I was so surprised by Professor Claycombe's presentation this tuesday. When I thought of pain and performance previously, I had thought about only circumstances like in "Angels in America" - actors portraying a false or mimed pain. I was alarmed and perversely interested in the other pain performances he showed to us.
"Sick" represents many things that are hard for me to imagine. The artist's Cystic Fibrosis, for one thing. To me, this is one of those insidious diseases that I know causes incredible pain for the sufferer, and there is no way for me to adequately wrap my mind around that level of pain. However - some of these acts of masochism performed by Bob Flanagan helped me to get a better (if horrifying) idea of the amount of pain he suffers. Seeing the images of his beaten, torn, shit-smeared body, I feel closer to him than I probably have a right to. He lets us, the audience, into his pain - so we can wallow there with him.
There is also that element of showmanship. He is a performer, after all, and he is definitely "taking it like a man." Who cares if he never played lacrosse or ran a marathon - he is taking cigarette burns to all of his most delicate parts. I think it is particularly interesting that he refers in his poetry to "taking it like a man" - and yet he is a male who has completely humbled himself before his mistress, Sherri Rose. She even sodomizes him - which lends a very interesting twist to that phrase. He sure is taking it. We saw that in all of its glory.
For me, it was less disturbing (yet even more interesting academically) to see Ron Athey's performances - probably because his masochism was displayed so differently. He was more concerned with the true "art" of the pain - and his religious tableaus (such as him playing the pincushion St. Sebastian) are representing pain on more than one level. There is his own pain and illness (HIV), there is the pain of St. Sebastian, and also a representation of a kind of religious/corporeal ecstasy that is missing in Rob Flanagan's work. I see Flanagan's pain performance as necessary for him, but I have no real need to be a part of it. Athey's work, however, has a beauty (in my opinion) that transcends physical pain and tries to tell more of a story.
I don't know much about art, but I know what I like. I do tend to like representations of pain, but to me - Sue Williams taking her pain and turning it into incredible paintings is more my speed.