Grisly glimpses and compulsions

The Oregonian, May 13, 2005

By Victoria Blake

Although its ostensible subject is the anatomy of murder, the real theme of performance-art group Liminal’s show at the Portland Art Center this month is the human fascination with death. Part farce, part ministry and part Hollywood thriller, “The Resurrectory” blurs the line between art and viewer, proving its point in the process: We watch the grisly and the grim because we want to understand.

The Liminal players use the story of 16 murders in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1827 and 1828 as the show’s organizing theme. Presented with spoken word, orchestration, visual art and dance, it’s a testament to the skill of the artists that the show doesn’t fly apart at the seams.

“The Resurrectory” packs the center’s small gallery space to create its idiosyncratic world. A video loop of a dripping drain is projected on the wall, the detritus of turn-of-the-century crime investigations litter desks and cubby holes; like a barn, the gallery floor is covered with aromatic hay. One player is costumed in an apron, a bustier and a tail made from latex medical gloves, while another wears a shift that looks like a burlap sack. The total effect is overwhelming and odd—a mix of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Sherlock Holmes—each detail adding a little patchwork to the mystery and madness of the whole.

Although viewers are invited to wander around the space anytime during gallery hours, the real magic happens when the actors/dancers/singers offer audience members the opportunity to explore the circumstances behind the real-life murders. At the far end of the gallery, separated from the main hall by a plastic curtain, a “records keeper” files crime reports and points to the locations of the murders on a map. 


In the main room, a sloping wedge of a stage is used to re-enact the murders. At the other side, in a lecture hall space marked off by a plastic sheet, a monklike figure officiates over a “corpse,” a human-shaped mound under a white sheet that doubles as a video projection screen. The monk chants a scientific-sounding jumble over the eerie chords of a quartet of musicians playing electronic instruments.

The twin centers of the performance are the stage, where the murders take place, and the lecture hall, where, through the monk’s chanting, the corpses are sublimated from flesh to soul. Gathered around the stage, the audience watches as victims are violently done in. Re-created with an in-your-face immediacy, the murders are presented like dance, an intimate, and often beautiful, interaction between the powerful and the powerless. Eyes bulge, screams are stifled and—through watching—the audience becomes an accomplice in the crime.

The creators of “The Resurrectory,” overloaded with both talent and smarts, recognize that the desire to watch comes from the desire to know. But, the Liminal players take the audience one step further: They help us to understand our desire by forcing us to become involved.