Petra Kuppers is a dance-trained community artist, disability culture activist, feminist theorist and associate professor in English, theatre and women's studies at the University of Michigan. In this book she discusses creative approaches to disease, diseased bodies and medical systems.
Kuppers begins with an introduction to the scar, creative practice at the site of the scar, meaning-making, and knowability. She presents her refusal of the label of wound culture, preferring the scar as 'palimpsest of different times, narratives and patterns, ... [pointing] instead to the generative principle of (embodied/metaphorical) riches that emerge at the site of scar as sensation, flesh and image'(3). This introductory chapter brings in discussions of Antonin Artaud and his 'body without organs', Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and Pam Patterson's performance piece Bodysight: A Reclamation Project (about the artist's living with breast cancer).
Chapter One focuses around the imaging/imagining of internal anatomical features, and medical science's quest for certainty and perfectability. Kuppers describes her visit to Gunther von Hagens' Körperwelten (Body Worlds) plastinated bodies exhibition. Here, von Hagens presents preserved human bodies in various poses, as well as individual organs, both diseased and healthy. His exhibition has caused controversy, not least because of the concern over the origin of the bodies (was consent sought and received, for example) and disrespect shown to the deceased. Kuppers notes her increasing dissatisfaction and alienation as she views and examines the bodies and parts thereof. She perceives a simultaneous hiding and showing; the anatomy is shown but the life stories of the deceased persons are completely absent. There is a vertebral column from a person who had spina bifida, but there is no reference to the life that the disabled person lived. They are reduced to an object. She contrasts this with Shimon Attie's White Nights, Sugar Dreams a video installation project that explores diabetes, starting with what it is like to live with the illness, and then going off into a 'phantasmagoric journey', as the artist describes it. One of the aims is to 'subvert and mimic the medical stare' to which ill people find themselves subjected regularly. The project is not a documentary, instead featuring such images as red liquid changing color and texture 'as white crystals fall into it, building up into mountains, slowly dissolving in the liquid'(48).
Chapter Two takes us through artworks that address knowledge and visiblity, and being in time, such as Angela Ellsworth's Hemaderby, a highly imaginative performance work on roller-skates exploring the artist's experience with Hodgkin's disease. Bob Flanagan, the performance artist who lived with cystic fibrosis until his death at 43, provides the major illustration for Chapter Three's discussion of pain and performance. His disruption of the conventional code of sentimentality, use of humour, transgressive sex, and relationship with pain and making of meaning are all examined.
The remaining chapters include discussions of Roland Barthes' autobiography, Kira O'Reilly's use of leeches, cutting and scarification, Stelarc's 'obsolete' body and technology, Crash (both the book by J G Ballard and the film by David Cronenberg) and the discourses of AIDS. Kuppers' discusson of the 'Snuff' episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is particularly lucid and illuminating in terms of gendered identity, self/non-self, boundaries, disability and difference. She finishes with a chapter on Outsider Art with reference to Foucault's Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in an Age of Reason. The Epilogue sees her with a workshop group on the beach, making scar sculptures: 'much-fingered extrusions of the stories we shared of our bodies and their being-in-time' (207).
This is principally for the specialist reader with a knowledge of critical theory. For someone like me, with a medical and literary background, but not so much critical theory, it is challenging. But I feel as if my critical vocabulary and thinking has been broadened and deepened as a result. I have gained tools with which to approach performative art, especially that exploring medical/illness/body experiences, and been either exposed to a variety of artists (and practice) about whom I knew little, or learnt more about those I had previously encountered. It has been an enriching experience.
© 2008 Sue Bond
Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland, Australia