Peter Dobill, “Sans Tête” Action Performance (2009) (photos)

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The room felt very still when I first arrived at Grace Exhibition Space in Bushwick. Half the audience was settled comfortably onto the benches watching Peter Dobill perform while the others hovered near the bar somewhat unsure about how the performance would progress.

Dobill was standing in front of a mysterious wooden column crowned with peacock feathers. He was naked–except for a fabric tied around his head–and tied to two columns which were connected by a large white fabric fringed on the top with some type of dried grass. He was flanked by two black altar-life tables that were covered with bowls of paint (black, white & primary colors), seeds, powders and water.

Audience members were invited by some of the spectators (many of whom were the artist’s friends) to paint, spill, sprinkle, bound, tickle, caress or douse Dobill’s body with brushes, twine, peacock feathers or cow tongues (which were also available on the tables), though some chose to use their hands.

The mood in the room was quiet except for the electric guitars that provided an eerie ambient noise.The music was experimental and never seemed to settle into a rhythm that was familar or soothing.

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As people added their marks to Dobill’s body, the layering of colors, objects and markings abstracted the human form into something at once alienating, violent and mummified. Initially his crotch was the only part untouched by paint and powder and it created a haloing effect which emphasized his nakedness. Eventually, someone covered his genitals with paint and feathers.

One young woman I had never met before confided in me that she wanted to jack off the artist but I suspect it was a way for her to appear cutting edge and provocative. She suggested I try it.

“No, I don’t really want to…you do it,” I droned back.

“I don’t know, I should go after this,” she said stepping back from her earlier brashness. She soon approached the artist and painted his body before leaving soon afterwards.

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As the three-hour performance continued the human canvas became more stunning to look at as colors covered almost every inch of his skin and tongues and feathers were attached to where ever they would stay. The visual impact was part Pollock and part Rauschenberg.

Some sadist placed two of the bowls on Dobill’s right arm during (if my memory serves me right) the last 20 minutes of the performance. But judging by Dobill’s lack of reaction to the added burden, he was already deep into a meditative trance that detached his conscious mind from his physical body.

For the finale, the artist’s friends and performance cohorts grabbed a large fabric tacked to a nearby wall and wrapped his body. The final relic was returned to the wall while the artist slowly revived himself from his performance-induced stupor.

I used the lull in activity as a signal to leave and reflect on what I had seen.

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For my complete set of images (40) from Sans Tête, click here.

In a few days, I will post my thoughts about the imagery and meaning of Dobill’s thought-provoking performance.

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