*Trigger Warning: graphic content and discussion of self-harm. Please do not attempt to recreate any of the following artworks.*
Physical Suffering for Art
Pain and suffering of the physical body have been topics explored by many artists. From Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 to Pablo Picasso's Guernica, artists have long depicted pain in their work. Some artists such as Frida Kahlo, who suffered from chronic pain, even used their art as a way to explore their own physical suffering. While pain is something that most of the world strives to avoid, there are some who embrace it as a way to enhance their art. Some artists have even chosen to go as far as intentionally harming themselves in the name of art. Below are a handful of artists who have done just this.
Millie Brown’s work has caused a flurry of reactions throughout the years. From performance pieces to canvas, Brown has created many of her works by means of her own vomit. In her series Rainbow Body, Brown created multiple of these vomit works on canvas. To create these works, she would fast for two days, drink colored soy milk, and then vomit the milk onto the canvas. By drinking and vomiting different colored soy milk, she created pastel canvases reminiscent of beautiful sunsets. Repeated self-induced vomiting is not good for one’s health and Brown herself has admitted to experiencing migraines. She’s been quoted as saying that she just wants her work to move people. Whether in a negative or positive way, she doesn’t care, as long as the work invokes deeper thoughts or feelings in the viewer. She states that she is just using her body to create something beautiful. Among accusations of glamourizing bulimia, Brown has felt that people misunderstand her work and that if she were a man making this kind of art, this allegation would not be made. In recent years she has backed away from creating vomit art, instead focusing on other artistic pursuits. Brown has also performed many durational pieces, one in which she swung suspended in the air upside down for six hours while having paint poured down her body onto the canvas below her, and another where she lay in meditation in a box surrounded by freshly cut flowers for seven days, surviving only off of water.
Between 1990 and 1993, artist ORLAN underwent nine plastic surgeries to reconstruct her face as a part of her work The Reincarnation of Saint ORLAN. Many of the surgeries were recorded as part of the work, with a primary interest in the process of the surgeries and less focus on the final results. She used classic depictions of women from prominent artworks as inspiration for the different procedures. She wanted her mouth to imitate Francois Boucher’s Europa, her forehead to look like Leonardo's Mona Lisa, and her chin to mimic Botticelli’s Venus. Despite these modifications from classic beauties, ORLAN has stated that it was not her goal to come out of the surgeries looking better or younger. Her goal was to sculpt her own body, reinvent herself, and attack mother nature. She was tired of the ways societal beauty standards constrained women and wanted to make herself less beautiful. This is perhaps most evident in the two implants she had placed on either side of her forehead, creating little bumps that some have referred to as horns. Part of the series includes an image of ORLAN, post-surgery, her face and neck bruised and swollen gazing into the viewer's eyes with a sense of defiance and self-assurance.
Carlos Martiel is a body-based artist, often using his own body as the canvas for his works. From sewing a classic English suit to his body to burying himself under seven layers of rock and dirt taken from areas in Los Angeles where people had been killed by police, Martiel’s works are striking and evocative. In 2022, Martiel created his work Tierra de nadie (No Mans Land), in which he pierced eight hand-sized flags through the skin of his upper torso. The eight flags signify the European countries that invaded and colonized parts of Africa between the 1800’s until the start of WWI. Those countries are Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom. Martiel focuses this work on the exploitation of humans and environmental resources in Africa by world powers who continue to profit from the misery and division they created. Many of Martiel’s works focus on the politics of race, using his own body to reveal the truths of our societies that have been built and found success through the labor, pain, and death of Black bodies.
Pyotr Pavlensky is a performance artist from Russia who often uses his body to protest oppressive laws in his country. In 2012, Pavlensky sewed his own mouth shut in protest to the arrest of a popular punk feminist band called Pussy Riot who sang a song in which they shouted “Mother of God, chase Putin out!”In 2014, Pavlensky climbed naked onto a wall outside of an infamous psychiatric institute in Moscow where he then cut off his right earlobe. This action was in protest of the political abuse of psychiatry. In his work Carcass, he cocooned his nude body in barbed wire and was placed in front of the St. Petersburg Parliament in response to a series of laws that would restrict personal freedoms in Russia. In the same year, he performed Carcass Pavlensky also completed his work Fixation where he used crucifixion-style nails to nail his scrotum into the paving stones of the Red Square as a way to signify the passivity of the Russian people. His works are distinctly protest based while also being extremely shocking and generally unpleasant to behold.
Many might wonder why an artist would intentionally put themselves through pain and suffering that could so easily be avoided. While there are likely many answers to such a question, I think it’s interesting to note that many artists who create this kind of art often do so with a greater purpose in mind. Their pain is used to bring awareness to and fight against the many injustices that exist in our society. I think a better question is, do we as a society feel more inclined to fight only after we see the violence of injustices acted out in front of us? Does our empathy depend on visual pain?
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