Deborah Drier

  • Rack Talk

    I DIDN’T HAVE THE CHANCE to know Bob Flanagan for as long as I would have liked. When, one Friday afternoon in November 1994, I cabbed over to the New Museum to introduce myself, I was not only depressed about the prognosis for the lung disease I have had for some time but also having trouble with the novel I was writing out of what I’ve come to call “The Situation.” A friend had told me that Bob’s installation “Visiting Hours”1 was uplifting and that seeing it would make me feel better. I’m pretty suspicious of uplift in any form, but I went anyway. Talking to Flanagan as he sat in his hospital bed, a central part of the installation, would, I thought, at least clarify certain issues for me. In fact, I didn’t leave until the museum closed and Bob and Sheree Rose, his companion and collaborator, went back to their hotel.
    We decided to talk again when Bob and Sheree returned to N.Y. from L.A. at the end of December for Bob’s 42nd birthday, which was going to be celebrated in the museum. I attended that event (which featured Bob, nude, lying on a bed of nails), and the next day the three of us reconvened in the hospital-room installation, where we talked (interrupted each time Bob was hoisted, upside down and naked, to the ceiling) until the tape in my portable tape recorder ran out.
    When Flanagan’s work is discussed, it is usually, and correctly, assimilated to various discourses of the body and to current preoccupations with the transgressive elements of S/M. But it is also very moving: you can’t help but have an emotional reaction to it. It was this subjectivity that Bob, Sheree, and I wanted to reclaim in our conversation. Too much of the theory that takes the body as its focus has remained oddly abstract. The theorist Donna Haraway, for example, is exactly right in describing tuberculosis as the paradigmatic illness of the 19th century, AIDS and HIV as that of the 20th; but if, as Haraway suggests, contemporary “victims” of disease are from the medical establishment’s point of view nothing but the unfortunate hosts of whatever agent is going to harm or kill them, that doesn’t go very far toward honoring the experience of the thinking, conscious subject. Or give that subject,perhaps the ultimate “other,” much to work with if he or she wants to speak for or represent him- or herself.
    It seems especially important to me, now that this interview is being published after Bob’s death, to emphasize the value of this subjectivity, the value of this speaking “I,” which was as central to his artmaking as the disease that came to inform it. Sick as Bob was, and much as he complained, near the end, of depression and of a waning sense of humor, he remained himself: a body, a man, an artist who was always more than the disease, cystic fibrosis, that finally killed him. Reading Bob’s Pain Journal, which documents the last year of his life (three entries are published in these pages) was very difficult. Not so much because of the rawness of the subject—death—or the breathtaking ruthlessness of the tone, but because the words sound so like Bob, are Bob, that I can’t quite believe I won’t be seeing him again. Freud said humans make art to cheat death—for Bob, perhaps, it worked.
    The following is based on a series of conversations I had with Bob in November and December of 1994, and is of that moment. —DD

    DEBORAH DRIER: I’ve been thinking lately about art and victimhood, especially after Arlene Croce’s appalling piece on Bill T. Jones in The New Yorker.2 I would ask you, does making art about one’s illness automatically turn one into a victim? I’ve never thought of you as a victim, or myself either, and it seems to me that any sick person, artist or not, has to fight other people’s perceptions, or should I say misperceptions.

    BOB FLANAGAN: Yes. The reaction I’m most surprised at when I get lifted up in the air by my ankles, or when I lie on a bed of nails, like at my birthday party, is that people

  • the Corset

    Like God—as the etymology of the word tells us—the Fetish does not reply.

    —Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, 1977

    THE FETISH DOES NOT REPLY because the fetish is so eloquent that words are irrelevant. A case in point is the corset, newly fashionable (again), as a cursory glance at the fashion press will tell you. This taste for the close-fitting was inevitable, I suppose. Once women’s clothing had been deconstructed about as far as it could be and still sit on a hanger, the pendulum was going to swing back the other way. So we are entering an Era of Reconstruction.

    Construction means structure;


    Her femininity was only a mask.

    —Jean Genet

    You might not notice “Madame,” a solitary woman, neutral, alone on a pilgrimage to find herself. Madame does not stay at home, for privately she does not exist. So she goes out, mingles with the crowd at the National Garden Festival in Gateshead, hoping for a glimpse of royalty, or travels to Cologne for Kameval, that time to be other than oneself, and to Lourdes, the residence of miracles.

    Madame is nondescript but can be described, is undistinguished yet can be distinguished from those around her: Madame with her blond curled coif, her glasses, her


    Most of the reasoning of women and poets is done in parables. Now think of a spider.

    —Denis Diderot

    If another and later species comes to reconstruct the human being from the evidence of our sentimental writings they will conclude it to have been a heart with testicles.

    —Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

    A woman cannot speak of her pleasure.

    —Jacques Lacan

    ARACHNE, OVID TELLS US in Book VI of The Metamorphoses, was a motherless girl “with neither family nor proper place” who angered Pallas Athena by daring to rival her at the loom. This presumptuous girl, whose “art alone had given her rewards,” knew

  • Masquerade

    IT IS A TRUISM by now, but not necessarily untrue, that the culture of the “Other” is usually appropriated to the dominant one, even when (or as) it is being appreciated. This is a particular problem in the museum, where cultural artifacts from those decreed “marginal” often take on the look of trophies, booty claimed in the cultural wars, and D.O.A. We—white, bourgeois, often as not male—look but don’t see. Don’t because we don’t want to. Don’t, some say, because we cannot: “Trying to find the other by defining otherness . . . is, as Zen says, like beating the moon with a pole or scratching an