Circles of Fire - The Amphitheatre (prelude)
Circles of Fire – The Amphitheatre (prelude)
synchronised two channel 4K – 1080p video with sound, paper, masking tape. Duration: 11 minutes, 7 seconds
Circles of Fire — The Amphitheatre (prelude) is a continuing iteration of a project commenced in 2015 (following Douglas’ kidney transplant in 2014) and is part of a larger trilogy of performed and mediated works of his lived experience of chronic illness and treatment. Douglas uses these ancient ruined sites to perform himself as the medicalised body in relation to and within the architectural forms of ancient ruins and Anatomical theatres. Douglas attempts to articulate the impossibility of representation (in both image and text) of the subjective internal surgically altered body by performing the medicalised body as spectacle. The work also draws connections between the architectural forms of the ancient Roman amphitheatre and the structure of anatomical theatres, later adopted by early surgical operatating theatres. Historically these sites were places for a performative revealing of the internal workings of the body and later surgical procedures as public spectacle.
Like Circles of Fire (variations), The Amphitheatre seeks to reveal the private struggle between wellness/fitness, illness and near death and living with the daily reality that illness and death may come at anytime. Douglas’s costuming and performance also draws upon the engravings of the anatomical ecorches as seen in Vesalius’s de humani corporis fabrica. The costume traces (using red velvet ribbon, puffy paint and fabric) his own vascular system showing the arterial connections between the transplanted kidney and the heart transforming his body into a camp 21st century anatomical transplant sporting figure.
The actions are an interpretation of the ongoing day-to-day battles endured by the artist and many other transplant recipients, between maintaining fitness, combating illnesses that require hospitalisation, and managing complications caused by toxic immuno-suppressant drugs. The double bind of a transplant recipient’s reality and lived experience is that the medications that prevent organ rejection are fatal for the patient. Organ transplantation is often misunderstood as a cure; although the recipient may appear well, there is much that cannot be seen.
In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that the wrapping of illness in warlike metaphors seeks to silence and shame patients. Douglas, however, has found that such metaphors are useful as a way to mobilise and motivate himself into a rigorous exercise program that will make him ‘battle ready’ to fight and survive the horrific and terrifying effects of an infection when his immuno-suppressed body is invaded by a virus or bacteria. Transplant patients have also found that physical exercise assists them in coping with the debilitating emotional/cognitive and physical side effects of their medications, which Douglas enacted in the choreographed sections of Circles of Fire (variations). Ironically, such metaphors of are also useful as aesthetic tools for creating these works and circumventing the problems of representation of the transplant experience.
The two channel video in Circles of Fire – The Amphitheatre (prelude) is structured around locations and elements within the film The Belly of an Architect (Peter Greenaway, 1987) where the protagonist falls ill in the ruins of Villa Adriana in Tivolli, Rome, itself a re-enactment of the death of Augustus after eating a poisoned fig. Ultimately, Greenaway’s protagonist must come to terms with his own illness and eventual death, although he hastens the process by commiting suicide.
Locations and Chapters in order of appearance:
- Sibillini Mountains, Italy: The Sibiline Challenge — Facing the illness
- Hadrian’s Palace and Maritime Theatre, Villa Adriana, Italy: Nausea — Falling Ill
- Hadrian’s Palace and Amphitheatre Tunnel at Alba Fucens, Italy: Vomitorium — The Virus Takes Hold
- Maritime Theatre, Villa Adriana, Italy: L’Eclisse — The Passing of Death
- Rocca Calascio, Italy: Casualty Battlements — Fighting the Illness
- Tieranatomisches Theatre, Berlin, Germany: Intervention (i) — Shifting the Virus
- Old Operating Theatre, London, UK: Intervention (ii) — Normalising the Body
- Rocca Calascio, Italy & Old Operating Theatre, London, UK: Descend In Mundo — Released from Care
- The Amphitheatre, Alba Fucens, Italy: Victorium — Running the Victory Lap, Standing Vesalius, Triumph
- Tempelhof, Flughafen, Berlin, Germany: Pax — Life Returns to Normal
Circles of Fire — The Amphitheatre (prelude) begins in the Sibillini mountains in Umbria, Italy where the ominous and foreboding mountain peaks signify the challenges that lay ahead. A giant ancient bronze hand reaching upwards emphasis the enormity of these challenges. A bronze sphere looms, signifying the potentially fatal viral infection that is attacking his body. Douglas slowly enters the frame in Hadrian’s Palace where he re-interprets the vomiting in Belly of an Architect as a retelling of his own experience of falling ill from a viral attack. Throwing his body against the tall marble columns this architectural form serves as a stand in for the hospital and the institution walls where the battle to stay alive takes place. A dagger slowly revolves along the path of an ancient tunnel as the pain and contortion of the intestines takes place in the patient. The eclipse in the Maritime Theatre at Villa Adriana signifies the nearness of death, and as the risk passes, it moves to the safety of the fortress castle, Rocca Calascio, representing a life saving medical intervention and Douglas’ return to some semblance of health.
Falling into the architectural form of an 18th century anatomical theatre, the sphere transforms into a spectral figure in another theatre, the Old Operating Theatre in London. The virus for now has been extinguished and the body stabilised. The anatomical figure then descends the spiral staircase to perform a victory lap at a ruined Roman ampitheatre (Alba Fucens), denoting a return to wellbeing. He resumes his program of fitness in preparedness for the next battle.
On the vertical screen, Douglas performs actions based on illustrations in Versalius’ De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. A comical and absurd version of a 21st century anatomical transplant body, Douglas’ performance is the antithesis of the physical perfection and masculinity of Versalius’ anatomical figures.
Finally the dominant presence of the hospital looms in the background as the sun sets in a quiet and contemplative pastoral field of flowers (Tempelhof, Berlin).
This work was exhibited at First Draft gallery for the exhibition Fully Sick curated by Willurai Kirkbright and Okapi Neon in November 2017. The paper masking tape is an excerpted drawing quote from an architectural diagram of the anatomy theatre where Andreas Vesalius performed his dissections in Padua, Italy.
John A Douglas: Performer, Videography, Stills Photography, Sound, Editing, Animation, Colour Grading.
Melanie Ryan: On location production management in Italy and camera assistant,
Michele Elliot & John A Douglas: Costume design and production.
Special thanks to:
Kate Scardifield; Helen Pynor; Shoufay Derz; Gareth Miles at The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret Museum, London, UK; Villa Adriana-Polo Museale del Lazio, Roma; Jan-Peter E.R. Sonntag at Tieranatomisches Theatre – Kulturetechnik, Berlin, Germany; and the Capitoline Museums, Rome.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
This project is supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW.