Body fluids and contemporary art


in:, December 2005

It’s time for the 6th annual EDP New Artists Award. This year there are seven artists selected to present their projects in the Central Pavilion of Portugal in Coimbra; Eduardo Petersen, Francisco Vidal, Vasco Costa, Jorge Feijão, José Carlos Teixeira, Ramiro Guerreiro, João Leonardo. 

This text will focus on the video 'The Hair of the Dog' by the latter artist. 

The strategy of shock or objectification of the body as a mediating mechanism between what is ingested and then expelled and reintroduced is a brief summary of the organizational structure used by João Leonardo in this piece. It may cause a reaction that can be of abomination or disgust in the case of more sensitive viewers. The fact that João Leonardo drinks a beer, and then urinates in the same cup to finally drink it with the same satisfaction that characterized the first act, is nothing more than a performance allegory. 

Many artists in recent decades have caused scandal through the use of body and body fluids in a non-conventional way. I can cite, for example, the ex-prostitute and now artist-performer Orlan who redraws herself obsessively by plastic surgery, Hermann Nitsch, founder of the Orgies and Mysteries Theater, which promised catharsis by the play of music, painting, spilling of animal blood and guts, or the more controversial, Ron Athey, an HIV-positive artist that in one of his performances made a cut to another interpreter on stage and launched on the public sheets of paper soaked in blood, causing total terror. Closer to the actions of João Leonardo, is the "Virgin Mary" by Chris Ofili exhibited in 1999 in the famous Sensation exhibition, presented with elephant excrement, "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano of 1987, which is a picture of the Crucifixion of Christ floating in urine or "Jim and Tom" by Robert Mapplethorpe (1977),  a photo showing a man urinating into the mouth of another. 

The act staged by João Leonardo is not religious in the true sense of the word. But it ends up being just that when he makes use of social urban rites characteristic of contemporary society by adding a symbolic value through the use of a gesture that is underlined by the title of the video to which I can assign a sarcastic intention. The idiom "The hair of the dog" is associated with the act of drinking alcohol in excess. It is believed that to cure the hangover from the previous day it’s enough to drink one or two glasses of the same drink. This "Drink what you drank" is irony, game and ritual all in one. All participants in this ceremony know the rules of the game and if there is no scandal it’s because they do not dominate or share the same belief. 

What this video allegorically illustrates is the boundary between a grid of acceptable and unacceptable values, having the western cultural tradition as a backdrop. Seen as an axiological issue, the meaning of the image is not the image itself but the relationship that the viewer can establish with it. And in these circumstances, the shock and the scandal may or may not exist. 

Ana Luísa Barão

Art Critic and Curator. Assistant Professor of the School of Fine Arts - Porto University