If you don’t know Monster Chetwynd by name, to be honest I don’t blame you. Born Alaila, she grew up as Lali, morphed into Spartacus aged 33, became Marvin Gaye until April this year — and now she’s Monster. “I’m pleased with the new name,” she tells me. “I suddenly became this engulfing, monstrous blob that meets people and engulfs them, so I think it really suits me.” Despite her numerous transformations, Monster’s not a shape-shifter, but arguably the most revered British performance artist of our time. She’s been Turner Prize nominated, and her works have been permanently housed by the Tate, Saatchi and the British Council to name but three. When I meet her, she’s dressed in a makeshift tin-foil bikini and gasping for air and water after what can only be described as a energetic and thoroughly erratic performance in the middle of Antwerp’s Central Station.
“It’s about energy,” she explains — the piece, that is. “I worked out a really elaborate performance as a way of sort of disarming people, of tricking them into having a discussion about Green politics and alternative energy sources.” This trickery harks back to 2011, when Free Energy Workshop was first conceived for the Hayward Gallery. It’s now been revisited and revised as part of Experience Traps, a collaborative exhibition at Antwerp’s Middelheim Museum. Like most of Chetwynd’s work, it’s WTF with a side of fun that leaves viewers — or rather participants — either entirely perplexed and uncomfortable, or wholeheartedly immersed. I found myself the latter, as I thumbed through a photocopied booklet about futuristic wind turbines, my reading routinely interspersed by mechanical ballet dancers, live music and a (very good) karaoke-esque rendition of Danish classic Vi Kan Ikke Leve Alene by a 6ft-something Adam Christensen wearing hot pink stilettos.
So where’s the link? “Fun gives you energy,” Chetwynd elaborates. “You know when you go out dancing or when someone tells a joke and you get naturally energised — no one really thinks of that kind of quantifiable energy.” It’s clear Chetwynd is genuinely enlivened by the prospect of green energy and she just wants to get people on her side. “People still don’t know about it!” she laments, and she’s right — I’ve never even heard of half of the futuristic-looking inventions printed in her hand-out. “The people who are interested in alternative energy still aren’t able to get solar panels so easily — people are still using car batteries!” she exclaims. “This is real kind of DIY — like Mad Max-ish, botched together, hands-on making. It’s quite un-sexy and still really relevant.”
Even if immersive performance workshops aren’t your thing, Chetwynd’s intentions are honourable and her enthusiasm is contagious. “Do you even know about Tesla?” she asks excitedly. Chetwynd wants everyone to know about Nikola Tesla. “He’s egocentric and wonderful, and he was in love with a dove, did you know!? He’s maybe only known for the inventions that were gloriously out of reach, but Tesla did also make things that worked.” And even if Chetwynd’s vigor isn’t something shared by the general public, it’s emphasised by her team of performers, half of whom were part of the original work back in 2011. “It felt amazing that when I rang round everyone, they all wanted to do it,” she explains. “And there are some new additions too — who I met yesterday — and they’re great.” It’s something that has always characterised Chetwynd’s work: an overwhelming sense of fun and energy akin to being part of a school play or dressing up for a costume party. That’s not to say that Chetwynd’s work is amateur, but her tin foil, papier-mâché, face-paint dreamlands conjure a sense of childish glee in anyone who’s open-minded enough to give in to them.
But, along with her new name, Chetwynd’s got new projects on the horizon — many of them film-based. “It’s less tiring than dancing around!” she admits. She’s also giving life to many of her old props — bits of ‘toxic skin’ made from rubber, for example — by mounting them on wooden panels. “It’s been a sort of breakthrough,” she explains. “A lot of curators have been like, ‘Oh my god, she’s put them on a panel!’ Now they know how to handle them.” The folding house Chetwynd made for Free Energy Workshop will also be on display at Middelheim Museum for the next ten years or so, and she’ll be performing a brand new work, Pomegranate Promenade in the park in August. She’s also got a flood of international commissions and tells me she’ll be gracing us Berliners with her presence at Nele Heinevetter’s art space, Tropez, at Sommerbad Humboldthain later this summer. It’s an apt time, it seems, for Chetwynd’s beastly name change. “The monster is engulfing the world,” she says. “I’m going to eat the world.”
Experience Traps is on display at the Middelheim Museum’s sculpture park in Antwerp until 23 September.