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Ritual In
Performance Art

An Australian Context


I imagine grace / though I’m not / versed in scriptures / I hear you calling out names / one after another / saint or sinner / disciple onebr way or another . . .1

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  • Category
    Performance Art, Australia
  • Published In
    Originally published as Performance Art, Ritual and Shamanism, in Makarand Paranjape (ed.), Sacred Australia: Post-Secular Considerations, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 2009, pp. 271-285.
  • Year

Ritual in
Performance Art

This passage from Australian poet, Christopher Barnett, is a reminder that the call to something beyond the human and the everyday is often found within the arts. Music, poetry, painting and dance often aspire to reach beyond language and conventional codes and to create another space, another experience. These aspirations have been criticised in modern and postmodern times as the romantic mutterings of egotistical artists who are wrongly informed about the role of art in society. There are some compelling reasons to resist the role of the artist as seer or shaman but none of these arguments have stopped artists exploring ritual and catharsis, the spiritual and the unknown, the joyous and the bleak dark underside of life. In times of war and depression, in times of change and social upheaval, art often offers both an escape from the mundane and a restoration of belief. This is rarely religious in a conventional sense. Certainly not for the performance artists I will discuss in this essay.

The artists I will consider here use ritual in various ways. They are all performance artists and they draw on the experimental genesis of this genre as it developed from the late 1960s. Initially this was a radical art practice that sought to challenge the parameters of the white cube of the gallery space by presenting events that could not be contained within such an antiseptic space. In Germano Celantes’s words the artist - insert quote. Others worked outside the museum structure and presented work in the urban or natural environment. These artists were concerned with the relationship between ‘man’ and machine, technology or city. Their work focussed on the alienation of the subject in the world or the disappearance of the subject as we have come to understand the subject as soft, wet, human body. Those artists who made works in the natural environment were often compelled by the devastation of the environment and the collapse of natural ego-systems, All were, in some instance, seeking to close the gap between art and life. To bring art closer to life, to make art which was life, a live art which was based in experience. The experience of the artist’s body often manifested as endurance works which tested the physical limits of the body, and/or the psychological experience of the artist as individual, and/or the artist/individual as representative of a group. Often the metaphorical group of human kind.

In this essay I want to introduce the works of several artist who work in this area and to provide some case studies and analyses of specific performance events. Some of the artists are mature and their work was developed in the 1970s against a background of social change which saw art come off the wall and the pedestal and venture into different contexts. However, there is now a resurgence of performance art which acknowledges the past but posits itself in a different time zone and embraces new technologies so that the performance itself maybe made on video/DVD.


Jill Orr has always been a cathartic performance artist. The spectre of the shaman is never far away. In 2007 dressed in a Nun s habit she crawled along the main street of Darwin writing messages in chalk to the stolen generation of Aboriginal Australians. Responding to the Rudd governments ‘apology’ she wrote meditative and personal statements across the sidewalk in a bustling town. Heckled and cheered, saluted and despised, she continued this act of penance literally writing from one side of the town to the other. This kind of cathartic performance is characteristic of Jill Orr’s performance art. Exhibiting since the 1970s, Orr is an artist who speaks from the heart, she also engages with social issues and has spoken out against discrimination, war, violence and society’s tendency to construct the Other as enemy. She has consistently put her own body on the line by exposing herself to danger and ridicule in order that people may come to assess their responses to these actions and thus better know themselves.

In 1998 she presented The Hunger in Sydney, and later in Quebec and Toronto.2 In this performance Orr gave birth to the carcass of a bloody lamb. There was a religious under current to the work as the now mature artist appeared as an aged ‘virgin’ mother who produced a deformed and horrible body from between her legs and then paraded it throughout the audience as if it were a sacred child. The birthing and nurturing action was presented in front of a large luminescent painting of classical arches reminiscent of Renaissance architecture. Framed within these portals the ‘virgin’ mother gains an iconic status and her child, battered and bleeding, completes the pieta. The artist says that the work was driven by urban horror, the myth of Frankenstein, the Jewish myth of the golem and biological disasters. She wanted to ask the question: can we love the Other, even if it is an abhorrent creation of our own making? The Hunger was the beginning of a new series of work, a series that would resonate in the viewer s memory after the events of September 11th 2001.

The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters Goya (Artspace, Sydney 2002) was Orr’s cathartic response to the terrorist attacks in New York. In this performance the artist went back to art history and claimed the name of Goya as a sympathetic mentor for the events that she had experienced through the news media.3 The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters was a bloody performance in which tons of carcass were strewn on the floor of the gallery. This was the raw material that Orr would work with for twelve hours. Dressed in a simple apron, reminiscent of a medieval surgeon or butcher, Orr proceeded to carve the bones and carcasses into human and animal form until the gallery was decked out with bloody bodies dancing in the dim light. Bodies that had been tortured and maimed: not pretty bodies but ugly, misshapen forms of life that presented the body as an abject horror.

To contextualise this work historically we need to look at its genesis in the body art of the late 1960s and 1970s. This work often expressed an individual consciousness but it stressed the psychological, spiritual and/or physical states of the artist; often testing the limits of the artist’s body or creating rituals which were set in the landscape. The spirit of the land was and still is a recurring theme is performance art. Sometimes this is expressed as a concern for the natural environment which is being ravaged by human destruction (Bonita Ely, Jill Orr, Arthur Wicks), at other times artists explore the dark, mysterious and over worldly aspects of nature presenting it as an arena in which horror erupts (Monika Tichachek).

Body art and ritual explored alternatives to Western metaphysics by turning away from science, rationality and organised religion, but it also stressed the personal, psychological and mythological. In many respects the meeting of the body and ritual has a particularly nostalgic and romantic resonance, Graeme Sturgeon prophetically wrote:

In a society in which the ceremonies of Church and State are dismissed as the hollow symbols of a discredited authority, the performance artists' acts take on increased significance as attempts to recreate mysterious, allegorical rituals which, seemingly intellectual in origin, spring from the subconscious and speak to the tribe (the spectators) in a highly-charged and partly understood, partly felt language of symbols. The artist once more assumes the role of witchdoctor, healing his society through a process of catharsis.4

Graeme Sturgeon

The tone of Sturgeon's writing is impassioned, in ritual performance he sees a renewed role for the artist as romantic seer. Like Robert Lindsay and Daniel Thomas, he embraces this type of performance as part of a new avant-garde, nostalgic for pre-modern lifestyles. Expressing a similar sentiment Robert Lindsay said:

It is the power and simplicity of communication which is inherent in totemic objects, archetypal images and tribal rituals, that the artist hopes will cut through the habit of contemporary sophisticated forms of communication. It is a return to fundamentals, the simple realities of life that through magic and mystification may evoke archetypal responses and emotions.5

Robert Lindsay

Investigations of physical and psychological stress, inscriptions on the body, and rituals in which the artist appeared as shaman were all activities which probed forms of experience and existence. There was a kind of reclaiming of a lost primitivism or tribalism which had seduced Western art throughout the 20th century.

Mike Parr's obsessive and compulsive investigations of pain and endurance, from 1971 to 1978,6 drew on the works of Reich, Freud and later Lacan, to provide a kind of auto-psycho-analysis of the self. The artist's attempts to come to terms with his self-image, as a one-armed man, present a compelling analysis of masculinity and the Oedipal triangle as he seeks to carve out a place for himself in the social order. For Parr coming to terms with the Law of the Father is a torturous experience, most pronounced in the rites of passage works such as: * Repeatedly drop a brick on your foot, * Remove a small portion of flesh from your body, * Take up fighting. Fight your fellow man...Fight everyone without discrimination.

Performance directions for Repeatedly Drop a Brick on your Foot underline the Oedipal test of strength:

Perform the piece mechanically. Do not allow your leg to quiver as you raise the brick. Do not cry out, or 'act' in any way (a stoical demeanour is important). Look straight ahead as the brick hits your foot. Afterwards sit perfectly still until the visitors leave the room.7

These performances seem to be fairly predictable but there are other works, more complex in their action and iconography, which present multi-layered interpretations of subjecthood. Later performances like The Inertia of Night (Preparation for my Father's Death) and the Black Box: Theatre of Self Correction develop a more dream-like narrative for the audience providing various points of view.

Parr's infamous performance Cathartic Action, Social Gestus 5 (Sculpture Centre, Sydney, Paris Biennale, 1977) where he appears before his audience wearing a life like prosthesis filled with blood and offal and proceeds to chop it off in a violent assault with a meat clever was described then, and, remains now, a body work designed around autobiography (his disability) and self therapy. Parr talks about it as a cathartic experience, coming to terms with his disability by re-living and re-staging his castration anxiety.

Much ritual performance and body art experiences the crisis of late modernism. There is still a desire to be new and ‘avant-garde’ but even when the 'new' is the archetypal, it is seen as a break with the past, most significantly the dominance of formalism in late modernism. It is signalling post-modernism but its investment in the new and its romantic positioning of the artist as shaman or hero separates it from the more ironic and/or interrogative gaze of the post-modern artist. Body art and ritual fulfil the desire for a serious avant-garde fraternity which speaks to the 'human condition'. It is really a matter of how the work is received and interpreted in and by its society.


In Stelarc's projection of a cyborg future, the corporeal body is metaphorically eclipsed by a futuristic narrative which speaks of the obsolescence of the body. But his particular body is still probed and pierced. There was a habitual masochism in the suspension events of the 1970s where the artist's body was suspended by hooks inserted into the skin. Images of ancient rites and shamanism pervade as the artist endures almost intolerable levels of pain to create his art. Although the modern primitivism of the suspension rituals is framed in techno-speak, the social events (the performances) share aspects in common with Parr's 'primal scene' since they too can be read as Oedipal tests of strength or rites of passage.

Later works which experiment with techno-biological interface through surgical probing, robotic prostheses and interactive computer programmes appear to eclipse the self-knowing subject of humanism as the heroic protagonist is manipulated by artificial intelligence implanted on or within the body. The enhancement of the body/mind is predicated upon the colonization of the body by technology.

Impelling us to burst from our "biological, cultural and planetary containment"8, Stelarc argues that: "The significance of technology may be that it culminates in an alien awareness - one that is POST-HISTORIC, TRANS-HUMAN and even EXTRATERRESTRIAL".9 The idea that this alien, artificial and superior intelligence evolves from man confirms some of western society's greatest myths as 'man' becomes a kind of techno-god or cyborg-shaman.

Stelarc's project seems to embrace some of the worst aspects of modernity. The omnipotence of mankind and the rationalizing codes of western scientific thought are dominant in this discourse which strives to escape a devastated planet and conquer unknown territories.

The desire for omnipotence and omniscience has a long history stretching back to the very first conceptions of gods upon which 'man' projected his ideals. But as Freud pointed out in the 1930s: "Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but these organs have not grown on him and they still give him much trouble at times".10

Jill Orr, Stelarc and Mike Parr use their bodies as objects in various ways. Orr becomes something of a shaman in her performance works, whilst Stelarc and Parr test the physical and psychological limits of their own bodies.11 There are obtuse connections between the artists. Stelarc evolves as a cyborg artist in the 1980s and in so doing encapsulates the future of shamanism for many. Parr, like Orr, explores himself and the psycho-social realms of subjecthood.

Linda Sproul presents provocative acts. She intervenes in social and historical representation by un-doing cultural myths and stereotypes. The performances are often constructed across the boundary-lines between victor and vanquished, virtue and vice, pleasure and pain, as a way of re-negotiating the spaces between the personal and the cultural.

Listen (1993) was an event concerned with the fetishization of pain and made reference to the domestic site of abuse. People wishing to attend the performance had to book over the telephone. The recorded message played the popular hit song Listen..."do you wanna hear a secret..." which was the first clue. Arriving at the venue the audience was then locked out of a huge victorian mansion, its heavy double doors impenetrable from the outside, its dark facade menacing and uninviting. Eventually the doors were opened and the audience was ushered into a small back room.

There, huddled together in close proximity to one another, the audience was surrounded by an installation. On one side of the room a chastity corset, on the other a shop display shelf held the high-heeled pumps of the temptress; in between these two signs a slide dissolve unit showed a close up of a woman's neck as it contorted in the gesture of a torturous scream but the mouth wasn't visible and the scream was silent. After about fifteen minutes the audience was ushered into the hallway and asked to line up on either side. This created an avenue through which the artist would pass.

Sproul appeared on the top of the stairs in a full length nightgown and struckup the pose of the prayer. Slowly she turned her back to the audience, disrobed and put on the high- heel shoes. Her back displayed the markings of a severe beating. Knowing that audience members would tend to disbelieve the marks of her wounds she paraded before them handing out small visiting cards and passing a rubber clad torch to individuals who were encouraged to touch the wounds.

The visiting cards, which have been a recurring motif in Sproul's work, are references to Victorian funeral cards. On one side of the Listen card a photograph of a small child by Alfred Steiglitz is reproduced, under which the words "teeth, nails, knife, belt, cane, whip" are written. All of these weapons are domestic weapons. On the reverse the phrase "love my memory". When she got to the end of the queue she put on a cocktail dress, opened the double doors and turned to her audience thanking them for coming, apologizing that there weren't enough chairs (there were none) and saying she was sorry that the wine ran out (again there wasn't any). She travelled back through the audience shaking their hands and reiterating her apologies. The change of mood was unsettling, a denial of her wounds and the pain inscribed on her body.

The performance was concerned with the privatisation of pain in the domestic sphere. Sproul has been concerned by the critical and popular affirmation of pain through sado-masochism. She argues that it is all very well for people to chose to be beaten but that this is really a privilege inscribed by power relations between people. Sproul's performance analyses the fashion for sado-masochism and body torture, high lighting the fact that many women are still in a powerless position and that abuse is not something that one has the power to choose. Physical abuse in the home is still an area in which the infliction of pain is a psychological torture which points to inequality.

Roots performed at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1994 addressed the position of women in the artworld. In the great hall of the museum Sproul appeared dressed in a gold evening gown bound by plaits of hair. She became a kind of phallic spectacle standing erect on a seven metre high corinthian column designed for the performance. Taking Freud's idea of female penis envy to the extreme Sproul plaited an enormous phallic plait to her own pubic hair.

The artist was suspended by a neck brace on top of the column. As she cut the phallus from her own body, it swung out above the heads of the audience and she was winched off the column. With this gesture the huge column was pushed over, crashing to the floor with a loud thud. Sproul, suspended by the neck, was then lowered to the ground where she distributed cards to the audience, small plaits of her own hair were woven into the paper: the inscription read: "remember to die".

For Sproul pain is a culturally dynamic construct, it takes on different meanings in different epochs and in diverse contexts. References to death have been constant in her work, often signalled with the use of the funeral cards. In the context of the performance, these death tokens become indicators of Western society's melancholic state.

Like Parr and Stelarc, Sproul inscribes the surface of her body, she penetrates her skin. Her work confirms that the actuality of body sculpture is still a contentious issue. However, since the 1970s we have witnessed a shift in focus, away from the existential angst of the avant-garde individual who centred the action on his own experience, presuming it to be 'the human condition', toward a more complex posturing of the body as a socially and ideologically inscribed site.

Monika Tichacek’s video The Shadowers (2004) won the Anne Landa Award for Video and New Media Arts from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2007. It is a powerful and provocative work that stretches the boundaries between body art, ritual and sado-masochism by assaulting the senses and transgressing the social realm. In psychoanalytic terms it tears at the screen of the real and immerses the viewer into the abject world of instinctual response where language has no authority.

Viewing the video from the beginning, we are lured into an exotic environment with the slow panning of the camera, birds sound off screen. At first the viewer is presented with a relatively safe and alluring visual scan of nature but all is not well in the natural environment. We are quickly engulfed by a rapid sequence of unforgiving images that present a disjunctive narrative. Close ups and fast cuts destabilise the viewer’s equilibrium. The narrative is disturbing and verges on the obscene.

Three women make up this narrative, at first one appears to dominate the other but it soon becomes apparent that there is a contract between all three women. Each seems to alternate between oppressor and victim - the role playing is carefully orchestrated and the ritual that unfolds is dramatic, abject and difficult to watch.

As viewers we are voyeurs looking into a ritual that is hardly fathomable. Here the social order is defunct. It has been consumed by something other - it is primordial, instinctual, cathartic. Tichacek trespasses into the dangerous zone of the pre-Oedipal, a stage before language where the barbarity of the unconscious holds sway. A realm in which we are all murderers.12

If we dissect some of the scenes it will become apparent that the relations between the protagonists is complex and unresolved. Each scene is punctuated by a fade to black - a visual void. In the first scene a female is seen lying in the roots of a large tree, she seems asleep or unconscious. She lays amidst nature. Birds sing. She could be dreaming. This quiet moment is disrupted by the image of another woman advancing in the under growth, she appears sinister, her hair matted and decorated with bits of the forest floor. She could be a witch doctor or a shaman. A tone of terror ensues. Our prone female becomes both an object of seduction and a victim as she is dragged violently by her hair into the woods. The abusing woman is older, perhaps a mother figure, but a bad mother - a torturer.

Things get worse. The torturer impales the tongue of her victim on an old tree stump with a hypodermic needle which she produces from her hair. She pierces the organ of speech and renders her subject mute. The scene is excruciating to watch. Harrowing animalistic screams assault the viewer but they appear to be coming from the torturer who wails to the forces of nature as if summoning up demons. The bad mother then nails the long white fingernails of the younger woman to the stump so that she is immobile.

In the next scene, the witch doctor/bad mother figure threads wires from the tacks impaling her victims fingernails to the mouth of another woman. It is unclear exactly where the wires are attached in the mouth, perhaps they are wound around the base of the teeth rubbing against the gums. A horrible tug of war unfolds which wounds both women. The first victim - Tichacek - is now in excruciating pain, her tongue has turned black, her eyes roll in her head, she quivers. The second victim engaged in this abject struggle has injured her mouth - this is a self-inflicted wound. At this stage the witch doctor removes the needle from the tongue of the first victim and ungagged she attempts to pull the tacks from her finger nails to release the other woman.

The contract between these women is not the conventional contract between sadomasochists where there is a mutual understanding and a sign, which is agreed upon so as to release the other from pain on the other s command. In Tichacek’s relations the power structure seems more perverse and it is clearly in the realm of the female as masochistic seductress, victim and powerful mother. It is the mother/shaman who first offers her saliva which dribbles down the wires into the bruised and bloodied mouth of both her victims. This is a poignant moment in the enfolding terror and it sheds light on the torturer’s psychopathology. It tells us of the disorder in the house of power. Here, the abuser, after maiming her victim, attempts to restore her to health, stressing a love/hate relationship in this scene of oppressive violence.

The wounded mouths take on a horrible kind of sumptuousness at this stage. The camera zooms into the simulated rotting flesh which is glistening with what appear to be pomegranate seeds. Thus the wound becomes inviting. This motif is repeated later on the simulated cadaver of one of the women who becomes a feast for the other in an act of anthropophagy.

This performance of ritual violence and psychological terror is followed by a second act which again begins at the tree in the forest. This time Tichacek’s thighs have been surgically stitched together up to the pubis. In the second scene of the second act a tango between two women reveals Tichecek s legs sewn from thigh to ankle with elastic wires which allow movement.

The tango originated in brothels and was devised so that the male pimp could present his whores to his clients in a sexually provocative way. In Tichacek’s dance two women dance the dance of whores after undergoing a ritualised assault on one another.

In the final scenes Tichacek returns to the sacrificial alter in the woods, this time she sits cross legged and seemingly in perfect control. The camera zooms into what appears to be the slain body of her sado-masochistic accomplice, the flesh is gorged and rotting with the sumptuous fruit upon which she feeds. This gorging on dead flesh simulates a seductive necrophilia. In the final scene she returns to the tree where she finds the bad mother lying, seemingly dead, her flesh rotting. Tichacek kisses her hand. The camera pans back to nature, closing in on leaves and foliage which appear to be dripping blood. A haunting soundtrack fades to black.

The Shadowers is part of a new wave of performance art work that is mediated through video and presented on screen for the audience. Although some critics have insisted that such remediation forecloses on the real time aspects of performance, The Shadowers clearly demonstrates that the visceral elements of body-centred performance can be transposed to the video medium without compromising the body art genre.13

Similarly, works by Ken Unsworth such as the series Five Secular Settings for Sculpture as Ritual (1975) were works in which the body operated as physical tension within a precarious sculptural balance.

Arthur Wicks takes a slightly more whimsical approach in works like Boatman (1981), and Escape from the Solstice Voyeur (1987) but there is still an alchemical aspect to his actions as he tries to transform mundane experience, as does Ken Unsworth in later performances such as Rhythms of Childhood (1982).

These works represent what Daniel Thomas called 'the actuality of sculpture'.14 Such actuality stresses the life of the work so that a temporal, environmental sculpture, such as Christo's Wrapped Coast (Little Bay, Sydney, 1969), is as easily accommodated as Gilbert and George's Singing Sculpture (National Gallery of Victoria and Art Gallery of NSW, 1973) or Joseph Beuys' performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965- 70).

In the context of body sculpture, actuality implies materiality and corporeality, and manifests in explorations of the body as an autobiographical and experiential site. However, although the stress on the 'actual' emphasises the 'real' event or action, it also introduces the 'act', the human subject's pose, into static sculpture. This masquerading of the body of the subject, especially when placed in a particular context, complicates and confounds any notion of an exclusive corporeality and firmly situates the act/pose in the psycho-social realm. The subject in his/her action, before an audience in a specific place and time, creates a social nexus which is the result of all these conjunctions. However, the actuality celebrated by critics of performance art in the 1960s and 1970s tended to jettison this matrix in favour of a more simplistic, linear continuum which heralded the individualism of the artist.

In Australia artists such as Peter Kennedy, Bonita Ely, Vivienne Binns, Aleks Danko and Joan Grounds were more directly associated with this kind of political analysis. Beuys in contrast said:

I am trying to reaffirm the concept of art and creativity in the face of the Marxist doctrine. The Socialist movements which are now strongly supported by the young...define man as an exclusively social being...not free in many respects. But I affirm he is free in his thinking and here is the point of origin of sculpture. For me the formation of thought is already sculpture.15

Joseph Beuys

The revival of the art and life dialogue in the nineteen seventies follows on from the focus on contextualisation, environment and monumental presence associated with minimalism.16 The relationship between the body and sculpture changes significantly at this point.17 But the emergence of the body in, and as, sculpture in the 1970s must be seen within the context of a changing social terrain, one which started, with the counter-culture, to emphasise the connection between the personal and the political. As the seventies drew to a close, it became apparent that feminism had contributed the most rigorous dialogue on the private/public nexus.

There was a lot of work produced in the early seventies which prioritized the personal to the extent that it appeared little different from the heroic individualism of earlier avant-gardes.18 However, the body's ecological and psycho-social existence in the nineteen seventies was predicated on different concerns, despite the observation that they often reinscribed conventional myths.19

The 'actuality' of the body in sculpture presents a complex discourse. On one hand it seems to underline the dominance of presence/speech/action (the foundation stone of Western metaphysics) over absence/language/writing. The dominance of individual presence over social formation, the myth of free will. On the other the corporeality of the body, especially its sexual and racial specificity, and its abjectivity can be transgressive.20 I am interested in examining why the actuality of the body, which was always figurative, and, usually narrative, took precedence over conceptual and activist performance art in the 1970s.21 I'm also concerned to trace the currency of 'actuality' and the shifts apparent in artists' works as they confront criticisms of the body as a site in the 1980s.

Mike Parr Branding Iron/Leg Ring

Act 2: The Photo-Death and Photo-Jouissance of the Body

The actuality of body sculpture was prioritized in the 1970s but by the 1980s the exploration of the body as a site of action had changed. Two things can be seen to have influenced the shifts in practice: firstly, critical analysis of the gaze and, secondly, the role of photographic documentation in representing performance works.

Writing in 1984, Mike Parr discussed his concept of photo-death, explaining that during performances: "The eye of the audience was like the Eye of God. Performance invariably seemed to be followed by the moral eruption of the viewer (like a Peeping Tom caught in the act".22 And he claimed that after 1979 his performances "underwent a major reorientating (under the sign of 'photodeath'...)".23 Explaining Parr's shift from performance to drawing installation in the 1980s, Jonathan Fineberg said that:

One of the reasons that Parr moved from the performances into drawing is that he kept finding the photographic documentation of these lively, intensely moving works very dead.... He began staging works in which the performers were more and more frozen so as to diminish this disjunction. Then he started drawing from the photographs to revive the life in them.”24

Jonathan Fineberg

In the late 1980s, Orr who has always exploited the fetish properties of the photograph, started to think about how these qualities might be used more effectively. Her earlier works, in particular the spectacular Bleeding Trees (1979), presented a mute and often victimized body in a barren landscape. In this performance, represented solely by the photographs taken by Elizabeth Campbell which were used as projections during the live event, the frozen image of the female body became a kind of screen upon which the audience could project their fantasies.25 This created problems in terms of a feminist critique of the work since the female body appeared to be represented yet again for the pleasure of the male gaze. As a response Orr started to develop a series of identities which grew out of the experience of the filmic double associated with earlier performance documentation. The mirroring qualities of the camera were used to expand upon her narcissistic fantasies as she created male and female personae for herself.

Interviewed in 1987, Orr said her performances were like moments or glimpses that she had imagined.26 These instances are best represented in the photo-documentation (and more recently the videos)27 of the performances. In live mode they are often emersed in lengthy rituals or narratives which do not have the focussed high drama of Parr or Stelarc. Orr's work (in real-time at least) seems ethereal and neurotic, the body is worn down by activity, the repetition and replay tires out the gaze.

Orr, Love Songs and Marriage

Both Parr and Stelarc speak and act with authority, Orr is still operating in the gaps between language(s). This is nowhere more evident than in the artist's explorations of cross-dressing. Orr has been working with cross-gendered self-identities since 1991. What started as an analysis of her own sexual identity in Love Songs (1991) was expanded in the fetishism of Orr's dildo dance in Marriage of the Bride to Art (1994). In one part of this performance the audience was ushered past a thin slit in the wall where they glimpsed the veiled bride in a kind of body holster writhing erotically and sporting a slightly concealed dildo.

Raising the Spirits

In Raising the Spirits (Museum of Modern Art at Heidi, 1994) Orr presented six characters developed from previous performances. Each interacted with its other on the video screen as Orr paraded the character in real time, centring the dance sequences around a large pool of water made in the well of a mound of earth. The unfolding of the event was long and drawn out with each narrative spiralling into the next. The final sequence saw the hermaphrodite bride from the Marriage performance wearing a much larger phallic prosthesis complete with urination mechanism. This time the bride strutted her stuff around the pool and, mocking masculine urination rituals, she 'pissed' into the pool from which arose a dripping, white wedding dress: the bride without body or face. The whole performance seemed at this stage to have been a constant deferral of identities; a dance of life which was narrative and at times sentimental. The final action was perhaps the glimpse or moment to which the artist has so often referred when speaking about her ideas for performance works.

Whether Orr manages to escape the phallocentric construction of female fetishism is debatable. The self-portrait project which tries to subvert the patriarchal inscription of female sexuality is always difficult because of the ways in which women have been cast as lack in the Oedipal saga. The wearing of the phallic prothesis seems to reinscribe Freud's analysis of penis envy but its representation also collides with eroticism and perversion, and thus circulates as a subcultural trope. As feminists writing about pornography have argued, the wearing of the fake phallus as decoration/weapon undermines the power of the phallus in society since its position as simulacra is highlighted.28

The actuality of body sculpture, discussed by Daniel Thomas in 1976, still had currency in the 1990s, although the terminology had changed and the theoretical stakes were multiplied. Orlan, in Paris, Karen Finley, in New York and Linda Sproul, in Melbourne, have all shocked their predominantly white middle class audiences who thought they were safe in their complacency.

Sproul, Listen, black and white images


1. Christopher Barnett, The Blue Boat/Bateau Bleu, Le Nouveau Commerce, Paris, 1994, 9.

2. At Ivan Dougherty in Sydney, part of the exhibition Telling Tales, Trauma and Memory, Cross Cultural Perspectives, curated by Jace Dunn and Jill Bennett, and in 2000 at Le Lieu art space, Quebec as part of the International Performance Art Festival and at 11a 7d Toronto.

3. The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters is the title of one of Goya s paintings.

4. Graeme Sturgeon, The Development of Australian sculpture, 1788-1975, p.232.

5. Robert Lindsay,  Relics and Rituals , in Paul Taylor (ed), Anything Goes, p. 108.

6. Developed throughout the series 150 Programmes and Investigations (1971-72) Idea Demonstrations (1971-72) and Rules and Displacement Activities (parts 1, 2 and 3, 1973-78).

7. Mike Parr  Photo(graphed) , Nine Contemporary Australians, Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1984, p. 57.

8. Stelarc,  Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire: Post Evolutionary Strategies, Remote Stelarc, exh. cat., Ballarat, 1990, no pagination.

9. Stelarc,  Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire: Post Evolutionary Strategies .

10. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey, Norton and Company, New York and London, 1961, p.39. First published in German and English in 1930.

11. See my essays  Techno-bodies: spectacles, dreams and desires , Binocular, Sept. 1992, pp. 129-147 and  Bad Futures: performing the obsolete body , Nicholas Zurbrugg (ed), Electronic Arts in Australia, Continuum, vol 8, no. 1, August 1994, pp. 280-292.

12. Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1991, p. 16.

13. For a discussion of the various critical positions see Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediated Culture, London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

14. Daniel Thomas,  Art and Life: the actuality of sculpture , in P. Taylor (ed), Anything Goes: Australian Art 1970-1980, Art and Text, Melbourne, 1984, pp. 98-107.

15. Joseph Beuys in an interview with Willoughby Sharp, Artforum, 1969, as quoted in Daniel Thomas,  Art and Life: the actuality of sculpture , in Paul Taylor (ed), Anything Goes: Australian Art 1970-1980, Art and Text, Melbourne, 1984, p.105.

16. Michael Fried's critique of the theatricality of minimalism, in his paper  Art and Objecthood, has been widely debated. Like minimalism itself, it was, and still is, enmeshed in debates over phenomenology. Fried's concept of a 'literal' art was one which was too close to theatre, one which did not preserve the distinctions between the arts, nor the relationship between art (object) and beholder (subject), so fundamental to the formalists.  Art and Objecthood in Gregory. Battcock (ed.), Minimal Art: a critical anthology, Dutton, New York, 1968, pp. 116-47.

17. The North American interpretation of phenomenology has been analysed by Rosalind Krauss in her essays on Richard Serra and Jackson Pollock. See Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Thames and Hudson, London, 1977 and The Optical Unconscious, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1993, pp. 242-308. Like Hal Foster, she recognises the pivotal position of minimalism and argues that what followed in the 1970s and 80s was a focus on a more particularized body: "The gendered body, the specificity of site in relation to its political and institutional dimensions". See Rosalind Krauss, in discussion with Michael Fried and Benjamin Buchloh, in  Theories of art after minimalism and pop in Hal Foster (ed), Discussions in Contemporary Culture, No. 1 Dia Art Foundation, Bay Press, Seattle, 1987, pp. 63-64. For Foster's account of minimalism see his essay  The Crux of Minimalism , in H. Singerman (ed.), Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art, 1945-1986, Aberville Press, New York, 1988.

18. For a comprehensive survey see Lea Vergine, Il Corpo come Linguaggio (La 'Body-art' e storie simili), Gianpaola Prearo Editore, Milan, 1974 (Italian and English text).

19. See Mary Kelly's critique of the phenomenological body as a self-centred subject of humanism in  Re-viewing modernist criticism , Screen, vol. 22, no. 3, Autumn 1981, pp. 41-62.

20. See Jacques Derrida,  The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation , in Writing and Difference, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, pp. 232-250, where he analyses the works of Antonin Artaud. For a specific reading of the abject female body see Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, transl. Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York, 1982.

21. In a paper of this length it is impossible to do justice to a survey of Australian performance art and so I have confined myself to what I consider to be key examples of body art (which was often called body sculpture in the early seventies) and ritual works with a strong sculptural context. Not all the artists consider themselves to be sculptors, although all of them with the exception of Parr were working primarily with sculpture at the time they developed their performance works. Parr like Stelarc, but with a totally different motivation, started to use his body as a site for the enactment of his work in 1970. My focus is on the body as object and the enlivening of the sculptural content/context by the body.

22. Mike Parr,  Mike Parr , Nine Contemporary Australians, exh. cat., Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, Calif., 1984, p. 56.

23. Mike Parr,  Mike Parr , p.56.

24. Jonathan Fineberg as quoted by Mike Parr in Nine Contemporary Australians, p. 57. From Fineberg, J.,  A Critical Examination of the Artist. Current Work from an International Perspective , Australian Accent: Three Artists Mike Parr, Imants Tillers, Ken Unsworth, exh. cat., John Kaldor Art Project 7, PS1, New York, John Kaldor, Sydney, 1984.

25. For a lucid analysis of the photograph and female fetishism constructed from a female point of view see Abagail Solomon-Godeau,  The Legs of the Countess , October, 39, Winter 1986, pp. 65-108.

26. Taped interview with the artist, June 24th 1987.

27. In Raising the Spirits (Museum of Modern Art, Heidi, 1994) Orr operated the camera herself.

28. See Parveen Adams,  Of Female Bondage , in T. Brennan (ed), Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London and New York, 1989, pp. 247-265 and  The Three (Dis)graces , New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, Perversity Issue, no. 19, Spring 1993, pp. 131-138.

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