamela King slowly picked up one-by-one many South African wine bottles, which we had filled up with blood from Guildford slaughterhouse that morning, and hurled them at gorgeous scenes advertising South African wine. The stage ended covered with blood. 

The Mercury Theatre, an Arts and Crafts building, was well-known for creative arts, and productions including drama by Eliot, Genet, Auden & Isherwood, and was the home of the Ballet Rambert from the 30s to the 80s. For ‘Silent Explosion’ its enclosing auditorium, proscenium stage and hammered roof focussed the emotional atmosphere and a sense of sympathy between performers and audience: more like experimental theatre than my other happenings. 

NO FILM

 

‘Beach’, February and March, 1967, Edinburgh and Grantham Beach, near Edinburgh

Stage 1. I lived with bare minimum possessions in 1967, at the top floor of a tenement in a very poor area of Edinburgh. We gave dinner parties in turn. As table I used a door with a cloth on it. Instead of clearing the table I said to my guests that they should glue everything in front of them to the table, dishes, bread, unfinished portions, cutlery, etc.  Stage 2. The result was then exhibited, vertically, in an exhibition at Adam House, Edinburgh, organised by Herbert Read’s sister: in a strange irrational juxtaposition it was a exhibition otherwise given over to objects made out of eggs and eggboxes. She was horrified but the Times Educational Supplement made front page news and photo of it.  For Stage 3, March 4th, I took it to Grantham beach near Edinburgh, carrying it on my back to the seashore, re-forming the dinner party with the guests, having them freeze-pose, reminiscent of Leonardo’s Last Supper in Buñuel’s Viridiana. The tide slowly came in, guests left the table. Shop-window dummies replaced them. The various objects, already charged with explosives and yachting maroons, were systematically detonated. As the tide moved in, ‘dinner table’ and chairs and dummies were gradually exploding in flames and moving slowly up and down on the waves till carried away and submerged. Any fixed narrative of the event would only allow no imaginative reading. Though the happening was not made for the film, the film benefits from the effects of fire and water and the apparently accidental changes. This was my first happening where film is clearly entering as part of the art.

 
‘Egg Piece’, March, 1967, Edinburgh

In the front area of 1, Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, a cellist began to play. The flag-stoned sunken courtyard was covered, separated from spectators on the pavement and street above it, by a white canvas stretched horizontally from the pavement to house wall. This was cut and torn away, revealing an irregular giant egg, nestled as if in its rectangular nest of blackened brick. I had made the egg from wire-netting and plaster of Paris. Three of us (the members of the newly-formed ‘Edinburgh Experimental Theatre Group’) were inside. Gradually the egg began to move and break up and one figure after another, each wrapped entirely in a blanket, slowly emerged and climbed the stone steps to the pavement level. Close-ups of the stonework and architectural location, with sequences where film turns my paintings, and some poems containing drawings, into motion – the aim of my 1960s happenings was integration of different media and arts, including music, and transrational compositions. ‘Egg Piece’ announced the birth of a group to perform avant-garde theatre in Edinburgh University. Birth, break-up and break-out here but no explosions. 

‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’, Edinburgh College of Art, November 2nd, 1967.

Edinburgh College of Art invited me to do this. The participants, mostly ECA students, created imaginatively designed guises and facial decoration. A work for lips, eyes and ears: blowing bubbles, smoking pipes, smiling, music blown from flute and saxophone; texts spoken and heard; eyes seen in paper collage and living performer.  Martin Meade stands on a box, others glue pieces of paper  representing faces to him, and deck him with a paper headpiece and a ‘neep’ (Scots: a turnip), on him, while he reads from a translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. While Meade is gradually clothed as an assemblage, the room darkens and slides of an anatomical figure, lungs and moving shapes project onto him. Darkness and spotlights. Dancing plasma shapes and human hands, just as static paintings were made into motion by the camera earlier. You could see reminiscences of traditions here too, of earlier kinds of performance: in Scotland, as elsewhere, turnip or swede lanterns were used for ‘guising’ on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days (Hallowe’en October 31st and November 1st): dressing up, ‘guising’, which could include wearing costume that completely disguises a performer’s form, including tatters, and then processing, singing and reciting. Akin to mumming. The title of this happening and the reading in it also recall an eastern parallel to these western European Christian festivals of the souls of the dead at the start of November (the date of this happening). The Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead (English title), written in the fourteenth century but originating probably in the 8th,  is teaching and guidance centred on the transition of an individual’s consciousness through death into the next state. 

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Still Life Story I, 20th June, 1967, Durham

 This was included first use of putting performers into boxes: I constructed 1.5 metre boxes with, on one side, half a face (repeated image from a large cigarette poster) and the other side plain white. A variety of paintings, events, etc. had been projected on the boxes. A phalanx of them, which suddenly turned round to the audience revealing the half-faces.

The Edinburgh Experimental Theatre Group (Ray Halstead, Graham Farnell and myself) performed this with other Edinburgh participants at the Durham University Drama Festival.

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Still Life Story II, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, June 30th, 5th-9th July, 1967

Another event with the Edinburgh Experimental Theatre Group. 

 

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Adam on St Agnes’ Eve, 21st January, 1968

Extract from a letter written in August 1968 to the architectural historian, Jacques Gubler:

‘There were no explosions but lovely nudes, lantern slides, film, animated objects and tape-recorded sounds. It took a long time to prepare but only lasted for about 40 minute […] A nude man stands in a classical pose and is painted with blue designs by a girl throughout the performance.

It was a very dark January night. The large top-floor room had the flavour of a tropical jungle. A red and green spotlight projected red and green shadows across the low ceiling, as the 300 spectators filed in. Various textures of bird song was being amplified. A voice said ‘Please wear your paper bags as a protection against your egos’. Suddenly there was a blackout and no sound for 2 minutes. Then a tape of gunfire and war and harsh flashes of the green and red with very brightly coloured female anatomical slides which fade on an off. During the birth sequence a beautiful nude girl [Jackie Breakwell] cuts her way out slowly from a tightly stretched screen of paper which seemed to form one blank wall of the room and sits at a grand piano. The nude walks to another part of the screen and begins to lacerate it. Each cut is accompanied by a different chord on the piano [Davies’s cue-sheet originally planned for explosions to accompany the chords exactly but these could not be provided for this performance]. A slide of the complete male anatomy from head to foot is projected on to the screen where the nude cuts and when the paper is destroyed the anatomical image appears on the white figure of a surgeon (Ian Breakwell). The surgeon then read extracts of the ‘Catholic Nurse’s Handbook’, describing all sorts of anatomical activities.

Meanwhile, huge white cardboard boxes with people inside them, moving and gyrating, caught the projections of slide and film distorting them as they moved. A rock-and-roll band painted each other with black paint until the whole show ended in a blackout. These theatrical experiments take so much time and preparation that they leave one exhausted.'

Ivor Davies, Letter to Jacques Gubler, August 20th, 1968 ©

The artist Ian Breakwell (1943-2005) was Director of Bristol Arts Centre at the timeHe had invited Ivor Davies to create ‘Still Life Story III’ for Bristol Arts Centre, December 1967. . See www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/breakwell for Breakwell archive and works (incl. letters from Davies).

January 21st is the feast of St Agnes, a virgin Christian martyr, patron saint of virgins and young girls. The Eve is the preceding day and night, January 20th-21st. Keats’s poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, refers to a superstition that girls might obtain a dream of their future husband. But the Garden of Eden is a stronger association. On this happening and the inadvisability of narrative interpretations, etc., see Ivor Davies, ‘Past, Present and Future’ in Roms, ed. Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art (2015).

 

Full List of Happenings and Media Events