For some, art is a beautiful watercolour adorning a silent, stuffy gallery. For others, it involves pain, mutilation and debasement...
It seems to me that there is an extremely thin line between wild, exciting creativity and madness – and it seems to be inherent in all areas of the arts. Hunter S Thompson blazed an asteroid trail of booze and hallucinogens before deciding life had become far too tedious and blew his head off. Hemingway took the same ballistic way out, as did Kurt Cobain. Back in antiquity Aristotle referenced an indefinable sadness that seemed to afflict artists. And a personal favourite of mine, poet William Blake, insisted he could see angels and other apparitions in the trees around London.
Lars von Trier, an auteur with hauteur, took straining a ‘joke’ to Partridge-esque levels by banging on about Hitler in a press conference in Cannes recently and anyone who saw Oliver Reed could vouch for his gargantuan barminess – I don’t care what you say, you don’t wrestle naked with another man unless you’re proper sauced up or Alan Carr. The examples are almost endless.
In my opinion though, easily the craziest of creative types are fine artists. Paint-spattered, rough-bearded, smeared in clay the same colour as baby diarrhoea, frenziedly twitching, forever insomniac, they’re all unhinged in some way or another. A case in point – Charles Bronson, ‘Britain’s Most Dangerous Prisoner’, likes to pick up the felt tips and, to be fair, doesn’t do a bad job at all. Lest we forget, this is a man whose main line of business was hostage taking and fighting dogs. I like him.
Of course, there must be accountants who wank into cakes or IT managers who smear their faces with marmalade whilst wearing stockings, but it seems these arty types are at the forefront of mental precariousness. Perhaps they are just more visible; perhaps they make themselves more visible?
Wanting to look further into this, I took a little journey into the history of modern transgressive art and unearthed five little crackers that are about as far removed from doing a watercolour of a lovely stream with ducks in as it gets. Rolf Harris, look away now; this ain’t for you lad.
This one has to go first as it’s frankly fucking ludicrous. I had a day off recently, and having visited the disarmingly ethereal Apple Store to have something or other fixed I wandered round the Tate for a bit. During the course of my pretentious ambling I came upon a section devoted to New York artist Vito Acconci, and in particular a performance piece he did in 1971 called ‘Seedbed’. So far, so innocuous you might say, but then you read the notes. And see his cock.
Allow me to explain. Acconci had a room cleared in the Sonnabend Gallery and then had a sealed ramp built up one side. He then clambered beneath this ramp and continually masturbated amongst the dead spiders and balls of dust while conveying through a loudspeaker to those above his fantasies as he onanistically thrashed away. This actually happened, and he wasn’t arrested. Seriously.
Makes you laugh in some senses though, as it would seem it’s one rule for boundary-pushing performance artists and another for those of us who do similar ‘installations’ in provincial coach station toilets up and down the land. Outrageous double standards.
I had to dig for a bit on this fella, but by Christ was he worth it. Born in Kiev but based in Moscow, Kulik works in sculpture and photography but also does performance pieces. In one of his regular guises he assumes the persona of a dog, going on all fours, the works. At one such exhibition in Stockholm he actually bit a man who ignored a warning sign and proceeded to trash a number of other artworks – in fact, you might say he was BARKING mad! Ha ha! He was then presumably dragged out and beaten with abandoned Ikea furniture and Ryvitas. Probably.
However, none of this is as beautifully piquant as the day he took eight witnesses to a dairy farm and inserted his head into a cow’s vagina, wishing to be born again. Emerging from the bovine quim, he stated: “Inside the cow I realised that there is no reality, and that means that reality is still to be discovered.” Ah right, that clears that up then, as I had a similar realisation while fingering a squirrel the other week. Nice one Oleg.
Lastly, I must say that I do have my doubts about the truth of the whole thing though, as I heard the witnesses left as they thought he was milking it*.
* this sentence is a fabrication
I’ve got a bit of a confession to make here. I was trying to bring this theme right up to date, and while looking through a number of viable contemporary candidates I chanced upon LA-based Miss Crash: a fetish model and performance artist. Now, I have a bit of a thing for girls with tattoos (Crash has ‘Evil Cunt’ written across the back of her legs) and piercings plus she’s named after one of my favourite books. And I love her. So, basically, I’ve put her in. Some might say it’s not fair on some others but honestly, after a swift Google search you’ll thank me for this.
Miss Crash’s thing is roughly mutilating her own body, sticking needles through herself and other assorted violent and bloody acts – a good description might be a sexy, burlesque Dirty Sanchez. She is renowned for her suspensions, and in one particularly gut-churning elevation of this type had herself hung from the roof through hooks in her knees. She has also performed on stage with Jane’s Addiction and worked with Marilyn Manson. Like other extreme performance artists she seems oblivious to the pain of her own body while using it, it’s crazy.
Actually, on the off chance she comes across this – PLEASE MARRY ME! I’m going to have to get some plastic cutlery as a wedding present though, as otherwise I won’t be able to turn my back on her without worrying about her shivving me to form a human kebab.
The Viennese Actionists
Vienna tends to be known for gemütlich coffee houses and its lovely whirls, but during the 1960s it also harboured this gang of corporeally obsessed barmcakes. A loose and disparate group, the main players were Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and they focussed on the motifs of violence and the human body using graphic paintings and ‘aktions’, performances pieces that sought to expose taboos.
Examples, pour vous: one night, Nitsch took an audience to a basement and slaughtered a lamb, spraying them all with gore. He was then crucified while being doused in the lamb’s blood and entrails. Brus focussed a little more on himself, slicing himself with a razor while urinating and shitting in the street. Mühl it appears was the Casanova of the group, setting up a free love commune and making a rule that you had to have it off “as often as a Muslim prays to Mecca” with different people, while Schwarzkogler produced unsettling pictures of mummified figures being injected and variously assaulted in bloody and tortuous ways.
There had been a myth that the latter died flaying himself, the end coming through him cutting off his penis. In truth, he jumped out of a window. The fact the original urban legend had any credence says it all. Madness.
Last, but certainly not least, is Paul McCarthy. McCarthy, who is from Utah and works out of Los Angeles, was originally a painter but moved on to staged performances and other things as his career progressed. My favourite piece of his is a large inflatable entitled ‘Santa Claus with a Buttplug’. Yes, it’s as good as it sounds, look it up. But don’t show the kids.
McCarthy had always possessed an interest in the everyday mess of life, and brought this out in a number of ways. In one recording, ‘Painting, Wall Whip’, he smeared himself with a devil’s paste of mayonnaise, ketchup, raw meat and shit, which are funnily enough the ingredients for a Big Mac. He steadily became more transgressive though, and in 1976 put on a performance called Class Fool – you can find the video online if you’re so inclined.
In this he commandeered a classroom at the University of California, San Diego, spattered it with ketchup and threw himself around it like a dervish until bruised and dazed. Deciding this wasn’t enough, he then vomited copiously all over himself, pausing only to carry out what must be the perfect antithesis of all those screamingly gaudy toy adverts by sticking a Barbie doll up his arse. Eventually the stunned audience decided that, you know, Happy Days or something might be on and went on their rather disturbed way. Paul McCarthy: you headcase. Well played.
As a final point, I just wanted say I think these people are all pretty brilliant and original, hence choosing them. However, you won’t catch me sticking a Barbie up my arse, primarily because I’m still trying to work out piecemeal a Meccano model of Tracy Island that I shoved up there when I was 11. Barbie would get her head caved in, poor lass.
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