Performance artist Poppy Jackson. Photograph: Manuel Vason / DARC
Performance artist Poppy Jackson. Photograph: Manuel Vason / DARC

The artist Poppy Jackson has sparked something of a tabloid controversy around her performance Site, taking place as part of the 2015 Spill Festival of Performance.

In the piece Jackson sat, naked, across the gable of Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel. She stayed there for four-hour stints, across two days. Jackson was just about visible from the street (if you happened to be looking up at the right moment), although in order to really see her properly the audience gathered in the Toynbee courtyard, and lined the stairs inside the building.

On the first day, someone working in an adjacent building tweeted a photo, asking ‘What’s happening?’. Several news organisations then picked up the story, prompting a slew of sensationalist articles and the familiar below-the-line griping in the comments section.

Spill has circulated a press release detailing Jackson’s intentions, and Lyn Gardner has since written in the Guardian about how the piece fits in to the rest of the festival and a longer history of performance art. Artists like Jackson are asking questions, in a language that most might not be used to, but they do so not to provoke needlessly.

The city has become a prescribed place, our public and shared spaces monetised, corporatised and gated off. Jackson’s dignified sitting, against the cold and the stares, highlights to me just how boring the streets and buildings of the city have become. I’m glad she was there, and that I got to witness it. Art is not limited to oil paintings of horses.

For me though, this is not a story about a piece of art, but about the ‘journalists’ that spend their days trawling Twitter for clickbait to bump up website traffic. ‘Can (insert newspaper here) use your picture?’ appears hundreds of times under the original tweet, a sadder indictment of current reporting than of the state of the art scene in London.

Art, theatre and performance critics are being scrapped, whilst newspapers desperately scrape together lowest common denominator articles. Sensitivity to experimental work is lost when it’s presented in such a reductive way. Artworks that are trying something new, or that maybe require a different kind of engagement from its audience, are written off as a joke.

Look at the two pictures that were originally tweeted, really look at them, and you can see the beauty in the image. Across the roofs and red brick walls of that corner of East London, Jackson sits quietly, dignified and statuesque. Amongst the moss, ivy and tiles her body stands out, a little fleshy intervention, a different perspective on the space. What’s happening is an art piece, a piece of art. You might not like it, you might hate it, you might think it’s funny, or you might not care. But to treat it like a joke is to dismiss something powerful.

@LewisAChurch

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