To celebrate the upcoming International Women’s Day on Thursday, March 8, 2018, we are reviving our Tectonic Women series. Every day this week, a different member of the Imago team will be writing about a woman artist (working in any discipline) who inspires them.
This probably should be about Marina Abramović who I could go on and on about but I wanted to talk about someone I don’t know much about. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd is a contemporary artist who integrates performance and often participatory performance in her practice. I’ve not experienced her work live but more than anything I love the idea of her, and much of that is connected to her name.
When I first heard her name, I was intrigued (who wouldn’t be, right?). Born Alalia Chetwynd, sometime in her career she felt that she needed a more robust name; a name, she describes, as a “nom de guerre or a kind of shield.” Chetwynd changed her name to Spartacus – and this wasn’t just an artist’s name. Everyone, in both her personal and artistic life had to call her Spartacus. Chetwynd lived and worked under this name for years until in 2013 she changed it again to Marvin Gaye. I’m not entirely sure why she chose to take his name except that she says that Marvin Gaye’s free spirit and the way he died had interested her for a long time. I do have some discomfort around a white woman taking a black man’s name but she did also take a Thracian gladiator’s name, though this doesn’t make it ok. I’m still processing this.
I’ve always been inspired by performance art and I there was a part of me as a teenager that felt that was what I would be when I grew up, or, at least, that’s what an artist does – but then I love stories so much and that drew me to the world of film and then theatre.
Chetwynd’s work has the look of the handmade, speaks to community, and collides high and low together. There’s something of the dark subconscious here, like the work of Henry Darger, which really appeals to me – but in Chetwynd’s case, this darkness has come to life -and it’s coming towards you. There’s also a playfulness and engagement with the audience; a bringing together of people which I love and which I think is one of the best parts of theatre. There’s also social commentary, like her piece ‘The Walk to Dover’, in which a group of participants in Dickensian costume walked from London to Dover to draw attention to the connection between Victorian debtor’s prisons and our credit reliant culture.
Although I find performance art the most impenetrable of the arts as a viewer, to me it is also the bravest (and yes, at times, the wankiest) of art forms. Oftentimes the artist puts themselves at the centre of the work, and commits physically – they are so exposed. Like many theatre creators, when I make my own work, I often feel like I am speaking about myself but through the performers. If anyone had the encryption key to decode the work and realize how the work connects to specific events in my life I’d be horribly embarrassed.
And I know for a performance artist changing your name is not as drastic as being shot in the arm or putting implants in your body, but one’s own name is so terribly personal. As a person with an English name, a Chinese name (and that’s always a thing, do you go by your Chinese name or your English name? Which one is your real name?), and an artist’s name, names are important to me. I was married as well, and there’s always a talk amongst women friends when one gets married: are you going to change your name? (hell no, I didn’t)
There’s something talismanic about changing your name, and I find Chetwynd’s work has a streak of the ritual to it, which fascinates me. At school at the times of biggest stress I would draw symbols on my hands or pin onto my clothes the image of someone whose spirit I needed (and I think that’s what Chetwynd did, to a far larger degree, with her name. In which case back then I would have changed my name to Bruno S). Why did I stop drawing talismans on myself? I don’t know. I think you can get away with doing shit like that at school. Maybe that’s what attracts me to Chetwynd; it’s freedom and bravery to reflect on your person how you feel and what you need, and also the freedom to constantly evolve. Artists are weather vanes for what goes on in and around them; there is a sensitivity and attunement that often can make them early warning systems, and that includes tapping into and reflecting where you are at as a person.
– Sophie (Sophia) Gee / Yú Qín Mīn (余琴敏) / Nervous Hunter