Bob Flanagan was an American poet and musician who was also known as a performance artist, often specialising in sado-masochistic acts.
He was born on the 26th December 1952 in New York City but the family moved to Glendale, California not long after Bob was born. He was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when very young and his doctors did not think he would live much beyond the age of seven or eight because of this. It was certainly unusual that he survived into his forties although his illness did, ultimately, claim his life. He lost a sister to the same disease; she had lived to the age of 21.
Despite this handicap he got through school and went on to study literature at two Californian universities. At first he thought he might like to be a famous painter but he changed his mind and took up poetry. Moving to Los Angeles in 1976 he began work on his first book. The Kid Is the Man, a mixture of poetry and prose, was published within two years while he was also working with an improvisational and sketch comedy troupe called The Groundlings. A famous member of that group was Pee-wee Herman.
He was also a member of a group called Beyond Baroque who met at an “alternative literary centre” in Los Angeles. Flanagan would read extracts from his own poems which usually centred on his debilitating illness along with his sex life. Curiously some of his written material was as much for children’s consumption as adults. He wrote a number of humorous songs for both generations. Here are extracts from one of his poems, an angry sounding piece called Why:
As his career as a performance artist developed he moved more and more into sado-masochism. One particularly gruesome “performance” found him on stage cracking jokes while happily hammering a nail through his penis! Additionally, he appeared in several music videos that were banned as being too extreme for public broadcast but will have somehow found their way into the public domain. It is, of course, impossible to ascertain what his motivation was for the ever-increasing extremities that he went to in the name of his art but some have suggested that a lifelong battle with an incurable illness will have played a part. After all, one could argue that he had nothing to lose, so what would be the harm in both inflicting pain on himself at the same time as offending public sensibilities?
He actually said that he had managed to live so long by having the ability to “fight pain with pain”. By that he must have meant that self-inflicted pain might cancel out the involuntary pain within caused by his disease. Flanagan claimed that he had been inspired by so-called “body artists” from the 1970s such as Carolee Schneemann and Chris Burden.
In late 1994 the public witnessed an extremely disturbing exhibition of his work at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo. This consisted of various items of sculpture and screens showing videos. He even included a piece of “live” art – a hospital bed in the middle of the gallery, with him in it talking to anyone who wanted to converse with him. This was his first, and last, exhibition and the event generated a great deal of discussion along the lines of “is this really art?”. Two years later his lifelong illness finally claimed his life.
Bob Flanagan died on the 4th January 1996, aged 43. The final years of his life were portrayed in a documentary film a year later called SICK: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.