The Art of Suicide / by Chris Hall

I recently read over a list on Complex.com, of the top 25 Performance Art Pieces of All Time.  I found many expected works of art, both good and bad, ranging from Joseph Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) to Pussy Riot’s 2012 Punk Prayer.  Acconci’s Seedbed was there, as was Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.  As much as I would like to discuss the merits and flaws of each inclusion, as art, I feel more compelled still to question the presence of one inclusion at all.  I am thinking of Yukio Mishima’s suicide (1970).

Yukio Mishima giving his speech to the soldiers just before he committed Seppuku.

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director.  He is considered one Japan’s most important authors of the 20th century.  Indeed, he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  

But Mishima was a troubled soul.  Having survived WWII, he became a fervent rightwing nationalist; he pined for the pre-war days with its samurai mythology, bushido code, veneration of the emperor, and other traditional Japanese values.  Mishima formed a militia called the Tatenokai (Shield Society) on October 5th, 1968.  Two years later, on November 25th, 1970, Mishima and four members of the Tatenokai, visited the commandant of the Tokyo headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Force.  Once inside, they barricaded the office and tied the commandant to his chair.  Mishima then stepped out onto the balcony with a prepared manifesto and a banner listing his demands, and then addressed the group of soldiers gathered below.  His speech was intended to inspire a coup and restore power to the emperor, but instead the speech was received with mocking and jeers.  Finishing his speech, Mishima then returned to the commandant’s office where he committed the ritual of Seppuku (self disembowelment with sword followed by a beheading).  Later it was revealed that Mishima had been planning the suicide performance for at least a year and had composed a ritual death poem in preparation.  

While Seppuku is a kind of performance it is also a ritual with a long tradition, going back to the 12th century.  It was reserved for samurai who would rather die by their own hands than face dishonor and be captured by their enemies, as a form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed a serious offence, or performed by a samurai to atone for a great shame.  Did Mishima view his Seppuku as an art piece (did he hope to inspire change by his act) or did he view his act as a something more private and personal, an act of reverence for samurai tradition?  Did he know he would fail to inspire a coup and was seeking to atone for this failure?  Perhaps it was all of these things.  If it was a final work of performance art, I can think of no greater conflation of life and art.

Kathy Change during happier times, before she committed self-immolation.


Similar in circumstance to Yukio Mishima’s suicide by Seppuku, Philadelphia artist Kathy Change death by self immolation on October 22, 1996 on the University of Pennsylvania campus might be argued as being art action.  Born Kathleen Chang, she legally changed her name to Kathy Change to indicate her commitment to political and social change.  Change’s life was defined by acts of political activism as art and also bouts of mental illness.  For twenty years Change was a fixture in Philadelphia, giving street performances on the University of Pennsylvania campus and in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  She would sing, dance, play guitar and keyboard, wave handmade flags, and give speeches, all while dressed in different outlandish costumes.  Her performances were meant to education the audience on various government and economic issues of the day, and to wake people up from their complacency.  Perhaps feeling like her work was not getting through to her audience, she decided on final act . . . but was it art as suicide or just suicide as an act of despair?  Is art as suicide truly even possible?  Like Mishima, the suicide act was meticulously prepared.  She practiced with meat and different accelerants before settling on gasoline.  Unlike Mishima, we do know that Change had hoped that her self immolation would wake people up from complacency and inspire them to take action on the formation of a new government.  In a packet she delivered to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily Pennsylvanian, and to several of her friends, she writes:  

I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people…as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. . . . Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world.  America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.

With a history of mental illness, it is difficult to say whether her suicide was a matter of free will and artistic agency.  Much depends on how one perceives not only mental illness, but also the act of artistic creation.  But if she felt she had to kill herself because of a suicidal urge, that is a depression perhaps brought on by her perceived failure to change the world, perhaps, she decided to make the most of it, and turn the act into one final work of art.  

Artist Ray Johnson with painting.

I think of one final example of the possibility of art as suicide, Raymond Edward “Ray” Johnson’s suicide on January 13th, 1995.  Known primarily as a collage and correspondence artist, Ray Johnson was a seminal figure in the history of Neo-Dada and early Pop Art.  On January (Friday) 13th, 1995 Johnson was seen diving off of a bridge in Sag Harbor, New York, and then backstroking out to sea.  Earlier that day Johnson checked into a hotel in room number 247 (2 + 4 + 7 = 13).  The age of his death was 67 (6 + 7 = 13).  Witnesses have even suggested that the exact time of Johnson’s jump also added up to 13.  Could it all have been a strange coincidence, or was this Ray Johnson’s final art action?  We will never know for sure, as Johnson did not leave a suicide note.  Johnson’s body was found washed up on the beach the next day.