In 1976, Rose English and Sally Potter created the groundbreaking site-specific performance Berlin, realised in four parts across various venues in central London. This work, its themes and its methods left a profound mark on their respective individual practices and international careers – Rose English going on to create ambitious performances within the worlds of art, theatre and circus, and Sally Potter working as a renowned film director.
HEIRLOOM has developed and created the exhibition Berlin: Remembering the Spectacle in collaboration with Rose English, and the exhibition revisits the 1976 work with a new installation that features props, costumes, photography, video as well as archival materials in a reflection on the nature and approach of performance documentation.
English and Potter shared a home for a number of years in various London squats. They used their homes as an activist space for working and performing in resistance to the era’s property speculation and unaffordable housing conditions. The UK’s political climate in the mid-70s was marked by soaring inflation, Margaret Thatcher’s appointment as leader of the Conservative Party, and the growing popularity of the National Front evidencing the rise of fascism. English and Potter saw in these years a parallel to the Weimar period in Germany post World War I, when salon culture flourished, allowing artistic experimentation in spite of difficult circumstances. This historical parallel inspired the venues selected for Berlin, which deliberately steered clear of the art institution’s conventional gallery spaces and the theatre’s stages.
Berlin consisted of four acts, of which the first and last took place at 41 Mornington Terrace, a Camden squat where Rose English and Sally Potter were living at the time. Part 2 took place at midnight at an ice-skating rink, while Part 3 played out at a public swimming-pool. English and Potter embodied the two protagonists in the piece, and they were the only figures who spoke, accompanied by a silent chorus of six men and a young boy.
The elements of fire, ice and water pervaded the various scenes, which took the form of live performance and still photography to produce a particularly cinematic work, in which the women called into question the very images they were presenting. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, known for her revolutionary theory regarding the impact of the male gaze on the portrayal of women in film, experienced Berlin and described the work as sensational in an interview in The Believer Magazine.
The collaboration between English and Potter lasted roughly a decade from the time of their meeting in 1974 and they worked together on a number of performance works. English appeared in Potter’s experimental short film Thriller (1979) and they collaborated with the composer Lindsay Cooper on the feature film The Gold Diggers (1983), which is today considered a feminist masterpiece of 1980s cinema. Behind the film was an all-female crew, every member of which received equal pay.
Berlin: Remembering the Spectacle marks the first time that English and Potter revisit their collective practice, and the exhibition prompts a collapse of time with its question of what constitutes past, present and future in artistic work. At the end of Act 4 of Berlin, English and Potter asked one another the question: “Hast du Berlin gefunden?” (Have you found Berlin?), and both answered by enumerating the materials, objects, ideas and places included in the piece. Inherent to the very work Berlin is thus a discussion of what may be recalled and what is lost to posterity.
The exhibition will subsequently travel to London to be presented later this year at Karsten Schubert Gallery Room 2 in Soho.
Rose English emerged from the conceptual art, dance and feminist scenes of 1970’s Britain to become one of the most influential performance artists of her generation. Her uniquely interdisciplinary work combines elements of theatre, circus, opera and poetry to explore themes of gender politics, the identity of the performer and the metaphysics of presence.
English’s performances consistently analyse and comment on aesthetics, politics and philosophy, including aspects of British pop culture, from show girls and show horses to magic acts and pantomime. She acts as hostess, entertainer, and philosopher in her performances, thereby transforming the stage into a space for thought and reflection. English herself has also appeared as an actor in a wide range of theatre and television productions, and experimental and mainstream film alike.
From 1974 to 1983, English collaborated closely with filmmaker Sally Potter, classically trained dancer Jacky Lansley, as well as composer Lindsay Cooper to interrogate the relationships between artistic form and convention, and the position of women in society.
English has been writing, directing and performing her work internationally for over 40 years in venues as varied as old music-hall palaces, ice rinks, Tate Britain, Queen Elizabeth Hall, The Royal Court Theatre London, the Adelaide Festival and Lincoln Center, New York. Rose English has exhibited internationally over the course of her decades-long career and has studios in London, England and Møn, Denmark. English is represented by Richard Saltoun Gallery and Karsten Schubert London.
Sally Potter’s early work as a dancer, choreographer, musician and performance artist in the 1970s includes projects with fellow musicians in the Feminist Improvisation Group (FIG) as well as with Richard Alston’s company Strider, and the Limited Dance Company that she co-founded with Jacky Lansley.
Potter's work is distinctive in its interweaving of image, performance and music and in its daring blending and transcending of genders and genres. Potter is known for innovative form and risk-taking subject matter and has worked with many of the most notable cinema actors of our time.
Though she had joined the London Filmmaker’s Co-op in the 1960s, it was in 1979 that Potter's artistic life entered a new phase with the launch of her 16mm short film Thriller, produced, scripted, directed and edited by Potter, in which Rose English performed and which was shot in the home they shared. Thriller became a cult hit and brought Potter the opportunity to collaborate on her first feature film, The Gold Diggers (1983), which was created with Lindsay Cooper and Rose English.
Orlando (1992), Sally Potter’s bold adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, first brought her work to a wider audience. It was followed by The Tango Lesson (1996), The Man Who Cried (2000), Yes (2004), Rage (2009), Ginger & Rosa (2012), and The Party (2017). Her latest feature film, The Roads Not Taken premiered at Berlin Film Festival in 2020. In 1990 Sally Potter co-founded her production company Adventure Pictures with producer Christopher Sheppard.
In conjunction with the exhibition, HEIRLOOM is partnering with Cinemateket to present screenings of a number of Sally Potter’s films and collaborations with Rose English. The full programme can be found on Cinemateket’s website.