Flanagan Finds Depicting Pain Is a Pleasure : Art: Survivor of cystic fibrosis and his lover give a ‘toned-down’ presentation of masochistic works at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana.
Bob Flanagan should be dead by now. A 40-year-old survivor of cystic fibrosis, a notoriously lethal childhood disease, he has beaten the odds.
But painful medical procedures (needles inserted to draw out fluid on his lungs; having his limbs tied down to keep him still for inoculations) and the fantasy world he created in his childhood isolation have left their mark in an unusual way: Flanagan is a self-described masochist, an artist whose writings and performances testify to the pleasure he finds in pain.
In tandem with his dominatrix lover and collaborator Sheree Rose, he was the visiting speaker in the Art Forum series at Rancho Santiago College on Monday. A skinny bantam rooster of a guy with tired-looking eyes and sparse, unruly hair, Flanagan--who graduated from Costa Mesa High School--is best known for “Visiting Hours,” a much talked-about and critically well-received installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art last winter. Monday, he spoke while tethered to a small respirator that followed him around on a trolley.
Several people walked out during the presentation, which Rose described as their “toned-down version” despite its depiction of excruciating sights. At one point during the lecture, when someone announced that the bulb on the slide projector had just broken, a woman in the audience retorted, “Well, I should think it would!” On the other hand, several elderly women remarked afterward that they’d been quite fascinated to learn about Flanagan’s lifestyle. The artist seemed unruffled by adverse comments or walkouts.
Flanagan explained that all his work is “basically autobiographical” and said that although he was trained in traditional art, he grew dissatisfied with painting.
“I wanted my work to be accepted on a contemporary level, but I had no sense of what that meant. . . .In the ‘70s, conceptual art was a big thing, and I had no concepts.”
He began writing about his life instead, a project that eventually led to performance pieces dealing with the interdependence of pleasure and pain.
Before reading from “Body,” published in his book “High Risk” (1991), Flanagan remarked that he usually reads it naked while Rose points to the parts of his body that he is discussing. So why was he clothed this time? “It’s too close to breakfast,” he deadpanned.
Ironic pop humor frequently leavens Flanagan’s dark vision. After relating one grisly sounding experience, he remarked, “I methodically cleaned everything up, just like Tony Perkins” (in “Psycho”).
Rose, a compact woman in a T-shirt and jeans, with a friendly, low-key manner, remarked that when the couple show slides of their sex activities, “It doesn’t seem as though we actually did those things. It takes on a life of its own.
“It’s so personal but . . . through a mysterious process it becomes something people respond to. It has a level of honesty that I think is really valuable.”
In recent years, however, the couple has “sublimated a lot of our sexuality into our art,” Rose said. “As an artist, I’m interested in taboo subjects.”
One group of her slides, photographed at private parties and clubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, depicted “art” based on practices of ancient cultures in New Guinea, Borneo and India: people with pierced noses and nipples; ear plugs; scarification (cutting the skin in patterns); mummification (a form of sensory deprivation); elaborate leather harnesses; extensive tattooing.
“It’s very beautifully done,” Rose said.
In Flanagan’s own recent work, medical issues have taken precedence over sex. “Visiting Hours” was designed as a hospital wing. The object, he said, was “to approach these two parts of my life (cystic fibrosis and sadomasochism) honestly. . . . It seemed stupid to tell one part of the story and hide the other part.”
The piece included such objects as a toy chest filled with sadomasochistic “toys” and a gurney holding a bed of 1,400 nails. Flanagan made himself part of the installation, lying in a hospital bed eight hours a day for the six weeks the piece was up.
“I saw over 200 people a day,” he said. “They told me their stories of being in the hospital. . . . My typical visitor was a woman who would sit in the chair and say, ‘Boy, my dad’s in the hospital and he has cancer.’ A man born without a mouth told me about his reconstructive surgery. . . . In our society, we try to avoid pain. In other societies, it is a rite of passage.”
“Was it ever your attention to shock?” someone asked him.
“Not really,” he replied. “To explore, to record, to analyze.”
Asked about the penchants of other young people who have cystic fibrosis, Flanagan said he has found that girls tend to want to have babies, while the boys tend to run wild, wrecking their souped-up cars. Both urges are rooted in the same deep desire, he said--"ways of cheating death.”