Otto Muehl with Günter Brus, 1. Total Action. Ornament is a crime’ / Material Action No.26 (June 2, 1966). Colour photographs taken by Ludwig Hoffenreich. Karlheinz and Renate Hein.


Chris Burden, Shoot (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, California. Photograph taken by Alfred Lutjeans. Courtesy of Chris Burden.


Stuart Brisley, Arbeit Macht Frei (1973). Film, 16 mm, 20 minutes, black & white and colour. Courtesy of Stuart Brisley.


Stuart Brisley, Moments of Decision/Indecision (Warsaw, 1975). Black and white photographs taken by Leslie Haslam. Tate Collection.


Bob Flanagan, Bob Flanagan’s Sick (1991). Video monitors playing Flanagan and Sheree Rose’s S/M performances, wood, chairs, hardware. Exhibited at The New Museum, New York in 1994. Estate of Bob Flanagan.


Ron Athey Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994). Photographs and footage from the performance at P.S.122, New York. Courtesy of Ron Athey.


Yang Zhichao, Iron (2000). Performance photographs. 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.


Petr Pavlensky, Carcass (2013). Documentation from May 3, 2013 at the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Petr Pavlensky.

Object and Subject: the suffering male body in performance art

Philomena Epps

Throughout art history, the subjectivity of the male body has been explored through the lens of power, politics and history. The notion of the male body as an emblem of the state notably reoccurs. This body is representative of the patriarchal kingdom, sent to war as a form of sacrifice, and thus also holds the subversive potential to become an interesting site for social rupture and protest. The following representations are indicative of artistic gestures that aim to counter the notions of political subjection through expressions of resistance and activism. It also seemed prudent to include performances that had caused particular controversy and outrage in their contemporary reception. The artists depict how the psychological impacts of war - either combative war, like in Vietnam, or disputations framed within the social, such as the AIDS crisis - are brought to bear in performative situations of visceral embodiment and physicality. A sense of anxiety about alienation, or even annihilation, is palpable in performances that use the human body to expose complicated psychical attitudes towards death and suffering. By restraining the body, or punishing and torturing it, how does the individual blur the boundaries between being an autonomous subject and representing themselves an object of their wider cultural sphere?

1960s: The Vienna Actionists

The Actionists can be perceived as the founders of this type of artwork Although they were directly responding to the post-war situation in Germany and Austria, their portrayal of the body as material object with symbolic potential has inspired performance and body art ever since. The brutal treatment of the human body in battles, death camps and barbarous medical experiments during the two world wars informed the Viennese Actionists' symbolic laughter of slaughter, torture, operation and sacrifice.1 Their staged performances often took place in private and were documented by film or photography. The artists used an arsenal of destructive materials in order to simulate actions of masochism, violence and psychological terror. The uncompromising themes of their work also exploited the recesses of social taboo; defecation, urination, birth and penetration were all readily depicted. These acts of ritual, mutilation and spectacle were used as a means to explore the vulnerability of the body and to alleviate certain realities that they believed had been psychically repressed by society.

1970s: Chris Burden & Stuart Brisley

The performances by Chris Burden and Stuart Brisley represent Anglo-American responses to contemporary warfare and barbarity. Their performances of bodily pain were used as a strategy to imprint the psychic sufferings of collective subjects onto a visual and social sphere. As Elaine Scarry has theorised, physical pain has no voice, "the difficulty of expressing physical pain...[is due to] the political and perceptual complications that arise", however, "when it at last finds a voice, it begins to tell a story".2 Suffering was a metaphor through which these artists could address the volatile political issues that affected society throughout 1970's. They were part of a particularly unbalanced world, and felt alienated and objectified by the unsettling tragedies of warfare. Their embodiment in these works is uncanny, they are simultaneously autonomous and at the mercy of their self-imposed situation. In Burden's Shoot (1971), the masochistic negotiation between the artist, his shooter and audience was an articulation of the myths of contractual collapse between the individual and the state during America's intervention in Vietnam. Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm with a .22 calibre rifle, claiming that all those in the gallery were implicated in this act of violence by their failure to intervene. The use of the body-as-metonym united all individuals, performer or spectator, into one collective social entity.3 Brisley's claustrophobic performances of self-punishment and sensory deprivation also elucidate this constant shift between subjectivity and incarceration. His film, Arbeit Macht Frei (1973), is a simulation of his 1972 performance 'And For Today...Nothing' at the Goethe Institute. The title capitalises on the Nazi slogan used in concentration camps. Brisley elucidates that the work was "an analogous representation of the objection to genocide".4 He felt the revelation of the atrocities during WW2 had still not penetrated cultural consciousness. Scenes of vomiting stood for visceral representations of bodily rejection, and his perpetual immersion in water recalls waterboarding torture methods. This sense of claustrophobia and adversity was echoed in the six-day performance, Moments of Decision and Indecision (1975), at Galeria Teatra Studio in Warsaw. Each day Brisley would drench himself in paint to the point of complete sensory deprivation (he even notes going blind at one point) and would try and climb up the walls. The futility of his actions, and the setting of the performance within the Iron Curtain, was evocative of the individual's struggle for autonomy within a closed political system.

1990s - Bob Flanagan and Ron Athey

Bob Flanagan and Ron Athey have explored the association between the male body in pain with the religious connotations of suffering. They used martyrdom as a means to expose human life in its most carnal and essential state, exploring transgression as transcendence. Athey is HIV positive and Flanagan, who died in 1996, suffered from cystic fibrosis. In 1994, Bob Flanagan installed Bob Flanagan's Sick at his 'Visiting Hours' show at the New Museum in New York. The cruciform structure converged the emblem of Christ on the cross with the fetishistic trappings of S/M materials and equipment. The video monitors show Flanagan, with the help of his partner Sheree Rose, performing his tortured and masturbatory body in different states of pain. The contradiction between the vulnerability of the body on display and a magnified state of morbid ecstasy is at tandem in the crucifixion metaphor. Flanagan has discussed the impact of a religious upbringing on his work; "I got to experience Catholic guilt and confession... and the saintliness of suffering. I think I related my suffering and illness to the suffering of Jesus...the idea that suffering in some way was kind of holy [...] Catholicism is great for cultivating young masochists... there's so much ritualism in S/M".5 The notion of 'being sick' in the work's title is a play on words. As a sufferer from cystic fibrosis and a practiser of sadomasochism, Flanagan was perceived by society as both physically and mentally 'sick'. Flanagan developed these violent self-lacerating performances as a way of confronting his corporeality. The pain he endures internally is externalised in order to become socially visible to the audience. The conflation of medicine with sexual activity also challenges the taboos that surrounded the sexuality of diseased bodies in the 1980-90s. LS Kauffman has theorised that during the AIDS crisis, "the sexuality of diseased bodies...the notion that those afflicted go on feeling sexual, or having sex, or being desirable to others" remained wholly taboo.6 In parallel, Athey's Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994) is an autobiographical performance, connecting cathartic religious rituals with moments of body laceration and scarification; "it is an abstract interpretation of my life, using fetishes, ritual, and obsession as the main text".7 The sense of catharsis and endurance in extremis is palpable. Four Scenes caused specific contemporary outrage due to false, and later disproved, accusations regarding how the audience had been exposed to HIV-positive blood. The NEA had funded the performance, and as a result conservative senators and Christian protestors publically vilified Athey in the media. Both artists merged the boundaries between the physical and the psychic, exploring the construction of the agonising body as simultaneously active and submissive. By performing as the acting subject and the receptive object of violence, they confuse the stability of either identification.

2000s - Yang Zhichao & Petr Pavlensky

Yang Zhicaho and Petr Pavlensky are contemporary artists who are working today in China and Russia respectively. Yang Zhichao performs extreme actions, such as branding himself or surgically implanting alien objects or plants into his body, to depict how we belong to the technology of the state. His work is a powerful comment on the debate surrounding the preservation of personal subjectivity within the dynamic of global politics. Living and working in Beijing, he has been forced to confront the reality of existence in a society where the autonomy of the individual is tracked and controlled by sophisticated information tracking. He writes, "Today, more than ever before, our bodies do not really belong to connected to an all productive system...I am no longer the only master of my body, it actually belongs to the whole society".8 In Iron (2000), he had his personal identity number seared into the skin of his back. This metaphorical action conflates the personal with the political. The reductive image of categorisation and branding evokes the commodification of the self. There is also an underlying sense of cynicism and parody within the sinister torture inflicted on his body. Yang provocatively objectifies his own flesh as emblematic of the surveillance state. Similarly, Pavlensky is a political activist who uses his body as material for protest art. In Carcass (2013), Pavlensky was wrapped naked in barbed wire and left at the Legislative Assembly in St Petersburg. The performance was symbolic of political oppression and censorship of speech, "these laws like the wire, keep people in individual order to turn people into gutless and securely guarded cattle, which can only consume, work, and reproduce".9

Although this is just a brief summary, these performance works can be used to create a timeline of examples from the later part of a century. They provide a stimulating, albeit acerbic or disturbing, narrative about the relationship between the personal and the political, the psychic and the physical, the body and the state.


1 T. Warr, ‘Preface’ in The Artist’s Body (Phaidon Press, 2012), p.12.

2 E. Scarry, ‘Introduction’ in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford University Press, 1985), p.3.

3 Stiles in O’Dell, Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art and the 1970’s (University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p.6.

4 S. Brisley, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ in Stuart Brisley: 70s: Works,

5 Flanagan in Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist, eds. Andrea Juno and V. Vale (Re/Search Publications, 1993), p.13 and 71.

6 L.S. Kauffman, ‘Contemporary Art Exhibitionists’ in Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture (University of California Press, 1998), p.33.

7 Athey in D. Johnson, ‘Introduction: Towards a Moral and Just Psychopathology’ in Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey, ed. Dominic Johnson (The Live Art Development Agency and Intellect Live, 2013), p.13.

8 Yang in China Live: Reflections on Contemporary Performance Art(Chinese Arts Centre and Live Art UK, 2005), p.130.

9 Pavlensky in conversation with D. Kolchak, ‘Cultural Diary: On Good Friday’ on Radio Liberty, May 8 2013.