The Last Breath Society (Coughing Coffin)

Playwright and filmmaker Ash Kotak reviews Martin O’Brien’s performance installation ‘The Last Breath Society (Coughing Coffin)’.

Deciding to go to ‘The Last Breath Society (Coughing Coffin)’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, created by performance artist Martin O’Brien, requires forethought and dedication. What drew me to the four-hour performance? I read an accompanying newspaper: ‘Martin O’Brien was born with a life shortening disease and recently surpassed his life expectancy – as such he is living in zombie time.’

Zombie time is the place I have lived myself, since I was 27 years old, half my life ago.

O’Brien was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that affects the lungs but also the digestive system and other organs too. A build-up of thick sticky mucus causes difficulty in breathing. Due to frequent lung infections, the individual coughs up mucus. Life expectancy is 30 years old; he is now 34.

Martin O'Brien art installation 2020-21
Martin O’Brien art installation 2020-21

With this knowledge, I entered his space at the ICA in London, with fear and trepidation.

I knew O’Brien’s reputation and that his physically enduring, durational work is profound. It forces and coaxes the viewer to engage and experience the pain and hardship he must challenge. I was not disappointed. I loved it. I was broken down. It gave me a language to speak my own reality, for other reasons, ones I am not as brave as O’Brien to explore. It is important for the reader to know this now, so the sheer brilliance of this performance art experience itself can be examined and documented. It is a hugely important work and not to be forgotten quickly.

As expected, the room is full of coffins. O’Brien quickly owns the space, a container of his life, within which he shares his experiences. Through laboriously repositioning the coffins, opening them, closing them, breaking them and forming acrobatic shapes on, in, under and over them, these heavy black, cold objects become characters, a part of the Last Breath Society. They become alive, and O’Brien choreographs a co-dependent relationship with them.

Rhythmic repetition of action – stop, start, interruption, stop, start, interruption – draws the viewer in, making us live his life and the agonising, frustration of living through episodic illness and not being able to breathe. We view our greatest fear: the last breath closest to death, the one we cannot escape.

A plastic mask over his face empathises, a bag can suffocate but, at the same time, it looks like a breathing aid. We hear his sounds. This duality of living and dying, explored, crafted, controlled and oscillating continuously adds poetry that knocks and pierces the heart.

I remember the times I was rushed to hospital. It is the worst feeling. ‘Will it be my last’ echoes with ‘I want it to just end’.

Then there is a reprieve, a drink of water, a piss, quiet and calm before it all cranks up again, winding, churning, chugging, gaining speed, power and energy. Coffins 7 and 1 (broken) are opened and closed as he creates a macabre dance, their weight emphasising the heaviness of the breathing. O’Brien becomes increasingly breathless; his coughing becomes worrying. A coffin becomes a vibrating clock like a pendulum, representing zombie time.

He performs acrobatics on the standing coffins. Will they fall? He is so agile; they so rigid. He controls his movement like a dancer. Somehow, he mounts a coffin, flips himself 180 degrees and dismounts a second. His always at hand assistant, steps in to help.

Imagery and images have been beautifully constructed to create photos in the viewer’s mind. O’Brien uses a Polaroid camera as part of the show, laying prints of his act, by harsh staple, onto each coffin.

One by one he attends to each coffin again. At times tender and caressing. At others battling. He is barefoot and carefully avoids the pointed metal spikes on coffin lids. He turns on a recording of breathing and struggling. He rearranges the space, dragging a coffin like Jesus with his cross along the Via Dolarosa, “the way of sorrow” to his crucifixion.

His costume takes on the role of a submissive in BDSM: a full metal chest cage; an encased iron head cage connected to a coffin by a metal chain. He explores his body through sex and pain: fucking, pleasure and relief, against hurried, forced breathing with added breath control. It is shocking and erotic too. There is no escape for O’Brien, and I am experiencing his road to death.

At times he lies in a coffin, suffocating under a plastic bag. This is prolonged and the tension created is extreme. Anyone who has ever had breathing issues is driven to the edge of memory.

Martin O'Brien art installation 2020-21
Martin O’Brien art installation 2020-21

Then just when we cannot bear it anymore, a reprieve again. The symphony of hard but steady breathing is calm. O’Brien is beautiful and vulnerable in his near nakedness – undressed to a dirty jock from black shirt, trousers and nail varnish – and his toned body. He pushes himself, plays his strength against his increasing exhaustion as he once more manipulates the coffins – his ceaseless game with death – and displays, boasts, that he assertively controls the space, his life and his world at the times when he can.

The soundtrack against the actual sounds adds urgency. He includes the whirring of a tempura-like sound, a requirement of Indian classical music. The coffins squeak, crack and creak and drag. At times he gargles – it is grotesque – and we laugh. We hear his shallow breathing, his huffs, screams and puffs. The silence within the noise becomes another meaningful voice. O’Brien eloquently builds layer on layer upon layer; he is an expert in his subject. Each cyclic repetition I am drawn in more.

O’Brien is a generous performer and his clarity and storytelling is beautifully crafted. People who have not been seriously sick do not understand illness. I could have died three times. I, unlike O’Brien, have had a miraculous reprieve. For O’Brien he must find hope within the periods of calm and the now without a future. Here lies the depth and lasting sadness this powerful, elegiac and poetic work provokes.

The psychoanalytic transference is absolute. I have undergone post Jungian analysis on the couch for years. O’Brien creates this relationship with his audience.

Above all he shows us, with astonishing honesty his loneliness and his despair. I have never witnessed such absolute truth. It is a mirror to us who have lived this. Total and complete aloneness. Loneliness itself is a killer.

To lessen this and make it more bearable, a series of videoed performances are placed, equally distanced, at the parameter of the O’Brien and his coffin’s space. There is a series of ten commissioned video works by Franko B, Ansuman Biswas, Rocio Boliver, Noëmi Lakmaier, Lechedevirgen Trimegisto, Joseph Morgan Schofield, Kira O’Reilly, Sheree Rose, Shabnam Shabazi, and Nicholas Tee. Each work further informs the overall narrative, adding a chorus of voices screaming out with pain, struggle and anxiety – but in solidarity. In unison, they expand O’Brien’s ideas, pulling us further inwards into hidden areas within the space, unlocking further nuance and offering comradeship. They had the effect of making me realise there are many others like me.

This is The Last Breath Society. Suddenly, I no longer feel so alone. O’Brien has allowed me to externalise my own anxiety. I make a conscious decision to safely hold my own angst, safely compartmentalised, within the patterns and shapes of his formed space. He offers meaning and comfort by gaining power over the coffins. By controlling the space into an analyst’s like container, he creates a gap for me to complete the narrative with my own offering, allowing for the possibility of transformation and healing. I became part of The Last Breath Society. Nobody walked out. We all were there for the full four hours and still wanted more.

I now draw on the images and sounds witnessed and left in my head. I often look at photographs of the show, which I learnt later were taken by Manuel Vason – a transdisciplinary artist who explores photography through the prism of performance. I cannot forget. I will not, I do not want to forget. I want his courage. It is some months after this epic performance and I still feel it. The work is not only profound, but it holds resonance too. It works and offers real change to people like me. It is a triumph. I now have a community of people available to me, through the hold of the endurability of O’Brien’s art.


Ash Kotak is a playwright, filmmaker and curator. His plays include Maa and Hijra. His new works include Freddiebhai and The AIDS Missionary (in progress)Ash has been executive producer for a number of full-length films, including The Joneses (2017) and Punched By a Homosexualist (2018). As a campaigner, he has worked to establish a national AIDS Memorial in central London. 

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