Simlâ Civelek enters her performance in a beige shift dress and metallic heals: apparel difficult not to read as yuppie businesswear or the garb of a disaffected housewife. (I’m conscious of this hyper-gendered description. Men’s suits signify across various social and economic lines, and I held back comment on John Court’s black activewear and cargopants earlier today. The ambiguity of character afforded by men’s clothing has no equivalence in women’s fashion. The performer’s dress and appearance don’t escape being read despite their apparent neutrality.) Her face, which is powdered in a tone mismatched to her skin, takes on a mask-like quality indicative of some level of… Nostalgia? Unbalance?
She begins with a reflective black plate sitting on the floor. Briefly examining its shape and catching her reflection, Civelek proceeds to hurl it against the wall. It clanks metallically, provokes an equivalence with the performer’s iridescent black heels. Upon second attempt, the plate shatters, flinging glass across the floor.
Civelek climbs a ladder (her heels teeter anxiously on the edges of the rungs) to its summit. She peels a blank piece of paper from the wall’s uppermost edge (a prop I handn’t noticed until this moment.) Appearing to read the page, she then slowly crumples it, compressing the sheet into as dense a fistful as she is able, over several gestures of flexing and opening the hand. She then deposits the crumpled mass into a vase of water on the floor. Listlessly, she stirs and splashes it, until the page has become a set of pulpy wet chunks at the bottom of the vessel.
Returning up the ladder, Civelek removes a package of cheesecloth affixed to the wall, unwraps it, and slowly begins to unfold the length of cloth. She turns it over and over in her hands, running the length up and down through her hands in short, circular tosses. I have seen my grandmother, whose arthritic hands are riddled with the stamps of her own particular anxieties (of hosting, home-making, being taken seriously and treated with dignity, being remembered, being safe as her body shudders) perform this same action: straightening and folding over, only to straighten and refold the same piece of cloth in a kind of soothing and familiar repetition.
Civelek veils herself with the cheesecloth, conjuring some figure between bride and ghost. She sits, gestures with her hands, rests them upon her thighs, and then turns them over again. Eventually, removing the veil, she returns to the gesture of straightening the cloth, letting it unfold from the top through the length of the ladder, evening its edges, and then continuing the loop to the other end. Her short, rhythmic tosses to unfurl the cheesecloth— familiar gestures of inconsequential meaning— become moments of curiosity and pause. At the cheesecloth’s peak through her hands, Civelek untimes her short tossing action, and the cloth drops. Her hands remain in mid-air, the moment suspended.
I have been struggling to synthesize Civelek’s disparate and narrative-resisting series of acts. But something Anya Liftig said in today’s panel struck me as particularly applicable to Civelek’s performance: that performance is an attempt to manifest an interior world in real space. That it materializes imagination, makes public the difficult, the compelling, the strange moments of aloneness. Civelek’s gestures have in them the quiet contemplation of simultaneous solitude and sharedness.
The past which is the present in the mind of an old woman
Intergalactic Studio, Artscape Youngplace
Video Stills by Augusto Monk
7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art, 2008, Toronto
Nuit Blanche, part of SAVAC, Ghost Stories, 2009, Toronto
CICAC, Thompson Rivers University, 2010, Kamloops, BC
The third day of the festival was characterized by performances that transformed a range of spaces.
Simla Civelek created within the back space of the Free Gallery a tiny world unto herself -- a small wooden box draped in black cloth. Civelek prefaced her performance with a placard stating "I am a Muslim woman. It is my choice to enter the black box. You are welcome to come in and know me."
One of the box's walls bears a small slit at eye-level, an image that immediately conjures up the metaphor of a burqa, but also reminds me of the mail slot on a door, an observation made more potent as pieces of paper are slipped through the slot and flutter to the floor in small, persistent attempts to communicate to the outside world.
Issues (and perhaps the fallacy) of choice are highlighted. Onto the walls of the box are projected a poem that highlights Civelek's lack of choice -- "language has left me" and "long gone are the days i picked every sound word voice." Yet those who enter the box are given a Test, asked to choose from multiple interactions in different languages that will structure the action to happen. Who then is in control? A little bit of guilt filled me as I circled my choice -- I am one of the people who are limiting her, choosing for her "what emotion, what idea, what address" she should use. She recited for me her poem in Turkish, eyes closed, mouth shaping the words, but clearly uneasy.
Civelek shared with me an interesting piece of information: at first the box was a familiar thing to her. It was her box, her life. But after the six hours spent inside its warm confines, it became somewhat alien, oppressive -- she could not think, she could not react. By the time I had entered her box, she was no longer in control. She told me that entering the box was her choice, but what happens afterwards, once she lets people in, is a third entity that exists outside both the bodies within the box. That which she controlled in turn begins to controls her.
And yet, in contrast all this, was the interaction of a small child who knew Civelek (her Auntie) was in the box. The box was irrelevant, the concealing cloth was a simple barrier, the social and cultural implications were meaningless; the identity of the woman inside the box was immutable to the child. Upon waving goodbye, the child's mother murmured "look, Auntie is smiling with her eyes" -- the only parts of Civelek that could be seen from outside the box. That statement alone is more poignant that anything I could write.
In a Volkswagen camper van I find the Poetry Caravanserai. If the red curtain is tied back, one or two may enter the lovely lair created by Simla Civelek, who is reclining on pillows dressed in a spangly belly dancing costume.
She offers a scrolled menu from which one can choose up to three poems, from "amuse-bouches" through entrees and dessert. I select an entree of Eyes Of Ashes Woman and a dessert that asks What Happened To My Patience? Civelek doesn't read, but recites her poems by heart. The first is the tale of her relationship to another woman of course I mean The Other Woman. After, I accept a piece of Turkish delight from a silvery salver.
The over-all winner surprised me. They chose Simla Civelek, a friend of mine, who had set herself up as a sort of itinerant gypsy poet in the back of a small camper van. She lay there looking like a belly dancer on rich colored blankets and offered the kids a menu with different poems. She began the performance by washing the children’s hands – something I remember the long-haul bus drivers doing when I visited Turkey. Then to finish she gave them a piece of Turkish Delight – the real stuff. The kids loved it, especially the poem about abortion.