naked history

rachel lois clapham entranced by kira o'reilly at SPILL

Kira O'Reilly

Kira O’Reilly

Kira O’Reilly

FROM THE FAR END OF A ROW OF OLD RAILWAY ARCHES UNDERNEATH LONDON BRIDGE STATION A WHITE SHAPE LOOMS SLOWLY OUT OF THE DARKNESS TOWARDS US. WE STRAIN TO SEE MORE CLEARLY BUT THE SHAPE IS ONLY GLIMPSED OCCASIONALLY WHEN SHAFTS OF LIGHT FALL THROUGH THE GAPS IN THE SURROUNDING ARCHES. EVENTUALLY I MAKE OUT THE BACK OF A FIGURE. KIRA O’REILLY IS NAKED EXCEPT FOR A PAIR OF RED SHINY STILETTOS, A BLACK FEATHER HEADDRESS AND A MIRROR THROUGH WHICH SHE REGARDS US.

It takes more than five minutes for O’Reilly to move the short distance from her end of the corridor to ours. She smiles seductively, singles out an audience member and leads him to the adjoining arch. We follow. There, we witness several acts, including O’Reilly gently cutting herself with a scalpel and stepping to a metronome beat in a variety of taut, automaton-like movements whilst straining and teetering on her high heels. The rigidity of her body and the blank facial expression are militaristic, the strict rhythm set by the metronome suggestive of the impossible task of a body keeping up with technology.

Thoughtfully installed lighting is used to great effect in Untitled (Syncope), creating pronounced areas of darkness and invisibility under each arch into which O’Reilly moves to signal the different parts of her performance. This ‘off stage’ facility heightens the contrast between the stilettoed robotics and the second part of the performance in which she emerges from the dark minus shoes and headdress to complete a series of repeated, slower and slower balancing acts. Yet despite these poetic distractions my thoughts return continually to the artist’s nakedness.?
The naked body is part and parcel and a raison d’etre of performance art traceable back, in various guises, to the work of artists such as Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneeman, Marina Abramovich and Annie Sprinkle, and further back to the work of the 1960s Viennese Actionists. But it can still shock. Here, its power derives in part from the industrial architecture that surrounds O’Reilly’s creamy white body; her nakedness appears vulnerable and fragile in the railway arches. Every train that rumbles overhead seems to threaten her soft flesh.

The other shock is perhaps the outcome of more theoretical concerns. The red stilettos and burlesque headdress set O’Reilly up as a sex object, an image far removed from many of the iconic feminist performances from the 1970s. Her pubic hair is shaved into a severe contemporary style, her underarm hair removed, she smiles provocatively at her audience at close quarters. Perhaps this is the salient point of Untitled (Syncope)—a difference between performance now and then. O’Reilly overtly references her nakedness at one point in the performance by firmly clasping her front and back nether-regions and stalking dramatically into the darkness as if suddenly aware for the first time of her nakedness and its sexuality.

The last line in material distributed at the performance asks, “How to have a body, now?” Untitled (Syncope) is a work that grapples openly with the problematic of its own erotics.

Kira O’Reilly, Untitled (Syncope), Shunt, SPILL Festival of Performance, London, April 7

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. web

© Rachel Lois Clapham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2007