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Body Horror, Body Holy at Grace Space [NSFW]

Confrontational and jarring, the artists at once built up notions of the beauty of the body and tore them down on Friday during the third weekend in Grace Exhibition Space's month-long "Climate Change" series, featuring performance artists from all over the world as part of the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival

Confrontational and jarring, the artists at once built up notions of the beauty of the body and tore them down on Friday during the third weekend in Grace Exhibition Space's month-long "Climate Change" series, featuring performance artists from all over the world as part of the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival. Friday's lineup, including Ron Athey, Congelada de Uva, W Christiawan, and Peter Dobill, was as well curated as the previous two weeks at Grace (Action Poetry and La Poncha Nostra). The performers took their marginalized bodies and used their own pain and suffering as tools to create beauty, to shock, and to deify the flesh in all its forms. The perpetual dance of hiding and exposing the self through art became literal, visceral, and bloody that night at Grace Space.

The show opened with Peter Dobill's piece, which introduced the themes that would be explored throughout the evening; namely, the pain, endurance, and beauty of the human body made strange. Dobill and his assistant stood in a corral-stage, surrounded by hay and papier-mâché body parts. The montrous masks made them appear almost inhuman — more like animals or aliens. The assistant rhythmically whipped Dobill, while he pulled a pin across his skin, creating long, fine cuts across his chest.

The performance was frightening and difficult to watch, yet, like all the performances that followed, you couldn't look away. The audience stood mesmerized, constantly tilting and peering to get a better view. The music, the sight of self-mutilation, and the what-must-have-been-over-a-hundred-degree heat in the crowded, un-airconditioned space, combined to create an otherworldly sensory spectacle. It was almost as if these alien figures in a post-apocalyptic farmyard setting were trying to communicate something of vital importance in a language of gesture that we could feel but not quite comprehend.

After the Dobill performance, we were ushered outside and down the street for an impromptu outdoor performance. Standing on the sidewalk next to a gushing fire hydrant, there was serious confusion about what exactly the next performance was. Jill McDermid-Hokanson, co-director of Grace Space and curator of the series, introduced the children playing in the water from the fire hydrant by name, saying "this is their water!" Judging by the comments of those around me, many thought that the children playing in the fire hydrant water was the greatest piece of performance art they'd seen. While some people were taking pictures of the performance, the children continued playing, happy to have an audience and upped the antics.

The real performance, by W Christiawan, took place in a parking lot. Christiawan held a large, flat tray of tiny red and white wax candles, which the audience helped to light. The performance was quiet and methodical; he slowly proceeded to lower his face down over the flames, the sweat from his face extinguishing most of the flames. He then lifted the tray above his head, tilting it until the hot wax ran down over his smooth, bald head and onto his white clothing. It dripped down, thick like blood, hardening quickly. Some of the candles remained lit as he held the tray upside down, and continued to flicker as he slowly walked backwards into the street and the spray of the fire hydrant. The reactions of the children (who had stopped playing in the water to watch the rival performance) were priceless — pure horror and wonder.

 

The performance was beautiful and understated, the blood this time only simulated. It had a certain classical narrative structure — beginning with a collaborative creation of light, to Christiawan's solitary face-off with the flames, followed by the climactic act of full contact through the pouring of the hot wax, to the final dénouement where the fire is extinguished by its opposite, the soothing water. There was a sense of dramatic resolution, of redemption through pain, that made the short, solitary piece seem much larger.

The audience returned to the stifling heat indoors for the final two performances. Everyone immediately crowded around the next piece, by Ron Athey, entitled "Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains." Athey was laid out naked on a steel frame, his blue-grey eyes pulled open by fishhooks which went through his skin and cheeks. He looked at once like a hospital patient, a torture victim, a corpse on display, and a wax sculpture in a museum. The audience was eager to look at the spectacle, both curious and shy. Everyone was invited to apply a thick, glistening wax onto to his skin, wearing a glove or with bare hands. At first Athey seemed like a circus attraction, a freak show of extremity and strangeness that the audience could only ogle. The performers had requested no photography, but many pressed in closer, taking flash photographs from every angle. Speaking to curator Jill after the performance, she explained that Athey had requested no photographs because it removes the viewer from the performance, creating a distance when the performance is viewed through a lens rather than simply seen.

The audience began tentatively to touch his skin, and when someone would touch him a change would come over their faces. Coming into contact with his body, a body in obvious pain and suffering right before them, their relation to the work was altered. They were no longer an outsider or spectator, but a part of the work, an active participant. Curiosity and shock turned to looks of concern, empathy, pity, reverence, and love. His body was the work of art, caressed and glistening in a pool of light.

Finally, he removed the hooks from his skin, lifting himself off the steel frame for the final part of the performance. Dressed in a kingly cloak and hat, he walked in majestic, meditative circles while a recording of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers (the French poetry novel of a drag queen who has died of tuberculosis and has been canonized) played.

Next up was Rocio Boliver, who goes by the performance name La Congelada De Uva, from Mexico. Her piece, entitled "Times Goes by and I Cannot Forget You: Between Menopause and Old Age," ended the night. She strutted up and down a runway, naked except for magazine pages of advertisements — for shoes, nail polish, plastic surgery — affixed to her naked body with staple-ties punctured through her skin. She violently ripped the pages out of her skin, slowly revealing her real body underneath the shiny layer of paper piece by piece, bare and honest in its imperfection.

Then she took out a pink vibrator and began to sing along with a catchy, high-pitched K-pop music video projected behind her. Using the vibrator as a microphone, she manically lip synched to the song (taking breaks to sit on the runway and use the vibrator as it was intended) dancing in front of the projection so that the teen Korean pop stars were layered over her naked body.

In the final act, the music abruptly changed to tortured, screaming female vocals. She tied lines of fishing wire attached to the runway to the staple-ties still in her skin. Boliver, looking exhausted and dazed, pulled her weight against the fishing line. Invisibly tethered, she would pull back as far as she could go until the tension because too much and the ties would be violently yanked out of her skin. She then picked up a cubed mirror, examining her the rivulets of blood running down her face, then threw the mirror so that it shattered another mirror hidden behind the projection screen. She left the stage, leaving only jagged shards of mirror and a trail of blood up and down the runway.

With this kind of extreme performance art — where the artist causes real harm to their bodies — it feels more urgent than usual to understand the piece, so that their suffering will have meaning. These works are designed to shock us in the most visceral, primal way. Though mediocre art of this genre goes no deeper than the initial shock, successful pieces push us (often against our will) to reflexively examine our reactions. We feel a dual repulsion and attraction when viewing these pieces. We want to look away, want it to end, and at the same time want to watch every minute of it as it continues. What exactly is  the audience's relationship to these acts? To bear witness? To be entertained? Is our discomfort somehow pleasurable?

Beyond this, it is to force us into examining these questions and others, even if this goes no further than a vague, lingering discomfort. It is a method for making abstract ideas intrude on our lives in a visceral way we cannot escape: the effect of capitalism on a woman's self-perception, the unarticulated fear of certain bodies, the culturally enforced limits of self-expression and self-exposure, or how one's sense of self is subtly infected by pop culture norms. We are rarely shocked or jolted into becoming aware of what these limits, which we would like to believe do not significantly affect our lives, especially when they are reinforced in forms that are pleasurable and entertaining. These issues are brought back to life in this kind of performance art, made to intrude on our lives in the form of real, tangible bodily suffering of others.

Both Boliver and Athey have bodies that are marginalized by our culture. Boliver's is an older woman's body, with the marks of the inevitable effects of time on full view. Athey's body is a gay man's body, and an HIV positive body. Both perform primarily naked, with overtly sexualized props, confronting the intersection of beauty, sexuality, and cultural marginalization head on.

Athey's piece seeks to bring us closer to the body, and to make the human body godlike in its pain and suffering. His body, which is at first marked as scary, dangerous, vulnerable, sick, is transformed throughout to piece to become holy and transcendent, triumphant and beautiful. Reaching out to touch his skin beneath the bright lights felt at first forbidden, like walking into the Met and running your fingers across a Rembrandt. As the gap between artist and audience closed with physical contact, the transformation from spectator to participant creates a sense of empathy and genuine reverence for his suffering that is more difficult to summon when simply observing. At the end of the piece, his body is completely anointed by the group, shining and radiant, and he rises us for a triumphant walk in a cone of light. Thus he has transcended the pain and suffering through the audience's loving worship and affirmation of his body.

Boliver does not want to bring you closer, but push you away, keep you a spectator so that you can critically examine your role as spectator. She exposes the danger and pain caused by another kind of deified body — that depicted in the mass media, from advertisement to music videos. This is the smoothed over, corporate version of life, all pink and sparkle, cute and coy, free of imperfection and pain. She seeks to rip apart for what it is— a lie. This is the version of life and the body that is projected over us, covers up ourselves and our suffering. She made her points with pain mixed with humor. The middle section of her performances captured this central issue hilariously, the bashful sweetness and babble about idealized love by the Korean teenage pop stars in the video contrasted with the reality of her frank sexuality, as she lay on the runway naked using the vibrator. That was the real — not a recorded image, with no protective distance of a camera between us and the event — one the central strengths of performance art, that it is immediate and direct contact with the viewers. It was decidedly not entertainment, not the softened images projected above our heads, but confrontation and challenge, direct and inescapable.

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