Putpocketing performance - 1st Singapore Biennale . Singapore/London/Berlin
Tommy Angel is a marvellous feat of illusion. Appearing on the one hand as a fictitious gospel magician in an ongoing series of black and white photographs bearing his name, and on the other as a potent zeitgeist of evangelical fundamentalism that rears its ugly head within the political landscape of our time, Jonathan Allen’s artistic alter-ego Tommy Angel is a creation of consummate disguise and conceptual conceit. And like all good disguises his influence is most potently registered through the use of images, as much as by a manipulation of them.
In Tommy Angel #4 , a ‘headless’ performer wears a glitzy white stage-suit and stands against a black-out curtain. He proffers a silver platter, upon which appears to rest the magician's self-decapitated head, a reference to Christian depictions of John the Baptist’s beheading, and particularly to those that took the form of theatrical miracles, as commonly enacted in the tradition of the European medieval mystery plays. In Tommy Angel#8 , the magician's rictus-grin is mirrored by a ventriloquist doll of Christ, a saviour-puppet (or puppet-saviour) that brings to mind Christendom's long history of technology-assisted miracle statuary. The evangelist-magician's bible spews forth flames in Tommy Angel #1 , yet itself seems to resist the fire. Such images interrogate the ways in which visual and religious truths have relied on the effects of stage-crafted illusion to illustrate information for deceptive gain. While Allen’s work self-consciously foregrounds this stirring relationship, it simultaneously parodies how the potential for deception finds usage in the hands of today’s evangelical preachers and crusading politicians. As the West remains fixated on the iconography of Islamic fundamentalism, Allen's photographs portray fundamentalism’s Christian face.
Tommy Angel #16 [2006- ] is one of a series of related performances in which Allen acts out the photographic persona of Tommy Angel in live magic shows that elusively document the fictive space which the magician primarily inhabits. This inversion of photography's traditional documentary relationship with performance draws audiences into a layered perceptual field, on the one hand manipulated by a seductive illusionist and the tricks of his trade, on the other confronted with a live performer whose existence and contingency are born out of photography's own illusiveness. While many of Tommy Angel's performances take place on the cabaret stage, in Tommy Angel #16 the magician's performing presence is felt more intrusively, if less visibly, his narcissistic portrait appearing as the presidential cameo on a series of fictitious bank-notes which are secretly 'putpocketed' into the possession of the public. The work was commissioned originally for the first Singapore Biennale, within a city where both street littering and religious controvertion are heavily policed. In response, Allen/Angel, together with a team of working pickpockets, criss-crossed the city, distributing Tommy Angel's unsolicited evangelical propaganda to an unsuspecting congregation. Through their miraculous circulation in Singapore and beyond, the notes recall the calculated strategies powerfully inscribed across the histories of Christianity and magic to promote belief. Upon their discovery they point to the omnipresent influence of evangelical intrusion sinisterly at play in the public domain.
[Revised text - Sharmini Pereira, curator. originally published for the 1st Singapore Biennale 2006]