Anne Quail

Visual Artist

A review by Colin Darke

Anne Quail is one of the few performance artists in Belfast who generate significant critical engagement. The performance community in general has a tendency to fetishise its own practice, giving value primarily to itself as a form and eschewing qualitative considerations, in, it seems from the outside, a conscious attempt to place individual works beyond the evaluation processes applied to other art forms. This has resulted in a self-imposed isolation, with performance audiences consisting almost exclusively of other performance artists, the rest of us occasionally glancing in. Quail is a part of this community, but she manages to invest her performance work with an intellectual rigour and aesthetic awareness that sets her apart and encourages engagement from outside the circle.

Sutural Bond Belfast International Festival of Performance Art, Glass Box Gallery, University of Ulster 2014. Images by Jordan Hutchings

On 12th March 2014, as part of the Belfast International Festival of Performance Art, Quail performed Sutural Bond in Belfast School of Art’s Glass Box space. Waiting for the artist to arrive, the audience was seated in the School of Art’s foyer, outside the performance space, which was empty apart from a number of white helium-filled balloons with white threads hanging down, each weighted by a single sewing needle. The ceiling of the glass space was filled with these balloon-clouds and our gaze passed through the vertical lines of precipitation to the dry streets outside. A sheet of drawing paper was placed on the ground.

Sutural Bond Belfast International Festival of Performance Art, Glass Box Gallery, University of Ulster 2014. Images by Jordan Hutchings

Quail entered carrying a paper package, which she laid on the floor and opened, revealing its contents - an amorphous mess, wet with blood. As she worked this object throughout the performance it revealed itself to be a placenta. This was removed from a sheep and refers to the dangers of infection being passed to pregnant women from sheep during lambing season. This reflects, as we’ll see below, a theme which runs through Quail’s work - the fragility of the human body and our attempts to avoid, or heal, such ailments that it may encounter. The performance, then, harks back to the artist’s recent pregnancy and delivery. And even takes us a little further back, when one considers the visual correlation of the white balloons with their tails of thread and the race for fertilisation.

Sutural Bond Belfast International Festival of Performance Art, Glass Box Gallery, University of Ulster 2014. Images by Jordan Hutchings

One by one, through a long, slow process, Quail took each needle and stitched its thread into the placenta, in the hope of raising it with the balloons. The awkwardness of reaching for the dangling needles with her one free hand - along with the potential for bursting - made for anxious viewing, the audience sharing the artist’s evident discomfort. The attempt at lifting the placenta was achieved only to a limited degree, the weight too much for the limited pulling power of the balloons.  Quail helped the process along, raising it into space between floor and sky with her hand, at times stretching it open with her fingers, to display the translucent membrane to the audience. The performance left on the paper a residual drawing of smears and drips of placental blood.

Sutural Bond Belfast International Festival of Performance Art, Glass Box Gallery, University of Ulster 2014. Images by Jordan Hutchings

Anne Quail is, with this work, operating in the metaphysical tradition within western Christian art of considering the nature of life and death and of Heaven and Earth. Her undertaking to raise the life-preserving placenta to the sky is an attempt at reconciling the two planes of existence, tragically only achievable at the end of earthly life, through the ascension of the soul.

El Greco - Assumption of the Virgin, 1577

In medieval (pre-Renaissance) representations of Heaven and Earth, the artist’s job was fairly unproblematic - a simple above-and-below was sufficient to convey the two, God’s hand often appearing through clouds, breaking through the otherwise hermetically separated dimensions. Applying frescos to the inner dimensions of a church provided a convenient device - Earth on the walls, Heaven on the ceiling. The simplicity of these solutions echo those arrived at by any young child, whose painting of a house sits on a green stripe at the bottom of the paper, under a blue-stripe sky at the top, the nothingness between unconsidered. Even with the development of naturalist representation of the miraculous, over the period of two centuries or so from the beginning of the Renaissance, artists decided to relinquish an element of accuracy and opted for this childish acceptance of the existence of nothing between the earthly and the heavenly, particularly in depictions of the assumption of the Virgin (by, for example, Titian, El Greco and Rubens). The secularisation of art, of course, removed the issue, although it made its surprise return in the abstract expressionism of Adolph Gottlieb.

Adolph Gottlieb - Untitled (Red Burst) 1969

In attempting to stitch together the two irreconcilable dimensions of Earth and Heaven, of birth and death, Quail collides the material and the spiritual, the process which forms the basis of the body of work exhibited in her solo show at the Arts & Disability Forum throughout May 2014, cure i us. Following her exploration of the warning to pregnant women to avoid sheep during lambing season (which sounds like a myth, but is actually sound advice based on medical evidence), cure i us considers various popular cures for minor ailments, many of which have been passed down over generations.

Handwritten Cures for Warts, Arts and Disabilty Forum, Belfast, Window installation, 2014. Images by ADF

Perhaps the most familiar of these, and the one with numerous regional variations, is the cure for warts. Quail included in the show large handwritten notes given to her outlining methods for their disposal, including the one familiar to me:

rub warts

with half a potato

then bury the potato

As the potato rots


A second insists that the potato should be buried at midnight and another substitutes bacon for the potato. The fourth consists of making a wish during a funeral mass. At a talk at the gallery, one participant said that as a young man he had rubbed his wart onto a corpse as it lay in state at a wake, telling us that his warts were gone within days. This belief in the transference of the act of rotting of dead matter to unwanted living matter is an extension of the basis of much superstition - the notion that if circumstances surrounding an event are repeated, then that event will reoccur. Quail says of her approach to these pieces, “With this exhibition of works I am trying to tap into this sensation of faith, not only through the ritualistic actions and materials but also our aesthetic encounter with them.”

Catch a Live Fish (cure for whopping cough) 2014. Video still

This cleansing of the body via the abjection of another, triggered by a wish/prayer, is referenced in the video piece Catch a Live Fish (2014), in which Quail, facing us, repeats the instructions: “Catch a live fish”/ “Cough in its mouth”/“Put it in the water”/“Hope it will die”/“You will be cured”. The face and the voice are recorded separately and are mostly out of sync. Occasionally she loses control of the voiceover and the words lose their meaning. At one point, for example, the first phrase becomes “cattle eye fish”. To regain proper use of language, she applies stress on certain sounds - “CATCH a live fish”, “Catch a LIVE fish”, and the words again become intelligible. Paradoxically, this verbal stressing implies the voice of one insisting on the truth of something which is clearly a concocted fallacy.

Extraction Cure 2012. Video still

The portrait-formatted video Extraction Cure (2012) was played backwards, a series of materials flying upwards from the triangular form at the lower part of the screen. The resolution of the film is the revealing of its object, Anne Quail’s nose. The various substances are ostensible means of removing blackheads, including toothpaste, oats and syrup (that I could recognise) and perhaps ginger, yoghurt, sugar and flour (that I thought I could recognise). The gradual separation of the incongruous mixture and the subsequent revealing of flesh had a strangely erotic quality and the skin covering the little mountain was reassuring in its raw prettiness.

Nettle Sting Cure 2012. Nettle Sting video still

Nettle Sting Cure 2012. Dock Leaf video still

There is some debate whether the subject of Nettle Sting Cure (2012) is myth or reality. I have hitherto always accepted the misconception that the acid contained in stinging nettles could be countered by the alkaline in dock leaves. Looking at the arguments, however, this argument has no basis in the truth regarding the chemical make up of these plants. Quail’s twin videos, of nettles being dragged along the underside of a forearm and of dock leaves being used to treat the stings, appear to show some evidence of the truth of the erroneous theory. Rubbing any cool object across a rash, however, might produce the same effect.


The real answer, of course - to this and all the apparent cures presented in the show - is the placebo effect. The rituals and the apparent restorative properties of the substances are manifestations of faith - relied on for so long before medical science was accessible to any but the wealthy elite. The works in the show, then, continue Quail’s enquiry into the relationships between the corporeal and the spiritual, the abiding desire to bridge the yawning gap between the reality of Earth and our fabricated Heaven.