It's a bleeding liberty

Audiences addicted to ER don't faint at the sight of blood. Spill it on stage, though, and people become very upset. So is radical performance artist Franko B creating beautiful images or is he merely out to shock?

The "Fierce" festival of British performance art is still one month away, but the gnashing of tabloid teeth is growing steadily louder. Violent movies, graphic coverage of war zones on the news, and hospital dramas have all ensured that - willing or not - the public is acquainted with depictions of bleeding bodies. But even so, one particular act at the festival is stirring certain papers into a frenzy.

The "Fierce" festival of British performance art is still one month away, but the gnashing of tabloid teeth is growing steadily louder. Violent movies, graphic coverage of war zones on the news, and hospital dramas have all ensured that - willing or not - the public is acquainted with depictions of bleeding bodies. But even so, one particular act at the festival is stirring certain papers into a frenzy.

"Not only is it in bad taste but a total waste of money," thundered Birmingham's Sunday Mercury at the month's start, while the Sunday People also expressed disapproval that lottery-funded arts bodies were backing such a display. In echoes of their responses to the 1997 Sensation exhibition, Tracey Emin's bed, or Damien Hirst's sheep, tabloid journalists have found another rich artistic seam for mining the eternally conservative taxpayer's outrage.

Franko B, the cause of this paradoxically titillatory flurry, is an arresting presence in the flesh. Smiling as he meets me, he presents a bottom row of flashing metallic teeth, which combined with the swirl of tattoos across his shaved head and on what I can see of his arms, makes the diminutive Italian look like a perfect candidate for a James Bond baddie.

When he performs next month, all these tattoos will be completely covered by a thick layer of white make-up spread over his naked body. So far, so unexceptional - but the element of his act, I Miss You!, which stirs up the tabloids is the fact that he will be bleeding from his arms as he parades up and down a catwalk, eventually leaving so much blood on the ground that he will need medical assistance to recover after the display.

The issue of why this is such a strong and potentially distressing image - be you a virtuous lottery ticket buyer, or a faint-hearted Islington liberal - raises interesting questions both about attitudes to blood, and about the chemistry between live performers and their audiences. A body bleeding from serious wounds should always be shocking, but the combined forces of convincingly simulated gore in Schwarzenegger-style movies and genuine injuries in increasingly unsparing news reports have led inevitably to viewers' desensitisation.

But just as fleeting glimpses of the naked bodies of both Nicole Kidman and Kathleen Turner in London theatres have created more excitement than filmed nudity, and as Jane Horrocks's performance as Lady Macbeth in Mark Rylance's production was dominated by her decision to urinate on stage, so reactions to Franko B's performance tell us about the continuing force that a naked body and its functions will exert on the most sophisticated of audiences when they are confined in the same space. Instinct kicks in, causing a more disturbing engagement with this mirror-image of ourselves

"I'm obsessed with presenting something in its purest state," explains Franko B, "and if you're going to be naked you do it with honesty." Elaborating on his motives, he continues: "My work is not about convincing people, it's about creating a beautiful image. Tabloids take advantage of fear, and sometimes implement it, but I don't have to engage with what is normal and what is not - I don't force people to come and see me. The silly thing is that through warning people off, the tabloids advertise me."

It is one of Franko B's strengths that he refuses to glamorise his art with what he would call "bullshit" theories. For a man who says of his images, "I think the less one speaks, the better they are", he is extraordinarily eloquent about the lack of masochism involved in the "beauty" of wounding his body, waving his hands enthusiastically as he talks about encouraging audiences to come to terms with their notions of the unbearable.

He began his performances in hard-core gay-clubs such as the Torture Garden and Fist, but soon attracted attention, leading to performances at the Institute of Contemporary Arts' radical Live Art during the autumn and spring of 1995 and 1996. Last year he appeared on The South Bank Show, in a programme introduced by Melvyn Bragg as being about "blood, flesh, and pain", alongside performers such as Ron Athey, who is HIV-positive and portrays Christ by having needles stuck into his skull to represent the crown of thorns, and Orlan, a woman who famously has undergone innumerable plastic-surgery operations without anaesthetic in order to be transformed according to depictions of beauty in the Western artistic canon.

For those Disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells representatives still reading, it is obvious that as well as coming from an artistic sub-culture that has been thriving for decades, Franko B latches on to traditions both in the visual arts and in the theatre. Think of po-faced cherubs collecting Christ's blood in little containers in one of the many Crucifixion scenes that are studded across Italian galleries; think of Francis Bacon's contorted tortured bodies; or Marc Quinn's head made out of his own blood for the Sensation exhibition. Then reflect on the gore of John Webster's revenge tragedies; remember the pulsing blood in Lorca's dramas; and recall some of Shakespeare's more extraordinary lines, such as "Put a tongue/ In every wound of Caesar", urging audiences towards the visceral and the surreal.

Blood is about humans at their most basic: it runs through birth, sexuality, and death; it has been the essence of powerful social forces such as the vampire myth, the taboos of menstruation, and now the fear of Aids; and can symbolise instincts as opposite as the impulse towards victory in battle and the urge towards self-mutilation.

Far from sanitising what Franko B does, this small selection of a plethora of historical examples shows how the skill of the artist can often provide a convenient screen, protecting the onlooker from the unpalatable multi-faceted reality of the bleeding body they frequently try to contemplate.

But while the power of Franko B's medium is unquestionable, the multi-dimensional interpretations open to onlookers mean that he is prey to negative readings. He protests: "Blood is one of the fluids inside me that gives me life, and in a way when I'm performing I feel I'm giving life. I grew up Catholic, and while I am an atheist, religion is a major influence on my work - I love churches, I love paintings of the Crucifixion. Whatever I do, I believe in it 100 per cent."

Franko B's work is most radical because it creates a tension between representation and reality that shocks people into wondering what art is. The aesthetics of his performances are focused. He refuses, for example, to cut himself on stage, but the fact is that people are having to confront notions of survival, cruelty and voyeurism in themselves as they watch a fellow human lose worrying amounts of blood.

"There is a moment in most works when you see an image that you are going to carry away with you - that is what most interests me," he explains. And as I walk away from his studio, I am unable to forget the picture of a man on all fours, gazing out fiercely through the dry ice as his blood spreads out on the floor around him.

'I Miss You!', Fierce festival, Birmingham, 26 May. (0121-244 8080)

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