National Review of Live Art: blood lines

Keith Gallasch

Kira O'Reilly

Kira O'Reilly

For 4 days, Brisbane’s Powerhouse offered free access to work by leading British performance artists selected from the annual National Review of Live Art’s roster of commissionees, artists-in-residence and programmed artists. For the background to this organisation and annual event established in 1983 and, since 1988, based in Glasgow, see RealTime 50, and for an account of the scale and range of this year’s NRLA, a more diverse field than performance art, see Edward Scheer’s “From ice-cream wars to retro-futurism” in RealTime 49, p27.
The NRLA contingent was lead by Nikki Millican, Artistic Director of the event since 1984. With her were Kira O’Reilly, Michael Mayhew, Richard Layzell and Robert Ayers, who all presented works, and Mary Brennan, a Glasgow journalist for The Herald and a great supporter of live art.

By all accounts the NRLA has played a key role in maintaining the traditions of performance art and helps some artists to make it central to their careers. The event is the largest of its kind and attracts interest throughout Europe and is well archived, with other work, at Nottingham Trent University. Audiences for NRLA are consistently large and, the visiting artists told us, the event is a popular one. On the downside, they regretted that there was no UK magazine consistently reporting and responding to live art. This is certainly odd given the form’s currency and the NRLA’s success. RealTime, with its strong focus on contemporary performance (though less so on performance art whose fortunes in Australia have been less evident) was regarded with admiration and envy, they said.

This 4 day, mini-NRLA provided a rare opportunity to glimpse aspects of UK performance art and to engage in several long open discussions about the work. On the final afternoon, a group of Brisbane artists from performance and dance gave brief presentations. They included performance artist Richard Oman, whose recent receipt of a government grant had been met with hostility by Brisbane’s Courier Mail.

Hopefully, this visit and its Perth equivalent will encourage future exchanges of UK and Australian artists, as Nikki Millican has already demonstrated she can organise and with great commitment. Millican, with Robyn Archer, through her 2002 Adelaide Festival, and with Australia Council support, curated a major choreographic workshop at the festival and managed the subsequent visit of some 30 Australian choreographers and dancers to Glasgow as part of New Moves (new territories). From that event, Millican invited Brisbane’s Lisa O’Neill and Melbourne’s Cazerine Barry to the following NRLA and has programmed Melbourne’s Helen Herbertson for 2003. The O’Neill and Barry works had been Powerhouse commissions. Powerhouse Artistic Director Zane Trow saw his hosting of the NRLA in Australia as contributing to a developing exchange of art and ideas. With the almost concurrent presence of Robert Pacitti and curious.com here for the Time_Space_Place workshop in Wagga Wagga (see RT#53), Blast Theory at Sydney’s Artspace (RT#51, p24), 32,000 point of light at Performance Space (Dec 6-14), and the recent visit of the Akram Khan Dance Company (who conducted a workshop in Western Sydney through UNSW), the connection between British and Australian contemporary art seems ripe for development. It offers more opportunities for redefinition of our perceptions of each other’s cultures than visits of the Royal Ballet or Royal Shakespeare Company.

Kira O’Reilly: Sssshh…Succour

The skin being cut — (neither here nor there)

Like breaking the surface tension of water
Kira O’Reilly sits naked on a white chair on a white towel. Her body is white, her hair black, cut in a Louise Brooks bob. The floor is covered with a fine layer of brightly lit white sand. Next to O’Reilly is another chair and towel. In the small gallery space the audience tightly frame the artist. From the 3 metal trays of packaged scalpels, medical tape and gauze in front of her on the floor she selects a hand mirror which she peers into, angling it to catch each of us eye to eye as a prelude to the work. Throughout the 40 minute performance the tempo is regular, more deliberate than matter-of-fact, a quiet ritual, as O’Reilly tapes her left leg from the ankle to top of the thigh in perfect circles and then with long lines down the leg, creating small rectangles of protruding flesh. She unpacks a scalpel and carefully slices a red diagonal across each space. Only here and there does the flesh release a trickle of blood, the rest glint in clean red parallel lines. O’Reilly’s head is lowered, focused on the task, hair across the eyes, the body accepting its own ministrations without resistance or visible reaction. The sheer symmetry of the grid and the colour that fills it, the artfulness and calm yield a strange contemplativeness as if we are witnessing a writing which is not immediately intelligible so much as deeply suggestive.

O’Reilly stops, but only momentarily before taking up new rolls of tape and this time creating these curious longitudes and lattitudes on the upper body, from above the pubic hairline to just above the breasts. Again she cuts shallowly, into abdomen, against ribs, into the breast, but only on the right side of the body (later she tells us she is saving the right leg and left torso for Perth’s Artrage the following week). She puts down the scalpel. She slowly removes the tape. She picks up the sheets of gauze, pressing them one by one gently against the skin to receive the thin lines of blood and lays them out on the sand. She is briefly still, her body a picture of living fine red lines and random dark trickles. She takes a towel and wipes herself down with a perfunctoriness that suprises some of the audience, blurring the lines, reddening the skin, a moment of mess, beauty smudged, erased (“Very real” someone says). She takes the mirror, looks steadily into it at us, then stands and leaves.
This is a very long, intense 40 minutes in which the mind autopilots on a number of unpredictable emotional and aesthetic trajectories of varying durations. Among many other associations (amidst the usual theoretical standbys surrounding some 40 years of performance art), the performer’s essential stillness evokes the life model, the taping of the body recalls the butcher’s preparation of a brisket with string (see the artist’s curious choice of ‘tenderised’ in the next paragraph), the bright whiteness and clinical equipment suggest the care and hygiene of the surgeon. As the blade cuts into the upper thigh or the breast, images of accidental cuts to one’s own flesh are triggered. However, most of all it feels as if it’s about the artist meticulously and skillfully at work, and for that reason is less disturbing than I’d anxiously anticipated, but is no less rich.

O’Reilly writes in the program notes that, “This action begins where words fail me…Using processes of measuring and cutting, the skin is (re)marked, like a text or a drawing, etching a history that can be followed on the surface of the skin, like a palimpsest. Tenderised, it brings sharply into focus a visual and visceral vocabulary that invokes notions of trauma (a wound) and stigma (a mark) towards a ‘spoiling’ and opening of the body to explore an alterity or otherness.”

O’Reilly is not telling what that trauma might be (if indeed it is specific) nor what is precisely entailed in “investigating the unruly and chaotic materiality of my substance and the disparate narratives within.” Queried by an audience member in a forum she displays no interest in psychoanalytic readings of her work and offers little or nothing in the way of autobiographical clues. A documentary on the NRLA has O’Reilly describing another of her works as “inspired by the 19th century idea of hysteria that women unleashed, mixed with my own life” and the “violent mysogynist texts written by my [novelist] father” and “act[ed} out on my body.” We catch a glimpse of another work where she has leeches attached to her back, drinking their fill and falling off, leaving 2 black holes, which Mary Brennan, the Glasgow reviewer (a rare and passionate appreciator of the whole gamut of live art) experienced as a range of intense associations. “Images washed through me: Man Ray’s woman as cello, various taboos and rituals, mediaeval history, stigmata, the audience drinking the spectacle, leech-like.” Brennan says that if she left an NRLA show “feeling alright, it wouldn’t be the NRLA.”

O’Reilly recalls her first motivation to perform arising from being impressed by seeing male artists “opening their bodies” and thinking why shouldn’t women do it. She doesn’t, she says, experience catharsis in executing the work: “It’s research. It will stop when it’s time to move on. It’s never the same.” She mentions that the work has carried over now into her drawings where she “cuts buildings.” She declares that “most body art is not sensationalist, it’s very responsible,” quipping that “if I wanted to push boundaries, I’d go to the gym.” As for what she experiences during the work, it’s fear, reverie, joy and, now, an interest in the look that passes between her and individual audience members. She likes the way they gaze back: “It’s like a camera, and I could see behind me.” This was the first time she’d used a mirror, having seen a fellow artist working with one.

It was interesting to hear that she’d wanted to perform not on sand but on sugar, liking the way that it drinks up blood and is edible (but there were logistical problems). We were curious about the second chair and towel: “That was for someone from the audience, if they chose to sit there. I don’t know what I would have done if they had.”
If O’Reilly’s performance was immaculately made and staged, her 3 male companions in NRLA Artistic Director Nikki Millican’s mini-program for Australia were purveyors of the more familiar informal mode of performance art. Michael Mayhew and Robert Ayers presented 3 hour pieces which were visually and verbally discursive but with a mysterious sense of purpose which we guessed at in our own comings and goings—to and from another performance, or a forum, or a lively and informative online discussion (led by QUT’s Brad Haseman) with Barry Smith, director of the enviable live art archive at Nottingham Trent University.

Keith Gallasch was a guest of the Brisbane Powerhouse for the NRLA season.
The National Revew of Live Art UK, curator Nikki Millican, Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts, Oct 15-18

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 31

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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