Words of bloody wisdom
Robert Walton, lecturer and artist, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne

“Blood holds a special place in our imagination. We know it has mysterious, almost magical, properties yet we are loathed ever to see our own and repulsed when we encounter the blood of others in the flesh or, worse still, out of the flesh.”

Why are artists drawn to using blood?

The story of blood and how to contain our involuntary, often surprising, reactions to its mysterious life-giving properties forms the backdrop to the works in the BLOOD season. Despite greater scientific understanding of blood, its handling, symbolism and ultimate significance remains cultural, often taboo and surrounded by superstition and ritual practice.

Blood sacrifice, blood pacts and rites involving blood evolved within many cultures as humans spread across the world. Traces of these ancient practices linger on in contemporary religious and secular life. Every time an artist uses blood, they draw upon this rich heritage of signification that has its roots in the central mystery of our being alive and the shared origins of our existence.

If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Shylock in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Yet contemplating the central mystery of being is not something one can do continuously. Contemporary daily life requires us to temporarily forget the fleshiness of ourselves and the others around us so we can get on with the jobs at hand. Thus, artists might use blood to puncture our everyday habits and confront us with our own corporeality and our empathy for the embodied humanity of others. The power of blood to create empathy is often most powerful when the fleshy reality of those deemed loathsome or monstrous is revealed, like when Shylock, a Jew, asks “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” or when performance artist Ron Athey spills his own HIV+ blood near his audience. In these moments, we might connect on a visceral level through our shared sensation of blood coursing around and escaping our bodies.

The most significant performances featuring blood in the twentieth century often focused on the relationship of flesh and blood, particularly the image of blood exiting the flesh or flowing across it. The myth of wholeness and oneness of the body is broken by its rupture and the sight of bleeding. In Antonin Artaud’s 1925 play Jet de Sang (Jet of Blood) the titular dénouement is a jet of blood spurting across the stage from the wrist of a huge god-like hand. Artaud understood the power of blood to shock, horrify and disgust an audience. He also understood the religious symbolism of blood in his culture as the liquid that connects all bodies and, through transubstantiation, connects believers to God through the blood of Christ.

Can artists explore blood in a way that scientists cannot?

Everything I might say about the ways artists can explore blood that scientists cannot is prone to immediate contradiction. Can we talk about the possibility that an artist and a scientist can be the same person? Can we find a space so those trained to call themselves scientists or artists can also appreciate the other and become an audience, collaborator, reader and muse?

As Allen Ginsberg put it, ‘I search for the language that is also yours’. While artists and scientists might exist across a vast spectrum of industrial settings, as individual people our creative preoccupations bleed out beyond the supposed beginning and end times of professions into everyday life. We solve problems in the shower, we are moved by nature not only by trams, we see beauty in equations, turns of phrase, gestures. It is often our dreams that do the work, inspired by the surprise of daily life. The greatest challenge is to find the space and time in our lives for new practices, ideas and disciplines to get under our skin and into our blood.

In answer to this question: working together artists and scientists can explore blood in a way that neither can alone.

Robert Walton is an artist from Lancashire, England who lives and works in Melbourne, Australia. He is also Lecturer in Theatre at The Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Robert has written and directed over 30 original works spanning theatre, installation and media art. His shows are often immersive, involve novel uses of mobile technology and explore particular sites of interest including museums, historic buildings, public spaces, galleries and most recently, cemeteries. Robert curated the Australian dance and performance season for Glasgow 2014: The XXth Commonwealth Games and regularly works as a consultant for museums, arts organisations and artists interested in creating immersive experiences.