Visiting Artist Profiles

Stelarc

By Kara Q. Smith March 29, 2012

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.


This article is part of the Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars that intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions. Stelarc will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 2, at the Banatao Auditorium, University of California, Berkeley.

The body as obsolete

During August 2005, a small dim gallery in a Melbourne arts space housed Stelarc’s collaborative installation Blender. Four pressurized gas tanks surrounded a stainless steel column that held a clear, round, sealed container harboring liquids and solids of various colors. The materials in the container were a mixture of biomaterials, such as subcutaneous fat and peripheral nerves, extracted from the bodies of Stelarc and Nina Sellars, the creators of Blender. Accompanied by an audio track mimicking a pulse, blades inside the vessel were programmed to blend the mixture every few minutes and then stop again, to let the contents settle.1

By removing internal parts of their bodies that are unnecessary for continued existence, Stelarc and Sellars created a spectacle of innards, a visualization and modification of what is normally not thought of or seen. In Blender, the body is not present in its recognizable form. The body has been extracted and recreated, given new life through non-human mechanizations. The body as material, not as subject matter, is a theme Stelarc has emphasized throughout his career. While Blender is one of very few pieces that do not involve the physical presence of Stelarc himself, it is exemplary of the artist’s intentional weaving of the body-as-material with various technologies, and vice versa, divorcing the body from a philosophical link to transcendence and revealing technology’s potential to augment our existence.

Stelarc and Nina Sellars. Blender, 2005; acrylic, aluminum, stainless steel, pneumatics, electronics, adipose (subcutaneous fat) from Nina’s limbs and Stelarc’s torso, peripheral nerves, saline solution, Zylocain (local anesthetic), type O+ blood, ethanol, and adrenalin; 63 x 39.37 x 39.37 in. Courtesy of the Artists. 

In the 1970s, Stelarc began his suspension pieces, which were then categorized as endurance art.2 In these works, utilizing rope and fishhook-like instruments piercing his skin, Stelarc suspends his nude body in various venues and locations. Calm and swaying slightly, the suspended body is neither a recognizable body in space nor a recognizable object in its environment. The body becomes a sculptural intervention in each location. Stelarc’s early suspension works were staged with trees, but as his practice evolved, he has since been suspended over city streets and inside gallery walls, each environment creating a new dialogue concerning the relationship of the body to its surroundings. While his 1980 piece, Sitting/Swaying: Event for Rock Suspension, presented the artist in a meditation-like pose, with his tranquility emphasized by a circle of suspended rocks around him, Stelarc does not regard these suspension pieces as religious, shamanistic, or yogic. Rather, the pain involved in executing each suspension “does collapse the convenient distinction between the mind and body.… Suspended and in stress, the anonymous body realises its obsolescence.”3

Stelarc’s concept of the human body as obsolete, as manifested through Blender and his suspension pieces, does not insinuate that existence is possible without a body. Rather, the body’s form and function as they are commonly known are obsolete, and the body provides a platform for exploration and alteration.

Inside and outside the body as object

Stelarc’s continued investigation of how the body can manage with alternate sensory and operational possibilities is perhaps most literally demonstrated by his Ear on Arm project (2008).4 In this endeavor, Stelarc had a human ear—formed out of cartilage grown from his own tissue and stem cells—surgically implanted on his left forearm. Originally embedded in this ear was a tiny microphone that wirelessly transmits what it “hears” to an Internet portal, allowing remote listeners to connect to this addition on Stelarc’s left arm. The unnatural placement of the third ear and its newly created function “effectively becomes an Internet organ for the body,” fully integrated into the artist’s everyday life.5

In addition to creating a third ear, Stelarc worked on another project involving excess bodily materials in technological prosthetics. Completed in 1980, Third Hand is a capable and touch-sensitive mechanical hand, built in size and structure to match the artist’s right hand. The robotic prosthesis attaches to Stelarc’s right arm and is controlled by signals sent by electrodes from various muscles in his body. As with Stelarc’s suspension pieces, the documentation of Third Arm presents the nude artist performing with the additional member. The artist’s nudity draws the viewer’s attention to the wires, the nodes, and the aluminum hand. While the mechanical addition at first appears a great contrast against Stelarc’s flesh and hair, the artist’s performance slowly renders it an integrated extension of his bodily structure.

Stelarc. Third Hand, 1981 (performance still). Courtesy of the Artist.

In the performance Stomach Sculpture (1993), the artist inserted into his stomach a sculpture capable of producing sound and recording video. Stomach Sculpture presented the body as a vessel for a performance piece, not as a being imbued with psychological, political, and social meanings. Through his performances, Stelarc becomes less of a cyborg and more like an alien, while creating new and different functions for his body and attempting to divorce it from a philosophical human existence.

In all of Stelarc’s work, from his use of skin as sculptural material to his bodily augmentations, his body does not become the artwork. Like the extension of his skin as the support structure in his suspension pieces, Stelarc’s body is an impersonal architectural site for redesigning and experimenting. Stelarc’s use of his body invites a fair share of criticism involving the social and political implications of his work, especially regarding the issue of access to prosthetics and stem cells for those in need. However, the artist’s genius seems to be his ability to consistently speak about and create works dedicated to his performative research of the technological expansion of the body. The fluid progression of his body of work engages and influences theorists, artists, and critics from multiple fields.

In a sort of ultimate performance that brought together his past and recent works, Stelarc was suspended on March 8, 2012, at Scott Livesey Galleries in Melbourne, Australia, over a large plaster sculpture of his left arm, complete with a protruding ear.6 After all is said and written about his work, he has a great sense of humor.

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The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.

Notes

  1.  Description of exhibition and installation details adapted from Julie Clark, “Corporeal Mélange: Aesthetics and Ethics of Biomaterials in Stelarc and Nina Sellar’s ‘Blender,’” Leonardo 39, no. 5 (2006): 410–416.
  2. “Endurance Art,” Performing Arts Journal 18, no. 3 (September 1996): 66­–70.
  3. From “Suspensions” on the artist’s website, http://stelarc.org/?catID=20316 (March 26, 2012).
  4. Stelarc, in conversation with Liz Carr, November 25, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pb_u6vlB7s.
  5. From “Ear on Arm” on the artist’s website, http://stelarc.org/?catID=20242 (March 26, 2012).
  6. For more information and documentation, see: http://www.scottliveseygalleries.com/Exhibition.aspx?ExhibitionId=68 (March 26, 2012).

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