Performing pain + sentiment

Joni Taylor: Monika Tichacek performance artist

Monika Tichacek, I wanna be loved by you
(detail of hair pinned onto head) 2000

Monika Tichacek, I wanna be loved by you
(detail of hair pinned onto head) 2000

I strive for beautiful things that seduce, and also disturb.

It’s some time since a young performance artist has achieved major recognition. It’s also a while since an artist violating the boundaries of the skin even got a mention. Unlike others a la Stelarc and Epizoo who explore the futuristic body in relation to machines and technology, Monika Tichacek’s work is very much engrained in the now, but also in the nostalgic past.

She recently won the $40,000, 2001 Helen Lempriere Travelling Arts Scholarship with her work Romance, exhibited at Artspace, Sydney. Tichacek completed her Honours (Bachelor of Fine Arts) at COFA (College of Fine Arts, UNSW) in 2000 and has exhibited at various Sydney galleries and at IPS in New York.

When you meet the 26-year-old, take heed of her words: “It may not taste as sweet as it looks.” But instead of the shock value of much extremist art, her installation performances are extremely beautiful.

Tichacek’s interest in plastic surgery and medical procedures is very specific: “I’m not for or against these practices, it’s more a fascination. When you look at how science has taken over, especially genetic engineering and reproductive technologies, it’s frightening.” Although technology may be the subject, it’s not the medium. Earlier pieces like Once Mother Read Me Rapunzel (1999) were made of latex, dolls and hypodermic needles.

She began invading her body with pins in I am not my mother 2 (1999). Together with Lisa Cooper, she inserted whitetipped pins along the contours of her body as part of the Dissonance exhibition at Performance Space. “I had been making objects, but really wanted to use my own body. I became interested in fashion-patterns, trying to cut to body shapes along set lines. I also went to medical libraries, and was fascinated with how they would draw lines all across the body before operations.”

Monika claims to be more a part of the installation than a performer. She consistently sets up the space as a walk-in environment. It’s not performative, but almost decorative, with all the trimmings. “I see it as interactive sculpture as opposed to inanimate objects. It’s a live body in the space, and usually I’m extremely passive, there’s not much action.”

By their very nature the works are personal. In Lovesick (1999), the tattoos of Tichacek and her partner, artist Emma Price, were illuminated by light boxes. This is not the first project she collaborated on with Emma. Homecoming King (2001) was an installation made for the Mardi Gras festival. “It was based on our tour to Memphis, and was a reaction to the shabbiness and sadness of the Heartbreak Hotel.” In this piece, the room was decorated as the ideal bedroom. It’s here that the motifs in Monika’s work are seen again, the exquisite needlework in the immaculately sewn headboard, and the towels emboidered with “Elvis” and “Priscilla.” In the video component, the 2 artists played out the couple. “I am also fascinated by drag and the constructions of heterosexuality, including male sexuality. I love mainstream romance. The old soaps. Kitsch love hearts.”

In I Wanna be loved by You (2000), Tichacek lay inside a long box, a Rapunzel-like wig fastened to her forehead with needles, with long blonde locks that spread throughout the gallery space. The audience could look through a glass peephole showing Tichacek’s distorted and heavily made up face, reminiscent of pixilated TV: “TV is very important to me. I get a lot of inspiration and disgust from it.”

The TV was an integral element to the winning piece Romance. In the live version of the 2-hour work she lies still, in the traditional reclining nude pose. The room is a white surgery with white chocolate moulds on the walls. Her face is pulled and threaded with separate needles, in post surgery positions. Puffy, freshly siliconed lips, high cheekbones, flared nostrils. It’s only via a video monitor that the audience can see her. The space is un-enterable.

So, are these actions necessary for her art—and there’s no denying it’s for the sake of art—or is there an element of personal satisfaction? “I hope that the audience won’t just focus on the piercings. In my work I’m dealing with the body, so it seems useless to use fake props like latex.” But what about the pain—it’s hard to ignore these instruments of cruelty when taken out of the hospitals and stuck in the gallery: “They add an extremity and urgency to my work that contrasts with the serenity and sterility of the surroundings.” As with much so-called ‘Mutilation’ art—a term she eschews—it’s an issue of transforming the pain into something else. Her work alludes “to changing the past, making it become good. The body stores many precious and sentimental things.”

So what about survival? “Funding is difficult…sometimes it’s as though I don’t fit in. There is some money out there for performance and theatre, but it’s difficult to sustain any art practice, especially one that is not a commodified piece.” Monika is also very involved in the Imperial Slacks Gallery, one of the few artist-run spaces in Sydney. As part of their policy, they try to encourage as much performance and experimental art as possible.

With her prize money Monika hopes to travel and learn with Mathew Barney in New York. “I think Barney is the ultimate in this type of practice. There’s total excess of all levels in his performance installations.” It’s this area especially that intrigues her. “His works are productions, massive big-scale events. I would like to be involved and work in that environment.”

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 12

© Joni Taylor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001