The Victorian Vaults

Tom Bresolin is an artist who inflicts violence on himself, on others and encourages others to inflict violence on him. For ‘Bitch War’ Bresolin carried out an eight-day hunger strike culminating with a performance in which he was force-fed.

The exhibition, in a dimly lit vault, centres around three main pieces, each in it’s own alcove. The first art piece is a projection of a text written specifically for the exhibition by John Bowden – a long-term prisoner. The choice of media is perfect to set your imagination in motion as you begin to piece together the story from whatever slide you happen to see first. This becomes even more poignant when you reach the point where Bowden invites you to imagine an authoritarian, totalitarian world. Of course, you do not know that Bowden is describing life in prison until you reach ‘that’ slide, nor do you know that it is a prisoner describing his life who is asking you to imagine this world, until you reach the point of revelation. In the second alcove some of the letters were displayed on benches, amidst some gruel-like substance in a saucepan and a funnel, for you to read. You are confronted with a human element when you notice Bowden’s neat, open minded (and articulate), handwritten letters contrast with Bresolin’s word-processed printouts. In the final alcove there is a video projection of Bresolin being repeatedly whipped on his naked back – which leaves significant marks.

Use of violence in performance has a long and well-known history; depriving oneself of food is not without precedent either. In 1975 Chris Burden went 22 days without eating in a performance at the Ronald Feldman Gallery. He also did not speak, or come down from a platform that he had constructed, for the duration of the performance. This performance built on two earlier works: ‘Bed’ where Burden stayed in bed for 22 days only getting up to go to the toilet and eat when the gallery was closed and ‘Five Day Locker Piece’ (1971) – performed while still at college where… you guessed it, Burden was locked in a locker for five days.

Bresolin, like Burden, can be read as an endurance artist; an artist exploring the limits of his body but unlike Burden, Bresolin is interested in using art as a tool for political activism. We know this because his recent performance ‘Sow Civil Violence’ was advertised as taking place on ‘international prisoners day and one year on from the London riots’. Day one of his blog tells us that the eight day hunger strike was done out of solidarity for ‘my imprisoned comrades in Belarus’; day two for the Cleveland 4; day three for comrades prosecuted for the CCF case (Greece); day four in solidarity with god because ‘lord knows he needs it’ and dedicated to Noureddin Mohamed who died in the centre of Calais, France, in the early hours of Saturday 7 July 2012 ‘murdered by security forces’; day five for the Syrian anarchists (accompanied by a long text); day six for Pussy Riot (the girl punk band imprisoned for protesting against Putin in a Cathedral); day seven dedicated to the 2011 firebomb attack on a Nottingham police station; day eight… the force feeding.

Bresolin describes ‘Bitch war’ as an exploration ‘of the body as a visceral object, as a site for potential violence and a tool of protest when the right to express oneself has been taken away’. This uses ‘acceptable’ art world language while introducing the notion of protest as a legitimate artistic tool. In fact, Bresolin is quite clear here in stating that ‘the conventions of artistic language’ are used to ‘bring about a confrontation with the state’. In doing so the exhibition itself can question the use of the artist’s body (and performance in general) as ‘a form of protest or expression of solidarity and the reception of this act as a condition to its external framing’.

Traditionally the art world has accepted violence as a legitimate form of artistic expression more readily than political activism. This goes back at least as far as the 1960s (in performance) where it fitted nicely into feminist critique (think Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic etc.) but perhaps the very notion of the suffering artist is the reason for its acceptance. The artist has long been expected to suffer for her art: economically; emotionally; politically even. In this context Bresolin’s performances are like an ironic gesture towards artistic life – perhaps it is not prisoners abroad who need Bresolin’s solidarity but starving artists, the 25% of UK Graduates who are unemployed and the 36% in low-paid jobs – many of whom are artists (a BBC pole puts figures at 28% unemployed).

Bresolin reflects the desperate measures his generation will need to go through where youth unemployment is rife and no matter how many degrees you have, no matter how much debt, you still cannot find your first job because of a lack of experience – which sees you forced into unpaid internships and volunteer positions or else forced to stack shelves or do other menial tasks (with no remuneration) lest your dole money is taken away: forget class warfare, we are witnessing generational warfare. One thinks of self-harm and anorexia but also our depression epidemic (it is the most treated condition on the NHS) and mass suicides (Columbine, Virginia Tech, Waco, the Chinese factory workers employed by Apple, 9-11 and 7/7 even). Although he does not refer to it directly, Bresolin’s call to violence should be understood as a call to overthrow a political-economic system that has already collapsed, destroying the lives of millions in the process (look no further than Greece). Bresolin’s hunger strike draws our attention to the imprisonment of people who attempt to other throw such a system, or in some cases even dare to criticise it. It is for these reasons that Bresolin justifies their violent actions. Be in no doubt: Bresolin’s work calls for nothing less than the destruction of capitalism.