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Is That All There Is To A Fire? Sophie Jung At Block Universe
Charlie Hardie , June 22nd, 2019 10:23

At this year's Block Universe festival of performance art, Charlie Hardie takes in two performances by Sophie Jung

Sophie Jung performing The Bigger Sleep rehush - hush 2019 Courtesy Block Universe, Photo Manuela Barczewski

The invitation to Block Universe’s opening event was to a basement in Cork Street in central London. Decades ago the centre of a conservative and parochial British art world, Cork Street now clings on to cultural and commercial relevance through its proximity to the abundance of the surrounding area. Traversing the luxury landscape of Mayfair and Bond Street, one is invited into one of many turn-around retail developments, now home to any kind of luxury outlet. An unfinished project still smelling of damp lime, the echoes of invocations to the spectres of sales past arch around the naked space and resonate off the blank plate glass.

For the performance, we are directed down a skeletal staircase to the basement to find what might be a residue of Cork Street’s past, or a harbinger of what is to come.

Below ground, Sophie Jung has created an underworld, a silver vinyl floor throwing a watery and dreamy reflection across the entire space, like a half-drained swimming pool. The room is populated with vernacular domestic objects figured into sculpture, at once idiosyncratic and totemic: a ladder to hang a white gown on, levelled by a copy of World of Interiors; a decorative plaque, a reproduction of beast and man of classical antiquity; a car bonnet constrained by disembodied hands; a dummy sporting a faux-couture gown and hat made of plastics; ceramic cats perched upon an incontinence seat; the trace of a man, a collection of ties strewn through suspended hoops. You get the idea – objects that invoke possessions disconnected from their specificity, autonomous remnants, maybe residues of past events.

Here we are right inside a Sophie Jung umwelt. Her character relaxes on a chaise longue, launches requests and casts her disappointments at a man servant and asks us to witness her rehearsal and run through of a script of some sort. Sophie Jung operates at “the apron of the proscenium arch”, abandoning the conventions of dramaturgy for the edges of representation. It is here that she meets the audience, gathering them into her durational fiction. Now we are asked, is it alright if she runs through the script with us? Of course it is.

This script turns out to be as autonomous as the props, as if assembled by some other logic than narrative. “Frau Welt” launches into some kind of multi-lingual associative excursion, compounding references to “unsocketed” eyes, “wet heat”, and “faint memories of soils gone by” which skew images of marble bathrooms, hotel bars, and abandoned elevators towards the abject. All the while the audience are consulted on edits and stage directions – approval or not never to be acknowledged.

This all ends abruptly, left for further reconciliation.

Sophie Jung performing The Bigger Sleep rehush - hush 2019 Courtesy Block Universe, Photo Manuela Barczewski

The dramatic action of the actual performance experienced several days later is quite different. Frau Welt’s character is now firmly established. The daughter of actors, Jung knows all about drama and performs a kind of performance breakdown, creating a character reminiscent of John Cassavetes movies, actors in revolt like Gena Rowlands’ performances in Opening Night or A Woman Under the Influence.

The world created in the rehearsal survives here as a kind of therapeutic environment for Jung’s character’s benefit. It has been constructed to prevent her waking up from the ‘Bigger Sleep’ of the title. She is the same entitled and well-appointed woman one might have met many times in or around Cork Street, now lingering as some spectral debris.

We are posted to the future as she leafs through Vogue or World of Interiors, enjoying the irony of the advertising, evoking times when Range Rovers exceeded mechanics with opulence, “Calvin Klein – just be”, resort communities, “fish! – remember fish?” This temporal elasticity is underpinned by the eerie whistling of ‘Dixie’ throughout the scenario, a song so replete with the freight of racial and social privilege and the faux-honour that, Jung suggests, has left her stranded in her watery fiction. Bourbon whiskey, exploitation, Southern camp all lead to her curtain call in the white gown, and a rendition of Lieber and Stoller’s ‘Is That All There Is?’.

Frau Welt has “stood there shivering in my pyjamas and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire?’ Her final disappointments in fire, circuses and love don’t lead her to end it all, but simply to “know just as well as I'm standing here talking to you, when that final moment comes and I'm breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself…

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball.