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Seeking: One Dead Body for One Dance Performance

“The idea of dancing with a body of a dead person is the song of life,” says Snorri Ásmundsson, an Icelandic artist who’s pushing the boundaries of the art world.
July 22, 2015, 3:00pm
Asmundsson's 'Dancing with Death' Facebook cover that began his search for a body donor. That's not a real corpse. Photo: Gulli Mar. Images courtesy of the artist

Dancing with a person after they’ve died is a one-off performance piece that Icelandic artist Snorri Ásmundsson is currently casting. For the piece, appropriately titled, Dancing with Death, Ásmundsson is on the search for a suitable participant, putting out the request on his Facebook wall, and subsequently causing a media frenzy.

He’s received "several" applicants so far.

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Ásmundsson meditates inside a Plexiglas pyramid in Venice for his 'Pyramid of Love' performance piece (2006). Photo by Spessi

“The reason that people, most often art lovers, offer me the use of their body after their death is usually because they love this idea,” Ásmundsson explains. “They think it’s beautiful and gives their body an afterlife.”

The 48-year-old visual artist has seen dead bodies before, assuring The Creators Project that he’s a “very happy and positive” person with no strong desire to be around a corpse. Referring to the project instead as a “collaboration,” Ásmundsson intends to document conversations between him and the chosen person prior to their death in order to further understanding of the work. A legal contract, ensuring the body gets returned, will also be made.

“All of this has been very interesting,” says Ásmundsson. “The letters I’ve received from those interested have been amazing. But I’ve also had some things happen that have shocked me. I’m not ready to talk about them now.”

While there’s no time limit on the death, a dying diagnosis is needed, and according to Ásmundsson, most of the applicants haven’t got it. Two dying people, both men, have come forward, with one of them dying before an arrangement could be made.

The idea behind dancing with a cadaver first came to Ásmundsson in 2008, when he made a similar open call in an Icelandic newspaper, sparking criticism but also interest from potential donors and one former director of the Akureyi Art Museum in Iceland. But after that year’s financial crisis hit, the work was put on hold. Now, alongside a willing exhibit space, the right body donor needs to be found.

“The right person is the one who is ready to do it,” says Ásmundsson. “The qualities this person has to have is the willingness to participate in this project with me. Simple as that.”

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Ásmundsson as 1998 Eurovision winner Dana International from his dance music video 'Hatikva' that features the artist singing the Israeli national anthem (2014). Photo by Goddur

Ásmundsson explains he “believes in love and humanity,” but the artist is known for his videos and public installations that provocatively touch on subjects not recommended at dinner parties.

Seeking to 'affect society through public events' by upturning social norms, throughout the years, his numerous performances have resulted in him being labeled a "Satanist," "attention whore," and even an anti-Semite—the latter being for a music video that features Ásmundsson singing the Israeli national anthem in drag, alongside two men with Down's syndrome, dressed as Hasidic Jews, dancing around a blonde cowgirl riding a woman wearing a niqab. Ásmundsson is quoted explaining the 2014 piece as a response to the situation in Gaza.

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The controversial 'Hatikva' also shows two men with Down syndrome—friends of the artist—appearing as Hasidic Jews. (2014). Photo by Goddur

Images like these tend to blur the lines between artistic interpretation and art for the sake of being incendiary, and while Ásmundsson's work has stirred controversy, the artist tells The Creators Project, “I’ve always been very provocative. We are here for a reason and this part of me that needs to provoke has a good reason. I know that many people are angry but it doesn’t bother me. I’ve never been disturbed by the opinions of others.”

In 2004, his Bloody Beauty performance piece presented a suicide note that viewed death as an exciting transformation into new life. The questionably positive outlook on a typically taboo matter included a gunman shooting a bag of blood lying overhead and a friend of Ásmundsson encouraging the artist to seek a psychiatrist. For Dancing with Death, Ásmundsson wants to avoid suicide, and additionally stipulates, “if they’re dying of some disease and it’s dangerous to be near the corpse maybe that’s not a very good idea.” Well aware of hygienic concerns, Ásmundsson also recognises that afterlife can mean different things to people, putting religious values and culture—other subjects he’s tackled in the past—into play. The artist, who aligns himself with being a “spiritual” person, is open to all backgrounds.

While it undoubtedly sounds morbid, Ásmundsson explains that this piece seeks to learn more about the universe and human existence, and be a “celebration of life.” Makeup will also be required.

“I think this ‘ceremony’ will require a great deal of myself as a performance artist and a human being,” he admits. “I believe the audience will experience an amazing performance.”

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