Transformations of the flesh
Performance stills from The Last Vestige performative exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Curated by Thea Mai Baumann as part of her Asialink Residency with A Little Blah Blah.
Original Photo Credit: Peter Stuckings
In 2007, I was invited by curator Thea Mai Baumann to exhibit in a performative group exhibition The Last Vestige in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Baumann curated the exhibition to engage ideas of hybridity and mutation on a post-apocalyptic island – its form a junk boat, sailing down the Mekong Delta River towards a new world. I exhibited together with four artists - Alice Lang, Madeline Allen-Cawte, Madeline King and Vivian Hogg.
Transformations of the flesh, 2007, focused on the performative element inherent within the laboratorial creation of biological artworks, in which the experience of the process-as-practice is as integral as the artistic forms which result from it. The work involved a darkened cabin, lit only by small light-boxes hanging on the back wall. As the sole performer I was seated on a clinical white platform, covered, like the rest of the room, in clear plastic that glistened in the light.
The performance involved dissection, and therefore engagement with, the freshly killed bodies of frogs and squid purchased from the main food markets in Ho Chi Minh City. The animal corpses were visible during the entire piece, piled on top one another in a stainless steel ice bucket next to the dissecting trays. Being summer, the extreme heat acted on the smell of corpses as the ice melted, and the small size of the cabin intensified the smell. Dressed as alter-ego, Ladylump, a hybrid human/animal visionary, I placed myself between the personas of executioner, gimp and scientist/doctor.
The performance mimicked a public dissection, a practice that reached its height during the 1500s, in which human bodies, generally those of prisoners, were dissected in public locations as a form of post-mortem spiritual punishment and re-installation of public obedience, as well as education in human anatomy. Use of prisoners’ bodies in medical experiments has a long history, As MacDonald states, “In Nineteenth-century London, those who were hanged for murder became the property of that city’s Royal College of Surgeons” . Autopsies were thought of as a gateway to hell, a punishment that excluded the individual from eternal life in heaven.
The practice still operates in contemporary culture, for example the body of ’Adam’, used in the Visible Human Project, was Joseph Jernigan, a prisoner executed by lethal injection. His body was frozen and sliced into 1,878 pieces, photographed and converted into digital slides for scientific purposes. There is also speculation that some bodies used in the Von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibits are those of prisoners.
By appropriating this idea of public dissection, and switching the focus from the human subject to the non-human animal, I inverted the gaze and wonderment inherent in the public dissection of the human form to the animal body. I sought to generate a level of awe and compassion for the animal body, which is normally only afforded to humans.
Paradoxically, my role as authority figure highlighted ideas about obedience and control in relation to humans and the animal body, where the human is in a position of power. The work thus re-problematised the human/animal power play through reinforcement of it. Concealing my identity through costuming also emphasized the spectacle of the event, creating an aura associated with the somewhat ‘mysterious’ knowledge which scientific discoveries still maintain.
The performative element explored in this work is crucial to this doctoral project in two ways. First, the performance is the result of my physical understanding of the experience of the process of tissue culture harvesting; and second, it offers an experience that is subjective and personally accountable in relation to issues about life, death and living tissue. The reference to death in the performative work is in direct opposition to the conceptual focus of the tissue cultured elements. While the tissue cultured forms are derived from living bodies and focus on the continuation of life, Slip me some skin uses the carcasses of deceased animals to reference a visceral and anatomical understanding of the mortal body.
The future of the universal body may be fantastic in the face of scientific development, which seems to exist in a constant state of impending breakthroughs leading us towards disease free immortality, however, as Ewing describes, “ultimately each person has to confront his or her own corporeal reality. This discrepancy must always be a source of great anxiety for the individual, because at its root is a certain knowledge of eventual death”. The disparity between the conceptual focus on life and the physical exploration of death provides a distinct contrast between the tissue cultured works, which are mainly composed of he_la cells, and the decomposing flesh of the animal carcasses. The final manifestation of the work exists as image printed onto Perspex; a cold-cut of meat, a slice of artificial, pressed, flesh.