Hatch at NEAT14: Beryl by Lexi Strauss

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Walking into the foyer of Nottingham’s Theatre Royal to find Lexi Strauss sitting in an armchair, disconnected from the outside world by white plastic ear-pieces, seemingly possessed by the spirit of an elderly lady telling the story of how she met her husband at the old Empire, which once occupied the site where the Royal Concert Hall now stands next door, is a markedly uncanny experience. Her two-minute verbatim performance, Berylis not acting, or even a feat of impersonation in any theatrical sense, but a kind of portraiture built on the empathy needed to fully occupy, and on some level temporarily become and give voice to, another human being entirely.

Beryl by Lexi Strauss [image credit Julian Hughes]

Beryl by Lexi Strauss [image credit Julian Hughes]

Talking to Strauss herself, who performs the short piece on a loosely timed loop, pausing between each completed cycle to remove her ear-buds, revert to her own voice and manner, and chat to whoever happens to be around, it quickly becomes clear that the uncanny or possessed quality evoked at first glance is not really the point of the piece, more an accidental (and probably inevitable) by-product of what she’s trying to achieve. Strauss used to be an actress, she explains, working in film, TV and theatre, but three years ago switched to making art exploring empathy through a process of immersion not only in the words, but the breath, tone and textures of voice of her subjects. Beryl, its subject her own grandmother, is a distillation of six hours of taped conversations to a tiny but evocative fragment that contains its subject in the way a hologram holds a three dimensional image.

Beryl by Lexi Strauss [image credit Julian Hughes]

Beryl by Lexi Strauss [image credit Julian Hughes]

It’s still fairly early in the afternoon and a few people wander across the foyer, at which cue Strauss puts the ear-pieces back in, settles into Beryl’s posture and begins the loop again. Her voice and facial muscles become notably other as she repeats the story of a romance born of a shared Conservative affiliation, a political liking for Neville Chamberlain. But it turns out that the new entrants have come in to get their photos taken with a cardboard cut-out of nuns advertising Carlton Operatic Society’s afternoon performance of Sister Act, and Strauss, now returned to herself again, explains that the ear-pieces are important, not only to hear the original voice as she speaks in it, connecting her directly to the subject, but to distinguish the deeper habitation of her subject she’s exploring from more conventional acting.

Beryl by Lexi Strauss [image credit Julian Hughes]

Beryl by Lexi Strauss [image credit Julian Hughes]

By the third switch I witness from Lexi to Beryl, I’m starting to wonder if Strauss deliberately homed in on that shared Conservative political affiliation, just before the Second World War, precisely because if anything seems to run counter to soliciting or representing empathy in 2014 it’s likely to be an affiliation with the Conservative Party, even though empathy is precisely what Beryl is ultimately about, and it’s true that the idiosyncrasy in the voice seems to counter my usual, visceral, response to declarations of Conservative Party belief. By this point others are arriving and sitting down to listen, settling in to hear Beryl’s voice and witness the shifts between one human presence and another taking place in this corner of the carpeted foyer.

Beryl by Lexi Strauss [image credit Julian Hughes]

Beryl by Lexi Strauss [image credit Julian Hughes]

As I walk away, that note of the uncanny persists and it only really occurs to me later that Strauss’s techniques must once have been part of the armoury of spirit mediums faking possession by voices and spirits as a means of persuading the bereaved that their relatives were indeed speaking to them. I’m reminded of Strauss’s earlier comment that her paintings, produced alongside works like Beryl, are less about painting, per se, or conventional portraiture, and more like extensions of these performances, pretexts for spending extended periods of time with subjects, listening and trying to capture their energy and presence. If there is something medium-like about these verbatim pieces, then, it seems to rest on a desire to channel the voices and messages of the living.

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