New York

Carlos Motta and Tiamat Legion Medusa, When I Leave This World, 2022, 4K video, color, sound, 10 minutes.

Carlos Motta and Tiamat Legion Medusa, When I Leave This World, 2022, 4K video, color, sound, 10 minutes.

Carlos Motta and Tiamat Legion Medusa

Fixing a set of emerald-green and darkly mesmerizing eyes on the camera for a 2022 video in this exhibition, Tiamat Legion Medusa, the titular subject of the piece, asserts, “I don’t want to die looking like a human.” During the past two decades, the Bruni, Texas–based performer has achieved legendary status in the body-modification community for undertaking a simultaneous transition in gender (male to female) and species (human to reptile). Medusa—who prefers it/its pronouns—positions its reptilian metamorphosis as a protest gesture, refusing identification with the onerous breed of mammal that has harmed it. Indeed, Medusa, who has been living with HIV since the mid-1990s, is a survivor of grievous traumas, such as child abuse, rape, homophobic violence, and familial estrangement. Its transformation includes facial horn implants, numerous piercings, the replacement of teeth with sharp fangs, a split tongue, ear-cartilage removal, a reshaped nose, full-body tattoos, and an orchiectomy (testicle removal). The performer’s extensive alterations suggest an externalization of staggering internal pain.

Despite the horrors Medusa has experienced, it is strikingly charismatic. So, too, is Carlos Motta, the Colombia-born artist who enlisted Medusa for When I Leave This World, 2022, a collaborative suspension performance documented in an eponymous short film. At the climax of this work, we see Motta dangling nude in a crucifixion-like pose. His harnessed body has been suspended and tightly bound to a horizontal pole by braided ropes, which dig deeply and painfully into his flesh. Meanwhile, Medusa rises above the ground, held aloft by rigging connected to shark hooks that pierce its torso and legs.

Time seems to slow to a molasses-like crawl throughout the work’s ten-minute run time, most of which focuses on Medusa’s preparations for its dramatic ascent. The camera sweeps across Medusa’s body—which is covered with tattoos of shimmering scales—recording the performer’s deep concentration as a technician cuts into its flesh. When Medusa is hauled up by hooks from a medical table, its limbs begin to involuntarily shake. The technician gingerly grasps the sides of its head and whispers something before Medusa physically releases its own weight, allowing the finely calibrated rigging to hold its body as it sways from the bits of metal penetrating its tautly pulled skin. Motta swings into view only during the film’s final minute.

This work’s pointed references to Renaissance religious imagery builds upon themes that Motta has been exploring for years. Drawing on his engagement with portraiture, Motta has created politicized endurance performances where he physically manifests the collective pain of the queer community. For Inverted World, 2016, he was strung up by rope-bondage masters in an upside-down pose emulating that of the tortured figure in Caravaggio’s painting Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1601. In Legacy, 2019, Motta wore a dental gag while trying to recite a history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Hook suspension—a subcultural practice associated with performance artists such as Ron Athey and Stelarc—has long been a feature in the sacred rituals of the Mandan Native American Nation and the Tamil Hindus, among other cultures.

In Tiamat Legion Medusa, which was shown on a small monitor alongside the cinematically projected When I Leave This World, Medusa reveals the spiritual import of its suspension practice: “When I’m being hooked I am also in a state of trance, mentally, physically, emotionally.” Although Medusa’s modifications imply a withdrawal from human society, the artist also seems to bravely reach out toward it. Medusa converses openly about its dysfunctional family, professional incarnations (ranging from a bank vice president to HIV/AIDS educator to performance artist), and the mythological basis of its various names (including the former moniker NoMan Pan). Though Medusa’s and Motta’s work deals in pain and violence, it is also suffused by an astonishing tenderness—a kind of self-sacrifice and vulnerability that courses through the output of earlier body artists such as Bob Flanagan and Gina Pane. But the pair are no martyrs, as they have zero desire to absolve us of our numerous and egregious sins. Especially for Medusa, survival depends on distinguishing itself from humanity—to live_ in spite of _humanity. In a time of an ongoing plague and a potential global war, that message rings loud and clear.