Heavy Duty Body Work : Victoria Gray

By Fortner Anderson

Victoria Gray began the second night of performances at Viva with a powerful minimalist somatisation that held the two hundred spectators that surrounded the performance area in rapt attention.

As Gray’s website describes it, somatisation involves the work 'to bring dormant psychosomatic / traumatic memory to consciousness'. The idea that mental trauma and memory were imprinted in a physical form within the body was developed by German psychologist Wilhelm Reich in the 1930’s, following his break with Freud. In 80 years, this research has been refined so that it now includes a much more subtle understanding. In Gray’s work she is seeking to communicate memory and trauma that 'subsists at the sentient level of the bones, muscles, organs, fluids, glands and nerves'.

Gray prepared the physical performance and mental space with a keen performative sensibility. Using the house lights, ancient florescents set high above the former metal-working area, they bathed the space in a cold and unforgiving light. Their electric ballasts created a loud constant hum. Gray later described this hum as the sound of a nervous system. But this mentality was intense, relentless and inhumane, whose inescapable presence helped enhance a feeling of dread within the space.

Gray arrived on scene after a long pause, giving time for the ambiance to do its work. Nude torso, wearing black pants and white socks she took position crouching in the centre of the performance area with her hands lifted slightly above and in front of her. Here she began the performance, which could be described as dance, with barely perceptible movements of her fingers and hands, as if each was beset by a cascade of tiny febrile spasms. These micro-movements developed very slowly as her crouch position collapsed leaving her to roll on the floor of this working metal shop.

The holding stressful physical positions for long periods was used in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere as effective physical torture. The effort to attain the extremely slow deliberate movement and changes of position within Gray’s performance often left her limbs and torso trembling and shaking. As she displaced herself over the rough concrete work floor, red-tinged dust covered her body, the residue of a hundred years of the shop’s production.

Gray’s performances work with the idea of the empathetic communication of kinesthetic movement. Each of her performances is attuned to the specific site and to the public surrounding her.

In the Atelier Jean-Brillant, it seemed as if we had been transported to a makeshift 19th century surgical amphitheater. We sat watching with great attention the emanations of long held pain and trauma, as if we were the students of Charcot witnessing the discovery of the corporeal manifestations of hysteria. But, as we watched, the action also slowly undermined this position of spectator by communicating directly and intensely into the body, resonating with our own memories held in the flesh and in the blood.

With a slow introduction of calming movement and restful breathing, Gray concluded, elegantly and gently, leading us back to our ego and super-egos.


10 October 2015, VIVA Art Action, International Performance Art Festival, Montréal, Canada. Originally published on the VIVA Website.