Breathe For Me – Martin O’Brien at The Arnolfini


There is a smell to hospitals.  A smell of antiseptic, latex, linoleum and death.

There is a smell to hospitals.  A smell of antiseptic, latex, linoleum and death. There is also a sense associated with them.  The sense that intellect and reason are about to be usurped by corporeal facts.  You can think and speak for hours waving the Sunday supplement in your hand, but then the Doctors step in and smash the illusion that you are in control or could change anything. 

There is no colour to hospitals.  The lights are too bright and whatever the hue, the walls always look mouldy and sickly.  The starkness of the white screens is a mocking reminder of the absence of beauty.  A blank canvas no one could be bothered to draw on.  There are cold hands and mouths full of jargon, touching and talking and turning the body into a specimen. In some way malfunctioning.  An interesting example of a freak show. 

But at least that makes it sound exciting.  Ten minutes in the X-ray and hours sliced open on a table with a pair of sturdy rugby-boy hands yanking the bent pieces around.  A moment in the spotlight before months, years, a lifetime of being perfectly uninteresting, particularly to oneself. 

The unglamorous monotony of long-term illness is encapsulated with exactitude in Martin O’Brien’s performance-art work Breathe For Me.  O’Brien has cystic fibrosis, a condition which requires constant attention and carries with it the threat of early death.  In the sanitized workspace created within the Arnolfini, he crawls back and forth, back and forth across the floor, carrying in his mouth pieces of paper dripping with pastel-green goo.  Bobbing for mucus-covered apples and then carrying the burden for yet another journey back to the top of the path. There is no sense that this is a particularly worthy fight.  It is not done deliberately, as self-flagellation to achieve spiritual enlightenment.  Nor is the potential of spiritual enlightenment used to frame this behaviour in terms that suggest the participant is blessed to be as such.  It is simply done in the way that if you have a bad foot and need to walk somewhere badly enough you walk with the bad foot.  There is also no promise of reward at the end.  No beautiful body after hours spent in the gym or swipe-card entry through the pearly gates. Just the terrible visceral uniformity of a life controlled by a really cruddy lifelong illness. 

The dark studio creates a sense of deep claustrophobia suitable for a performance about a genetic disorder which effects the breathing.  The smell of the sludge is disgusting and insidious.  The low ceiling, repetitive movement and this dry stench soon make the performance unbearably intense. O’Brien portrays with unnerving accuracy the truly boring experience of fighting a decrepit body day in, day out.  He also conjures forth the frustration and loathing directed from the functioning mind towards the failing structure it is encased in. 

I wanted to stay for longer.  I wanted to know what someone else thought about being young and having a body that had been poked and prodded so much it became a hateful, inadequate thing far out of the mind’s control.  We seek representation and shared experiences, or so we say, but then the accuracy comes and it chokes us.  


This perfromance was a part of the In Between Time Festival, on in Bristol 14th – 17th February