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Roxana Halls, “Willkommen”, 2005, oil on canvas

Roxana Halls: oil on cabaret
Attilio Reinhardt | 19 August 2014

Let’s meet Roxana Halls, English painter, winner of the prestigious Villiers David prize in 2004, and charmed by the Berlin cabaret. In this interview she talks about her project Roxana Halls’ Tingle-Tangle, that was exhibited at the Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London in 2009.

First of all, let’s talk about the title of this exhibition: Roxana Halls’ Tingle-Tangle. Why is your name part of the title?

The decision to incorporate my own name into the title began, in the latter stages of the Tingle-Tangle project, to be a very logical means by which to describe the choices that I had madein developing this work.

It was my intention from the beginning that the work I produced would be a personal response to the art of cabaret performance, that while I was primarily preoccupied with the milieu of 1920′s Weimer Berlin, it would not be limited by the confines of any specific period, rather that it would be informed solely by that which I found most subjectively resonant in the extensive research I made in my preparation for the project. As you may imagine it was agonising to have to choose who to depict, so rich is the pool of artistes across the whole incredible history of the art form, and had I made this work at another time I may have made other choices.
I came to realise that what I was ultimately engaged with was the construction of 
my own private cabaret theatre, and that in making the decisions & choices I made I had effectively become the Emcee, costumier & prop-maker of own troupe.

What was the first inspiration for this topic?

Roxana Halls, “Grit and Ina Van Elben’s Tingel Tangel Machine”, 2007, oil on canvas, collection of Katherine Parkinson

Theatre & performance have always been inspiring for me, and much of my work is embued with a haunting ‘backstage’ atmosphere. My studio is based in the saloon bar of an old South London theatre, and while I had been working in the space for several years before commencing the “Tingle-Tangle” project, it was only a matter of time before the ambience of my surroundings were to inspire a fully realised project.

In 2004 I won the prestigious 
Villiers David Prize, an award intended to enable an artist, nominated by a prominent London gallery, in my case Beaux Arts, to travel & undertake research in the hope that it would inspire them to create new work. It was then that I decided to use this opportunity to travel within Europe & see as much cabaret as I could. I was fortunate in my timing as cabaret was just at that time enjoying a renaissance, in my own city also.

The first character of your Tingle-Tangle is an Emcee, then in the next paintings we meet several other artists. But just two of them really existed: Grit e Ina van Elben. Why you’ve chosen to portrait them?

Well, I’m afraid I must contradict you there! Grit & Ina van Elben are indeed some of the only actual 1920′s Berlin cabaret performers, but there are others who are based upon real acts or people associated with the scene.

Mrs Irma Powell is an invented name to stand as a pseudonym for my interpretation of a very real puppeteer, Mrs Muriel Talbot, and the Britannia Marionettes are in fact her own hand-made puppets which she made in the 1950′s & 60′s & performed with across the UK, on television & even for the Royal Family.

Terina the Paper Tearer was an English music hall performer who appeared on stages across the country. The model for Mrs Irma Powell saw her as a small child & described her act to me, which was in reality quite unlike my own version. An artist friend of mine found mention of her act upon doing her own research at the Magic Circle in London.

I found mention of Masculinum/Femininum as Weimar performers, but sadly never found an image so had to conjure them up for myself.

Roxana Halls, “Mali und Ingel’s”, 2008, oil on canvas

And Mali & Ingel were the proprietors of a very lively lesbian bar in 1920′s Berlin, known to be popular with performers of the day, including I understand, Claire Waldoff herself! 

Some of the other characters have stage names like artists from a sideshow: another inspiration, along with circus and, maybe, a bit of Méliès cinema. Please, tell us about these different sources of inspiration.

It’s interesting that you have noted Méliès as a possible inspiration. While it wasn’t a conscious one it’s certain to be true that he is just one among miriad artists I looked to while making this work. I don’t think there was a book or film or image of an artwork I was able to obtain that I didn’t absorb. Peter Jelavich’s Berlin Cabaret was my starting point, but from that point on there was more than I could mention. From Brecht & Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins to of course The Blue Angel, Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic, Lisa Appignanesi’s The Cabaret, numerous UFA, Pabst & Lang films, the list is endless!

Your Tingle-Tangle seems to be staged in a 20’s Berlin cabaret, but several paintings include elements of the subsequent decades (some costumes and the make-up of the characters). Why you’ve chosen to include them and how you’ve succeeded in maintaining a thematic coherence?

In making my choices for performers in my cabaret my guiding principle came to be determined by how best to describe the narrative arc which came to be the defining thread of the whole enterprise, and it is this arc which brings the troupe & their acts together, from whatever period in time they came.

In viewing this body of work you are the sole audience member of an evening’s cabaret show from curtain up to finale. What transpires as the lights illuminate & the show begins is 
a mysterious developing story which encompasses notions of gender, sexuality, identity & spectatorship. The female performers, while at the beginning are only disembodied legs only partially revealed by a lifted fold of curtain, become increasingly ambivalent about their roles, and ultimately have perhaps seized their autonomy to such an extent that they threaten the very fabric of the cabaret itself.

In creating these paintings I used precise consistent lighting for each piece, embuing them all with this strange theatrical glow. The fact that I made most of the props, sets & costumes myself perhaps adds to the sense that these disparate performers are all somehow part of the same enterprise.

Mali und Ingel’s characters seem to pop off from a poster to reality. But that reality seems to be just sketched. Why are the characters leaving their world and what’s going to happen to them?

The painting “Mali und Ingel’s” appears at a crucial stage in the show’s narrative, the point at which the performers are beginning to literally break through the confines of their expected roles & out of the backdrop itself.

When the ‘Tingle-Tangle’ pictures are seen in order as a whole, they are deliberately placed as a counterpoint to Grit & Ina’s identical, satirical chorus-line. Each of the characters at Mali und Ingel’s bar are mannequins bursting out of a shop window, the only real women are the proprietors themselves, revelling in their ‘patron’s’ self expression. On the floor is a small compact mirror in which is reflected a face, intended to stand as a glimpse of the viewer themselves, posing the question, where might you find yourself among these characters?

Roxana Halls, “Terina the Paper Tearer & Inferna the Human Torch”, 2009, oil on canvas

Some of the Tingle-Tangle’s characters are a bit disturbing. Maybe the eeriest are Terina the Paper Tearer and Inferna the Human Torch, that are tearing and burning human shaped papers. How were these characters born?

Much of my work is tinged with a certain dark ambience & sinister humour & so here in the Tingle-Tangle‘ pictures I gave that tendency full expression. I’m secretly glad that Terina & Inferna appear to be the most unsettling ladys in the show because they are both self-portraits!Terina as I’ve previously explained was a real English music hall performer, but Inferna was my own creation. During my travels I found an extraordinary dress, as you see in the painting, with red lace and painted flames, and knew I had to try to develop a character who would be a match for this most unusual garment!

Terina & Inferna appear at the culmination of the evening’s entertainment. While Terina is forming paper shapes which all in some way make reference to each of the previous acts, Inferna is determined to destroy them. There is even the suggestion that Terina is utilising the very backdrop for their act itself in making these shapes, threatening the very cabaret itself & revealing a glimpse of a partially destroyed city beyond.

The image which we see on this backdrop is taken from a surviving photograph of a Weimar cabaret audience, their identities concealed. I deliberately used this image to suggest that at this point in the show, the viewer cannot be sure who is the performer & who is the audience, and hope to suggest that they might question to what extent they may be complicit in having constructed a performative identity of their own?

All the acts portrayed in the paintings seem to be set on a big stage. But in the last painting the show is ended, leaving a tiny stage and just one empty chair for the audience. Is it the magic of the theatre?

Yes, indeed it is the magic of the theatre, the impossibility of what has just transpired. This image is also intended to underscore the sense that what you have witnessed is perhaps your own cabaret show, and that your response to the evening’s events can only be your own, subjective & ultimately solitary.

The setting for this scene is my own studio, the Regent’s Saloon bar.

The Tingle-Tangle exhibition has a parallel project: a photographic series created in collaboration with photographer Matthew Tugwell. Please, tell us about it.

This corresponding series of images was born out of the desire to fully utilise the wonderful exhibition space where the project was first shown, The Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London, but came to feel like an integral part of the whole enterprise.

In these images 
the performers have wandered alone in the ‘backstage’ spaces of the faded but beautiful & strange 1920′s now defunct theatre in which I have my studio.

The atmosphere of this building came to seem like a perfect backdrop for these characters, each of them discovering their own perfect domain.

In several others of your paintings we can see velvet curtains, masks, costumes, wigs and other similar elements from theatre. Why does the theatre fascinate you?

From my earliest days I have found a fascination with all things theatrical, and as a child up until I discovered oil paint I was determined that I would one day become an actor. All such ambitions fell away as soon as I first painted, and since then there has been nothing which could captivate me in the way that painting has and continues to do & I have a deeply felt commitment to the painted image & all that it can achieve.
I think in almost all of my work the common theme is a certain pregnant anticipation & a sense that what you are witnessing is poised on the cusp of change, 
an atmosphere akin to the moment before the curtain rises.
Be it cupcakes & crockery flying through air or impossibly balanced on the verge of toppling to women seemingly suspended in their airless cocoons or turned away from the viewer perpetually on the verge of turning towards us, my subjects exhibit the potential for transformation and evolution. In my work such endings are forever postponed & the curtain never actually falls.

The catalogue of the exhibition "Appetite" by Roxana Halls.

Please, tell us about your next exhibitions.

My forthcoming show, Appetite, is to be exhibited at Hayhill Gallery, Baker St, London from the 26th August to the 27th September 2014.

In this new project, my female protagonists can be seen in a variety of modes ranging from private reflection to absurdist gluttony, leaving behind unmanageable emotional excesses, freed from overwhelming fears & open mouthed in anticipation of a feast.

While I am sceptical of straightforward narratives of self actualization, these images could be read as different stages in a life’s cyclical return to phases of stasis & engagement: some figures are seemingly frozen or constrained while others suggest an escalating desire for abandonment. Like the performers of
 Roxana Halls’ Tingle-Tangle, the women of Appetite are ultimately unafraid to be considered indecorous.

Here’s a short film by Martin Perry about Roxana Halls’ Tingle-Tangle.

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