Arts Beat

'Aversion': A Jolt Of an Experience

In Mary Coble's
In Mary Coble's "Untitled 1," a hand shows the effects of shock therapy. Coble re-created the psychiatric treatment that was once used to recondition gays to be straight. (By Mary Coble -- Conner Contemporary Art)
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mary Coble walked into Conner Contemporary Art at 7:30 p.m. last Friday wearing all white. She looked stoic, restrained. She sat down in a reclining leather chair and an assistant attached two electrodes to her left forearm. The wires connected to an electroshock therapy machine.

Artists, collectors and spectators were so packed into the small gallery that some people watched Coble via webcast on a computer not 40 feet away from the performance.

"You could hear a pin drop in here," said Leigh Conner, the gallery owner. "Nobody was moving. Nobody said a word. Nobody's cellphone went off."

A slideshow started playing in front of Coble, alternating images of scantily clad men and women. When a photo of a woman came up, the assistant zapped Coble with electricity, causing her left arm to rise up off the armrest and shake. This went on for about 30 minutes.

"Aversion" is the 28-year-old, Washington-based artist's latest haunting performance for a cause. She was re-creating a psychiatric treatment that was performed until 1973 in an effort to recondition gay men and lesbians to be straight. Doctors shocked patients like Pavlov's dogs when they saw erotic images of the same sex. Opposite-sex images elicited no shocks.

On the phone a few days later, Coble said she had fully recovered.

"I was a little more nervous than I expected," said Coble, who is a lesbian. "I didn't know what slide was coming up. I understood the anticipation -- Is it going to be a female?-- and when a male slide did come up, a part of me was relieved. That's not to say in the end that it worked . . . but I was a little surprised at how relieved I was."

Coble said she first heard about aversion therapy when she was in her late teens. She started researching it a few years ago. The rationale behind it -- making gay people straight -- echoes the message from groups such as Exodus International, which advocates "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ."

In the fall of 2005, Coble performed "Note to Self," in which she had the names of 438 murdered gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people inscribed on her body using a tattooing needle without ink.

"It's not about hurting myself," she said. "It's the only way I can think to express these ideas that my audience will have a strong enough connection to."

Artifacts of "Aversion" are on view at Conner through June 30, including the slideshow, the leather chair, electrodes and photographs and videos of a hand clenching and releasing during shock therapy. Some of the visuals are for sale, for $1,250 to $1,500, but Coble's May 18 performance is not on view or sale. Coble also created a 21-minute video of people telling real stories of experiencing aversion therapy, though she would not comment on whether the video portrays actual patients or actors.

"I think there have been some performances lately that are just harm for harm's sake," Conner said. "Mary is conceptually very strong. It's form following function."

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