Berlin, May 2010: Madeline Stillwell’s performances provoke empathetic anxiety in her audience. Yet she remains graceful and serene while moving through the obstacle courses of hazardous rubble that she assembles in Berlin galleries and exhibition spaces.
Curator and Wilde Galerie’s director Emilie Trice writes, “Madeline Stillwell becomes an extension of her surroundings, embracing the wreckage she inhabits with tender acceptance, submitting her body to its promise of pain without a sound, weaving through conduits of broken, jagged furniture, or burrowing herself beneath the lonely debris left in a defunct, long-forgotten factory loft. The refuse she collects on-site and reconstructs to form her stage invokes in the viewer a kind of bewildered fascination, a romanticized repulsion that lingers long after the performance’s conclusion.”
Here, we discuss the delicate balancing act that Stillwell does when navigating her physical and conceptual terrain.
Madeline Stillwell, THE WASHING, 2006 Museum Stairs, Concrete, Clay, Artist, Viewers; Courtesy of the artist and Wilde Gallery
Ana Finel Honigman: How choreographed are your movements during your performances?
Madeline Stillwell: The movements themselves are not choreographed at all. The only thing that I set up is the structure of the material. Basically, I am setting up a structured improvisation. I will create for myself a path to take. I will hide for myself certain materials or certain structures in my environment, which I know that I want to get to. So, I will know that there is a bucket of soft clay in one area or a bucket of powered plaster elsewhere and a tray of fresh water in some other spot. I will trick myself into knowing what I will use the materials for and I will give myself certain tasks to perform.
AFH: How strictly do you adhere to these self-designated goals?
MS: I always maintain an awareness that they might not work out. In my mind, I will go to the soft clay and I will use it to do whatever I’ve told myself is its purpose. And then I plan that eventually I will climb something and I will make something. I plan all these productive things. But, in the end, as long as I make it to some of those nodes or those markers, then I feel that the performance has worked.
Madeline Stillwell, Excessive Room Service, 2008, Performative Installation [3 minute video clip], Found Telephones, IRS Documents, Carpet, Artist, Audience; Courtesy of the artist and Haus Cumberland Berlin
AFH: What determines your success at realizing these plans?
MS: The material itself decides where I go. In the end it is more about submitting to the elements. It is a negotiation of both, really. The movements themselves are purely energy based and respond to the materials. The movements are determined by how I respond to the materials themselves and balance my goals within the real physical conditions.
AFH: When watching your work, one of the most compelling components is the obvious effort in your expression. As a viewer, your focus seems arbitrary but completely evident.
MS: I believe those goals in the moment. I only give up if my body or the materials don’t allow me to realize my goals. I only give up if I fall. My mind does not give up but I do respond to my environment and the messages from my body.
AFH: So, now, the obvious question is: how hurt have you gotten? How much of a concern is your physical safety? It would be a different experience for you, but also for the viewer, if you were experiencing real physical damage.
Madeline Stillwell, performance; Courtesy of the artist
MS: There is a lot of risk for the audience and myself. Everything becomes a picture and a two-dimensional image in a picture. But I will have a shattered florescent glass bulb in my performances. It looks like a white line on a video but in reality it is very risky. There is broken glass or rusted metal. There will be rusty nails poking out from parts of my materials. There are obvious things that I will note for myself but there are things that I cannot predict. I will get cuts and bruises but I have not gotten really hurt. I try and be very aware of when there is strain on my body and I will move to modify that damage. It is like walking on hot coals. I will not feel things in the moment and then I will realize later that I have been hurt, but I usually keep myself attentive enough in the moment to limit the risk.
AFH: Is pain part of the process? Is this akin to the people to hang themselves from their skin or do bodily harm for performance?
MS: No, not for me. For me, it’s a metaphoric understanding that life is pain. The process of getting through something is always wrought with struggle. Moving up within something or moving towards something is always complicated by the feeling that you might be moving in reverse. I always want to create the feeling that it is never easy but it can be beautiful. It can be graceful even when risky. The pain is not the end result. It is a byproduct. It adds to the tension. I am someone who is classical by nature. The pain, the dangerous materials and the fact that I am attracted to refuse add tension. Otherwise, it is too easy to understand. It is not a dance. I don’t just want it to be about a girl moving through a space. I am quoting from dance and I am influenced greatly by dance. But the reason that I am going through something painful is to raise the question: When do we not have pain?
Madeline Stillwell, SS #2, 2009; No More Sugar for the Monkey, 2009; Courtesy of the artist
AFH: Sadly, a very valid question.
MS: Even emotionally its true. There are times when you have to wait for ages. Or you might feel stuck in your life. Whatever it is. There are certain times when you need to use your resources and find elements within your situation to make useful. The materials that I use then become those elements for me.
AFH: Has making this work then become inspiring or otherwise helpful when dealing with other areas and stresses in your daily life?
MS: Kind of. In the same way that people say ‘I ran a marathon, so I can run this block.’ It is helpful to think that I’ve done harder things before, so how hard can whatever task that I face actually be.
ArtSlant would like to thank Madeline Stillwell for her assistance in making this interview possible.