Art Beat - Sandra Johnston

Performance artist representing Northern Ireland at the Venice Biennale

Born in 1968, Sandra Johnston recalls the first four years of her life in a wooden cabin, its interior dimensions divided into two by a single partition.

Her father’s family were farmers and her mother’s were butchers; both families’ origins rooted in Co Down. Parsimony restricted childhood toys to whatever could be found lying about the yard necessitating creative play and resourcefulness.

Johnston’s parents diversified from agriculture into dealing with machinery, which transformed the playground into one of deadly fascination. On one occasion her sister succeeded in starting a combine harvester enabling Johnston to feed sticks into its lethal maw. An indication then of the type of artist Sandra Johnston was to become.

When, through the just rewards of a sustained Protestant work ethic, Johnston’s parents became affluent both sisters were packed off to Hunter House School in Belfast. Johnston was seven. The scholastic environment turned Johnston into a highly motivated achiever but despite the establishment’s attempts to groom her for university academicism, by the age of 12 she ‘lived’ in the artroom. A poster for an exhibition of Picasso’s sketchbooks illustrating his virtuosic diversity of visual language made her dramatically aware of the dangers of monolingual style and the excitement of pluralism.

In 1987 Sandra Johnston enrolled on the fine art foundation course at the University of Ulster in Belfast, determined to be a painter. Wrenched out of the safe haven of boarding school and plunged into the alienating waters of art school was a harsh introduction to isolationism and how to cope with it. Johnston erected a barrier of boards onto which she painted with ‘idiot energy’. Her tutor, Joe McWilliams, advised her to apply to Kent Institute of Art and Design. Here Johnston specialised for three years from 1988 to 1991.

Back in Belfast she joined the master of fine art course at the University of Ulster taking up residence in an area of east Belfast controlled by paramilitary rule. When her maternal grandmother died Johnston tried painting her from memory but trauma blocked her visual recall so strongly that she discarded her tools in frustration. 

Painting had failed her. She turned instead to a process of reconstructing a portrait by sourcing the objects and personal items her grandmother used in daily life. Johnston re-enacted her grandmother’s actions and relived childhood memories of helping make sausages by binding her hands with sausages, recording this ritualised act with video. 

This failed to satisfy the profound sense of loss she felt: a more penetrating act was required. She cut both wrists letting the family blood – her grandmother’s blood – flow from the fingers of one hand and run up her other arm drawing forks of a red family tree – a tree of life. This too was committed to video, later shown to staff and students. Johnston had, despite deep anguish, crossed the terrifying chasm between intensely private actions and those she was willing to expose in public. Johnston had become a performance artist.

Life under paramilitary surveillance and protection forced her to question the priorities of public space. And a sectarian attack in the Short Strand left her violated, angry and agoraphobic. In 1994 she was invited to participate in Irish Days 2, a tour of Irish artists to Berlin and Poland. Johnston took a slide installation, To Kill on Impulse, to show in Berlin but when the tour moved on she courageously left it behind forcing herself to rely on whatever materials and situations she might find in Poland.

The Witches Tower in Ustka impacted instantly upon her feminist sensibilities compelling her to locate her first public performance there. Scouring was cathartic: an act of weeping through excessive salivation as she bent over a tiny hole in the top floor. Her dribbles of saliva and blood ran down a cord through an alignment of holes to the ground floor into a bowl of sump oil which could never be digested by enzymic reaction alone. This 55 minute performance communicated her impotence and pathos as well as releasing pent up emotions.

On St Valentine’s night 1997 in Enschede, at a point between the civic and seedier area of the city centre, she kissed a bench from mid-night to one o’clock. Her highly-charged and aggressive enactment left a mass of lipstick traces on the grimy surface: a commentary on the hypocrisy Johnston felt was evident in Dutch society where a façade of liberalism masks intolerant conservatism.

A Project Art Centre commission in 1998 resulted in a major public performance focused on the Ormand Hotel, Dublin, and Room 112 in particular. Finding the room with traces of the previous occupant, Johnston requested staff not to clean it. Her 24-hour occupancy of this room, her examination and imagining of the anonymous previous guest recorded on video was later broadcast in the foyer on the night of her rooftop performance. This two-part work, Reserved, established a structure which Johnston has applied to twenty works including: Hannah’s Room, Sheffield, 2000; Room 423, Helsinki, 2001; Room 9, Porto, 2001; Room 10, Accident & Emergency Waiting Room, New Cross Hospital, 2001.

The 24-hour period spent in a room is described by Johnston as a Sourcing Action – a time for absorbing and collecting data. She no longer records with video her actions in the sourcing environment but keeps a written time-line. After her Sourcing Action Johnston climbs back into her skin and rests for 24 hours before making a performance of variable duration in an art venue often in the same town as the room, an environment that is never directly experienced by her audience.

Johnston has a forensic fascination for peoples’ lives, their intimate detritus and essence. In 1996 she made a series of private walks wearing her mother’s clothes after she had buried them for two weeks. Three years later Gaining Distance, Arthouse, Dublin, 1999, made while wearing her mother’s dress, created an iconic dialogue between mother and daughter through a complex arrangement of movements.

A need to form close working relationships with other artists has led to collaborative projects. In 1993 Johnston co-founded Catalyst Arts in Belfast, which persists. In 2001 she collaborated with Pauline Cummins and Frances Mezetti in the Appearances Project, a series of live art works which enabled each artist to enter a zone of creativity they would not have been able to go into alone. 

Broad Daylight, Johnston’s contribution was ‘about the prejudices of mental geography’ which ‘indicate my concerns with temporality, territory and permission, which, to date, run through most of my work’.

Drawing has been the ‘backbone’ of her practice since schooldays when it was analytical and naturalistic. Now its automatic and performative linear gestures signal a determined freedom from authority and a singular sense of purpose.

Peter Haining

Further Reading

Dialogues (2005) by Katy Deepwell, IB Taurus.