Reviews: Liverpool Biennial: Michael Portnoy, Relational Stalinism – The Musical

Michael Portnoy, Relational Stalinism: The Musical, 2016. 9 July 2016 at the Black-E, as part of Liverpool Biennial 2016. Photo: Rob Battersby
Michael Portnoy, Relational Stalinism: The Musical, 2016. 9 July 2016 at the Black-E, as part of Liverpool Biennial 2016. Photo: Rob Battersby

Relational Stalinism – The Musical
Michael Portnoy

Words by Moira Leonard

Think David Lynch meets the Coen Brothers and sprinkle a little weary pessimism on top and you will get the flavour of this unflinching collection of performances.

Originally commissioned by Witte de With Centre for contemporary Art, Rotterdam and executed in a series of white cube spaces, Michael Portnoy has reimagined and condensed nine short pieces for the Black E.

Whilst this was expertly interpreted by the whole cast, I was left feeling that the show lost it’s edge by being shown in a theatre rather than a gallery. Many references to visual arts audiences seemed to lose their power in this context, however it is a show sure to generate a lot of conversation afterwards.

Having said that four stand out performances for me were:

100 Big Entrances both parts 1 and 2 were very clever ‘enter with one of your thumbs doing things you’d rather not know about’ or ‘enter the fantastic globalized world of international art biennials with a terrible cold and a terribly abstract cold.’ Brilliant! Different performers for each section but each command suiting their styles perfectly.

Citibank Sessions highlighting the division between different worlds, pitching two modes of immaterial labour against each other. A laugh out loud moment when it is clear that neither party understands each other and who hasn’t wanted to smash the phone to pieces when talking to a call centre?!

77 Blinks is a curious audience participatory piece. Put five performers on stage, accompany them with a relentless percussive soundtrack and ask them to blink rhythmically to the highest pitched drum. A mesmerising and intimidating spectacle in equal measure.

Then bring in members of the audience to stand motionless whilst the performers move around them continuing to exaggerate their blinking and see what happens…I would expect each performance of this will have different reactions. On the night I attended the response was uncomfortable laughter echoed by the audience. Intriguing. I read afterward that this was inspired by a conversation Portnoy had with Yvonne Rainer in the dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano of Iceland. A reference lost on me at the time.

Concluding the evening, the big finale, Blues on Blues, a cross breeding of two forms of Blues music – American and Greek – strongly reminded me of an episode of Twin Peaks: mesmerising; definitely more than a bit strange; and generating a deep discomfort in the viewer. On reflection I would say this sums up the whole event for me.

Due to the challenging nature of this show and barely disguised contempt for the audience at times – it’s a bit like marmite – you’ll either love it or hate it, I don’t think there will be much in between!