Nigel Rolfe by Jeremy Sigler

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Mire Fall Body

The premise of my recent conversation with the legendary performance artist and teacher Nigel Rolfe was just to get caught up. Someone pressed “record,” so the pitch, tone, cadence, lilt, of Nigel’s uniquely balanced English-Irish voice was captured on tape and (not so easily) transcribed.

I first met Nigel when I was an eager undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania. As a visiting critic, Nigel sort of swept me off my feet and took me under his wing. In one day—tagging along as he made a charismatic tour through the studios—he made me realize that art was not about objects but human experience and how that experience gets passed from one person to another. I keep this in mind when I lecture to students, read my work before a live audience, walk into a tense room that feels like it’s about to explode with anticipation, and even when I just sit quietly on an airplane enduring a long flight.

For Nigel, performing is emotionally complex and involves wildly original and provocative physical extremes. It has taken a lifetime for him to define his work, to emerge before himself, to come full circle. And anyone under his wing, I guess, is lucky just to be along for the ride.

Jeremy Sigler So you’re working a lot right now in Europe, after a phase of seclusion.

Nigel Rolfe The last three years I’ve had renewed energy. My body is now very present and vulnerable again in the work, which is nearly as physically demanding as it was 30 years ago.

JS How so?

NR In Lublin (in Poland), I filled a huge hessian sack with flour, weighing about as much as my body. I struggled to move it in a number of ways with no real plan, discovering and revealing much inadequacy. Then I took out a rope and tied the sack to my body and eventually managed to heave it in close among the audience, at which point I secretly stabbed into it, causing a dusty mist of flour to engulf us all.

JS This sounds consistent with earlier works I’ve seen where you create considerable drama with minimal affects.

NR The big shift is that now I’m 60. I’m not a young man proving his physicality, or testing himself anymore. I have participated in a lot of festivals in Europe lately and I’ve come away thinking that the strongest artists are all pretty old. I look at them, and even though they’re mostly in their fifties or sixties they still seem to be in a radical place. It’s like being an old rocker and needing a walking stick to get up on stage. (laughter)

JS Longevity is impressive. Anyone over a certain age just keeps beating the odds.

NR Yes. I have this same physical determination of my youth to do live things. Instead of watching sports on TV, for example, I’ll go to some wet field in Ireland on a cold night and watch some small football club battle it out right in front of my eyes.

JS To be right on top of the action! You make it sound so appealing. I think I’ll try to find a game to watch tonight. Can we talk about Marina Abramović? Her recent show at MoMA seems to have been a victory for performance art of your generation because so many ephemeral works were restaged, reenacted, and shown to be capable of transcending time and existing as “permanent” works of art.

NR Marina and I are old friends since 1978. We met in Aachen, Germany, in the Museum Ludwig, at a performance festival, which also included Orlan. I love Marina’s spirit and many of her historic works. But I have to admit, I’m uncertain about the kind of look-alike reenactments of historic works that were presented at MoMA.

JS You mean the piece’s authenticity is replaced by some kind of artificiality?

NR There is great difficulty in representing and staging live performance work in retrospect, often contradicting the initial risk. What was real becomes staged; what was fresh becomes posed.

JS A lot of performance work uses written scores or instructions. So the “performer” can often be substituted without any loss of integrity, right? Recently even Allan Kaprow’s famous tire happening was recreated here in New York.

NR I was recently injured so I scripted a work for someone much younger. And afterwards I got this chain of emails telling me that the work was better than it had been in the past and that she was much better looking than me. (laughter)

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JS I’m sorry to hear about your back injury. I was told you were in your yard working and prying something loose when it gave way and sent you flying backward, like a Buster Keaton pratfall.

NR It was far more serious than I thought at first. I had broken my back! I was millimeters away from paralysis. Christopher Reeve really.

JS I have to shut my ears; I’m a hypochondriac.

NR We are essentially like gladiators. In soccer somebody will break their leg, and you actually hear the bone crack, and in comes the next guy. When I was in severe pain on a long transatlantic flight just after my injury, the only solution was to kneel in the washroom for the entire duration of the flight. It was the only position where I wasn’t in total agony. In a way, my work has prepared me for that kind for moment.

JS Ugh, I’m getting this weak feeling just listening to you tell the story. It’s similar to the empathy caused by watching you perform. We’re all thinking, “please Nigel don’t do anything to hurt yourself.”

NR I do create this kind of threatening situation; I suppose it is one of my tricks to hide behind a mask of threat—like an angry face with a child inside. It is one place I repeatedly return to, which is actually a critique of my exterior. I always try to get so close to people that they can feel my physical being.

JS I had Charles Ray as a teacher at UCLA and he was immensely threatening. He would often walk around the studio holding his lower back, slouching, kind of dragging his feet, and tilting his head in a weird way. You would have thought he was in agony. And I think it was all about his way of using body language to create a certain physical drama, a plea. But I think he was using body language as a form of sculpture. He was well aware of what he was doing. Over time I felt my body intuitively copying his. So I was dragging my feet, etc. and I had to keep telling myself: “stop walking like Charlie!”

NR In any kind of performance context, if you take that live space you have to make sure you hold it and fill it with something that people will never forget. I did the Rope piece many times, where I wrap my own head in a ball of sisal twine taken from a derelict cottage in the West of Ireland. When bound tightly on my head, the ball smothers me completely and becomes, in fact, life threatening. As I perform I enter a completely interior space and I lose sense entirely of the exterior.

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JS I’ve seen it in pictures. You seem to trust that the camera can capture this. In the recent retrospective catalog you showed me there’s a remarkable series of still photographs documenting a huge archive of performances going back to the ’70s, but without a single caption. It’s clear that you trust photography to capture the essence of the performance, without wordy descriptions.

NR For years though I actually disallowed filming and photographing because there were so many flashes going off. All you could hear in the room would be this “whmm, whmm” of all the flashbulbs recharging.

JS The pap-a-raz-zi.

NR There was only this depressing sense of what they wanted to take with them. So I put a stop to it, and for the next 20 years I continued to turn film crews away, as well as national broadcast TV, the BBC, Polish and Hungarian television. So I really do mean it when I say: “I’m making live imagery.”

JS But media saturation seems to be the road to posterity, no? Can an artist function without reproducible images and for that matter tradable ones? It was interesting how Tino Sehgal recently accomplished this feat with his show at the Guggenheim. It was covered everywhere in the press but without a single image of the work.

NR I still contend that if your central interest is live then it must be accomplished this way. Live comes first and representation second. It’s hard of course to concentrate on this priority consistently.

JS There has always been ambivalence with artists regarding photo documentation of live works. As a result, often the most enduring images are taken by people in the audience. I find this contradiction very interesting—that the artist might not be able to control the image(s) that the work generates, or even own the rights to them.

NR For me, it starts with the still photograph, a frozen moment. I’ve been photographed by one of the true greats: Hans Namuth. He would quietly come to Franklin Furnace and use a Leica in whatever available light there was.

JS My memory of your works is often like having a photograph in my mind: I was watching you perform this piece once when you started repeatedly bashing a bundle of roses into your face. I remember being stunned when I saw the first few trickles of blood drip to the floor.

NR When performing, I have this rule: don’t be tentative. There’s no point going there if you have any doubts about it.

JS So what made you decide to “go there”—to the roses?

NR I had seen a woman walking down Fifth Avenue on a very blustery day using a bunch of roses as protection against the rain and wind. (laughter)

JS You’re an English-born artist and have lived in Ireland your whole life, and worked all around Europe. What about the United States?

NR I had a silly romanticism about archeology around the time of Robert Smithson—a calling to be earthbound. My first performance in America was in 1974 in the Boston Museum School. And then in the early ’80s, High Performance did a number of articles on me. Around then I was invited to teach at Yale.

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JS Tell me more about your connection to the West Coast.

NR Linda Burnham, who founded High Performance supported me early on. The international network in the early ’70s was small with numerous outposts. Who did what, and where, to break new ground, was quickly apparent. I knew who interested me and it was my job to seek them out. And they would do the same.

Then I began to work in San Francisco with artists like Stelarc. We both did performances at New Langton Arts. And for the next 20 years we circuited one another on the road and were in communication. It recently hit me that we both had a pretty significant impact on each other.

JS I am not that familiar with Stelarc. All I can picture is one shocking image of him suspended in mid-air by like 20 hooks in his skin all over his body. It’s truly horrific. Was your early work ever quite that insane?

NR I did do some very extreme physical things while devoted to pushing my work forward, both self-violating and destructive: concussions, dislocations. I discovered that many materials have long-term degenerative affects. To completely smother your head and block all airways for an hour in creosote-covered sisal is not very good for you.

JS Paul McCarthy’s work seems to poke fun at art that involves self-inflicted trauma. He uses ketchup and chocolate syrup and prosthetics in place of real body parts and fluids.

NR I remember a simply wonderful early work Paul did where he stuffed doughnuts and jam in a plastic bag inside his shirt. (laughter) Paul is this gnome-like man, a quiet, special, dense man—fantastic, generous and a big influence on me. Chris Burden of course was also hugely influential, as were Terry Fox, Jim Pomeroy, David Ireland, and Tom Marioni.

JS I consider Paul to be a pop artist now. Television has caught up to him. His work is so grotesque at times that it feels like mainstream American. I feel the same way about John Waters. But you are different. Your work seems so tortured.

NR There has always been a lot of hiding and masking—quite complex issues about identity really, being a Brit, living in Ireland, in this place of civil war. I’ve always been reminded that I am on the wrong side of the fence, which leads to the idea of risk.

JS Can you give me an example?

NR Ireland is an unstable culture with a revolutionary zeal, and much is contested while living daily with terrorism. In 1978, curator Declan McGonagle put artists directly on the front line in the Orchard Gallery in Derry. I made a work early on where I repeatedly poured red clay swill from galvanized-metal buckets down onto my head. Later that night outside in the bog actual lives were lost in the ongoing conflict.

JS You have had an impact on so many students internationally and you still manage to be somewhat off the radar. Can you tell me more about your days teaching at Yale?

NR Anne Hamilton was there as a student and then I remember Sean Landers.

JS What about Matthew Barney? In his earliest pieces, which he began doing right out of Yale, you appear to have been an early influence: the artist performs live challenging athletic feats naked in the gallery.

NR In Barney’s case, performing is a major element of the work. But it seems different than the central strand of my work, which is the making of “live images.” I get the sense that his work is a strategy or device to other ends, while mine is an inconclusive investigation that causes my body to become the outcome, the end in itself.

JS Barney’s work is very surreal and ornate, while yours seems to be connected to a bleak realism, like Beckett, a kind of reductive, bitter-sweet fatalism.

NR My ambition probably is to find simple but profound relationships with things and repeated sequences. One, as of late, is the act of falling. In an artist’s serious extended practice, I feel that there are many things that can be done voluntarily, or tried out as an experiment, but you are lucky if you have things you must do. I am interested in discovering those “musts.”

I do remember meeting Matthew when I came to do a talk in Hammond Hall at Yale. Inside you had the feeling of being on the deck of a big, old ship; there was a platform where you could look down on open spaces. I remember there being some kind of “war” against painting. Sculpture stood for the radical and the subversive somehow. Jessica Stockholder was a student of mine then. She was a renegade, a runaway from the Painting Department. We kind of adopted her.

JS And eventually she became the Chair of the program. I actually refer to Yale kiddingly as “Jessica Haven.” (laughter). She’s come through for me numerous times. Has lecturing and performing in the art school context been an integral part of your career? I’m thinking of works by Viennese Actionist that were designed to take place in art school. Where else could you get away with such transgressive behavior?

NR Yes, it’s always been part of my interest, stemming from Joseph Beuys, probably. And I’ve always thought of teaching as an extension of my working practice. But inside academia there is such vulnerability; they keep you hanging on by a thread.

JS Yes, for an adjunct, there’s a lot of exploitation in the graduate programs I’m afraid. After a decade or two you realize you’ve given everything and gotten nothing back. They continue to set up programs without very much full-time faculty. It’s comical in way—school with only students but no real teachers. And the students seem perfectly content with this situation because they are not really up for the hassle of being told by a serious teacher to, maybe, “go back to the drawing board.”

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But I would say that you have always been able to turn this itinerant role into a very positive, romantic idea. In that way, you are a pioneer of the art school’s move toward embracing new genres and allowing free cross-pollination.

NR I’ve always been seen as a really weird one; toxic but strong, a strange unreachable sort, part of the anti-establishment. I’m always being invited to challenge and provoke. And I suppose I am a good talker. So I am used as an “ambassador”—a persuasive advocate for the potential of other kinds of work, a means to debate alternative ways of working.

JS Perhaps you are right on the edge of being a positive influence, but you’re also a dangerous choice for the school. It’s as if you come with the word “WARNING.”

NR That’s right. I think I was perceived as plausible within a kind of convention, but I knew I stood outside in terms of my ideals. I remember sitting down with Helen Chadwick—this was just before she died—and we talked about the “alternative” in art school, which winds up being everything that has ever fallen through the cracks. So I find myself repeatedly trying to mine and investigate and preserve these things. And throughout the ’90s, I would be the one, ironically, standing up for the most conservative ways of working: like head modeling! (laughter)

JS As adjuncts, we’re always fighting to be integral and irreplaceable to the students, while the administrations find comfort economically and politically in seeing us as utterly expendable.

NR The real hard knock of this is: top-down/bottom-up. Meaning that the students have to want you—and then you have to persuade management that they want you too!

JS I like entering into an institution and finding my way to the core, which is inevitably the best students who have this pulse and “harder-they-come” desperation. The problem with the top-down/bottom-up is that you wind up having to be a kind of PR agent for your own class, spreading the word to the administration, educating them too—and often they don’t even care about art.

NR But the desire to have direct contact with students the way I do probably comes from Beuys—a “university of the mind.” My role is to be this old radical, to stir the pot, to not accept that anything is a given, and the more years I do it, the more I become an intellectual. And I think it’s also a spirit of the heart. You really have to believe that there is some deeper inner discovery as to why people want to make art. But this idealism takes place inside the political quagmire of the bureaucracy, and you are at the mercy of it, because you can get chopped at anytime.

JS I remember the day you came to Penn for the first time. First you lectured and then began doing door-to-door studio visits. You had this charisma, and you knew how to connect! And all the barriers came down immediately, even if just temporarily. This might explain why I dropped everything and followed you from studio to studio that entire day, like a little puppy.

NR People connect very quickly. Students know very fast if they are safe with you or not.

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