Bodies in Pain: Towards a Masochistic Perception of Performance — The Work of Ron Athey and Bob Flanagan

(Markus Wessendorf, 1995)

The work of the performance artists Bob Flanagan and Ron Athey, as shown in New York in late 1994, subverts a perception theory that is still based on detachment and psychological identification. In Flanagan's exhibition Visiting Hours at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Athey's performance 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life at P.S. 122, both artists pierce, scar and mutilate themselfs (Flanagan on video, Athey in performance). Flanagan's and Athey's performances, however, represent a voluntarily demonstration of power over their own bodies, offering a kind of self-sacrifice which erases any possibility of a sadistic gaze and therefore lays a foundation for a masochistic perception of performance.

The increasing level of violence and pain in contemporary performance has become a highly controversial issue in recent theatrical discourse. The work of Belgian theatre artist Jan Fabre, for example, has raised questions about the "intrusion of the real" into the stage event, in particular his use of untrained animals and the infliction of pain on actors' bodies through electric shocks. Other contemporary theatre-productions (for example by Reza Abdoh or Richard Foreman) create painful effects by the use of ear-shattering sound effects or blinding spotlights directed towards the audience. I want to demonstrate, how the work of Ron Athey and Bob Flanagan suggests a theoretical concept of a perception of theatre and performance which would no longer be based on an aesthetic and detached contemplation — but which would be masochistic, tactile and corporeal, operating on the level of mimesis and contagion.

The introductory scene of Ron Athey's performance 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life, called "The Holy Woman," begins with a stage tableau. Athey is standing upstage right in a stiff, erect pose. Wearing a white gown with protruding fake breasts he resembles a nurse, though without hair. Two other men are clad in trousers, white shirts and ties and look like ministrants. Far downstage, in front of them, stands a naked woman, one arm dangling from a rope, her entire body pier­ced by numerous hypodermic needles. Small feathers attached to the needles give them an arrow-like quality. This female Saint Sebastian doesn't change her position, but shivers visibly throughout the following sermon that Athey delivers in pentecostal fashion, until he finally pulls the needles out of her body, covers her in a red robe and carries her from the stage. In another scene titled "Working Class Hell," Athey, now dressed in a workman's outfit, wearing surgical gloves and using a scalpel, cuts patterns into the bare back of an Afro-American performer. During the procedure, which is based on an African tribal scarring custom, Athey cre­ates prints by blotting the blood with a series of paper towels. One by one his two assistants hang these prints on a clothes­line that stretches across the performance space and passes over the audience. Each performance night, Athey works on a different spot on the other performer's back, allowing earlier wounds to heal. In the last scene of the performance entitled "Dagger Wedding," Athey pierces the cheeks of three actresses with seven-inch hypodermic needles, before they — and the other participants of the show — start to perform a wild dance with Christmas balls which are attached to their bodies by fishing hooks ripped into their skin. At the end of the performance the stage-floor is sprinkled with blood. 

The performance of 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life in Minneapolis in March 1994 led to a public controversy after one spectator complained to the local health department. He feared that during the scene with the blood prints the audience had been subjected to the risk of H.I.V. This was denied by Athey, who claimed that the performer, whose back he cut, was not H.I.V.-positive. Nevertheless, the fact that the Walker Art Center had used $ 150 from the National Endowment for the Arts to show Athey's performance caused an uproar that finally made Congress decide to cut the N.E.A.'s budget for 1995 by two percent. 

Despite the condemnation of the performance by the Christian right and conservative politicians Athey's questioning of taboos of sex, pain and the body can no longer be regarded as a marginal and singular phenomenon. If 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life belongs to a tradition of masochism in performance, which can be traced back to Chris Burden and Gina Pane more than two decades ago, Athey's performance differs from the more solitary work of his prede­cessors by its appeal to an alternative life-style, one affirming consensual sadomasochism and the endurance of pain as means of a Foucauldian aesthetic of the self. Since the 1960's there has been a paradigmatic shift regarding the overall cultural acceptance of sadomasochism. The Eulenspiegel Society in New York, for example, formed in 1971 as a masochists' rights group of people with problems of sexual orientation, has tripled its membership between 1989 and 1994, primarily attracting new members curious in exploring other sexual dimensions. In the latest edition of the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — a handbook for mental-health — sadomasochistic fantasies or behavior are no longer categorized as "pathological." In recent years, sadomasochism has developed into a major trend in fashion and popular culture (from Gianni Versace's bondage getups to Madonna's video-clips and Garry Marshall's Hollywood-comedy Exit to Eden).[1] In addition, piercing and tattooing have become the badge of a large urban sub-culture in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

Ron Athey's performance work originated out of the context of Modern Primitivism and the gay community of Los Angeles. In opposition to the endurance acts of earlier performance artists Athey tries to celebrate the infliction of pain as a communal event. In terms of ritual, community and theatricality, his work stands much closer to that of the Living Theatre and the Performance Group than to the solo acts of most performers working within the masochist performance tradition. Indeed, Athey originally showed his performances in clubs, not in established performance spaces. Athey himself describes his "theatre of pain" as a physical and dynamic altering of the body; as the attempt "to balance complicated inner-city life" by a "more organic aesthetic."[2] Mark Russel, the artistic director of P.S. 122, refers to Athey's 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life as "a rite of passage, a cleansing trial that is, in the end, life affirming."[3] Athey's open references to his pentecostal upbringing in the sermons and his use of Christian symbolism in 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life such as the weaving of a crown of thorns by inserting needles into his forehead, and the Saint Sebastian tableau also align him with another cult of pain which Kaja Silverman refers to as Christian Masochism: 

In this particular subspecies of moral masochism there would thus seem to be a strong heterocosmic impulse - the desire to remake the world in another image altogether, to forge a different cultural order. The exemplary Christian masochist also seeks to remake him or herself according to the model of the suffering Christ, the very picture of earthly divestiture and loss. Insofar as such an identification implies the complete and utter ne­gation of all phallic values, Christian masochism has radically emasculating implications, and is in its purest forms intrinsically incompatible with the pretensions of masculinity.[4]

But even if Athey uses Christian symbolism in 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life and his preceding production Martyrs & Saints, this symbolism is simply a quotation of, and not a subscription to the Christian religion. Athey, who was trained as a pentecostal minister, doesn't perform his acts as motivated by Christian belief, but by his desire for suffering as a goal in itself. Elaine Scarry has stressed that the voluntary infliction of pain on one's own body is not necessarily:

an act of denying the body, [...] but a way of so emphasizing the body that the contents of the world are cancelled and the path is clear for the entry of an unworldly, contentless force. It is in part this world-ridding, path-clearing logic that explains the obsessive pres­ence of pain in the rituals of large, widely shared religions as well as in the imagery of in­tensely private visions [...].[5]

While Christian masochism still considers the experience of pain as a via negativa to achieve a higher level of spirituality, Athey's personal obsession is the radical affirmation of pain as both the medium and the final state of transcendence. In this way, Athey shares a vision with other artists who try to align performance with masochism. The Italian performer Romeo Castellucci wants to experience "[p]ain as theatre and not the reverse. Pain as [an] incredible freedom plan."[6] For Castellucci, the basic "guilt" of the actor of representing the patriarchal order of the author-god on stage can only be expiated by a sacrifice; a masochistic performance-act which destroys "[t]he image of the father in the son," abolishes the masculine gender and terminates the father's law by a "giving over to the mother" and a rebirth "from/of the feminine gender."[7] Only the woman can punish "the father in the shape of the son."[8] While Castellucci appears to take Sacher-Masoch's association of the submissive role with the male and the dominant role with the female gender as essential givens, these identifications are in a constant state of flux in Ron Athey's theatricalization of gay masochism. In 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life, Athey enacts both roles of son and mother: not only does he inflict pain on his own body, but in his relation to the other male and female performers on stage Athey also represents the dominant and healing mother, particularly when he is dressed up as the "holy woman." 

The scene entitled "Working Class Hell" demonstrates, how 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life subverts any paternal order. Athey's script refers to the chair on stage, where the scarification happens, as a "human printing press." 

ENTER two FACTORY WORKERS. They de-drag DIVINITY, then strap him into HUMAN PRINTING PRESS, his back to the audience. SCAR TECHNICIAN stands above HUMAN PRINTING PRESS on a platform, washes his back, then begins cut­ting an African scarification pattern into his back with a scalpel. TECHNICIAN takes a stack of papers and makes art prints. FACTORY WORKERS are alternately given the prints to hang on the three drying lines, operated by a pulley system, leading from the PRINTING PRESS to various points at the back and side walls.[9]

The scene of the human printing press resembles the machine in Franz Kafka's short story The Penal Colony that also uses the human body literally as printing material. In Kafka's story this machine is used to punish the delinquents of the colony by writing the verdict upon their bodies with a harrow, a verdict that has not been revealed to them before the execution and simply spells out the rule that has been broken. Kafka's machine can be understood as a metaphor for the underlying process of civilization, which for Nietzsche consists in the turning of the body into a living memory by a painful initiation into the law. Nietzsche claims that through the painful marking of the body the human being is put into a debtor position in relation to society. Every transgression of the law therefore must be payed back by suffering, even if pain is acknowl­edged to escape the order of exchange.[10] The law in Kafka's story is represented by the former commandant, who is also the "soldier, judge, mechanic, chemist and draughtsman"[11] of the machine of socialization. After the verdict has been bodily inscribed and the delinquent deciphers the inscription with his wounds, he is supposed to be finally pierced through by the harrow and cast into a pit.

The "Working Class Hell"-scene in Athey's performance can be interpreted as a rever­sal of the paternal order, condensed in the metaphor of the machine in Kafka's story. If we follow Gilles Deleuze's characterization of sadism as institutional and masochism as contractual,[12] we can argue that the machine of the penal colony embodies the underlying sadism of institu­tionalized political systems which inflict pain onto their subjects' bodies against their will, while the physical suffering in Athey's performance is based on a mutual agreement between the partners and therefore masochistic. If the inscription of the verdict in Kafka's story refers to the rule which has been broken, the scarring patterns Athey cuts into his co-performer's back don't relate to the institutional regulations of a community. Although these patterns have been adapted from the context of the sign systems of African tribal customs, Athey empties the contextual meaning of these signs. Like tattoos, the patterns are memorials of a painful ordeal undergone and not the inscription of a social order onto the body. The powerlessness of the subject-delinquent as described by Kafka is turned into sovereignty in Athey's performance by the willful acceptance to endure pain, by "changing what [subjects] do have power over: their own bodies."[13] In opposition to Kafka's machine that can only consolidate the turn of the sub­jected body into a living memory by finally killing it, the violation of body integrity in Athey's performance is a life-affirming gesture. The performer reverses his debtor-position to society by an "anticipation sacrifice,"[14] by his subjection to the law's penalties in advance and therefore gaining the right to enjoy pleasures previously forbidden.  

In fall 1994 the self-acclaimed "supermasochist" Bob Flanagan[15] came to the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Sheree Rose, Flanagan's partner and dominatrix, had designed the show which was called Visiting Hours and which had been exhibited one year before in Santa Monica. Flanagan, who is not only a songwriter and a poet, but has also extensively performed his acts in clubs, can be visited in a hospital-bed during the opening hours of the exhibition. Flanagan's autobiographic work deals with his life-long affliction of cystic fibrosis, a painful sickness usually leading to an early death. Flanagan has predominantly survived CF so far by a radical affirmation of pain and his turning the experience into art. In a small hospital room which has been rebuilt in the middle of the exhibition space and which is equipped with all the medical tools necessary for Flanagan's treatment, visitors can talk with him, but also watch him being fed and getting injections. Along with children's toys with imprinted S/M-insigniae (black leather masks, whips) and the text of a manifesto that runs along the walls, there is also an installation of several TV-monitors in the shape of a crucified body. On the monitors, different videotapes can be seen which recreate a new body consisting of Flanagan's body-parts, but also those of film and animated characters. The monitors also display Flana­gan's masochistic practices, including his sewing up his lips and fixing his penis to a wooden plank with a screw.

Like Athey's 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life, Flanagan's Visiting Hours deals with issues of sickness, pain and the daily confrontation of death. While Athey's performance refers partly to the iconography of the gay leather scene, Flanagan's exhibition deals with his involvement in a heterosexual masochistic relationship, which follows closely the pattern of Leopold Sacher-Masoch's famous contract with his mistress Wanda von Dunajew. While Athey's work is a scripted theatrical event that unrolls within a given frame of time and space, the program of Flanagan's Visiting Hours is dictated by the demands of his sickness. Unlike Athey, who both directs and acts in his performances, Flanagan is surrounded by an environment that has been created by his dominatrix and life partner, who is otherwise absent from the scene. While pain in Athey's work is inflicted onto the body by recourse to ritualistic practices, the ritual of medical treatment in Flanagan's exhibition is a sterile and desacralized routine. In opposition to Athey, who stresses the communality of shared suffering, Flanagan's dealing with pain is the conse­quence of an ideosyncratic and exclusively personal choice. Despite the differences between the works of Athey and Flanagan, both performers share common attitudes that distinguish them from former masochist performers. Both make use of the Christian iconography of suffering, affirming pain in a joyful way, and depending on spectators as witnesses to their experience of pain. This experience, although at the core of their work, nevertheless cannot be shared with the audience. As Scarry has noted, physical pain can only be grasped in negative terms; it does not only destroy language and refuse any referential content, it is also character­ized by its unsharability, marking the "absolute split between one's sense of one's own reality and the reality of other persons."[16] As the consequence of the total evanescence of pain, the artists try to objectify their experience by other means of expression, Flanagan by a docu­mentation of his illness through photographs, letters and other autobiographical materials, as Athey by his recourse to theatrical rituals. In both cases the spectator is excluded from the experience of pain in which the performers are so evidently absorbed. Flanagan and Athey refuse to suffer for the pleasure of the spectator, to become a mere object and victim of a supposedly sadistic gaze. The spectator is confronted with a drastic violent action, but the super-realism of the event undermines his ability for aesthetic contemplation. In Athey's and Flanagan's performances, the penetration of the surface of the human body with a blade or a needle concentrates all the spectator's attention onto the cutting spot and erases the possibility for a distanced perception. The identification with the suffering body operates on a purely mimetic level where the spectator doesn't find him- or herself in a powerful position to master the stage event psychologically, or, as the performance artist Rachel Rosenthal has remarked: 

In performance art, the audience, from its role as sadist, subtly becomes the victim. It is forced to endure the artist's plight empathetically, or examine its own responses of vo­yeurism and pleasure, or smugness and superiority. [...] In any case, the performer holds the reins. [...] The audience also usually 'gives up' before the artist.[17]

Many theoreticians (Freud, Reik, Deleuze, etc.) have stressed the basic theatricality of masochism. But this theatrical characteristic only refers to one aspect of the phenomenon. We can distinguish three different levels of masochism, which I want to call primary, secondary and tertiary masochism, in modification of Freud's distinction between erotogenic, feminine and moral masochism. In his essay on The Economic Problem of Masochism[18] Freud defined three forms of masochism by relating them to his concepts of the death instinct, female sexuality, and unconscious guilt. Freud defined masochism overall as the complementary dark side of sadism which he favoured as a life-affirming force. Without going into a detailed analysis of Freud's concept, I will propose a redefinition of his terms in relation to performance. This attempt is motivated by two different critical readings of Freud's theories in regard to masochism. As Gilles Deleuze has shown, the sadist and the masochist never form a symmetrical couple. The masochist must persuade someone, who is not by inclination a sadist, into treating him like a slave, while the sadist takes pleasure in tormenting a victim who does not enjoy pain him- or herself (this implies that the consensual practices of so-called sadomasochism are basically masochistic in character). Leo Bersani, on the other hand, bases his theory on Freud's inability to explain the fact that we enjoy "pleasure in pain,"[19] that sexuality is not only "characterized by the simultaneous production of pleasure and unpleasurable tension," but that also "the pleasur­able unpleasurable tension of sexual stimulation seeks not to be released, but to be in­creased."[20] Bersani argues that this pleasure of the unpleasurable is a survival strategy of the psychic apparatus to resist shattering sexual impulses which would impede the development of ego-structures. Bersani therefore comes to the conclusion that sexuality is ontologically masochistic. 

Primary masochism, in Bersani's sense, can be understood as the experience of pleasure in pain on the most elementary level, as the binding of those stimuli that exceed the body's normal range of sensation. Primary masochism can also be related to perception in general, Deleuzian "suffering of effects" that other bodies or objects have "on the soft and fluid parts of our own body."[21] This pre-symbolic level of perception can be said to operate by mimetic contagion, comparable to the "tactility of a hit between the eyes." Referring to Walter Benjamin’s concept of mimesis, Michael Taussig has characterized visual perception as predominantly tactile: "tactility is paramount [and] the optical dissolving [...] into touch and a certain thickness," which implies "both visual replication and material transfer."[22] It is the substan­tial connection between the object and the perceiver which is the primary modus operandi by which the spectator experiences acts of mutilation, scarring or the piercing of the body of the performer. 

Secondary masochism is characterized by the staging of fantasies that involve humilia­tion and submission. Secondary masochism represents the extroverted and theatrical aspect of masochism and can be regarded as "a kind of melodramatic version of the constitution of sexuality itself, [...] its making visible the ontological grounds of the sexual."[23] The masochist externalizes his most intimate desires by turning them into negotiated play-scripts, role-playing and masks. Secondary masochism operates on the level of representation, and aims at the destruction of the ego as a social construct, which explains the need for an audience. The spectator can share the pleasurable unpleasure which is specific for this aspect of masochism: the delay and suspense of a satisfying discharge of libidinal tension. The pleasurable unpleas­ure of secondary masochism does not bring about acts of physical violence, which would exclude the spectator from the event by the very unshareability of pain.

Tertiary masochism can be defined by what Freud has written about moral masochism: "The suffering itself is what matters."[24] Here pain is really inflicted onto the human body. By its willful endurance the performer does not only aim to achieve an Artaudian "body without organs," a total erasure of language, consciousness and psychological content, but also the de­struction of the existing world-order as represented by the super-ego, the paternal law, and the repressive constraints of society. Tertiary masochism is concerned with the Sublime and resembles the experience of the mystic and the ascetic. Characterized by introversion and solitariness the only stage of tertiary masochism is the inside of the performer's body, who does not need an audience for the completion of his experience. The experience itself cannot be communicated towards an audience because it negates representation. Only the intersec­tion of the blade and the surface of the body, and perhaps also the sounds and cries of the suffering person can be perceived. While tertiary masochism is intended to destroy the imagi­nation of the performer, the same does not hold true for the spectator, who cannot identify with the performer by lack of psychological content. Left with mere indications of an internal scene, the spectator can only reconstruct the physical situation of the performer in his own imagination and thus experience his own fears of bodily violation. 

These three aspects of masochism, although they cannot be easily separated, appear in a different constellation in each performance. The attempt, for example, to express the solitary experience of tertiary masochism within the representational and theatrical frame of the secondary one, is doomed to fail from the very beginning. This explains, why Ron Athey's performance, which celebrates the idea of theatre as a communion by its very focus on the heterogenous experience of pain, does not only exclude the audience  from the stage event, but highlights the fundamental differences between actors and spectators, an essential and un­bridgeable gap between human beings.  

What is finally the position of the spectator in regard to performance work that is based on a masochistic contract? Freud has suggested that the sexual excitement is always aroused by the identification with the suffering object. As we can see, the spectator in Athey's and Flana­gan's work is clearly not in a position of mastership or the sadistic gaze. The spectator, how­ever, cannot identify with a masochist performer either, who evidently undergoes the infliction of pain onto his body willfully and with affirmation. Kaja Silverman has claimed that the spectator's attention is focused on the suffering position because he or she experiences the subjugation of the victim "as a pleasurable repetition of his/her own history"[25] of subjectification, which means the painful initiation into the symbolic order. The spectator of Athey's or Flanagan's work cannot identify with the suffering position of the performer because the intentional acceptance of this position subverts the symbolic order. It is the excessive pleasure in pain of the performer that puts the spectator in a passive position of primary masochism, flooded with shattering stimuli that he or she is unable to control. 


[1] See Melinda Blau. "Ordinary People. S&M Culture Goes Mainstream." New York, November 28, 1994, 40-1.

[2] Ron Athey. "Blood, Boots and White Weddings." L.A. Weekly, July 8-14, 1994, 24.

[3] Quoted in: Ibid. 

[4] Kaja Silverman. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York; London: Routledge, 1992, 199. 

[5] Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, 34.

[6] Romeo Castellucci. "Gewalt als Selbstauslöschung/Violence as Auto-spoliation." Theaterschrift 3: Border Violations, 76. 

[7] Ibid., 80. 

[8] Ibid.

[9] Athey. "Blood, Boots and White Weddings."

[10] See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, 190-1.

[11] Franz Kafka. "The Penal Colony." Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: The Modern Library, 1993, 101.

[12] See Gilles Deleuze. "Coldness and Cruelty." In Masochism. New York: Zone Books, 1989, 134.

[13] V. Vale & Andrea Juno. "Introduction." Modern Primitives. San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1989, 4.

[14] Castellucci. "Violence as Auto-spoliation," 78. 

[15] See Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist. San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1993, 3: "In a bizarro, alternative universe kind of way, I sort of resemble Superman."

[16] Scarry. The Body in Pain, 4.

[17] Rachel Rosenthal. "Performance and the Masochist Tradition." High Performance, Winter 1981-2, 24.

[18] Sigmund Freud. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Vol. XIX. Trans. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1961, 159-170.

[19] Ibid., 161.

[20] Leo Bersani. The Freudian Body. Psychoanalysis and Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, 34.

[21] Gilles. Deleuze. Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Zone Books, 1990, 146-7.

[22] Michael Taussig. The Nervous System. New York; London: Routledge, 1992, 144-6.

[23] Bersani. The Freudian Body, 41.

[24] Freud. "The Economic Problem of Masochism", 165.

[25] Kaja Silverman. "Masochism and Subjectivity." Framework, 1980, no. 12, 5.