“In a bizarre alternative universe kind of way I sort of resemble Superman. . . . [D]espite my skinny physique and frail sensitivities, I possess certain powers and abilities far beyond those of so-called normal human beings. I was born with a genetic illness that I was supposed to succumb to at two, then ten, then twenty, and so on. But I didn’t. And, in a never-ending battle not just to survive but to subdue my stubborn disease, I’ve learned to fight sickness with sickness.” (Bob Flanagan, quoted in Kilpatrick 1998)
Flanagan was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at an early age, and was not expected to live much beyond the age of 7. In his poem “Why?” a kind of confessional about his chosen way of life, he explains to those who are ready to listen the reasons for his unorthodox lifestyle and sexual proclivities.
Drawn to the idea of ‘fighting sickness with sickness’, Flanagan dedicated his life to his art, and his art was that of self-inflicted pain and punishment, BDSM style. He featured in the video accompanying Nine Inch Nails’ Happiness in Slavery, which was banned in most countries very soon after it was released.
Much of Flanagan’s work was about his disability experience, with themes of hospitalization and death (Visiting Hours, Autopsy, Video
Coffin), while his Visible Man was an ironic jibe at the medical profession, since this particular plastic figure was modeled on his own body, and thus spewed mucus continually from its mouth, while sperm and faeces dribbled from its nether parts. He seems to have embodied Sontag’s comment on the use of sickness as a way of making people interesting (1978, p30).
Using photography, poetry, video art, installations and performances, Flanagan created an “ongoing self-portrait in his art, combining text and image, humor and the terrors of his illness, to shock and arouse viewers to an expanded awareness of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of extreme trauma” (Kirkpatrick 1998). One gets the impression that Flanagan needed to feel pain in order to feel that he was still alive, rather like pinching oneself to make sure one isn’t dreaming.
The documentary film Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is a kind of autobiographical portrait of Flanagan and explores his art and poetry. There are some pretty gruesome scenes, as when his partner Sheree Rose pierces his groin with needles or inserts a fist-sized steel ball into his anus, or when he nails his penis to a block of wood in front of a live audience. Those aside, the film shows Flanagan’s sensitivity, humour and humanity, as well as his disbelief in his own final moments just before death (“I never thought this would really happen…this is so weird“). It is a very powerful and moving testament: celebrating the artist’s courage and vision, whilst also reminding viewers of the harsh realities of the experience of living with illness and disability. Since Flanagan lived twice as long as most people who have CF, including his own siblings, one cannot help but believe there is something in his maxim to ‘fight sickness with sickness’!
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson wrote the following analysis of Flanagan and his work:
“He deliberately provokes his viewers by rendering himself a contemporary freak figure. By hypersexualizing himself, cultivating exaggeration, and creating a radically transgressive persona, he aggressively enlists the exotic mode to counter unequivocally the rhetoric of sentimentality and renounce even the admiration of the wondrous. His self-presentation insists on the embodied dynamic of pain and its capacity to render one grotesque rather than transcendent-but never sympathetic. Regardless of how strenuously Flanagan’s performances work against transcendence and toward establishing distance between himself and his spectators, there is nevertheless a strange nobility and attraction in the harsh character he creates. Perhaps that was his intent” (2001, p 358).