MFA | MELBOURNE UNI

The Letting Go Natascha Stellmach

Natascha & a participant performing The Letting Go, 2018, photo by Philipp Ortmann

Successful completion of my Master of Fine Art (Interdisciplinary Practice)

I’m pleased to announce that Melbourne University have awarded my research (on longstanding project, The Letting Go) with a distinguished H1.

An introduction to the work is below. The entire exegesis can be accessed here:
Naked Awareness: The Private Performance of Inscribing Skin

Deepest gratitude to all those who supported this endeavour: all thanked in the exegesis acknowledgements (& below).

There is indeed wonder in our wounds.

Studio Stellmach, Natascha Stellmach performing The Letting Go with Paula, Museum für Kunst & Gewerbe Hamburg, Digital Photograph, 2015.

NAKED AWARENESS: THE PRIVATE PERFORMANCE OF INSCRIBING SKIN

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Naked Awareness: The Private Performance of Inscribing Skin is a practice-led research project that reflects upon the testimonies and engagement of participants and audience in my work, The Letting Go, a performance art practice, which is informed by the interdisciplinary intersections of visual art, somatic practices and psychotherapy. The art practice is performed both privately and in galleries where I invite participants to undergo a self-focussed ritual with me by naming a personal obstacle. Once identified, a word representative of that obstacle is inscribed without ink on the body, through the art of bloodline tattooing. As the wound heals, the word slowly fades.

Drawing on my experiences, private sessions and participatory performances, and by incorporating concepts from psychoanalysis, Buddhism and ritual tattooing, this thesis investigates the art performance of the healing “word-wound” and whether it can be harnessed as a self-awareness tool. The research asks if this practice could inform a new “private practice” model for the artist — one that addresses a responsibility to work together on shared vulnerability and self-awareness. Here my research is presented in the form of a narrative-of-practice dissertation that will move between participant feedback and my own reflections and critical analysis.

The research reflects on the testimonials of participants engaged in my art practice and various interdisciplinary conceptual intersections –– Skin and Psyche, Somatic practices, Psychoanalysis, and Buddhism –– and draws on the practices of Buddhist teachers (including Pema Chödrön), the writers Franz Kafka, Jeannette Winterson and Rainer Maria Rilke and artists Marina Abramović, Joseph Beuys, Christoph Schlingensief, Kira O’Reilly and David Pledger, among others. The Sak Yan Tattooing practitioners of Thailand informed my field research carried out in 2015.


INTRODUCTION

Some years ago during this research, I came across the compelling term “Naked Awareness”. It stayed with me as a poignant reminder of the surface sophistication of skin – its vulnerability, intimacy, sensation and intelligence. The poetics of this concept resonated with the aims of my project, The Letting Go, in its somatic and conscious attention focussed on an obstacle, unresolved personal sorrow, fear, or conundrum. Tracing back its origins to the seventeenth-century Tibetan monk, Karma Chagmé, Naked Awareness is an “undifferentiated occurrence of the external, internal, and intermediate”, where there is “nothing on which to grasp or to cling to”[1]. Chagmé described the aims of Naked Awareness as “quiescence”, insight and well-being[2]. These concepts conform with the somatic intention of The Letting Go: to stage and structure an experience of receiving a “word-wound”[3] in an intensified moment and restorative environment, where a release can occur, bare attention can be experienced, and self-awareness can proceed. Proposing that there is nothing to grasp or cling to in the process of achieving such quiet and well-being, the term also addresses the performative and artistic, and essentially disruptive (unauthorised) space inherent to The Letting Go, which embraces transgression and risk as inherent elements.

In my research through The Letting Go, I argue that somatic performance art practice offers an intimate experience of self-awareness and change to individuals, which personalises art and also brings art into the social. This emergent space disrupts the authorised space of the physician, therapist, coach or teacher and directs our attention to the importance of self-care within a social and private practice. With the artist as a mediator and the participant as a collaborative agent, acting independently and instigating change within the self—and possibly in their broader community—participants are enabled to perform or enact the change themselves. Perhaps the potential to change is more powerful when enacted by the self upon the self? What if the artist as a catalyst can activate and mediate this change, while also being affected by the process?

As a practice that activates change in the artist and participant, the Letting Go belongs to an artistic movement that questions the modern legacy of authority (Beuys, Kaprow, Rainer, Schneemann, Abramović, Schlingensief, O’Reilly, Pledger) and demonstrates the position that performance itself enacts change (Bishop, Phelan, Gomez Pena, Carlson, Marsh). Within this context, I argue that a mediated artistic practice offers an alternative space in which the participant can attain agency and experience reflection, self-awareness and change. The artist-practice embraces transgression and risk, dissolving boundaries between participant and mediator, and inviting all present to participate with, through and in our corporeal selves.

This thesis makes an argument for the artist working in such “private practice” and draws on my own methodological and philosophical development of The Letting Go in both the private and public realms. Provided the implementation of safety, ethics, and the participant’s agency, I propose that a new collaborative space for self-awareness can occur and may offer an adjunct to traditional or modern therapeutic interventions. Could this perhaps be a new model of engagement with the public for the artist? By making a case for an “artistic private practice”—one that addresses a contemporary discourse around vulnerability and self-awareness––I propose that an artistic private practice can play a significant role in making art both more individual and social.

Participant meditating with Stellmach as part of The Letting Go, Berlin Festival, 2014, photo by Michael Lelliott

Lelliott, Michael. Natascha Stellmach performing The Letting Go with Stella, Berlin Festival, September 6 – 7, 2014, Digital Photograph, 2014.

 

[1] Karma Chagmé Rinpoche was a Tibetan Buddhist Lama and renowned writer and scholar, who practised in the Vajrayana tradition and lived from 1613 to 1678 in Eastern Tibet.
Chagmé et al. Naked Awareness, 2000, Translated by B. Alan Wallace, 106 – 107.

[2] Ibid. “quiescence” (106), insight (“clarity” 191) and well-being (“a single medicine” 107).

[3] The scholar Geoffrey Hartman advanced the term ‘word-wound’ in 1981, in describing a ‘psychic hurt’ in his studies on trauma and literature, and referring to Freud and Breuer’s studies on Hysteria.
Hartman, Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (‘Words and Wounds’), 1981, 118 – 167.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This project and dissertation would not have been made possible without the support of:

The courageous participants in The Letting Go;

My supervisor Professor Elizabeth Presa and co-supervisor Dr Louise Burchill for their ongoing encouragement;

Felicia Fahey, David Pledger, Ebony Finck, Audrey Hulm, Patrick Glennan, the photographers credited in these pages and Susanne Massmann & Cai Wagner at Galerie Wagner + Partner for their priceless inspiration and professional support;

The individuals and practitioners that made my Thailand fieldwork possible and remarkable:

Aroon Thaewchatturat, Joe Cummings, Markus Kohl, Ajahn Neng, Chris & Areeya from Nakhon Pathom Hidden Holiday House; The Venerable Pha Maha Somchai, Ajahn Patum, Ajahn Ben, Ajahn Boat, Ajahn Nuad, Ajahn Tor and Ajahn Nueng at Wat Bang Phra and Ajahn Rung & Ajahn Matt.

My deepest gratitude goes to my großartige mother.

Cummings, Joe. Natascha Stellmach Offering Thanks to the Venerable Pha Maha Somchai at the Monastic Temple, Wat Bang Phra, Nakom Pathon, Thailand, Digital Photograph, 2015.