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Features Performance Published 25 October 2012

Body Politics: Dominic Johnson

On the secular aesthetics of catastrophe.

Diana Damian Martin

As someone who enables useful tensions to guide his work, whose practice is in equal measure academic and artistic, Dominic Johnson’s work is not one of confrontation, but one that engages the visual landscape with the performative action to enable ideas to emerge in often political collisions. Having collaborated with key artists in body-based work, such as Franko B and Ron Athey, who have reconstituted again and again this nomadic field of live work, be it encased in its conflicting genealogies or freed up by its problematicly perceived marginality, Johnson navigates a range of territories that subvert and engage with modes of perceiving and producing knowledge. His latest piece for Chelsea Theatre’s Sacred Season, Departure (An Experiment in Human Salvage), initially performed as part of the 2011 Fierce Festival in a collaboration with tattoo artist Alex Binnie and guests Dickie Beau, Lauren Barri Holstein and Leo Hedman, explores the secular aesthetics of catastrophe, setting itself the challenge of overcoming modes of representation of disaster that engage with secular imagery. The work is reconceived for the particular context of a black box theatre, with guest performances from Mouse, jamie lewis hadley and Hellen Burrough (Traumata), and elements of spectacle incorporated into its language. “I do a lot of reading and thinking through texts that push me to make an image, to put images together, in this case, crisis and secular disaster, for example”, Johnson tells me.

The variables which Departure investigates can be considered in a nexus of tensions; between the poetics of using the body as site of ritual, and the implications arising from its showcasing context. Under the subtle contextual influence of the word “sacred” guarding and pronouncing Chelsea Theatre’s year round season of work, Departure is a provocation and an open-ended question. Engaging with what is traditionally perceived to be a form of popular body art, the tattoo, Johnson, in a recent article for The Independent, articulates the ways in which context might be able to shed light or, or even “complicate the status of tattooing as a practice on the contested border between fine art, folk art, or craft”. Invoking the visual and the embodied, Johnson proposes that the pain involved in the act of tattooing is not what forms the core of an image which is essentially durational, even permanent, both in the memory of its witnesses and that of the body which receives it.

Seeing the act of tattooing in light of a wider history of body-based live art which engages with varying forms of disaster, be it physical, social or psychological is an interesting starting point, positioning this work in a longer timeline, alongside the work of artists such as Gina Pane, Kira O’Reilly and of course, Ron Athey. From engaging with pain and the wound as a process of explication and examination, to creating a sense of collectivity and displacing expectations of what traces, wounds and fragments might mean, the iconography attached to this work is perhaps too tentatively discussed in the public sphere. As Johnson tells me when we speak, “the tattoo is a decorated wound which we can read in light of a wider history of performance art and its engagement with body and pain. It is decorated disaster, a situation of crisis, but it is also exploding an event. To borrow a wound is opportunistic, and I’m not purely interested in such aesthetic tragedies, but I think tattooing in particular is a process central to modes of artistic production, in which the body becomes a boundary, a space of enactment.”

The works which he invited alongside the first rendition of Departure perform similar processes. For example, “jamie lewis hadley is a performance maker and a professional wrestler and there’s a suggestion there of a familiar tactic that negotiates an aestheticisation and faking of a disaster. He is creating a space of artistic production to rethink iconography.” Johnson is not interested or concerned with violence that is non-consensual or reckless; “performance is staged. There is no recklessness, it is entirely controlled, and such readings seem to be an over – use of the rhetoric of risk, an imprecise terminology. It’s not really relevant. What I am trying to do is not connected to pain.” Therefore it is the processes of meaning making, their collission and interaction, and the ways in which they are materialised or explored through acts of varying and controlled levels of pain, that give Departure its identity.

This perception, Johnson tells me, “signifies this other British history of unusual and surprising body modification in the UK.”  Johnson tells me of the controversial Spanner case, in which sixteen men were sent to prison and convicted for engaging in consensual sadomasochistic activity. The conviction ruled out consent as a legal form of validation, posing the problematic question of body ownership. “There is that question of the limits of consent, particularly when law is involved, so an issue of the consensual body in cultural practice.”

Johnson’s collaboration with artists such as Ron Athey, most notably with Incorruptible Flesh (Perpetual Wound), in which Athey employs rituals of piercing and cutting to explore notions of self, engaging with the myth of Philoctetes (exiled by the Greeks for his terrible wound) inhabiting Californian deserts, has shaped and informed his work. Using body art to subvert and explore public notions of sexuality, illness and ownership, Athey’s art, despite being associated and disputed over his engagement with masochism as a device and practice within his performances, is informed by his own background growing up in what he calls a dysfunctional Pentecostal family; the work’s viscerality, and the embodiment and the production of affective experiences have been significant to Johnson’s own development. “He is very careful about leading people into an image, and allowing them an exit route. There’s an intricate consideration of the architecture of the work, providing audiences with space to think things through in interesting ways. This has been very instructive to me.”

What emerges in our conversation about both Ron Athey and Franko B is the reading and engagement with an unrivalled attention to detail and the aesthetics. Johnson is highly aware and interested in thinking through the cultural politics of a specific act, “the specific ritual quality of the act, the marking of physical transformation which is often what a tattoo is wrapped in. In aesthetics that is both possible and available, a progression and procession of a wound.” It’s clear that in this context, tattoos are in no way accessorising, nor should they be read and perceived as such. “There is also something innately theatrical about this process, and others like them, for example, piercing, or body modification.” The identity of the work which Johnson is creating is, however, not necessarily informed by immediately associated genealogies in, for example, artists such as Orlan or even Gina Pane, but there’s something of a different tone; more candid, perhaps, but also functioning within the paradigms of a different context- the theatrical- as well as the collaboration with an artist such as Alex Binnie.

“It is not our job to anticipate a final, fixed resolution, but hope that the work asks questions. The undertaking of the work might be difficult but I’m not looking here at transgression, but in the construction of an image which has an affective charge. There is something useful, perhaps even political in that.” Johnson speaks of unresolved collisions between things that “don’t go together, like sex and tattooing, tattooing and catastrophe- the fixed imperative or assumption of the truth of an image of action. You can’t expect a work to convey and distil its meaning universally and confidently.” There is an interest there in looking at how theatricalising these devices might produce an effect without resorting to any messianic qualities. “It shows how hard those Christian messages are to get away from. I am aiming at a secular ritual, not totemic, outside of those religious structures.”

This is perhaps a question that is central to Departure- an examination of these “contemporary technologies of suffering”. When I ask about the foundations of the work, two references are made. One to Alan Read’s discourse in Theatre, Intimacy and Engagement, in which he places a set of body based artists, Johnson included, in the context of work which aims to link bodily crisis to Christian iconography “in an inherently Conservative way. If crisis is then perceived to be something that is irrelevant, how might we rethink catastrophe as being something crucial to strive towards, and how might we do that without resorting to particular anagrams or images of Christian suffering?”, Johnson explains. The second reference is JG Ballard and his novel Crash, perhaps read out as the kind of interplay which Johnson engages within his own work, rather than a direct narrative link. Within the piece’s own explanation, Johnson cites Ballard, who finds “a brief moment in disasters”, be they earthquakes, planes or car crashes, revealing “the secret formulas of the world around us.” In that sense, there is an engagement with the betwixt and between as a space for re – composition. Mixing the toxic and the pedestrian, Departure is perhaps a ritual of recuperation and displacement, but also one that, in its visual literacy and theatrical engagement, holds and suspends this moment and poses a question mark at its end.

Departure (An Experiment in Human Salvage) is on at Chelsea Theatre on the 25th October 2012.

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.