Art comes from skill
“I am going to teach you how to govern your body” – this is more or less how Florentina Holzinger’s latest piece, Tanz, begins. In any case, according to both the website and the artist, it’s about disciplining of the body: in culturally legitimate and illegitimate ways. Disciplinatory body practices have been and continue to be legitimate in various cultures, forms and contexts. After all, the dream of being able to control one’s own body and, by extension, nature itself has been a central element in European thought since the Stoics, with similar approaches also present in other cultural regions. This is evident in ballet as well as in high-performance sports, in body practices with religious connotations as well as in spectacular stunts. The practices are often attempts at self-optimisation, most notably in the name of art and beauty, and they frequently aim to test the strength of the ego by disciplining the body. It’s obvious that even such culturally legitimised forms of self-optimisation have been faced with criticism over the course of history, and this is also a major theme of Holzinger’s performance. The performers’ pointedly bloody ballet shoes are only one manifestation of an awareness of the violence inherent in disciplination of any kind and the price of (self-)mastery.
And yet, as spectators, we do enjoy Holzinger’s body-spectacle, which always wishes to impress and entertain as well. All the seats are filled in Hall G, as we voyeuristically gaze at well-toned naked female bodies stretching and doing resilience exercises, eagerly awaiting the acrobatic interludes characteristic of the artist’s work, and the performers’ ability to urinate on request makes us smile in amusement. When asked during his trial following Art and Revolution (1968) about his ability to defecate at will, Vienna Actionist Günter Brus stated: “Art comes from skill.”
Deliberate injury to the body, however, as a special form of disciplination, may quickly lose its legitimacy despite the concomitant fascination. Religious self-flagellation, harmful BDSM practices, anorexics, self-cutting in adolescents, body modifications or so-called freak shows featuring elements of self-harm – what all these examples have in common is that the injury to the body is frequently perceived as pointless and therefore illegitimate, which often leads to pathologisation, banalisation – “they just want to attract attention” – or (aggressive) disassociation.
This also applies to artistic self-harm. Although it has been part and parcel of body art since the 1960s – VALIE EXPORT has done it, as have Günter Brus, Marina Abramović and Chris Burden, but also younger artists like Roberta Lima – the practice of self-harm continues to unsettle audiences and raises questions concerning motivation. The same is true for Holzinger. At the end of Tanz, when a performer has four metal hooks driven through the skin on her shoulder blades, which doesn’t exactly go smoothly owing to the resistant flesh, and in the process some blood is spilled, a murmur runs through the audience. Spectators wince, avert their eyes, hold their breath – “Ages 18 and over!”, the programme had warned. The audience’s reactions are amplified by a live camera transmitting the procedure in a close-up to screens mounted in the foreground. When the performer is finally pulled up into the air by the four wing-like hooks and then swings back and forth in an increasingly faster and wilder witch ride as streaks of blood run down her breast and back, the audience seems to vibrate in a mixed state of horror and disgust, fascination and co-pain – talk about mirror neurons! “Is this kind of disciplination even legitimate?”, one wonders at the premiere party.
Both ballet and Holzinger’s “sylphic reverie in stunts” (the piece’s subtitle) are essentially about the illusion of weightlessness; an aesthetics of transcendence in which laws of nature seem to be suspended. In both cases, this includes injuring the body: a ballerina’s permanently battered feet – as we have known since the film Black Swan (2010) at the latest – are emblematic of this fact. But while we readily accept or even disregard the effects on the body in ballet, the bloody suspension as a spectacle in TQW went too far in the eyes of many audience members. Why? Because the injuries in ballet remain hidden while Holzinger puts them in plain sight? Or because, in ballet, the epitome of bourgeois high culture, the injury serves a “higher” purpose, i.e. the beauty of form, while performers on meat hooks seem to be devoid of meaning? On closer inspection, the difference in assessment – i.e. which disciplinations are legitimate or even regarded as heroic in a culture and which are perceived as pointless and deviant – seems arbitrary, and that is precisely what Holzinger’s work states clearly: the relativity of legitimacy, the inescapable interconnectedness of the sublime with suffering – “Everything that goes up must come down”, the artist said in an interview – and the hypocritical nature of our value judgments.
Change of scene: Between 1976 and 2012, Greek-Australian performance artist Stelarc performed about thirty Suspensions, i.e. actions in which he was suspended in various positions and environments on metal hooks driven through his flesh. Stelarc also wanted to discipline his body and declared: “My events are involved with transcending normal human parameters, including pain – to manifest an all-important concept.” But while his machist exercises in proving himself and his fantasies of omnipotence earned Stelarc harsh criticism from feminist quarters and, in his attempt to optimise the body, he was even taken to be leaning towards fascism, feminist circles in particular are in raptures about Tanz – and even rewarded the self-harm sequence with spontaneous applause. How to explain this phenomenon?
In my opinion, the reason lies in the consistent self-disavowal as a dramaturgical principle which Holzinger has been programmatically pursuing in all her works. It is, however, surprising in the context of artistic self-harm. Because, in the vast majority of cases, this is accompanied by a certain existential pathos, or at least unbroken seriousness. Even Günter Brus, whose early Actionist works were interspersed with humour, turned tragically serious whenever he began to injure himself. Holzinger breaks with this tradition, probably not least because she has put her work in a different frame of reference altogether: that of fairgrounds and freak shows. Instead of pathos and tragedy she relies on an aesthetics of the spectacle, of horror and trash. Subtlety is mercilessly cast out in the process, profundity is programmatically prevented, and yet the blood that flows is real. Consequently, not only is the self-harm sequence immediately followed by a lurid splatter scene, but the bloody suspension itself is constantly undermined in a humorous manner, for example, by equipping the hovering performer with a broom for her to smugly ride through the air, in line with the “Witches – Sisters in Crime” theme.
What Tanz thus manages to create, and, in my mind, this is a major strong point of the evening, is the juxtaposition of apparent opposites whose contradictory natures are not reconciled. The piece transgressively links concepts that ordinarily exclude one another: self-harm and humour, sublimity and trash, beauty and disgust, but also motherliness and desire, age and sexuality, as exemplified by the monstrous birth of a rat that is laboured out of 78-year-old ballet dancer Beatrice Cordua’s vulva. Holzinger’s version of abject art.
However, control and loss of control are also presented as inextricably linked, as illustrated by the performer’s bleeding wounds. Because a wound is always both a guarantor and a denouncer at the same time. On the one hand, it bears witness to the disciplination of the body but, at the same time, in the omnipresence of vulnerability, it maintains the necessary failure of such an endeavour, which is particularly evident in Beatrice Cordua’s naked body, showing signs of age and illness – her left breast bears scars from a breast cancer operation. Holzinger does not keep this hidden this either.
But what can the disciplination of the body actually achieve in the face of its inevitable mortality?
While this question was traditionally taken up with a dualistic image of humans, with a readiness to harm the body as a means of testifying to the independence of the will – and for this in particular Stelarc was criticised – Holzinger stands firm in light of the unanswerability of this question – because any answer would fall short – and thus the insoluble conflict of control and loss of control. In fact, she even reaffirms it. Accordingly, the ego does not become a glorified dualistic-phallogocentric ideal in Holzinger’s work, instead, it is rigorously deconstructed, if not destroyed, in queer-feminist ways. And this is a distinctive quality of contemporary feminist art, which Holzinger epitomises: performers don’t seem to take anything or anyone seriously, including themselves, and yet they make capital out of themselves, which, in spite of the irony, creates a (political) urgency that is particularly evident in the crudeness of self-harm. Precisely because Holzinger denies meaning and thus legitimacy to the self-harm shown, it becomes a subversive act instead of being absorbed by ideology.
Dr Rosemarie Brucher is Vice-Rector for Research at the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna (MUK) and Associate Professor of Theatre Studies at the Graz University of Arts Centre for Gender Studies. Various publications on the topic of artistic self-harm, including the monograph Subjektermächtigung und Naturunterwerfung. Künstlerische Selbstverletzung im Zeichen von Kants Ästhetik des Erhabenen, Bielefeld 2013. Her research interests also include performance art, Vienna Actionism, subject theory and difference theory, gender studies and queer studies, and the linkage between art, philosophy and the psycho-sciences around 1900.
 Stelarc in a letter to Ken Scarlett in October 1975; as quoted in Stelarc, James D. Paffrath (ed.), Obsolete Body / Suspensions / Stelarc, Davis (CA) 1984, p. 8.
More texts in TQW MAGAZIN
Give feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org