Kira O’Reilly: Untitled (Bodies) – An Extract

Read an extract from Harriet Curtis’ introduction for LADA’s new publication Kira O’Reilly: Untitled (Bodies)


The Artist’s Body

I first came to know O’Reilly’s work as a student of art history in the mid-2000s. Discussions on performance, the body, abjection, and feminist art – and significantly, the artists on whose bodies these discussions were inscribed – drew me into questions about the body as a politicized site of power. The pioneering work of artists such as Gina Pane, Carolee Schneemann, and Marina Abramovic – and in particular, works that demonstrate the agency of the body (Schneemann’s Interior Scroll [1975]), implicate the viewer in the infliction of pain or exposure of the body (Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 [1974]), or those that document carefully controlled and graphic incisions on the body (Pane’s Azione Sentimentale [1974]) – and a subsequent generation of major artists including O’Reilly, drew urgent attention to the bodies in art works and bodies as art works.

In particular, photographs of O’Reilly’s Succour (2001-02) appear to present an image of a carefully planned and methodically executed art work. In Succour, the artist made incisions of small cuts all over her body, marking with a scalpel every patch of skin within a grid made using surgical tape, which covered every expanse of skin that she could reach and touch with both hands. The measured and consistent repetition of cuts – in some images, overlaid with cuts or scarred skin from previous performances – remind me of the formal uses of seriality and repetition in Minimalist painting, drawing, and sculpture. Yet the medium here isn’t paper, canvas, or steel; it is a body: the artist’s body.

It is important – urgent, even – to me that the photographic image is connected to the body that bore the marks and be considered alongside the process of performance and engagement that preceded it. Distilling the complicated nature of bodies – as contested, messy, and all too ready to break or spill over – to carefully framed and contained images has to me seemed always to be counter-intuitive. Patrick Duggan has described the performance of Succour as ‘excessive in that it is beyond (full/complete) comprehension in the first moment of its witnessing.’ 37 Although I have not witnessed a live performance of Succour, Duggan’s words ring true to my understanding of O’Reilly’s work as beyond momentary or superficial categorisation, emphasising its extremity, and particularly the way in which it throws into disarray the way bodies are handled, shown, and seen.

The range of practices, materials, and disciplines she has engaged with over her career so far is a testament to the difficulty of narrativising a practice that is in O’Reilly’s words ‘both willfully interdisciplinary and entirely undisciplined’. 38 For me, this is one of the most important and perhaps liberating aspects of O’Reilly’s practice. In the process of developing this book, we exchanged ideas about the significance of positioning oneself – as artist or academic and beyond – across the boundaries of disciplines, histories, and forms, and indeed in O’Reilly’s case, across the boundaries of bodies. Writing on the materiality of the body, Judith Butler admits the difficulty with which she attempted to ‘fix bodies as simple objects of thought’:

Not only did bodies tend to indicate a world beyond themselves, but this movement beyond their own boundaries, a movement of boundary itself, appeared to be quite central to what bodies ‘are.’ I kept losing track of the subject. I proved resistant to discipline. Inevitably, I began to consider that perhaps this resistance to fixing the subject was essential to the matter at hand. 39

O’Reilly’s creative practice offers a sustained and rigorous exploration of the boundaries of bodies, and indeed the movement or permeability of ‘what bodies “are”.’ As Johanna Linsley describes it, O’Reilly works within a ‘broader artistic strategy of challenging seemingly stable categories, and producing an attitude geared towards contingency and indeterminacy.’ 40

O’Reilly’s practice – and the process of documenting and celebrating her work – provides an opportunity to explore what Susan Leigh Foster has described as ‘nscription in motion’, which suggests that bodies do not merely ‘pass meaning along’, but ‘develop choreographies of signs through which they discourse’. 41 The aim of this publication is not necessarily to ‘pass meaning along’; although the collection of writings and images here will provide a detailed picture of the range of O’Reilly’s practice to date and expand her work to new audiences, the book also aims to establish a set of reference points or ‘choreographies of signs’ through which discourses around O’Reilly’s bodily practices might be shaped.


37. Duggan, ‘The Touch and the Cut’, p. 315.

38. Kira O’Reilly, ‘Statement’, Kira O’Reilly [accessed 21 June 2017].

39. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), p. ix.

40. Linsley, ‘Playing in the Lab’, p. 518.

41. Susan Leigh Foster, Mark Franko, Heidi Gilpin, Lena Hammergren, Randy Martin, Sally Ness, Peggy Phelan, Nancy Ruyter, Marta Savigliano, Linda Tomko, ‘Introduction’, in Corporealities, ed. By Susan Leigh Foster (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. xi-xvii (p. xi).


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Banner image credit:

Kira O'Reilly, Succour (2001), National Review of Live Art, The Arches, Glasgow. Photo by by Klaus Hersch

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