New York


Mo David Gallery

In 1970 Stelarc began a series of performance pieces based on the themes of levitation and the obsolescence of the physical body. These involved suspending himself by ropes and harnesses from wooden frameworks and helium balloons. Dissatisfied with these works because his body was supported by external structures, he found his true métier in 1976, when he began the series called “Stretched Skin Suspensions.” He has performed these pieces about twenty times, mostly in Japan, where he lives, and where his work attracts little attention and thus little intervention. A “Stretched Skin Suspension” lasts about an hour to an hour and a half. Naked, Stelarc lies, sits, or stands on some platform in the position in which the suspension will take place. Metal hooks two or three inches long, like fishhooks without barbs, are inserted through his skin in symmetrical arrays—one on each shoulder, one above each nipple, two on each side, three pairs in the back, one on each thigh and calf, and so on. The number of hooks varies from 14 to 18, and new holes are made at each performance. When the hooks are all inserted the supporting platform is removed, or, alternately, “the body” (as Stelarc calls himself) is raised from the floor by pulleys. In one case Stelarc raised himself by pulling a rope; in another, rocks serving as counterweights raised “the body” and hung in midair around it. “The body” hangs suspended usually for 10 to 20 minutes. Sometimes the sound of its heartbeat is electronically amplified. During the process Stelarc directs every move with a cool technical demeanor. After the suspension period, either the platform is reintroduced beneath him or he is lowered to the floor.

Stelarc denies that the work has any religious or mystical intention, though he acknowledges influence from the literature of religious asceticism. He prefers to formulate his intentions in terms of science, but the distinction in this case is really one of connotation only. The idea that science may free humans from their bodies and allow them to travel freely through space is not so much a scientific prediction as a religious myth in which science is presented as a millennial force that will restore the state of Eden. (This myth inspired Yves Klein.) Stelarc speaks of technology as an evolutionary strategy to create a hybrid human with Lamarckian speed. He describes the “Stretched Skin Suspensions” as experiments toward redesigning the human body through transcending pain.

In any case, the events themselves are extraordinarily powerful both in presence and in the excellent photodocumentation that was exhibited here. The most remarkable photographs were of the site suspensions—one in an elevator shaft, one over the ocean, one from a tree, and so on. All the events are beautifully photographed, and the exhibition was accompanied by a luxuriously illustrated book (Obsolete Body Suspensions: Stelarc, Davis, Calif.: JP Publications, 1984) with essays by Emily Hicks, Rachel Rosenthal, and others, which should be in the library of anyone interested in Body Art.

Thomas McEvilley