Pain as an image in Performance art

Helge Meyer


A man, wearing only bathing-trunks, crawls through broken glass, his hands on his back. (Chris Burden, Through the night softly in 1973).

A woman slits her naked body with a razor-blade and starts to hit herself with a whip. Then she climbs on a cross made of ice-blocks and a heater, directed to her upper part of the body, forces the wounds to bleed stronger (Marina Abramovic, Lips of Thomas in 1975).

A man tries to get a bell out of cooking water with his bare hands. After he got the hot metal in his fingers, he rings the empty bell with full force. You hear no sound but his heavy breath (Roddy Hunter in Pfäffikon, 1999).

All these images remain in our memory. We ask ourselves questions that touch a deeper, underlying area in our understanding of art and life.

Why are the performers that use physical pain in producing their images taking these risks? Sometimes risking their health and even their lifes?

Are they martyrs, do the suffer for us? Do they want to cure our social damages and mistakes, by taking something on their shoulders, like shaman do in some tribal societies?

Or do they just push how to get attention by an audience in times of  medial surfeit?

The reasons for using pain as an image is as manifold as their aesthetical appearances in the performances. But it is always a question of  producing an image that gives birth to something that is not visible by itself.

Pain is different to all other physical experiences because it is only itself. Pain does not have any object. There is no "pain from something" or "pain for something", like there can be hunger or thirst for something. Pain remains without object. But in his individual, physical experience pain is absolute and total.

When somebody is suffering from pain, it is impossible to ignore it: pain becomes the main feeling that covers every other emotion. But at the same time it is not possible to communicate this experience:

"For someone who has pain, the pain is questionless and undoubtable present. So you can say, to have pain is the most plausible evidence for what it means to have certainty. For the other person, the same experience is so uneasy to get, that "to hear from pain" can be taken as an example for doubt. So pain presents itself as someting that is unable to be communicated. That cannot be doubted on the one hand, but is not provable on the other hand."(1)

Beside the physical pain, there is also the social variation of suffering:

"The individuation and isolation, the separation from a totality." (2)                                                                                                                                      

The incessant feel of isolation and the incarnation into the given body, with all his suffers and masks, leads to a neverending search for a sense and the hope to find bridges to others in social contacts.

Performance art has a chance to be the medium for communication and change in a way: The radical treatment of their own bodies can make the performers to a kind of  representative:

When Gina Pane said with her body actions she wanted to "protest against a world in which everything is anaesthetized", she was revolting.

Using her own body as a sign against the power, that forces women to submit to the rules of masking their own bodies in beauty and kindness. With slits of razor blades through her tongue and arms, she destroyed the image of female narcissim and the passive role of women as object. A lot of male colleagues and critics thought negative about this kind of actions from female performers.

But this language in the performances does not only have a relation to the images in art world: Today the "war against the bodies" of women is visible when more and more young girls suffer from anorexia nervosa or similar problems in trying to become the image that society wants from them.

A different kind of body work including pain is that of endurance situations or pure experimentation with the limitation of the human body to reach a point that lies behind the allday experience of ones own body..

When Marina Abramovic dances about 8 hours to the rhythm of a drum in her performance "Freeing the body", the title gives a hint to the content that may stand behind: 

A loss of identity takes place, a loss of the border between subject and object, a kind of peak experience. Nothing exists beside the body self. The body gets back his meaning as  first and last basis of all experience. Through fear, risk or pain, these emotions rise in an extreme manner. The division of Descartes, seeing the body as meaningless tool for the mind, loses his signification.

Through simple images the performers are able to start a process of thoughts and emotions in the audience: Ben d ´Armagnac tries for hours to get the water from melting ice from the floor, wiping it away while crawling on his knees through a room. From his back also water is dripping from an iceblock. At the end of the line, he wrings out the cloth and starts his way again like Sisyphos (Cologne, 1977).

We have the chance to see every drip of ice and also hear the heavy breath of the performer, the coldness of the ice lets us shiver und the smell of sweat lies in the air. Our body is as present as the one of the performer- we feel relationship in the reality of our senses.

A kind of energy-dialogue with the audience is set up. The whole intensity of the performer is feelable by the audience (if the performer is really present and concentrated in his work). Sometimes the "Flow"(a kind of total engagement in acting and consciousness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), the performer feels, is transformed to the audience. Cathartic effects may be doubted, but sometimes it seems that the unbearable thrill of a performance can have similar effects on viewers. 

If an audience watches risky performances, they do not give up their own responsibiliy and ethics. This is, in one way, what Kathy O´Dell means, when she talks about the "contract" between public and performer in her book "Contract with the skin": We have to decide how far we want to stay in our role as viewer or even as voyeurs. There is always the kind of relation between audience and the performer that is full of  changing between the role of a passive viewer or someone who gets involved in the action in any way.

When Marina Abramovic started to get burned because she was getting unconscious during her performance "Rhythm 5" in 1974, the audience interrupted the performance and got her out of the danger zone. In other cases, the people are unable to stand the autoagressive actions and get aggressive by themselves: When Flatz was lying as a human carpet in an entrance of a building, he got beaten by some visitors and thrown away like a piece of cloth. The people could not stand his passive-aggressive attitude anymore.

The political dimension of body art performances in questions of feminism, religious suppression or ethnic persecution is obvious. Sometimes the pain of being punished is much bigger then any live art work could translate into an image. But performers all over the world try to find a way to communicate with their own body to find solutions, to make hidden links in our society visible. Sometimes it is the only chance to fight against numbness.

But it is always a thin line dealing with the body and the danger of hurting oneself in front of an audience. In one way it is also a kind of arrogance: Anne Whitehurst, a disabled artist from England, marks it as an "indulgence" that wellbodied artists hurt themselves in their work.




(1)Hans Peter Dreitzel in: "Vom Menschen - Handbuch Historischer Anthropologie" Beltz Verlag, Weinheim und Basel 1997; p.858 (translation from the author of this text)

(2) Hans Peter Dreitzel in: "Vom Menschen"; as up,  p.854 (translation from the author of this text)


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