Chickens, Saints, and Corpses: Endurance Art in the United States

Karen Gonzalez Rice. Long Suffering: American Endurance Art as Prophetic Witness. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. 206 pp., 15 b/w ills. $85, $34.95 paper

The spectacle of duress, extended duration, and endurance in art may prompt crises of witnessing and language. In 2009, for example, this was made manifest for me as I watched the performance artist Kira O’Reilly fall backward, naked, down a grand curling flight of stone stairs at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. In Stair Falling, O’Reilly fell so slowly that her movements became majestic in their granularity. Over the course of her four-hour fall, her body assumed postures along its descent that seemed to defy gravity, time, and sense—a productive effect of her extensive physical training and the commitment with which she undertook her endeavor—daily, for seventeen days over the course of the exhibition (Marina Abramović Presents . . ., Manchester International Festival, July 3–19, 2009), beggaring possibility and human logic. The affective immensity, durational extremity, and formal strangeness of this performance became staggering, frightening, heartbreaking.

O’Reilly’s Stair Falling is a consummate example of endurance art. The audience was free to come and go, though many stayed for long stretches of time. Watching for three hours or so (other durational performances transpired concurrently, too, to draw my attention away at times), I would move through phases of looking and being, including sustained bouts of microscopically fascinated attention cut through with pangs of a distracted semi-presence akin to boredom. It was hard not to see O’Reilly’s body—a naked body, a woman’s body, a body marked with visible scars—as having been flung from the top of the stairs by an unseen hand, by an invisible agent of authority or violence, perhaps one that represents domesticity, or family, or an institution of the state. There are few clues to the latter in the work, beyond our situation within an august, national institution of art and the presence that lorded symbolically over the exhibition, namely, its curator, Marina Abramović, herself a pioneer of endurance in and as art. The semiotics of O’Reilly’s scene was fully overwhelmed by the phenomenal or material experience of the encounter. Erika Fischer-Lichte usefully describes this dynamic as a fundamental demand of the encounter with physical risk in performance art, noting, “This is not to say that there [is] nothing to interpret,” but, rather, that semiotic readings—the symbolic function of particular objects or actions within a performance (the staircase, the hidden agent of violence, the hermeneutic logic of the fall)—are rendered “incommensurable with the event.”1 Describing Thomas Lips/Lips of Thomas (1975), a classic work of endurance by Abramović, Fischer-Lichte continues,

It provoked a wide array of sensations in the spectators, ranging from awe, shock, horror, disgust, nausea, or vertigo, to fascination, curiosity, sympathy, or agony, which stirred them to actions that equally constituted reality. . . . The central concern of the performance was not to understand but to experience it and to cope with these experiences, which could not be supplanted there and then by reflection.2

Karen Gonzalez Rice’s book Long Suffering approaches endurance art as “disciplined actions [that] acknowledge the multiplicity of the self and visualize the marks of cultural authority and institutional power on the body,” and as “bodily manifestations of irresolvable tensions—conflicting desires, competing needs, incompatible intentions, external pressures, unjust conditions” (2). She characterizes endurance art as durational performances that blur the border between art and life, and urge the body of the artist (and, by a proxy of sorts, the body of the spectator) into situations that resemble or require situations of meaningful distress, in which the ordeal is not (merely) a plea for attention or a cry for help, but a strategy that “metonymically enacts survival through the practice of self-discipline” (2). By celebrating endurance as a performance of survival, or a triumph of self-control, Gonzalez Rice reckons with the problem of how performance art may engage, reshape, disavow, or displace established protocols of being in the world. Long Suffering is a unique attempt at a deep, argument-driven analysis of endurance art as a form or genre—and the first of its kind. Her book eschews historical overview to focus on a discrete range of North American artists, namely, Linda Mary Montano, Ron Athey, and John Duncan, artists working in and beyond performance, each active, variously, between the 1960s and the present.

The chapters are long, well argued, and copiously evidenced, and make substantial contributions to the existing critical literature on the three artists. Owing to its subject’s marginality to art history, the chapter on Duncan is especially warranted: his inclusion will vex some readers, for the revilement caused by his Blind Date (1980) is still potent—despite Duncan’s relative recuperation as an object of critical attention since the work’s inclusion (as visual and audio documentation) in Paul Schimmel’s influential exhibition Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979 (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998). In her attention to Montano’s wildly influential performances of endurance from the 1970s to the 1990s, which sought to blur the boundaries between art and life, and to Athey’s limit-cases of physical extremity and psychic ordeal, Gonzalez Rice sheds new light on work that has been the subject of detailed analysis but which—as she rightly observes—tends to overlook or fail to account properly for the importance of religious training, devotional practices, and theological discourse in the artists’ ritualized actions.

The selection of three case studies is one of the strengths of Gonzalez Rice’s book, allowing sustained analysis and careful exegesis of the author’s argument. It also suggests one of its drawbacks, namely, the steering clear of an attempt to be comprehensive, or more broadly inclusive, in the horizon of possible references and applications. A further study might ask how the practice of endurance in art begs new theories when extended to include other artists, including those belonging to a broader geographical scope beyond the United States. How would Gonzalez Rice’s theorization operate in application to artists as varied as Rocío Boliver, Alastair MacLennan, Marcia Farquhar, Zhang Huan, Ulay, or Nigel Rolfe? Or to US-based artists beyond her scope, such as William Pope.L, Marilyn Arsem, Tehching Hsieh, or Emma Sulkowicz? How would her thesis be tested, not least by looking to works in which prophetic witness is more robustly detached from religiosity, and the structures of trauma are diversified, particularized, and parsed more fully by differences of nation, race, or class? What opportunities may an expanded purview enable for reading a broader range of artists’ works, and what limitations may be exposed in its method?

Gonzalez Rice approaches the problem of endurance art in three key ways: first, by deploying her extensive knowledge and research into religious experience in order to explain the “prophetic” implications of each artist’s experiences of extended duress in the making of a performance; second, by her commitment to locating signs of personal trauma in an artist’s biography in order to hitch her readings hermeneutically to facts or inferences found in works or in the artist’s writings and interviews; and third, by considering the mode of spectatorship that our act of witness requires of us. The three central approaches are rigorously applied, but variously effective, owing to the questionable nature of the hermeneutic assumptions that govern the second conviction, which in my view seems generally too neat or delimiting in ideological terms.

The triumphant achievement of Long Suffering is its author’s deft application to art history of her detailed knowledge of approaches and insights drawn from religious studies. This counterbalances a prior lack in the study of performance art, whereby the study of practices that explicitly reference religion, liturgy, the supernatural, or ritual may lack a fully interdisciplinary encounter with critical thinking on these topics by scholars of religion. If my own scholarly failure to fully account for Athey’s Pentecostal upbringing is representative, for example, perhaps the relative lack of scholarship on the religious aspects of performance art depends upon a squeamishness about accepting or celebrating religiosity, spirituality, mysticism, or prophecy as rational logics for examination; the difficulty of deep analyses of cultural histories (of specific religious practices) of which secular thinkers have little or no embodied knowledge to rely upon; and the assumed spuriousness of spirituality and the conservatism of (institutional) religion as political or ethical frames through which to encounter the performance of extremity.3 Gonzalez Rice’s chapter on Athey is effective in its insightful explorations of the historical and theoretical contexts afforded “gifts” of the “spirit” (64), which are central to Athey’s Hollywood Pentecostal upbringing and to his ecstatic performances: for Gonzalez Rice, the work is afforded a deeper profundity on account of the artist’s sympathetic explorations of the “physicality and performativity . . . at the heart of Pentecostal worship” (65), the religious logic of “empathetic witness” (67), the performative styles of illustrated sermonizers and evangelists (74–75), and the congregational logic of the sex club (77). The method is at its most strained in the chapter on Duncan, though: Gonzalez Rice struggles to sustain her analysis of an artist who, by her own admission, had a mostly secular or passively religious upbringing, and thus “formed an imperfect understanding of . . . religious tradition” (91). As the ground for a tentative feminist reclaiming of Duncan’s notorious performances—including Blind Date, in which he had sex with (or raped) the corpse of a woman of color, acquired in Tijuana on the black market, and subsequently had himself vasectomized—the purported religiosity of his work (and the alibi of his own potential victimhood) cannot quite sweeten the pill of Gonzalez Rice’s assertion that Duncan “reveal[s] the insidious consequences of sexual objectification for everyone in patriarchal societies”—that is, for everyone including him. Succumbing to patriarchal violence does “reveal” it if one is also the architect of this violence: this revealing of violence can look uncannily like an enforcement (114).

The central argument of Long Suffering is that as an art of survival in times of conflict or crisis, endurance art models a form of traumatic witness that ties into historical practices of prophecy, testimony, or truth-telling: “Like war resisters, disarmament activists, and temperance agitators,” Gonzalez Rice writes, “endurance artists protest political and social trauma by connecting the cosmic with the deeply personal,” thus sustaining “the ongoing work of social justice by bending the arc of the moral universe” (6). The “cosmic” scale of such assertions is a distraction from the intimate sphere of Gonzalez Rice’s attention to the daily practices of self-discipline and autopoiesis through which Montano, Athey, and Duncan have made their performances, and the personal care with which she extracts personal insights from these artists to ground and scaffold her readings of the politics of survival and witness. The intimate proxemics of Gonzalez Rice’s attention claims the three artists as victims of trauma: the performances they make are representations as well as “real experiences of trauma survivors” (12). Specifically, Montano’s art/life experiments concerning the emotional lives of nuns and chickens are narrated in Long Suffering as a permanent “posttraumatic” effort to come to terms with childhood sexual abuse and eating disorders, “as a series of endurance works that literally gave voice to her psychological suffering” (53); Athey’s body, a living corpse ritually pierced, scarified, and penetrated, manifests for Gonzalez Rice his traumatic experiences of extremist religious indoctrination, channels his lost friends and lovers, and processes his own conflicted shock and grief at surviving his infection with HIV; and Duncan’s uses of sexual violence, necrophilia, and other social materia dejecta are tied to his own fairly unremarkable religious upbringing, and possible experiences of abuse. As a result, Montano’s works read as passive playbacks of “dissociation,” Athey as a practitioner of “nonsuicidal self-injury” (NSSI), and Duncan’s performance-installations as opportunities for him to share his psychological inability to escape “cyclical victimization” (the logic by which abusers may be diagnosed as prior victims of abuse) (14).

These experiments in hermeneutics are variously effective, and Gonzalez Rice goes to great lengths of archival sleuthing and close reading to support her accounts with apparent evidence of the pathological origins of each artist’s practice. Throughout, however, I struggled to come to terms with the political and aesthetic stakes of such an approach. While its methodologies of reading are apposite, Long Suffering suffers from the good intentions of its author: in her empathy for artists whose performances become endurances, Gonzalez Rice overdetermines the narrative logic through which she makes their works make meaning. That is, what wealths of meaning might be enabled by refusing to see the artist’s own past as the inert, submissive origin or truth of endurance in art? Depathologizing an artist’s work does not require us to neuter the psychological and affective complexities of what it feels like to witness (or make) such a work. What part might form, context, experiment, affect, or controversy play, in ways that are more messy, irreverent, or contradictory than the conviction that “re-presentation connotes the conscious or unconscious visual repetition of traumatic content” (15)? To refer back to Fischer-Lichte, how does one reckon with the means by which the formal aspects of a particular work—however aggrieved or sad, pathetic, bloody-minded, apparently insane—overwhelm the semiotic traditions through which we seek to read other kinds of text? Athey’s works were transparently forged in the traumatic climate of the “plague years” of HIV/AIDS, such that a performance like Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994) is inseparable from the political cruelty and subjective violence of its moment. But I flinch at the assertion that such complexities are reducible to the attribution of a psychiatric category of thought or practice like NSSI.

At an ideological level, illness and health or well-being and suffering remain monolithic; the conviction that our desires and experiences must be submitted to medical scrutiny in order to tell the truth of bodies remains sacrosanct. In methodological terms, this disciplinary system of belief is then rolled out as the authoritative means to understand strategic practices of representation, which may be influenced by personal experiences, but need not be dictated, encoded, or controlled by them. Rather than to destabilize the descriptive value of diagnostic terms, Gonzalez Rice’s account seeks out signals—typically outside performances—to match the narrative with which she hoped to absolve artists of perverse intentions or bad feeling. As a case in point, she locates a hermeneutic key to unlock the riddle of Montano’s three-hour performance Erasing the Past (1977) in a fairly cryptic and formally unrelated fragment from her unpublished writings, in which Montano states “at sixteen my world collapsed when I was betrayed sexually.” The strangeness, opacity, and perversity of Montano’s endurance is palpable: she veils her face and exposes her breasts, and lies still and silent, in a room empty but for a number of needles in her “conception vessel” (37–38). Gonzalez Rice states that in invoking Montano’s childhood “collapse” and reading it unambiguously as a sexual violation, she seeks to retain the “instability of traumatic experience and preserve the ambiguity and contradiction of Montano’s presentations and representations of traumatic content”; yet she is at pains to do so, as the logic of cause and effect, or of attribution and genealogy, remains intact, governing the tools through which one looks, and codifying the scope of meanings that are available to us in our witness (38). The fact that Gonzalez Rice persists in her reading despite the artist “resist[ing] further discussion of this event” (the sexual betrayal in Montano’s text) gives me pause. I question the ethics of pursuing psycho-pathologizing readings tout court—but particularly in situations where the subject of the work (and of the purported trauma) prefers to remain inviolate from the art historian’s clinical scrutiny.

A solution of sorts resides in Gonzalez Rice’s own command for a mode of witness that requires one to look and look again. She returns to this theme throughout and gives it clarity in a gloss on Montano’s writings on the frequently bloody work of the British-Italian performance artist Franko B. Gonzalez Rice cites two letters by Montano: in the first, which Gonzalez Rice reports as written in 1982, Montano venerates Franko B for the physical extremity of his bloodletting performances; in the second, written in 2006, Montano apologizes for leaving his performance—“it was too much for me
. . . [and] I worry for you”—and asks him to question his urge to represent or endure cruelty or pain (55–56). Gonzalez Rice takes the dates Montano asserts for the letters at face value, and extracts from their pairing a suggestion of how one might occupy different perspectives on the same work. In fact, both texts were written in 2006, shortly after Montano met Franko B in Glasgow a year earlier: in the first letter, Montano imagines what her earlier self might have thought about the formal and physical extremity of his performance Still Life (National Review of Live Art, Glasgow, 2005), in which the artist bleeds from cannulae in his arms on an illuminated bed, soaking his body and the white sheet in a broadening puddle of blood. Writing from her own contingent position while miming another subjective orientation—one detached from the historical, cultural, and social situation of the present, and then writing again from an unguarded present—Montano in her two letters performs rather neatly Gonzalez Rice’s point: namely, that when faced with the question “Do we look, or do we look away?” the ethical response may be to do both, then to return to look, again, in a serial, improvised negotiation of how one feels, what one can bear, and what is at stake in our witness (16). To do so would require one to take up consecutive and clashing positions of looking and thinking, which may dislodge—or at least trouble—the disciplinary hierarchies by which we order our experiences of art and the world. As Gonzalez Rice puts it, this might involve “recognizing the reality of violence yet simultaneously honoring the possibility of just human relations” (57)—but, I would add, in a way that seeks new keys with which to unlock old problems.

Dominic Johnson is a reader in performance and visual culture at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent authored book is The Art of Living: An Oral History of Performance Art (2015), and his edited books include Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey (2013) and It’s All Allowed: The Performances of Adrian Howells (2016). A new monograph, Unlimited Action: The Performance of Extremity in the 1970s, is forthcoming from Manchester University Press.

  1. Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance, trans. Saskya Iris Jain (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 16.
  2. Ibid., 17.
  3. See Dominic Johnson, ed., Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey (London and Bristol: Live Art Development Agency and Intellect, 2013).