When Bob Flanagan performed in New York in 1991, potential spectators were warned: “Not for the faint of heart.” And that was back in the golden age of transgression, when artists routinely presented the unspeakable to audiences of the imperturbable. (There was the performer who bit the heads off live mice, for example, and the one who suspended himself on fishhooks stuck through his skin.) But Flanagan went farther than most. As a self-described “hetero-masochist, in extremis,” he was notorious for nailing his penis to a board. Flanagan happened to perform in a context that explained him, but that didn’t make the work any easier to watch.
Now a publicist for Kirby Dick’s new documentary, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, says she’s had a hard time even getting critics to screenings. As one put it to her: “Why do we have to see all that?”–an unexpected complaint in the age of the confessional, the sensational, and the hyperexplicit. Sheree Rose, who was Flanagan’s dominant partner in life and in art, speculates: “People aren’t used to seeing anything that real on the screen.” While we increasingly raise the image threshold of what we can look at, real suffering is as hard to take as ever–and as hard to represent.
Flanagan was all about real and shameles sself-disclosure. He lived his life at death’s door. A medical anomaly, he managed to survive with cystic fibrosis until the age of 43. (Most CF sufferers die as children or young adults.) Certainly Flanagan behaved like someone with no time to be untrue to himself.” This is the person I am,” he once declared.” I’m not afraid of any aspect of what I am.”
That included the part of him that lived as a “supermasochist”–and always had. As a boy, he’d begun inflicting pain on himself because it helped him cope with the chronic pain of CF. Flanagan used to put it this way: “I’ve learned to fight sickness with sickness.”
In the late ’80s, he began staging his pain-inducing rituals as an art form. “I never wanted to call myself a ‘performance artist,'” Flanagan once said. “I just went out and did these things from an honest place.” Spectators fainted on both coasts. A hopeful Jesse Helms even sniffed around for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. (There was none.) Flanagan only did the nailed-penis act twice in his life, but something like that tends to become the defining moment in an artist’s career. More routinely, he would nail his scrotum, insisting that it didn’t really hurt. Obviously, he had a high tolerance for pain.
The guy sounds scary. But Sick transcends the usual shock-horror expectations about transgressive artists and becomes a meditation on universal themes: suffering, shame, intimacy, desire, and death. Flanagan is so honest, and his angry response to what the universe has dealt him usually takes the form of deadpan humor.
The s/m life presented in the film is completely unglamorous, far removed from the leather-clad ideal. For Flanagan, this is a need that has nothing to do with style, everything to do with pain management and the consequences of dependence. His Supermasochist character appears in a hospital-gown cape, oxygen tube in his nose, Hickman catheter in his chest, scrawny, pasty, and singing (to the tune of “Supercalifragilistic”), “A lifetime of infection and his lungs all filled with phlegm/The CF would have killed him, if it weren’t for s-and-m.”
Cystic fibrosis is a disease that fills the lungs with mucus, providing fertile ground for bacteria to grow, but, worse, making it difficult to breathe. After his death, Flanagan’s lover and collaborator of 15 years, Rose, points out in the film that, basically, Bob drowned. Anyone with CF needs to be hit hard on the back periodically to break up the mucus. Does this make someone want to be hit? Does it really make sense to control pain by adding pain?
When the filmmaker interviews Flanagan’s parents, he asks if maybe they loved Bob a little bit more when he was suffering. “He was in pain so much of the time,” his mother replies. Flanagan’s parents found out about his sexual proclivities only near the end of his life. “I’m still stunned by it,” his mother admits. “Where was I?”
As a boy, Flanagan used to stick pins through a belt and whip himself with it. No one ever found out. He’d wrap belts around his wrists and hang himself from doors, eventually ruining nearly every door in the house–much to his parents’ bewilderment.
Flanagan was never out to shock. He was a practical masochist, just trying to find a way to beat home in his ravaged body. But his work was marginalized even in the art world until his last major effort, “Visiting Hours,” a retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and The New Museum. This show was much more focused on illness than on sex, though that reflected how he felt at the time: lousy. Flanagan exhibited himself in a hospital bed set up in each museum, and by the time the show hit New York in late 1994, he was finding even that very taxing.
Flanagan and Rose met in Los Angeles in 1980. Flanagan had published one chapbook of poems by then, but he kept his s/m obsessions to himself. It was Rose who insisted that he integrate his masochism into his art. Warned that he might only live a couple of years, she also began documenting everything.
Filmmaker Kirby Dick met Flanagan in the early 1980s at Beyond Baroque, a nonprofit space in Los Angeles where the artist sometimes read his poetry. They became friends, and Dick followed the course of Flanagan’s artistic progress and physical collapse. Dick approached Flanagan and Rose in 1993 about doing the documentary.
At first, says Dick, they refused because Rose said no. Flanagan had given Rose total control over every aspect of his life; he would have given up his art career if she’d asked. “By allowing me to film Bob, Sheree felt she would be giving up an aspect of her role as Bob’s dominant to me,” says the filmmaker. She eventually relented enough for Dick to begin filming Flanagan, but it was several more months before she allowed Dick to film her.
Rose says that Dick came in “because we needed a third person.” Many of the most amazing moments in Sick come from her archive. Like a conversation near the end of Flanagan’s life, recorded on videotape, in which he and Rose argue because he will no longer submit to her. “I can barely breathe,” he counters with some outrage. She recorded the film’s most dramatic scenes–in the hospital during the last days of his life, as an airbag forces oxygen into his lungs–and took post mortem photos. All of this had been agreed to by Flanagan.
As Dick puts it, “Bob wanted this chronicle of his illness and death to happen because in many ways it was an extension of his work.” Sick includes a brief exchange in which Dick tells Flanagan that the film might not get finished till after he’s dead. The filmmaker confesses, “Some people say I’m a vampire.” Withtypical gallows humor, Flanagan suggests, “Maybe more of a vulture.” (Rose and Dick are currently at odds over how the credits for the film have been allocated.)
Flanagan’s struggle to stay alive is never sentimentalized in Sick, nor is he ever a pathetic character. But after a lifetime spent in contemplation and expectation of his death, he is utterly panicked and unprepared when it arrives. “Am I dying?” he asks Rose, in distress. “I don’t understand it…This is the stupidest…I’d never believe this in my life. I don’tunderstand it.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Sick is how much of an everyman Flanagan seems by the end.