Sue Tompkins’s art is dominated by language whether it is spoken, painted or typed and pinned to the wall. Formerly the lead singer of the celebrated post-punk band Life Without Buildings, the artist is best known for her highly distinctive spoken-word performances where her speech is extended through movement. Tompkins performances are filled with joy and pathos and with the detail of the everyday. Most magically, despite being performed in front of groups, they often seem to be delivered only for you, disjointed words and just-recognisable phrases are uttered with smiling intimacy, like a secret code between best friends or lovers.
Performances such as Letherin Through the Grille (2013), Hallo Welcome to Keith Street (2010) and Country Grammar (2003) are developed over a number of months, with words or phrases collected from daily life, typewritten and filed together until they reach a point where Tompkins intuitively knows the work is complete and the loose sheets of paper are formed into a kind of manuscript. The phrases and idiosyncratic spelling and grammar that make up the finished work become tools of production, defining the pace and rhythm of the performance. These durational pieces (often around forty-five minutes in length) are strictly edited and shaped despite their seemingly freeform style.
Alongside her performance works, Tompkins works with paint, textiles and the typed word using many of the devices found in her performance work, such as ritual and repetition. Text-based works are mainly made on a typewriter on newsprint paper, the size of which means it needs to be folded before it can be successfully inserted in the machine. Once removed, the folds become part of the finished object – a trace of the process of research and production nestled amongst the words. Tompkins’s works in fabric include pieces of chiffon in a rainbow of colours, with zips pinned to them. She describes the zips as representing the act of decision-making. The location of the zip is like a map of this process. This gesture is slight yet it communicates the process of editing an artwork or personal action and of articulating its relationship to the world.