Daria Martin: A Hunger Artist
by Alex Bennett
The impresario may say, “Those who have no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it,” or, in order to shift the metabolism febrile, to whet the appetite, “Observe the dedication, the slothful devotion to such emaciation!” To take the familiar milieu of circuses and fairs as symbols, the context is often characterized by exaggeration, exclamation, and manufactured joy. Within such joy you may find horror, stages inside stages, podiums-cum-cages, so much of life rendered ripe, virile, and supple. A whole scheme goes on inside the laminated, candy-swirled tent. Indeed, the scheme is total, from the bunting to the fire-licked bodies: its bounty is liveness.
“Much more to his taste were the watchers who sat close up to the bars, who were not content with the dim night lighting of the hall but focused him in the full glare of the electric pocket torch given them by the impresario.”1 For the hunger artist—a phenomenon who fasted for up to forty days, popular from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth—the liveness consists in being spent. Naturally, the figure did not escape the charade of splendor and celebration, though he excited precisely for its opposite—for the gaunt lamentation his doleful eyes exuded, for the taut display of starvation. His is a foxy production, a giddy, perpetual death-o-rama, which Franz Kafka resuscitated for modern audiences in his short story “A Hunger Artist,” published in 1922. In Kafka’s tale, the hunger artist is falling out of favor. Torch flares once heightened his presence, but now he summons the minor scrutiny of the pocket flashlight. The desires of his audience are fickle, as light as spiders’ webs.
Taste restores itself; difference sustains it from what it is not, meaning they are, to some degree, mutually reliable in a similar sense as how a critical practice needs a normative practice to run counter to. Daria Martin’s A Hunger Artist, presented at London’s Maureen Paley, adapts Kafka’s text to redouble on its psychoanalytic tendencies, reinstating the structural punch line: the panther. “Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right.”2 Evidently, the panther is everything the hunger artist is not; the taste for the artist is sated while the panther is sheer appetite. The circus is a crucible for legend and fable, and Kafka’s panther is a useful example of the closed loop of seduction typified by Jean Baudrillard as “at all times and in all places, opposed to production,” where “to seduce is to die as reality and reconstitute oneself as illusion.”3 There is no refrain for seduction, it is a constant cycle, and this is true of Baudrillard’s consideration of the panther: myth has glossed her fur with the effect that she can effuse odor, attracting prey as her perfume courts dizziness. More than this, myth reversed the tactic, luring the panther out against itself, using perfume as bait. The reversibility—as at once panther and prey—is a typical characteristic of seduction, a constantly shifting nature with no possible reconciliation.
Kafka’s panther is also a “return of the repressed” for the hunger artist, a component of the loop where, once more, “to seduce is to die as reality and reconstitute oneself as illusion.” In Martin’s film, Hayley Carmichael embodies the artist (in drag), enabling the logic of the artist who is perpetually underestimated: “His public pretended to admire him so much, why should it have so little patience with him; if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn’t the public endure it?”4 Of course, mutual endurance holds no sway in a culture of consumption. Martin’s handling of Carmichael resonates with the self-objectification and narcissism that characterizes social media, as the impresario—in a bid to exhaust tenterhooks—distributes photographs of his ephemeral legacy: his wizened body. That the artist extemporizes his exhaustion and starvation almost as a gift to the audience hints at a contemporary, violent malaise, that a victim is expected to in some way represent victimhood, and that within sociopolitical structures that do not care for the individual, one is supposed to assume responsibilities for personal shortcomings that are ultimately out of their control. The artist, then, is a spectacular vision of the disciplined self that is not produced in service of the self; rather, he sits within the structure of the modern governmentality of biopower. Within this narrative, the limits of self-invention may be a comfortable buffer; you can save face before onlookers begin to turn away.
Yet, much like the mythical symbology of the panther, the hunger artist has supernatural qualities. Though he is quantified and scrutinized, the artist is more than the body will allow. But in the masochistic, anxious night glitter that pulses in Martin’s film, to campaign for attention is to weaponize empathy as a mere bargaining tool. With fizzing acoustics and absorbing soft focus, Martin preserves the giddy self-glorification and self-effacement of Kafka’s original. In A Hunger Artist, the foul construal of empathy is the real showstopper. When the boundaries of viewer and viewed are clearly defined, as in the contexts of display and entertainment, admiration can quickly sour into the murky waters of demands and assumptions. In Martin’s film, the artist’s supervisor assumes the role of Kafka’s overseer, who shares the final dialogue with the artist. The confusion of “admiration” is set to pamper the artist in his production: “‘We do admire it,’ said the overseer, affably, ‘But you shouldn’t admire it,’ said the hunger artist. ‘Well then we don’t admire it,’ said the overseer.” The torment, it turns out, is undermined in a last-ditch joke: “I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”5
1. Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist” (1922), accessible at http://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/texts/literature/kafka/hunger.pdf.
3. Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990), 34, 69.
4. Kafka, “A Hunger Artist.”