Arts: Is it the world? Or is it me?

When an artist hammered nails into himself it used to be about politics. Now it's therapy.

In a recent performance, the Italian artist Franko B stood naked on stage, blood pouring from wounds inflicted on both arms, the hot, coagulating mass gathering by his feet. He remained with arms outstretched, in a beatific pose - his wounds evidently reminiscent of stigmata - for half an hour, before staggering off stage, near collapse from loss of blood. "I don't want to be a cheap Jesus," says Franko B, but it is hard not to feel some sort of empathetic pain for a man who is regularly prepared to go through this kind of ordeal.

Franko B and his contemporaries have been performing similar acts for many years, but it is only recently that they have become part of mainstream culture. Much of the shock value has disappeared, and consequently the meaning of the word "masochism", which is usually applied to much body art and is defined as "a form of perversion in which the sufferer derives pleasure from his own pain or humiliation", seems inadequate, especially considering how fashionable body-piercing has now become.

Where once artists would insist on the importance of a work's political meaning, recent efforts have become more personal. Performance art that looks gory, such as that of Franko B, may say something about the performer's personal state in the world, but the messages that it sends out to audiences have become more complex. "I don't want people to feel sorry for me," says Franko B. "It's not my intention to freak people out. I just want to create beautiful images and survive them, like life - make the bearable unbearable." It is natural for us to respond to the performances' strength in the light of the artists' physical suffering.

Ron Athey, a former Pentecostal preacher, has Aids, and his performances function as a form of cathartic release. Not surprisingly, he uses plenty of religious imagery. For a recent work, he pierced his head with a series of 14-in lumbar needles to create a crown of thorns. He has also been crucified, with meat hooks through his arms. Athey describes himself as "a fatalist with a lust for life", but he does not see his performance as masochism for its own sake.

"Some of the sado-masochistic techniques in my work are used as metaphor, and create a ritual by doing them. When I put an arrow through myself it is a metaphor for Saint Sebastian, and represents HIV-positive people."

"I was brought up to be ashamed of my body," says Franko B. "I use blood, urine and shit as a metaphor because that is what I am." In an era when technology may give the impression that the body is intellectually and physically redundant (as demonstrated by Stelarc's electronic body extensions), performance artists see the body not as an object to experiment on, but as a means of showing how vulnerable we have become. There is nothing new about this. The intention of 17th-century vanitas paintings, with their skulls and other emblems of mortality, was to remind viewers of the omnipresence of death.

Things have changed. In the heyday of performance art in the late Sixties and Seventies, however chaotic or violent, experimentation was almost more of an intellectual enquiry. Take Marina Abramovic's Rhythm (1974). She placed in front of her various instruments of pleasure and pain and invited her audience to do as they pleased over a six-hour period. What began innocently - gropes and prods - turned into an uncontrollable spectacle. Her clothes were ripped off, then her skin was cut with blades. A protective gang surrounded her when a loaded gun was put to her head.

Chris Burden's acts were similarly extreme. He had himself nailed to a VW Beetle, burnt and electrocuted. Most famously, in a piece called Shoot (1971), a friend shot him at point-blank range.

Self-mythologising was important to these artists, though it was often seen as macho posturing. No one did it better than the Viennese actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler. His sexually provocative and psychologically inflammatory acts were based around mutilation. He presented pictures of a bandaged stump, along with his supposedly dismembered penis. Most saw it as the perfect masochistic act. Which it would have been, had it been true - but his penis was neatly tucked inside his Y-fronts.

Today the most poignant performers deal with confessional subject matter, and use it to their advantage. The late Bob Flanagan, for example, a long-term cystic fibrosis sufferer, re-created a hospital room in which he would lie in bed, tell jokes and write stories for the visitors. It was his way of dealing with his impending death. Here was a sense of optimism that is lacking in, say, Orlan's relentless cosmetic surgery to remodel her face in the image of a variety of female icons. Flanagan had a hedonistic spirit that added greatly to his work.

In the same way, Franko B, Ron Athey and their contemporaries,are confessing their own lives, for their own ends. For Leopold von Sacher Masoch, from whom masochism takes its name, pain was most definitely a pleasurable luxury in which he could indulge, supported by wealth and privilege. But he was living in a dream world. Franko B is not. His actions may look like masochism, but they are instead just one of many types of therapy that are becoming increasingly common in our culture.

`Franko B' is to be published by Black Dog on 11 March, with signings by the artist. For more information, call 0171-485 4996.

The newly created Live Art Development Agency has information on forthcoming events in the UK (0171-247 3339).

Chris Burden's recent (non-body art) work will appear at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000) from 18 March

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone