Theatre of Suffering – a short essay.

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Nothing particularly blog worthy has happened in the last couple o’ weeks, so, to avoid the risk of forgetting about this blog, I’m going to be lazy and copy a fully referenced academic essay I wrote last year regarding the performance potential of body in pain, and the theatre of suffering. It’s not amazing, but it will do. Enjoy….

Many people immediately disregard any notion of a ‘body in pain’ performance. At the risk of sounding elitist, a lot of people will only look at a performance such as Franko B’s “I Miss You” as a man aimlessly cutting himself on stage. But there is so much more to the performance than this; so many more meanings on so many levels. Although not really considered a ‘conventional’ form of theatre, ‘body in pain’ productions find their roots in even the oldest forms of theatre. Greek theatre introduced its audiences to the tragedy, which later gave birth to similar Roman style productions at the Ludi – various festivals held throughout the year. The festival hosted many performances by various actors, but also chariot races, gladiator fights and circus performers. Although not all of these Ludi were for religious purposes, many, such as the popular Ludi Romani held ritualistic performances honouring particular gods (in this case Jupiter). Similar productions were held in the medieval period: mystery dramas were used to enforce critical ideologies, such as the Corpus Christi, which reinforced the doctrine of transubstantiation. Furthermore, in the Elizabethan period, Shakespearean tragedies such as Macbeth or Titus Andronicus featured heavy amounts of blood and violence and played on the original Greek idea of upsetting the equilibrium of the status quo (in which consequently violence ensues). Fear and discomfort have always been methods of entertaining and conveying ideas, used primarily in the House of Horror productions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in which the more people fainted, the better success the performance. These were designed to imaginatively exploit an audience’s biggest fears and convert them into a production. These are just some examples of the productive potential that these avant-garde performances can emit. One must greet them with an open mind to really understand what the performer is trying to communicate.

An analyst must look a performance such Franko B’s aforementioned piece “I Miss You” from both the inner and outer frame perspectives – we must consider not just what is going on in the performance, but what cultural elements have influenced the creation of such a performance. Franko B states that in this particular performance he wanted to say “‘fuck you’ to Section 28, to the age of consent, to the Spanner trial. I said ‘fuck you’ to the ignorance and bigotry around issues of desire, sexuality and race” (Franko B in Heathfield, 2004: 236). Indeed, the performance has so much more meaning than, say, a man cutting himself on stage – as some audiences may perceive this as. With these kinds of performances, it is imperative that we observe it from an outer frame. That is, “[everything onstage] becomes an event in a self-contained illusion outside the world of social praxis but conceptually referring to that world in some way, if only in the fact that the illusion is about hypothetical human beings” (States, 1985: 19). Franko claims that he uses his body because it is always present with him, yet the performances themselves are not just about him; they are about him and his worth as a human being in today’s society (Franko B in Heathfield, 2004: 236)  This is not just a man cutting himself on stage – he is using a universal language to communicate a powerful point: “we are all bleeding inside” (Franko B in Heathfield, 2004: 236), emphasised by the powerful imagery of deep red blood on a monochrome canvas. In an article on the performance from Franko B’s own website, reviewer Jennifer Doyle discusses the artistic merits of this performance, and how an audience must approach it with an open mind. She also highlights the relationship between the audience and the performer:

This is what is disturbing about Franko B’s performance – not that he bleeds, but that in doing so he crosses a boundary, and carries us with him as he does so. He shifts questions about art and emotion to the audience, moving away from the self-reflexive representation of the artist’s emotional state, to the production of feelings themselves – a risky move if ever there was one, if only because he asks us directly if, and how, we plan to love him back (Doyle, 2011).

What Doyle is essentially saying is that this kind of the performance engages the audience in a different, more intimate way than, say, a standard production of Macbeth. What is happening on stage here is real. The artist is cutting himself live. This blood is his blood. Everything the audience witness is really happening, and as such the performance touches the audience on a different emotional level, engaging them more. Doyle continues to describe how, after the performance, a number of the audience were crying. When asked why, they all described how personal the piece was; it was a mixture of discomfort, fear, angst, excitement and pity (Doyle, 2011).

Whilst Franko B’s piece is a commentary on human nature and identity, other artists of ‘body in pain’ performances have their own motives. One such a performer is Gina Pane. Although during her career this key founder of the Body Art movement in France performed a wide array of ‘body in pain’ pieces, one of her most well known performances was her Escalade non anesthésiée (or, Unanesthetized Escalation). Performed in 1971, this half an hour piece was a commentary and protest on America’s escalation into Vietnam. The performance only lasted thirty minutes due to Pane reaching a state of total exhaustion (Baumgartner, 2011: 247 – 263). The reason for this was the very nature of the performance – Pane bare handed and bare footed scaled a large ladder-type structure equipped with sharp studded metallic shards sticking out of it. As she climbed, naturally, the shards would dig in to her skin, causing her to bleed (Tronche, 1997: 65). What is interesting about this performance, however, is that it lacked an audience. That is to say, there was no live audience watching Pane’s ascent; instead, the performance was documented by a series of photographs (a method which Pane used in all of her performances – to her, this was an integral part of the performance and as important as the main performance itself (Baumgartner, 2011: 247 – 263)).  In an interview following said piece, she explained that a performance included three parts of equal importance: the groundwork, consisting of preparatory drawings, photographs, and texts; the actual performance; and the selection of photographs taken during the performance, which constituted the constat (Pane in Chavanne and Marchand, 2003: 19) – constat being the name of the photo-documentation. But Pane’s works were not just commentaries on war; no, many of her performances had underlining feminist elements. For example, Le Lait Chaud (1972) (or, Warm Milk) focused on Pane mutilating herself in front of an audience: aesthetically similar to Franko B’s I Miss You, Pane wore nothing but white, enhancing the effect created by the crimson blood as she sliced her back with a razor blade. This was a performance about women’s rights, feminism, and the perfect body. This was highlighted during the performance when Pane went to cut her face, only to have the audience yell “no, no, not the face!” (Pane in Warr and Jones, 2000: 121). This, Pane notes, was an essential problem – she had touched on a critical point: “the face is taboo, it’s the core of human aesthetics, the only place which retains a narcissistic power” [sic](Pane in Warr and Jones, 2000: 121). What Pane is essentially saying is that as soon as the performer ‘disfigures’ her face, the audience realise how real the performance is. Allowing them to witness the looks of concerns on their faces, Pane then turned the video camera (recording her piece) onto the audience, giving them a live feed of their reactions and allowing them to “communicate with themselves” (Pane in Warr and Jones, 2000: 121). This emphasises how a performance like this affects an audience reaction: whilst Pane cut her back the audience were fine – perhaps a little unnerved, but overall okay – it was not until she began to cut her face that the audience realised the severity of what she was doing. This was the point that Gina Pane wanted to make.

For a performer such as Mike Parr, the ideas for his pieces are generally brought on by his own disability; Parr was born with partially deformed arm, Parr’s pieces test the body’s physical limits and endurance. One of his most notable performances was Malevich (A Political Arm) (2002), in which he essentially nailed his arm to a wall for thirty hours. The reason for this was twofold – yes, Parr is testing and showing what the human body can endure, but also his performance has a “politically motivated social conscience strongly opposed to Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers” (Jamieson, 2002). During the performance Parr is blindfolded and insists on silence in the studio, meditating, focusing inwards, illustrating just how much practice one must endure to perform a piece of this calibre. Another of his pieces, Close the Concentration Camps (2002), required similar preparation. The difference in the latter performance, however, was that this time Parr’s lips, eyes and ears are sewn together. His senses are impaired. Across his leg is the word “alien”. This particular performance was an “empathetic gesture, in recognition of the trauma experienced by ‘illegal’ immigrants who were, at the time, sewing their lips shut as a protest against their prolonged incarceration” (Marsh, 2002). The difference with Mike Parr compared to an artist like Franko B or Gina Pane is that Parr, in the case of Close the Concentration Camps, puts himself in the shoes of those he is protesting for, as opposed to attempting to convey a message by a representational means.

Naturally, these performances will make a large number of audiences uncomfortable. Although this may be intended (for example, Mike Parr’s Cathartic Action: Social Gestus No. 5, 1977) (Parr in Warr and Jones, 2000: 105) is not the primary objective. The performer of a ‘body in pain’ production does not want their audience to walk away feeling disgusted: they want to convey a message that they feel can only be expressed in this particular manor. Seeing a performer physically cut or disfigure his or herself on stage adds a whole new element to a production. Aside from the obvious discomfort it provokes, these kinds of actions show how dedicated the performer is to their cause. As mentioned it takes an open minded audience to fully understand these kinds of performances. Many may dismiss it immediately – such is the human nature: if we find something disturbing, we may be too stubborn to find out what artistic or productive potential it has. Unfortunately this is quite a popular outlook, and as such often gives these kinds of performances negative connotations. Although, admittedly I myself do not understand everything that these artists are trying to convey, or how exactly their piece communicates this, I still feel that they definitely have artistic merits and productive potential. They are doing this for a reason, a protest, to prove a point – and ultimately, if a performance provokes thought or feeling in its audience, then surely it is a success.


B, Franko. “I Miss You!” In Live Art and Performance, edited by Adrian Heatfield, 218-227. London: Tate Publishing, 2004.

Baumgartner , Frédérique, 2011. “Reviving the Collective Body: Gina Pane’s ‘Escalade Non Anesthésiée’” Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 34, Issue 2, pages 247-263.

Doyle, Jennifer. Critical Tears: Franko B’s “I Miss You”. From Franko B’s personal website. (accessed: January 12, 2012).

Jamieson, Michelle, 2002. “Malewitsch [A Political Arm] Mike Parr” Artlink Magazine, Vol. 22, Issue 3. Accessed: 14 January 2012.

Marsh, Ann. Performance Art Masterpiece: Mike Parr – ‘Close the Concentration Camps’, 2002. From “The Monthly” magazine website. (Accessed 14 January 2012)

Pane, Gina “La cuisine d’une action” in Lettre à un inconnu edited by Blandine Chavanne and Anne Marchand. École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts: Paris, 2003.

Pane, Gina “Le Lait Chaud” in Tracy Warr and Amelia Jones, The Artist’s Body, London: Phaidon Press Ltd. 2000,  121.

Parr, Mike “Cathartic Action: Social Gestus No. 5” ” in Tracy Warr and Amelia Jones, The Artist’s Body, London: Phaidon Press Ltd. 2000, 105.

States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, On the Phenomenology of Theatre. Los  Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

Tronche, Anne. Gina Pane. Actions. Paris: Edition Fall, 1997


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