Critical Tears: Franko B’s “I Miss You”

  1. Jennifer Doyle (2006)

It is hard to have feelings in museums, and it is especially hard to cry. When we do, we tend to cry differently from how we cry at the movies, or when we are alone with a book – if we cry at all it is with less abandon and, often, with mixed feelings. In this sense museums are perhaps a little like schools: both are spaces in which we encounter culture, usually on someone else’s terms. When an artist successfully overrides the self-consciousness and the inhibitions that settle on us in places like galleries and classrooms, it comes as a shock – finding ourselves overwhelmed with actual emotion – finding ourselves crying, laughing, afraid, disgusted, aroused, outraged – can leave us feeling a bit naked.

Franko B’s work as a live artist explores the affective dynamics of the interaction between artist and audience. As part of the Tate Modern Museum’s April 2003 symposium on Live Art – on the work of performance artists like Guillermo Gomez-Peña, La Ribot, Ron Athey, and Marina Abromavic — Franko B staged “I Miss You!” in the London museum’s cavernous Turbine Hall. In this piece, naked, covered in white body paint, Franko walks down a long canvas aisle. He is lit up on either side from the floor by florescent tubes, and bleeds from calendulas in his arms that hold his veins open as he slowly and ceremoniously walks the length of the canvas towards a bank of photographers at its base. Blood pools at his feet at each end of the “catwalk,” where he stands before turning around and beginning his march again. The performance is structured to resemble a fashion show, and the blood splattered canvas Franko leaves in his wake is used to make unwearable, or at least, un-marketable haute-couture, to mummify household objects, and to make pocket-sized souvenir paintings.

The experience of witnessing this performance was riddled with the questions you might expect: You couldn’t help but think – should we be doing this? Is he o.k.? What are the ethics of participating in this event? I had seen photographs of his work and expected to be shocked, anxious, and perhaps even repulsed. In other words, I expected that this work would provoke a visceral response — in part because I know the artist, and because the experience of witnessing this sort of body art was at the time fairly new to me. But also because the photographs of his work boil his performances down to stark images of his wounded body – encounters with Franko’s body in the context of the performances themselves are challenging, but not for reasons one might think.

It seemed to take forever for Franko to complete his walk down the aisle, and he repeated this back and forth march several times. As he walked past us, I was unsettled by the intimacy of the piece. Franko seemed honestly vulnerable, noble, and, somehow, very lonely. While, to be honest, I felt glamorous for having been invited to attend what was a sold-out marquis event, I also found myself feeling lonely, and helpless. As I watched, I realized that I was worried about Franko. Although always composed, he was, near the end, clearly straining with the effort to keep up his march. But I was also shamefully aware of the inappropriateness of my concern. He certainly knows what he’s doing, and it isn’t as though I have any claim on him, except as one friend among many. Still, I thought, indulging the spectator’s need to feel special, maybe Franko needs me.

In retrospect, bearing witness to this demanding performance was more like watching a wedding than watching a fashion show (a form to which his work is sometimes compared). “I Miss You!” is a stark enactment of a fantasy about being in love, about love’s theatrics. If Franko’s performance is about death, as some say, it is only as the threat implied by love.

Love me or I’ll die.

Love me, or you’ll die.

I miss you.

You think you know what love is? I know. It is me bleeding, for you.

These are the kinds of dramas upon which Roland Barthes meditates in A Lover’s Discourse. As much as the mythology that surrounds body art would have us see sex in the sensationalism of work like Franko’s, it’s sensational dynamics are in fact grounded in its deployment of sentiment. As he continues to produce work that inhabits the space between love, desire, and death, he proves the truth of Barthes’s observation that “…it is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental….”[1] Barthes continues, “The moral tax levied by society on all transgressions affects passion still more than sex today. Everyone will understand that X has ‘huge problems’ with his sexuality; not one will be interested in those Y may have with his sentimentality: love is obscene precisely in that it puts the sentimental in place of the sexual.”[2] Thus in our efforts to consider the work of queer artists like Franko B, we stumble over our own feelings – and over the discomfort they pose especially for the critic. They force us to confront the inhibitions of (especially) art criticism: in which we aren’t supposed to write from the proximity of love, but from distance of assessment. (Literary critics got over this ages ago.)

In a way, the position of the critic is not entirely unlike that of the lover who loves not only in vain, but in secret. In witnessing Franko’s performance, I become the person who feels she must hide her feelings, tuck them away, but who, in the end, fails in even this – fails not only to possess the beloved (what would that look like?) – but fails to keep her feelings properly in check. Barthes meditates on the poetics of loving in secret in a section of Lover’s Discourse titled “Dark Glasses.” He writes: “The intention of this gesture [wearing dark glasses to hide the fact that one has been crying] is a calculated one: I want to keep the moral advantage of stoicism, of ‘dignity,’ and at the same time, contradictorily, I want to provoke the tender question (‘but what is the matter with you?’); I want to be both pathetic and admirable….” I wonder, though, if that eruption, that breaking through of feeling, the failure to keep it to oneself – a failure brought on not by passion, but, humiliatingly, by the boundless narcissism of the lover who loves in vain — isn’t in part what criticism is. We might understand the turn in criticism towards the critical self and its passions, towards the pathos of the critical position, as of a piece with the lover’s need to have his struggle to hide his feelings acknowledged.

The risk one takes in the critical turn towards confession and autobiography is the reproduction of the lover’s passive aggressive affection for her own martyrdom and suffering – in which case we simply mirror the position Franko B adopts before us.

Franko’s walk alone down the aisle condenses into a performance the internal scripts we spin in our heads at the most harrowing points in the process of falling in love – the indulgence in feeling, the grandiose fantasies about the powers of our love (to save the other, for example, often from themselves), our narcissistic attachment to romantic suffering (no one loves him the way I do). As I watched, I felt myself hovering over a pit of emotion. It was as though I had a secret love to hide, as if I was watching a wedding that I wasn’t supposed to attend. In spite of my own jaded view on the institution of marriage, I always cry at weddings – perhaps exactly because I’m jaded, I fall every time — mugged by the sentimental force of the ritual. I feel the emotion rise up from inside me – and I can no more stop it than I can stop myself from feeling a breeze, or the sudden drop of a roller coaster. I usually take down whoever is near me – my weepy gaze meets that of a friend, and it’s over for both of us.

When Franko walked out of our view and the lights when up, I was overcome by tears – not by gentle tears, but by a wave of feeling so intense it threatened to take me over with wracking sobs — the kind of crying that makes you shudder. It’s the kind of thing that happens to me when I watch classic “weepies,” melodramas like Stella Dallas, or Now, Voyager. And it’s about the last sort of feeling I expected to have in a museum. I managed to shake it off, but not without giving myself away.

In the performance’s wake, people milled about, some already cranking the experience through the critical apparatus, some talking about other matters – letting the performance settle. I moved towards a cluster of people gathered around a friend and colleague but then heard one young woman (an academic, I think, like me) scoff at those of us who were in tears. I stood off to the side, embarrassed and resentful. The crowd was divided suddenly into the weepers and the rest: which made me wonder, Why are we instinctively suspicious of a weeping audience? Why are we so apologetic when we cry? What makes us wary of even our own tears?[3]

Of course, how we think about crying in front of art depends entirely on who is doing the crying and why. Isn’t a tear that rises to the eye overwhelmed by the mystical beauty of a Rothko painting different from the sobs chocked back by the person reminded of a recent romantic disaster by, say, watching a melodrama? Aren’t the tears produced in response to, say, Carrie Mae Weem’s meditation on racism’s legacies, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” (1991) different, yet again? The suspicion of art that makes you cry is specific to those cases in which we are moved to tears by representation and not by direct experience (the person who weeps over Rothko is presumably moved by direct contact with the painting’s majesty; the person who cries while watching Stella Dallas is crying about what that film represents; the person who cries before From Here I Saw… cries over the suffering of others). This is, generally, how our ambivalence about sentimentality takes shape: the tears shed over the plight of a self-sacrificing mother (for example) are not “real” tears, but rather the tears of vicarious experience – even if that experience reminds us of our own past.

Questions about authenticity, art, and emotion have become central to contemporary art as it increasingly focuses on the emotional life of the museum and the gallery, and on the moody presence of the spectator. The tears provoked by Franko’s performance made me think about the radical intimacy that sometimes attends to live art, which cannot be fully read without an account of its appeal to its audience and the invitation to experience it as, on some level, about our investment in the artist. This goes against received wisdom about what some call “extreme performance art” – recently, for example, at a panel discussion in New York on the genre, scholars talked endlessly about their spectator anxieties – about being afraid of seeing blood, about feeling uncomfortable. Another event, in Los Angeles at the Getty Museum, explored the “aesthetics of risk” in performance – without, however, really considering what we mean by “risk” when talking about art like this.

Witnessing a bleeding piece in a museum was for me shocking, but not for the reasons I’d assumed. The risk we take in attending such a performance is that we might actually feel something. The truly shocking thing, is that we have been so deeply trained to expect to feel nothing.

The title of Franko’s performance, “I Miss You!,” announces its grounding in the romance of the relationship between the artist and his audience. I have elsewhere described the attention to the personal interplay between the artist and his or her audience as an “effect of intimacy” – an aesthetic strategy that marks contemporary art in which the artist offers him or her self up to the audience, and invites us to experience the work as not only autobiographical in terms of the artist, but relational – soliciting a personal, emotional, and narcissistic investment from the spectator (in which, for example, I experience Franko’s work as, ultimately, about his need to be loved by me and vice-versa).[4]

We might understand the aspect of Franko’s work that demands an awareness of our own investment in his performance as an exploration of the place of affective labor in performance. Anyone who has worked in the service industry, and has been asked to provide not only a service but “service with a smile,” might recognize their work experience in this phrase. Borrowing from feminist sociological scholarship on the affective labor socially extracted from women on a daily basis, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that labor which revolves around the production of affect can be particularly alienating – for in this case we are not merely alienated from our time (as is the wage laborer), or from the product of our labor (as is the factory worker), but from our very emotional selves. They write, “when affective production becomes part of waged labor it can be experienced as extremely alienating: I am selling my ability to make human relationships, something extremely intimate, at the command of a client or boss.”[5] The professionalization of affect is especially hard on those working at the margins of economic survival – life is hard enough without healthcare, job security, affordable housing and transportation – but to have to produce the spectacle of a woman at peace with the world and her position in it while working at the very job that fails to pay a living wage or provide health insurance can be too much (“Welcome to Walmart!”)[6]. Hardt and Negri argue that as the production of immaterial goods (services, information, knowledge, social relationships) becomes a larger and larger part of the global economy, “affective labor” and how good we are at it, becomes increasingly important to how we understand our own value in the world.

Artists who make the management of feeling and the daily alienation of people from their emotional selves the subject of their work often draw to the surface the difficulty of having feelings at all — or problematize the sincerity of the feelings they represent. We might contrast the place of emotion in Franko B.’s performance, to its status in Marina Abramovic’s video performance, The Onion (1995). Here, Abramovic calls attention to the strange theatricality of crying. In this piece, she holds an ordinary unpeeled onion to the side of her face, and then slowly eats it, keeping her eyes pointed “up to the sky” (according to her own description of the performance) while we listen to a soundtrack of Abromavic complaining about her life. In a low, flat monotone, she recites a depressing litany of grievances – none of which are that grave or interesting: “I am tired of changing planes so often. Waiting in the waiting rooms, bus stations, train stations, airports.” “I am tired of more career decisions, museum and gallery openings, endless receptions, standing around with a glass of plain water, pretending I am interested in conversation.” “I am tired of always falling in love with the wrong man.” This recitation (which is repeated several times over the duration of the performance) concludes with: “I want to understand and see clearly what is behind all of this. I want not to want anymore.” The act of eating the onion begins as a perversely masochistic variant of using an onion to shed artificial tears – an external provocation to cry over a life not interesting enough to cry about. As the loop of complaint repeats itself, we watch her struggle over her own instinct as she takes one large bite from the onion after another. We hear her moan and whimper as she chokes it back, skin and all. The performance becomes strangely erotic as the artist disintegrates before our eyes: her beautifully composed face collapses into an awful combination of abjection and grief.

This is a difficult performance to watch, even on a video monitor. As it moves from the staged to the sincere, it draws our attention the difficulty of “real” feeling in representation, which the film director Krysztof Kieslowski called “the fright of real tears”.[7] Are real tears what we actually want from an artist? While at first the subject of the performance appears to be the artist’s inability to feel, to care, to cry – and the necessity of “tool” to make her cry (for us), as she gets deeper into the onion, and is more and more overcome by the difficulty of eating it, her “upset” appears more and more authentic. In the end, it is not the authenticity of her tears that we question, but their artificiality. Importantly, the performance anticipates and interrupts the first question we usually ask of representations of crying — Are those tears real? Here, what begins as a performance of artificial tears seems to morph into real tears over the artificiality of the performance of her daily life.

For a different approach to the representation of tears, we might look to Bas Jan Ader’s I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1970), a three minute silent black and white film which offers a portrait of the artist crying (from which he also produced still photographs and postcards). This work is more tender in its approach to the artist’s tears. His eyes are wet, tears stream down his face, he tries to wipe his eyes dry, his face contorts into sobs, he holds his face in his hands, he grimaces. We do not know why Ader is crying, or, indeed, if he is “really” too sad to tell us. As a male artist with a particular mythology (he disappeared while attempting to sail across the Atlantic in execution of a performance), Bas Jan Ader is closer to the eighteenth-century ideal of the gentlemanly “man of feeling” than he is to the female melodrama cited by Abromavic. The portrait is an extension of his interest in the subject of his own vulnerability (as in a series of short films that document the artist falling over – riding a bicycle into a canal, falling from a tree, standing and swaying from side to side until he falls down). His film, when compared with Abromavic’s performance, comes off as more purely seductive – and as somehow more private — in part because nothing in the film indicates that we must read it as “produced” for the camera. His tears read as spontaneous romantic expression, hers as scripted female performance. Even so, you have to wonder about Ader’s image: Are his tears real? Is there an onion off-screen? Is it all just an act? Am I falling in love with the wrong kind of man? Unless the image of the crying subject is presented to us as documentary (as in a newspaper photograph of the aftermath of disaster), we hesitate to accept pictures of tears as sincere.

Ultimately, what matters is how these two works provoke us to scrutinize the image, looking for signs of sincerity – in doing so, they court our attention and force us to draw near. That ambiguity is the very thing that seduces us – in our hearts we hold onto the possibility that someone might be crying for us. (“I miss you.”) This is what is disturbing about Franko B’s performance – not that he bleeds, but that in doing so he crosses a boundary, and carries us with him as he does so. He shifts questions about art and emotion to the audience, moving away from the self-reflexive representation of the artist’s emotional state, to the production of feelings themselves – a risky move if ever there was one, if only because he asks us directly if, and how, we plan to love him back.

[1] Roland Barthes, Lover’s Discourse: Fragments trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), p. 177.

[2] Ibid., p. 178.

[3] For a history of how we have understood crying (and representations of crying), see Tom Lutz’s Crying: the Natural and Cultural History of Tears (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).

[4] See “The Effect of Intimacy: Tracey Emin’s Bad Sex Aesthetics” in Mandy Merck ed., The Art of Tracey Emin (New York and London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), pp. 102-118.

[5] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (New York: Penguin, 2004), p. 111.

[6] This way of thinking about work and emotion actually grows out of feminist writing about “women’s work” – feminists have long argued that women are caught up in the complex web of interpersonal labor, in which her desires are bound up with the needs and desires of those she cares for. See, for example, Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003)

[7] Cited by Slavoj Zizek in The Fright of Real Tears: Krysztof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post-Theory (London and New York: British Film Institute, 2001), p. 72.


Published in Blinded by Love

[Damiani Editore] (2006)

© 2015 Franko B and the contributors