Artist with no boundaries

Maja Jovic speaks with Greek Australian artist Stelarc who combines art and modern technology and the body in his own brand of sometimes shocking performance art

Stelios Arcadiou’s parents immigrated from Limassol, Cyprus to Australia in his young age. With none of his own memories from Cyprus, he remembers only what his mother used to tell him. Once, he managed to climb into a barrel of olives and almost drowned in the water.
Today, he does similar things – provokes you, leaves you speechless, maybe even frightens you… with his performances. The Australian brought up artist has been provoking the arts world scene for few decades now. Stelios Arcadiou – better known as Stelarc – is a performance artist.
From Australia, his exhibitions venture to all corners of the world – from Japan, to Australia, to USA. In his performances, he is developing strategies for extending and enhancing the body through technology. The inspiration for his artwork is exploration of the unexpected, the alternate, the ambivalent. The unexpected is what makes his art not to leave spectators without opinion. They are amazed, or they leave the exhibition space, finding it hard to handle the pain some of Stelarc’s performances cause to the artist.
He has become world known with his performances, including attaching a Third Hand to his body, extending himself into virtual space with a Virtual Hand, and over 25 body suspensions events where he hung his entire body from hooks piercing his skin. The last body suspension was held at Scott Livesey Gallery in Armadale (Melbourne), in March this year.
Technology is part of being human
In case you wonder, the intention of the artist in all performances is to “express an idea with his direct experience”. And very often, enhanced with the most different technologies, being more precise and powerful. His art doesn’t provide answers but generate questions – which is anyway, as he says, the aim of the art.
“Mostly, contemporary art explores the interactive possibilities of new media. I’ve incorporated medical imaging, the internet, prosthetics and robotics as well as biotechnology in these projects and performances. I think it’s meaningless to simple use traditional artistic media as most of what has been done need not be repeated. To be curious and creative now means experimenting with the conceptual and aesthetic possibilities of these new technologies and their relationship with the body. The aim of art is not to simplistically affirm, but rather to undermine, expose and generate alternate possibilities. In fact artists are about constructing contestable futures. Ones that can be examined, evaluated, possibly appropriated, often discarded.”
How did a traditional Greek family react to his controversial performances that have marked out his whole career?
“Well, my parents were not university educated. So it was difficult to discuss art in general with them, not to mention contemporary arts practice and in particular my more extreme performances. Of course they were impressed with the THIRD HAND project because of its sophisticated technology and control system. I lived in Japan for 19 years, so they did see one performance of mine in Tokyo. I think they were startled by the amplified body sounds and laser eyes,” Stelarc tells Neos Kosmos.
He always wanted to be an artist. Looking in retrospect, however, he realises the desire was a very naive one. In elementary school, he was always drawing and doing ambitiously large works. But it wasn’t just a matter of drawing or painting well.
“In fact I quickly discovered in art school that I was not special in either. Everyone else was equally talented if not better. My parents always encouraged me but hoped I would be an architect rather than an artist,” adds Stelarc.
Stelarc’s body extending has started in late sixties, with his projects and performances. Initially, the performances were an exploration of the psychological and physiological parameters of the body, as he was always interested in evolution and comparative anatomy. He explains to Neos Kosmos that the purpose of his performances was exploring the body’s architecture and operation, and how these resulted in human’s awareness of the world, as a logical consequence.
“After, I did a series of sensory deprivation and physically stressful performances. I became intrigued in the idea of the body in space of a suspended body. But the outcome was not so much a realization of the capabilities of the body, but rather its limitations. The body was not only inadequate to cope with these extreme situations but also profoundly obsolete. In fact this is an empty, involuntary body whose agency and identity are problematic. Augmenting the body with technology to enhance and extend its possibilities was the result of all this,” explains the artist.
It’s understandable that when it comes to art, there are no boundaries. However, as a human being – how has the artist become immune to the physical pain he must feel when hanging from hooks? Actually, he didn’t.
“Oh, I’ve never been immune to the physical pain. It’s just that if you decide that something is worthwhile then you try to overcome the physical challenges. It was never about the experience of pain though. That was never the subject of the performance. There was never any medication or anaesthetic used with the suspensions. You try to adequately plan and then the day arrives, the performance begins- the thinking stops and the physical action begins.”
This performance for Stelarc is part of the strategy of pushing the body, of exposing the problematic nature of what a body is and how a body performs. As our bodies are grounded in an 1G gravitational field, to see a body suspended, to see the skin stretched, is to experience the body unplugged from it’s evolutionary environment, explains Stelarc.
Being generally fit is required. After 19 years of yoga and playing squash competitively while living in Japan, he now spends an hour in the gym every day, which makes him capable to do the same performances as three decades ago.
When it comes to audience and spectators of performances of this kind, there is a spectrum of responses they give to Stelarc’s suspensions. Being in the same exhibition room with Stelarc, there is an experience of the full physicality of the experience that images of the performances can never express. Sometimes people leave, being unable to put up with watching the insertion of the hooks in the Stelarc’s body.
“Sometimes people are fascinated and sometimes they’re repulsed. But remember that most of these performances were done in remote locations or in private gallery spaces where there was no audience other than the artists who were assisting. The suspensions were not done to shock others. There were only a few performances that were really public. So audience response was not something of interest to me,” says Stelarc.
His art is in line with today’s contemporary art and technology achievements. However, in ’70s and ’80s, that same art was more controversial, considering the fact that people were not as used to it as they may be today. Artists had to search for art foundations that would support their alternative art.
The first Stelarc’s suspension performance was supposed to happen at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide. Thirty minutes before it was to occur, they withdrew their support.
“The media had heard of what was to happen and the publicity and possible medical consequences made them uneasy to the point of panic. It was supposed to be an art space that supported alternate artistic practice” he recalls.
“Death now means to be disconnected from technology”
Senior Research Fellow and Visiting Artist at the University of Western Sydney (2006-2011), Honorary Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Monash University, and a current Chair of Performance Art at Brunel University in London yet, how does Stelarc desfine himself? Is he the artist or the artwork, and which field does he belong to: art or modern technology?
I asked him where do you place yourself, if compared with artists, and compared to modern technological improvements and innovations, on the other hand side? Is your art a mixture of these two?
“Oh, these performances and projects have always been physically challenging but also sometime technically complex. And medically challenging. For example in 1993, I designed a sculpture for the inside of my body, stomach sculpture. It was inserted with the assistance of an endoscopist. The sculpture opens and closes, extends and retracts, has a flashing light and a beeping sound. So you have to imagine this as machine choreography inside the body. At present we are engineering a microbot that is small enough and robust enough to climb up my tongue and into my mouth.
“And also there my ear on arm project – an ear being surgically constructed and cell grown on my arm. This has been the most challenging medical, technical and physical project. Because when the ear is completed it will be internet enabled so people in other places will be able to listen to what my ear is hearing- wherever they are and wherever I am.”
The artist once said: “death now means to be disconnected from technology”, that “the body has always been prosthetic- a site of radical experimentation, in order to discover its limitations”. I asked him what he meant by both of these statements.
“We are now not only questioning what a body is and how it operates but also what it means to be alive, that is what constitutes “aliveness”. These are new luminal spaces of experiencing the body. We can now forever preserve a cadaver using plastination and indefinitely sustain a comatose body on a life-support system. Dead bodies need not decompose and near dead bodies need not die. Whilst cryogenically preserved bodies await reanimation at some imagined future. In fact most of us will no longer die from biological death. We will die because of some machine accident or when we are disconnected from our life-support systems. And now the body has become commodified with interchangeable organs and manufactured spare parts and prosthetic attachments. Last year a turbine heart was implanted in a patient in the USA. This artificial heart continuously circulates blood without beating.”
Stelarc’s medium is the body; his form of representation.
“This body is obsolete,” the artist explains, “empty to its own agency and performs largely involuntarily. This body’s identity is determined no longer by its physical presence, proximity or location but rather by its connectivity. Its on-line presence.”
Stelios Arcadiou has recently visited both Greece and Cyprus, several times, to do presentations in Athens, Thessaloniki and Nicosia. Staying connected with Greek Australian community wasn’t the easiest thing for someone who was living in Japan for 19 years, as he says.
“Constantly travelling to Europe and the USA, there is a more international feel in my attitude and relationships with people. But my ideas and life are inextricably influenced by speaking Greek, as well as my relationship with distant family” concludes Stelarc.