If you were enjoying the glorious sunshine on the 21 June this year with a leisurely stroll around the sumptuous streets of Kensington and Chelsea you might have seen the absurdist sight of a two-horsepower car being pulled along by two horses. No, this was not some sort of practical joke or act of irony; it was the second instalment of William Mackrell’s performance Deux Chevaux.
If you found yourself at a loss of how to spend last Sunday evening you might have seen Mackrell upon his return to Chelsea as he presented the next phase of the project – a screening of the video documentation from the June event and a discussion led in collaboration with art historian Dr Jo Melvin.
Only one of these statements applies to me – unlike the majority of the audience at the Chelsea Theatre I had not witnessed the earlier iteration of Mackrell’s piece; it was only really by chance that I found myself reflecting upon previous performative interactions of the machine and the mares. Fortunately, the video provided an aesthetically enticing insight into the summer journey around ‘Albertopolis’, demonstrating the curious conversational points that the performance initiated, such as the relationship between the beastly beauty of the horses and their history of robust, arduous work; the contrast of symbols of rural lifestyle and the surrounding urban landscape; the potential and potency of chance encounters within a meticulously planned event.
During their conversation Mackrell and Melvin maintained a level of acuity and intellect, without straying too far down the path of pretension as they drew upon theories of conceptual art, performativity and ecology. It’s a credit to both speakers that they manage to engage art aficionados and novices, a skill that can often be overlooked in these studious settings. Mackrell himself has a certain boyish charm, an almost shyness that could lead you to believe he is much younger than reality; however his quietly confident self-commentary belies his experience. Melvin has a great sense of humour and steers the discussion down pathways that provide insightful and amusing anecdotes.
One of the most interesting elements of Mackrell’s work is the space for what he refers to as “accidental happenings”; the chance encounters that shape individual understandings and experiences of art. There is a moment in the video where the sound of a skateboard naturally and accidentally overdubs the sound of one of the horses eating, creating a rather absurdly suitable soundtrack. You could interpret the sound as a mechanical cog, turning as the horses are refuelled, and you get the sense that Mackrell probably would not argue.
It’s quite refreshing in this artist-as-orator setup to hear the artist articulate their inspirations and aspirations, without prescribing a definition of the work. As both the June and November instances of Deux Chevaux demonstrate, Mackrell’s work invites conversation and contemplation on a multitude of topics, entirely dependent on the personal experiences of the individuals in attendance. That is to say, Mackrell’s horse-powered Citroen 2CV is certainly the vehicle, but the roads it will drive you down will remain unknown quantities until arrival.
Deux Chevaux played as part of the Chelsea Theatre’s SACRED season 2014. For more information, see the Chelsea Theatre website.