Deborah Light, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me, Chapter, Cardiff, March 17
Four years after chipping away at the inner life of the nineteenth century paleontologist Mary Anning in The Curio Cabinet, and six months into carrying a third child, Deborah Light has been turning her choreographic imagination to an excavation of her own life in an array of objects collected from the rocks and crevices of her mind and body. In this sharing of a development phase for a new work, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me, she regales the invited audience in the studio at Chapter with a running commentary of her evolution that Darwin himself might have enjoyed if not fully appreciated. Nevertheless, her condensed trajectory from chordate to choreographer and from mollusk to mother is an accelerated but otherwise totally convincing line.
The studio is laid out with tables (they could be glass cases in a museum) on which are arrayed the objects and specimens Light has chosen to represent her. There is no particular order but they include balls of wool and knitting needles (her mother’s influence), fossils, rocks, seeds (her partner’s influence), her grandfather’s mantle clock, flowerpots and books (her private passion), all of which she invites the audience to inspect and handle. There are two other tables that are littered with notes or laid with paper for our written suggestions and interjections.
Kneeling on all fours in front of the clock Light demonstrates with rhythmic dorsal undulations the early chordate’s need for structural reorganization, then evolves into the shape of the mollusk’s hard shell and with evolutionary haste bypasses the seed’s slow-burning life with the vital attempt to stand up. This leads her to the table marked What’s Important on which she asks someone to add, ‘standing up’ and, as she catches her breath, ‘breathing’. As a mother of small children she also adds ‘dry pants’ to the growing list and as a human being she adds, ‘world peace’. In the space of an hour Semi Detached – An Archeology of Me builds up delightfully disparate layers of autobiographical sediment that form Light’s own particular landscape, her own history at this particular moment in her life, and as the unique curator she animates it all as both subject and object. She listens to the sounds of her own name as we might address it, as her mother might have pronounced it, as her children might call it, as she might have called her mother. It is harrowing and deeply moving to hear her label herself with these inflections of welcome, caution, fear and love, scratching under the name to give it life, identity and meaning.
Light has learned from raising her children that the art of dissembling can be very effective in keeping cool under fire. The way she leads us to believe the ‘indispensable’ bear, Mishu, is indeed borrowed from her five-year-old son as she proceeds to dissect his wooly chest with clinical precision is a master class in psychological manipulation. It also turns into a lesson in genetic association at a molecular level and a brief survey of an endangered species. ‘This species of bear will have to adapt’, she adds firmly as we all take a deep breath and follow her at a distance with our eyes.
Continuing to conflate the structures of archaeology and family, Light recreates a symbolic generational skeleton that she animates with her great grandmother’s Motherhood Book as brain, stones as vertebrae, the clock as biological time, a pot of seeds as ovaries and a rock as fused pelvis. She reinstates Mishu as the heart covered in a pinafore handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter.
As if her version of evolution is totally logical, she totters across the room in two flowerpots with a ball of wool that she strings between pieces of table and chair like a game her mother used to play. She is gently inciting us to respond like children, to break through the historical into the present moment, but I think the episode with Mishu has kept us at arms length.
Archaeology and family life come full circle; Light’s final intervention reminds us of the nature of time, of the cyclical nature of starting and finishing. She takes off her outer garments and lies supine in her underwear on the What’s Important table, lying there so still like a living sarcophagus with her belly breathing two lives, while a recording of Handel’s aria Ombra Mai Fu infuses the image with the beauty of both life and death. When she rises to signal the end of the performance, some of the felt tip words are imprinted on her back. At moments like this you know something profoundly significant has just transpired, held in the moment and never to be repeated. It is a privileged moment for Light to be performing this and for us to be witnessing it, but the inspired and nonconformist workings of Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me clearly have life after birth.