Martin O’Brien talks to art historian & writer Dominic Johnson ahead of Fading Out Of Dead Air – Transmissions for the Necropolis 14 December Whitechapel Gallery: Visit
Dominic Johnson: How would you describe your work?
Martin O’Brien: My work comes from a lineage of practices dealing with bodies and time. Most of my work is durational performance: a process-based performance that uses actions over prolonged periods where audiences come and go as they want. I work with the time, its effects on the body, and the politics revealed through that. Conceptually, my work is interested in ideas around life and death and what it is to be mortal, particularly as someone with a life-shortening illness. I have cystic fibrosis. My work isn’t autobiographical but uses sickness to think about mortality.
DJ: What is durational performance?
MOB: Durational performance is a form in which time and the body are used as materials. Often, durational performance extends what we ordinarily do with our bodies over long periods, often involving repeated or slow actions. I’m interested in how working with exhausting or sometimes painful actions over prolonged durations can reveal something about the vulnerability of flesh and might expose what it is to be human.
DJ: Which artists have influenced you in their use of durational performance?
MOB: Kira O’Reilly talks about her body in performance as disciplined and wilfully undisciplined. Her body is in utter control of actions, holding positions and contortions, but simultaneously, there’s a sort of vulnerability. Her body is completely exposed, and her work has solid image-making quality. Franko B’s work is essential in this context, too, because it’s often about a singular image that builds, even if some of the actions aren’t necessarily sustainable over really long durations, like some of his earlier blood works. Many of the scenes in Ireland and Northern Ireland influenced me, too, including the work of Sandra Johnston, Alastair MacLennan and Nigel Rolfe, who each work with materials in exciting ways.
DJ: An artist like Sandra Johnston relies on a wholly intuitive relation to action or gesture, similar to improvisation. Is that the same for you?
MOB: I create a score for each performance, a set of actions, and a structure I can follow and quickly depart from. It has gaps, so I don’t know how I get from A to B. I have to figure it out at the moment, which requires a kind of improvisatory exploration or spontaneity and sometimes suggests that the objects or materials I use have their agency. In Last Breath Society, for example, I was working with nine coffins, constructing different images: towers and structures that I would enter into and take apart. Often, I would get myself into something and think, “Oh, my God, how do I find my way out of this one?”
DJ: Your work involves actions that are injurious or require endurance. Who inspired you?
MOB: First and foremost, Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose. Bob had cystic fibrosis, and Bob and Sheree had a full-time BDSM relationship for 16 years until Bob’s death. That lifestyle split into their work to explore love, loss, death, and mortality. Bob having cystic fibrosis was a significant influence on me becoming an artist and thinking about what it is to watch a body that may be in pain or pleasure. What’s always important in these self-imposed actions of coercion is a consensual relationship with pain. It feels politically essential to me that actions are staged as images and that it feels different to other forms of suffering where there’s no consent involved.
DJ: In the UK, there’s a thriving scene of performance art by disabled artists. I’m considering artists like the Disabled Avant-Garde (Katherine Araniello and Aaron Williamson), Noëmi Lakmaier, Rita Marcalo, Vacuum Cleaner, or Brian Lobel. What are essential tendencies, do you think, in how disability is represented or introduced into the work as material?
MOB: I think one big part of it is the denial of victimhood, which feels vital across the artists you mentioned, particularly in the works of artists whose disabilities are visible, as well as in my work. Katherine Araniello worked with a kind of gallows humour to undermine the possibility of seeing her as a victim. If you’re laughing at someone, you can’t sympathise with them at the same time. I think that’s a political gesture. There’s also a tendency to consider the body as a sculptural material. Noëmi Lakmaier, for example, often passively occupies a singular activity, like being suspended aloft by a massive cluster of helium balloons.
DJ: Another tendency is the avoidance of catharsis. It’s not the case that. by looking at you, we somehow get privileged access to your private experience as a sick person.
MOB: Yes, exactly. Similarly, I often get asked, “Is it therapy?” I’m uninterested in the idea of performance as a space of therapy, catharsis or autobiographical disclosure. For me, performance is a more politically charged space. I’m not showing people what it feels like to have cystic fibrosis. I’m more interested in borrowing from the physiology of disease: the mucus my body produces becomes a material. Breathing, coughing, and breath restriction become actions to use in performance. The stuff of illness becomes part of the performance, but it’s not cathartic. Often it’s the opposite, as I’m making my situation more complicated.
Top Photo: Zack Mennell © Courtesy Of The Artist
Martin O’Brien Fading Out Of Dead Air – Transmissions for the Necropolis 14 December Whitechapel Gallery: Visit