Ellen Bell: Performance Practice

New to performance, artist Ellen Bell has embarked on a series of sewn-writing performances. Her experiment subverts the notion of stillness and quiet reflection, explores the boundaries of private and public and reflects on her professional practice.

23 November 2017


I’m new to performance. Aware of Will Self’s writing residency at a pop-up gallery in Soho in 2000, his real-time narratives inspired by the audience watching him, and Tim Youd’s typed renditions of his favourite novels, my first venture was Oubliette, a sewn enactment in Oriel Davies’s Drawing Room. Like Self I wrote the day’s events unfolding before me, with the added constraint of doing it in cross-stitch, sitting corseted and crinoline-d on the floor.

Having stipulated that in aping a stereotypical nineteenth-century needlewoman I’d remain silent, I’m not sure what I expected to happen. Some evidence of curiosity or personal association? In fact, apart from a series of small children coming to stand in front of me, I was largely ignored.


Ellen Bell, Oubliette, 2017

What had rendered me so invisible? Was it my gender-laden activity, or the fact that the public had become inured to live performance in white cubes? I need to do this out of the gallery, I’d thought as I’d stitched; why not try it on the Tube?

I’d come to sewing out of crisis. A toxic mix of the death of both my parents, a halt in sales after the downturn and a flit abroad left me, and my practice, formless. Embroidery, and particularly cross stitch with its amateurish, kitsch connotations, was to me the antithesis of the expressively-vigorous, ego-laden art to which my work had had to compete in countless art fairs. I went to it for comfort. It grounded me. I set myself time-consuming, impossible tasks, embarking on cross-stitching Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in English and then in French, a process, like Youd’s, of intense reading and writing.

I went to London to trial two ideas. The first was to perform sewing on the Underground, the second to embroider a cross-stitch kit of van Gogh’s Sunflowers in front of the painting in the National Gallery. I’d intended to sew Jenny Diski’s writings on the Circle Line, but soon found that a simple line of stitches was all I could manage. Fellow travellers reacted with a studied indifference, except for one woman who beamed at me and another, an American, who’d said, Nice. Earlier a man had asked my partner, does that lady know you’re photographing her? She’s my wife. Yes, he’d said, but does she know?

Sewing Proust

Ellen Bell, Sewing Proust, 2017

Of the two my National Gallery foray was the most surprising. A continual magnet to mostly Asian tourists who posed and gesticulated before it, van Gogh’s painting had metamorphosed into a bizarre floor-show. I embroidered amidst it all, my only audience being a young Chinese girl who sprawled next to me, entranced.

Internalised entrenched art school paradigms make me ambivalent towards my current practice. Watching myself performing it in public expiates the discomfort. It makes me high. And though applications to perform at a car assembly-line and a City futures company have met with an intractable negative, I continue to plan further sorties such as sewing Proust in a local Dementia Home and performing before other publically-hung Sunflowers.

Sewing Sunflowers

Sewing Sunflowers, National Gallery, 2017

About Ellen Bell

Ellen Bell is an artist based in Wales. Her drawings, installations and sculptures are informed by ideas surrounding intimate communication through the written and spoken word. 

Ellen Bell's Artist Profile on Axisweb >

Performance Practice II >

Performance Practice III >

See Ellen Bell's selection of other artists work for Category of the week - Textiles

Twitter: @textbelle