BANNER 

still from material balance by louise adkins for between

still from material balance by louise adkins for between

still from material balance by louise adkins for between

still from material balance by louise adkins for between

Stills from 'Material Balance', Photographs by Jonathon Purcell Photography

Material Balance, 2012

‘Material Balance’ was commissioned by the Cornerhouse as part of the ‘Between’ programme of performance art commissions. ‘Material Balance’ the performance re-enacted game 3 of the 1972 world chess championship between the American Bobby Fischer and Soviet Boris Spassky. The performance was simultaneously recorded, relayed and exhibited within the gallery space alongside the live action. Adkins worked with Jake, Dan and Ben Morton three local junior chess players on the recreation of this most famous chess match.

Dr Nigel Hurlstone wrote the following text to accompany the performance.

Screens from the Cold War.
In this work, Adkins presents the third game of the 1972 World Chess Championship, between American Bobby Fisher and the Soviet defending champion, Boris Spassky. Positing itself as re-enactment, the work deliberately disrupts the usual assemblage of detail typical of the kind of contemporary historicism that informs the protocols of it. Adkins’s choice of game for this re-enactment could hardly be more perverse. At the request of Fisher himself, it was positioned offstage and only transmitted to the audience via a small CCTV camera. As such, it is a moment that lacks the witness and type of spectatorship prevalent at all other times during the tournament. Whilst the technical chess moves can be easily chronicled and replicated, nothing much else remains. The re-enactment can therefore never be more than a fictionalized construct of the gestures, emotions and sequences that might have been made during the ebb and flow of the game.

Further attempts at distancing this re-enactment from the protocols of authenticity are demonstrated in her choice of players. Three young boys take the place of the much older Fisher and Spassky, and the arbiter Schmidt. Whilst adept at playing chess, what they present is essentially a set of technical moves that have been learnt by rote. Key dramatic turning points in the match have been choreographed by Adkins and are acted out before an audience that forty years ago were denied the human spectacle of play. Moreover, the context in which the players compete and the audience watch displaces events even further from the origin of the initial event; we are in Manchester rather than Reykjavik, and a modest gallery space stands in for the Laugardalsholl arena.

Writing about re-enactment, Tony Horowitz has discussed the notion of the ‘period rush’- a momentary illusion of actually being in the past, in which re-enactors wish the fiction in which they are involved to become real.(1) Adkins’s re-enactment has no such ambition. Instead, it nods towards events of the past but makes no attempt to present anything more than a factional interpretation of it.
The idea here seems not to be about offering the viewer a transformative experience, but to point to a moment in history and mediate on it. All historical events ultimately become changed by the act of telling and recall, and thus are inseparable from myth and legend. To re-enact implies a repetition of the original, yet this in itself is an impossibility; re-enactments can only ever be a response to one (or many) possible historical interpretations. As such, they can only ever be a product of the contemporary imagination, and in turn, serve to de-stabilize the original event even further. This in itself is no bad thing; it prevents the exclusive ownership of history and guards against the inherent dangers of singularity.

Re-enactment may be seen as a useful form for challenge in other ways too. Lev Manovich posits its emphasis on the immersive experience as an “alternative tradition,” to dominant modes of representation in contemporary culture; namely screen based, two-dimensional representations.(2) Interestingly, Adkins’s re-enactment deliberately targets the moment at which the physical presence of the chess players is offstage and only witnessed by the audience via a screen-based image of the game. Adkins re-unites this fragmented experience into a unified one by bringing the players and audience together again and therefore stages a moment based on a proximity that never was. The audience in this re-enactment are therefore just as much players as those standing in for the chess champions themselves and are subject to a parallel choreography.

The original tension between the audience and the players however cannot be replicated. We are separated from the cold war anxieties that gave this match its legendary status to begin with, and the outcome is already known. Instead, the audience and players are immersed in a different kind of tension; that of witnessing the mimicry of game playing. In this way, it deliberately occupies and points to the more formal rituals of theatre present in any form of re-enactment. Whether actor or audience, we all necessarily have to be complicit with the notion that we are here to step outside of our daily lives for a moment and imagine our capacity to think and feel beyond the parameters of our own performative existence. The fluid and playful nature of Adkins’s work thus makes clear that this form of art can never serve as a minute taker of history or as a lens through which we observe the past, but from a marginal position, it can contribute small, yet significant acts of difference that reflect the genre back onto itself, and then onto its audience.


(1) Horowitz, T., ‘Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War’, Vintage, New York, 1998, pg. 7.

(2) Manovich, L., ‘The Language of New Media,’ MIT Press, London and Cambridge MA., 2001, pg. 112.