Martin O’Brien, Sheree Rose and Rhiannon Aarons on ‘The Viewing’

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The Viewing is a reimagining of the third in Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose’s ‘Death Trilogy’, originally conceived more than 20 years ago. It took the form of a 24-hour durational performance at DaDaFest International Festival 2016, 19-20 November. Joe Turnbull spoke to Rose and collaborators Martin O’Brien and Rhiannon Aarons about this piece which forces us to confront death, illness and sexuality.

Image of screening of Martin O'Brien in live performance. His body is wrapped in cellophane

Martin O’Brien at DaDaFest 2016. Photo © Mark Loudon

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of the infamous American performance artist Bob Flanagan. In the mid-90s Flanagan and long-time collaborator Sheree Rose devised a Death Trilogy of performances, which would confront Flanagan’s inevitable early death as a result of cystic fibrosis, with their trademark experimental, incendiary style. Flanagan died before they could finish the second and third installments.

Last year, Rose collaborated with British performance artist, Martin O’Brien, who also has cystic fibrosis, on part two, Dust to Dust, and now they’ve completed the trilogy in The Viewing at DaDaFest. The original concept was to have a camera placed in Flanagan’s coffin with a live feed of his body decaying. But O’Brien is very much alive, and kicking, in this enactment.

It seems fittingly macabre that this interview is conducted with the three collaborators Rose, O’Brien and Aarons perched in a coffin beamed across cyberspace via Skype. It is Gothic morbidity for the 21st Century. We talk zombies, dildos and the Chapel of S&M. Flanagan would surely be spinning with delight in his grave.

“When I was 18 I stumbled across an image in a book of Bob’s scrotum with two nails attaching it to a piece of wood,” O’Brien recalls. “That moment really changed the way I thought about what art and performance could be. My heart stopped when I read that Bob Flanagan was an artist who had cystic fibrosis. It’s such a solitary disease, as people with cystic fibrosis can’t be in the same room due to cross infection. Seeing this I saw that someone had set something up that I could follow on from.”

More than 10 years later O’Brien finds himself acting as something of a surrogate for Flanagan, helping Rose realise one of his final wishes.

“By doing things with Martin I’m really channelling Bob Flanagan’s spirit, because he has a very psychic connection with Bob, and with me,” Rose tells me. It’s clearly an emotional moment for her to see the trilogy concluded.

“It’s not gruesome or horrible, it’s exciting to be doing what he envisioned. It feels like a vindication of Bob’s ideas and I’m really happy to be working with Martin and Rhiannon to complete this and lay Bob to rest. It’s a big thing to be doing a version of something conceived of 20 years ago,” O’Brien chips in. “You can feel the weight of history”.

The three performers were in ‘the crypt,’ a bare space with O’Brien seemingly inanimate. In a separate ‘viewing room’ there were four images of Flanagan’s corpse: a close-up of his face, two of his chest and one of his genitals. A corresponding four-screen live feed of O’Brien’s face, chest, scrotum and one wide angle view of the whole set up was transmitted to it, keeping audience and performers once-removed.

“Bob and I always thought when you do live art the audience becomes like an audience in a Coliseum; they always want to see more,” explains Rose. “We realised one way to appease that desire but not completely give in to it is to mediate it. It’s set up like you were a guard watching monitors in a hospital or apartment building and you look up and see these things happening. I like the idea that the audience are voyeurs to these weird things, not participants.”

Image of screening of Martin O'Brien in live performance. His body is wrapped in cellophane

Martin O’Brien at DaDaFest 2016. Photo © Mark Loudon

Throughout the performance Rose and Aarons tend to O’Brien in ever more extreme ways.

“Before midnight it’s all vanilla,” Rose says, you can taste the mischief in her voice. “After midnight it’s more hardcore, we wake Martin up a little bit. We bring him back to life using our sexuality and his sexuality”.

Death looms large over this piece of work, and not just the ghost of Flanagan.

“Most of my work considers the impact of illness and mortality,” explains O’Brien. “For someone born, as I was, with cystic fibrosis, the average life expectancy is 30. I’m 29, almost 30 now. As well as it being 20 years since Bob’s death, it seems like a significant moment for me to be thinking of death as well.”

“I think on a cultural level denying death helps control people in a certain way,” says Aarons. “I think the fear of death is more about a fear of not having adequately lived”.

“I just celebrated my 75th birthday,” adds Rose. “So I’m also very aware of the passing of time. A lot of our work is time-based, we pay attention to time in a way that younger people or people who aren’t sick never do. A lot of time goes by and you don’t know where it went. But every minute of this 24 hours is orchestrated; it doesn’t pass fast or slow but it takes on a whole mystical sense. That’s intense to do for 24 hours.”

I ask them how they prepared for such a marathon, and get a glib answer from Rose.

“First we went to a sex shop, then a party shop to get a stethoscope and zombie makeup. We had fun doing some shopping”. Aarons explains “you can’t prepare. Having that realisation is very zen. Accepting that there is no way to prepare is the only way to prepare!”

“This performance is really important for establishing the work that Sheree and Bob did as part of a canon,” Aarons adds. “This is a very concrete way of making sure it gets preserved and that work in this genre continues to be made.”

For their last performance, Sanctuary Ring which took place in St Clements church, Ipswich as part of SPILL Festival of Performance, there was some controversy around an accompanying illustration by LA artist Jeffrey Valance. It had the words ‘Saint Bob Flanagan in the S&M Chapel,’ which was deemed inappropriate, as it was being performed on ‘consecrated ground’.

This was a reference to the religion posthumously set up in Flanagan’s name whose mantras include ‘fight sickness with sickness,’ ‘keep breathing’ and ‘it’s fun to be dead’. They were forced to redact the text from the illustration.

“It was fine for me to fuck Martin in the ass with a dildo and hang him from his ankles above the altar though,” jokes Rose. “We still get censored and people do judge us” she explains. “Our message and the way we deal with the world is actually a very positive message. It’s very life-affirming. Yes, we do weird things. But weird by whose standards?”

Sheree Rose and Rhiannon Aarons are currently seeking crowd-funding to have Bob Flanagan’s The Book of Medicine published, which has been compiled from Rose and Flanagan’s archives.