Supermasochist: Art & Adoration

I write this post as an academic interested in the intersection of disability theory and performance art and as a fan. I have been interested in Bob Flanagan, his life and his works, since I first saw Sick, the documentary about Flanagan directed by Kirby Dick.

What most interests me is Flanagan’s* reappropriation of illness and pain. As a performance artist, Flanagan’s often collaborative pieces (with his partner, Sheree Rose) create dialogue between two seemingly desperate areas: cystic fibrosis and sadomasochism (S/M). Flanagan reasserts control over a body fraught with illness. His art expresses corporeal rebellion, pain received and most overtly commanded.

As an artist, writer, comedian, and performance artist, Flanagan engages with controlled pain as a way to combat the physical pain his body feels as a result of cystic fibrosis. Perhaps most powerful is Flanagan’s forceful rewriting of the dominant illness narrative, one which renders the subject with an illness as weak, passive, and asexual. Flanagan enters into this restrictive discourse, altering it radically.

By publicly and actively engaging in S/M, Flanagan reclaims his experience with pain. As a masochist, Flanagan is able to reassert control over his body, using pain as transformative tool. In this way, he is no longer a passive participant within his skin.

"Wall of Pain" (1981-1992)

In his reappropriation of illness, Flanagan reclaims the term “sick,” adopting it not just as a term that hegemony uses to reference his sexual preferences or his medical health, but rather as an aesthetic tool. Hospital gowns are reinterpreted from passive sheets that lay on the body to a superhero cape. The possessive and standard objects of the hospital–the oxygen mask, the breathing tubes, and the rubber examination gloves–are all rewritten, converted into erotic symbols that are used in S/M scenes. Most powerfully, Flanagan refuses to be regulated by traditional, medical discourse.

I consider the performance piece “The Ascension” as a visual depiction of Flanagan’s medical protest:

In 1994, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York displayed several of Flanagan’s seminal pieces including the “Wall of Pain” and “The Ascension.” In a recreated hospital room in the corner of the museum, Flanagan rested on a bed in full hospital garb. At that moment, Flanagan was embedded in the dominant illness narrative. He was limited to the hospital bed, waiting for onlookers and interviewers to come to him. He was trapped beneath oxygen tubes and a hospital gown; within this constraining landscape, hegemony rendered Flanagan a passive, “sick” body.

This narrative was rewritten once S/M was inserted into the scene. Midway through the exhibit, Flanagan’s body was lifted, ankles first. As his body ascended toward the ceiling, his hospital blanket and robe fell off of his body. Not only did this piece signal a release from the dominant illness narrative, but it also spoke to the strength of the body. Flanagan was no longer dictated by the fragility of cystic fibrosis; in his suspension, he was meditative, a depiction of bodily vigor.

The Western Project is currently exhibiting selections from Flanagan and Rose’s work. Visit and pay witness to a life of adoration.

 

* Although Flanagan passed away in 1996 because of complications from cystic fibrosis, I use the present tense when referring to him and his work as his art and philosophies are still present; they still exist.

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5 Responses to Supermasochist: Art & Adoration

  1. marina says:

    Thank you for introducing me to Bob Flanagan. Amazing. But I must admit my favorite part of your blog is your asterisked comment. Beautifully said.

  2. RK says:

    How fascinating. I too explored some disability theory during undergrad and my master’s too – though I didn’t venture far away from Lennard Davis, I’m afraid. Thanks for introducing me to Flanagan!

  3. Hopefully they will find a cure for cystic fibrosis soon.

  4. rwhnewton says:

    Word about CF! This was a really cool piece.

    When you say “hegemony,” as in the sentence below, can you elaborate on who or what this label entails?

    “In his reappropriation of illness, Flanagan reclaims the term “sick,” adopting it not just as a term that hegemony uses to reference his sexual preferences or his medical health, but rather as an aesthetic tool.”

    I imagine that as a superstructure with its own grandnarrative, Flanagan is also complicit in reinforcing the same “hegemony” that he wishes to subvert, and if that’s the case, I wonder what elaborating on the term might surface about Flanagan’s actions.

    • By hegemony, I am referencing a dominant culture that has very regressive parameters for sexuality, a dominant culture that holds the healthy, able body as a privileged standard. But yes, I see the problem with transgressive behavior. Although Flanagan is transgressing grand narratives, his transgressions acknowledge that the grand narratives DO exist. I’m still trying to work through this conundrum (I had this traumatic realization when I read History of Sexuality last year). I’d like to think that by reappropriating hegemony’s use of the word “sick” (to reference s/m and cystic fibrosis), Flanagan is offering an alternate language. Perhaps we can read his performances as existing in a space outside of, but still in interrogation of, dominant culture. Thanks for the comment Richard. I realize that this is still something I need to flesh out.

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