STUART BRISLEY, Louise Bourgeois' Legs, 2000, Shu-Box Theatre, University of Regina, Canada
STUART BRISLEY, Louise Bourgeois' Legs, 2000, Shu-Box Theatre, University of Regina, Canada
STUART BRISLEY, Louise Bourgeois' Legs, 2000, Shu-Box Theatre, University of Regina, Canada




"Louise Bourgeois' Legs":  
Stuart Brisley's Anatomy of Art

Garry Sherbert
It has been over a year now since I saw Stuart Brisley at the
University of Regina's Shu-Box Theatre, and although the
context has changed since October 28, 2000, the abiding context
for the delightful irony and satire of "Louise Bourgeois' Legs" has
been Legs, the written text that accompanied the performance.  In
fact, I was encouraged by Brisley to discuss the relationship
between his various performances and the written text, a
relationship that, while not acting as a script, gives the
performances a narrative frame.  Storytelling takes centre-stage in
Brisley's performances, though the stories are clearly improvised in
relation to the fictional histories found in the written text.  I was
told that the narratives preceded, and would grow out of, the
performances of the Canadian tour.  The tour began with the
performance festival at Le Lieu in Quebec City, proceeded with
the artist's lectures and performances in Regina, where Brisley was
the guest of New Dance Horizons and the University of Regina
Faculty of Fine Arts, and ended with the last leg in Dresden,
Germany.  I visited the website in order to read
the narratives that were available at the time, and received the
completed version of Legs from Brisley before he left Regina. 
Given that performance art in its relatively short history has,
through figures like Antonin Artaud,[1] rejected the domination of
writing over performance, it is remarkable that Brisley has taken
the risk of a new, complementary relationship by supplementing
the stage with the page.   

Having read a few reviews of the performances in Regina, I
noticed that there has been no commentary on the written
narratives and their relation to the performances nor, a matter of
equal importance, on the satire in Brisley's work.  The narratives
on the website and the satire raise two questions about art for me:
why would Brisley frame his performances using a narrative
published in a technological medium; and why would he make it a
principal theme in "Louise Bourgeois' Legs" to satirize the
production of art which necessarily includes his own work?  
My response to the first of these questions centres on the issue of
prosthesis, or that of supplying a deficiency in the body by adding 
an artificial replacement.  Brisley features a manniquin's leg on
stage that may or may not be the severed leg of Louise Bourgeois
to represent the issue of prosthesis in a very condensed way.  The
second question can be answered by saying that Brisley exploits
satire to investigate the relationship between disgust and art. 
Investigating a subject or theme exhuastively is a traditional
technique in satire called an "anatomy" since the satirist analyses
or dissects a given subject.  Through the character of Rosse Yel
Sirb, the "Curator of Ordure," or waste and excreta, Brisley
explores the ways disgust goes to the very origin of pure taste, or
the conditions that make the beauty of art possible.  In fact, Brisley
discovers that the changing boundaries of disgust function as a
resource for art by permitting it to add new objects to the pleasures
of aesthetic experience.  He conveys his interest in the changing
boundaries of disgust through Rosse Yel Sirb's identification of art
with pollution.  The capacity of disgust to change its boundary, to
replace the old with new polluted objects, links disgust to
prosthesis.  Indeed, the supplementary narrative added to the
performance, taken with the concern for the affect of disgust in art,
combines to form a parody of traditional aesthetics which we may
call Brisley's prosthetic aesthetic. 
A Prosthetic Aesthetic
If the body has always been the primary medium for performance
art, Brisley extends that medium in "Louise Bourgeois' Leg" to the
simulacrum of the body by placing a mannequin's leg centre stage. 
The leg on stage may or may not represent the leg of the well-
known French sculptor and artist, Louise Bourgeois, who now
lives in New York City.  The title of the performance, however,
authorizes us at least to entertain the idea that the leg is a
metonymic substitute, part for whole, for the artist and her work. 
Bourgeois' work as a sculptor, painter, and performance artist
invites comparison with Brisley's work, particularly her interest in
images of the dismembered body.  Brisley asks the audience to
consider the way artists incorporate their life into the work of art,
transforming their artistic corpus into a prosthetic body.  He also
invites us into the operating theatre to study the anatomy of the
aesthetic object and assist him in supplying any deficiency we
might find in the art work by cutting open and adding the artificial
limb of our own commentary, a prosthesis like Louise Bourgeois'
leg.  Of course, nothing prevents the audience from adding the
work to the theatre of memory for their own personal culture.  The
performance, which happens only once, must be repeated in living
memory to have any aesthetic effect in this circuit of prosthetic

By displaying the severed leg of Louise Bourgeois, Brisley puts
forward not just the leg as an aesthetic object, but the cut in the leg
as well.  The cut which severs the leg from the body suggests
Jacques Derrida's notion of the parergon, or those ornamental,
supplementary parts of the ergon or "work" of art, such as frames,
and columns of a building, that make it possible to identify the
work as art.[2]  To conceive of the parergon as a cut is to think the
difference between art and non-art, a difference which is supposed
to guarantee for traditional Kantian aesthetics, the purity of art. 
Brisley's parody of traditional aesthetics will, however, challenge
the purity of art that has its own intrinsic purpose.  Art as pollution
is tainted with the very economic considerations that Kantian
aesthetics is designed to protect it from.  The cut in the severed leg
challenges the purity of art by provoking in the audience the
question of the leg's origin, its identity.  The attempt to identify the
severed leg represents the attempt to reattach it to a body and
thereby restore it at least symbolically to its original function or
purpose.  Since Kant defines art as "purposiveness without a
purpose,"[3] the audience is engaged in an activity that contradicts
the very notion of art as being cut off from any external purpose.
Grabbing the leg and speaking into a microphone hidden in the leg,
the character of Rosse Yel Sirb ("Yel Sirb" is an anagram of
"Brisley") says in a loud, amplified voice he is not sure whether
“Louise Bourgeois’ Legs”:  Stuart Brisley’s anatomy of art 
the leg is that of Louise Bourgeois, Aleksey Stakhanov, or a
Chinese action man doll.  Having narrated stories of Louise
Bourgeois, such as the rumour that she killed and cannibalized her
father's body, he also narrates the story of the Soviet worker hero
Aleksey Stakhanov.  For instance, in 1935, the time of Stalin's
reign, Stakhoanov cut 102 tons of coal in one shift in the Donbass
region of the U.S.S.R.  Attaching and reattaching the leg to one of
these historical figures or the obviously artificial one of the
Chinese action man doll simply calls attention to the prosthetic
nature of the aesthetic object.  The reference to the doll,
furthermore, reminds us of the articulated joints of the human body
that both join and separate the limbs calling into question the
origin of prosthesis as something exterior to the natural body.  Art,
like the human body, is prosthetic at its origin. 
Art as Pollution, or the Anatomy of Disgust
The capacity of the aesthetic object to be cut off from the point of
origin and re-attached to some new external context or purpose
which serves to frame it contaminates the purity of art.  Derrida in
“Louise Bourgeois’ Legs”:  Stuart Brisley’s anatomy of art 
much of his work even argues that it is the ability of a thing to
repeat itself which allows it to participate in the law or logic of
contamination.[4]  Brisley's identification of art with pollution
relies on the logic of contamination to explain how the purity of
the art object can become contaminated by exchange value and be
reduced to a mere commodity.  On the other hand, if art originates
in the cut that separates art from non-art, then the work of art is
never unified, or identical to itself, leaving something left over. 
This leftover, which Derrida calls in his French neologism
"restance," and is translated as "remainder,"[5] accounts for
Brisley's interest in the excess, or waste that makes all art possible. 
In the written text of Legs, Rosse Yel Sirb calls this contaminating
power of repetition the "paradigm of redundancy re-use," referring
to the character Bertrand Voilleme who collects waste to create art. 
The parergonal cut then acts like an orifice out of which the work
of art as waste generates its power through repetition in different
contexts to produce pleasure and much thought in those who
appreciate art.  This fascination for the orifice that produces the
excessiveness and wastefulness of art manifests itself in Rosse Yel
Sirb, the Curator of Ordure, and shit.  Invoking the Medieval world
of alchemy, Sirb wants to raise the collection of shit to the value of

Holding out a part of an unfinished sandwich Rosse Yel Sirb
points out that food loses its appeal after a time and says,
"Sometimes food looks like shit, and sometimes shit has the
memory of food."  The disgusting aspect of this statement is that
the purity of the category of edible food is being contaminated
with another category of waste.  When he brings out his collection
of shit and places it carefully on a table, the Curator is simply
carrying on his program of pollution from food to the socially
accepted category of art.  When he parodies the British national
anthem as he did in Montreal and Regina, he is polluting the purity
associated with some political rituals, which in this case is the
sanctity of the monarchy with republicanism.  Brisley's satire, as
with all satire, evokes infectious laughter--the release of repressed
energy--in some contexts and disgust or contempt in others.  
The improvisational aspect of performance art, however, demands
that the work of art live on the edge of its various contexts.  Robin
Poitras, (Artistic Director of New Dance Horizons) who appears on
stage with Brisley in Regina, hones the edge of Brisley's satire
when, as she confessed to me later, she forgets her glasses and
cannot read the narratives she was supposed to read during the
performance.  Her virtual blindness becomes a metaphor for
improvisation, which means "unforeseen."  To improvise on her
blindness, Poitras stands on a chair that is on a table and follows
Brisley, who is pacing slowly back and forth, with a plank of
wood.  The plank of wood has a piece of shit on the end which acts
like a finger taunting Brisley behind his back, rendering him blind
too.  Poitras defies the characters of the written script as Louise
Bourgeois herself is said to have defied her own father's patriarchal
authority.  Under Brisley's paradigm of redundancy re-use, Poitras
has found a way to put the uselessness of her blindness and the shit
back into use.  She is not the only one who has been touched, even
tainted, by the alchemy of Brisley's art. 

Garry Sherbert is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of
Regina.  He has written on Menippean Satire, Northrop Frye and Jacques
Derrida.  He is currently editing and writing a text for the University’s
first Cultural Studies course, a text that prominently features
performance art.
1.  See Jacques Derrida's essay on Antonin Artaud: "The Theatre of
Cruelty and the Closure of Representation," in Writing and Difference,
trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). 
2.  Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and
Ian Macleod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1987), 54-55.
3.  Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. Werner Pluhar
(Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 302. 
4.  Richard Beardsworth, "Nietzsche and the Machine," Journal of
Nietzsche Studies (7, 1994), 56.      
5.  Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc., ed Gerald Graff, trans. Samuel Weber
and Jeffrey Mehlman (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993),


“Louise Bourgeois’ Legs”:  Stuart Brisley’s anatomy of art 
Garry Sherbert
Floating In Land © 2002