Performance artist Stelarc in his sculpture, Reclining Stickman. Photograph: Saul Steed/AGSA
Stelarc has suspended himself from hooks and had an ear surgically constructed on his arm. Now his Adelaide biennial work puts the audience at the helm.
What was it about the 1970s that promoted suffering for one’s art? In Rhythm 0 (1974), Marina Abramović stood next to a table loaded with items ranging from a rose to a gun, and let the audience desecrate her with them. Tehching Hsieh took a two-storey leap for Jump Piece (1973) and broke his ankles. Chris Burden somehow lived to the age of 69, despite – in the same curious decade – getting a friend to shoot him, cramming himself into a locker for five days and nailing himself onto a Volkswagen Beetle. For Eleanor Antin’s 1972 work Carving a Traditional Sculpture, the artist crash-dieted for 45 days and documented her decline.
Stelarc’s series of 25 Body Suspensions also began in that decade, when the singularly named performance artist lived in Japan. Before one such flesh-hook suspension, at Tokyo’s Komai Gallery, he additionally stitched his lips and eyelids shut for a week. Since then, he has continued to use his body – he calls it “the body” – as a medium, subjecting it to surgical construction, liposuction, implanting, sensory deprivation and internal probing with recording devices.
Yet when we meet for coffee in Melbourne, Stelarc says, “I am the least tormented person you’ll probably ever meet.” His practice is not about exploring what the body is capable of, but rather about understanding its limitations. Stelarc sees the body as an object among other objects, to be assembled as part of a greater structure. And, he adds, he doesn’t get a kick out of pain. “I would scream and shout in the dentist’s chair as much as anyone would,” he says.
Stelarc was born Stelios Arcadiou in 1946 in Cyprus and raised in Sunshine, Melbourne. Initially, he was going to study architecture at Melbourne University, before realising he was more interested in the architecture of the body and switching to art school.
Stelarc, connecting himself to the internet. Photograph: BBC-2
Now in his 70s, Stelarc has engineered a new work for the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art with its theme of Monster Theatres. Reclining Stickman taps into his interest in prosthetics, robotics, cybernetics biotechnology and virtual reality, which began when he moved to Japan as a young man and became fascinated by its hi-tech culture.
The 9m robot has rubber muscles and can be operated by Stelarc, using pneumatic joysticks, when he sits in it. It can also be choreographed remotely by the public, at any time of day, from anywhere in the world, by using the interface on his website. The Art Gallery of South Australia is working to move the exhibition online during the gallery’s Covid-19 closure, but this is one work that was ahead of the curve. Like curator Leigh Robb says: “At a time when we are physically distanced, Stelarc’s robot offers moments of intimacy with art and technology.”
Back in the mid-70s, Stelarc had intended his very first flesh-hook suspension to be in Adelaide, at the Experimental Art Foundation, but it turned into “a melodrama” that shaped his way of working from that moment onwards.
“The media found out what was going to happen and there was an outcry,” he says. “There were comments from doctors saying that this was self-harm, that it might cause a fatality. Thirty minutes before the performance, the foundation withdrew their support, and then the accusation in the media was that the whole thing had been a stunt and hadn’t really been going to happen.”
Ever since, his more controversial performances have been unadvertised and are usually only performed in front of those who helped build the installation.
As the director of the Alternate Anatomies Lab at Perth’s Curtin University, Stelarc has overseen many research projects that tie in to his interests, including Ambidextrous Arm – a prototype arm with a manipulator that is double-jointed, allowing it to be both a left hand and a right hand – that could benefit amputees.
His friend, Neuromancer author William Gibson, wrote of Stelarc’s work: “I associate it with da Vinci’s ornithopter, eccentric 19th-century velocipedes, and Victorian schemes for electroplating the dead – though not retrograde in any way. Instead, it seems timeless … moments of the purest technologically induced cognitive disjunction.”
I ask Stelarc if he thinks he’s doing a service to science by demonstrating what can be done without the constraints of ethics boards, risk assessment and other red tape.
It took Stelarc 10 years to find surgeons willing to create his extra ear. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
“I don’t think realistically that artists meaningfully contribute to science,” he says. “I’m very sceptical of this kind of mashing together – which is now becoming more and more a genre of artistic practice – because the methodologies of scientific research and artistic actions are totally different ... You don’t want a situation where artists do bad research and scientists make bad art.”
Another of his ongoing projects is Ear on Arm, and he sportingly rolls up his sleeve in the cafe to show me. It took Stelarc 10 years to find three surgeons willing to form the ear on his left forearm. It’s made out of cartilage grown from his tissue and stem cells, shaped into a “scaffold”, then implanted. He had originally wanted to put the ear on his head, next to his actual ear. “But, you know, no surgeon would do it.”
Originally, the ear was to have a microphone embedded in it that would transmit the noises around Stelarc to an internet portal, allowing others to eavesdrop. He might even whisper things into his own forearm for them to hear. But the site became infected when wires were introduced, and, as he says, “I almost lost an arm for an ear.” He was hospitalised for a week and put on industrial-strength antibiotics for six months.
“What’s interesting about any art project is the slippage that occurs between intention and actual outcome,” he says cheerfully. “I’ve always admitted that I’ve made a career out of being a failure – nothing I imagine turns out the way I expected it to.”