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Extremity pays: Fiona McGregor

FionaMcGregorFiona McGregor thrashes through fear in ‘Vertigo’, her current exhibition. McGregor is an inimitable Sydney-based performance artist known for her endurance. She has placed shunts in her wrists and sewed her lips together. Extreme? For McGregor, it’s just part of the process. An award-winning author, she has written Au Pair, Chemical Palace, Suck My Toes, Strange Museums and Indelible Ink. She spoke with Tiffany Lowana.

13 February 2011

On ‘Vertigo’, McGregor says: “When first approaching the lip of the cliff, I was so afraid I could barely crawl. What is the mind-body effect with fear bound with love? To be tied somewhere and want to flee at the same time.”

Why water?

How does obsession begin? I’m not sure. Growing up on the harbour, living by the ocean, living through drought in Australia when it encroached on city life. Just being in this body which is fluid, 78% water-blood. We are bags of bloody water.

How would you pitch the Water series?

It’s ongoing. It has three parts: Ocean; Freshwater; the Body as majority water. The performances are being communicated live and to film, as linear film or video installation. The live ones will also be leaving trace installations. All the performances are endurance based. They all involve me pushing to some kind of limit.

What do you hope the spectator will take away with them?

I never have a proscriptive for how my work is received. I like hearing the unexpected. I always want to open people up in a way - but that can mean many different things. We can consider fear.

It's interesting how many people have told me they have a fear of heights or vertigo more generally - the phobias we are all prey to. Also, to look at our coastline in a new light.

My biggest wish with ‘Vertigo’ is that people give it time, stay with it, even re-visit if possible.

There is obviously a reference here to water shortage/wastage and sustainability. In general, how political is your performance art?

It's always fairly political, even in its diversity and its intimacy. Politics is wide realm to me. It is personal and bound up with the land, and of course connotates broader social issues and human relations.

You have water tattoos on your calf muscles. Have you always been so drawn to water?

Yes. I learnt to swim at the same time as I learnt to walk. I was a water-baby. I spent all day in the water sometimes, until I was wrinkled and burnt to a crisp. The ocean has a magic power. It's where life began - long before humans there were amoeba. This planet should be called Planet Ocean rather than Planet Earth. It is mostly water.

If you could describe water using just one word?

Fluidity. Life. (Go on – give me two)

Why is endurance at the core of your work?

To teach myself patience and stillness. To be in the moment - the best place for awareness. Although I'm not a Buddhist I'm learning this is in keeping with their philosophy: awareness and equanimity.

What would you say to people who call your performance art ‘extreme’?

Nothing. It's a valid thing to say. But it isn't really the point or the summary.

Body as site and subject - in pieces such as ‘You Have the Body’ where your lips were stitched together - is experiencing pain about honouring the wound?

Hhmm… no, I don't want to gild the lily. Not honouring the wound. Just exploring it, not shying away from it. Lorca's Duende.

You have mentioned there will be pieces in the series revolving around blood and saliva. Can you tell us a bit more about these works?

The blood one is fairly well developed. It will be done at Artspace this November. It involves writing live and will leave a trace installation. The saliva one isn't developed yet.

With this series, I don't really know when it will end, or what will eventually materialize, even in the cases of the works that now seem well developed.

Confronting fear seems to be an inherent part of your work. Why is risk and fear so important?

I think because I need to push into somewhere new. Otherwise it just feels rote or something. I'm not interested in a perfected move or aesthetic - I want to discover something, tap into the unknown.

Fear and risk remain locked up for obvious reasons. I want to go into the hidden rooms. And I don't want to be tyrannised or limited and fear does that to you. And it is so liberating to get over your fears, which I generally do in the process of the performance.

The audience can have the same experience. We realise how petty these tyrannies are!

In ‘Vertigo’ you faced your fear of heights and described the experience as ‘a frightening, exhausting and exhilarating day.’ Can you talk us through some of that?

Looking down the cliff was unbearable. It made me dizzy, nauseous. Having done so many works in which physical pain was intrinsic, with ‘Vertigo’ I wanted to challenge myself psychologically. I don’t know when I developed a fear of heights. Certainly as a child I didn’t suffer it: I was fearless and reckless. But for some years now, I had suffered high anxiety vertigo.

(Lying on the edge of the cliff for seven hours) I was unruly in my posture: legs kick up, head twists from side to side, rolling shoulders to alleviate the pain. Submission takes awhile; the hour stretches.

Slowly, as the day wears on, the sight of the water surging below soothes me. I became hypnotized. I was no longer afraid. Instead, my body was protesting. My neck and back ached, I had windburn, my eyes were swelling. But what did I care? I was now liberated, and in the most beautiful place in the world, changing, changing, changing.

‘Vertigo’ is on at MOP Projects, Sydney from 10-27 February. Details of Fiona’s  performance art can be found on her website.

Fiona McGregor will be in conversation with Tiffany Lowana at The Red Rattler on 3 March as part of the Her Raging Needs event. Fiona will also be in conversation with Katrina Fox on 19 February as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Queer Thinking Day.

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