Born in South Shields (North East England), Nicola has been performing and showing work nationally and internationally since graduating with a BA in Fine Art from Northumbria University in 2007. In the same year she met Kris Canavan, now her husband, and has since created a series of collaborations which test the constraints and boundaries of their intimate relationship. After giving birth to her son in 2008, Nicola was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalopathy which affects the brain and central nervous system. The illness nearly always results in a severe reduction of a person’s ability to cope with all aspects of normal daily living, resulting in Nicola feeling smothered by her own body while her mind is forced to stay still.
While Canavan investigates the paradoxical complexity of living with an ‘invisible’ illness, she also explores the feminine, political and the spiritual body which are interwoven with personal experience. Canavan’s practice is rooted in action based performance and spans live work, documentations of its products & traces and the re presentation of these in other form. Canavan acknowledges and resists the sacred and divine by entering the flesh and installing symbol through the modification and manipulation of her body. She searches for ‘Self’ through abstraction and pursues rituals that transcend the body.
Canavan has been performing within programmes such as Momentum Festival (Brussels), ]performance s p a c e[ (London), Inbetween Time Festival (Bristol), City of Women (Ljubljana) and SPILL Festival of Performance (Ipswich). She has collaborated with Photographer Predrag Pajdic (http://thepandorian.com/the-pandorian-shop/beneath-the-shadows-book/), Photographer & Film Maker Manuel Vason (http://www.manuelvason.com/news/?p=300), artists Kris Canavan (Husband, www.kriscanavan.com) and Ernst Fischer (http://leibnizlab.co.uk , and has recently been awarded the Arts Admin Bursary and also the Artists International Development Fund in 2012 from ACE and the British Council to work on an 18 month project with Berlin based Artist Jon John (http://www.jonjohn.net).
There is an inherent contradiction between the physical demands Canavan places upon her body and the stillness that is matched by the slow passage of time. As the words unfold and the relationship between body and identity are defined, she slowly untangles the woven intricacies of her mind to seek solitude in the images that she creates.
Nicola Canavan is an amino associate artist (http://www.amino.org.uk).
I met Nicola several years ago after a Ron Athey performance in Manchester. We were in a very noisy bar which wasn’t the best place to talk about her work and the way it had changed after she had her son, but we tried to.
When I returned from that trip I looked up Nicola’s performance and body work and found it to be stunningly beautiful in its deliberate stillness. However this beauty isn’t window dressing to add glamour to potentially disturbing acts of self exploration; the beauty comes from experienced and studied intensity communicated through very powerful, transformative and transgressive art.
Could you tell me about the work you create and the motivation behind it?
The work I make is an amalgamation of symbols taken from my life experiences and a socio-political protest. I hope to question traditional ideas of beauty while challenging my own body’s boundaries and functionalities. All my life I have suffered with a negative relationship with my body. I was an overweight child, who had problems with food and allergies and was always ill. I was bullied until I was a teenager for the social anxieties caused by these issues. Suffering with an eating disorder, I self harmed from the age of 12 or 13 years old and , it wasn’t until my fine art degree I finally started to confront my relationship with my body. Although I had been making personal and performative works even in GCSE art, ,it wasn’t until I was in my 3rd year at university I found artists like Kira O’Reilly, Ron Athey and Marina Abramovic, amongst others, who really opened my eyes, and made me see that I wasn’t alone and that people had been making work using the body for decades. I found performance was a therapy; it was my chance to turn something completely awful into something beautiful and positive, and it was the beginning of a journey.
Is this motivation purely artistic/creative and focused on effect and impact, or is there an underlying spirituality to your work? If so does this spirituality have a specific form?
I have always been a spiritually orientated person. I was completely engrossed in religious ceremony, across all the borders; the dance, music, ornaments, the beauty and sensual overload of it all. I have also always found myself close to nature; in awe of animals and the beauty of all flora and fauna which surrounds us. I was interested in positive and negative energies and forever questioning social and political roles. My focus still remains in these energies; the vibrations we carry and how we can induce/seduce those around us with our projected sensibilities, and how we, as human beings can use the body as mechanism to embrace the forces surrounding us to travel into and out of ourselves, it is a raw, pure and beautiful experience which is somewhat transformative for all involved.
My marrying of symbol and transcendental action gives stead to a projection of a gentle power, of forgiveness and of giving; I hope my artwork gives space for the audience’s questions and to find a moment of peace within themselves.
Were you brought up within a specific religious or religious structure?
Nothing out of the ordinary. Church of England schooling, the Brownies and Guides as a young girl. My sisters and I were read the bible by my Dad at bedtimes but my parents were always offering information on life, nature, politics and religion. I remember my Mum taking me to Buddhist meditation classes and thinking, ‘what is this’? I tried my hand at being a white witch around the age of 11, being interested in sending energies out into the world and was enticed by ‘spells’ and burying personal items in return for love and guidance, it was all so romanticised, but a good focus at that age.
Do you think that your art work has changed you?
My practice is a product of frequent self renewal; it is evidence of a sort of living metamorphosis. It reminds me of my own growth and self awareness. I don’t think my art has changed me, as my ‘art’ is part of me, they are journeys and experiences. I am lucky that how I choose to communicate gives scope for something larger than itself and is ever expanding and connecting with other people.
Of the art and performance pieces you create, do you feel that the work you do which uses blood has a greater effect on a deeper level (both for you and your audience) than pieces which don’t have it as a component? Or is it impossible to make that sort of judgement call as an overview?
90% of my work since 2004 has in some way entered my body, and nearly all has been executed with the results lying in body trauma, vomiting, piercings, blades, hanging off door frames… It started to use the materiality of my body more so after 2006-2007 then from 2008-2010 I showed none in my live work, this was the period where I had just became a mother and felt that I needed to give myself some time without showing red, although that’s only during the work, as afterwards there is always this action of the cleansing of the body, a spiritual cleansing. ‘Untangling’, 2010 was regarded as a peaceful action – but for me one of the hardest, the soil I was submerged in had frozen through overnight so my body was faced with below freezing temperatures, and I had 8 labia piercings and 10 back piercings – but the only real trauma seen was by those assisting, I was close to going into hyperthermic shock and the blood cleansing afterwards was quite overwhelming.
I think this can really only be answered by the individuals who have encountered my work and their experiences of life and of the particular work they are witnessing. Some people do connect, and some don’t. For me performing to and with people has its own deepness and otherness which in itself is a blessing. Without these opportunities to experience I’m not sure who I would be or how I could communicate.
What I am interested in now is what blood means to an audience and what are their expectations of me as an artist after 8 years of blood work, there feels like there is an expectation or desire from those whom follow my practice, so I am now interested in subverting this and finding an alternative language which still evokes a strong vibration and energy within and through participants.
In some magickal groups, children are not allowed to be involved in or be near rituals as the bond between a mother and child is considered to interfere with the focus needed for the woman between herself and that/those she is working with. I don’t think this bond is considered to be in terms of responsibility and duty but something deeper than that which goes beyond the emotional and physical.
When you had your child did the nature of your work and your approach to it change?
My work certainly changed as the perception of my body changed and the relationship we had went through a complete overhaul. It moved from pushing my body’s boundaries to regarding it as a sacred place – working with them rather than against them. I finally saw what the female body could do and recover from. It was such a mind opening experience.
From 2008 – 2010 I struggled making work, the concept of being a Mother, responsible of this tiny little baby, to continue to make the work I was making (body trauma) and then to return with wounds for him to see was unbearable, I felt like I was cheating myself and him from a truth. I was in pain, unable to communicate, unable to access other artists, to understand the feelings I had. There are so many assumptions and judgements made of you as an artist who is a mother, Selfish, not providing. It has been a hard battle to come out of the other end, I have wanted to give up so much and fall into socially normative routine. My work has been regarded recently, as not being with the times, not being political, which is preposterous! I am part of the struggle that females, women, mothers, grandmothers are facing every day. My abducted body, my abstracted body, is a space that has been inhabited, it was temporarily not mine, and still is not mine, It is still regarded as my husband’s or my son’s – it takes a lot to break away from that, even in 2013! The fight has made me stronger, have a deeper awareness and higher places to aim.
I know that you have struggled with illness. How does this impact on your work?
I suffer with a condition called Myalgic Encephalopathy, which shuts down the body at its own discretion leaving me unable to walk or function normally. After I did ‘When Rivers Run into the Sea’ I couldn’t get out of bed for 3 months. While travelling with my work I rarely see more than my hotel room. I struggle, 2011-2012 was a hard period, juggling motherhood and an illness like this left me living on a very basic level, but after 2 years not venturing much further than nursery and home has enabled some recovery time and I now successfully manage my baselines, I still don’t function to normal level but I’m confident that I can manage the elements in my life well, and hope to continue to manage and even make a recovery.