Art that costs an arm and a leg: Jim Rose hammers nails into his flesh in the name of entertainment. Ron Athey pushes needles into his head in the name of performance art. Is there more to the art of mutilation than cheap thrills? Peter Guttridge reports

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When, at the Edinburgh Festival, Jim Rose pounds a screwdriver into his face with a hammer as part of the Jim Rose Circus, he's reviving a forgotten art form. The Amazing Mister Lifto, who hangs a seven-stone weight by a hook through his penis, then lifts it . . . well, that's something else again. Mutilating and abusing the body for the sake of art is becoming something of a phenomenon and Rose is, so to speak, at the cutting edge. Compared to the Tokyo Shock Boys, with their scorpion-sucking, fart-lighting, pulling-a-chair-across-the-floor-by-their- testicles antics, the Jim Rose Circus begins to look like a class act.

Last year's Rose show featured the human pincushion; this year they play American football with a chainsaw instead of a ball - 'It gives a new meaning to the term half-back,' Rose says. For the most part, the circus follows in the tradition of the American Ten in One 'thrill shows' which, right up to the Sixties, were part of every travelling circus and boardwalk funfair. 'The human blockhead - when I pound the nail up my nose - is a classic human marvel stunt from the Forties. I grew up next to state fairs where they always had this kind of thrill show. It's a very popular art form.'

The 'thrill shows' that Rose refers to were better known as freak-shows, and they were the kind of places where the Elephant Man was exhibited in the last century, where the 10 attractions would include armless and legless wonders, giants, dwarfs, fat ladies, bearded ladies, living skeletons, Siamese twins and the occasional pinhead. There is nobody in Rose's Circus with congenital malformations, although elsewhere in the Festival audiences laugh at Steady Eddy, the Australian comic with severe disabilities, telling racist and sexist jokes and gags about his cerebral palsy. ('I think we were laughing out of embarrassment,' says Liz Sweeney, one of a group of teenage girls leaving the sold-out show. 'And because it's amazing he could tell jokes at all in his condition.')

Tattooed men and women, and people, like Rose, able to push spikes up their noses or hammer nails into their flesh, were acceptable alternatives to 'freaks' in the old thrill shows. But these days, performers take their acts to ever more physically challenging extremes. Rose is particularly proud of the Amazing Mister Lifto who, he says, exercises his eleven pierced body parts like a weightlifter. 'With a hook through his nose, ear, tongue, nipples or penis, he's now able to lift these enormous weights.'

Tattooing and body piercing have passed into mainstream fashion as a sort of living art. Indeed, aficionados of body art - excuse me, 'corporeal modification' - are looking for something more extreme. Even more mutilation. They are turning to scarification (to create tribal markings) and branding (which gives third degree burns). According to the Face magazine, fashion's Next Big Thing may be minor amputation - a toe or two here, a little finger there.

Rona Lee, a performance artist who lectures on 'The Body' at Dartington College, tentatively suggests that body art is about recreating yourself. 'It's a hotly debated subject among academics. People are constructing themselves as they wish. When you paint the body, or tattoo it, perhaps you can open a doorway to other worlds. Piercing could be a metaphor for a desire to open up the body.'

Some performance artists make Damien Hirst's butchery of dead cows seem merely effete. There's a French performance artist, Orlan, who has turned her body into a work in progress via a series of plastic surgery operations, and an American artist who nails himself to a Volkswagen. Another, Mahmet Sanders, who is HIV positive, throws his body around the performance space, landing shudderingly on his skull or his genitalia, wrenching muscle and jarring bone.

Ron Athey, an ex-preacher, ex-junkie and now a Los Angeles performance artist, goes to even greater lengths. Athey's performances combine self-loathing with a hatred of religious shamanism. His recent show at the ICA in London was full of bloodletting and body piercing. He pushed thick needles into his head, and stabbed a row of over 20 syringes into his arm. One of his troupe wore a crown of thorns, another was pierced with arrows. When you consider that Athey, like Sanders, is HIV positive, you begin to wonder if this celebration of the unsafe is the hybrid offspring of our obsession with maintaining beautiful bodies and our self- censoring fear of the ravages of Aids.

The interest in mutilation seems to derive from aspects of gay and S & M culture, combined with a perversion of spirituality. Christian society, with its central image of a man crucified in agony and its endless roll-call of masochistic martyrs, has attracted more than its fair share of extremists. But the hair-shirt and self-flagellation of the Christian extremist is just one way the spiritually inclined of all religions have attempted to subdue the body to the spirit. Earlier this year, the Independent carried a report which quoted Warren, a 24-year-old body piercer who was progressing, in a 'long-term spiritual project', from branding himself to self- crucifixion. He was one of the New Primitives, a quasi-New Age movement centred around the fan club of the now- defunct Psychic TV, itself a spin-off of the 'seminal' Coum Transmissions, a British performance art group who achieved tabloid-fuelled notoriety in the 1970s.

For the New Primitives, pain has a spiritual purpose. 'When you experience intense pain, you gain knowledge and control of yourself,' Warren said. 'It's not self-mutilation. For me it's a rite of passage along the lines of Mayan blood-letting ceremonies.' Right. Sensibly, Warren was arranging for someone to look after his business while he was being crucified. 'My only concern is that after this crucifixion, where will it end? I mean, next thing I'll be taking my head off with a meat-cleaver. I don't want to be one of those performance artists who blow themselves apart on stage.'

Snuff performance art doesn't appear to have caught on - yet. Would it find an audience? It would be comforting to answer this question with a resounding 'no'. But when a performance artist in Prague lay on a table and gave her audience limitless permission to express themselves, she was, within hours, stripped, slashed and sexually assaulted; the performance ending with a hysterical art-lover holding a loaded gun to her forehead.

Jim Rose begins to seem quite tame by comparison. Rose has no trouble finding people wanting to take part in his shows - 'Every city I go to, like-minded monsters come to audition,' he says - and he claims the audience make his performers look relatively sane ('and no other circus anywhere performs to as many people around the world as we do').

His show in Edinburgh is packed each night. A sample of people leaving his show one night could not explain its appeal. On the whole, though, men enjoyed it more than women: it was 'a laugh', it was 'really exciting', it 'appealed to our worst instincts'. 'When you watch jugglers and stuff you're willing them not to drop the oranges,' said Hamish, a postman from Glasgow, 'but when it's chainsaws they're messing about with, there's a nasty part of you waiting for them to have an accident.'

And is it art or just cheap thrills? (Or even criminal? The wilder S & M excesses of the Jim Rose acts may be illegal if practised on a consenting adult in the privacy of your own home, as those convicted in 1990 for assault and unlawful wounding following Operation Spanner found to their cost. Their appeals were rejected last year.) 'Definitely not art,' says Emma, an aspiring actress. 'Art is when you can create something meaningful by your expertise. These people have learned how to do things there's no value in doing. When I say I'd give my right arm to be a famous actress, I'm speaking metaphorically. But I think to be famous some of these people would do it for real.'

(Photograph omitted)