SummerWorks review: The Red Horse Is Leaving

THE RED HORSE IS LEAVING by Erika Batdorf (Moleman Productions). At Toronto Media Arts Centre, Main Gallery. Aug 13 at.


THE RED HORSE IS LEAVING by Erika Batdorf (Moleman Productions). At Toronto Media Arts Centre, Main Gallery. Aug 13 at 7:30 pm, Aug 15 at 6:30 pm. See listing. Review: NNNN

Part of the SummerWorks Lab series, this is a preview of sorts, as Erika Batdorf and the show will have an official premiere (and longer run) in October at the Rendezvous With Madness Festival. The show’s inclusion in that upcoming festival is appropriate, as the show, as the program listing states, “explores the meeting point of madness and creativity.”

The idea that creativity and mental illness go hand in hand is now passe mental health issues are recognized as prevalent in society in general, and creative workers shouldn’t be expected to suffer (mentally) for their artistic practices.

But in this particular case that of Thaya Whitten, who toured Canada as a performance artist and painter in the 60s the two are hopelessly intertwined, as Whitten is portrayed as someone lacking a support network beyond the prescribed medications scattered around her studio and a few references to unseen nurse visits.

Batdorf bases the show on excerpts from Whitten’s journals and recorded talks, and presumably, from personal experience Whitten was Batdorf’s mother.

Her interpretation of Whitten is that of a brilliant, charismatic speaker, a woman suffering from profound mental instability, and a relentlessly driven artist. That drive is physically made manifest on stage by the Gargoyle (a lithe Zoe Sweet), who stalks the studio’s fringes when Whitten is coherent, knocks over art supplies when confronted by the painter, and wraps herself around the artist when Whitten’s mood is erratic and unfocused.

Speaking of mood, there’s some impressive technology on display here, as the Gargoyle wears a back piece and tail that changes colour and flashes based in part on biometric information received from sensors concealed in Batdorf’s costume. (Over a half dozen digital and design artists are listed in the program.) So when Whitten is agitated, or calm, the colours and flashes of the Gargoyle’s “aura” change.

But the show, of course, hinges on Batdorf’s performance, and it’s a praiseworthy tribute to an artist by her talented progeny. Batdorf’s Whitten engages the audience directly at times, and at others, trails into scarcely audible muttering as she paces her studio, trying to break through her barriers to productivity. She’s both an admirable and pitiable protagonist.

While the (false) dichotomy between mental illness and art is a well-worn storytelling trope, it’s clear from this show that treatment (other than mind-clouding medication) could have enabled Whitten to fully realize her work without enduring, or even embracing, mental illness.

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