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Issue 238

Martin O’Brien’s Overture for the End

The artist fluctuates between meditation and masochistic intensity at London’s Whitechapel Gallery

BY Juliet Jacques in Exhibition Reviews | 27 JUL 23

Commissioned as part of his Whitechapel Gallery residency, Martin O’Brien’s Overture for the End (An Ashen Place) (2023) is a four-hour durational performance exploring the physical limits of the human body and the constant spectre of death. Taking place in a stripped-bare gallery with its audience sat around the edges, it begins with O’Brien (the ‘Breather’) and artist zack mennell – looking like a synthpop duo in shades – positioned one side of a stage while, on the other, photographer and performance artist Sheree Rose (the ‘Crone’), in mourning dress, is rocked in a chair by genderqueer artist Luka Fisher. Besides featuring Rose – widow and former collaborator of artist Bob Flanagan – with whom O’Brien has often worked, there are other artistic references, such as the shark heads by the stage that recall Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and Fisher cutting O’Brien out of his clothes in a nod to Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964). Backed by a big screen and surrounded by coffins on the floor, while a short drone riff plays on a loop, the action really starts when O’Brien recites his eponymous poem in a menacing, half-shouting tone: ‘She sees everything, nothing escapes her view / He resembles a corpse more than a man / This is a land of decay.’

Martin O'Brien, Overture For The End (An Ashen Place), 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Marco Berardi and Baiba Sprance

The microcosm of life that O’Brien presents is slow, but seamlessly shifts from the tortoise-like movement of performers crawling under coffins to O’Brien lying naked on top of the stacked caskets, being physically tortured by Rose dripping hot wax on his genitals, assisted by Fisher and mennell. For those familiar with Flanagan’s sadomasochistic performance, it begins in a manner that’s not overly extreme, and it’s consistent with O’Brien’s previous endurance-based works that convey his experience of living with cystic fibrosis. All this has the ritualistic, ceremonial detachment of fetish parties and BDSM fantasy, reminding me of Anne Desclos’s erotic novel Story of O (1954) or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s films, with the participants in a fugue-like state and the audience quite removed. Indeed, the atmosphere O’Brien engenders is so singular that interaction is limited, at least for the first hour or so, until the wax torture ends and O’Brien gets into a coffin, upright, rocking it with his body before letting it fall and shocking the crowd with a thud. At this point, I thought about how Samuel Beckett set some of his sparsest plays about waiting for the inevitability of death, especially Endgame (1957) with its elderly protagonist, the immobile Hamm, and his parents with their heads sticking out of dustbins. With its slow, cyclical motions occasionally interrupted by more declamatory poetry – ‘the Breather hears the sound of the procession and knows it has come for him …’ – there is a theatrical grandiosity that keeps the audience hooked, with fewer coming or going than you might expect considering the length, and the pitches of intensity towards which it gradually builds. 

Martin O'Brien, Overture For The End (An Ashen Place), 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Marco Berardi and Baiba Sprance

Overture for the End (An Ashen Place) periodically and dramatically stretches everyone’s limits: a lengthy scene in which the performers who started under the coffins return to the stage, kneel and orally transfer mouthwash between each other visibly pushed many in the room. The extremity of these actions maintains a high level of separation between performers and audience – such acts have to be pre-planned with clear consent – which means the fourth wall is rarely broken and, when it is, the crowd seem nervous to respond, at least at first. But so be it: O’Brien, Rose and the other performers create such a strange, entrancing atmosphere, with O’Brien embodying this constant sense of coming close to death and being reborn, that to watch them fluctuate between meditative inactivity and masochistic intensity is a frightening, fascinating experience.

Main image: Martin O'Brien, Overture For The End (An Ashen Place), 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Marco Berardi and Baiba Sprance

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. She lives in London, UK.