We caught up with Liveworks 2018 artist John A Douglas ahead of the world premiere of four-part work Circles Of Fire: The Amphitheatre, and got some insight into the life of an artist living with chronic illness, how he explores this through his work, and the back story behind his fabulous lyrca bodysuits.
Circles of Fire: The Amphitheatre spans duration performance (medical procedure), video installation, virtual reality and live performance. Why have you drawn on so many modes of expression to realise this work?
My practice is based mainly in live and mediated performance, video, sound and photography. I’ve found that working across these disciplines has been useful in articulating the complexities surrounding my lived experience as an artist and patient. The Circles of Fire project, like its predecessor Body Fluid, has had several iterations as a stand-alone photographic, video and object based work culminating in a live performance. By attempting to make sense of the experience of illness and treatment in various forms it has become crucial as a way of coming to terms with the personal struggle of physical and mental impairments and the probability of a shorter life expectancy than normal.
The Body Fluid project (2011- 13) was fairly straight forward as it had the visual impact and immediacy of presenting the body, my body, connected to a life support machine. The Circles of Fire project has been much more challenging as I’ve had to grapple with, apart from the surgery, the non-visible ongoing experience of an immuno-supressed organ transplant patient. Earlier this year, I was privileged to have been invited to participate in an experimental VR workshop at Josh Harle’s Tactical Space studio which has allowed me to further develop my work into an interactive participatory experience for audiences. Therefore, based on these various modes of practice, I have divided the project into four iterations/events that are an attempt to create the states of being of a transplant patient experience and for audiences to reflect on the fragility of life itself:
The Absent Body: The space is set up as a video soundscape installation with all the objects left in situ for the live performances.
The Virtual Body: The audience are invited to immerse themselves into the architectural structures and landscapes that are located in the videos and become performers in the space where the live performances take place.
The Medicalised Body: I will perform a durational installation piece while being cannulated to a saline drip. Audience members will then be invited to have their vital signs taken and recorded by health professional Stelladelight who will also be on screen performing a natural therapy of scar remediation on my transplant scar tissue augmented by sublime landscapes and ruins. The performance also posits the medicalised body of the patient as a theatrical spectacle. The work may also be seen as a response to the recent ethical concerns regarding the access of an online database of patient’s health records.
The Liminal Body: The main performance distills my near death experience as an immuno-suppressed transplant patient into an intense thirty-minute physical performance within a multi channel video and interpretive soundtrack of ancient ruins and landscapes. It begins with the sudden onset of a viral infection, a battle to overcome death, stabilisation, healing and finally emerging to run a triumphant victory lap. It also highlights the requirement for the transplant to maintain a regime of physical fitness in order to survive.
Circles of Fire: The Amphitheatre is the finale of your three-part body of work that explores the bodily experience of a medical patient. The four -year production of Circles of Fire has seen you travel and shoot everywhere from Australia to Italy, Turkmenistan and Canada. What is the importance of location in the body of work’s conception?
I’m always looking for locations in the same way a filmmaker looks for allocation to reveal a story or narrative. My work is very much influenced auteur film directors of the 20th century, Herzog, Wenders, Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Kurosawa, Pasolini, Antonioni etc, who often searched for dramatic and sublime or what Herzog calls ‘ecstatic’ landscapes. These metaphorical/metaphysical landscapes, would often guide the narrative or simply exist as a thing in themselves. Initially I began to seek out landscape locations in Australia that I became attracted to; mountains, lakes, deserts, forests, rivers that I felt were places that seemed to resonate as places of solace and healing.
I perform in these landscapes to somehow express what cannot be put into words; the various states of being I experience as I cycle through states of suffering, near death, hospital regimentation and wellness. When I was recovering in ICU from the transplant surgery I had a recurring image in my mind of being plunged into a pit of fire and around that time there was a ring of fire eclipse of the sun thus the title Circles of Fire. I later found out that I was in ICU as I had almost died during the surgery. Ironically, if I hadn’t received a transplant I wouldn’t have had long to live anyway so I knew I was now able to make a new work. While still in the hospital ward I searched online and came across the Darvaza burning gas crater in the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan in Central Asia. This would become the central visual motif that signified the surgery, further hospital interventions and near death experiences. I needed to balance the fire crater with a circular water landscape and came across The Spotted Lake a protected sacred healing lake in Canada. I was able to obtain permission and work with the local indigenous caretaker of the lake and was honoured to participate in a ceremonial gathering and a healing at the lake prior to making the work.
At the same time I had become interested in the relationship between the body, illness and architectural ruins and the ideas in Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect. I shot a series of choreographed and performative actions amongst the ruins of the Persian and Roman empires some of which are locations used in the Greenaway film. The Persian fortress of Nissa in Turkmenistan, the site of one of the worlds first hospitals, also features in the video and livework as well as other fortresses in Italy which signify the hospital as a battle ground. I have been very fortunate to receive funding from the Australia Council and to have been awarded the inaugural Artist with Disability Fellowship from createNSW to make it possible for me to travel.
How has your relationship with your body changed or developed since your kidney transplant in 2014?
I should first preface this answer by saying that prior to the surgery I had a somewhat vexed relationship with my body caused by problems around surgical intervention and dialysis that were akin to a form of body dysmorphia. I fluctuated between hating my body or being disassociated from my body. There was also the problem of renal failure itself and other medical conditions. This relationship worsened after the surgery due to the surgical complications, high doses of steroids and other drugs, a larger than normal scar, loss of sensation and disfigurement. Stella Topaz who will be performing in the Liveworks show, is a body worker and I have recently received scar remediation therapy sessions which has been very helpful in reconnecting myself with my body and healing the trauma of the surgery after many years of medical interventions and ongoing medication regimes. We recently shot a stylised video of a treatment session and it will be shown with the landscape sequences during the cannulation performance.
I was also acutely aware of another persons body part (their DNA etc) was now inside me and that in itself presents a whole new set of complexities around ones sense of self and identity. Transplant patients are denatured hybrid bodies and are in some ways post-human and altered beings. We are also products of the bio-medical industry and as such our bodies are monitored and observed for the rest of our lives. Compliance to transplant recovery includes a regular exercise program including weights and cardio. I remember when I first started running and I had these huge surges of energy. I felt like I was a teenager again but I forgot that my body was older and damaged so consequently I would fall and injure myself which was actually very funny at the time. Since then I have continued to consistently exercise and have incorporated it into my video works. It is incredible to have been given a new life and to have the opportunity to gain physical fitness after years of dialysis. It does come at a price though as the medications have many complications due to a suppressed immune system. Patients are at high risk of skin cancer, infections, heart disease, diabetes and mental health problems.
Work in progress documentation of the VR reconstruction, Josh Harle, Tactical Space Studio, 2018
You’ve been donning these fabulous lycra bodysuits in your work since 2011. Can you let us in on the story behind them?
I first used the gold lycra bodysuit in the Body Fluid project as way of visually amplifying the symbiotic relationship between my body and the dialysis machine. I felt that having my face shown in the work would take away that emphasis of revealing a usually private medical treatment to the audience. The skin-tight costume also revealed to audiences the catheter pumping the dialysis fluid into and out of the body. Essentially it was about transforming my body into a sculptural form where my body becomes the work itself. One of the aesthetic challenges of my practice as an artist/patient is to create work that attempts to break free of formal, literal modes of representations of the internal body i.e. my own surgically altered body.
For the Circles of Fire project I was faced with the challenge of how to best illustrate the complexities of the transplant experience so I decided to work on creating multiple costumes using a variety of different techniques. With support from the Australia Council I collaborated with textile artist Michele Elliot and LED costume designer Alejandro Rolandi. We developed the costumes into a kind of camp anatomical mapping of my body and in particular, using techniques of applique and embroidery, revealed the site of the grafted kidney, the surgical scaring, the cannulation points required in transplant surgery and a tracing of my vascular system. The transplanted organ is grafted to the main artery in that area. It was important for me to reveal the site of the grafted organ which is located at the front lower left of my torso just below the skin surface. Working with a variety of costumes allowed me to create a range of performative actions for each costume and location that responded to the myriad of experiences I was undergoing as a transplant recipient. Collaborating with dancer, choreographer and artist Sue Healey we developed a series of performances for each of the costumes and matched a location for each sequence.
More recently I have worked with Josh Harle at Tactical Space studios to reconstruct the costumes and locations into VR environments. Josh’s exceptional skill set and digital wizardry has opened up new possibilities for the way performance based work can be experienced by audiences where they can become active participants in the work. It’s been really wonderful seeing how this collaborative development has evolved from the creation of screen-based projects into a live performance for this years Liveworks.
What advice do you have for artists living and working with chronic illness and disability?
Firstly for many years I never thought of myself as an artist with disability so I know there are many artists out there who may be suffering in silence and are unaware that there is support available as funding bodies and arts organisations have made this area a priority. There is also a growing pool of artists who define themselves as having chronic illness/disability and therefore I would like to say to you, you are not alone. I like to think of us as a growing collective of artists who can and are being given a voice. Many of us are also intersectional who not only suffer from chronic illness but are women, Indigenous and people of colour, intersex, trans, queer etc so I understand the struggle to maintain a practice can be incredibly difficult and exhausting. It is very difficult for us to compete in the art world and adhere to the rigours of maintaining an artistic practice and having that consistent and rock solid CV is often impossible. We can’t keep up. There are some of us who are hospitalised for long periods of time often at a moments notice. Our life expectancy is shortened and some of us die. For many of us we make work because our lives depend on it. I believe that sustaining a practice is critical to giving our lives a sense of meaning and purpose and can contribute to a better quality of life outcomes and longevity.
John A Douglas identifies as an artist with disability and acknowledges his indigenous ancestry and elders past of the Yuin Nation.
John A Douglas is represented by Chalk Horse gallery, Sydney.
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