Michael Ryan Skolnik’s workblog
Studies in Games and Performance

Editorializing on Stelarc’s “Suspensions” Exhibition, March 2012, Melbourne AU

For the uninitiated, Stelarc is a Cypriot-Australian performance artist whose work focuses on the relationship between the body and self. In a similar vein to Donna Haraway, Stelarc’s works, involving suspensions, prostheses (most famously, his Extra Ear, which is grown out of his adult stem cells and implanted in his arm) and robotics, address the relationship between our bodies, technologies, society and self. For Haraway, we’re all already cyborgs, thanks to the insinuation of technologies into the fabric of our everyday lives. Vaccinations, for example, operate in the background. Is that really any different, technologically speaking, than the cyborgs of Terminator, The Ghost in the Shell, or Deus Ex? For Stelarc and Haraway alike, the body as the seat of identity is something to be transcended. For Haraway, this leads to the sweeping away of gender as a meaningful category, and its related norms with it. For Stelarc, technologies lead to a future in which the human being is anatomically alterable, in ways that we can neither “program nor predict”, for better or worse. (Hall 2010) If that’s the fundamental characteristic of human nature (alongside mortality, perhaps), then what?

The Suspensions exhibition, at the Scott Livesey Galleries in Armadale, Melbourne from March 7-31 of this year collected large documentary photographic prints of scenes from Stelarc’s suspensions, as well as video documentation of a suspension performed in the gallery to a limited audience with an intact installation scene, featuring a large overscale sculpture of Stelarc’s arm-with-ear-in-it:

Behind the sculpture there is a medical table with all the paraphernalia needed for the suspension.

Moreso than the video of the live suspension, Stelarc’s 25th since he started doing them in 1980, and his first since 1988, I found the photographs of previous suspensions (not reproduced here) to be confronting (which was both in line with my expectations and a good thing). In a suspension, Stelarc inserts shark hooks into his skin and is then hoisted up above ground to dangle, naked, suspended, in a dynamic equilibrium. These happened in gallery spaces, above city streets, in elevator shafts, and on a wooden platform hundreds of feet off a remote part of the Japanese coastline. The act of suspension is performed in order to transcend the obsolete body, to enact his ideal of the body as a field of possibilities outside of social space, not prefigured by social expectations for what bodies are and what they can and should do. Simultaneously, he also put his particular body on display in a specific, social, art context to represent that.

I found this overall message confronting and difficult, stemming from body image issues that make it very difficult for me to imagine my body as a blank field of possibilities without giving up some part of my identity that I don’t feel comfortable giving up on those terms. The body-image and identity struggles that I’ve had since my own body was altered through the surgical removal of a cancer-afflicted testicle make it very difficult for me to see the body and identity as abstract, disconnected fields. I can hardly begin to imagine transgender people, for example, having a much more difficult time not only transcending their bodies, but feeling that it is or should necessarily be a possibility, considering how much their identity and personal/bodily history are interlinked and what the social/normative stakes are for them.

I fear that I’m mis-characterizing Stelarc’s work here somewhat, but I’d like to add a second photo from the exhibition, the over-sized sculpture of Stelarc’s arm post-suspension, when the shark hooks were removed from his skin. Two drops of blood fell from his thigh onto the sculpture at that point, which I took as a sign of the body’s finitude. Transcendence isn’t permanent. The answer to Shylock’s question from The Merchant of Venice  still holds: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Yes. And then what?

 

References:

Hall, Gary. 2010. “Para-site”, in The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age, ed. Joanna Zylinska. Continuum, London and New York.

 

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