The Sydney artist turns his treatment into performance
If you've ever used a dialysis machine or know someone who has, you probably haven't thought of the thing as especially beautiful or artistic. But Sydney artist John A Douglas has managed to take the machine and the mundane medical act of kidney treatment and turn it into an arresting piece of performance art. Twice. We first saw his piece, 'Body Fluid I', as part of the Oxford Art Factory's Free Fall programme in 2011. Wrapped in a tight gold bodysuit, Douglas sat inside a glass cube with his machine plugged in, filling and draining him over a period ten hours. In 'Body Fluid II (Redux)', which he will show as part of Performance Space's Switched On season this month, he'll undergo treatment again for an audience, this time flanked by three video backdrops showing Australian landscapes like the Perry Sandhills and Snowy Mountains. And he'll be dancing.
Douglas worked on a movement score with choreographer Sue Healey for the performance and says there'll even be a Russian waltz – "Well, more of a 'frustration waltz'," he admits. The piece is a pair with another work he is showing at Performance Space, a four-channel channel video called 'The Visceral Garden'. In the video work, a 'red man' guides viewers into the disease, conveyed by Douglas as a blend of Australian landscapes and pictures of specimens the Museum of Human Disease. "The live performance is about the treatment and the video is about the illness itself," Douglas explains.
On dialysis for seven years now, and weakened by anaemia and respiratory issues, it can be easy to swell with sympathy for the artist's physical state when watching his performance. But that's not the intention. Dialysis, he says, has given his life a compass, and the performance is for the audience's reflection, not his own. "It becomes almost like a sacred space, like going into a church. When I've done the work in public before, even in the nightclub, people were very quiet. It offers them an opportunity to think about someone in their life who is ill and to think about their own mortality. And also to think about how strong and resilient the human body is – how it bounces back." Still, surely it's a taxing piece of art to make. What do his doctors think? "I don't tell them," he says. "I don't think they'd want to know."