Artistic Audit

1. Artists that work with the body as a primary source of communication

2. A sense of viscerality present in the work

3. Work that might be considered as generous

4. Artists that create work within the gap of Self and Other

5. Work that deals literally and metaphorically with ideas of contamination


Martin O'Brien (2016) If it Were The Apocalypse... 

Points of Contact

As our two separate projects slowly come to fruition we have started to find traces of each other in our practice. We have lived and worked with each other now for three years, so it is probably inevitable that we find ourselves being drawn to each others research, performance practice and disciplines; however, we think it's more than this.  We don't, just talk about each others work, instead we find ourselves using terms specific to each other's research projects to explain our own. Dysfunction, for example, was the starting point for my latest research project, but it also found its way into mine; and whilst I talk about contamination I've started to see this as a generous act rather than an aggressive and dominating one. As time moves forward we can identify more and more examples, and as such, we now find ourselves staring in different directions at the same project

The Horrific Pleasures of Gilbert and George

There is something strange about Gilbert and George, something unnerving about them, a type of not-quite-rightness that Lacan might call the objet petit a; a term that he used to describe what exists outside of language, but drives the individual towards subjectification (Lacan, 1998: 268).  It is not just that their live performance is uncanny, although this helps, it is more to do with the way that their live performances intersects with their picture series.  Using their Law of Sculptures as a starting point and ending with Eight Shits (1994) I argue that by locating their bodies next to enlarged images of their bodily waste the artists perform the potential horrific pleasures of the male body. 

The Uncanny in the Performance of Hypermasculinity

Gilbert and George are well known for their careful and controlled public presentation of their image, which as a performance was established in 1969 under their first manifesto Laws of Sculptures. Out of the four commandments contained within the manifesto, the first states: ‘Always be smartly dressed, well groomed and friendly, polite and in complete control’ (Gilbert and George, 2011). Curiously, their public persona differed dramatically from artistic and cultural fashioning at that time.  In Britain, during the 1960s and 1970s many artists attempted to reject the tightly controlled presentation of self that was defined by the 1950s.  Rather than wearing formal suits and observing acceptable forms of etiquette, these decades gave way to ‘rebel’ culture where fashion, music and art allowed for a greater expression of self.  However, in reaction to this Gilbert and George self-consciously styled themselves in an Edwardian manner (Saurisse, 2013: 104). Always dressed in suits that compliment each other, but are never entirely the same, they refer to these as their ‘responsibility suits, which aimed to eliminate issues of choice and vanity so they could focus on making art (Çakirlar, 2011: 96). This was not just a sartorial choice, but also one that they applied to the construction of their identities and subsequently their bodies.


Over the last forty-six years Gilbert and George have continued to demonstrate high levels of rigidity, control and coherence in order to maintain their identity as ‘living sculptures’.  Referencing their training at art college, this term also refers to their choice of blurring life and art by never deviating from their performance in public where they always adopted a contrived and affected posture (Saurisse, 2013:107). Always formal, reserved, emotionally resistant and mirroring each other’s body language, in many respects this level of control might be considered indicative of hypermasculinity. Yet their use of hyperbolic formal manners and style actually exposes the artificiality of their public identity (Saurisse, 2013:108).  When watching them mirror each other’s postures almost exactly, finishing of each other sentences, agreeing on almost everything, and sounding the same, I begin to feel uncomfortable.  The experience of this discomfort is as a result of them attempting to provide ‘some delicate way of seeing an aspect of life [with regards to] what a person is or is not’ (Dutt & Gilbert and George, 2004: 38). I think they achieve this by performing an uncanny masculine identity.


Sigmund Freud describes the uncanny as being ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’ (Freud, 1971: 219). It is the manifestation of what is repressed by the subject in something that is familiar, or, it can also be something strange that at its core has something ordinary about it. Kristeva also suggests that there is an uncanniness about the abject ‘which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome’ (Kristeva, 1982: 4). For Freud, the uncanny can be identified in three main categories: those things that relate to the double; castration anxieties regarding the fear of female genitalia or dismembered limbs; the feeling associated with a familiar or unfamiliar place (Creed, 2007: 53). Rosalind Minsky considers in her discussion on uncanny literature, that when faced with social norms art can reveal certain knowledge about an otherwise repressed, nocturnal, secret and unconscious universe. This is because it redoubles the social contract by exposing the unsaid (Minsky, 1996: 259).


One explanation into the workings of the uncanny that Freud offers forward is that it destroys the distinction between imagination and reality (Freud, 1971: 244). In Lacan’s articulation of the realms occupied by subjectivity, the real, as discussed earlier, is associated with the bodily drives that exceed signification, whereas the imaginary has a double meaning, which is drawn from the mirror stage (Lacan, 2001).  It refers to the moment where the child sees her image in the mirror for the first time and in turn perceives her self as a unified self-image.  At the same time though, this image is also alien to her because it is not indicative of the fluidity and fragmentation experienced with the body (Lacan, 2001: 3–4).  In this respect imaginary means both image and imagination, and if a coherent masculine identity can be seen in this way then what becomes uncanny about Gilbert and George is their ability to create an illusion where the symbols of an imaginary masculine image masks the fluidity of the male body. The feeling of uncanniness manifests because whilst a normative masculinity feels familiar, the heavy censoring of abstract qualities like emotion, or tiny characteristics that define individuals, makes it feel unfamiliar. 


By bringing the repressed body to the surface as a result of exposing the uncanny though, a new uncanny turn appears with a focus on corporeality. To achieve the well-rehearsed identity of Gilbert and George a disciplining of the body needs to occur. As such their performances raise questions about how intimate two men have to be in order to achieve the accuracy needed in their work (Saurisse, 2013: 111). This suggests that in order for these two men to perform the same identity there has to be an understanding of each other that is based on more than simple observation. They have to be in close proximity together for a significant amount of time, they have to know each other’s body, its mannerism, and its production of meaning intimately. Their artworks then engage with the norms of masculinity whilst accommodating the uncanny presence of the artists’ homosexual, and therefore culturally abject, bodies (Çakirlar, 2011: 89).


It is important to note that this unfamiliarity does not cause abjection though, for Kristeva argues that abjection is distinctly different from uncanniness because it is more violent and does not recognise similarity (Kristeva, 1982: 5). Instead we may read Gilbert and George’s live performances as the unveiling of the phallus, for, in following Amelia Jones reading of Robert Morris, Gilbert and George ‘highlight areas of contradiction in masculinity, “opening up”, as it where, areas of rupture and penetrability […]’ (Jones, 1998: 115). The phallus is revealed in Gilbert and George’s performances because they expose, through the uncanny, the gaps in the symbolic traits of their identity where multiple significations can occur.  Not only do they reveal the importance of the body in the construction of masculinity, but also that the policing of that body can result in an overinvestment of male corporeality. To open up the gaps as a result of contradicting signification then is to make one’s masculine identity vulnerable, fluid and penetrable. Yet this vulnerability is not what I think the objet petit a is in their oeuvre.  Where it may be found though is in the relationship between Gilbert and George’s live performances and their picture series Naked Shit Pictures (1994).

Performing Abject Pleasures

In the highly saturated prints of Naked Shit Pictures the photographs of Gilbert and George are placed alongside enlarged images of their own bodily fluids and waste. One picture that I find most striking in this series is Eight Shits (1994).  Here the artists are photographed naked with their white pants around their ankles against a bright blue background. Superimposed onto the picture are six enlarged images of well-formed excrement; standing next to them George faces the viewer looking shocked or stunned as Gilbert, with hands on his hips and his leg bent, raises his eyebrows as if slightly embarrassed.  Both look like they have been caught in the act of expelling their faeces; they are literally, as the common dictum states, caught with their pants down.  These slightly awkward and overly stylized positions seem to echo the overly conservative identity they perform in their live works. I believe that these two separate mediums work together to create a narrative of normative masculinity with particular reference to male attitudes towards the body.   That is, the calm, formal, and well-considered people in their live works end up performing an anxiety associated with masculine corporeality in Eight Shits.


In Camera Lucida (1981) Roland Barthes describes two aspects of the photograph, which can be applied to Gilbert and George’s picture as a way of understanding how muscular masculinity is performed by them.  The first is the studium, which is the way that the artist constructs their image (Barthes, 1981: 26).  This is the intention of the artist presented graphically, which is then interpreted by the spectators who see the ideas and intentions in the work.  Barthes argues that culture is important in the construction of the studium for it is knowledge of one’s culture that allows for a shared body of information to be communicated (Barthes, 1981: 25).  In relation to Eight Shits, and considering their live practice, Gilbert and George communicate the relationship between men, male bodies and masculinity. The horror captured on their faces and the embarrassment that is present in their posture, whilst being positioned next to those massive shits, inscribes into that image a corporeal anxiety about the leaky male body.


However, there is also something not quite right about these poses, something uncanny in the way that Gilbert and George hold themselves that seems in excess to the composition of the work.  Barthes describes a break in the studium, which he refers to as the punctum the element of a photograph that pricks and marks, or stings and cuts a little hole into the spectator (Barthes, 1981: 27).  In Mythologies, originally published in 1972, Barthes locates in Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin the same punctum, which he describes as a flour-white complexion and dark vegetation for eyes (Barthes, 1993: 56).  The punctum is the thing that shoots out at the spectator and makes a mark, which disrupts the studium through the process of making new interpretations, links or points (Barthes, 1981: 27).  As Bert O’States notes, ‘who has ever thought of Charlie Chaplin’s eyes in this way, yet who does not instantly see the “connection”’(O’States, 1992: 34).


The punctum that emerges in Eight Shits for me is the thing that allows the spectator to move though the performed symbolic codes of masculinity and see their self, rather than just Gilbert and George. In this picture there is a sense that they are making their bodies feel awkward to look at by deliberately sculpting them into those positions. As if making a mockery of the masculine fear of male corporeality they melodramatically perform shock, or feign anxiety and it is here that it becomes clear to me that those artists do not fear male corporeality at all. Instead the evidence of shame and anxiety that I am searching for on those bodies is performatively thrown back at me. As a spectator I start to consider why I am searching for shame in the first place and what this might suggest about me.


This anxiety is only fleeting though, as the ridiculousness of those shits in relation to Gilbert and George makes me laugh, a moment which Cüneyt Çakirlar refers to as an ‘aesthetics of shame’, where shame ricochets in the self and converts to joy (Çakirlar, 2011: 97). This aesthetic occurs because of the humorous ways in which they play with the signification of the male body. In the first instance, there are only six shits on the image, whilst the title suggests that the other two might be Gilbert and George.  As a result of their mocking we might consider them as shits, and furthermore they probably don’t give a shit either.  There is also the possibility that they are quite literally desperate for a shit, or that they are scared shitless as a result of the monstrous feces that share the space with them.


Considering the relationship between their live performances and Eight Shits I read Gilbert and George as performing Kristeva’s now well cited quote: ‘I abject myself within the same motion through which "I" claim to establish myself(Kristeva, 1982: 3).  In the picture, Gilbert and George potentially signify characteristics, behaviours and traits that might be aligned with normative masculinity, for example nonchalance and aggression in the form of mocking their spectator.  Yet at the same time, that signification is confused because they also perform the very characteristics that are rejected from patriarchal discourse, such as being aligned with corporeality, or being seen to be scared.  By operating within the in-between space of these signs they demonstrate the male’s ability of ‘becoming’ the very thing that masculinity aims to reject.


Yet what causes me most pleasure in Eight Shits is the way Gilbert and George link the penis/phallus conflation with faeces.  The six images of excrement are phallic because, and to adapt Lacan’s own description, they are turgid like a bar or rod, they act as copula between the inside of the body and the outside, and furthermore as demonstrated above, they can also represent the image of vital flow with reference to the production of meaning (Aydemir, 2007: 41–44). Compared to this Gilbert and George’s own flaccid penises simply do not stand up. Moreover, if the penis references the phallus, which is depicted here as shit, through a process of deferral the penis becomes linked to the anus an orifice which is buried deep underneath the masculine ideal (Phelan, 1997: 81). Normative masculinity hides the male anus, not just because it leaks and is considered dirty, but because it is associated with penetrable and subsequently pleasurable potential (Waldby, 2002: 272). As such, rather than shit, these images become penises stained with shit, which simultaneously signify the anxiety regarding the vulnerability of the male body and the potential penetrable joy (if not pleasure) associated with it.



Aydemir, M. (2007) Images of Bliss: Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning. University of Minnesota Press.

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Barthes, R. (1993) Mythologies. Vintage classics. Vintage.

Çakirlar, C. (2011) Masculinity, Scatology, Mooning and the Queer/able Art of Gilbert & George: On the Visual Discourse of Male Ejaculation and Anal Penetration. Paragraph, 34 (1) March, pp. 86–104.

Creed, B. (2007) The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge.

Dutt, R. & Gilbert and George (2004) Gilbert & George: Obsessions & Compulsions. Contemporary Artists. London: PWP.

Freud, S. (1971) The Uncanny. In: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Frome: Hogarth Press, pp. 219–252.

Gilbert and George (2011) Law of Sculptors (1969). In: Danchev, A. ed. 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists. Penguin Books Limited.

Jones, A. (1998) Body Art/performing the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kristeva, J. (1982) The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Chichester: Columbia University Press.

Lacan, J. (2001) The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of The/as Revealed in the Psychoanalytic Experience. In: Lacan: Ecrits A Selection. London: Taylor & Francis e-Library, pp. 1–6.

Minsky, R. (1996) Psychoanlysis and Gender: An Introductory Reader. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

O’States, B. (1992) The Phenomeological Attitude. In: Reinelt, J. G. & Roach, J. R. ed. Critical Theory and Performance. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, pp. 26–36.

Phelan, P. (1997) Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories. London and New York: Routledge.

Saurisse, P. (2013) Sculpting Etiquette: Gilbert and George’s Radical Good Manners. Visual Culture in Britain, 14 (1), pp. 104–114.

Waldby, C. (2002) DESTRUCTION: BOUNDARY EROTICS AND REFIGURATIONS OF THE HETEROSEXUAL MALE BODY. In: Elizabeth, G. & Probyn, E. ed. SEXY BODIES The strange carnalities of feminism. London: Routledge, pp. 266–275.

Reconsidering Athey: Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains at SPILL

In the first four years of studying body-based performance, I had not had the chance to engage directly with Ron Athey’s live performance work.  Of course, the stories, images and analyses associated with his performances helped to shape my understanding of him in relation to the lineage of male body-based practitioners I was studying.  For, as Tim Etchells notes in his chapter in Pleading the Blood, Athey’s ‘material unfolding provides the spot from which account in all forms – rumours, stories, anecdotes, lay speculations, as well as academic theorisations – will proceed’ (Etchells, 2013, p. 226). 

Even in absentia then I found the heteroglossic narratives of Athey’s performances to be well suited to discussions around the theme of identity in body-based performance art.  Furthermore the usefulness of these discussions allowed me to conclude that his endurance of the abject destabilised representations of masculinity, but at the same time reinscribed the coherence of normative masculine traits, behaviours and characteristics into the performance space.

The absence of Athey’s corporality was halted though in November 2014 where on the last night of SPILL Festival I was stood in the foyer of Ipswich Town Hall waiting to see Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains (2014).  Eager to see the work I arrived forty-five minutes early and stood at the bottom of the stair well against a red rope that stopped me from climbing the stairs and prematurely entering the space.

As the foyer slowly started to swell with bodies, tension began to resonate in mine, I felt nervous and sick with the images that I had seen, the stories that I had heard and the analyses that I had made of his work. I was fraught with concern, what would happen if I fainted, what happens if there is so much blood that the smell of iron becomes overwhelming?  What happens if I become sick at the violence depicted in the work? As the rope was released and I made my way up the stairs that fuzzy feeling threatened to take more of my body over.

On entering the space I immediately chose not to ascend the stairs on to the stage where Athey lay on a metal table in quasi-ritualistic clothing, a plastic mask pinned to his face, and a beard, similar to those found on statues of Pharaohs, pinned to his chin.  I chose to remove myself from the same space where he lay with a baseball bat hanging below the table and jutting out of his anus.

Instead I chose to sit on the raked seating some distance away from the stage watching the majority of the audience queue up to rub, what I assumed to be lubricant, over his body.  Like the foyer downstairs the stage began to swell as more and more participants gathered around him, caressing, touching and rubbing his body.  Struggling to find a position some simply touched his foot.  No one though made this a fleeting moment, no one walked up, touched and left, at least from what I remember, instead people took their time.  Most simply allowed time for a connection to be made.

At some point during this first section of the performance, it occurred to me that I had stopped thinking of Athey as a person, for me in that moment he had become an object, something to be touched and admired, like precious metal.  In an interview with Dominic Johnson, Athey states that the performances that he creates are not about shocking his audience, rather they are about enacting a sense of generosity (Athey & Johnson, 2015).  Amelia Jones echoes this sentiment when she notes that Athey’s work ‘opens up circuits of intersubjective identification and desire that are fundamentally social and thus potentially political (Jones, 2013, p. 152).  She goes onto note, in reference to Solar Anus (2006), that his art can be seen as potentially socially transformative. 


‘This transformation is not mystical. To the contrary it is textured, tied to embodiment that is brute and immanent, and highly politicized.  Performing his own tattooed ‘solar anus in public – and as an orifice rather than as a sealed or completed fetish or picture of the body – is Athey’s way of using the frame of the aesthetic to pull us back into social/erotic relation with one another’ (Jones, 2013, p. 157).


It occurred to me whilst in the presence of Athey’s corporeality that he does endure the abject, but not to secure the coherence of masculinity as I have previously ascertained from the safety of my books. In her chapter Visions of Xs: experiencing La dels Baus's XXX and Ron Athey's Solar Anus, Roberta Mock suggests that works such as Athey's and La dels Baus's have been interpreted based on critics assumptions rather than signposts erected by the company (Mock, 2010: 190).  In hindsight my reading of Athey's work as being indicative of muscular masculinity did just this and reveals more about me than it does about the work itself.  It is me, and not Athey, that feels the need to endure the abject for the sake of a coherent identity. It is me, and not Athey, that was I and not not-I.

Instead Athey endures the abject as a way of facing the free play of signification at the margins and in doing so he removes the mastery of meaning and undermines the security of categorisation (Etchells, 2013).  His work then ‘exists in the fraught twin spaces of the theatrical/factual, imaginary/actual, the body/fantastical [...]’ (Etchells, 2013, pp. 227–230).  As such he is not subject, but also not not-subject, and therefore we might see Athey’s endurance of the abject as a self-obliteration.

Yet to completely destroy one’s identity and become object is to reinscribe binary opposition, self-obliteration then is not a metaphor for destroying the ego, it is a suspended state (Athey & Johnson, 2015, p. 210).  Athey’s endured performances of the abject are generous then because they are deep and intimate, they are 'performed on behalf of himself, on my behalf, on behalf of everyone present' (Mock, 2010: 197).  In doing this his performances create a deep dilemma through the construction of ambiguity, that in turn gives way to questions about how social laws, constructed for the sake of normativity, violently suppress one’s agency over their body.  Furthermore, they are a calling to abandon convention, emotional safeguarding, and complacency (Athey & Johnson, 2015, p. 209). In short they are acts that bring the body back into the discourse of politics.




Athey, R. & Johnson, D. (2015) Perverse Martyrologies: An Interview with Ron Athey. In: Johnson, D. ed. The Art of Living: An Oral History of Performance Art. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 195–218.

Etchells, T. (2013) By Word of Mouth: Ron Athey’s Self-Obliteration. In: Johnson, D. ed. Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey. London and Bristol: Live Art Development Agency, pp. 226–233.

Jones, A. (2013) How Ron Athey Makes Me Feel: The Political Potential of Upsetting Art. In: Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey. London and Bristol: Intellect and Live Art Development Agency, pp. 152–179.

Mock, R. (2010) visions of Xs: experiencing La Furs dels Baus's XXX  and Ron Athey's Solar Anus. In: Gritzner, K (ed) Eroticism and Death in Theatre and Performance. Hertfordshire, University of Hertfordshrire Press, pp. 178-201

What Constitutes Self-Obliteration Within Lacanian Psychoanalysis?

In my last blog I mentioned that I would be answering questions about Self-Obliteration through readings of Kusama’s and Athey’s performances. Before doing this though, a brief return to what I have written before hand about Lacan and his concept of the ‘objet petit a’ might shed some light as to what self obliteration might actually constitute. 


Chapter 1 in my thesis identified that there have been a series of artists operating towards the end of the 20th Century where normative representations of masculinity are performed in relation to the control of image, and the endurance of abjection. I referred to these performances as muscular masculinity, yet what made these different from the work of those artists who can be read through Amelia Jones concept of phallic dis/play (Jones, 1994) is that these images are indicative of what Žižek refers to as not quite rightness (Zizek, 2011).  I argued that what makes these images not quite right is the flash of corporeal anxiety that appears and then immediately disappears in the works. 


When I think back over the processes that have been undertaken throughout this PaR PhD and the experiences that have affected the development of this research project it becomes apparent to me that masculinity, or even masculine identity, is very difficult to define. 

It is of course possible to see the premature ending of the second performance of Spitting Distance (2013) and the redirection of the making process in Talking about Keith (2014) as demonstrations of failed masculinity.  That being that even normative masculinity couldn’t get me through the experiences of abjection in the work.  Yet at the same time this assumes that other gendered identities might be able to undertake experiences of abjection in a way that I couldn’t, simply because I am a man that prescribes to certain aspects to masculinity, either consciously or otherwise.  This notion is absurd when considering the social construction of gender itself. 

Jackson Pollock a Muscular Legacy

In a previous article, I outlined a pattern of masculine representation in male body-based practice called muscular masculinity. So as not to risk repeating the content here I'll only offer a brief outline as to what this constitutes.  Muscular Masculinity is the hyperbolic performance of hegemonic masculine norms, however unlike examples of hypermasculinity, it is performed with the view of destabilising normativity. Muscular Masculinity then can be summed up as postructuralist turn where normative masculinity is turned against itself in order to demonstrate its ability to be fluid.

Jackson Pollock


In Time magazine, published in 1949, a strapline asks whether Jackson Pollock is the boldest living artist in the United States.  Above this, he stands leaning against his most extensive work, #9, an 18-foot long action painting. At 37 years old he stands nonchalantly, with little a bit of a “what-the-fuck” worldly attitude.  He’s wearing his paint splattered blue overalls, black boots, and his bulky arms and legs are crossed.  There’s a cigarette hanging from the left corner of his mouth.  Whilst not moving he appears to be actively in thought, and looks just to the right, never acknowledging his audience.


What’s interesting about this image, is the thematic similarities it has with other images of Jackson Pollock. He always has the same expression, pensive, stern, and slightly aggressive.  He’s always active, usually he’s photographed on his own in his studio, surrounded by objects, with his massive canvases on the floor, always in action, always athletic, dribbling and flinging house paint from trowels or sticks on to his passive surfaces.

Jackson Pollock a product of 1950s America


These images are not indicative of an individual though, they are to generic for that, rather they are of "Jackson Pollock",  a cultural product of 1950s America.  They draw upon representations from tropes of American manhood codified in the post-World War II period.  Anxieties about masculinity were prevalent during this time, particularly as America’s entry into World War II, eight years earlier, forced men to conscript, which left holes in work forces back at home.

In order to fill these gaps women took on roles that had been traditionally prescribed for men, in factories and running industries.  In 1941 Norman Rockwell captured the moment in history where many American men were absent from their home country.  He created Rosie the Riveter, an image of a factory woman on her lunch break, her rivet gun on her lap, with the American flag as her backdrop.  


What’s striking about this image is its similarity to Pollock’s own photographic representations.   There is a masculinisation of her body, she’s wearing similar blue overalls, her arms are bulky, her face is stern, sweaty and greasy from her work, and she’s looking off to the left, disinterested in her potential audience’s gaze.

The gaps that Rosie fills then are not just in the work force, but also in the social roles of men at that time. She’s physically strong, she's independent, she’s not scared of hardwork, and she’s the breadwinner. However those gaps that need filling are also metaphorical, that rivet gun lying across her groin looks suspiciously like a penis, and deep in thought she appears to be calm and in control at a time of much upheaval.

At this moment in history, Rosie demonstrates that masculinity is starting to become dislodged from the male body.  Whilst this seemed to be ignored upon the backdrop of extreme violence, where men became heroes, inevitably once they started to return home it became a problem.  After the war, towards the beginning of the 1950s, media attention was drawn to the effiminisation of men, and through this it became clear that strength, independence and control were no longer the domain of the male (Jones 1998, pp. 78). As such, as well as signifying the normative traits of masculinity, Pollock’s visual representation also signified the anxiety of the male subject in American society at that time.

Jackson Pollock a Legacy for Muscular Masculinity


In response to this I propose that Pollock has left a legacy, one that can be traced through a variety of different types of male body-based practice through the late 20th to the early 21st Century.  These practitioners demonstrate normative masculine traits, characteristics and behaviours in their work.  However, like Pollock’s own representations, in enforcing contemporary cultural ideological assumptions about men or masculinity, they also destabilise them.  I call this Muscular Masculinity.


Jones, A. (1998). Body Art/Performing the Subject. University of Minnesota Press

Muscular Masculinity: Representations of Masculine Ideologies in Male Body-Based Performance Art

Throughout my research on representations of masculinity in male body-based performance art, a dominant pattern has emerged over the last fifty years.  In the works of Chris Burden, Andre Stitt, and Gilbert and George, normative masculine traits have been performed to an excess, which seems to destabilise hegemonic masculine ideologies.  I have come to call this pattern Muscular Masculinity, which is a metaphoric parody of hypermasculine identity.

What is Hypermasculinity?

Hypermasculinity in many respects is closely associated with hegemonic masculinity, and as such can be articulated as the hyperbolic performance of strength, power, control, emotional resistance,  and stoicism by men. This is best demonstrated through the action hero for example Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jason Statham.

When performed it has a relational impact on other genders and marginalised identities, as such men who assert hegemonic masculine characteristics, traits and behaviours, do so in order to enhance their status.  However, whilst similar, hypermasculinity is not the same as hegemonic masculinity.  It is the heightened performance of a few masculine norms, rather than being the actual norm itself. 

In addition to enforcing some normative masculine ideologies about the male body, hypermasculinity also compensates for those which are lacking. The poor, jobless male youth, for example, might not be financially successful, but he might gain feelings of power by excessively displaying his masculinity through aggressive sexism and violence (Karp 2010, pp.65). Hypermasculinity in this respect also becomes a mask for male inadequacies, weaknesses and other qualities that undermine normative representations of gender.  

The reiteration of hypermasculinity is learnt through mainstream cultural mediations, such as film, news, sports and mainstream heterosexual pornography, to name but a few. The latter, for example, teachers men that in heterosexual relationships female and male bodies should be seen as oppositional binaries. The female sex worker is expected to perform a sense of pleasure in her activity, and these are coded in particular ways.  Lax-mouthed expression, the caressing of her own body, the groan of a deep penetrative pleasure, and most importantly the pleasure of losing control. 

Whilst there is a sense of passive uncontrollability associated with her, the male sex worker is almost always perceived as active and machine like. Not only through his hard physicality, but also in his actions where he functions with emotional resistance and technical efficiency; his only goal is to bring her to orgasm (Garlick 2009, pp.608).  This is because to ejaculate in pornography is not about pleasure for the male it is about controlling the representation of her pleasure through skill and endurance (Williams 1989, pp.101). In this respect the men in these films are not demonstrating sex at all rather they are demonstrating power over their bodies, and their female co-workers (Thomas 1996, pp.21). This demonstration of power masks the cultural fear that male bodies, as with female bodies, might be uncontrollable.

Hypermasculinity in art?

Hypermasculine representations can also be found in art, but in many respects these images do not just reinforce hegemonic ideals. Instead they also seem to destabilise the whole idea of hypermasculinity in relation to normative gender roles.  It is as if whilst concealing the inadequacies of maleness, they also aim to reveal them.  

Touko Laaksonen, is best known for his pseudonym Tom of Finland, and his illustrations of gay culture and fetish art.  In his later works he depicted males, with super-enlarged physical traits, both muscular and penile, physically dominating other men.   Usually this form of violence was representative of authority. On the one hand he illustrated police officers, or the armed forces, and on the other criminals or social deviants such as leather clad biker gangs. However, the cathexis of these hypermasculine images are not focussed on heterosexual desire as seen in mainstream pornography, but rather on a homosexual one. 

In the Jailhouse Series (1987) one illustration depicts a police officer receiving oral sex through the bars of a cell from an inmate, whilst at the same time receiving anal sex from another officer.  In this particular illustration the masculinised binaries of authority, those men who uphold the law and those who break it, becomes blurred.  Authority becomes socially deviant through homosexual desire, whilst criminality becomes literally desirable.  As such, normative references of hypermasculine identity, power strength and authority for example, are turned against themselves to reveal a potential excess of meaning outside of heterosexuality.

The differences between hypermasculinity in mainstream culture and art practices.

This post-structuralist hypermasculine turn is also illustrated in male body-based practice.  Chris Burden’s stoicism turns into shock, Andre Stitt’s aggression becomes an infantile tantrum, whilst Gilbert and George’s emotional control becomes weird and awkward rather than an accepted norm.  However, the performances of these artists, and the illustrations of Tom of Finland, should not be confused as being simply hypermasculine. There is a difference  in how these artists use hypermasculinity compared to mainstream pornography.  Whereas the latter uses hypermasculinity to enhance elements  of maleness to mask inadequacies and to achieve status,  the former presents an ironic parody of hypermasculinity.

When parody is used in this way it does not refer to its usual definition, to mock.  The term para in parody is a Greek prefix meaning counter and against as well as to be near or beside (Hutcheon 1986-1987, pp.185).  In this context a parody is paradoxical as it ironically pulls close that which it comments upon in order to foreground an ideological, social and historical critical discourse.

Tom of Finland, and the body-based performance artists mentioned above, draw upon representations of hypermasculinity through the performances of those traits. In doing so they simultaneously critique them by revealing the instability of masculine ideals.  As such, the critique of masculinity in these works occurs as a result of their ability to defer its normative meaning.  In this context to parody masculinity means to continue to use authoritative understandings of masculine identity to the point where a transgression of gender boundaries occurs.  This causes a critical dialogue about gender representation, which in turn can aim to evoke change.

Muscular Masculinity is...

As such, these artists are not defined as being hypermasculine because whilst enforcing normative expectations of masculinity through hyperbolic performances of maleness, they also reveal the fragility of the gender order. Instead this thesis articulates these performances as being indicative of Muscular Masculinity. The word muscular is a metaphorical reference to normative masculine traits such as fortitude, strength (both physical and emotional), control, stoicism, and hardness.  Therefore, those artists mentioned above perform Muscular Masculinity because they present a parodic meeting of muscle with muscularity.  This demonstrates the potential for excess in masculine representations in body-based practice.


Garlick, S. (2009). "Taking Control of Sex? Hegemonic Masculinity, Technology, and Internet Pornography." Men and Masculinities 12(5): 597-614.
Hutcheon, L. (1986-1987). "The Politics of Postmodenism: Parody and History." Cultural Critique 5(Winter): 179-207.
Karp, D. R. (2010). "Unlocking Men, Unmasking Masculinities: Doing Men's Work in Prison." The Journal of Men's Studies 18(1): 63-83.
Thomas, C. (1996). Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line, University of Illinois Press.

Williams, L. (1989). Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Mark Flisher is Performing at The Tetley on 28th January 2015

As part of Brewing Performance, a collaboration between Leeds Beckett University Performing Arts Department and The Tetley, Mark Flisher will be performing on the 28th January 2015. The project requires performance makers from Leeds Beckett University to team up with a local artist and deliver performance provocations in and around The Tetley. 

Mark Flisher will be using his Practice as Research PhD as a starting point for exploring masculine representations on the body and their relationship to language. The local artist that is working alongside Mark is Adam Young, and both will be performing between 4pm and 6pm.
We look forward to seeing you there.