By Claire Zakiewicz
I oversleep because my head was full of ideas all night. I am looking forward to participating in the performance with Shaun Caton – a performance artist who mostly works with painting and also creates performance-based, visual moving environments using light, shadows and painted cut-out characters that create scenes. Mixing painting and performance I am happy to get to know him and his work better. Looking at his website, he has a highly developed style, which I love. His paintings become puppets or totems. He says that his ‘embryonic totems germinate from semi-automatic scribbles’. The titles are funny, clever and he is also a beautiful writer. Shaun talks of Art Brut, or ‘outsider’ art and he tells me that he works in an art studio in a psychiatric ward in Homerton Hospital – close to my home in London.
It seems that video and performance works have been particularly prominent in Venice this year. I have seen very little painting. On my way to Palazzo Pesaro Papafava, where Alive in the Universe is presenting Shaun’s work, I pass a billboard, which is advertising the performance artist Marina Abramović’s exhibition here. Her project is a virtual reality artwork at Palazzo Ca’Rezzonico. The last time I recall such large billboards advertising artist’s private exhibitions here in Venice was Damien Hirst in 2017. I can’t help wondering whether Venice showcases the best artists in the world or rather the most ambitious and prolific – with the willingness and ability to throw their money into their projects here – I recall Damien Hirst admitting that he spent more than 100 million of his own money on his 2017 project in Venice, which, I believe, he made back many times over.
When I arrive at the Pallazo, Shaun has already set up. He has a square construction in the centre of the room built with sticks, painted cut-out characters and leaves. There are four small lights on each side, which cast shadows onto the two projection screens. He also has shadow totems attached to sticks with tangles of wire laid out for the audience to pick up and participate with. He has multi-coloured torches that create coloured shadows. The totems depict characters – strange animals, chariots. The shadows tell stories. Silly, they have a primal feel about them – somewhere between human and animal. The works have energy and movement, which is amplified as they become shadow totems. The compositions are flat, silhouettes, made with paper – crude yet sophisticated. He uses leaf skeletons to create a garden. The title of this particular performance is Il Giardino Grottesco ( The Grotesque Garden).
As a performer I am given a mask and I am instructed to hold up the painted cut-outs against the projections screens and play with the shadows, whenever I feel like it I should hum and/or pick up instruments that Shaun has provided and laid out – these instruments have been chosen for their insect, jungle or shaman-like qualities – a triangle, shaker, sticks that are clapped together. The idea is to enter a trance-like state, I understand. I hum and Shaun hums with me. I play with the puppets and others participate with the torches. As audience members arrive a give out instruments. Shaun has a soundtrack that he has worked on playing opera and insect noises. The mask helps me to become another character. I can see the reaction of others is not the same as when I am not wearing a mask. In my own work, I have occasionally used a costume. Participating in Shaun’s performance has helped me to understand the potential for masks in my own work.
After the performance, we sit at the back of the Palazzo by the canal in the hot sun. Finally, the summer has arrived. I chat with other artists involved in the exhibition, curators and their friends and supporters and drink prosecco for hours. Eventually we try to get a table at the restaurant Paradiso Perduto but as usual, they are full. We decide to cook at the curators David and Caroline’s rented accommodation and we have a lovely meal in the street watching the setting sun.