Bryony Kimmings: Performance Art Princess

Written for Exeunt

I am blowing bubbles. Disappointed at not being able to meet with Bryony Kimmings in person, I felt I needed to do some extra prep for our phone interview, to transport myself to a suitable space.  Hence the bubbles. It felt right, an appropriately flamboyant gesture.

Bryony Kimmings is to live art what Kylie is to pop music; she is sparkly, playful – and a consummate professional. Her work is often autobiographical and she has been accused of self indulgence (she has her fair share of detractors), but Kimmings is very serious about her work, and believes in the power of good old fashioned entertainment. “I get quite exhausted thinking about ways people will engage with [my work]. In order to win the crowd, as a performer I want the crowd to love me.” As a live artist, she can get that level of engagement, “in that space you can have an emotional connection.”  It’s the reason she’s not a stand-up comedian. Engagement is a vital part of what she does.

Bryony Kimmings takes over.

This week Kimmings has been given the run of The Junction in Cambridge, the theatre where she is an Associate Artist. Visitors can expect a jamboree of performances, installations and workshops infused with Kimmings’ particular sense of fun. She has taken on a curatorial role for this project and has spent a lot of time “thinking about the user experience; I don’t want it to be ‘Ah is that it?’ I want it to be MAGNIFICENT.” For someone who makes such breezy work, Kimmings seems to put a lot of pressure on herself and has been working incredibly hard to bring this week together.

Anyone who saw Kimmings’ 7 Day Drunk (in which she explored making art during different states of intoxication) knows the lengths she is prepared to go for her work. In some ways the creative process is quite a dark one for her. “It is quite emotional and quite lonely and heavy, I go through that and then make quite a light piece.” Seeing video footage of a tired and wasted Kimmings being encouraged to keep drinking by a watchful team of scientists and doctors was disquieting. Behind all the glitter, there is an iron resolve, a need to push herself.

From soothing installation The Hall of Gratuitous Praise to the English premiere of 7 Day Drunk this week will provide an eclectic programme reflecting Kimmings’ own bold style. In Mega you can become a 9 year old Bryony donning a shell-suit in a site specific audio adventure. Thinking of the younger Kimmings makes me think about her influences. “I went through phases of having art crushes on people. In the beginning I was a Gobsquad girl, Ducky, Kiki and Herb, then I moved on to Taylor Mac…[surrealist photographer] David Lachapelle and stand up comedian Neil Hamburger, his use of overly stretching the audiences’ patience is amazing. But also theatrical music, a couple of theatre based bands? It’s always quite colourful, always quite loud.”

Her style of performance sometimes gets accused of being OTT. That she made her name with a piece called Sex Idiot, in which she openly discussed her sexual history, including STDs, made some regard her as an exhibitionist. It is a tag she is aware of. “That one taught me how far to go, I think I went slightly too far [and] it damaged personal relationships with people…” but her work centres around her own experiences and so it may be one she has to deal with, however unfairly, for a while “I never wanted to tell any lies, I didn’t want to write plays that were made up stories about stuff. I wanted to say ‘this has happened to me, isn’t that interesting’, it’s a bit self important of me which is why I try to make myself look like the fool sometimes.”

Is it therapy? “Me and my boyfriend were talking about this the other day (he’s an electrician) and he said ‘I hate the way that artists use their work as therapy’ a couple of days later he said ‘I’ve changed my mind, at least artists acknowledge they’re quite bad as people and try to make themselves better’. Naturally if you’re trying to explore why you’ve done something, then I’m obviously going to have some kind of therapeutic effect but I’m conscious of the balance of making it primarily for the audience too.”

A “sick Lady Gaga ensemble.”

Just as I feel that I’ve taken the conversation in too sombre a direction she begins telling me about how some of her most serious decisions revolve around whether she should wear flats or heels. Whilst she sees the silliness in this statement she is proud of her fashion obsessions and has a clear belief in the importance of image. Each full length performance begins with a visual mood board and she works closely with her costume designer David to create “sick Lady Gaga” ensembles. As such she is most at home within the stable of queer artists such as Scottee (a guest of honour at her opening extravaganza last night and close friend). She excited tells me about the term ‘light art’ which Scottee has coined and Kimmings believes for her supersedes ‘live art’ “If they’re a ‘light’ artist and glitter and sparkle is important, they understand that they can use costume and lip-sync if it fits in with their more serious intention.”

I wonder if this approach will ever get old? She laughs and then is quiet for a while. “It’s something that I think about a lot. There’s one older live artist who I respect Marcia Farquhar, she’s still extremely glamorous but not trashy, she doesn’t look like  mutton dressed as lamb which I think is something which could happen to me.” Images of too tight leather mini-skirts and bright blue eye shadow hang ominously in the silence. “I do get quite fearful that it’s going to have to evolve, I just imagine that the aesthetic will change as my taste will change.” Still I tell her, as we wrap up our conversation, we wouldn’t want all the glamour to go.

Bryony Kimmings will be taking over The Junction, Cambridge, from 21st – 26th October. For more details visit The Junction website.

Bryony Kimmings: 7 Day Drunk

Written for Exeunt

The crazy world of artists, bohemians and rock and roll stars has always been fuelled by substances both legal and illegal. Just what is the relationship between art and drugs? It’s a question that’s been asked before, but one which hit Bryony Kimmings squarely in the face as she began to address her own relationship with alcohol. Did she need it to make her work? Did she become a better artist after a few drinks?

7 Day Drunk is her attempt to answer this question. Kimmings spent a week in various different states of intoxication; this is the result of her research – and it’s a crazy and hugely entertaining hour. But it’s also one tinged with a seriousness brought to it by the intensely clinical nature of the process. Under the supervision of a medical and psychological team,  Kimmings steadily drank more each day as her artistic output over each 24 hour period was tested in front of an audience.

For all its flamboyance there’s a level of grit to 7 Day Drunk. Snippets of film show us Kimmings in various different stages throughout the week and whilst the dramatic highs and cold lonely lows are clear for all to see, the main feeling one gets is of her endurance. Alongside funny stories and wacky dances, there is a fittingly sober side to 7 Day Drunk,one in which the consequences of her drinking, other than artistic success, are explored. You get the feeling she’s saying ‘This wasn’t meant to be fun’ even though the finished production is often great fun to watch.

From the off you feel like you know Kimmings. Although she dresses in outrageous outfits, plays with bubbles and unicorn heads and creates magical songs whilst drunk, she seems like a pal. It this sense of connection between her and her audience which makes 7 Day Drunk an experiment that you want to be part of and Kimmings’ is more than happy to oblige. You may get drunk or even snog someone if you’re brave enough to sit in the front few rows.

Artists have long had a relationship with mind altering substances and it’s easy to conclude that anything that makes you less inhibited should help the creative process, free your mind. But the scientific aspect to 7 Day Drunk gives Kimmings’ exploration a level of cold objectivity, removing the romance, and giving things a new twist. There’s plenty of poetry and theatricality to the piece but its backbone is one of facts and figures. This gives Kimmings’ contribution to the debate an added weight. The result is a gently probing piece of scientific performance art that contributes a new perspective to what is oft-covered ground. And I mentioned there was a unicorn head, right?

At Assembly George Square until 28th August 2011