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The Reek of Human Blood Smiles Out at Me

By Steve Finbow.

Martin Bladh and Karolina Urbaniak, The Torture of the 100 Pieces (Infinity Land Press 2020)

Michel Foucault — channelling Immanuel Kant — wrote that, “Criticism consists of analyzing and reflecting upon limits”. If that is so, then this book questions the regulations of text and image and surveys the extent of restrictions on our bodies — and its publication incorporates the immanence of crossing-over. In his informative introduction, Jack Sargeant states, “Each text pushes thought in new directions” and “These photographs emerge from, and seek to return to, a moment of timelessness in which the body is opened and recontextualized”. Taking Georges Bataille’s obsession with the photographs of the execution by Lingchi (death by a hundred — sometimes a thousand — cuts) of Fu Chou Li in China in 1905, Martin Bladh’s violent abuse of his own body retextualizes the writing of others on pain and this, in turn, is documented by Karolina Urbaniak’s photographs which aestheticize the abhorrent.

“Transgression is neither violence in a divided world (in an ethical world) nor a victory over limits (in a dialectical or revolutionary world); and exactly for this reason, its role is to measure the excessive distance that it opens at the heart of the limit and to trace the flashing line that causes the limit to arise.” In 1832, George Catlin visited the Mandan tribe of the American Great Plains. He conducted an ethnographic study of their O-kee-pa ceremony, which entailed fasting, sleep deprivation and men having the skin of their chest and back pierced with splints and then lifted by ropes attached to these splints and suspended from the roof of the lodge with weights attached to their feet.

It is telling that in the opening pages, a quote from Georges Bataille states, “Chancing on an image of torture, I can turn away in fright. But if I look I am beside myself,” and Bladh expands: “To what extent can the artist be successful in disassociating himself from his violent obsession and sublimate cruelty into fiction?” Sublimation and sublation — Aufhebung — from horror to art, from torture to text, with Urbaniak as the agent of disassociation. “To reflect on the injuries depicted means to be both beside myself as an artist — disassociated — and also in the more ecstatic meaning of the phrase: an extreme state of emotion, understood as a Heideggerian existence as ek-sistence, “Ex-sistence, thought in terms of ecstasis, being ‘out of’ oneself.” Or what Michael Peppiatt wrote about Francis Bacon’s paintings: “In these images the human body is reinvented as a set of dislocated, semi-organic forms, but it remains fully recognizable, creating an ambiguity between what is seen and what is signified that challenges many assumptions about what it is to be a human being”.

“Transgression prescribes not only the sole manner of discovering the sacred in its unmediated substance, but also a way of recomposing its empty form, its absence, through which it becomes all the more scintillating.” In 1949, the Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana began his Spatial Concept series of artworks in which he punctured holes in canvases and later went on to slash the canvases with a scalpel or Stanley knife. He wrote, “It’s not true that I made holes in the canvas in order to destroy it, no, I made holes in order to discover, to find the cosmos of an unknown dimension.” 

Over eight years, from 2012 until 2020, Bladh injured his body and Urbaniak photographed the cuts, scourings and burnings. Here is their methodology, “The work should consist of 100 close-up photographs of flesh wounds and damaged skin tissue. My own body should be the sole arena. Every wound must be either self-inflicted, or done by proxy (by Urbaniak) according to our ideas. The injuries could be inflicted ‘live’ in front of an audience or in the solitude of Urbaniak’s studio with the camera as the only witness. Methods used to apply the injuries could vary from cutting, burning, scratching, piercing, bruising and flogging, as long as the operation leaves a prominent mark on the body. Aesthetic choice must always surpass pure documentational value.” And Bladh and Urbaniak make it clear that this is no sadomasochistic event but a curation of artistic self-injury, self-discovery — autobiography. Jean Genet on Alberto Giacometti, “Each man guards in himself his own particular wound, different in everyone,” or “Each woman guards in herself her own particular wound, different in everyone”.

“Transgression is an action that involves the limit, that narrow zone of a line where it displays the flash of its passage, but perhaps also its entire trajectory, even its origin; it is likely that transgression has its entire space in the line it crosses.” The Viennese Actionist Günter Brus’s work from Hand-Painting Self-Painting 2 (1964), Transfusion (1965), Self-Mutilation (1965) until Stress Test (1970) portrays his body as spectacle, including the cutting of his skin and scalp and these events are then recorded in photographic detail — the torn flesh as spectacle, the body as punctured canvas: “My body is the intention. My body is the event. My body is the result”.

Sargeant terms the photographs “woundscapes” and that is a precise description. These images taken with macro lenses portray the human body as an alien planet, a surreal environment, an object-oriented examination of the fluids of being in which skin, blood, plasma, serum and pus have equal status. Words are wounds, the blank page is the bare skin, the quoted texts are the old scars still visible. Cicatrices as psychiatrics as anxiolytics. But this is not a documentation of disgust or a representation of violence; it is a spectacle of being, of humanity, of civilization — ontobiography. As Hannah Arendt notes, “In Kant you will find repeatedly the notion of how necessary war, catastrophes, and plain evil or pain are for the production of ‘culture.’ Without them, men would sink back into the brute state of mere animal satisfaction”. How far a distance is there in these photographs between Hegel’s unhappy consciousness and the absolute knowing of the artist’s body, the artists’ minds? Or as John Keats wrote in 1820, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”

“The play of limits and transgression seems to be regulated by a simple obstinacy: transgression incessantly crosses and recrosses a line that closes up behind it in a wave of extremely short duration, and thus it is made to return once more right to the horizon of the uncrossable.” Since the 1990s, Ron Athey’s works — from St Sebastian and Self-Obliteration to Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains — involve the insertion of metal pieces into his body, bloodletting, scarification, branding and anal penetration: the flesh and body fluids as palette, paint and canvas. Athey, another avowed Bataille enthusiast, states, “So the idea of seeing an impression of the wound and bringing it at three points so everyone was in a close proximity to an impression of the wound, just as a concept, rocked my boat”.

As the body of the text quotes sources such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Klaus Theweleit, Andrew Dworkin, alongside those from Dennis Nilsen, Edmund Kemper and John Sweeney, so Urbaniak’s images could be a miscellany of 20th century art — a close-up of Gustav Klimt fabric, the sand paintings of André Masson, Mark Rothko’s multiforms, a Francis Bacon palette, a swirl of Cy Twombly, even Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty — but they could also be the trophies collected and hoarded by serial killers (Alexander Pichushkin’s chessboard squares, Jeffrey Dahmer’s collection of genitals or Jerry Brudos’s shoes). The body as art, art as pain, pain as awareness: this is not sexual, not algolagnic, not ritual, not taboo, it is an analysis in text and image, in blood and pus, of artistic self-awareness or what Gilles Deleuze calls “the autopsy of the living”; an examination of bodily and textual thresholds and a photographic representation of limit, of real essence.

“Transgression carries the limit right to the limit of its being; transgression forces the limit to face the fact of its imminent disappearance, to find itself in what it excludes (perhaps, to be more exact, to recognize itself for the first time), to experience its positive truth in its downward fall”: in 2000, in a work called Iron, the Chinese artist Yang Zhichao had himself branded with fifteen numbers which formed a personal identification tag; his skin was burned and blistered with hot irons administered without an anaesthetic. In 2004, he had an unspecified metal object surgically implanted into his leg and, over time, his body assimilated it, this “installation” piece is called Hide.

Alphonse Daudet believed that suffering is instructive and that pain is one of the elemental truths; Bladh and Urbaniak portray this in their own land of pain. Thomas Bernhard wrote that, “Happiness can even be found in the so-called acceptance of pain”. And as Bataille notes in On Nietzsche, pain “is the moment when the individual finds out that he or she has become time (and, to that extent, has been eaten away inside), and when, on account of repeated sufferings and desertions, the movement of time makes him or her a sieve for its flow — so that, opened to immanence, nothing remains in that person to differentiate him or her from the possible object”. Bladh’s body and text become object and abject, Urbaniak’s photographs subject the skin to the unmitigating gaze of the artist. Both, in their own way, impel us to look, the petrified gaze encountering injured living skin; the rarefied gaze experiencing an art of light and violence. Both words and images bring out as evidence things that usually remain hidden. This is body art and the transgressive apprehension of that art.

While you look at your skin and imagine it being burned, scraped, gouged, sandpapered and then recorded for other people to gaze at and wonder, think of Foucault’s statement that “Transgression contains nothing negative, but affirms limited being — affirms the limitlessness into which it leaps as it opens this zone to existence for the first time. But correspondingly, this affirmation contains nothing positive: no content can bind it, since, by definition, no limit can possibly restrict it. Perhaps it is simply an affirmation of division; but only insofar as division is not understood to mean a cutting gesture, or the establishment of a separation or the measuring of a distance, only retaining that in it which may designate the existence of difference”. Or, as Francis Bacon would have it, “Only by going too far will you get anywhere at all”.

Steve Finbow’s biography of Allen Ginsberg in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series was published in 2011. His other works include Pond Scum (PulpBits, 2005), Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Zero Books, 2014) and Notes from the Sick Room (Repeater Books, 2017), Death Mort Tod: A European Book of the Dead (Infinity Land Press, 2018) and The Mindshaft (Amphetamine Sulphate, 2020).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 20th, 2020.