Clown Time is Over, Time to Take Cover in Natasha Bourke’s film Concrete Keys

Sarah Long

Don’t you love a farce? My fault, I fear

I thought that you’d want what I want, sorry my dear

But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns

Don’t bother they’re here1

Natasha Bourke, Concrete Keys (2022). Film still

Natasha Bourke’s film Concrete Keys unsettles. Shot in the former site of FÁS, an office-style block in Cork City, the film follows Business Clown, a masked figure in a jester-like costume caricatured by a clipboard and heels. We watch the zany antics of ‘Business Clown’, played by Bourke herself, as she wanders the institutionalised setting of that imposing Brutalist structure before its demolition. With Bourke’s extensive background in performance and circus, these gestures and movements are the most compelling aspect of the film.

The film is heavily stylized, with vignettes, title cards, and an absence of dialogue; it echoes the era of silent film. In fact, Business Clown unwittingly caught in the machine of capitalism is strongly reminiscent of one of the most famous films of the silent movie era, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). As with Chaplin’s work, there is a use of comedy to present the tragedy of the plight of the institutionalised; and also similar to Modern Times, the tragedy is confined to the title cards. Business Clown, while ostensibly more autonomous than Chaplin’s tramp, is equally ignorant of the bureaucratic and repetitive nature of the world they are entrapped within.

To see someone who does not see is the best way to be intensely aware of what he does not see.2

Much like how Roland Barthes hailed the Tramp character as an exemplar of base human habits, Bourke’s performance as Business Clown equally exposes us to the farce of corporate life and institutionalism.

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times (1936). Film Still

Business Clown is derived from  Bourke’s character Coneface, whom she has developed over her practice. Coneface is masked by a cone-like shape that resembles the beak of an oversized crow. In Concrete Keys, Business Clown totters around the building engaging in rituals such as typing furiously and opening doors with oversized keys.

Business Clown is joined by a series of other cone-faced characters who she presides over at ludicrously long lunch meetings. These characters, such as A Deviant Twin and Selves, occupy solitary quarters of the building, obsessively engaged in acts of repetition. Their hapless and futile fate, mirrored with the oafish cumbersome quality of their costumes, perhaps reads more like a Samuel Beckett version of a clown. Absurdity combines with nihilism as we encounter these characters while away hours at work.

Given the history of the FÁS site, as an old tax office and then artists’ studios, these characters are disturbingly comparable to creatives at work in their studio isolated in their singular pursuit and joining the cogs of late capitalism. The building is like a strange version of Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, where individuals learn the rituals expected of them.

Photograph of a 2013 production of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (1953)

The figures that populate the building are all characterised by their masks. They echo the archetypal clown Pierrot, the famous character from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. The moonstruck and fantastical clown is a symbol for putting on a mask to hide one’s true feelings or opinions.

Masquerade! Hide your face, so the world will never find you!3

Bourke’s concealed characters resonate with the work of Gillian Wearing, a an artist whose practice has embraced masks as a central feature. She strives to reveal the disconnect between inner life and public persona, examining the superficial aspects of how we relate to one another and how we are always performing. Bourkes characters ask a similar question to Wearing’s work: who are you when you are not performing?

Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait (2000). Framed chromogenic print

Referencing two musicals in relation to Bourke’s film is no coincidence, as there is something spectacle-esque about Concrete Keys. It calls to mind Barthe’s remarks on the spectacle of wrestling:

…wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result. Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.4

Bourke’s film seems to contend that life under the corporate nature of late capitalism is similar to the circus of wrestling as described by Barthes. We go through the motions of what is expected of us, passion is an artifice to be constructed without meaning, and our lives and feelings are to be dictated to us.

When describing Chaplin’s Tramp, Barthes makes a comparison to Bertolt Brecht’s socialist approach to depicting humanity:

Brecht alone, perhaps, has glimpsed the necessity, for socialist art, of always taking Man on the eve of Revolution, that is to say, alone, still blind, on the point of having his eyes opened to the revolutionary light by the ‘natural’ excess of his wretchedness.5

It has been decades since Chaplin presented us with the image of the Tramp who could not grasp the absurdity of their situation and yet Bourke’s film situates us at the eve of revolution, once more. In the words of Elvis Costello, ‘Clowntime is over/Time to take cover’; in other words, it is time to become cognisant and aware.6

1. Stephen Sondheim, ‘Send in the Clowns’, from the musical A Little Night Music (1973).

2. Roland Barthes, ‘The Poor and the Proletariat’, in Mythologies (London: Vintage Classics, 2009. Originally 1957), p. 36.

3. Andrew Llyod Webber, ‘Masquerade/Why So Silent?’, from the musical The Phantom of The Opera (1986)

4. Roland Barthes, ‘The World of Wrestling’, in Mythologies (London: Vintage Classics, 2009. Originally 1957), p. 4.

5. Roland Barthes, ‘The Poor and the Proletariat’, in Mythologies (London: Vintage Classics, 2009. Originally 1957), p. 36.

6. Elvis Costello, ‘Clowntime is Over’, Get Happy!! (London: F-beat, 1980).

This review forms part of Sarah Long’s Critic in Residence at Sirius Arts Centre (2023).

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