Disabled Bodies on Display
John Kaldor '13 Rooms' exhibition, as part of the education program, Pier 2/3 Walsh Bay April 2012
Hello and good afternoon.
It’s such an honour to be given this opportunity. I am actually quite ecstatic to be here, sharing my thoughts with you.
I often doubt my ability to articulate exactly what I think and feel, which is an anxiety that I think most people can identify with. Although, you must understand, when you don’t speak, the meaning of the things you say gets amplified. This reality, combined with my propensity for always striving for absolute clarity, causes, in a sense, a paralysis of my mind. What I'm trying to say, is I'm quite skilled at fumbling over words and sentences. So, please bear with me.
Perhaps it is this fraught relationship with words that explains why I like the artform of performance so much, as it's beyond our everyday vocabulary. It offers a necessary reprieve from semantic battles we fight on a daily basis. Performance art forces us into a world where feeling and experiencing are given greater weight than the ability to rationalise and speak logically.
Words are necessary though. They are powerful, because they reveal and form our realities. Living with an uncooperative body is a constant reminder of this fact. Since bodies are constantly and directly shaped by words, or the lack of them. Different bodies are not described by what they can't do, or by what they are lacking, but they actually become defined by their inability. They tend to be regarded as another breed of human, not seen as "whole" enough to be given the same respect as fully capable bodies. You see, disabled bodies challenge the very essence of human capacity, so much so, that apparent deficiencies of the human form, are seen as somehow impinging on their humanity.
I know and understand these things. Disability is a part of the lifelong discussion that I am forced to engage in every day, for obvious reasons.
Body-based art appropriates human physicality, much like physical disability does. Bodily movements are no longer purely functional, they become somewhat a rejoicing of the human form, and its existence.
The right-side of my body, in particular my right arm, needs no intention or motive to flail around, and, on occasion, knock things over. It just does these things because it does. The more I try to control my muscles, the more they rebel against rationality and reason. When I am emotional, or merely concentrating, my arm tenses up, as if to tell my mind to relax. I find this intimate exchange of my mind and body really intriguing.
I know involuntary movements are not in everyone's goodie-bag of disabled conditions, but with every handicap, some form of structural reworking of the corporeal body takes place. For those without hands, their toes essentially become their fingers. For those without functional legs, arms and hands become the most efficient mode of weight-bearing. My hands often perform the role of being my voice. They provide a means for me to communicate efficiently.
All these manipulations of human physicality blur the definition of being healthy and being human. Living with a disability makes it difficult to conform to any approximation of physical "normalcy", since we exist outside the biological realm of "natural selection". It is therefore impossible to truly conform to any socially accepted idea of human beauty.
In public spaces, our bodies become objects of concern, pity, and mere curiosity. We are seldom looked at with any real attraction or desire. To be honest, I rarely even get looked at as an individual with intelligence and subjectivity. I have come to understand and even accept stares from strangers; after all, people become comfortable with things by seeing and experiencing them. Since bodies are "things", and humans are curious beings, I choose to regard it as an exercise of patience and compassion and not shy away from people's inquisitiveness.
However, there’s a fine balance between people just being curious and people being troubled to see me out alone. People, who fall into the latter category, usually disregard the fact that I am a person just trying to live my life. People who live in socially disadvantaged bodies come up against the tug-of-war of the mind and body an awful lot. This is an understandable exploration of the self, especially when people constantly dismiss you on the basis of your outward appearance. It would be unhealthy not to contemplate what people actually are dismissing. Are they belittling the physicality you present, or your sensibility as a person? This question is impossible to answer. Even though I like to believe the former, there's no escaping the fact that these two things are inextricably linked.
When people react with disgust at my disability, it's difficult to not take it personally. I often say those incidents, by their very nature, eat away at my soul, no matter how I try to frame them. Now, the "soul" is quite an elusive term, and is often regarded as transcendent of the physical body. I feel it to be different. I feel that my soul lies at the exact point where my mind and body intersect. So when people judge my body, it creates discordance with my mind.
People often hear me talking about my body as if it's a separate entity to myself. After all, it has its own agenda. I try to respect its needs and wants, its movement preferences, as well as its aches and pains. Even though I suspect most people experience this separation of mind and body to a certain extent, and even though my muscles refuse to listen to my brain, it is the social stigma of physical disability that actually furthers that divide.
Art overrides this paradigm, because I am putting my body on display with the knowledge that it is going to be a spectacle. Whatever people think and feel about my physicality, it doesn't cause the same internal conflict, because, in performance, my inner self and my body are in sync. We are both striving for the same end goal of creating art.
In the artistic context, the most obvious of weaknesses become the greatest strengths. Art lends itself to exposing one's vulnerabilities and truths about human existence. In a setting like this, different bodies have a crucial advantage over regular bodies. In a way that’s not overly threatening, we embody some of people's worst fears - not being able to walk or to move effortlessly. Essentially not being able to live an "independent" life.
I know these things are confronting for most people, but human beings have an amazing ability to derive strength out of weakness. Disability has the potential to force a person to find their humanity, determination and the ability to just get on with life. These things are universal and are inherent in the life force.
Art, in many ways, reflects my personal beliefs and values about different physicalities. We desperately need a new lexicon for physical bodies, about what they are and what they should be able to do.
Before I finish, I would like to share a poem I wrote a few years ago. It’s about the relationship I have with my body. Here we go. Are you ready?
You step into your skin,
It’s a bit tight and restricting,
And it clings in all the wrong places.
But it is your name written in marker pen
On the nametag inside its collar.
So it must be yours.
So you make yourself at home.
Love it like your own.
Hate it like someone else’s.
And yet it seems that you aren’t in control.
This ill-fitting body,
With its beauty and asymmetry,
With its own purposeful existence,
Is a party dress you can never outgrow.
It will always make you appear like someone else,
And leave you yearning to be someone you are not.
Thank you so much for listening!