Performance artist Nigel Rolfe is muddying the waters between art and movement

Nigel Rolfe’s work has become stiller, more focused and internal as he’s aged, writes Ellie O’Byrne

Performance artist Nigel Rolfe is muddying the waters between art and movement

LAST night I pushed an 18-gallon galvanised bucket full of freezing cold water across the floor with my head. That’s a bit of a job of work; the hips are feeling it a bit today.”

Performance artist Nigel Rolfe, at 65, is still testing the limits of his body to create live “action art”. A seminal figure in the field of performance art, he was born on the Isle of Wight, moved to Dublin in the 70s and is elected to Aosdana, the Irish association of artists.

Rolfe will be giving a talk, “The Caught In-Between”, and screening two pieces of recent work at Limerick’s Light Moves festival of Screendance.

Rolfe refers to performance artists like Joseph Beuys and Marina Abramovich while describing a lifetime of making live work in more than 30 countries.

He also refers to German choreographer Pina Bausch, who developed Tanztheater (Dance-theatre), which combines elements of contemporary dance with a theatrical use of props and staging to develop highly conceptual and dramatic dance performances.

Although he doesn’t consider himself a dancer or choreographer, the physical endurance and rigour that goes into his art practice makes the LightMoves festival a natural home for his work.

Film has been a prerequisite for the emergence and acceptance of performance art as a branch of Fine Art (Rolfe lectures in the Royal College of Art in London); recording an action opens it to a wider audience, replicating it and allowing it to be examined.

Rolfe acknowledges this, but for someone whose aesthetic and practice are so associated with film, his own relationship to the medium is a curious one; he describes film as “toxic.”

What does he mean by that? “The interesting thing with film is that it makes a kind of pseudo-truth that tricks us into thinking we’re living in the moment,” he says.

“Film is sensory. It can seem experiential, but it’s a fake. That’s what’s toxic about it.”

For Rolfe, the moment when “art” happens is the moment of action. The artefact that remains, be it a painting, photograph or video installation, is evidence that art has occurred. “Audiences don’t see it like that; they think that remainder is the art,” he says.

Rolfe’s work has always been considered political; “Hand On Face”, a two-minute film in violent response to apartheid in South Africa, was seen by 600 million people in 67 countries when it was shown at the Concert To release Nelson Mandela in 1988 at Wembley Stadium.

But as he has aged, his work has become stiller, more focused and internal.

The two pieces of Rolfe’s work which will be screened at LightMoves share the same colour palette; both were filmed in the Bog of Allen. One of the pieces is called “Track”.

“It’s quite a dark piece of work and it still freaks me out,” Rolfe says of it. “It was like dying. I went into the opening at the gallery in Dublin while it was being projected and there were fifty people sitting there, completely silent. It was an amazing experience, like watching your own death.”


For death is now a consideration in Rolfe’s work. He says that when he looks back on his earlier, more overtly angry and political work, he finds it “somewhat naive and vain”; his preoccupations have changed, most particularly since breaking his spine in 2010, recovering from surgery and subsequently discovering that he has scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.

“I just don’t think there’s any heroism in this. A lot of young artists are very confused about ego and self-praise and it just doesn’t interest me,” he says.

“If your soul isn’t substantial from doing art then you really shouldn’t be doing it. If you’re not developing something that gives you a foil for death, then you shouldn’t be in this game at all. The time of life I’m at is involved with those things.”

The LightMoves festival of Screendance is presented by Dance Limerick and takes place in 1-2 John’s Square, Limerick, on November 18-22.

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