Corporal punishment

How much more body-as-living-canvas performance can we take? Who's using whom? By Judith Palmer

Judith Palmer
Thursday 25 April 1996 23:02

Stelarc will not be sewing his eyelids shut. He will not be hanging naked in the sky, suspended aloft from the 16 meat hooks he has inserted into his raw flesh. Been there. Done that.

After a lifetime spent testing the body's natural physical limitations through endurance and deprivation, he's had enough. "The body has become obsolete," he declares. Frustrated by humankind's slow organic Darwinian evolution, the Australian performance artist is now hanging out with machines, redesigning his body by melding his flesh with the latest robotic technology.

This shift away from the stretched, sutured and bleeding body will not please everyone. "What, no surgery?" grumbled the audience at Orlan's latest performance. "I'd have to have an operation a month if I took up all the requests from galleries around the world," explained the French beauty-morph regretfully. With even Princess Diana caught up in the thirst for interactive gore, will Orlan's next invitation come from Kensington Palace?

Italian artist Franko B found the crowd literally baying for his blood after a performance last year. "That wasn't outrageous enough!" they screamed, pursuing him backstage. Franko's performance had left him so bruised he couldn't walk for a week, but no, it hadn't been violent enough. "I told them, 'What you want me to do? Cut off my dick?' "

For some, indeed, it seems that nothing less will do. Austrian actionist Rudolf Schwartzkogler set the standard in 1969 when he took his studies in ritualised pain to their logical conclusion, performed a Lorena Bobbitt on himself, and died as a result. Ever since, performance art has been a bit like Formula One racing, with certain elements of the audience turning up in the hope of witnessing a major wreck.

Totally Wired - the latest season of live art at London's ICA, brings together a wide cast of international artists whose work explores the nature of the human body in today's technological age. For some this means an attempt to transcend the corporeal, for others human flesh is as vulnerable and visceral as ever.

"It won't be the most dramatic event," confesses the Scottish artist Bruce Gilchrist almost sheepishly, describing his commission Divided by Resistance. "There's no catharsis. No blood or effluvia." For the past six months Gilchrist has been wiring himself up every evening to an electroencephalograph and monitoring every nanosecond of his sleeping life. Now he's forcing himself to stay awake for the week ahead, to ensure he'll sleep soundly during his show.

While Gilchrist slumbers, the audience is invited to share in his dreams. Sitting in "the seat of consciousness", audience members take it in turns to zap a button that sends tiny electric shocks to the soles of the sleeping artist's feet, thereby altering his brain waves, and changing the images projected up on the screens behind.

Every morning Gilchrist noted down his dreams, admired the REM wave-patterns zig-zagging their way up his graph paper, then nipped into town to make video recordings of corresponding images.

While he's asleep in the gallery, whenever his brainwaves recreate similar patterns to a past night's activity, a linked computer will dig into its picture library and whip out images for the public from the dream in question - 3 December, a fish-and-chip shop in Kingston; 17 January, a twisty oak tree and a scientist in a white coat; 22 April, the 231 bus to Chiswick. "The dreams were rather banal, I'm afraid," admits Gilchrist. "But there's a unique relationship here between the person awake and the subconscious of the sleeper. It's a new way of eliciting expression from the body, without the presence of the ego."

If zippy little shocks to the feet aren't bold enough for you, how about having a go at tweaking an artist's nose, or jiggling his buttocks.

The buttocks in question belong to Antunez Roca, a body artist from Barcelona and founder member of the provocative bacchanalian troupe La Fura dels Baus. His last installation featured Joan, the Flesh Man, an interactive robot shaped as a life-size human covered in pigskin; but in his new piece, Epizoo (named after a parasite that lives on the exterior of the body of another animal), the malleable figure is himself.

Strapped inside a swivelling metal contraption, the naked Antunez is hooked up to a computer via a system of electrovalves clipped on to each articulated part of his anatomy. The spectator is then invited to animate any of Antunez's body parts at the click of a mouse. The ultimate Game Boy.

The violet and yellow screen graphics are cheery and inviting, bearing 12 different versions of a smiley cartoon The cursor buzzes round his head, like an angry gadfly. Line up the mouse on his curvaceous cartoon posterior, and shiny metal plates deliver a swipe to Antunez's buttocks. Click on his face and thumb your nose at the artist in the most real possible sense. Wiggle go his ears, wriggle goes his nose then... eek! goes his mouth, hideously distorted like a wide-mouthed frog.

The music is jolly, the gestures and grimaces are inescapably comic, but all the more disturbing for that. Oh! his mouth looks so funny, squeaks the audience. Here, let me try. Do it again.

It's scary how easy it is to objectify the body, forget these living statues are human. Is this how the Spanish Inquisitors felt? Or the Neapolitan gallery-goers in 1974 who took up Marina Abramovic's invitation to abuse her at will, slicing off her clothes with razor blades, slashing her skin and holding a loaded gun to her head? Can we wash our hands of guilt and responsibility, just because, in the age-old words, we were only obeying orders?

Queer performance artists Ron Athey (a one-time pentecostal preacher) and Franko B (who was lifted from his abusive family to be brought up in the protection of the Red Cross) both use S&M imagery and actions in their work. "I objectify myself so the body can talk," says Franko.

In performances last year Athey pierced his scalp with dozens of 14-inch lumbar needles to create a crown of thorns, stapled his scrotum and stuck meat hooks through his limbs. I was expecting to find it repugnant and gratuitous, but the tableaux were beautifully staged, the experience redemptive and moving. Even though the audience does not actively participate, however, I was left feeling troublingly complicit. The pain was not inflicted by me, but was it done for me? Sitting passively in a theatre seat, I had done nothing to stop it either.

In the centre of Franko's chest a livid four-inch scar spiders its way between the red cross tattoos, the permanent reminder of his piece, Mama, I Can't Sing, where he literally laid himself open as a metaphor for human vulnerability. On his back, scratched in blood, reads the ironic slogan Protect Me. This phrase, used by the judge in the Spanner trial (about the legality of consensual mutilation), is at the heart of current S&M and Body Art debate - does society have a duty to protect people from themselves?

"You may think the body is a fine canvas to work on, but think again," warns Rachel Armstrong, a former orthopaedic and paediatric surgeon, now collaborating with Orlan and Stelarc. "Legally you do not own your own body."

Pale and balding, Stelarc is no Lee Majors, but he's already halfway to becoming the bionic man. For him the body is "a structure to be monitored and modified" and the next big issue the "freedom to mutate your body". "The question is not whether a society will allow freedom to express yourself, but whether the human species will allow you to break the bonds of your genetic parameters, and determine your own DNA destiny."

'Totally Wired' continues at the ICA until 13 May (0171-930 3647). 'Last Order(s)', an exhibition of objects by Franko B, Unit 111, 134 Curtain Rd, London EC2, until 12 May, Thursday to Sunday, 12-6pm

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