by Regan Brown
The Burden of Violence: Todd Pavlisko’s “Crown” at the Cincinnati Art Museum through June 15th.
I. Shoot to Thrill.
“At 7:45pm I was shot in the left arm by my friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about 15 feet from me.”
―Chris Burden, “Shoot”, 1971.
“The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly”. ―André Breton, the “Pope” of Surrealism.
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.”
― A.P. Chekov letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev, 1 November 1889.
“One must never fire a rifle in a Fine Art Museum nowadays without it being beautifully documented.” ―Regan Brown
Once Upon a Time, on the Fantasy Island of “Fine Art”, which seems to be receding ever further and further away under each and every newly derivative avant-garde wave, one could wistfully go and worship unperturbed at the altar of an ethereally crafted “Beauty” rapt in a nearly monastic “Silence”…and rarely ever have one’s sensibilities genuinely flustered by all the unpleasant realities outside the pearly gated community of timelessly wrought mytho-religious ideations etched there in marble and paint (et al)…unless someone slightly off kilter had managed to slip past the guards and, with a sudden startled look, turns their back to you in a corner of all the hands-off fragile stuff of this pristinely vitrined, platonic white cube, chanting all angrily in some kind of foreign tongues to themselves, clutching a beeping briefcase to their chest under nothing more than a dirty old “Contemporary Art” embroidered High School jacket draped over their heaving shoulders. “Oh Gawd, is this…is this some kind of a…a Performance or something!? Where’s Security!?”
II. From “Ein Hungerkünstler” (A Hunger Artist) to Das Terror-Art-ist.
“The aesthetic offers a full and direct grasp of the human world. That it may include violence and depravity is not the fault of aesthetics but of that world. A salient symptom of that world is terrorism. Its wanton violence and uncontrolled destruction are appalling. But easy moral outrage offers no understanding…” ― Arnold Berleant.
“You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.” ―Vaclav Havel.
“In the past few decades the interest in starvation artists has greatly declined. Whereas earlier it was very profitable to stage independent productions of such grand performances, today that is completely impossible. Times were different then.”
―Franz Kafka, from “A Hunger Artist”.
“Why can’t all these uppity and untalented contemporary ‘artistes’ go back to the 19th Century and die anonymous in some pauper’s grave!? ―Anonymous.
Gauging by some of the more negative reactions quoted in the Cincinnati Enquirer about Todd Pavlisko’s current “Crown” exhibit,  you might have been justified in thinking that the Artist, maybe better known in some Art Circles as “that guy who nailed his foot to a gallery floor”, had almost risked the entire collection with a wonton act of “Jackass” reality-TV-style performance art show-stunt, something as reckless and insensitive a scenario as the one imagined above all of the above, and quite recently to boot, with his one good foot, I’d like to imagine. The actual Concept, a quite carefully planned and executed firing of a sharpshooter’s rifle down the length of the Schmidlapp Gallery past some of the museum’s most valuable and “Iconic Masterpieces”, a real logistical coup over a whole mess of red tape when you come to think about it, happened nearly two years ago though, and I don’t remember much brouhaha outside of a few tightly wound circles back then. It seemed more like a “Local Boy Makes Good on Weird and Controversial Art Project” story then . Maybe it was that momentary attention drawn here that could have just barely smoothed out the waters enough of our roiling small town inferiority complex to let this slip past the gatekeepers: the “yes we can think outside the box as much as anybody else buddy” or at least allow some holes to be shot in the box, or a knockoff minimalist Donald Judd cube as it were. The pride of being unconventional, cutting edge, a little bit Avante-Garde-Post-Modern about this sort of thing after that never-healing wound of the once bitten, twice shy Post-Mapplethorpe thing to which nearly every, even mildly controversial Art Happening here gets compared. Well, it was possibly a relief then to get an article in the “No Curator Got Arrested During the Filming of This Piece/ Never Done Before Section” of the National Art News. Yes, even though things much more extreme than anything like this, or acts photographed for the X Portfolio for that matter, can be found easily online nowadays, it’s still quite a bit about the context of it all, the “who’s paying for this shit?” in irking proximity to all the valuable thing-ness, which much of the internet has virtually decimated all sense of anyway -whether it be privacy or national borders or maybe even the Monolithic Museum itself- this very challenge to the brick and mortar core of the social contract/ construct, the Almighty Culture of US, seems to have gotten on people’s nerves the most. Even more irkingly de-contextualizing for this Cultural Monolith -or at least a little iconoclastic for its iconic elitism- is that such a “radical” exhibit as this just might even paradoxically attract the people and appreciation of the Gun Show/ “Duck Dynasty” Crowd – “Painting with bullets, you bet buddy! Do it all the time on some bucks’ ass”. Hopefully this won’t bring around any of the even weirder whack jobs: I mean, come on people, this has to be considered, in this latest iteration of Amorica (sic), whose love affair with high powered rifles, violence, and war IS well documented (as opposed to the action of “Crown” itself, a direct critique I get to in Part IV if you want to skip over all my other contextualizing Art Speak). This “We Them People” part of the US being a clan that probably take pride in their openly verbal pot shots at the high falutin’ intellectual and moneyed Art Snobs themselves anyway. And why not? Freedom of Speech + Freedom of Art = Democracy and sometimes = (with a contractually obligated and/ or consenting group of adults that are well lawyered up at least, read the small print please), Freedom of Action.
This piece DOES do consensual, yet rather symbolic violence to Art and Institution, no matter what Pavlisko tries to say in his quotes, which seem to be committing artistic suicide by cop out, really. . His comments on “Crown” are almost tantamount to saying “Hey, that video triptych of me nailing my foot into a gallery floor has Nothing Whatsoever to do with Christianity.” Maybe they don’t, in his mind at least, and he’s free to be as aloof as he wishes, since he has the sharpshooter in his employ. This Speaking in Art Tongues, an almost alchemical and self-censorial code, is a rather safe way of protecting one’s unorthodox, dissident ass in residence from Our Military Industrial Surveillance Complex I suppose, which I could actually see, in a sort of Dystopian Speculative Fiction kind of way, with its now rather virtually infinite long arm, disappearing the bank accounts or even the personages of a couple of those Black Listed as Terror-Art-ists, whisking them off to a Black Site via Blackwater under, literally, the Right Leadership. Or maybe just commandeer “The Rothko Chapel” in Houston and leave them locked in there till they self-exterminate after staring into The Abyss for too long. Much more subtle than a show trial. This is of course is the same Military Industrial Surveillance Complex the Gun Show crowd paradoxically rail against and support by offering up quite a few of their children to the God of War. Kind of like Artists and Museums paradoxically, at least those Institutions that are trying to stick to their “FIne Art” guns. Why bite the tale of the entity that for all intents and purposes feeds you, and the public’s spirit, Dear Mr. or increasingly Ms. Artist?
Well, the way it seems to me, that way above-mentioned “FIne Art Fantasy Island”, that seems to be under attack from both within and without, wasn’t such a pretty place to begin with after all, when nicked just a little bit beneath the surface: that elusive permanence of arrested time, an immortality without a soundtrack -well maybe just a few harmlessly harmonious angels cast in a chiseled cloud of stone (et al.) – was something most nearly akin to death, even genocide itself really: an object-mausoleum often bought and paid for on behalf of the Nation/ State by the massively marauded endowments of a revolving cadre of Royals, Popes, Generals, Explorers, General Explorers and/ or local Robbers, Barons and Robber Barons (et al.) whose more than likely ill-begotten by Religiously Missioned gold-plated-gains, and maybe even a conscience or two, might just have been a little bit magically cleansed through the strategic stealing, purchase, commission and/ or sometimes even subsequently public Chapel/ Museum exhibitioned collection of what could be described, in this context anyway, as a kind of alchemically cathartic carceral or maybe just a plain old “Objets de Acculturation”, even a blood diamond mine full of the physically manifested confessional of valuable things both raw and refined, imported and quarried for a physical transformation meant to laud the timeless visages, even the occasional death masks, vagaries and/or belongings of these All-Time Valuable Heroes of a Thousand Faces and/ or Possessions. Leaders and Godheads and Captains of Industry all becoming One: those metaphysical movers and their gilded salt and pepper shakers, bequeathed by The Estate just before entering the Pearly Gates tax-free, achieving a simultaneous parity with forever: let the slow flow of a spiritual trickle down begin, One that only their All Mighty Permanence could deign upon generation after generation of “We Them People”. Thank you very kindly! “Heaven” was and most likely still is a rather exclusively Club-tastic Incorporeal Corporation, no -fill in the blank- allowed, run more recently by a rainbow of elites, when you look at it refracted through the trickle down, and platonically squared-cube of it, the One that can turn the ungrateful and grumbling revolutionary artist-pauper into a filthy rich and comfortably elitist celebrity prince in a nearly overnight head-spinning-space-time conflation that can travel faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than an El Loco Motive, when shot through just the right art-contextualized concept: Poof! Horatio Artist, U Da It Thang of Da-Da moment! “Now can you PLEASE make twenty more of these whatevas by morning and call me when you’ve crucified the few extremities you do have left, Mein little Terror-Art-ist!? All before that damn bell tolls on Wall Street?!? Buy Lo and sell Hi! It’s You vs. Morality and /or Mortality, baby, and we’re in the 15th round of the Great Recession … OK!?”
Much of the culture has shifted and conflated all the hi and lo in such a willy-nilly anyway, with maybe just a touch of cynical consumerism, Ad a dab of Advertising irony, much quicker than a fast melting glacier -more powerful than Al Gore- inventor of the internet back in ninenteen-ninety-whateva…That collective whoever or whatever that invented the Museum must be turning in its grave, although they and their arty-facts do seem to be part of the undead, surviving the rise and fall of various Romes, maybe because of their aesthetically enlightening role as a repository of knowledge almost anyone with a little effort can benefit from with just a little reading between the lines…or maybe just because they are a good tax right-off. Who knows? Either way it’s a kind of subtle forfeiting of power to knowledge that Cincinnatus, our cities namesake, who is in a way, the patron saint of forfeiting absolute authority in the name of civic virtue, as he resigned his Dictatorship almost immediately after defeating his rival Sabines, Volscians and Aequians, (the name sake of this magazine).Although, I guess if Mark Twain’s infamous quote about Cincinnati, arguably more famous than Cincinnatus himself, were it tweaked a bit to include Art, would apply to some locals who would want to stick their heads in the Fine Art Bunker when the end of “Art As We Know It” arrives, as its apocalypse by barbarians wouldn’t have to be noticed till many years later…but then it would be too late…maybe now it’s too late, though we really did try and make it…
III. Something Inside Has Died.
“A museum installation consisting of a 100-ton jack connected to a gear box and a turnstile. The 100-ton jack pushes two large timbers against the bearing walls of the museum. Each visitor to the museum must pass through the turnstile in order to see the exhibition. Each input on the turnstile ever so slightly expands the jack, and ultimately if enough people visit the exhibition, SAMSON could theoretically destroy the building. Like a glacier its powerful movement is imperceptible to the naked eye. This sculptural installation subverts the notion of the sanctity of the museum (the shed that houses art).”
―Chris Burden, “SAMSON” 1985. from “Extreme Measures.”
“You know, it’s kind of like Johnny Carson: you need a straight man and that is what the museum becomes. ‘ Samson’ (1985) is the archetype for that.”
―Chris Burden interview with “The Brooklyn Rail”. November 5th, 2013.
The rapid fire “evolution” of Modern and Contemporary Art that has shaken the origins of creation right down to its foundations in the last century or so has seemed to pass us by here in the Queen City for the most part, except in its more or less derivative forms, if we’re really being honest with ourselves. Nothing much in terms of an “ism” or a manifesto or a movement has originated here. Of course there have been some important shows here by National Artists thanks to all the great Galleries and Museums, but other than that, its real practitioners like Pavlisko, I guess, and the future “isms” they will belong to when, like W. Bush says, the History Books sort it out, have mostly escaped to take a bite out of the Big Apple-like larger markets and thereby make themselves relevant. I’m not even sure the barriers to the local scene have changed all that much yet with the advent of that Avatar of Globalization, what Paik coined as the “Information Superhighway”, however-much some of us rather stuck here would like to believe in the Internet as the latest Deus Ex Machina. It still takes a lot of pavement pounding in the Major Cities of the world to get shot through the Historical Canon. Self-promotion is easier, yes, but when everybody is famous for 15 minutes, no one ultimately will be. Maybe we who are less fortunate and famed should be happy with our micro-publics, and stop railing at all the long-lived Monoliths…but secretly or not, I’m sure many of us would like to have our work laid to rest in the Main “Object Mausoleum” of any damn city. I’m not sure Pavlisko has achieved this to a large extent just yet, but it seems to me he’s on to something that a dated institution attempting to rebrand itself in competition with the Youth Cult Galleries of Now Media, finds quite attractive. Maybe even rather accidently, as these things tend to have an institutional catharsis, this was Aaron Betsky’s parting salvo? Anyway…
Some Museum leaders have no doubt faltered trying to get a better foothold on the game of pushing the all pervasive “Art-Anti-Art” pendulum, in a town as sometimes ass backwards as this, knowing that Pop Controversy often puts asses in seats and bulks up the fundraising and the gift shops’ merchandising efforts as well, which unfortunately many curators have become encumbered with, the bottom line ball and chain, restricting their mostly good intentions. A Conservative Institution’s Curator deigned with Conservation in a Conservative City daring to contradict its mission, even just a little bit is, for me at least, exciting to watch. It’s like your eccentric Aunt tearing all the protective plastic off her furniture every Mardi Gras to clean off its underside. Such carefully planned actions as Pavlisko’s really don’t threaten anything, just as Duchamp’s conceptually threatening work has been mostly subsumed by the conservators. Instead this stuff tends to reify a purpose in the first place, draw out an essence, and shift the conversation in a healthy way. It’s as if the chiaroscuro of arrested time itself were unleashed to the elements of a colorful spring, like glacier man being thawed out after 5000 frozen years or some million-year-old fossils being burned in seconds to fuel a fast moving car. Maybe even like the weird colorful foliage that grew in Hiroshima years after “Little Boy” had been dropped. It’s hard to gauge the effect of such things that are born out in half-lives…but I guess one must let the Barbarians of Futurism rattle the Pearly Gates once in a while. Let the transcendent scientific Paradigm of an indifferent and contradictory universe always in flux clash with the rigid mythological thinking that has born the Cathedral Museums for eons along the same trajectory as the impulse to bury the dead, like some seed that’s going to rebirth! Hah! Let’s supplant the plantation of the human spark built in marble and paint and hope against hope that the spirit of our beloved existence will be reborn and live forever, preserved in the eternal realm of What? Nothingness!
OK, sorry about all the pseudo Futurist Marinetti-like Jazz, but don’t we all miss a Good Old Fashioned Ranting Manifesto from time to time…which of course sounds all good on paper, but whose realization is often poor and severely limited by Reality. Often luckily so…
Enter: Sharpshooter, Artist and Video Camera…
IV. Back to the Futurism.
“…destroy the museums, the libraries, every type of academy…the great crowds,
shaken by work, by pleasure or by rioting…We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath – a roaring car that seems to run on grapeshot is more beautiful than ‘The Victory of Samothrace’ ”
―Filippo Marinetti (1910)
“Leaping from that, I wanted to traverse art history as fast as I could. So using a bullet at 2,700 feet a second, I was able to take that record and to become the person who is making that leap as fast as you can.” ―Todd Pavlisko (2014).
“We like to think that modernism is left-wing, or at least virtuously liberal, by nature. But to think so is to reckon without Futurism, which became the house style of Italian Fascism in the years after Mussolini’s March on Rome.”
―Robert Hughes from “Shock of the New”.
Many of the “Extreme Measures” sent ricocheting through more than a few Artistic Circles since Franz Ferdinand’s fateful WWI, release the hell hounds of mass-destruction incurring assassination in June of 1914, with a single shot to the neck, has often met with much honest bourgeois consternation and even genuine anger: so much so that the entire disgruntled middle-class disbelief system itself has become a well-riddled and rather easy target composed of endlessly encircled wagons taking repeated potshots, and for good (extreme) measure maybe: there’s only so much empty ritual and ignorant bliss “karmic law” can stand. On a related note, I visited Franz Ferdinand’s Summer Palace outside Prague a few times, where they keep, like some weird holy relic, the bullet that assassinated the Archduke. The walls there are lined with literally thousands upon thousands of dead and mounted animals, armor, weapons and even an ashtray made of an elephant hoof. Good Ole Franz was an avid hunter and this was his “Palace of Death”, a place that seemed to foreshadow all the Centuries’ horrors to come, much in the way fellow and contemporary Bohemian resident Kafka’s books would as well, or in their own way, apocalyptic zombie movies do now. The entire thrust of much Modernist and Contemporary Art seems to have been the stripping bare of the Bride of such Frankesteins as Ferdinand: a dressing down of all these “acceptable” norms, wherever they could be ferreted out from root to branch, so as to prevent such horrors happening again. “The Lure of Heresy”, as Peter Gay subtitled his book on Modernism. Whether they were successful or not is a whole other book…
Being somewhat enamored of that branch of “heresy” myself, the one I see as embodied by Duchamp, Burden, and Manzonni et al. (not Marinetti), I came to Pavlisko’s show with the high hopes of this sort of lure, honestly, having read all the press releases about images of high powered projectiles against back-grounded masterpieces and comparisons to Harold E. Egerton and those iconic apple and bullet photo shoots most of us know and love. I honestly also came with some trepidation and an especially American Paranoia as I dropped my wife and son off at the puppet show downstairs, wondering somewhat trepedatiously, a feeling in my kind of bourgeoisie loins I guess, what other types of people might find this kind of show a morbid fascination. But this is what the “terrorists” want isn’t it? The US to live in a self-censoring and immobilizing fear? Forget about it and get out there and shop dammit! So I soldiered on, bought a belated birthday gift at the Museum Shop for my wife and scoped out the Shmidlapp Space before entering the installation, the lapping loop of a sound-effected gunshot calling me like a quiet Siren.
As I made my way to the installation, and to make this already very long story short, I quickly and repeatedly perused the (rather grainy) eight monitors of video documentation for THAT iconic shot: the ONE of the bullet passing in glorious slow motion in front of the “Iconic Masterpieces”, the ONE I had come to expect but hadn’t seen in all the promotional and press releases -maybe that was the tease- or I guess I might call it propaganda at this point…because I got nothing but a little blip of a bullet on a kinda cheap computer monitor that a docent in fact had to point out to me. Knowing a thing or two about cameras, I noticed in the background of the video itself the iconic red button of the RED Cameras Pavlisko must have used for the documentation, which, even on a standard model, can take up to 120 frames at full resolution per second (fps). Your average pro-sumer camera can do @ 30 to 60 fps, meaning with a RED you get twice the still images per second, and in full resolution to boot. Why didn’t Pavlisko zoom in on the bullet’s height and flight trajectory, something I’m sure a sharpshooter could mimic repeatedly pretty easily, and capture the bullet crossing in full frame against the “Iconic Masterpieces” in the background!? Maybe it all happened much too fast? Once again bowing to the logistics of such a difficult feat of capturing a bullet clearly at that speed, I waited to see the shots meant to hit the knock-off Judd cube, which could potentially slow the bullets down and give apotheosis to the namesake, even be the potential crowning glory of this so entitled “Crown”… and…and…saw that these shots also were disappointingly framed at a kind of bird’s eye, Dutch-Angle point of view, instead of say a sharp partition of the screen with the close up edge of the cube’s side and the bullet entering full frame in glorious slow motion. These also seemed grainy and digitally zoomed in post-production. I felt more deflated than the shot up cube. The shot up cube in and of itself was interesting enough though, as you can see in Figures 1 & 2, the only images the Museum was willing to part with and send me. Or maybe there really isn’t anything better in terms of documentation. The cube, which almost seems like an afterthought of the shots, sits like a bit of a mute, immobile and even innocent witness to all this, an artifact of a long ago and maybe even forgotten action. There hasn’t even been much re-action to the installation after its opening, I must say. I didn’t even see a lot of reaction to Pavlisko’s “foot nailing” performance online, which took place quite a while ago now. What’s a poor up and coming Artist got to do nowadays just to get a little attention!?
V. The Crown of Bullets.
“A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw.”
―Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”.
“Cruelty bears an intimate relationship to stupidity as well as intelligence, and I am not interested in stupid cruelty, of which the world is overfull. (…) At other times, the differentiation is more complicated ―more flickering, more undecidable. This is especially true when one is watching an eminently good artist, such as Paul McCarthy, Ana Mendieta, Sylvia Plath, or Brian Evanson, slide in and out of various types of cruelty, or lurching between them, bumper-car style. Staying onboard for such a ride can generate a good amount of ambivalence, volatility, attraction, and repulsion. Some of this, I enjoy. Much — perhaps most — I do not. Nonetheless, I persist. This book is also about that persistence.” ―Maggie Nelson, from “The Art of Cruelty”.
“Inside a small garage on Speedway Avenue, I stood on the rear bumper of a Volkswagen. I lay on my back over the rear section of the car, stretching my arms onto the roof. Nails are driven through my palms onto the roof of the car. The garage door was opened and the car was pushed half way out into the speedway. Screaming for me the engine was run at full speed for two minutes. After two minutes, the engine was turned off and the car pushed back into the garage. The door was closed.”
―Chris Burden, “Transfixed”.
“I want a wealthy collector to finance an installation in which a video camera will be placed in the coffin with my body, connected to a screen on the wall, and whenever he wants to, the patron can see how I’m coming along.
―Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.
As I finish this article up during an Easter Weekend full of appropriately empty ritual, heightened security and centuries of mixed metaphors (rabbits laying egg-hunts, chocolate crucifixes), I follow this final confluence of upchucked ideas surrounding Pavlisko’s “Crown” installation (et al.) down a rabid (sic) hole full of research, family friendly events and exhibitions only to find its denouement in A Rite of Spring: I wondered, maybe for the first time consciously, what the essence of this season might have once been, stung, stunned and glossed over as it has been by marshmallow chicks and the WASP-ishly Consumerist Christianity of peons for what seems like eons. I’ve probably been through this “holiday” on almost 40+ different occasions without ever really thinking about the underlying message, at least as I now hear it: “try and transform, maybe even transcend the cold fluxing suffering and violence of life to achieve something of a re-birthed permanence”. This is why, it seems to me, Art and Religion are so often conflated, and maybe need to be decoupled with Science as Pavlisko attempts to do, in word if not in deed. But which came first, the Artist or the Museum, the Christ or the Christian? Can you find an essence in what is essentially a social construct?
It was in this rather strange, maybe even perverse state of mind, one that Art has allowed my imagination to wander through rather unrestrained all these years, where I watched a documentary that crystallized the above realizations, a film which I think helped me understand for the first time, maybe even helped me sympathize with, what I had long considered Christianities’ mindless attraction to “that guy nailed to a couple of boards” as one wag put it. I think for many Christians I know, it would seem like a revelation that came straight from a depraved corner of Hell, like finding Christ in the Anti-Christ, but what the hell, here goes:
While “researching” this article, which I originally thought would mostly concern Sadomasochistic Performance Art, after coming across Pavlisko’s foot nailing piece online, I watched “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist” which is about an Artist, better known in some circles as “that guy who nailed his dick to a board”. In fact, during that particular scene in the documentary, all the while that he’s telling jokes, Flanagan even stops to pull the nail out of the head of his dick and sprays his blood down, in an ironic kind of abstract expressionistic kind of pattern, upon some Plexiglas above the camera, something akin to when Jackson Pollock does so with paint in that iconic film about him. Does the fact that Flanagan, in this extremely graphic and vulgar way, possibly references some “Famous Art” in fact make this Great Art? Probably not, in the same way Pavlisko referencing Donald Judd or Chris Burden doesn’t. Art talking to Art off by itself in a corner doesn’t do it for me…but now for the rest of the story…
Flanagan was a lifelong sufferer of Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disorder that slowly drowns a person to death in their own bodily fluid, usually by the age of 20 or earlier, at least that was the case back when Flanagan was born, though he managed to live to a ripe old 43. It seems that he made a decision in his early childhood bedroom to secretly fight pain with pain, before he found his perfectly Sadistic and long time partner in Sheree Rose who helped him develop and document his public exhibitionisms. He also had a wicked sense of humor, that you’ll have to see the documentary to experience, but can be illustrated for our purposes here by a description of one of the final scenes of the film: Flanagan’s lifeless body is seen sprawled out on a hospital bed in Polaroids his partner snapped, wherein we see at the prominent center, a Crown-of-Thorns tattoo encircling his very scarred-up crotch.
Of course this is a willful and blatant form of very unsubtle heresy, more religious than taking rifle shots in a gallery I suppose, and considering Flanagan’s Catholic upbringing, it is a very well considered, but slightly boorish blasphemy…but it spoke to his understanding of his suffering, his even messianic, sometimes humorous masochism, that he then attempted to eternalize, even possibly purify through Art, that little something rather rotten at the core, maybe in the seed, of our Original Sin Culture. His was a controlled violence of the Body as S&M Temple, entirely “consensual” (quite a loaded word), and mostly self-inflicted unlike many unwilling and innocent sacrificial victims of violence. Somehow self-inflicted and “consensual” seems to make it somewhat OK. The same could be said of Pavlisko’s nailing his foot into a gallery floor. Not the same can be said for “Crown” I’m afraid. Unlike Flanagan, who always knew his mortality was nigh, Pavlisko, and the undisputed champion of nailing and shooting himself, Chris Burden, who I grudgingly respect in the same way I do some military people, may have found that they had to move on from consensual self-infliction as their primary art form because their somewhat desperate pleas screamed at a society willfully full of the sights and sounds of an earsplitting shock and awe, increasingly seemed to fall on mostly deafened ears and even benumbed eyes. Human behavior generally seems to swing along this spectrum of suicide to murder, Sadist to Masochist, whether it’s an attempt to arrest or just capture time, or somehow stave off, even control the ying of libido and its yang mortality: either one’s own or some of the Other. Maybe there is a cathartic value to virtual violence that even stave’s off real violence, playing shoot em’ up in a video game versus in the street. Oftentimes I think most of us wish that the assholes who commit these mass murders would have just shot themselves instead. Just to be clear, I’m not at all suggesting that Pavlisko should shoot himself in the foot for his next Artwork, though he may have already done so with this piece…the risk and rewards in this case are probably a little bit more manageable, although the foot nailing is far more powerful. These works are both a bit of a derivative paraphrasing from “The Bible of Famous Art ” though like mixing and matching scriptures: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it in three days…. Do you not know your bodies are Temples…?” So what does it mean to do a measured violence to such an institution: The Temple of the Church, the Museum, the Body…to in effect Crucify a Temple, symbolically or not?
I guess there are still many Temples of Art in this world where one can go and worship Beauty undisturbed, places that are even fantastic for a bit of an aesthetic atheist like me, that might include a church or two, a few museums, some libraries and more increasingly, the body and mind itself… the fight with self-destructive impulses born of trying to chew my foot free from the Rat Race Trap. Freedom. Problem is, all these higher, even ethereal aspirations seem to be subject to the same realizations of Destruction, Disintegration and Time no matter how we try and ignore that fact or modify everything for preservation. It’s hard to give oneself over to this entropy, even when at base our fight seems to only represent the survival instinct. This is a truth that seems to be increasing with the speed of a careening bullet in this Age of Apocalypse, underlined as it is by an environmental extinction that threatens the survival of not just the US, but also the US ALL. The battle for Preservation will eventually lose the battle with Time. Please don’t blame the Contemporary Artists for pointing out, or even exacerbating, this rent in the fabric of our society. They are, for the most part, just the canaries in the blood-diamond mine.
Regan Brown (http://www.reganbrown.com/) has advanced degrees in both Creative Writing/ Journalism (B.A. Miami Oxford, 1991) and Fine Arts (MFA, Electronic Arts, DAAP 2009). That noticeable gap is not a typo, but represents a long stint spent living and working in Post-Soviet Central Europe as a journalist, woodwind multi-instrumentalist, professor and audio/ video producer. He currently teaches Film and Video at The Art Academy of Cincinnati and has several in progress projects.