Salut: An essay by Robyn Peers.
Salut, hi, is an informal welcome derived from the Latin salve, a greeting originally meaning be well, good health. Saluto, salutations, the greeting works in many languages, and is an appropriate title for Ivan Lupi's performance at the Scott Lawrie Gallery on December 1st, World Aids Day. Save, and salve, English derivations of the Latin term link obviously to the intended message that Lupi is promulgating.
Salut reworks a performance that Lupi created earlier this year, firstly on the occasion of the rebranding of the Burnett Foundation, formerly the New Zealand Aids Foundation, in honour of cofounder and pioneering NZ AIDS activist Bruce Burnett and the second time for the online event, Spill Yer Tea. It is a powerful act that Lupi performs, one whose meaning deserves response, a work whose aim warrants repetition.
The international theme for AIDS Day this year is equalise, a prompt to address inequalities in care worldwide and help end AIDS, with the aspiration that everyone, everywhere, will be well-served, will be well. Thus Salut,an acknowledgement of informal greetings used universally, hi, ciao, kia ora, wie geht's, ça va, encapsulates the equality sought by the World Health Organisation slogan.
This universal phrase is appropriate too for Lupi, an artist with an international pedigree. Born in Italy, he completed tertiary study in The United Kingdom, and has created events and performances across the world. Lupi, who has lived in New Zealand since 2016, has worked with performance art for over twenty years and his practice intensified greatly during the completion of his Masters' degree in Queer Studies at the University of Birmingham.
Lupi personifies messages starkly, in ways which often remain marked indelibly on the artist's body and firmly in the memories of those who view them. The body is central with tattoo, with scarification, with pain, with blood. For Salutthis makes a clear connection with HIV, with the fear of transmission, through bodily fluids, of the once incurable disease, which ravaged the gay community in the 1980s. New Zealand's HIV and AIDS sufferers are well served, in many countries this is not the case. Salut recognises that equality has not yet been achieved.
I stand in the room with my left hand open vertically, my palm facing the audience.
In my right hand I hold a tattoo gun which has not been loaded with ink.
I activate the tattoo gun with a pedal at my feet and at regular intervals for the total duration of one hour I slowly draw a '+' sign on my left palm, over and over on the same spot. The scar soon starts bleeding and the '+' sign turns red." [i]
+ equals positive. While drugs have mitigated the former death sentence for most in the developed world, for many in the world a positive result will still bring stigma and the likelihood of an early, miserable death. This action on World AIDS day, draws attention to the inequality inflicted on so many in our world.
Lupi's body is used as canvas and as painters will revisit a work until it is completed to their satisfaction, so Lupi specifically revisits the wounds created earlier. The tattoo machine is used as a tool to reopen the sign cut earlier this year. Lupi's vulnerability is exposed, the wound is open to view and by carving through the surface of the skin breaks the threshold between the exterior and the interior.
Tissue paper will be marked with blood from the wound, tangible prints from the body to be exhibited, sold or gifted. Though tissue is disposable, a short-lived medium, this documentation is a permanent, concrete reminder of the message and the act that created it.
A public act of self-harm is shocking. Pain is something we attempt to avoid, that we empathise with, that we are shocked by. By exacting deliberate harm, inflicting repeated pain and inviting the audience to view, to suffer vicariously, to empathise, Lupi follows the lineage of performance artists stretching back over a century.
Performance art, its origins in the Dada movement at the time of the first world war, was an intentional rejection of both cultural and artistic and cultural authority. Art, the Dadaists argued, was a reflection of society, if society is rotten, then the culture upheld by that society must, of necessity, also be sick. Dada performances reflected this societal criticism, they were illogical, radical and perplexing to the uninitiated.
Conceptual in nature, Dada art laid the foundations for many of the avant-garde developments of the twentieth century and beyond. From the sixties the emphasis moved to the body, Yves Klein using nude models as paintbrushes, Joseph Beuys talking to a dead hare, the risky work of Chris Burden, whose work Shoot (1971) used firearms and placed the viewer between a humanitarian instinct to intervene and the taboo against touching and interacting with art pieces[ii] and Marina Abramović who linked ritual with physical ordeals with the audience invited as congregation.
Some examples of performance art, particularly their documentation, can be viewed today in galleries and on the internet, but the ephemerality of performance art is one of the major ideas it bequeathed to the following generations. So why has this form of art persisted for over a century? What is its purpose? Why has Lupi chosen this form of art to make his statement?
Today, performance can be understood as a way of engaging directly with social reality, the specifics of space and the politics of identity[iii]. It may be ephemeral, but it is edgy and confronting. The audience may watch or may interact with the artists and thus with the message. Lupi's concept, the message of equality, has matured into a concrete, visceral form, it is an acknowledgement of all those living with HIV worldwide, the need to extend treatment to all sufferers.
By engaging directly with the social reality of HIV and World Aids Day Salut follows the lineage of contemporary performance art. The performance, lasting an hour, will take place in the gallery before an audience who may come and go in the gallery or on the internet and then it will be over, leaving its mark on those who view it, but only marginal traces of its existence beyond. Such is the nature of the performance.
Corporeally, the scar will remain even when the flesh has healed. The intention of the act, the ambition to reinforce the need for equality through the exposure of flesh and of blood, has power and meaning. Salut, and with it Lupi's message, will resonate with those who view it long after the exhibition.
[i] Email from Ivan Lupi, 7 November 2022
Robyn Peers completed a Master's degree in Art History at the Canterbury University in 1986. Since then she has taught art and architectural history at secondary and tertiary levels and worked for many years as an art reviewer for the Press.