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Keni Davidson - An obituary

Keni Davidson – performance and theatre maker, artist

Born September 3 1965; died November 23 2018

Keni Davidson, who has died aged 53, was arguably the most avant-garde theatre artist to have come out of Scotland in the second half of the twentieth century. Fiercely uncompromising, free-spirited, mercurial and at times wilfully self-destructive of his own talents, Davidson couldn’t or wouldn’t fit into a mainstream system bound by box-ticking exercises designed to stifle or shut out anything beyond its bubble. Despite this, in his early years working as an artist at least, he managed to navigate the vagaries of arts bureaucracy to some extent, and left behind a unique if barely seen body of work which became the stuff of legend even as it was all too fleetingly being shown.

Today, recognition for that work is slowly but surely trickling its way outwards into a collective consciousness that will eventually and inevitably recognise Davidson as a major artistic force ahead of his time. If he had been around a vibrant artistic underground that fused form, content and environment, he might have fitted in enough to be feted and to flourish, just as he might have bloody-mindedly resisted being part of a scene and fled from it.

Either way, no-one was doing what Davidson was doing in the 1980s and 1990s, certainly not in a newly styled cosmopolitan Glasgow. His performances took place up hills or in venues where he would plant a field of wheat or else fill it with soil. He would put a donkey onstage with a child in ways that blurred the lines between life and art as he shook up otherwise passive audiences.

There was something both primal and holy about Davidson’s work, with its conceptual chaos leavened by a painterliness which had broken through the frame, sometimes smashing it as he went. Such works were drawn, consciously or otherwise, from Antonin Artaud, Tadeusz Kantor and Joseph Beuys as much as his beloved James Joyce. Arts producer and founder of NVA Angus Farquhar likens Davidson’s work to Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel, producer Steve Slater, who worked with Davidson at Tramway, to Andrei Tarkovsky. Actor Tam Dean Burn, who Davidson collaborated with over a decade, calls Davidson the last modernist.

Like all those named, Davidson created visual poems made flesh, and which lived and breathed with a messy and organic glory. What now looks like an umbilically linked canon of raw, no-holds-barred works used performance in a way that is commonplace now among visual artists, but which also rooted itself in a theatrical tradition Davidson both understood and kept his distance from.

As a consequence of this, Davidson didn’t fit easily into either box, so few producers in Scotland knew what do with him even if they could rein in a reckless and at times volatile nature which at times alienated him from the individuals and institutions who championed him. At its heart, Davidson’s work was both unique and uncategorisable, with Davidson himself a one-off creation moulded in his own image.   

Kenneth William Daniel Davidson was born in Glasgow, one of three children along with his brother Gordon and sister June to Gordon and Margaret Davidson. He grew up in Oban, where he attended Oban High School before going to Lomond School in Helensburgh. Davidson went on to the University of Edinburgh and then to Glasgow School of Art.

Davidson’s earliest sightings as a performer were during the early days of the Beltane Fire Festival, revived on Calton Hill by Farquhar and Test Dept. Farquhar remembers Davidson as one of the ‘Red Men’, smeared with scarlet body-paint and “embodying pagan and bacchanalian archetypes. He had a beautiful body to move with, lithe and with the energy of a tiger, with his haunted fiery eyes he seemed utterly possessed and truly owned the ritual life he created in those early years. At one anarchic Beltane he and another red scaled the pillars between the circular Dugald Stewart monument, taking himself three or four metres up the vertical lines with flames licking below. It was an unbelievable act of strength and vision of embodied madness. That's how I'll remember him, up above the monument on fire, driven by a demonic energy, cackling with laughter.”

Davidson embarked on a series of one-off performances in clubs, flats and the likes of the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, where Slater, then the venue’s performance co-ordinator, recalls Davidson previously trying to blag his way into events for free. Once Davidson made it onstage himself, Slater remembers one early show, in which Davidson “managed to smash his face open and blood was pouring everywhere, with the audience visibly shaken. This would have been around 1989 and the AIDS crisis was still pretty fresh in everyone’s minds. Ken carried on performing regardless, blood-soaked and glorious.”

Davidson listed more than 100 credits for himself in various guises over the last three decades, be it as writer, performer, director, choreographer, film-maker, artist, curator or consultant. His presence alone was enough to conjure up something shamanic and disruptive in equal measure.

It was at Tramway in Glasgow where Davidson’s work gave him something resembling a profile. This came by way of a ten-year project under the company banner of Process [Ten 28], which brought to life chapters from James Joyce’s novel, Finnegans Wake, as a series of site-specific interpretations. There were nine such episodes, with each featuring crucial sound design by John Cobban. Tam Dean Burn, with whom Davidson formed a fertile creative alliance, appearing in them all.

“I did really revel in the jobs Keni gave me,” says Burn, “and loved that he would create amazing landscapes for me to play in, both indoors and out.”

Burn’s then eight-year-old son, also Skye McDade-Burn, appeared in two works, Lessons at Battersea Arts Centre, and Shem, performed in the ballroom of a disused arcade as part of Cleveland Performance Art Festival in Ohio.

The first of Davidson’s Wake-inspired creations took place over four and a half hours. The second, Here Comes Everybody, saw Davidson grow a field of wheat on the then derelict site where the home for Scottish Ballet now stands. At one point during a meeting with Slater at Tramway, Davidson proposed to set fire to the iconic Peter Brook Wall, built by the legendary theatre director to help accommodate his epic production of The Mahabharata, which was the first piece of theatre to be seen in the former transport museum that would go on to become one of Glasgow’s most iconic venues. Davidson’s proposal wasn’t taken on, and the wall is still there, but its audacity summed up an approach that took no prisoners, however sacred.

Hill took place in the woods of Cathkin Brae in Castlemilk on Midsummer Night, and saw a four-year-old and a two-year-old sporting angel wings and toy swords leading Burn, a reluctant donkey and the audience on a procession towards a panoramic view of the city. And so it went, with other works presented at the National Review of Live Art at the Arches, or else on a walk that began in a cemetery in Transylvania.

Back at Tramway, the final piece, past Eve and Adam’s, involved a cast that included Burn and Citizens Theatre actor Derwent Watson, as well as Davidson’s best friend Jimmy Donoher and his young son Danny. There was also a cat, a chicken and a horse, 36 tonnes of sand and a crate of Guinness. More work followed, at the New Foundry in London, in a graveyard in Moscow, and on a residency in Japan.

Davidson founded Kabaret Uh-Huh, a series of events that took place in the Tron Theatre’s Changing House space, and which featured radical compendiums of performance-based work that recalled the spirit of the Dadaists original Cabaret Voltaire club. Performances and exhibitions followed, both in spaces such as the Transmission Gallery and Old Hairdressers in Glasgow, or else besides beaches or on mountain-tops. A series of performance texts drawn from material presented at the likes of the Foundry and Zero One Gallery in London was published in 2013 as Karaoke City. Live footage of these events are astonishing documents of Davidson at his most visceral.

It’s no secret that Davidson was the prime inspiration for Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, director Stewart Laing and writer Pamela Carter’s fictionalisation of a radical theatre director whose work was too radical to fit in anywhere. In his CV, Davidson also stated that a character in Alan Warner’s novel, Morvern Callar, was based on him. Laing and Carter’s creation was told through monologue and a series of ingeniously constructed films and artefacts, and for those aware of Davidson’s work, his influence wasn’t difficult to spot. In real life, however, that work was moving increasingly underground to the point of invisibility.

Laing remembers Davidson as “a major Scottish theatre maker. The work he did at Tramway and elsewhere was completely visionary and individual. Keni was making his own radical new work, involving amazing and original images that burned into your consciousness. The scale and ambition of that work was vast. It is a great shame that Keni wasn’t recognised as the visionary that he was. On a personal level I always found Keni intensely intelligent, vulnerable, genuinely struggling, and sometimes beaten down by the effort to get his work taken seriously, but still believing in his own artistic drive. Keni always wanted to talk about art. He inspired me and I will always be grateful to him and his memory for that.”

At the time of his passing, Davidson had found a new lease of creative life with connections established at the University of Glasgow. As a core member of the Radical Film Network, which was based in the University’s Film department, he joined a group of activists, artists and filmmakers in developing an alternative, experimental film culture in the city. He also produced a series of live film essays to accompany their events. The success of these led to him collaborating with the University’s David Archibald and Carl Lavery on their experimental performance project, Glasgow Glam Rock Dialogues, of which Davidson became an integral part. Their most recent Dialogue took place the week following his death and was dedicated to his memory.

Davidson had also recently been awarded a scholarship to conduct a practice as research PhD at the University. His research, supervised by Archibald and Lavery, involved a philosophical interrogation, through Gilles Deleuze, of Artaud’s concept of the ‘Body Without Organs’. By all accounts, staff at the University were excited at the prospect of the new work that he was developing there. He was also an enthusiastic member, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the University’s ongoing Finnegans Wake book group.

As with all his work, Davidson went beyond theory. He lived and breathed what he learnt as he absorbed it, every inch an artist in whatever he did. Not everyone could deal with that, and Davidson’s passing raises questions about how artists who don’t fit in with prevailing orthodoxies are treated by the gate-keepers to resources that might otherwise empower them. How Davidson’s work might have developed is a mystery as ripe for dissection as much as everything he already achieved. It is vital that the archive he left behind must now be preserved, cherished and shared so that a new generation of non-conformists can shake things up as much as he did.

Davidson is survived by his mother Margaret, his sister June, two nephews and two nieces.

The Herald, January 8th 2019

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