Disabled artist Hanna Cormick debuts 'The Mermaid' at Art Not Apart
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Disabled artist Hanna Cormick debuts 'The Mermaid' at Art Not Apart

Sitting in a wheelchair, dressed in a stunning mermaid tail and heavy breathing apparatus, there's every chance Canberra artist Hanna Cormick could have a seizure during her performance at Art Not Apart on the weekend.

The actor suffers from rare immunological condition Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, meaning she's "basically allergic to everything". Any person walking past Cormick at Art Not Apart - who happens to be wearing too much deodorant or eating spicy food - could cause Cormick to have a severe allergic reaction.

Hanna Cormick will perform at Art Not Apart this weekend for the first time since being wheelchair bound.

Hanna Cormick will perform at Art Not Apart this weekend for the first time since being wheelchair bound.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

It's a terrifying thought for Cormick but she's set on sharing important messages on disability and our struggling environment via her performance piece The Mermaid at the annual festival on Saturday.

In a confronting piece of performance art - which involves Cormick being wheeled around the festival dressed as a mermaid and confined to her wheelchair - Cormick wants people to "feel uncomfortable" and realise that the world is at a tipping point of toxicity.

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Cormick will be wheeled around the Art Not Apart festival by partner Christopher Samuel Carroll.

Cormick will be wheeled around the Art Not Apart festival by partner Christopher Samuel Carroll.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

"The sickness of the planet, the terminal illness of our barrier reef, the ongoing poison of plastic ... our bodies are not independent from the world we are destroying," she said.

"I'm so susceptible to pollutions in the air and unfortunately for me that includes other people's personal care products, food, drink, anything in the air can trigger very severe allergic reactions for me including paralysis and seizures.

"We have all these shared natural resources and people aren't quite aware of how their actions might be impacting those in a really simple way for all sorts of people."

Mast Cell Activation Syndrome is just one of a series of rare disorders Cormick was diagnosed with in the past two years.

Previously an actor, dancer and contortionist living in Paris, Cormick was forced to return to Canberra in 2015 when she became extremely ill and "everything came crashing down".

She was sleeping all day "just to be able to perform at night", and when she could no longer live independently she returned to the capital and the care of her parents. She's endured hundreds of tests, scans and specialist appointments in the past two years and is now so ill she requires the use of breathing apparatus at all times (apart from a room in her house known as a "safe room") and a wheelchair when outdoors.

The Mermaid is the first time she's performed since becoming unwell.

"[Putting the piece together] has been really difficult - it's very frightening and I found I was often comparing myself now to my able-bodied self from before," she said.

"That brought up a lot of shame for me. I was very frightened for people to know I was sick, that I had become disabled and that my life had changed in this way. But I realised that this was the exact reason I had to perform.

"For anyone who has a disability there's nothing wrong but we feel ashamed because there are these social structures and cultural messages that have told us our whole lives that it's something to be pitied, that it's something to be ashamed of and something to hide."

Cormick described a mermaid as the perfect metaphor for the impact the environment can have on "ability".

"For me, the mermaid was a really great example because in the ocean the mermaid is quite free and by changing that environment, by changing the structure, she presents as incredibly disabled - incapable of moving in certain ways or accessing certain spaces.

"That's really what we're dealing with as disabled people, there aren't the correct structures in place to support bodies that are different."

The Mermaid premieres at Art Not Apart, Saturday 17 March, 1pm to 7pm, across the New Acton precinct, including The Shine Dome and the National Film and Sound Archive. For the full program head to artnotapart.com

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Bree Element is the life and entertainment editor at The Canberra Times

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