A Taste for the Transgressive: Pushing Body Limits in Contemporary Performance Art





taste, transgression, fine art, performance art, body-based art

How to Cite

Fahey, T. (2014). A Taste for the Transgressive: Pushing Body Limits in Contemporary Performance Art. M/C Journal, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.781
Vol. 17 No. 1 (2014): taste
Published 2014-03-16
Years have come and gone and Bob is still around

He’s tied up by his ankles and he’s hanging upside down

A lifetime of infection and his lungs all filled with phlegm

The CF would’ve killed him if it weren’t for S&M

Supermasochistic Bob has Cystic Fibrosis by Bob Flanagan. Soundtrack from 1997 documentary, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan

In the 1997 film, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, artist Bob Flanagan quite literally lays himself bare to the viewer. This is a wrenching documentary which charts the dying Flanagan’s battles with cystic fibrosis (CF), and also explores the impact of this on his art and life. Sick also explores to an explicit degree the sadomasochist practices that permeated Flanagan’s private life and performance art practice, and which he used as a means of asserting control of the chronic pain and infirmity of his medical condition. Sick is not an easy watch. The film evokes feelings of fear, empathy, and horror. It challenges notions of taste and bad taste. It subjects the viewer to witness the vulnerability of the repeatedly tortured and invaded body of the artist, and of his eventual confrontation with death. As performance pieces go, this is an extreme example of body-based art. Where does this extraordinary piece stem from? From which traditions in art does it draw? To answer these questions, it is necessary to examine the framework of disability art, transgressive art, and also the tradition of medical Gothic, or the history of the Gothic body as a site of art—art that involves reading the body as carnivalesque, as degenerate, as ab-human, as abject entity.

The Gothic Body as Site of Art

The body has long been a site of exploration in medical practice and in artistic practice. The body has been displayed and examined in various forms, as subject, object, or abject entity through ossories, medical collections, museums of pathology, and freak shows. Paintings of crucifixions and martyrdoms, and practices of flagellation have glorified the tortured body of Christians as physical reminders of extreme piety. The abnormal or monstrous body has been a trope in art since the medieval period, often identified with ideas of evil or sin. Anatomical bodies have been referenced and explored by artists since the Renaissance. With the popular explosion of performance art in the 1960’s, bodily practices have been incorporated into site specific art. Artists’ bodies are offered for our gaze, and sometimes for interaction with, all within the context of performance. Although performance art originates in the early 20th century, it was exponents of the 1960’s that firmly aligned this practice with the site of the artist’s body. At this time, the body became a new focus of culture, with the rise in sexual freedom and the accepted use of nudity in performances and happenings. This resulted in the performance of body-based pieces such as Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy (1964) and Interior Scroll (1975), Hermann Nitsch and the Viennese Actionists and their Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries (1962), and Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1971). This legacy of sexual, violent, or abject performances results in the creation of provocative and disturbing contemporary pieces such as Sick that confront the spectator with the vulnerabilities and limits of the living body.

Today, contemporary culture is suffused with images of the body, both the idealised bodies of advertising and music videos, and the grotesque and transfigured bodies of contemporary art. Spooner has commented, “Contemporary Gothic is more obsessed with bodies than in any of its previous phases: bodies become spectacle, provoking disgust, modified, reconstructed and artificially augmented” (63). Today, culture’s preoccupation with the body runs the gamut from horror films obsessed with the penetrated body, to subcultural style and body manipulation, and the increasing popularity of plastic surgery makeovers on mainstream television. The body has never been so exposed, so open to the audience’s gaze. Key artists such as Damien Hirst, Mat Collishaw, the Chapman Brothers, Gabriela Friðriksdóttir, and Sue de Beer respond to this contemporary preoccupation by exploring the body in its manifold Gothic forms. This is a rich body of work that uses abject materials, references slasher movies, and plays with notions of identity, societal violence, body-horror, and the grotesque. This article looks specifically at works by contemporary transgressive artists that utilise their own bodies as site of performance, and the challenges to accepted tastes that this work poses. Performances by Bob Flanagan, Ron Athey, and Marina Abramovic are analysed in terms of boundaries, identity, and other implications in using the body of the artist as the site of art. Tropes of torture, pain. and body modification are examined as contesting the parameters of what body limits and of what is acceptable in contemporary art practice.

An Intimate Canvas: The Artist’s Body as Site

So what does it mean to use your own body as site of exploration? The work of artists who use their own bodies as a site of spectacle, as a medium of art, has several interesting implications. By its very nature, such an act is transgressive. It blurs the boundaries between artwork and artist. This creates an interesting tension between self and other and, indeed, arguably explores the notion of self as other. This work has an autobiographical function, in that it not only reveals universal themes of significance to the artist but, given the intimacy of the canvas, it also betrays personal preoccupations, and signifies the artist’s own relationship with the body and bodily practices. The use of the human body as canvas brings an intense physical and emotional proximity to the piece. The bodily traumas that are witnessed via performance art—whether it is Chris Burden being nailed to a Volkswagen (Trans-fixed, 1974) or Marina Abramović and Ulay collapsing, unconscious, lungs filled with carbon dioxide from reciprocal exchange of breaths (Breathing In/Breathing Out, 1977)—constitute an intimate link with the audience that arises from the shock of witnessing these transgressive acts. The body of the artist exposed in this way—a body normally only viewed by a partner, doctor or close family member—creates immediacy, giving the individual spectator in an intimate connection with the artist. Francesca Gavin, in her introductory essay to Hellbound: New Gothic Art, cites this voyeurism as essential to the experience of viewing Gothic art: “By looking at the violence or horror we become complicit in its creation, part of the cause—hence part of the discomfort in looking” (7). The first of these areas of discomfort to consider is the association of the body with pain, torture and mutilation, and the use of the artist’s body to explore this theme.

Pushing the Limits: The Artist’s Body as Site of Pain

The work of Marina Abramović has had a powerful effect on the contemporary landscape of body-based performance art that tests the limits of endurance of the corporeal body. Her past projects have focused on the uneasy power exchange between audience and performer. In Rhythm 0 (1974), her first long durational performance, Abramović offered her audience a choice of 72 objects including a gun, a hammer, sugar, and scissors, to be used on her own body, without any limitations on their deployment. This six-hour performance featured a motionless Abramović offering her body passively to the spectators to interact with. The intensity of the resulting video piece is remarkable; the recording of the performance captures the potential dissolution of the societal contract between artist and audience, a mutable discourse of agency and power. Abramović spoke of the sense of fear she experienced during this performance— “I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere” (quoted, Danieri 30). Her work plays constantly with the idea of boundaries and limits, often pushing her physical self past extraordinary barriers of pain and exertion, as in Rhythm 5 (1974) where she lost consciousness as a result of smoke inhalation and had to be rescued by the spectators. Amelia Jones has analysed these performances of pain as central to the artist’s desire to establish a connection with the audience during performances: “While pain cannot be shared, its effects can be projected onto others such that they become the site of suffering […] and the original sufferer can attain some semblance of self-containment (paradoxically, through the very penetration and violation of the body” (230). One could also argue that this sharing of experience also effectively normalises the abnormal body by establishing a common bond between viewer and performer. However, this work raises questions for the viewer. Is what these artists do self-harm, presented on a public stage? Is this ethical? And, importantly, is it within the bounds of taste? The answer, it would seem, lies in issues of agency and control and, of course, in the separation of art from life that occurs due to the act of performing itself. As Coogan puts it “[t]he performance frame is contingent and temporary, holding the performer in a liminal, provisional and suspended place” (1).

While Abramović’s work experiments with bodily endurance and performative limits, other artists who produce autobiographical, body-based performance can be located within the world of medical discourse and performed disability. An artist who subverts the boundaries of the body, and taste alike, is Ron Athey, the HIV-positive artist who makes performance work based on blood rituals, torture, and cutting. His use of blood is central to his practice, and the fact that this blood, which is let through performances, contains the HIV virus, gives it a doubly abject aspect. His performance Excerpted Rites Transformation (1995) which took place at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis caused an extreme reaction. During this performance Athey pierced own his skin with needles, and also cut into the skin of black artist Daryl Carlton in a mimicry of tribal scarification rituals that highlighted issues of race, then hung handkerchiefs dipped in Carlton’s blood on clotheslines that ran over the heads of the audience. Mary Abbe, an art critic with the Minneapolis Star Tribune who had not attended the performance, wrote an article about the danger posed to the audience by what she wrongly termed Athey’s blood. (Carlton is not HIV positive). It is clear from the tone of this response that such disease causes a profound dis-ease in the beholder.

Bob Flanagan’s oeuvre also locates him in this tradition of artists who perform their disability on a public stage. Critics such as Kuppers consider Athey and Flanagan as artists who subvert the medical gaze (Foucault), refusing to accept the passive role of ‘patient’, and defiantly flaunting their abnormal bodies in the public arena. These bodies can also be considered as modified bodies. Sandahl has contextualised Athey’s performance as going beyond the parameters of the human body: “Athey’s radical cyborg identity is a temporary mode of survival, an alternative way of being in there here and now. A body not interested solely in cure nor submissive to medical interventions” (59).

Kuppers, in The Scar of Visibility: Medical Performances and Contemporary Art, reflects on Flanagan and Athey’s careers as disabled artists. She examines how Flanagan constructs his identity as a chronically ill artist, and his pain performances that allowed him to avoid attracting the sentimental pity associated with illness; replacing audience empathy with shock and often revulsion. Kuppers highlights Flanagan’s use of dark humour in his performances through songs like Fun to be Dead (1997), which work to subvert the dominance of his illness. In fact, Flanagan’s work often asserts his central belief that his relative longevity (he lived to be 43, a decade longer than most CF sufferers) was achieved by his ability to counter the pain of his chronic condition with the pain of his masochistic suffering.

The stereotype that the masochist is snivelling and weak is actually not true. The masochist has to know his or her own body perfectly well and be in full control of their body, in order to give control to somebody else or to give control to pain. So the masochist is actually a very strong person. I think some of that strength is what I use to combat the illness. (Dick)

Athey’s description of his relief at the act of cutting echoes Flanagan’s identification of these rites as way of asserting control over a dysfunctional body: “The sight of your own blood, brought forth from your own hand, spells an almost immediate relief, a release to the pressure valve. It’s a violation that you yourself now control.”

What effect does this painful and masochistic art have on the audience? On the act of viewing? On taste itself?

Taste and Transgression: Beyond the Parameters of the Body

The notion of taste is a hotly debated area in contemporary art practice—arguments rage as to what constitutes good or bad taste. Woodward argues that “[B]ad taste often passes for avant-garde taste these days—so long as the artist signals ‘transgressive’ intent” (1). Grunenberg (1997) has addressed the problematic notion of the audience engagement with this mode of Gothic art, asking whether it has ilost its power to shock. He contends that with the contemporary saturation of all media with violent and shocking imagery, “the ability to be shocked and moved by real or fictitious images of horror has been showing positive signs of attrition.” Nevertheless, the proximity of performance, the immediacy of the artist’s body as canvas, the feelings of horror, empathy, and even wonder occasioned by the manipulation and excesses of the body, continue to draw audiences. The artist’s body as site of performance becomes a space in which the audience may inscribe their own narratives. The body is a locus of projection, almost ab-human, “a not-quite-human subject, characterised by its morphic variability, continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other” (Hurley 3–4). As the artist’s body becomes ever more manipulated and pushed beyond boundaries of taste and pain, it forces artist and audience alike to ask what lies beyond the parameters of the body. Experimentation with torture methods, with cutting, with abject materials, seems to lead back inevitably to the notion of Gothic, othered body, and a desire to pass beyond the boundaries of the repeatedly invaded and wracked body.

Once you transgress the boundaries of the body, the logical locus that lies beyond is death. Dick’s Sick documents Bob Flanagan’s death, which formed part of the agreement between documentary maker and artist before shooting. Flanagan hoped his body art would continue beyond death: “I want a wealthy collector to finance an installation in which a video camera will be placed in the coffin with my body, connected to a screen on the wall, and whenever he wants to, the patron can see how I’m coming along” (Dick). Playing with the shadow of death becomes a mode of performance itself. Abramović recalls her acceptance of this fact in her early performance pieces: “When I was in Yugoslavia I was always thinking that art was a kind of question between life and death and some of my performances really included the possibility of dying, you know, during the piece, it could happen” (quoted in McEvilley 15). She also records her fear experienced during Rhythm 0 (1974), stating “What I learned was that [... ]if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you” (quoted in Danieri 29). Death has receded from us in the 21st century. Death happens in hospitals, in the antiseptic confines of the Intensive Care Unit, it is medicated and mediated by medical staff. Traditional rituals of deathbed conversations and posthumous wakes are gradually disappearing. The discourse of death has grown silent except through the medium of the Gothic and especially the Gothic body, as the Gothic “consistently attempts to speak about the unspeakable—that is, death” (McGrath 154).

Artists such as Abramović, Flanagan, and Athey function within this Gothic tradition. By insistently presenting their Gothic bodies, they force the audience to acknowledge death, transgression, and decay as realities. With collaborative partners, they mediate the process of surgery, torture, dying, and even the moment of death through photography and lens-based media. This use of media in capturing the moment also functions in a contemporary post-religious society as a mode of replication and, even, perhaps, of immortality. Bold, provocative, and challenging, the work of these transgressive artists continues to challenge the idea of bodily limits and boundaries and highlight the notion of the body as site of transformation. They continue to challenge our taste, our definition of art, and our comfort as audience. The words of Gavin come again to mind: “By looking at the violence or horror we become complicit in its creation, part of the cause—hence part of the discomfort in looking” (7). Using the artist’s body as site of performance forces us to challenge our conception of art, illness, life and death and leads to a reappraisal of taste itself.


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Author Biography

Tracy Fahey, Limerick School of Art and Design, LIT

Tracy Fahey is Head of Department in Fine Art and Head of Centre of Postgraduate Studies in Limerick School of Art and Design. She has previously worked as Head of Department of Humanities, IT Carlow and Head of Faculty of Design, Griffith College Dublin. She currently sits on the Board of the Hunt Museum (2012) and the Limerick Printmakers (2012).  Her main area of research is the Gothic, specifically Irish Gothic and the Gothic nature of domestic space. She has delivered papers on the Gothic at conferences in University of Aarhus, Denmark, University of Stirling, University of Cardiff, University of Northampton, Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds. In the last year she has given papers at the Studies in Gothic Fiction conference in San Diego, the International Gothic Association conference in University of Guildford and the Art and Geography conference in NUIG. She is a founder member of the Gothic Association of New Zealand and Australia (2013) and the Irish Network for Gothic Scholars (2013). In 2013 she both established the LSAD research centre ACADEmy (Art, Curatorial, Applied Design & Education research centre) and together with Prof.Donna Lee Brien (Central Queensland University, Australia) founded CAIRN, the Creative Australasian Irish Research Network (2013).  Her short stories have been published in several anthologies; Impossible Spaces (2013), Hauntings (2014), Girl at the End of the World (2014) and Darkest Minds (2014). Currently she is working with Dr. Maria Beville of Mary Immaculate College on the organisation of a Limerick conference, Locating the Gothic (forthcoming, October 2014). In 2010 she founded the Limerick-based collaborative gothic art practice, Gothicise,(www.gothicise.weebly.com) who have produced ghostwalk/ghosttalk (2010), The Double Life of Catherine Street (2011) and A Haunting (2011) and are currently working on two memory projects, Remembering Wildgoose Lodge (2013 - present) and Waking St. Munchin (2014).