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.
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.