"I would love to make a nipple synth"
Natalie Sharp – performance artist, costumier, provocateur and the musician sporadically known as Lone Taxidermist – is sat at her kitchen table on a drizzly mid-September Monday morning, wrapped in an oversized hoodie, explaining what’s going on with her back. “The last time I was checked, they said it was a ‘dehydrated disc bulge’,” she says, “but every time I go I get given a different result: it’s somewhere between a herniated disc, a slipped disc, a disc bulge, a degenerative disc, a dehydrated disc, or a form of osteoarthritis, depending on who you talk to at the NHS. That used to be frustrating, but it’s not anymore – I’ve given up on trying to understand what my condition is, because if you’re constantly trying to find out what’s wrong with you and how to make it go away, you’ll never come to terms with accepting that you have chronic pain.”
That phrase – “chronic pain” – crops up more than any other in our couple of hours together. Initially, it jars – the sort of phrase that automatically induces sympathy flinches on hearing – but little by little, as we talk, the repetition normalises it, until eventually it’s just there, as uncomfortable as it is immovable, with the only practical option, much like the condition itself, being to make lemonade: “For me,” concludes Sharp, “what’s been more relieving is to just accept what’s going on with my body, and then try to learn ways of helping myself feel better day to day.”
Sharp has had arthritis in her left ankle since childhood after an accident went untreated, but over time that has affected her gait to the extent that, now in her thirties, and to use Sharp’s own diagnosis that’s far more intuitively understandable than any she’ll get from a doctor, “it’s fucked up my back”. The upshot of it all is that she’s lived in constant pain for three years now, drugs are either uselessly weak or come with terrifying side effects, and the condition shows no sign of going away.
Anybody who’s seen Sharp perform before, whether with regular collaborators Jenny Hval and Gazelle Twin, or as Lone Taxidermist, during which crowds are routinely wrapped in cling-film, pitted against six-foot custard-spraying vulvas, or subject to acts of cake-sitting (Google it), may suspect that such a debilitating physical condition as hers is not particularly compatible with her stage presence. And while they’d be right, Sharp’s response hasn’t been to retreat. Instead, she’s confronted the situation by making a 45-minute experimental theatre piece that is directly about the experience of living with and treating her disability. Step forward, then, BodyVice, a piece of chronic pain performance art, encompassing everything from the combined futuristic excitement/institutionalised coldness of MRI scanners, all techno throbs and disconcertingly calm safety warnings, to the raw physicality of the sensation itself.