Live Event: Thursday 13th March - 7PM
15 MARCH - 23 MARCH 2014
At the opening event, in a sculptural, custom-built arena within the gallery, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters took position as the dynamic core of the exhibition. These live happenings generated highly charged scenarios framed within artist duo ATOI’s sculptural practice. The exhilarating combination of minimal rules and indiscriminate striking and grappling techniques constitute the main characteristics of the full contact combat sport, infamously known as cage fighting. The fight was arranged to create a charged scenario and to deliberately create contrasting, subtle impacts from the immense force on their constructed environment.
ATOI suggest that these scenarios 'create an unbalance within the fighters’ intuitive structure'; inferring that the unfamiliar spaces and circumstances disturb their natural and instinctive approach to the sport. In the gallery, paths of pigment were laid down, forming the fighter’s pathway to reach the ring. These raw materials were introduced to create a duality within the situation and to visibly record the impact of the fight through unpredictable scuffs, marks and deposits. As such ATOI relinquish a level of control and authorship over the works. They evaluate the violent events in terms of the energy, tension, force and psychological dynamics generated, traces of which can be measured in the aftermaths of the fights. The live event has been documented and the resulting film footage screened throughout the duration of the exhibition.
Stimulus for their work arises from ATOI’s own conceived theory of "cull" (a process of selective slaughter within their work) their interest in housing or controlling the innate, creating psychological scenarios and also playing on theories within physics and geology; in particular the work of Geologist Bailey Willis and his mountain machine appliance. Willis was interested in the movement of land masses and developed a concept for how mountains are formed. When two tectonic plates collide, the immense forces from the plates crumple and breakup the layers of rock, creating colossal peaks and valleys. In relation to this theory the fighters act out the mechanics of forced confrontation; separate energies colliding to create unforeseen outcomes.
KARST INTERVIEW WITH ATOI, held at KARST during the week prior to the opening eve
KARST: The idea of hosting cage fighting within a gallery seems, on one level, anarchic and potentially dangerous. It appears that once you’ve orchestrated the work you step back, leaving it to unfold. How do you view authorship within the work?
ATOI: We think of the cage fighters as the mechanics or core of the work. They are bringing the skills from their own profession to the work and we house it. The idea has stemmed from our sculptural practice - taking the idea of two different matters being forced together - so we are using them in a sculptural sense. We’re utilizing their job. Cage fighting is not something we’d do, so it becomes a trade between them and us.
K: The project feels daring, because it utilises the art gallery as a place of unlimited liberalism. This event wouldn’t be able to take place anywhere, would it?
A: It takes a space like KARST to enable the project to happen.
K: Why is that?
A: Because it’s risky. For most public galleries it may be perceived as not for their clientele and also written-off for health and safety reasons.
K: Well it has generated plenty of interest here. The local newspapers don’t respond to all of our invitations to exhibitions and events, understandably, however when an email was sent with the subject ‘CAGE FIGHTERS AT KARST’ a reporter replied immediately.
A: Yes, on one level it works as a talking point, challenging what people usually perceive to happen in a gallery space.
K: The public curiosity could be because you are opening up the almost mythical world of cage fighting to an audience who would not otherwise seek it. I wouldn’t choose to go to a cage fight, for example.
A: Neither would we. We didn’t really know anything about it before developing this work, although we learned quite fast.
K: So what made you choose to begin working with this sport?
A: We wanted to find the highest level of collision between two entities. We were thinking along the lines of two separate forces coming together in the highest possible way. From this the idea of working with cage fighters came about quite naturally. For us it also represents the limit of what is legal, in terms of what you can get away with.
K: Does this mean that you wouldn’t push it beyond?
A: We could push it beyond, but to show anything more illicit as a live event would be impossible.
K: There is a large element of sensationalism to this project - is this intentional?
A: It creates a lot of hype, but its not sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake.
K: So are you using fighting as a metaphor for energy and forced collision, rather than as a loaded cultural or social symbol?
K: Your work calls to mind the radical 20th Century happenings by artists such as the Japanese Gutai group, who explored freedom in new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments. Many of their artistic endeavors used the body in direct action with materials and an interior space. Are they an influence?
A: No not really. We initially added chili powder and other raw materials in contrasting colours to visually highlight two opposing elements. The substances also allowed us to play with the idea of trying to control their instinctual moves, whilst also recording traces of the action as a byproduct. The bodily prints left behind on the walls and floor from our first fight reminded us of Yves Klein, although this was unintentional. We didn't know how the pigments would really affect the work.
K: Yes I had thought of Yves Klein’s ‘Anthropometies’ performance, in which he paints the bodies of female models blue and they press themselves against the wall and floor. Your work combines similar formal elements - an interactive environment, bodies as paintbrushes.
A: We don't see this work as a performance or happening in the same sense that Klein’s work was. These are real MMA fighters doing their job.
K: So what influences your work?
A: Well, speaking of Yves Klein, there is a scene in ‘The Holy Mountain’, by Jodorowsky - which is probably our favourite film – in which a production line of women with painted bums press themselves onto paper on a conveyor belt. We wouldn’t necessarily say this was an influence, but maybe this has stuck in our heads more than Klein! We’re more interested in coincidental mark making, or the manipulation of a surface. So for example, you might find an elephant in a zoo, tied up in a concrete cell all day, and it’ll be rubbing its arse against a wall, and by doing so it develops this amazing mark making process – although the mark making is just one interesting aspect to this phenomena.
We’re also interested in immersive environments as art form, and when we first started collaborating together the installation ‘Totes Haus u r’ (Dead House u r) by Gregor Scheider was an important influence. We also love Santiago Seirra’s work - the way he hires real people to generate scenarios which expose the dark side of power relations in society.
K: Your work also has echoes of paintings by Francis Bacon - his subject matter is often men brawling within an enigmatic interior space. Bacon was responding to the traumas of the 20th Century. Where does the darkness and brutality arise from in your work?
A: If you pick up a paper on any particular day there’s always news related to fighting – for example, the current situation between Russia and Ukraine. But we don’t rely on this, and we’re not attempting to comment on this. Having said that, we were talking to a fighter recently who described the sport as being closely related to war, but on a micro scale.
K: Bacon’s paintings are arguably both abject and beautiful in equal measures. Do you see any beauty in your work, and if so where do you locate it?
A: We tend to find beauty within a sense of unease both before, during and after the fight, in all its subtleties and extremities. The work has various stages of existence, in the same way that a historical ruin has a past and present – from its former years of life, through to the moment it was demolished, to a current ruinous, yet appealing state. The sculptural arena and way the show is setup is visually important to us. We also find pleasure in the way the work takes on another form when the bodies activate and collide within it. In the way that part of the structure might be subtlety displaced, or how a mark on the floor or a smash in the wall represents an unconscious incident - like the remains from a riot or spectacle. Photography, film and reworking remnants from the work, help us to capture and express some of that.
K: What about during the event itself - is there any relief from this very charged, violent situation?
A: We do see beauty in the fight, but it is something more indescribable. The psychological hold that the fight can have on you when you’re there is intense - on us and on the audience. The fight has the ability to captivate and strike a cord on a universal level.
K: Do you think it is a perverse voyeurism?
A: It can be horrific, and we don’t necessarily get off on it. But there is something instinctively compelling about watching a fight. You don't have to be an MMA or art enthusiast to repel or relate to it, as an innate primal scenario.
Film Still from Event
ATOI (Amy Thomas and Oliver Irvine) began working collaboratively six years ago after meeting at University College Falmouth. The duo formed over a shared vision of using sculpture as a means to create psychological situations. Their work comprises of installations, performances and sculptural environments. ATOI have produced immersive works at The Tanks, Tate Modern, as part of the ‘Art in Action’ series, 2012, and at the Garage Centre For Contemporary Culture, Moscow, 2011 and 2010. Their solo show ‘Playing in Storms’ was held at The Chinese European Art Centre, China, 2010. A recent commission 'The Dislocation' is a marble public sculpture in Co. Derry, Northern Ireland, in conjunction with Derry City of Culture. The pair live and work in Cornwall.