Kira O’Reilly

Kira O’Reilly is a UK-based artist whose work has consistently pushed against the limits and expectations placed upon the body, the relationship of the performer to the audience, and the placement of the body within the biomedical regime. O’Reilly earned her BA in art from University of Wales Institute Cardiff in 1998. She has subsequently completed a research fellowship at SymbioticA (the art science collaborative research lab, School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia) and the School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham 2007.

O’Reilly’s earliest pieces referenced the limits of her body as well as the history of western medicine. O’Reilly has always been interested in the way that the skin creates an artificial boundary and container of the fixed self. In her work, O’Reilly has sought to explore both the vulnerability of the human body and the permeability of skin and, by extension, identity. Wet Cup, performed in Copenhagen in 2001, involved the use of heavy glass cups that were used to bleed people in the middle ages. Naked, O’Reilly lay face down on the floor while Ernst Fischer, himself no stranger to extreme body art, placed these heated glass cups on her back. After allowing the cups to pull and pucker the flesh, Fischer returned and removed the cups in order to make a slash with a scalpel, after which the cup was replaced. The combination of the heat and the suction caused the cut to bleed profusely. Finally, Fischer returned once more to remove the cups, which had created large bruises and clotting pools of blood. A blood print was made of each cut and hung carefully to dry on a line.

For Sssshh—Succour (2002), O’Reilly, seated on a white towel placed on a white chair and surrounded by white sand, used white surgical tape to create a white grid on her body. With the aid of a scalpel, O’Reilly methodically cut a diagonal slash into each of the pillows of flesh that puffed gently up between the surgically precise squares of tape. Removing the tape, O’Reilly carefully and methodically pressed a small square of gauze into each cut, creating a blood print that she dropped onto the white sand. Keith Gallasch wrote of the piece that

The performer’s essential stillness evokes the life model, the taping of the body recalls the butcher’s preparation of a brisket with string (see the artist’s curious choice of ‘tenderised’ in the next paragraph), the bright whiteness and clinical equipment suggest the care and hygiene of the surgeon. As the blade cuts into the upper thigh or the breast, images of accidental cuts to one’s own flesh are triggered. However, most of all it feels as if it’s about the artist meticulously and skillfully at work, and for that reason is less disturbing than I’d anxiously anticipated, but is no less rich (1)

Watching O’Reilly’s performances is a visceral experience. The permeability of O’Reilly’s skin reminds the viewer in turn of the permeability of her or his own. The audience’s inability or unwillingness to act to stop O’Reilly’s self-harm is due in part to the fact that these actions are framed as art, and thus understood to reside outside of the quotidian even though there are real bruises and real blood. Is the audience responsible for O’Reilly’s physical pain? For Untitled Action: Bomb Shelter, performed in Kuopio, Finland in 2004 and at the National Review of Live Art in Glasgow in 2005, O’Reilly went one step further in implicating the audience by asking them to cut her, rather than allowing the audience to simply watch while she cut herself. A one on one performance (the audience had to request tickets before the beginning of the festival), Untitled Action begin with the audience member, now a performer, being given a pair of surgical gloves and a sterilized scalpel so that they could make a cut in O’Reilly’s by now scarred skin. After the cut was made, the person sat in a chair. O’Reilly placed a white towel on her or his lap, and then sat there, allowing the audience member to hold her. Many people, including me, refused to cut her, preferring to hold her instead, all the while thinking that they had somehow failed the artist in their inability to find the courage to make the cut. Certainly ethics—and ethical actions—are very different when it comes to performance.

O’Reilly has written that a “palimpsest of tiny scars in varying stages of disappearance is being established on my body from each successive performance. They both document a history of the work and are, indeed, part of the work – collapsing the differences between ‘making’ and ‘performing’.” (2) As she approached and then passed the age of forty, O’Reilly shifted her practice to making “dances” with her 41-year old untrained body, which resulted in the piece Untitled (Syncope) performed first at the Spill Festival in 2007 and again at the 30th anniversary of the National Review of Live Art in 2010. Wearing a headdress, red lipstick, red high heels and nothing else, O’Reilly danced into the center of a crowd that had assembled in the SHUNT vaults of the London Bridge Station for Spill, and the Arches under the Glasgow Railroad Station for NRLA. For what seemed like an eternity, O’Reilly stomped and clacked around the claustrophobic space of the underground vaults, made even more so by the density of human bodies, all of them/us gently shoving and jostling in order to see what was happening. Finally, O’Reilly picks up a scalpel, cutting a cross into her right calf and then her left. The blood pooled in her shoes and dripped on the floor as she continued to dance, looking, with her long lean body, remarkably like a trained dancer in spite of her disclaimers.

For The 2014 Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival, O’Reilly will be doing another dance of sorts, this one involving eggs and green glitter (and reminding me at least of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham). Untitled (Syncope) took place for 40 minutes. O’Reilly’s piece, is a reprise of the piece that she performed at Performatarium 2014 (Regina, Canada). J.J. Keegan McFadden, in their review of the festival wrote of O’Reilly’s performance that

The first to perform was London-based artist Kira O’Reilly. The audience was ushered into the gallery to see O’Reilly already en scène, nude and folded upside-down and backwards into a corner of the space. Her dedicated area was dressed with dozens of eggs alongside numerous mixing bowls overflowing with loose green glitter. The artist, over a period of hours, eventually made her way throughout this section of the gallery in slight movements, taking the forms of Modernist sculptures à la Henry Moore while crushing the eggs under her weight and pouring the glitter all over the yolk-wet surface of her body. The durational aspect, coupled with the sensitivity the audience must have felt for the artist’s body, gave the whole piece an overall feeling similar to listening to a symphony or watching a ballet—there were certainly movements similar to those in a musical score which O’Reilly activated and revisited throughout the piece, culminating in her altered, glistening and glittery appearance folding itself back into the same place from which she began. – See more at: (3)

(1) Keith Gallasch, “National Review of Live Art: Blood Lines,” RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 3. Web.
(2) Kira O’Reilly, “Kira O’Reilly,” Artists Talking: Exposing Contemporary Visual Arts Practice. 2002. Web.
(3) J.J. Kegan McFadden, “Performatarium 2014: Queering the Prairies,” CANADIANART, February 5, 2014. Web.

Photo by Jason Cawood
Jennie Klein is an associate professor of art history and critical theory at Ohio University. She writes on feminist art, art and the maternal, feminist performance, and performance art and its histories. She is the editor of Letters from Linda M. Montano, (Routledge 2005), The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art (Demeter Press, 2011) and Histories of Live Art (Palgrave 2012). She is currently working on a book about the work of Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens.