We might just forgive you if you’re unfamiliar with Ellen Angus from her 8-minute, Red Lady performance at Parliament Square on 19 January 2019, which coincided with the Women’s March, and garnered both national and regional media coverage. We sat down with one of Nottingham's own to chat about the meanings behind her art...
If you haven't seen the red dress performance, your chance at redemption presents itself in acquainting yourself with Angus as she returns with her own exhibition, which commenced on non-Brexit day, 29 March 2019 and ends 14 May 2019 in Växjö, Sweden. The exhibition showcases dancing, painting and video installation; and playing with themes of break-up - Ellen alludes to “Brexit, uncertainty,” and tapping into the psychology of all that...
Walking into artists’ studios I’ve driven past many times before without a second thought, I’m greeted by the enigmatic Ellen Angus, and she welcomes me in with a much-needed cup of tea in the communal artists’ kitchen, along with small talk of her heritage…We then move into her studio space, where I’m confronted by ‘the red dress’ - the renowned / notorious red dress of her Parliament Square delivery. I want to jump straight into this subject piece, but refrain, knowing I best familiarise myself, before I lunge in without contextual grounding…
Niceties exchanged, I finally ask, “what’s your cultural background, and how does it inform the work you’re doing?” Ellen reveals she grew up in Nottingham, and that growing up in Britain does inform her work – in the sense that, there’re a lot of things about living in London compared to other places that she’s lived, like Berlin and Sweden, where aspects of frustration, regret or sadness, in perhaps the way things both work and don’t work here, probably come into play.
Intrigued to uncover and explore underlying frustrations, I ask, and Angus elaborates, that the work she’s been making since her studies at Chelsea College of Art has been “explicit, radical performance work; and that, that interesting mix of lots of different things, in the sense of how women were vilified for being promiscuous within a historical context, but also within a contemporary context, such as female pop artists and YouTube pop videos,” informs her art practice. And that writing critically about promiscuity and shame, and the Leak performance group she was with, was fuelled by discontent, and the 2012 political climate of harsh financial cuts, along with being at an institution with left-over vestiges of a class system, which also had a lack of female voices in prominent positions - presenting a hierarchical, gender problem.
Ellen reveals that her feminist prism, on the exploration of sex politics, arose from the non-deliberate things Leak was interested in, in that: “how social control works on the individual; and the feedback link between social control and then the individual...and the way in which we merge - how we’re influenced by culture, and how we feedback into that at the same time.” She shares that, “in a way, it’s amazing that all these young women are calling themselves feminists,” and yet, she’s somewhat uncomfortable with how this third wave feminism is quite commercial. But then again, “this bit of bandwagonism is a lot healthier than other band wagons…It’s about creating an environment that’s progressive enough to allow all people to do the things that they want to do.”
Upon exploration of how Angus’ own version of feminism looks, she cautiously states that hers is one about “individuals within society, striving for a kind of equality that allows one to thrive as an individual, as well as a collective whole…” (hallelujah! My girl! I was sold!) ... and she elaborates that her “feminism isn’t just about thriving, it’s also about creating an environment where one feels safe, and there’s a collective, supportive, good space to be in community warmth,” akin to our non-ferociously competitive, Nottingham art scene…
she’s somewhat uncomfortable with how this third wave feminism is quite commercial
When discoursing what her work aims to say, Angus explains that “it’s more a questioning - mainly a psychological, introspective question, which includes questioning desire and objects of desire – but evidently, it’s not trying to change people’s perspectives; it doesn’t necessarily have an aim.” Angus’ work incorporates poetry, performance, video installation, and painting, with the use of signs and symbols, for example, The Hackney signature logo of that borough council, which recurs in a lot of her work – perhaps an homage to the time she lived in Hackney. This is inspired by “how one can sell / brand a place - in that, the hugely gentrified Hackney, and how it’s perceived by people living abroad...the idea of how you create the idea of a place.” This reminiscence was conceived while she was living in Emu, and kept evolving while there.
Finally succumbing to my intrigue borne from national media coverage of Angus’ Red Dress performance, I jump in to ask about it; and Angus informs it derives from an idea she had about performing in Parliament Square, inspired by her formative crawling performances. She states that her “interest in the act of crawling stems from the psychological groundings that hint at shame and promiscuity, but also at the same time, it’s something that’s quite defiant because it does something that’s quite socially abnormal and uncomfortable to watch: stepping outside of a role you normally have as a human being. But it’s also something that’s quite liberating. And yet, you put yourself at a lower, submissive level than others around you at the same time. Crawling plays with the power structures that it normally upholds - it feels both defiant and submissive to crawl. It hints at promiscuity, and madness, but also humour and resilience. But probably most importantly, it allows one to step out of a role they’re normally assigned to…I get to be a little less human and a little more animal-like.” Angus informs the reception from the public, her impromptu performance at Parliament Square received, was that of off-guard Brexit reporters who were very much in her intuitive, zoned face character.
Given the current, politically saturated climate, I enquire whether Angus’ work comments on it, at which she replied, “the uncertainty of the political climate, is something that’s quite overwhelming, and it creates a heaviness where you want to crawl.”
Ellen shares that her work is influenced by things that are slightly perverse - she cites artist, Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic dolls, and Egon Schiele with his intensely raw erotic drawings of prostitutes. I see these influences in excerpts of Angus’ March 2018 solo Swedish exhibition, 'Darling You Will Always Win', showcasing the overarching theme of obsession, "or what drives a love obsession…they are all things that I experience - but they are not exclusive to me…they’re some things that traverse all humans…that’s why I find psychology so fascinating…and making art about those things…" The obsession in that exhibition is represented by the repeated use of signs and symbols associated with themes such as self-objectification: dressed in black underwear and torn tights, dancing provocatively for 20 hours to the same song…Looking around Ellen’s studio, I notice a recurring symbol in her paintings, which she explains is a representation of Clapton Pond – where her ex-lover used to live. Inference of obsession with an ex becomes an apparent inspiration in her work – a proclamation of vulnerable authenticity that I greatly admire and respect.
To avoid frittering her efforts on only securing monetary gains, Angus has come to the realisation that she really, truly enjoys what she’s doing; and has made a mindful decision to focus on creating the art that she enjoys. And that, “if this is as good as it gets, then this is pretty good.”
Find out more about Ellen Angus and her art on her website.