Critical Distance

ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST: Sharon Alward
July 20 – July 25, 1998

a response to the exhibition by Stephen Phelps

In St. John the Baptist performance/ installation artist Sharon Alward is a sight to behold. Framed by a columned portico, she’s seated on a revolving stool, bare-skinned except for a diaper, a halter and the outlandish, surpassing fancy of a pair of neon wings. Her illuminated figure, marble-like in the neon’s gentle glare, presents a picture of grave incandescence on its motorized perch – a bio-luminescent angel bought to earth and put on display. From the axial centre at the base of her spine to the outer radius of her knees, she makes a perfect dial, strikingly in sync with the motion of the gears. As the perambulating skull meets the overspill of an angled spotlight, we glimpse a violent splash of red on blonde – the telltale drippings of an overhead tap whose mouth delivers a steady trickle of ketchup directly onto the head, like a Chinese water torture. The dribbling paste beats a remorseless tattoo as it plops, slowly hardening into a gelatinous clot that encrusts the scalp like glue.


Call it religious dementia or clever theatrical collage, the effect is utterly arresting – even intimidating. Visitors approach the aura’d spectacle uneasily. They enter hugging the perimeter, eying the apparition with imaginary Geiger counters, like a clean-up crew sizing up a radioactive spill. They’re surprised when Sharon beckons them forward, eager to answer any questions. As they sidle closer, they can actually make out the microtonal hum of the twelve-volt current surging through her neon wings.

Four monitors stake out the corners of the room, their screens flickering like campfires in the surrounding gloom. The video footage is more than a little disconcerting on first go-round: a cuddlesome montage of infant feeding and sponging, jarringly intercut with flashes of a pacing grizzly. The enigmatic provocation of sweet innocence and shambling menace packs an intriguing jolt. Indeed, this thematic clash could be the show’s clincher, but for the deeper message contained in the audio tracks. Jammed into a series of eight minute loops, the video scripts convey the spoken thoughts of a select quartet – four religious personalities whose legends embody respectively the poet, the dreamer, the lover and the thinker. Part soliloquy, part disquisition, the individual narratives provide an unexpected feel for the characters doing the speaking – their monologues revealing identities tantalizingly more complex than the conventional religious spin might suggest.

There’s Artemis of antiquity, the Hellenistic precursor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose worshippers, we learn, paid homage in the guise of she-bears; Salome, the dreamer, the wicked temptress of Gospel lore revealed as the innocent victim of a ruthless mother’s ambition; Mary Magdalene, the lover, the converted harlot whose exemplary discipleship somehow never made it into the New Testament records; John the Baptist, the unsung thinker whose intellectual contributions to the early Christian movement are reckoned to have suffered immeasurably because of popular insistence on the image of a locust-feasting desert scourge. The individual narratives are especially haunting in their use of measured shifts and modulated vocals. With their curious abridged syntax, the monologues cook free-form, closer to music than speech, a spoken jazz in which related historical detail bounces off an inner-riff of philosophical reflection – a kind of rap mosaic of scripture and run-on rumination interspersed with flights of rhapsodic prose that are almost psalm-like in their melodic intonation.

On initial perusal, the visitor is tempted to infer from these complex narratives a sermon directed at biblical typecasting, at religion’s tendency to mangle complex lives to suit the missionary agenda, but that would be to miss the import of the elegant metaphor at the centre of the installation – the winged effigy whose brazen iconography appears to mock our misguided compulsion to clothe the immaterial in any form. In its wrenching pose, the angel presents itself as a sacrificial offering to the essential mysteries of faith, its bleeding skull a seeming reminder of the bloodletting that so often attends the urge to corral the ethereal with graven imagery and simplistic doctrine.

This is only one interpretation, mind. Sharon’s presentation is a labyrinth of potential takes. In its raw performance, however, the piece is unequivocal. Pilgrims to her make-shift shrine leave the gallery with a palpable feel for Christianity in its mystical infancy. Delete the erudite reverie and this is a religious service in the primitive Catholic mode, a ritual evocative of the caverns and catacombs of the faith’s subversive heyday – of Christendom’s formative years, when the sacred rites were performed by a co-ed priesthood deep underground and the sacraments that would eventually become our rote Mass were very much a lively and impromptu affair, instantly engaging and continuously evolving – virtually a performance in progress.

In St. John the Baptist, Alward continues to subvert the idea of the body as social construct, attempting instead to revivify the body as a spiritual container. The appropriation of the human body to conder reality and substance on something immaterial, on beliefs and assertions, is a universal practice. Ms. Alward’s performances and videos, with their vague combinations of cyclicity and chaos, embody ideas of Chaos Theory. The performance St. John the Baptist, derived from a combination of the life story of John the Baptist and the gospel John, deconstructs itself into internal irreconciability, resisting traditional ideas of coherence or meaning and seeking out that lack ofmeaning with visual and textual elements which nullify and contradict each other and themselves. The inner contradictions throughout the text of the videos and through the presence of the body point to her belief in the unavailablity of certainty about anything. All thoughts are valid, and, although she is exploring traditional texts, St. John the Baptist resists attempting to universalize and canonize dogmas, a practice that has contributed to a world of suffering, violence and cruelty.

-excerpt from press release