“I process my shit first, then I make art about it” – Kate Lovell experiences Bryony Kimmings’ return to performance at Battersea Arts Centre with I’m A Phoenix, Bitch
Life imitates art far more than art imitates life, or so said Oscar Wilde. But in a show made by the inimitable Bryony Kimmings, her art most definitely mimics life. In her first solo show in almost ten years, Kimmings blasts her audience with a no-holds-barred theatrical journey of her transformation from an ASOS-sequinned party girl to a single Mum managing post-traumatic stress disorder.
She introduces herself as “autobiographical performance artist, at your service”, which is a modest nod to the generosity and skill with which she gives an intensely intimate insight into the most harrowing experiences of her life.
Kimmings has constructed her show around a therapeutic technique used for post-traumatic stress disorder whereby an individual can rewind and replay, to relive, and even alter, until traumatic events no longer hold the same heavy weight of horror. Kimmings sets up stations on stage representing different parts of what happened in her recent past and uses live-streaming cameras to give us a literal close-up of how she changed from, in her words, old Bryony, to new, post-trauma Bryony.
An extremely witty feminist observational facet springs to life via Kimmings’ inner critic who happens to be a white, straight, middle-class, male television executive. The undermining voice mocks her choice of material: “We’ve had enough stories about mad Mums”, citing Medea as his prime example.
Kimmings retorts that these stories of mad women are numerous, by that they are written by men. While the story that Kimmings tells couldn’t be more personal, it is also political. The voice of her own mother guides her, with recorded messages of support played from a handheld dictaphone, while Kimmings completes the circle of maternal strength by recording messages to the future for her own son during the performance.
She brushes away stereotypes that men have plastered upon her in her past: that she is ‘trouble’ or ‘mental’. It’s an urgent battle cry against the vast ocean of hysterical mother or ‘crazy psycho’ girlfriend myths that are recycled in art, too often penned by the demographic she delightfully mocks with her spot-on impressions of macho dick-swinging.
Kimmings illustrates her post-partum psychosis, triggered by her son’s diagnosis of a rare infant epilepsy, in a Hammer-Horror style. She dons long blonde wigs and blood-stained nightgowns, gurns in wide-eyed fear: thunder, lightning and dramatic music abounds. This cartoonish feel brings an unexpected humour to incredibly dark territory. But more than that, the links to Hitchcockian blondes and the trope of a pretty girl on the run from demons remind us that female stories are too often whitewashed by absurd male fantasy.
Kimmings expresses some of the most painful memories of her son’s time in hospital as a tiny baby whilst lifting ever-increasing dumbbell weights, in line with her mantra “I am strong”, chosen in therapy. Kimmings stages her trauma, as well as voicing her present anxieties, before an audience, night after night, and does so with humour, acerbic observations and power. This feminist roar of a show is aptly housed in the re-built BAC Grand Hall; both building and woman have risen from the ashes, wrought by the flames, but far from weakened.