In the fall of 1994, I walked into the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York for the first time. On view was an installation by Bob Flanagan (1952–1996) in collaboration with his partner Sheree Rose, called Visiting Hours. In the corner beneath the wall bearing the title was a wheelchair. Perhaps in an effort to respond to how this provocative object would prompt questions and simultaneously prepare the viewer for what was to come, the first words of a meandering text, which continued along the walls horizontally through the galleries, were visible. It began “Why: Because it feels good,” and turned out to be a long list of reasons Flanagan engaged in extreme forms of masochism, evidence of which filled the galleries with an utterly refreshing disregard for the customary boundaries of what is found acceptable within the museum’s walls.
A visual artist, performer, and writer, Flanagan was born with cystic fibrosis, a painful genetic disorder with no cure and a short life expectancy. He learned to cope with his illness through acts of bondage, body piercing, and torture, and in fact derived great pleasure from them. Presented as an unexpected hybrid between hospital, playground, and sex den, the exhibition took up the subject of death with honesty, candor, and wit. Sex was bound up with death in a way that rejected the morbid in a surprising turn toward seeking and finding beauty and gratification in life wherever and however you can. Within this strangely inviting environment were graphic videos of the artist disfiguring his body or undergoing painful feats of endurance. In the middle of the galleries was a small hospital room where the artist would periodically hold visiting hours for the public. In a lucky turn of events that one can hardly imagine in the often packed galleries of museums today, I happened to be one of very few visitors that day and found Bob, dressed in a typical hospital gown, resting but awake in his room. We talked for quite some time, and I recognized that while he certainly had the charisma and impulses of an exhibitionist, his presence in the space of the exhibition was inspired by something else altogether. He was not performing, nor was the museum trying to shock or create a spectacle. While the inevitability of his death – indeed he would die just over a year later – in a culture that often suppresses and masks its dark shadow was central to the show, the biggest impression it left on me was one of human connection, without bias or prejudice.
I remember thinking to myself, “You can do this in a museum?” Not because the content was sexual, or bodily, or alarming – indeed, an awareness of humanity permeated the space far more than any feeling of unease or titillation because of the imagery – but primarily because it felt so vulnerable. There was a palpable sense of risk, and what struck me was that the artist’s willingness (which was more of a need than a simple desire) to embrace this risk was mirrored by that of the institution (which was more of an enthusiasm than a tolerance). Neither the artist nor the institution understood risk as a danger: rather it was something that could usher in new possibilities. Flanagan was a model for facing challenges head on, with creativity and courage, and the museum operated with the same ethos.
For me, the experience encouraged a commitment to inquiry and experimentation, for it demonstrated the idea that our expectations of the institution can, and should, be expanded, confronted, and provoked. It made me want to approach the process of exhibition- making not as a set of predetermined structures into which curators could add content, but as an open platform that could be rethought with each new project. And I realized this would require not only criticality, fidelity, and attentiveness to the unique attributes of each artist, but also a willingness to be vulnerable.
ANNE ELLEGOOD has been Senior Curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles since 2009. She previously worked at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC (2005–2009) and at the New Museum in New York (1998–2003).