The Operature
  • Christopher Schulz
  • The Operature

Chicago writer and academic Samuel Steward was so obsessed with cataloging his sexual experiences that he kept a file of 746 cards, systematically cross-referenced, detailing hundreds of erotic encounters with men. He eventually became a professional tattoo artist in an effort to quell his sex drive though painstaking asexual attention to the body, but even though many of his flowery designs alluded to his friend Gertrude Stein’s aphorism “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” a tattoo was always more than a tattoo for him.

Likewise, tattoos are charged signifiers for choreographer Mark Jeffery and artist Judd Morrissey, who collaborated on The Operature. In this 90-minute durational dance partially based on Steward’s “stud file,” tattoos worn by four male dancers serve both as glory holes and as gory holes that appear as red splotches in battlefield paintings on the bodies of injured soldiers.

But where Steward was unambiguously hypersexual, Jeffery and Morrissey are hypervisual. A text-based simulation is the guiding metaphor of the work. A kind of virtual scalpel cuts up phrases from Steward’s journals, then layers the words onto the dancers. Audience members can scan the dancers’ tattoos with their smartphones to reveal even more text and visual imagery.

The spectacle is not all virtual. When a dancer stretches his leg through an aperture in the enormous wood operating table that is at the center of the room and sticks his face through a second opening in its surface, the stunt is as striking as if he were to juggle his own head. The effect plays out Jeffery’s excitement and curiosity about dissection. Violence is always implied, but not actually demonstrated in The Operature, which is all about delicate operations.

Through 3/29: Fri-Sat 6 PM, National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago, 175 W. Washington,, $15.