There’s art that challenges you, and art that’s simply not for you

By Sara Muthi

There’s those who see art as an externalisation of the human experience, people who see art as something beautiful or impressive. Some see it as pompous, pretentious and nothing more than an attempt to extract a reaction from the public. Alternatively, there’s those who see art as a branch of academics, who attempt to make connections externally from themselves about the world, politics, art of previous generations and consider it as legitimate a study as history or physics. The “visual academics” is a term I often use.

Personally, I don’t care for art’s aesthetic or emotion. I tend to only share or take seriously educated opinions. That’s just me. Before I respond to any work by an artist, I comb through as much research as I can get my hands on. If possible, interview the artists or curators, plan and re-plan every article and essay, beginning middle and end. Every time. I most importantly refrain from using the word “I”, which makes writing this all the more strange to me. This is a method I developed through my BA, and gives me peace of mind that I am representing every work as objectively  as I can, removing the margin of error known I’ve come to know as ignorance. However, I was recently confronted with a performance by Martin O’Brien at the Dublin Live Art Festival that shattered my conventional working methods.

20988275_10155493767410586_1305846975235788755_o.jpg

Ample warning was given to the audience prior to entering this performance. Blood, flesh and self harm were the three terms of caution used by the organisers that had instantly tied a knot in my stomach. Nonetheless, as a writer I figured I ought to put my personal reservations aside and attempt to see the work objectively. I was struck by the scent of sanitiser as I reasoned with myself to go up the stairs of the Complex, however I could not force myself into a place of emotional distress for long.

O’Brien slowly makes his way down the stairs into the room, a plastic bag covers his face as he attempts to breath heavily into his stomach. Inhaling deeply and desperately; his ribs become increasingly evident. A tray of surgical equipment occupied the direction the suffocating O’Brien was going. The overwhelming instinct of flight flooded my body, the anticipation of witnessing self harm had already become too much to bare. I quickly and discretely left the room and gasped for air, ironically mimicking the actions of O’Brien.

20988215_10155493767420586_7746926928702790213_o.jpg

Part of what makes the work of Martin O’Brien so remarkable is how his work relates to his terminal illness, Cystic Fibrosis. The strain and levels of endurance O’Brien subjects on his body for his durational performances is uniquely tied to the stress his body is constantly in living with C.F. Bob Flanagn is a highly influential performer who also suffered from the same illness and used the endurance of pain within his work as a way of prolonging his life and was subsequently the longest survivor of Cystic Fibrosis, dying at 44. There are no doubt ties between these two practices, however unique in their execution and use of the sick body. O’Brien’s work is highly relevant and influential to today’s performance art landscape and should not be clouded by my own inability to stomach the work.

I cannot express why my body reacted to the way it did to the anticipation surrounding this performance. Guttural is the only word that comes to mind. No doubt there are answers to what prevented me from witnessing an almost fully nude, Cystic Fibrosis suffer from cutting himself. However, I’m not about to go down that road.

20900819_10155493769365586_1067375273542239423_o.jpg

At fifteen my art teacher nominated me to shadow a third year sculpture student at the National College of Art and Design. Never had I felt more at home than among artists and academics, all talking about one thing, contemporary art. I hadn’t thought of anything ever since. Nothing could pull my curiosity away from studying the works of Sol LeWitt, Amanda Coogan, Michaël Borremans or the writing of Roland Barthes, Lucy Lippard, Susan Sontag and my person favourite, Peggy Phelan. Now in my MA I am more enthusiast than ever to respond and envelop myself into the contemporary art world, particularly that of the study of performance art. As seriously as I take my work, for most of us, art is not life or death. If you feel challenged by the work of an artist, make it your mission to learn more, be uncomfortable and you will gain so much from it. However, if you simply can’t stomach a work, maybe it’s not for you. At the end of the day, art is just art. There’s art that challenges you and art that’s simply not for you.

Martin O’Brien performed It’s Good to Breath In (This Dublin Air) at the The Complex on 19 August 2017 as part of the Dublin Live Art Festival, curated by Niamh Murphy and Francis Fay. Photographs by Francis Fay.

Advertisements

Fleeting Breath

By Dr. Kate Antosik-Parsons

Martin O’Brien’s two-hour intensely embodied live art work, It’s Good to Breath In (This Dublin Air), was performed at The Complex for the Dublin Live Art Festival (August 2017). Two large metal doors opened to reveal the artist seated atop metal stairs. Wearing a white jockstrap and a black PVC fetish mask with an expandable latex face piece, he took deep, controlled breaths, the translucent latex inflating when he exhaled. Alarmingly, the suction of breath inwards formed a seal over his mouth, his face temporarily arresting in a wordless scream. The recycling of oxygen in the mask and its tightness around his neck left his upper body flushed from the exertion. He descended the stairs and moved through the crowd, at times crawling. As he moved towards a small metal table that held various surgical implements and medical supplies, I wondered, with a mix of fascination and slight horror, how the performance would unfold.

IMG_5672 copy

O’Brien has Cystic Fibrosis, a chronic and fatal genetic disease of the mucus glands that affects the respiratory, digestive and reproductive systems and sweat glands.[1] It’s Good to Breath In (This Dublin Air) was based on series of actions that recalled the specifics of Cystic Fibrosis; coughing, shortness of breath, the expulsion of phlegm, stimulation of thirst and need to protect the body from infection. These engaged with his personal familial history, with its origins in Dublin, and his queer identity. The use of different latex masks and the performative self-mutilation body practices evoked pain, and, at times pleasure, associated with Cystic Fibrosis and the erotic, interpersonal role playing BDSM practices. O’Brien’s performance drew parallels with American performance artist Bob Flanagan (1952-1996) whose personal motto ‘fight sickness with sickness’ located his work in the intersections of Cystic Fibrosis and BDSM.[2]

The intensity and intimacy maintained throughout the performance was demanding for the viewer. After urinating into a metal bowl, O’Brien vigorously whisked warm piss with traces of bubble liquid from a small plastic bubble wand. Moving slowly and deliberately, he had a series of fascinating interactions with the crowd gathered as he blew piss bubbles at individual viewers. Each person encountered gauged their level of discomfort and indeed, engagement with this action. I stood opposite the artist and we shared an intense connection. His gaze challenged me, was he asking for my consent? By remaining still had I given it? He seemed aware of my uncertainty and smiled mischievously. As he pursed his lips to blow, I had but seconds to decide, would I allow his excretions to land on my face? The bubble released from the wand and gently floated towards me. Genuine laughter broke out as I cleverly avoided it using my own breath to blow it back towards him, the force of which caused it to pop in mid-air. As it burst it was symbolic of the fleetingness of breath.

IMG_5712 copy

The presence of the respiratory system, specifically the lungs, loomed throughout the performance, not only in the guise of the inhalation and expulsion of breath, but there were numerous allusions to their anatomical shape in the artist’s different actions. Cutting his skin with a scalpel, O’Brien traced the outline the organ onto the exterior of his body. Later, when he stood in a black trough cleansing himself and gargling with water mixed with urine, his body was lit from two spotlights that cast a double shadow behind him. Remarkably, it appeared to be a spectre of the lungs. Seated on the cold, concrete floor, he stuck white cotton balls to his chest in the outline of the lungs and trachea with white, tacky glue, it’s dripping, sticky qualities referenced both phlegm and male ejaculation. In the final part of the performance, and not coincidentally, one of its most compelling moments, O’Brien fit a flat, square makeshift device with a hole in the centre, reminiscent of a cock ring, around his scrotum and penis. Using needles, he splayed and pinned different parts of his flesh to its black background, manipulating his anatomy into the shape of the lungs. The frame around his genitalia provoked consideration of the ways in which sick bodies, like queer bodies, can be stigmatized and objectified. These disconcerting actions were both provocative and defiant as O’Brien sought to push his body, and the audience, to the limit, in turn highlighting the fragility of life and his struggle for survival.

Martin O’Brien performed It’s Good to Breath In (This Dublin Air) at the The Complex on 19 August 2017 as part of the Dublin Live Art Festival, curated by Niamh Murphy and Francis Fay. Photographs by Fiona Killeen (www.blueprintphotography.ie).

 

[1] Ireland has the highest incidences of Cystic Fibrosis with approximately 1 in 19 Irish people carrying one copy of the altered gene. https://www.cfireland.ie/about-cf/carrier-testing-for-cf

[2] Dominic Johnson, The Art of Living: An Oral History of Performance Art, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, p.115. Interestingly, O’Brien collaborated with Sheree Rose, Flanagan’s partner, on several performances between 2012 – 2016.