Naked and Unafraid: Performance Artist Millie Brown Walks Through The Fire Before Welcoming Us Into Her Immersive, Fragrant Plant Orchestra

Written by

Hannah Bhuiya

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With an endurance-based practice anchored in stretching the limitations of her body and mind, the work of British artist Millie Brown has always been unmistakably, unapologetically bold. Since breaking through as a founding member of London’s !WOWOW! collective, her provocative performances and installations have seen the fearless Brown push her physical form to the edge, variously being suspended as a human pendulum, drowned in waves of paint and sculpted in ice. Perhaps most notorious are her collaborations with Lady Gaga, with Brown vomiting her signature rainbows live onstage and immortalized as a short film on Nick Knight’s SHOWSTUDIO platform.

For 2024, the internationally-exhibited artist designated Los Angeles (where she has lived for several years) to bear witness to her current ideations, presenting two very different events during the always-stimulating Frieze Week. The first was the debut of a video installation at Wienholt Projects at the Desmond Tower on Wilshire Bvld in which a bare, exposed Brown stands burning, her steady gaze beatific as she is set aflame - on opening night, the artist performed the feat live, watched by a transfixed art crowd. The second was the atmospheric ‘Photosymphony Dinner Series 1’ at the Edition West Hollywood in collaboration with natural parfumier ALTRA, co-founded by sister Beckielou Brown. The Edition West Hollywood’s Ardor restaurant was transformed into a verdant hanging garden with custom perfume and plant sounds pumped through the foliage for a heightened symbiotic, sensual effect. Speaking with the artist as she rested up in the Mojave desert in the days after the shows, FLAUNT gets swept up in Brown’s intoxicating, elemental world.

I had the chance to experience two of your universes recently, both of which were immersive and beautiful, but in very different ways. The first was the fire performance and short film at the ‘Interreality’ show. Does this piece have a title?

I actually felt that the fire work, in its physicality, should speak for itself, without having to allocate words or a name to it in that way. The piece is an embodiment of how I, and many others, are feeling in this very crucial moment of time and change. We're going through immense transformation universally; I feel that humanity is walking through the fire right now, right in the midst of a violent transformation, in the flames before we come out the other end. But as with fire, there’s always a cycle: everything that is burnt to the ground adds nourishment to the soil, life regrows anew from that nourishment, it wouldn’t have grown as large, as beautiful, if it hadn't been burnt down to the ground, its grown bigger from the nourishment that has been provided from the ashes and the flames. And so this piece speaks a lot about the immense opportunity and optimism within what I perceive to be a very dark moment, the illumination in the darkness.

The projection of the film literally illuminated the space, and then your live performance, which was repeated throughout the event, took this to the next level. What does it feel like to light yourself on fire in the middle of a room of people?

I have to say it was a little bit more nerve-wracking, if you will, when I set myself on fire for the film, as I was on my own, than during the opening with everyone there. The concept of setting my body on fire has been in mind for about 4 or 5 years. With everything that's going on right now, internationally, not just in one location of the world, but in so many locations of the world, with such immense desperation, such a strong mood of violent transformation, I felt that now was the time to materialize that work. As somebody who uses their body as a means of expression, I wanted to use it in the most intense, but also the most powerful way that I could perceive to use my body.

Just two days before your live performance, Aaron Bushnell, a serving member of the US military, decided to use this form of protest and take it to its final level, which, of course, is self-immolation to death. Several people at the opening night of the show mentioned this to me while looking at your work. What would you like to say about this intense moment in history and the way your performance reflected on that action?

I think of Aaron Bushnell and of many, many others - there was also a man in Congo who set himself on fire in protest just late last year, in November I think. Again, this work is something that was conceived five years ago - it’s not the beginning of this self-evaluation, it’s just getting to a point where it's coming to the forefront. With Aaron bringing that to light a couple of days before my live performance, I had a lot of interesting conversations about the sensitivity of it. Immolating oneself is something so immensely beautiful and powerful, and I do not put myself in the same bracket or compare myself to those who took it to the ultimate end of sacrificing their lives. But if anything, I stand in solidarity with them, and it's a nod to their bravery and what they stand for. To me, it is about the beauty and the
braveness of self-sacrificing for a larger cause. The whole performance is dedicated to freedom itself and to those who stand up and fight for freedom for all. I'm not glamorizing it. It's the biggest sacrifice a person could make. I think if I was of an opposing view, this could be perceived as insensitive or, controversial, but I think it is about the whole interlinked conversation about freedom and self-determination.

This is not your first controversy in any way. Your work is often described as ‘controversial.’ Why do you think this is?

For me, I just like to ask questions. And I guess I don't perceive those questions to be out of reach of being able to be asked, until I ask them, and then from the reaction that bounces back, I realize that those questions are not allowed to be asked. I have perhaps got a heightened, more extreme view on the world and I’m not content with niceties. I'm not content with just painting pretty pictures. I want to speak my truth. I challenge what I'm told, I like to portray what's real. So within my practice, I don't like to ‘boundary’ anything I conceive with pretty little fences to please people, because that wouldn't please me. I don't believe that art should ever have boundaries. And I think we're at a point where art is so boundaried today. We are allowed to celebrate things that were controversial 20 years ago, but anything that pushes the boundaries today, we just censor. Perhaps in another 20 years, we'll put today’s ‘controversial’ works in a museum and say ‘how brave’ they were. I just find that incredibly fickle. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to speak your truth. Art used to be the one method and means of expression that wasn't limited. Now we're getting to a point where even that is just so incredibly shackled, and censored. What’s even that’s left after that?

You use your body as your central means of expression, and you've used it in so many different ways, with different tests of stamina and endurance. To me, your work is always defined by this suffering and deprivation as well as a very strong beauty. Could you say something about endurance and how you use your body, re. previous works and the current work at hand?

I’ve always used my body as my main means of expression. I grew up on a mountain in Spain, and even as a young child, I would make stuff out of sticks and stones. Back in those days, from four years old on, I would already do these performative works with my body, do live shows in front of my mom. So using my body for performance was always a key part of me. Looking back, I think I was super blessed to not be crowded with toys and things, in that instead I used what I had around me, and as the main thing I had was myself and my body, so that became my main means of expression and the tool that I would use. So from then on, there’s been a whole exploration with myself, pushing forward and taking myself to places that I'd never been before and doing it live. And a key element of that is experiencing that exploration together with the audience. For example, the ‘Wilting Point’ performance I presented in Times Square in New York in 2014. I had never refrained from eating for seven days, refrained from speaking for seven days, that was all completely new to me. I was inside a glass ‘box’ surrounded by flowers and plants, and anyone walking past could stop and see me inside, I was completely exposed. So I was experiencing internally what that relationship was with my body and my mind, thinking about what the audience from the outside were able to observe about what that was doing to me, or what they perceived it was doing to me. I'm very interested in the connection of body and mind and how intertwined they are. The more and more I do these works, the more I understand that, truly, the mind is what feeds and controls the body. And if you start something with a certain mindset, your body is going to go along with that.

So let’s talk about the immersive ‘Photosymphony’ dinner series, the first of which was held at the vegetable-based Ardor restaurant at the Weho Edition. The room was bedecked from floor to ceiling with plants, including lush centrepieces incorporating jasmine blooms, wheatgrass and lotus seed pods that spilled out across the table and onto the plates. Natural parfumier ALTRA, whose co-founder Beckielou Brown is also your sister, composed a special fresh, green fragrance diffused out of the plants, complementing her ‘DUALIST’ scent, which was also gifted to attendees. So this was like a teaser, a literal ‘taster,’ to bring the work to life again for an audience?

Yes. For the original 'Photosymphony’ I staged in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 2018, I handpicked each and every individual plant that went inside the installation, and all of the plants were native to Wyoming. I asked each one to become a part of the plant orchestra, had a little meeting with them all and thanked them for their presence. At the residency, the gallery space was attached to a bedroom. So during the time that I was building the indoor plant installation, and then throughout the two weeks of the installation itself, I lived amongst the plants. So there was this whole interconnectivity of my vibration being altered by the plants and then their vibration, in turn, being altered by my vibration which set up this beautiful cycle of vibrational exchange between us inside that environment. I was making my food right there in the installation, I was sleeping attached to and with the plants.

The symphony that resulted - the sounds we heard during dinner, coming from the plants on the table, was unlike any other soundtrack I'd heard before. How does that work?

Basically, the plants are attached to this technology that captures their vibrations and turns them into sonic frequencies that you can record and playback. I wanted to give each plant a few different notes or sounds to play with so that when their vibration alters. will go from one sound to another. And with the dinner, I wanted to have four sonic themes corresponding to the four sections of the table, which were the four elements: fire, of course, with wind, water and earth. The plants at the fire section of the table were choosing from a palette of sounds which included the sound of an actual wood fire, which was amplified, as well as a couple of different recordings from NASA of the Sun. Depending on its frequency, it would choose a different sound, but all within the context of the theme of ‘Fire.’ ‘Water’ was like the sound of ice on a lake that made this interesting alien sound mixed with a slowed-down sound of a waterfall. For ‘Earth,’ it was the sound of us orbiting Earth then mixed with the sound of plants being pulled up from the earth in slow motion. And the sounds of bees buzzing in the air for ‘Wind.’

So plants can actually ‘hear’ sounds and respond?

Absolutely. For this event, I took a new sonic direction from the original soundtrack that I made during the Wyoming residency. There, I was playing the plants more of a classic quartet, violins, cello, which was very interesting, too. In both scenarios, it was a case of being able to hear the plants become self-aware. For example, when I first experimented with this, I attached one plant to a violin. And it just went off for hours, exploring all the different notes. This phenomenon is something that has been recorded and scientifically proven that the plants become self-aware. So they actually begin to ‘play.’ They realize that they're the ones creating that sound, and then they start to really have fun with it, which is hilarious. And that feeds directly into the idea of why I did this, to open people up to the idea that we're all creative beings, we’re one and the same thing, essentially. Also, it’s funny, personifying plants, highlighting the whole idea of plants being able to communicate, because I actually start to freak out and don't even want to eat plants at all... I’d really love to be at that point, but I think sadly, I'm too intertwined in the matrix to be able to separate myself to that level of consciousness just yet. I felt it on a small scale not eating for the seven days of ‘Wilting Point.’ I was so incredibly inspired, I was having visions, and my mental sharpness was like nothing I'd felt before I was just electrically charged, ready to go.

It’s so profound to be able to use technology to be able to translate something that cannot be heard with the human ear. I mean, if we could hear what the trees and plants were saying at all times, we’d probably all go nuts... But to be able to translate plants’ moods and creativity into this sound in the way you have here, demonstrates energetic linkages in such a strong and moving way.

It just brings us back to being more conscious and connected. I think with both of the performances I had over Frieze, for me, and maybe all of my performances ever, one of the biggest things I want people to take away from them is being more connected. Because I think as humans we’ve become so incredibly detached from everything. Whether it's like, for example, being detached from our humanity, watching atrocities happen on the news and kind of hiding behind screens with our opinions on these atrocities. If we just take time to connect with Source, and I think being immersed in nature really helps that in a lot of ways. We’re just able to operate from a way more connected and conscious point, basically.

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Millie Brown, Woman On Fire, Art, HANNAH BHUIYA