On Hanna Cormick’s “The Mermaid” (2018)

by Alison Sperling

underwater generic

Excerpted from a piece soon to be published in The Deep: A Companion, edited by Simon Bacon (Peter Lang: forthcoming) as part of the Genre, Fiction and Film Companions https://www.peterlang.com/view/serial/GFFC )


Hanna Cormick’s performance “The Mermaid” opens with the artist lying flat on her back on the concrete ground, wearing a full-face respirator. She is connected to an oxygen tank and IV saline drip, hung on the back of a wheelchair nearby. Her head is adorned with a crown of white, plaster-cast seashells and starfish, an iridescent mermaid tail extends from her bare waist, and Cormick’s measured voice begins:

When no one sees you, you can pretend the difference does not
Each new revelation to each new person is a new wound, a
re-becoming different[1]

Viewers immediately understand Cormick’s body as a site of vulnerability to the violence of the able-bodied gaze, which imbricates bodies differently in a complex system of viewership. If in solitude, one can fantasize about so-called normality, in the performance space and under the eyes of spectators, each new revelation to each new person is a new wound, a repeated exposure of difference.

Cormick is a performance artist based in Canberra, Australia, who lives with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, Chiari Malformation, and Dysautonomia, amongst other complications, which require the use of a wheelchair, respirator and orthoses. “The Mermaid” was her first work as a disabled artist[2], and is a confrontation between living with a rare disease and the climate crises (Arts Access Australia).[3] The work stages her experience of living with these conditions as a process that she undergoes as the performance is underway, slowly transforming from a narrative of self-blame to one, influenced by thinkers such as Audre Lorde and Paul B. Preciado, of empowerment through illness, fragility, and transformation. This shift occurs through a growing recognition that her body is somehow in sync with the deterioration of the planetary body:

I wasn't listening to the tremors that were running through my
That were the same tremors running through the coral, the
seabed, the roots
That we are not on the earth, but of it.
I didn’t understand
That my veins were as polluted as the rivers
My lungs full of plastic and petroleum
Pesticides soaking into my fat like the soil
And switching on dangerous genes

Pollution, plastic, petroleum, pesticides. These are the substances of the waters of the Anthropocene, contaminated waters that yoke bodies together in toxic times. Cormick suggests that these contaminants, at least in part, tie us to the world: we are not on the earth, but of it. Perhaps she is even more radically distancing herself from the category of the human altogether, demonstrating the ways in which living with disability is often already to be outside of the bounds of the oppressive category of humanness.  Like the coral, like the rivers, like the rocks peeking from the mountainside, illness unites her with the nonhuman. The hybridity of the mermaid figure is also temporal paradox: a speculative, crip-futurity (mutate, transform, adapt) as much as a harkening back to an evolutionary, holocene, pre-industrial past to which she imagines returning (we were all fish once). Her hybridity is thus complexly layered: human, fish, organic, contaminant, technological.

An interlude in the video alerts us to the precarity of Cormick’s body out in the open - the first time she performs this piece, she has a seizure. Standing behind her and holding large cards with text, her collaborator Christopher Samuel Carroll blasts a track by The Everly Ills as he flips though information for spectators while Cormick seizes on the concrete ground. The cards read: “The artist is having a seizure,” and “It is an atypical allergic reaction caused by food in the air”…“Or food hidden in your bag. Or your makeup. Or your hair product.” And as the seizure subsides: “Air is a shared resource but it is too polluted with contaminants for her to breathe.” Herein lies the tension of a contaminated world that can both link different beings together while also dividing them or requiring mediation between them. Carroll walks over and pushes the wheelchair to where Cormick lies. She sits up, pushes herself up from the ground and into the wheelchair, and continues the performance.

There’s no barrier between us and the world


“The Mermaid” ends with Cormick reciting a series of self-declarations. There are announcements of her solidarity with disappearing lands and acidifying oceans. They are her banding together with other marginalized peoples and beings, those who are most effected by the effects of climate change:

I am the low lying islands we are drowning
I am the sick air, sick ocean, contaminated water, earth
I am the damage we have done to the earth
I am all the people you hide away and pretend do not exist
I am everyone you tread on to stand where you are
I am the canary in the coalmine
I am your own precarity and mortality
I am the carrion and the ink black crows that feast upon it
I am not a fighter
I am the battleground

In addition to other solidarities, the performance’s conclusion is also an alliance with toxicity itself. She is not just the sick air – she is the damage, she is the carrion and the black crows that feast upon it, she is the battleground. One way to understand Cormick’s performance would be to see it as her coming to terms with her body, and finding strength in her connection with the earth, the air, the waters. But my feeling is that in addition to her own transformation that she recounts in the fifteen minutes of “The Mermaid,” she also proposes a shift in how we understand disability broadly speaking, and its possible relation to aquatic and other crises in the Anthropocene. Hydro-feminism has pointed to this fact that we are all bodies of water[4]; we cannot think of the human as separate from the waters of the oceans, rivers, lakes, or of atmospheres. This is a way of thinking in terms of connectedness to the nonhuman that is important to Cormick (I think), as well as in the environmental humanities and in what has been called elsewhere Anthropocene feminism.[5] But in a moment when ecological thinking is drenched with rhetoric of entanglement and the enmeshed, it is important that Cormick suggests that what unites us with the world can also be simultaneously the thing that separates us, and it is not always so simply for better, nor for the worse.



To learn more about Hanna Cormick’s work: https://www.hannacormick.com/current-works. Hanna Cormick is a performance artist with a background in physical theatre, dance, circus and interdisciplinary art. Her work has been performed in Australia, Europe and Asia. Her current practice is a reclamation of body through radical visibility.


Alison Sperling is currently an IPODI Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Technische Universität Berlin and an Affiliate Fellow at the ICI Institute for Cultural Inquiry Berlin. She also a theory tutor in St. Joost School of Art and Design’s “Ecology Futures” Program in the Netherlands.



[1] All italicized text is by Hanna Cormick. This essay is based on a video the artist shared with me of the performance in 2018 in Sydney, Australia. The work is not typically experienced as a video work, but I am grateful for the chance to see what would normally be experienced as a live performance.

[2] In a 2018 interview for the website Stance on Dance, Cormick says of “The Mermaid” that “This work was my coming out as being disabled.” See http://stanceondance.com/2018/05/17/disabled-bodies-disabled-ways-of-thinking/.

[3] See https://artsaccessaustralia.org/art-spaces/hanna-cormick/.

[4] Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology, Bloomsbury, 2017.

[5] Anthropocene Feminism, ed. Richard Grusin, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.