It is dark in the vast Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern museum; the only light emanates from two tracks of fluorescent light bulbs arranged runway-style along a length of white canvas. In between these tracks walks a naked man, his entire body covered in white grease paint. He walks slowly, like an overweight runway model on codeine. His languid pace might be intentional, or it might be a result of the catheters in his arms that hold open his veins, allowing his blood to drip onto the canvas beneath him. His name is Franko B, and this is his art. He calls this piece “I Miss You.”
Using his body as his canvas and likening his blood to oil paint, the Italian-born artist has honed his ability to evoke deep emotional, psychological, and physiological responses in his viewers. Though he’s best known for bleeding in public, B’s primary interest is in making an immediate impact on his audience. He rarely bleeds these days, but his usually naked body remains the subject of his work.
Naked in greasepaint and bleeding freely may sound as extreme as obscure performance art can get, but B is far from alone in his approach. His work falls within the loosely defined “live art” movement, born in Britain in the mid 1980s. The terms “live art” and “time-based art” are used somewhat interchangeably; the events that fall within the genre are also sometimes referred to as “happenings.” The artworks in this category are all contemporary and conceptual in nature, and although they generally take place in the direct presence of an audience, they do not fit comfortably within the more familiar domains of dance and theater.
London remains a hub of live art worldwide; it is there that the Live Art Development Agency is based, and where Franko B, among others, makes his home. It’s no coincidence that live art should be at home in one of the world’s richest cultural centers, but neither does it follow that metropolitan dwellers alone should have the chance to witness live art at its best. Such was the thinking of UCSB History of Art graduate students Noa Turel and Mary McGuire when they decided to curate I Am the Medium, an exhibition of live art films and photography taking place at UCSB between October 29 and November 2. Most live art exhibitions, such as Glasgow’s annual National Review of Live Art, involve live performance; Turel and McGuire’s exhibition, though supported by the Interdisciplinary and Humanities Center and the department of History of Art and Architecture, lacks the budget to bring together a large group of artists for a weeklong event. What they offer, instead, is an introduction to a little-known art form that, despite its inherent challenges, has the capacity to resonate with many.
“There are so many layers to these works,” said Turel last week, “but most of them should be accessible to everyone in some way.” Turel-who is Israeli and has lived in Paris, New York, and London, where she studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art-wanted to produce a truly exciting art event in Santa Barbara. “We thought it would be great to shake things up a bit with something a little bit edgy, a little bit controversial, because that’s what art is supposed to be about: shaking up your thinking, and making you see things differently,” she said. McGuire notes the project has already come up against resistance in its attempt to secure venues; the UCen has denied their request to screen one of the films, “Official Welcome,” in which Institutional Critique artist (and UCLA faculty member) Andrea Fraser strips naked while delivering a series of satirical monologues to an unsuspecting audience at an art gala.
Other films included in the exhibition are Franko B’s “I Miss You” (2003) and two films of the work of German artist Mathilde ter Heijne: one in which she appears to set herself on fire, and another in which she commits virtual suicide by throwing a life-sized wax mannequin of herself over the edge of a bridge. In the case of the former film, Turel noted, the audience is implicated in the artist’s self-immolation; the setup of the installation requires viewers to walk around the screen in the center of the room while a soundtrack of heavy footsteps is played. “She forces you to recognize that you are creating this ceremony,” Turel said. “In the current political context of terrorism, it might get people to realize that there’s an element of spectatorship-the observer of suicide bombings is taking part in them somehow.”
“So many of these works are about connecting life and mortality,” McGuire pointed out. “A lot are about death, violence, and the fragility of human life,” Turel added. “What comes out of this choice to use the body as the medium is very powerful and immediate, very direct. The artist forces you into a situation where you have to react.”
As part of their effort to bring live art to a wider community, Turel and McGuire are teaching an undergraduate course in which they are training students to lead public tours of the exhibition, a choice they hope will provide an inroad to the material for both students and members of the public. “In many ways, this work should be more accessible than, say, the paintings of Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock,” Turel said. “These artists deal with subjects like communication lag, exile, war, chemotherapy-things most of us living in the modern world can relate to.”
Turel and McGuire hope I Am the Medium will draw an audience from a wide range of backgrounds-not just art historians. Those who venture for the first time into this territory of live art can expect to be challenged and engaged on new levels by art that puts a twist on the term “body of work.”
I Am the Medium will be on exhibit October 29-November 2 at various locations around UCSB. Free, guided one-hour tours begin at noon, 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. each day at the information desk of the Student Resources Building. For more information, visit ucsb.edu/iamthemedium. The exhibition coincides with Missed Martyrdoms, an interdisciplinary symposium examining the history of body art. Visit ucsb.edu/iamthemedium for a complete schedule.