By Ashley Ellis

    Internationally renowned artist Stelarc is known for going to extremes. His body is literally his canvas and he regularly performs suspended in mid-air with meat hooks through his flesh. He’s even had an ear sewn onto his arm in the name of art!

    Though Cyprus-born he was raised in Sunshine and his work, which may seem bizarre to some, is centred on the concept that the human body is obsolete. He has performed with a robotic third arm and a pneumatic six-legged walking machine, and has allowed his body to be controlled remotely by electronic muscle stimulators connected to the internet. 

    His latest work Anthropomorphic Machine is an enormous kinetic sculpture which senses and responds to the presence of humans. It is currently on display as part of Science Gallery Melbourne’s exhibition Swarm.

    ‘People have asked me what I was like as a kid. I wasn’t sticking pins into my fingertips or anything. At one point, my dad ran a service station and I used to help him spray paint, (without masks in those days, I wonder how many brain cells I killed?), I was never overly mechanically oriented, but I would help dad repairing cars. I was about four or five years old when my parents emigrated from Cyprus, and we were just a typical immigrant family living in Sunshine. These days things are much more multicultural, but back in the day, Italians and Greeks were seen as kind of alien and exotic. We had slightly different accents and a slightly different appearance. I copped a little bit at school about who I was and where I came from, but it didn’t really bother me.

    ‘My mum has always been supportive without really understanding what I do. Neither of my parents had any educational upbringing, so for them, any kind of art is difficult to understand. They hoped I’d do something more professional and sensible, like architecture or medicine, but I ended up studying art.

    ‘I always wanted to be an artist, whatever that meant, but I had a naive idea of what an artist did, thinking of painting portraits or drawing realistic pictures. The first things I made in art school were helmets and goggles that altered your ocular perception. There was also a 3×3 metre, mechanically rotating dome that you could fit your whole body into, and it generated fragmented images and electronic sounds. 

    ‘So, I leaned toward mechanical, structural, physically interactive work, from early on. As I started exploring ideas about the body, what it is to be human, and how technology can interact with and extend the body’s capabilities, I experimented more and more with performance art that incorporates my own body.

    ‘My definition of art is that which happens between the artist’s intention, and the actual outcome, and the slippage that occurs between those. You need to incorporate the accidental, the unexpected. Art must generate a sense of uncertainty and ambivalence about what it is, what it does, what it means. If those questions are answered easily, then it’s probably not interesting.

    ‘None of my projects and performances have ever meant to be risky or shocking, but they were intended to interrogate the status quo of the body. I’ve always been interested in how the human body has evolved its evolutionary architecture, with its genetic and physiological inclinations, with senses to perceive the world. How even with a cortical capacity of 1400 cubic centimetres, the brain decides it’s not enough. Humans have a need to see the micro; we are compelled to go into deep time and try to understand cosmologically how we got here. 

    ‘Often people want to associate what I do with science, but it’s got nothing to do with science. Scientific pursuits and artistic pursuits are totally different methodologies. One has to do with accumulating information, often for some utilitarian reason. 

    ‘Whereas art is much more intuitive, much more playful and experimental.

    ‘I find the seemingly limitless potential of technology in science and medicine deeply fascinating. For instance, face transplants. Of course, there are issues that can arise in the process, such as rejection. But the idea that you can remove the face from a cadaver and stitch it on to the skull of another person, creating this kind of third face, is quite an amazing feat. Sure, it’s not going to look like the original, because the face is just flexible tissue, but it can be done, and that’s incredible. And with technologies like the DaVinci robot, a surgeon can effectively perform surgery from anywhere in the world.

    ‘Not only is technology becoming more compatible with the body in terms of scale, but also in substance. A lot of materials are now biocompatible. There’s already research into dissolvable chip circuitry that you can stick to a part of your body to monitor pathology, and then a month later it just harmlessly dissolves. 

    ‘By incorporating these kinds of technologies into my work, it allows other people to become part of my performances. I was initially a very reluctant performance artist, because back then I wasn’t particularly extroverted. I came to feel confident performing by learning to perform with a posture of indifference.

    ‘Of course, you need to plan, but there’s a point in time when the thinking stops, and the action begins. Once the action begins, things can happen or not happen. Unexpected, accidental, and unpredictable things might occur. You allow things to happen in their own time, with their own rhythm, and you don’t burden your action with expectations.

    ‘Boldness in my life has been about being curious, and persistently, perhaps even obsessively, continuing to question who I am, who we are as humans, what the body is, and how it operates. What happens when we augment the body with technology? Can we come up with creative and intimate interfaces with technology? There are always more questions.’ 

    Humans of the West is a collection of portrait artworks and interviews by artist and writer Ashley Ellis from her Bowery Gallery exhibition Bold Stories, Bold Lives – a Creative Brimbank community storytelling project highlighting the bold stories of Brimbank.

    Our content is a labour of love, crafted by dedicated volunteers who are passionate about the west. We encourage submissions from our community, particularly stories about your own experiences, family history, local issues, your suburb, community events, local history, human interest stories, food, the arts, and environmental matters. Below are articles created by community contributors. You can find their names in the bylines.

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