Art: Art in their blood

`Body Art', in all its gory glory, will be on your screen this Sunday after a long wait. Judith Palmer considers whether the controversy is justified
A South Bank Show programme on "Body Art", long thought to have been sent to the knackers' yard, gets an unexpected reprieve this Sunday. Originally scheduled for 17 August 1997, the film sent LWT overlords into a headless panic, causing it to be pulled without warning and placed on "indefinite hold". (In its 20-year history, only one other South Bank Show episode has met with this ignominious fate: a still-unscreened documentary on the miners' strike made by Ken Loach).

Suddenly, with the departure of Simon Shaps as LWT Director of Programmes and the arrival in his place of Marcus Plantin, "Body Art" has sneaked back into the schedules. For a South Bank Show audience that has come to expect one-and-a-half hour specials on Elaine Paige, the Bee Gees and Michael Flatley, a programme on extreme visceral performance art may indeed come as a bit of a shock.

Dan Wiles, director of the "Body Art" programme, maintains that the South Bank Show has always catered to less-than-popular tastes. "We've covered very minority subjects like poetry, and even obscure figures like Seamus Heaney" cites Wiles, who also directed the Elaine Paige hagiography. For programme-makers who perceive a GCSE set-text winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature as obscure, "Body Art" is esoteric indeed.

The programme will receive no on-air promotion, comes with heavily worded warnings, and goes out at 11.25pm. Even so, the South Bank Show office is bracing itself for peals of enemy gunfire this week. Are their fears justified?

Exploring the work of contemporary artists who use their own blood-stained flesh as a living canvas, the programme features four unsettling performers (all showcased over the past few years by the ICA): Orlan from France, Ron Athey and Fakir Musafar from the US, and Franko B, an Italian living in London who was abused as a child and brought up by the Red Cross. Addressing AIDS, mortality, corporeal frailty, perceptions of pain and notions of love and beauty, their work is strong stuff.

"I will not feel guilty for finding these images beautiful", insists Franko, who stages heart-rending tableaux vivants, crouching abjectly clutching a blue hot water bottle, or standing arms outspread like the Sacred Heart, his naked body painted white, blood seeping from wounds (made off-stage) in his chest and arms.

A former Pentecostal preacher, HIV positive for more than 10 years, Ron Athey draws on apocalyptic imagery of suffering and redemption, needles, scalpels and hooks tearing the flesh in gruesomely martyred scenes which examine the meaning of the body in a diseased community.

"There was a soundtrack of car crashes, the dull thud of a heartbeat and on top of that a whining dentist's drill," remembers Dan Wiles who had to go to Lyon to shoot Athey's performance, since it could not legally be performed in Britain. "It was dark and smoky and hot. I thought I was going to faint. I said to my assistant `we're in hell here'. I had to clutch her arm so hard during the performance she had bruises the next day. I was absolutely mesmerised. Horrified really."

Perhaps depictions of hell would seem less out of place in a less secular age. Through over-familiarity, we have become almost immune to the horrors of Renaissance and Baroque Judeo-Christian iconography - the fire and torment, the nails and thorns, eyes on plates and severed breasts. How sick a case was Matthias Grunewald to paint that suppurating, swollen, gangrenous crucifixion on the Isenheim Altarpiece? What would today's art critics make of Michelangelo's decision to paint his self-portrait on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as the flayed skin of St Bartholomew?

"Art historians look at this horrific stuff all the time and we're anaesthetised to it," agrees Dr Sarah Wilson, lecturer in 20th-century art history at the Courtauld Institute. "We look at a Rubens Deposition of Christ and we no longer see the suffering, we only notice the wonderful flesh tones, a red cape, warm light."

For Ron Athey and Franko B, grief-wracked Pietas or arrow-torn St Sebastians are still potent, emotionally charged images. Before you shout blasphemy, consider these artists' ability to breathe terrifying life back into images worn thin and impotent through over-use.

"Today the body has become the preserve of medical professionals," considers Jonathan Sawday, author of The Body Emblazoned, a study of dissection and art in Renaissance culture. "These artists are throwing the body back in our faces and asking who it belongs to."

In 16th and 17th century England, dissection demonstrations at Surgeons Hall were great public occasions. Tickets were sold, flutes were played and dinner served afterwards. Not that different to an Orlan performance really. Remodelling her face through plastic surgery, Orlan transmits her elaborately staged operations via satellite link to galleries worldwide. Fully conscious, under local anaesthetic, Orlan provides her own live commentary as her face is literally peeled back. Afterwards she sells her body in cellulite-stuffed reliquaries (Madonna has one).

More interested in pseudo-anthropological than artistic context, the programme strangely ignores 40 years of performance precedent: Chris Burden nailing himself to a Volkswagen, Gina Pane slashing her arms with roses and gargling with glass, Marina Abramovic hacking off her hair and lying unconscious in a ring of flames.

In a sanitised society where death and disease are our greatest taboos, it's not surprising that we fear art which acts as a memento mori.

"The whole goal of our culture seems to be never to feel any sensation and to minimise any sensation you do feel," says Fakir Musafar, father of the Modern Primitive Movement, guru to branders, piercers and tattooees everywhere.

Although Melvyn Bragg has supported the programme throughout its unhappy passage, "Body Art" has nevertheless been re-cut three times in an attempt to make it more palatable. Distanced, tense and endlessly justifying, "Body Art" is a programme ill at ease with itself. Cultural commentators are spliced in at every juncture, reassuring audiences "this is art" really. Interviews with the artists meanwhile, or extracts from their work, are kept to a minimum. The programme colludes in that very impulse to minimise sensation.

"If art does not ask questions or upset people if becomes like wallpaper," considers Franko B. "Wallpaper may be useful to some people but personally, I choose not to have it."

"Body Art", South Bank Show, ITV, Sunday 5 April, 11.25pm.