PRINT December 1993


Watching someone drive a nail through his penis isn’t usually my idea of a compelling art experience, but Bob Flanagan is something else. When Bob hammers that nail through his member while telling a joke or personal anecdote to his video camera, he’s trying less to shock than to make us reconsider the topography of desire, and the relationship between bodies and egos. In addition, he’s recounting the story of his life: known for over a decade as a poet and preeminent masochist, Flanagan, aged 40, has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that destroys most sufferers by adolescence. Taking these identities as a jumping-off point, Flanagan has created a body of art that’s autobiographical without being confessional, and that reflects on the complex cultural roots of his peculiar appetites.

Last winter, Flanagan’s Visiting Hours transformed a space at the Santa Monica Museum of Art into a pediatric clinic, replete with waiting-room furniture, potted plants, and copies of Highlights for Children magazine. Flanagan himself was the patient, ensconced in a hospital room set up in the middle of the gallery. But the clinical setting was neither sterile nor impersonal: an anatomical doll dripped simulated mucus and sperm; a chest X-ray portrayed cloudy lungs and pierced nipples; pictures of Houdini and cartoon pigs appeared on the walls. The climax was a wall of 1,400 wooden alphabet blocks, each painstakingly altered so that the initials “SM” and “CF” repeated intermittently between illustrations of medical equipment, household items like glue guns and needles, as well as tit clamps and butt plugs.

Bouncing off these objects, a poemlike text wrapped around the gallery walls enumerated reasons for the artist’s masochism, from encounters with doctors, and with nuns back at school, to fantasies of discipline and torture. A video installation expanded on these allusions with bondage scenes culled from cartoons and Hollywood films. The way Flanagan’s art jacks into related themes at multiple ports of entry mimics the wayward libidinal currents that it surveys. Perhaps its most disconcerting element is the underlying sense that desire and disease share a similar principle of contagion: like an epidemiologist’s charts, Visiting Hours mapped out a pattern of infection, one that seemed to embrace much of Western culture.

In Bob Flanagan’s Sick, 1991 (made with Sheree Rose, like Visiting Hours), which was installed in an adjoining space, seven monitors hang in the form of a crucified figure. On them appear shifting images of the appropriate body part, spryly juxtaposed with Christian iconography, and scenes from bondage-themed movies like Mutiny on the Bounty and from Flanagan’s own self-mortifying performances. Masochistic impulses, clearly, inflect a range of “acceptable” behaviors. Yet the Frankenstein composite constructed here is a body of independent parts, with each part enduring separate sensations (feet being whipped, face dunked, penis dripped with wax, etc.). Rather than prompting us to ask, shrinklike, what these desires mean, Flanagan leads us to reflect on how and where their myriad vectors connect.

Flanagan fractures the unity of the self through the lens of sexual desire, portraying an erotic subject who is unstable, propulsive, and multiple. His model of desiring plugs into the tangled network of familial, cultural, and political arteries that constitute the social body. At the same time, his imagery pushes one to consider how one’s bodily awareness is shaped by everything from fashion photos to a medical establishment that encourages passivity and ignorance.

While making us rethink these socially condoned forms of masochism, as well as our complacent submission to authority, Flanagan underscores both the body’s frailty and its amazing resilience. During the six-week run of Visiting Hours, he was periodically pulled out of his bed and hoisted up to the rafters by a rope and pulley. Dangling by his feet, his thin pale frame rose above his room like a ghostly jack-in-the-box, or a departing soul. It was an eerily lyrical image, intimating that the body’s crude physicality and its poetry aren’t mutually exclusive.

Blurring the well-worn boundary between art and life, Visiting Hours created a truly interactive work: many visitors ended up chatting by the artist’s sickbed, trading stories of illness and disease. Ironically, by subverting the clinical aura of the exhibition space Flanagan is able to remind us of art’s potentially therapeutic side effects. His work implies that it’s possible to reclaim the perverse bodies that culture has stolen from us, once we forego our position as anonymous voyeurs. The force of this argument, its ability to shake you loose from your moorings, springs from the poetry, unnerving wit, and singular poignance of his art.

Ralph Rugoff is a writer and curator who lives in Los Angeles where he reviews regularly for Artforum.