The year is 1984, and a crowd begins to gather where onlookers are pointing toward the sky. A man is hanging from wires woven into his skin, hanging facedown over East 11th Street in Manhattan.
This is not a crazy stunt however, but one man's form of conceptual art. The body hangs about12 meters above the street, suspended by 18 fishhooks which pierce the body, connecting it to wires that hold it above the ground. The body is nude except for a sock to cover its genitalia. There is no movement save for that produced by the wind.
The man hanging is named Stelarc, and what he does is called "obsolete body suspension."
When he does these conceptual art exhibitions, he refers to "the body" rather than "I" or "me", because he feels his body should be viewed in the third person.
"I want to objectify the body and universalize the image when I do the suspension. It's not important that it's my body, and I do not want to glorify myself. What is important is this moment in art." Stelarc has hung from trees, cranes, in art galleries, over oceans and above city streets.
Other "live art" projects Stelarc performs include the "Event for the Amplified Body", in which he attaches a mechanical third arm, laser eye and amplifiers to record his body sounds.
Utilizing this equipment, Stelarc dances, talks and produces a light show and music for his audience.
In another performance he lowered a tiny camera into his stomach, lungs and colon through a tube and showed his internal organs on a TV monitor.
Stelarc, a 70-year-old conceptual artist, was born in Cyprus and is now an Australian citizen who has lived in Japan where he taught art and sociality at the Yokohama International Grammar School after moving there in 1970. He graduated from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology with a degree in art, but found Australia inhospitable to his goals.
Japan and Europe were much more receptive to his artistic expressions, and he performs in both places. Think was fortunate enough to bring him down from his wires for a candid conversation on the perplexities of his performance art.
THINK: Why do you do body suspension?
STELARC: To present a clear, "living" form of artistic expression. The suspensions are a part of a series of events I am performing that involve sensory deprivations and physical stress situations. The point is to explore the body's limits, as well as it's future. The suspension itself is an "end". It points out the psychological and physical limitations of the body.
THINK: Aren't there other ways to express yourself artistically?
STELARC: No. The suspension is a crucial concept for me. It is also important to recognize that we live in an informational-overloaded society. Ideas are cheap, and unless you follow through with them, they lack authenticity. It's not just the idea of suspension, but the realizations of a suspension that is important. The physical act is this realization.
THINK: What gave you the idea to do suspensions?
STELARC: I've always been interested in gravity as the molding factor in our evolutionary form. Gravity has kept us terrestrial creatures. The visual symbol of overcoming gravity is the suspension. The concept is extremely powerful and very ancient. Man flying! I talked a friend into doing the first one in 1968, but now I do them myself.
THINK: Why do you use fishhooks?
STELARC: Well, first of all, the fishhooks are barbless. The just happen to be functional. I started with rope and a harness. Almost immediately, I realized this was not good enough. The idea was to use a minimum of physical support. To suspend the body with hooks helps the body support itself. Thus the body becomes it's own support structure.
THINK: Don't the hooks hurt or rip out?
STELARC: Yes, it hurts a lot, and it takes about ten days to fully recover from a performance, but they won't rip out. They're placed to evenly distribute weight, and the human skin is very tough. For example, in Copenhagen the body was suspended from a height of 60 meters for 24 minutes and nothing ripped!
I use 18 hooks that are placed in my body after careful incisions have been made. Three isn't much bleeding and, while it does hurt, the purpose is not to achieve comfort, but to impose a visual impact upon the viewer. Besides, pain is important. It's an early-alert warning system that tells you if you're doing harm to yourself.
THINK: Describe some of you suspensions.
STELARC: The suspension sideways, over the rocks on the coast, kept me cold, because waves constantly splashed my body. That event was tough and produced a "survival mentality' reaction. Over Copenhagen, 60 meters in the air, was frightening. There was no noise, just wind. The body vibrated. I thought of a wind tunnel. I had a very strong sense of the body in space. As for New York, where the body was suspended between two buildings,it was load and noisy. There I was very much part of an event. They're all different.
THINK: Your suspensions resemble ancient Indian practices such as the Sun Dance. Is there a parallel?
STELARC: No, there is no parallel. I am an atheist. I have no religious or meditative goals for my suspensions. My creativity doesn't have anything to do with God. Outwardly, suspensions look simular to a ceremony such as the Sun Dance, but my intentions and my gains are much different. Suspensions are "living art". They are my form of artistic expression.
THINK: Are suspensions in any way sexual?
STELARC: No. I'm not turned on by body piercing in public or private.
THINK: Do you plan to do many more suspensions in the future, or will you move on to other art projects?
STELARC: I will do more suspensions, but I am currently exploring and developing the program called an "Event for the Amplified Body". It's a project I've worked on for some time now. I use a mechanical third arm that is attached to my shoulder and manipulated by my muscular contractions and their resulting electrical impulses.
This also involves a laser eye that can generate a small but sophisticated light show, and a hand held synthesizer that records body sounds and processes. The body sounds are picked up by microphones strategically place on different body parts. The synthesizer then amplifies and acoustically redesigns these sounds to create a show which symbolizes man's future integration with technology. I've even broadcasted this performance over the Internet.
THINK: Sounds like quite a show.
STELARC: Yeah. What you experience is a visually and acoustically modified body. The synthesizer amplifies the sounds of the body's brain, heartbeat, bloodflow, muscular contractions and lungs. I try to physically control, then electronically synthesize, modulate and digitally delay the sounds, thus creating a totally new, acoustical body landscape.
Hearing the sounds gives me a bio-feedback situation; so I can further manipulate my body to create a form of music. The whole show is transmitted onto a 75' by 120' video screen which just sits above me on stage.
THINK: Can you describe your theory of the relationship between technology and the body? Don't you believe someday they'll be one and the same?
STELARC: Yes. The reason for the eventual unification of body and machine as an evolutionary step is the body's terrible weakness. It is inadequately built, and it malfunctions regularly. The body has a short lifespan, it's parts are not so replacable and, immunologically, it will attack itself rather than accept a new organ. basically, it isn't a reliable piece of equipment and must be enhanced and fortified to be really efficient.
Then in the immensity of time and space, where man must eventually go, the body will have to be able to hibernate, to suddenly awaken and react quickly. To survive in space we must examine and stretch the psychological and physiological parameters of the body. It must be amplified, developed, immortalized and motivated. It's a fact, and I for one would enjoy floating in zero-G, using my three voice activated arms and, perhaps, making love.