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Flying Porcelain and Burning Liver: The Contested Spaces of Sinead and Hugh O'Donnell by Emma Doran

As someone who has never been personally affected by nationally-sanctioned, ideological violence I tend to conceptualize its insidious effects as a collective problem. As an outsider I see it myopically, ignorant of the long-term effects on the individual body. Sibling performance artists Sinead and Hugh O'Donnell both live and work in post civil war Northern Ireland, an area imprinted by civil upheaval. The works both artists presented at the Toronto Free Gallery referenced this—the tumultuous past of their home country—decades after the most severe violent incidents, revealing the perennial endurance of trauma. Even more fascinating is that the pair are originally from Dublin (an area in the South less impacted by the civil war) and both relocated to Belfast to attend university and this is where they now live and create their work. I would guess that the character of contemporary Belfast is one of shifting and plural identities, much like the fragmented postmodern subject. I am curious about how the conflict inherent in this contested space manifests itself subconsciously in the body and the psyche of its citizens.

The choice to reference Northern Ireland in the works presented in Toronto seems indicative of the suspended effects of trauma. Or perhaps being out of one's familiar surroundings has allowed these artists a different perspective on their normative environment. Ex-patriot artists are faced with this distancing effect over long periods of time as themes of cultural divergence often become preoccupations in their practice. Perhaps, when an artist uses their body as the medium, this distancing effect has an added dimension; even if the artist does not intend to consciously examine their material (the body) in its original context, it is inevitable that it reacts differently to new surroundings or, conversely, that its usual modes of being will be more noticeable out of its comfortable element.

Sinead's work, created directly in the space of the gallery, alludes to Ireland abstractly. It is not apparent as a viewer that she is referencing Ireland; however, after listening to a taped interview in which Sinead speaks about this and other prior performances I drew a connection between her childhood and how she dresses her “stage.” Favouring ordinary objects, she describes, is a way of paying homage to the lineage of her family. (In previous works she has used her grandfather's hammer to smash dinner plates). In an interview she describes how she has always had what was considered to be an unusual relationship to the objects she surrounds herself with and is interested in their culturally-bound meanings. She says of her use of dinner plates that while they may imply domesticity to a Western audience, they could and would connote affluence in other locales. Perhaps her choice to include objects that refer to her home is not unusual if one imagines the body itself as an object/subject already inscribed by this familiar space. In this scenario the body becomes a subject operating as a mediating object of the performance.

This preoccupation with objects fits with Sinead's background as a sculptor. Of her shift from sculpture to performance she says “I took the three-dimensional sculpture out and put my own body in.” Now her works seem to incorporate both elements. She has used dinner plates as materials in previous performances and for this performance entitled “Violence is in Me” she was considering covering the floor and ceiling with them, but instead opted for stacking them in a tall column. Her mise en scène, which is entirely on the floor of the gallery, also includes haphazardly placed smashed plates and an army helmet. The audience is given a caveat: protect your eyes from flying porcelain. Barefoot, amid broken shards of dinner plates, Sinead hugs a tall, precarious stack of dinner plates that is just taller than her.  She sways gently with the stack, seemingly attuning herself to their rhythm, while a soundtrack of two voices (a male and female) robotically drones “violent, violent.” Each repetition seems to confirm impending danger, and the suspense gains momentum as the slowness of the movement and repetition of the audio continues. At times the voices seem to be questioning “violence?” or confirming “violence!” It's impossible to ascertain whether the intonation changes or if the variety originates from my own anxiety and anticipation. At this point I wonder, is violence that is sedentary merely psychological? Can stillness be violent, or does violence require speed? Eventually Sinead's arms can no longer physically steady the plates and she lets them fall with an ear-shattering crash. She then dons the helmet, systematically breaking those plates that have survived the fall over her head. As she walks over the broken shards with bare feet, her red blood contrasts with the white porcelain.

Sinead requested the location of the front of the gallery because of its accessibility to the public eye; there are large windows that allow pedestrians to see the action from the sidewalk. During the performance I consider crossing through the space to view it from this perspective of the accidental encounter, but I hesitate to cross the broken plates, remembering the preceding warning. It crosses my mind that someone might call the police because of the noise and promise of violence. Despite the commotion, several people come and go from the inside to the outside of the space. During the performance I am highly conscious of my own “performance”- there are times when the sound of the smashing is excruciating, and yet I don't cover my ears. I have become aware of my visibility as a spectator and am slightly self-conscious in the negotiation between my body and how I imagine and manage it.

As a spectator of this work, in this space framed by the window, I felt like a performer for the other spectators—those serendipitous and accidental—who were passing by the gallery window. Theorist Vivian Sobchack, although she deals primarily with cinematic performance, describes this conflict between the self, as it is lived by the subject, and self as imagined as an object, in phenomenological terms. “[...] insofar as we subjectively live both our bodies and our images each not only informs the other, but they also become significantly confused” (36). This negotiation becomes complicated when the body is expected to abide by rigid societal behavioural expectations, such as gender roles. Judith Butler has examined this conflict, concluding that gender is always performatively expressed based on binary gender constructions. She uses drag to indicate this thesis, “In imitating gender drag implicitly reveals the intimate structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency” (187). She concludes that an original archetype of this imitation does not exist; gender exists in a paradox as an semblance without origins.

This negotiation between body identification and image is central to Hugh O'Donnell's past work (he is known for playing with cross-dressing alter egos) and his performance at TGF that night, entitled “Invert Two” (previously titled “Being Gay in the GAA,” short for Gaelic Athletic Association) is no exception. Starting its life as improvised work created in 2008 and performed in various manifestations, it is an examination of his struggle to maintain a facade of heterocentric masculinity in a traditional and highly religious community. Specifically, it is an expression of Hugh's childhood and adolescent struggle to align himself with the expectations of his father by conforming to the hyper-masculine sports hero archetype. The soundtrack of the work, a loop of Hugh's voice done in one take, evokes white-picket-fence suburbia. “Me me me mmememememe. Vagina vagina vagina. I love short hair. Suited and booted. Cut the grass, cut the grass, cut the grass...” Hugh's droning voice at first is comical, but, with repetition, takes on a rather sinister tone. When asked about it he explains the impetus of creation as motivated by childhood memories, “I thought I was mentally ill. I thought if I said [vagina] enough I would start liking vaginas.” The hair and grass-cutting statements are directly related to his father; “cut the grass” was his way of saying “do the things you're supposed to.” He makes little separation between the audio and the other materials he uses (including his own body) saying, “I don't see the audio as a separate thing, it's just another material, just as the painted man boob is.”

Hugh's piece was presented in the back gallery of TFG and as the audience enters this darker and more private space we are confronted by this audio soundscape and the smell of burning liver. Hugh is seated on a chair, legs splayed, with a metallic gold women's purse over his head. He is wearing black athletic clothing and black boots. On the front of his T-shirt is the acronym N.A.R.T.H (National Association of Research Therapy for Homosexuals) and on the back of the T-shirt is the acronym P.A.T.H (Positive Alternative Treatments for Homosexuals. There are props placed in the space; several electric frying pans containing liver, a pair of cleats, blue paint, a tin of sugar, a chair and a bucket of water. He considers these materials ingredients in his performance, to mix, remix and match as he pleases. Several of these objects have metaphoric meaning for Hugh and are not necessarily apparent to the audience (for instance, in the UK and Ireland a cut piece of fried liver is known as a faggot).

After removing the purse from his head and seeing the audience for the first time there is frenzied energy as he busies around with his “props,” putting on one cleated shoe and pouring sugar on the floor, delineating a line between where the audience has chosen to stand against the walls and leaning on the stairs in the space. He writes two words, as large as he can, with blue paint on the gallery walls; first “invert” and second “stoic.” The former he says was borrowed from Freud's descriptions of homosexuals and is a word he imagines being used in a derogatory manner. “Stoic,” is written because in Hugh's words “I'm not being stoic.” He cuts a hole in his shirt, exposing a blue-painted breast. He pours milk from a paint tin over his exposed breast, then angrily smashes the remaining milk against the wall, trapping the milk inside the center of the O in stoic, making an allusion between his own body and the drawn “breast” on the wall. There is also a nod to Freud in this gesture; it seems a rejection of the normative family. His deportment throughout the work is hyper-masculine, he staggers around with wide strides as if on a soccer field; however, he also appears to be emotionally and physically drained by this “performance.”

In the climax of the work Hugh pours a circle of salt around himself, separating himself from his viewers. He spins in a circle, faster and faster, frantically, until he is too disoriented stand. He staggers around the space running into some audience members who help him regain his composure. Pulling down his pants we see his has also painted a blue stripe down his ass. The work concludes sadistically, with Hugh demolishing a chair against the concrete wall. Collaged over the word “stoic,” this violent act is a further metaphor for his break from the traditional family, as outlined by Freud. The domestic illusion of normality has been physically shattered, but it still leaves its mark on the psyche. Plunging his head into a pail of water, as if drowning himself repeatedly. It seems like a self-inflicted initiation ritual. The memory of this masculine physicality expected by the GAA will never be totally expunged from his body.

The audience leaves with the smell of burnt meat clinging to our clothing. In his interview Hugh describes this as part of the performance, saying that it's a reminder that the queer community is here to stay. He says, “We are everywhere. We are in your face.” The lingering aroma is analogous to the persistence of geographical violence to impact the people who live in its vicinity. Even though the O'Donnell's were not specifically subject to extreme violence growing up in Dublin in the 70s and 80s, the reverberations still remain (Belfast was the site of several of the most violent conflicts in Northern Ireland, particularly in the 70s). Performance artist Sandra Johnston, who performed at the Toronto Free Gallery in September 2009 often works directly at sites of trauma. Interestingly, in her Toronto show she found herself less influenced by the space and more by personal emotion (her grandmother had recently passed). One could interpret this shift for Johnston as another indication that the body, out of its normative context becomes a focus; the trauma of the space, in this case, became a preoccupation with the distress held in the body. 

I was left wondering how it is possible for an individual to vanquish trauma. Sigmund Freud's Mourning and Melancholia (1917), discusses how mourning the loss of an individual is similar to how we collectively assimilate grief. He asks us how can a larger group of citizens, in which its members do not necessarily know each other but have ethnic or religious commonalities, become a community susceptible to perennial mourning? And, when and why does normal grieving become prolonged mourning? The individual, while mourning the loss of a loved one, will often attempt to make the characteristics of them our own. This could include certain personality quirks, figures of speech, mannerisms, or even the physical objects that the deceased owned. To extend this question of purging, how does the collective body expunge grief? Sociologist Paul Connerton suggests that monuments are devices that assist collective memory acting in lieu of the personal objects of the individual (How Societies Remember, 1989). Performance artists like Johnston have addressed this question by creating ephemeral monuments through their work in these sites of trauma. In her Toronto performance, her work which was usually concerned with collective experiences of spaces, became preoccupied with mourning the loss of her grandmother. Her physical movement could be considered an inhabitation of the deceased's mannerisms. 

In the case of Hugh's work, when the subject matter is traumatic, the body represents a medium through which catharsis occurs, ritualistically channelling trauma—certainly for individual freedom—but also possibly as a collective reaction. Hugh, who uses many found objects in his work, selected objects to represent his alienation and dis-identification with hetero-normative society. Although he is not mourning the death of an individual, one could say he is mourning the death of an image, a way-of-being. These words, describing Freud's analysis in Mourning and Melancholia seem to correspond to Hugh's relationship to this work.

Accordingly, the love and hate (ambivalence) that originally connected the mourner to the lost person or thing now turns the mourner's self-representation into a battlefield. The mourner now feels the struggle between love and hate within the the self-representation that assimilated the ambivalently related mental representation of the lost item through a total identification with it. This results in depression, which has its own typical physical symptoms [...] When hate towards the assimilated mental representation of the lost object becomes dominant, some mourner may even attempt to kill themselves (suicide) in order to 'kill' the assimilated mental representation. (Volkan 95-6)

The self-flagellation through drowning, near the end of Hugh's performance is indicative of this very desire to kill the representation of Hugh's ideal image, the heroic athlete his father would have liked him to be, an image that was never a reality. The physicalization of this “death”  is a metaphor for the mental process of letting go, which is how the performance is cathartic for Hugh and possibly the audience by extension. Perhaps performance, as ritual, has the power to dispel that which we wish to exorcise from our individual body and collective psyches. Maybe living in a healthy society is synonymous with having a healthy body.

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Worked Cited:

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. Mourning and Melancholia. 1917. Trans. Shawn Whiteside. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Sobchack, Vivian. “Scary Women: Cinema, Surgery and Special Effects” Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.

Volkan, Vamik D. “Not Letting Go: From Individual Perennial Mourners to Societies with Entitlement Ideologies” On Freud's 'Mourning and Melancholia.' Ed. Bokanowski, Thierry, Leticia Glocer Fiorini and Ethel Spector Person. London: Karnac, 2007.

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