Sunday 29 January 2012

vocal portraits

Juha Valkeapää (Finland), Äänimuotokuvia
Inside the Pirkko hair salon, everyday life and work proceed as usual. A chirpy conversation between a hairdresser and a customer, interspersed with quiet laughter, bursts of hairdryer, the muffled clinks and snips of the tools of the trade. A couple of other customers wait their turn, flicking through magazines. On the walls, glossy posters of models advertising products and ‘looks’. This space is also shared with a group of festival-goers silently queuing for another kind of attention to and re-writing of identity. We watch and listen as Finnish voice and performance artist Juha Valkeapää elaborates ‘vocal portraits’ for one person at a time, in a return to the same space he first occupied eight years earlier as part of ANTI 2003.
As each person is invited to sit in a barber’s chair in front of a mirror in one corner of the room, Juha hands them a comfortable black blindfold that temporarily suspends sight and amplifies hearing and internal response. Three pulses of the foot pump at the base of the chair raise the person’s feet slightly off the ground, and then Juha begins to voice a sonic representation, an improvised auditory landscape triggered by … what? The clothing, hair and energetic field of each person? An intuited auratic flavour or feel? As each portrait unfolds, Juha continually changes his spatial relations to the ‘subject’, moving into intimate proximity, then slowly retreating to a greater distance, then close again to the other ear. Throughout this pedestrian choreography – a translated echo of the hairdresser’s own small ‘dance’ - his voice and breath morph dynamically and inventively. Over time they assume a tactile quality, sculpting space, sound and the contours of a self-in-play. The quality of Juha’s conviction and attention to each person remains generous and intricate throughout, his engagement immersive and physically implicated. 
From the perspective of a spectator witnessing these performances from the edge of the room, Juha seems consumed and transformed in the voicing - and yet he remains porous to the sounds and rhythms of these everyday surroundings. He is able, with great fluidity and humour, to dip in to and out of a kind of open dialogue with other voices, the ambient sounds of hairdryer, water, scissors, kettle, cameras, without ever seeming caught by them. As the blindfolded subject of the portrait, suspended in the eye of this singularly unthreatening and virtuosic soundscape, one reads the associative complexity and playfulness of Juha’s vocal composition as the gift of a ‘song of oneself’: the sounding of a personal topography of what one perhaps gives off, contains, or could be. Then, after a final pause and a hydraulic release of the foot pump that frames the performance’s ending like a sigh, one returns gently to the ground - and to sight, the mirror, one’s own reflected image, Juha’s smiling acknowledgement, the audience, the salon, and an everyday that is somehow slightly lighter and brighter.

* Children’s Choice Awards: ‘Most Interesting’, ‘Most Confusing’

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