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Muscular Masculinity and the Performance of Masculine Crisis



There is no term that defines the negative impact on the masculine subject when he
encounters too much masculinity. However, there is a word that defines the
negative impact of loosing ones masculinity, which is to be emasculated. This
means to lose power and vigour, and because these are tropes of masculinity, if one
temporarily operates on oppositional binaries, to be emasculated might also mean
to become feminised. With oppositional binaries comes hierarchies and as
evidenced clearly here, masculinity becomes culturally more important to the male
than the feminine, which is why there can be no antonym for emasculation of the
male subject. Therefore according to this argument there is no such thing as too
much masculinity; that is until now.

Since the emergence of second wave feminism during the 60s and 70s, feminist
gender studies has become an important scholarly research area (Walsh, 2011, p.2).
Its emergence has become so prominent that it has had a major impact on other
academic disciplines, especially theatre and performance studies. One concern of
feminism was to highlight how tropes of masculinity, and their conflation with the
male body, have infiltrated our cultural organisations and institutions. In the most
extreme example masculinity has had, at least in scholarly research, a casual
relationship with the concept of war. For strength, control, emotional detachment
and power are typically seen as tropes for both and as such masculinity and war
seem to rely on each other for a sense of purpose (Barrett, 2001).

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However, and to use an example that is less severe, masculinity is also present in the
construction of the art world, which was most prevalent in the 1950s. This was a
time when rational modernist and formalist artists, such as Jackson Pollock,
presented a type of masculine genius where the artwork could only be read through
the artist, of which needed to be both absent and present. That is, the meaning of
the art transcends from the artist, but the body is invisible in that it is naturalised
(Jones, 1998, p.62). This reinforced the masculine tropes of self-sufficiency,
independence, and the centralisation of knowledge from the male mind. It also
played towards the masculinist and capitalistic need for an art commodity. Whilst
the artist was a central concept, his body was never present in the work, as it hid
behind the art itself. To reveal the artist in this way would be to create a work that
was ephemeral, which avoided the commercialisation of art (Phelan, 1993, p.11).
This problematized the relationship with the critic and art historians of the time as
they acted as priests, where they transmitted information between artist and
viewer (Jones, 1998, p.63). In this respect a hierarchy was formed in which the artist
was the site of knowledge, and where the audience was a receptacle of that
knowledge.

Whilst examples of idealised masculinity penetrate all institutions, scholars like
Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Elizabeth Grosz have partly turned
their attentions to reading men and masculinity. During the 80s and 90s and
especially after Judith Butlers now seminal text, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Subversion of Identity (Butler, 2007), gender can no longer be described as the
problematic domain of female subjectivity (Walsh, 2011, p.3). To keep it this way
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would be to prescribe masculinity as normal, and linked naturally to the male body,
which would reify the security and privilege associated with male patriarchy
(Thomas, 2008, p.20). It infers that masculinity is a static norm, which is only
associated with the male. Instead, and as Butler notes, all genders are performative
in that they only exist at the moment where bodys perform actions and meaning is
made (Butler, 2007, p.185). Butlers observation means that the celebrated tropes
of masculinity, rationality, heroism, independence, virility, courage, risk-taking and
strength, become products of cultural representation, which in turn reveals the
conflation of sex and gender as a cultural construct (MacInnes, 2004, pp.312313).

The subsequent interrogation of the masculine subject through these
postStructuralist feminists helped fuel what is now deemed as masculinity in crisis
(Walsh, 2011, pp.67). This denotes a problematising of masculinity and its
alignment with the male body. The aim of this essay is to articulate this crisis as a
type of performative, in which male body artists during the 20
th
and 21
st
Centuries
depict the destabilisation of the masculine subject. Some of the questions that are
raised and subsequently answered throughout this essay include, how do artists
achieve masculinity in crisis, what does it do within the performance, and how might
it affect wider cultural understandings of masculinity?

The performance of masculine crisis is not a new concept to Performance Studies
scholars Jones and Fintan Walsh, for example, articulate very different approaches
to crisis through a range of different performance works. However, there are
problems with both. Jones (1994; 1995; 1998) articulates how a destabilisation of
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masculinity is achieved through phallic dis/play, but only infers that this might be a
form of crisis. Walsh (2011), conversely, clearly articulates a series of masculine
crisis in performance, particularly within the 21
st
Century, but does not articulate a
lineage. Both positions have a major affect on body art in that they limit a potential
lineage of masculine. In order to articulate a crisis lineage this essay develops upon
Jones concept of phallic dis/play by articulating how it can be read as masculinity in
crisis. The fusion of crisis and dis/play, and their ethos, is referred to from hereon as
Muscular Masculinity.

This new term is developed though this essay in three stages. In the first, phallic
dis/play is read through Acconcis Conversions (1971), and the destabilisation of
masculinity that occurs in this performance is identified as a type of crisis. However
it also considers the problems associated with phallic dis/play in that it relies heavily
on visual representation and that it has to wield the phallus in order to destabilise it.
akirlar (2011) argues that the artist couple Gilbert and George offer a more
appropriate form of masculine crisis through jouissance. However it is argued in this
essay that this term operates on multiple planes. Both Acconci and Gilbert and
George engage with what Lacan refers to as phallic jouissance, which is the
difference between what one thinks the phallic object will give you and what it
actually achieves (Lacan, 1998). This term implies that one has to engage with the
phallus in order to reach phallic jouissance, which is argued here as being the apex of
masculine crisis.

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The second stage focuses on linking phallic dis/play and jouissance with Dominic
Johnsons understanding of crisis and risk through an analysis of Alastair
MacLennans Out the In (1987) and Stuart Brisleys Arbeit Macht Frei (1973)
(Johnson, 2012). In this section phallic dis/play is articulated though MacLennan
and Brisleys ability to endure the abject in order to perform their own crisis of
masculinism. Finally the third stage of this essay discusses, through Ron Atheys Four
Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994), how muscular masculinity might be performed on the
bodies of both artist and cultural organisations.

By reading representations of men and their cultural interactions through this
instability, the phrase masculinity in crisis emerged. This was echoed not only in
the academy but also throughout the media and in the actions performed by men
themselves. In the dawn of this new millennium, for example, talk shows were
covering regularly the representation of bad fathers (Walsh, 2011, p.4). The notion
of the male bread winner has also declined along with industrialisation and manual
labour, resulting in a blurring of sexual difference in employment (MacInnes, 2004,
pp.314320). Mens health was also a factor to consider as *r+egular coverage *+
portrays mens ongoing higher incidences of suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction,
serious accidents, cardiovascular disease and significantly lower life expectancies
when compared with women (Segal, 2007, p.xviii).

Whilst these examples of crisis are read through cultural changes, some men
demonstrate their crisis through a backlash towards the development of identity
politics from the 60s, 70s and 80s. It wasnt, and still isnt, uncommon to hear that
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as a result of feminism men have become second class citizens, that there has been
a reversal of power that now leans away from white, heterosexual and western
males, towards the feminazis, a pejorative term to describe extreme feminism
(Walsh, 2011: 16). Of course, it is unacceptable to think that we are in a cultural
space where patriarchy does not exist any more, this reaction occurs then not
because patriarchy is fading, but because men fear that they have become
redundant in their own society (Walsh, 2011, p.3).

This phrase though is far from uncompromising. Crisis suggests a level of
unhappiness and failure, and as not all men are unemployed, cited as bad fathers, or
are emasculated, as such masculinity is far from at crisis point. Further still, it seems
that men are clocking up their crisis complaints as a strategy for reclaiming centre
stage (Robertson, cited in Walsh, 2011, p.3). However, whilst the male is not in a
position of inequality, far from it, these positions are problematic. The debate about
masculinity in crisis oscillates between personal masculinities and masculinity as an
ideology. This ascertains that all men strive for the hegemonic ideal, and that all
masculinities are the hegemonic ideal.

It is important to note that *t+here is nothing wrong with being a man. The
problems start with the way normative gender ideologies maintain inequalities
between the sexes by reinforcing the idea that masculinity, but not femininity, is an
unproblematic norm (Fisher & Shay, 2009, p.150). As such, it is worth considering
three different understandings of the term masculinity as presented by Brittan: 1)
masculinity refers to the traits, actions and behaviours of masculinity perceived
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through the identity of the individual; 2) masculinism is the ideology and
subsequent normalisation of masculine ideals created by men for men; 3)
patriarchy is the reproduction of hegemonic masculine ideals in the domestic and
public spaces. This conflates masculinism and the heterosexual male body and
presents them as a naturalised centre of masculinity (Brittan, 2001, pp.5355).

The second term, masculinism might also be described as hegemonic masculinity:
The term hegemonic masculinity refers to a particular idealized
image of masculinity in relation to which images of femininity and
other masculinities are marginalized and subordinated. The
hegemonic ideal of masculinity in current Western culture is a man
who is independent, risk-taking, aggressive, heterosexual and
rational (Barrett, 2001, p.79)

This theory works on two levels, on the one hand it matches the tropes of
masculinity to the functional requirements of the institution. On the other hand the
inclusion of these characteristics within the ethos of that institution is then
embedded within the attitudes of the subject. By focussing in on the second, the
normative ideology of the masculine, this essay emphasises the crisis of a formal
normative masculine identity, rather than ones personal identity. This allows for
multiple masculinities to exist, both in the social sphere and also on the body, but it
also tries to avoid casual links between men and patriarchal constructs. Thus, when
this essay refers to masculinity in crisis it actually means that masculinism has
entered into crisis by being turned against itself and revealed as a fluid concept,
rather than a fixed and singular identity (MacInnes, 2004). By emphasising the
ideologies of masculinity in crisis, rather than trying to read individual crisis, the term
becomes a cultural performative attribute in its own right and can be read in many
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male body art works in the 21
st
Century (Walsh, 2011, p.8). Such examples of crisis
might include the realisation that the notion of masculinity is more intimately linked
to femininity or homosexuality than one first thought, as with Acconci. Or, that
valorised tropes of masculinism are vilified through readings of war, which can be
read through Stuart Briselys Arbeit Macht Frei (1973).

Performance Studies has been intimately linked to gender studies and as such there
has been many interrogations into representations of masculinity in performance
(Jones, 1994; 1995; 1998; ODell, 1998; Blocker, 2004; Walsh, 2011). This suggests
that the interrogation into the masculine is not only reliant upon cultural and gender
studies, it can also be read through the genre of work that is referred to as body art.
During the 60s and 70s, the era that saw the most dramatic developments of the
Civil Rights Movements in both the UK and the USA, select artists began to locate
their bodies within their work. This resulted in the realisation that there could be no
separation between the body of the artist, their self, and the production of work.
Amelia Jones refers to this as body art, by locating the body of the artists in their
work this meant that masculinist and formalist approaches to art criticism, where
the author is the primary source of meaning making, are undermined (Jones, 1998,
p.3). In doing this, the body of the artist becomes particularised and not assumed to
be normatively masculine, hence other traits start to emerge that contradict
spectatorial desires and assumptions. Traits such as race, class, and gender, to name
but a few, meant that the need to know the meaning behind the artwork, was less
important than reading the body of the artist within the space (Jones, 1998, p.5).

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The term body art though is not without its confusion. In reference to Vito Acconci,
for example, Linker articulates that body art is simply the placement of the body in
space (Linker, 1994, p.37). This undermines the nuanced politics that Jones sets out,
which evokes Jane Blockers own reluctance to use the term. In the back pages of
What the Body Cost she notes that, whilst Jones articulation is apt for the work that
is being described, it is at risk of being misused in a way similar to that of Linkers
error (Blocker, 2004). However, this essay will specifically use the term body art,
with Jones in mind, because it emphasizes the implication of the body (or what I call
body/self with all the apparent racial, sexual, gender, class, and other apparent
conscious or unconscious identifications) in the work (Jones, 1998, p.13). It is not
simply about the body in space, but rather how the body, the actions it performs,
and its politics, represents masculine crisis in performance. It uses this to
demonstrate how artists such as Vito Acconci, Stuart Brisley and Ron Athey, to name
only three, allow their bodys to undermine the construction of a hegemonic
masculinity, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Amelia Jones discusses how male body artists, such as Chris Burden, Vito Acconci,
and Robert Morris, put their bodies on display in order to unveil masculinism. They
use their bodies to perform masculinity in excess, revealing the bodys inability to
achieve the masculine ideal and in turn present their bodies as feminised objects of
display. By feminised Jones also means to infer a homosexualising effiminization of
the male body. It achieves this because the presentation of the body/self in body
art marks not the immediacy, unity and presence of the body/self, but its radical
interdependence with the other (Jones, 1998, p.107). She uses the term dis/play to
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describe this process and identifies that it is used, to varying degrees, to shift male
artists away from a singular masculinity. It is the movement away from the singular
masculine that might be indicative of crisis. Therefore dis/play constitutes the first
stage of achieving muscular masculinity.

Jones phallic dis/play is intimately linked to Lacans concept of the phallus. Being a
postStructuralist Lacans understanding of the subjects construction of self is read
through Saussures Course in General Linguistics (Saussure, 2012). In this text
Saussure notes that all communication contains signs that are made up of two
components, the signifier and the signified. The signifier, or the object only has an
arbitrary relationship with the signified or concept (Saussure, 2012, pp.6768). This
provides two very important rules of Lacanian psychoanalysis: In order for the self
to have meaning it must be constructed from a sign system, which he refers to as the
Symbolic; As a result of the construction of self through the symbolic, the subject is
always fragmented because of the arbitrary relationship that the sign carries within
it. However, the subject is not born this way and as such they must move into the
symbolic through the Mirror Stage (Lacan, 2005).

For the first eighteen months of an infants life, it is attached and dependent upon
the mothers body. It has no way of understanding the world, as language has not
yet been learnt, because of this all the infant can do is experience the events that
happen around them. Meaning occurs through a splitting of the signifier and
signified and this process does not occur for the infant until after eighteen months,
when they begin to recognise their own image in the reflection of a mirror, or in
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their playmate (Lacan, 2005, p.2). This reflection of their external self gives the
illusion of being complete, unified and not an extension to the mothers body, this is
the Imago or idealised image for the newly developing subject (Lacan, 2005, p.3). A
brief but important side note needs to be raised here, as Lacans concept of the
Mirror Stage has some resonance with Brittans three definitions of masculinity,
which were identified earlier (2001). The masculine subject looks to define himself,
and sees the idealised image of man through masculinism. It is masculinism that is
the imago for the subject, it does not really exist and it is simply a reflection of male
desire.

To see the Imago is to see ones self as not fragmented, but rather whole and unified,
it gives a sense of meaning to our experiences (Lacan, 2005, p.5). However, at the
moment of seeing it, the subject is seduced into wanting more meaning and the only
place this can happen is in the Symbolic. Lacan notes that the symbolic is instigated
by Paternal Law which is the prohibition against incest and which forces the infant to
move away from the mother (Ragland, 2000, p.261). As he moves into the symbolic
the gap between the signifier and signified opens up, and as Saussure notes, the
signifier starts to bear little relationship with the signified (Saussure, 2012, pp.67
68). The irony behind the subjects desire for meaning is that whilst the Imago is the
origin for his quest for meaning, the gap that develops as a result of the movement
into the symbolic represents the fragmentation of the subjects self (Lacan, 1973,
p.318). This incompleteness frustrates the subject and from then on they are in a
constant and impossible search for the thing that could bridge that gap, so they can
become their own Imago (Lacan, 1973, p.316). To bridge this gap becomes the role
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of the phallus, and therefore it comes to represent the very thing that the subject
both desires and lacks (Lacan, 1973, p.317).

When Jones uses the phallus she does so knowing that it is the gap between the
male body and masculinism that the male subject is trying to fill. This reading is an
immediate destabilisation of the naturalisation of masculinity as it infers that the
male body both desires and lacks masculinism, which is interpreted here as the
masculine imago. The phallus then becomes the traits, characteristics and
behaviours of masculinism that can be seen on the bodies of some men. As the
phallic object in Lacans Signification of the Phallus (1973), is only a metaphor for
something else it disappears when it is exposed. Consequently, if masculinism is
performed to excess on the body of the male, the male exposes the construct of
masculinism as well as emphasising the intersubjective relationship his identity has
with other subjects. This means that masculinism disappears from the body of the
male, which causes a masculine crisis.

Acconci becomes a useful case study for understanding the phallus and also gender
because of his interest in language and its ability to perform (Ward, 2002). When
Acconci uses the term perform, it is not that as an artist he is interested in meaning
making, but rather how language as systems can be penetrated in order to
demonstrate their fluidity. This penetration of systems is most clearly articulated
through Conversions (1971).

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Conversions (1971) is a series of three performances, which are filmed on a black and
white 16mm camera. Each part constitutes the development of Acconcis attempts
at transcendence from masculine to feminine. Conversions Part I (Light, Reflection,
Self-Control) is a solo performance where Acconci attempts to make a new body by
burning the hair off of his chest and manipulating his pectoral muscles. The
performance starts with the flame of a candle appearing on the screen, which moves
over the front of Acconcis naked body, highlighting its different parts as fragmented.
Through this fragmentation, Acconci demonstrates the ability for bodies to blur the
linguistic systems of gender definitions. On the one hand the candle highlights his
hairy masculine chest, but when moving over his half lit shoulder, the pale, thin, and
smooth skin of his arm becomes briefly indicative of his female body.

Once Acconci has burnt off his maleness, he pulls at his breast in order to stretch
them into the feminine form. The pulling is futile though and as such he moves the
candle to his other breast and burns off that hair. As the camera zooms out he
places the candle down and with both hands he pulls at both breasts towards the
camera.

After making his body in Part I, Part II (Insistence, Adaption, Groundwork, Display) is
about exercising his new body, however this action still relies on the [re]presenting
of the body in its relation to visual representation. The camera is in a fixed position
and records Acconci moving back and forwards from it. Naked, Im practicing a new
body: the camera shoots me from the waist down, Im keeping my penis confined
between my legs, my body looks like it has a vagina (Acconci & Moure, 2001,
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p.118). During this eighteen-minute section Acconci engages in a number of physical
actions, running, walking, stretching, kicking, jumping, and sitting. During this film
we are reminded of Acconcis sex, as his penis slips out from between his legs during
his exercises, and his testicles are exposed when he turns away from the camera.

Finally as Part I and II, were engaged in a private making and exercising of his new
body, Part III (Association, Assistance, Dependence) presents this new body in public.
This is the only part of Conversions that uses another body, Kathy Dillons, his
partner of the time. Similarly to Part II, his penis is located between his legs in order
to create his vagina, although this time Kathy Dillon is behind him with his penis in
her mouth. Two naked bodies on the screen: were all bodies my head is out of
the film frame, her face is lost in my body. The camera jerks around us, zooms in
and out, looking for the right shot (Acconci & Moure, 2001, p.120). For six minutes
he reengages the activities that he created in Part II.

Acconcis aim in Conversions (1971) is to penetrate the linguistic boundaries of
gender, which he presents as visual representations, and a type of language. In
many respects this recognises the feminist understanding of a constructed gender
identity. Despite his play on the construction of this system though, the
performance can be read as inherently misogynistic. In the first instance he tries to
destabilise the naturalisation of gender at the cost of the female body (Ward, 2002,
p.144). He can only attempt transcendence if he re-inscribes the phallus over her, to
make her disappear. Even if he was able to transcend to the feminine though, he
does safely in the knowledge that at the end of the performance he is able to move
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back towards the position of the privileged-body-with-penis (Blocker, 2004). There is
absolutely no risk to his masculine identity, and as such he re-inscribes the agency
that the normative masculine body assumes.

Secondly the language that he is setting up in order to penetrate relies heavily on
normative visual representations. His understanding of male and female is through
lack, and his primary aim, to transcend, points towards the mythical masculine
construction of self-sufficiency, control and authority. It can be argued that his
naked body destabilises masculinism because it reflects a Lacanian feminine desire
to be desired (Lacan, 1973, p.215), however even this is problematised. When the
penis is on show the male is almost always aggressively signified as virile,
heterosexual and otherwise normatively masculine (Jones, 1998, p.114). In
Conversions III, in trying to transcend those linguistic boundaries the only place that
he can think to place his penis is into the mouth of a kneeling women (Blocker, 2004,
pp.1213). This aggressively erases Dillon from the performance and once again
centralises Acconcis body. Mia Schor in her essay Representations of the Penis
(Schor, 1988) carefully outlines Acconcis failed attempts at transgressing systems of
masculine and feminine:
Acconci, an atavistically hairy male, has presented a male representation
by becoming a woman. He strips, but then seeks to strip away all signs of
maleness: First the hairs on his chest and then the penis from his body.
But he has a penis and must put it someplace in a disappeared woman.
So the phallus reinscribes itself over the erased/lacking woman, even as
the penis is hidden, as usual (Schor, 1988, p.8).

However, by reading Conversions as a performance that inscribes the tropes of
masculinism on to the body of the male, Part III also becomes paradoxical in that it
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puts those tropes into crisis. In Amelia Jones terms Acconcis performance puts on
display those tropes of masculinism and presents them as phallic traits that some
men desire but simultaneously lack. It is the lack that becomes problematic for
masculinism as this is the moment where it is revealed as not being naturally
aligned with maleness. It is the desire for masculinism and the inability to achieve it
via its tropes that reveals it as phallus. The effects of this in Conversions are
multiple: masculinity becomes difficult to secure as it reveals its reliance on (and
slippage into) the feminine and other rejected scraps of masculinity; the penis is
revealed as an inadequate replacement for masculinism; masculinity becomes a
slippery term.

In order for dis/play to work, the performances of male body artists are not
necessarily defined as anti-masculine or phallocentric, rather they simply raise
questions about masculinity. For example, the offering of Acconcis penis to Dillon
does emphasise the lack associated with the feminine, it places emphasis on the
masculine need for categorisation of sexual difference through visual representation.
It is also possible to read this act as conflation between the penis and the phallus,
but a more careful consideration of this performance also reveals a crisis point in
masculinism. The male has to alienate, or separate, the penis from his body in order
to allow it to achieve the status of the phallus. This becomes a recognition that the
penis, the glorified site of masculinism, is not able to make the subject feel
completely masculine, and as such has to be replaced or hidden by phallic properties
(Lacan, 1973, p.318). This does two things in Conversions, it reveals that Acconcis
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penis as an appendage is not adequate enough to achieve the ideals of masculinsim,
and that it also needs to be controlled by the male.

Through Conversions Acconci demonstrates very little control over his penis or his
identity despite his futile attempts. In Part III his penis is continuously slipping out
from its hiding places and it is Dillon who has to carefully place his penis back into
her mouth. This is also an example of dis/play, because in doing this whilst Acconci
reaffirms the conflation of masculinity and heterosexuality, by using Dillon, any
mythical phallic properties of strength or control that is attributed to his penis
disappear. Further still, whilst this also demonstrates the hegemonic recognition
that the feminine lacks the penis and therefore the phallus (and that the phallus is
controlled by Acconci because he offers it to Dillon) masculine crisis emerges once
again. In order for any of this to happen Acconci has to ask Dillon to be in the space
with him, masculinity then cannot be defined by the individuals ability to be self-
sufficient, aloof, and independent, rather for the masculine to exist the feminine has
to also be present (Jones, 1998, p.104).

The problem though with Jones articulation of phallic dis/play through Acconci is
that it relies heavily on the visual representation of masculinity through maleness.
Furthermore, it relies on masculinity to be destabilised through the artist wielding
the phallus (akirlar, 2011). The artist couple Gilbert and George offer an alternative
understanding to masculine crisis through what their bodies write next to the abject.
However, whilst they clearly perform a masculine crisis that might operate from
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bodily drivers, their destabilisation of masculinity still occurs, at least partly, through
phallic dis/play.


On first inspection Gilbert and George display some of the key attributes of
masculinism. The most explicit trait is control, which is demonstrable in both their
carefully considered image and also their work. For example, in both their private
and also public life both artists are rarely seen without being similarly dressed.
There are only a few features of their clothing that differentiates them from each
other. This might include a slightly darker shade of suit, a different coloured tie, or
the sporting of a hat for example. However, this careful presentation of self also
bleeds into how they approach their work. In the short documentary film The Secret
Files of Gilbert and George the couple take a camera down into their cellar to reveal
an archive of potential, and used, material all carefully labelled and identifiable
(Obrist, 2000).

The artists obsessive need to demarcate and mark as different finds its way into
their artistic practices. In many of their images, they place a black grid over the top
of their prints. This references their need to divide and separate components in
their life, but it soon becomes apparent that these demarcations are not really
dividing anything. Sometimes a few of the boxes in the grid contain an image, or an
image is contained within a number of boxes, however often the images behind the
grid bleed through the demarcation placed on top. The intersections where the
horizontal lines cross the vertical lines may also be considered a metaphor for the
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merging and blurring of cultural binary opposites. Further still, behind the grid lies
the often abject images aligned next to the bodies of the artists, which become a
literal representation for Julia Kristevas theory of abjection in Powers of Horror:
[the abject] lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches,
worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced
(Kristeva, 1982, p.1).


akirlar articulates that what he finds interesting about Gilbert and George is their
ability to exhaust and exploit the normative intersections of male and masculine
through the use of abject fluids, specifically focussing on anxiety (akirlar, 2011,
p.88). As such, their practice does not come from an identifiable position or a
positionable identity, as in masculinism, but rather a space that rifts between bodies
and pleasures; a type of jouissance that exists outside of categorisation. The point of
the artists work is to find beauty in all things, this might occur through a
sexualisation of the city, or alternatively by finding surprising patterns in microscopic
bodily fluids (Obrist, 2000).

As such in order to destabilise masculinism in the way that Jones does (1998; 1995;
1994), one has to do so through the symbolic, and as this is the domain of paternal
law, the act becomes kind of subversive and kind of not (akirlar, 2011, p.91).
Gilbert and Georges work however is an ironic representation of the anxiety of what
the masculine body writes next to its rejected fragments. This might include the
rejected scraps of an organisation as described by Mary Douglas (Douglas, 2002), but
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more often than not it is those objects that have been ejected from the body. It is
the artists performed anxiety in their prints, when next to the enlarged images of
their own bodily waste, that generates a masculine crisis. Gilbert and Georges
pastiche of gender, their performance of a self-embarrassing, self shaming-
masculinity operates in a similar multi-faceted layers of ambiguity, aporia, parody
and seriousness (akirlar, 2011, p.92).

The difference between Jones and akirlar critique is that the latter comes from a
knowing position of, and from, the artist, whereas the former is a reading that
occurs despite the artist. Furthermore, Jones articulates a language of masculinity
whereas akirlar considers the bodily drives and desires. This is made more
pertinent when considering that it is the mothers body that is rejected by the
subject for language and meaning in the Mirror Stage. As such it would stand to
reason that by the very fact that Gilbert and George embrace the body and its
abject fluids, their approach has greater destabilising properties than phallic
dis/play.

However, this reading makes some unconfortable distinctions between language and
the body, and as Kristeva notes in Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), the two are
not easily seperated as they bleed into one another (Kristeva, 1984, p.13). So, even
though Gilbert and George do expose the intersections of masculinity and femininity
from a position of knowing, they have to wield the phallus in order to do so. The
obsessive need to collate, collect, organise and demarcate is clearly evidenced in
patriarchy. Michael Warner and Judith Halberstam, for example, identify how
Page 21 of 36
spaces are divided to emphasise sexual difference (Halberstam, 1998, pp.2029), or
how the public is clearly marked as a masculine space, where specific codes and
codifications are acted out with regards to gender (Warner, 2005, p.24). The fact
that Gilbert and George clearly control their self-image in the same way they
demarcate their process and products reinforces the performance of control. It is a
result of collecting absolutely everything including their shit, piss, semen and blood,
and then presenting their bodies next to it that causes the phallus to disappear and
present embarrassed anxious bodies.

In addition to this, the claim of jouissance that akirlar suggets that Gilbert and
George engage with is appropriate, however there is not one type of jouissance. The
term is generally thought to mean an excess of pleasure and pain, or specifically a
tension that needs to be relieaved (Lacan, 1998, p.1). This though is a limited
reading that Lacan suggests comes from a masculine perspective on the imago. The
phallic object, as stated previously, holds the very thing that the object desires and
subsequently lacks, total jouissance comes from the assumption that one thing can
give complete happiness or an ultimate pleasure. In the case of Gilbert and George,
what they might be demonstrating is the ultimate pleasure that masculinim
demonstrates in controlling and collating all things as identifiable. However, as the
phallus can never be attained, neither can total jouissance, instead the excess that
the male subject experiences is phallic jouissance (Lacan, 1998, p.6). A term that
suggests the attainment of the phallic object offers more than what is desirable to
the subject. The anxiety that Gilbert and George perform is a recognition that by
collecting and labeling everything at some point the male subject must experience a
Page 22 of 36
blurring and subsequent fragmentation of his masculine self. Through the collection
of shit, piss and semen and its subsequent magnification, Gilbert and George found a
moral dimension where piss contains the images of crusifixes, blood contain
daggers, and semen stars. They refer to this moral dimension as being you being all
over you, and not just in your head (Obrist, 2000). As such Gilbert and George do
operate within phallic jouissance, a place of bodily desires, but first they must wield
the phallus and operate within the symbolic.

As such phallic dis/play causes phallic jouissance, which in turn ensues crisis, and this
is something that Acconci potentially experienced after Conversions (1971). A few
years after his performances to camera he notes in an interview that those works
were specifically an attack on him (Sharp, 1973). Furtherstill in Body/art Performing
the Subject Jones notes that Acconci recognised the apparent sexism in his own
work, noting that: I hate maleness and I hate male domination, but because it is so
culturally embedded I can readily fall into it (Jones, 1998, p.135). This is an
example of how attempts for total jouissance, demonstrable through Acconcis
obsessive desire for agency between masculine and feminine, can result in the
performance of masculine crisis.

There are multiple examples of how crisis, or phallic jouissance, exists within
performance through phallic dis/play. On the one hand Acconci demonstrates an
unknowing crisis during Conversions and experiences crisis in hindsight, whereas
there is an ironic and knowing presentation of it during the performances of Gilbert
and George. However in the performances of Alastair MacLennan and Stuart Brisley
Page 23 of 36
crisis is represented on their bodies and also the environments that they create.
Whilst Dominic Johnson refers to the works of Gilbert and George as cool and
sartorially unblemished he describes the works of MacLennan and Brisley as having
an agonized subtereanean aesthetic (Johnson, 2012, p.124). This aesthetic and its
impact is most easily described through Alastair MacLennans Out the In (1987).

Alastair MacLennans Out the In (1987) is located in a discarded room. The old
wooden floorboards are laid bare with the exception of white dust, which forms a
square in the middle. Demarcating that space in lines across one axis of that square
is barbed wire, sometimes this is wrapped around objects such as exit signs,
sometimes it has objects placed onto it like fish. Placed around the space are other
discarded objects, which seem to have little in common with each other. These
include one bloody shoe, old sinks, and two poles crossed at one end with black
textile stretched across it. An old shopping trolley is located towards one end of the
square and in it sits the only light, which dimly illuminates the room. The camera,
like our eyes might do, struggles to focus on those objects. We can hear the distant
sounds of the world outside, inside. There is a sense then that boundaries are
constantly being tested here.

This is further emphasised with the introduction to the artist. In the corner of the
room stands MacLennan, dressed entirely in black, facing the corner. He notes in an
interview that hes interested in decay, and subterranean levels of consciousness
(Dickson et al., 1988). The darkness, the discarded objects collected carefully in that
old room, all seem to be encroaching on his space, and as such he becomes almost
Page 24 of 36
invisible. There are objects like the dead fish, and the bloody shoe, which reference
the abject directly, whilst others are indexical of it: the bathroom sinks threaten to
contain remnants of someone elses spittle, the empty fish tank is a reminder of
animals that once existed, and the x-rays of skulls and birds wings located around
the edge of the room present the inside outside. Abjection disturbs identity systems,
it does not respect borders, and it draws the subject towards the place where
meaning collapses (Kristeva, 1982, p.4). The subject in the corner of the room
becomes a body, an object alongside all those other objects. The darkness
surrounding that body consumes it, as do the objects, it becomes inarticulate, and it
is almost unable to be identified as different. There is always a reminder though
that that body is a subject. MacLennans slow breathing makes sure that the abject
does not completely beseech all boundaries.

The subterranean aesthetics of the performance of existentialism in crisis, death,
dirt, discarded objects, and the constant threat of consumption, can be neatly
wrapped up with the embracement of the abject. Through the above reading, artists
akin to Brisley and MacLennan perform masculine crisis through the representation
of broken borders and collapsed meaning. In this respect subterranean artists in the
UK, and also those who perform masculine crisis, might be best described as
troublemakers. This term mildly refers to the offense caused to the masculine
subject as a result of its clear boundaries being beseeched (Butler, 2007, p.xxix).
These artists make trouble because they upset masculinity through threatening to
force its collapse into nothingness (Walsh, 2011, p.11). However, it is worth noting
here that the terms threaten and force are also terms that might be synonymous
Page 25 of 36
with power, control, and strength. So whilst Brisley and MacLennan actively
embrace the abject, just like Gilbert and George, they also embrace phallic dis/play
in order to achieve this.

Arbeit Macht Frei (1973) was conceived in response to a previous performance And
For TodayNothing (1972). In this performance Stuart Brisley laid in a bath of black
water, for approximately two hours a day for two weeks. The lighting was low,
which meant that the performance was difficult to navigate, the only sign of
movement was his body slowly rising up and then sinking back under the water. In
the basin next to the bath laid some offal, and over the space of those two weeks it
rotted, maggots hatched and turned into flies (Brisley, n.d.).

Arbeit Macht Frei (1973) is a twenty-minute, black and white, 16 mm film, which
responded to this performance. However, it was also a total rejection of the concept
that lied behind the title. Those words were presented in wrought iron above many
of the entrances to German concentration camps in World War II. They translate
into Work Makes Free. In an interview with Catherine Wood at the Tate, Brisley says
that this work is a literal representation through the body, of what the mind rejects
(Tate, 2011). In this respect this means that what cannot be ingested, or accepted in
to ones self must be rejected. As such, this work responds to the atrocities of
humanity, and more specifically towards the holocaust, as concepts that he struggles
to accept. Arbeit Macht Frie (1973) is the deliberation and careful consideration on
the meaningless of humanity.

Page 26 of 36
His work is an exploration of the parameters of the body, which he uses to explore
conceptual boundaries for the purpose of finding common meaning (Brisley, 2006).
Common meaning does not infer a fixed understanding of an event, action or a
series of signs, rather it refers to the polysemy of heterogonous meanings. He states
quite clearly that the performances that he has created are not necessarily focused
on political positions, however they might be indexical of them.

The vomiting at the beginning of Arbeit Macht Frei (1973) does not only come to
represent Brisleys rejection of the idea of the holocaust, but also the recognition
that those actions can be associated with the masculine subject. This is because the
virtues of masculinism also define the vices that caused the holocaust in World War
II, violence, authority, control, and emotional detachment. As such, those same
actions also come to define the masculine subject. Further still, whilst ones actions
defines oneself, they also define an ideal and thus the subject of those actions
becomes a legislator for them (Sartre, 2007, p.25). What exacerbates this is that by
being defined by those actions, the masculine subject is being observed:

Everything happens to everyman as if the entire human race were
staring at him and measuring himself by what he does. So everyman
ought to be asking am I really a man who is entitled to act in such a
way that the entire human race should be measuring itself by my
actions? and if he does not ask himself that, he masks his anguish
(Sartre, 2007, pp.2627).

With this in mind Brisleys ejection of his bodily fluid also stands in for the masculine
subject realising that his appropriation of masculine tropes is a reinforcement for the
Page 27 of 36
atrocities of war. Therefore, the demonstration of abjection in Arbeit Macht Frie is a
metaphor for the rejection of masculinism.

So far this essay has established that muscular masculinity is comprised of both
phallic dis/play and crisis. Whilst phallic dis/play is easier to define in that it is
demonstrated by the excessive performance of masculine tropes, crisis is slightly
more difficult. Masculine crisis occurs most often in the performance, either
because masculinity is destabilised through phallic dis/play or afterwards when an
artist recognises how closely they resemble hegemonic masculinity as with Acconci.
Alternatively, it also exists as a metaphor for wider cultural concerns as with Stuart
Brisleys Arbeit Macht Frie (1973) where his vomiting at the beginning of the film is
also a rejection for masculinism and its relationship with war. In both cases they
demonstrate that masculine crisis is indicative of phallic jouissance. A term that
usefully recognises that too much masculinity is as problematic for the male subject
as it is to be emasculated at least in the eyes of masculinism. However, whilst
muscular masculinity has been demonstrated so far as being performed by the artist,
there are also examples where muscular masculinity has caused a physical masculine
crisis on a wider cultural scale. One example of this type of muscular masculinity is
demonstrated in Ron Atheys Four Scenes of a Harsh Life (1994).

To articulate muscular masculinity only through Athey and his performances would
simply replicate what has already been said in this essay. For example, his work uses
overt examples of phallic dis/play, of which demonstrate crisis both in his self and in
his performances. In Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994) for example he insistently
Page 28 of 36
centralises himself through the spoken narratives of his own autobiography, which
are punctured with vignettes of his troubled past. Through these devices he carefully
controls the image of his self, and it becomes clear that it helps to read his work
through his own esoteric experiences (Johnson, 2013b, p.11) . In addition to this,
the use of pain also features heavily in his work. In the scene suicide bed, for
example, Athey references his fifteen years of heroin addiction by tying a tourniquet
to his arm and then injecting twenty hypodermic needles starting from his forearm
and finishing at his shoulder. There are other references as well: his Pentecostal
upbringing through his performance of a Christian Sermon; the matriarchal
influences of his Grandmother, aunt and mother, through drag and the creation of
hatchet pussies (a term that refers to the sewing up of ones testicles and penis into
the groin to infer the creation of a vagina); and his own sadomasochist preferences
through the infliction of pain onto other bodies. Considering these Athey does
perform the masculine tropes of violence, control, and self-sufficiency.

As with Acconci, Gilbert and George, Brisley and MacLennan, however, Athey cannot
just be described as misogynistic as his work puts into question masculinity. He
demonstrates this through his performances, but more importantly his work causes
crises of masculinity in Western cultures. Whilst there are many examples of this
throughout Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994), the one that will be bought into focus
is the performance of The Human Printing Press. This was performed for the Fifth
Annual Minneapolis LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] Film Festival at a
100 seat fringe venue called Patricks Caberet 1994.

Page 29 of 36
In this performance Divinity Fudge, Atheys co-performer kneeled face down in a
dentist chair, whilst Athey cut linear lines into his back, and blotted them with
absorbent paper. After handing them to an assistant, they were pinned to cables
and hoisted out above the audiences heads. Whilst the event went a head without
any problems, Mary Abbe from the Minnesota Star Tribune reported that HIV
Positive infected blood rained down on the audience below, this is despite Divinity
Fudge being HIV Negative. Soon the national American newspapers caught hold of
the story, which led to heated discussions in Congress (Johnson, 2013a, p.64). It was
here American Senate Jesse Helms called Athey a cockroach on the Senate floor and
the NEA, who funded Athey only $150, had their funding slashed by over eight
million dollars (Johnson, 2012, p.124).

Partly as a result of this American reaction, and partly because of UK national
politics, the ICA, the contemporary arts institute that had curated Four Scenes in a
Harsh Life in 1995, asked Athey to make a number of changes to his performance.
One change was the removal of The Human Printing Press vignette altogether.
Athey conceded in the end, and replaced the live scene with a performance to
camera depicting the same acts that received so much controversy in America.
However, the pain and violence he inflicted on his body remained in the
performance.

It becomes apparent then through the reading of this case that it is acceptable to
cause pain on ones self in the live space, but to do so on another consenting body is
illegal, and as such, in law we have limited agency over our bodies (Johnson, 2012).
Page 30 of 36
In Four Scenes in a Harsh Life Athey, and his co-performer, reclaim their bodies from
the control of patriarchy. They perform a masculine crisis by exposing the restrictive
contradictions associated with masculinity. It is possible to have control and
authority, but not over your own body.

This essay aimed to articulate how the cultural phenomenon masculinity in crisis
might be defined as a type of performative, in which male body artists during the
20
th
and 21
st
Centuries depict the destabilisation of the masculine subject. Some of
the questions that were raised during this essay, were how do artists achieve
masculinity in crisis, what does it do within the performance, and how might it affect
wider cultural understandings of masculinity? An attempt at answering these
questions was made through the definition of muscular masculinity, which was an
amalgamation between Amelia Jones theory on phallic dis/play, and Fintan Walshs,
and Dominic Jonsons, different understandings of crisis. Through an analytical
reading of Acconcis Conversions (1971), this excess of masculinity can be read
through Lacans theory of phallic jouissance, which in turn is indicative of a
masculine crisis. What this revealed was the different ways in which muscular
masculinity was demonstrated across multiple examples of body art.

As a result of this, artists who have not previously been aligned together, for
example Vito Acconci and Stuart Brisley, start to form a lineage of works that explore
masculinity in crisis through muscular masculinity. This is heightened further when
one thinks of Ron Athey, whose work presents an individual and cultural masculine
crisis through phallic dis/play. As a result of Atheys own success within the UK Live
Page 31 of 36
Art Scene from the late nineties, he has developed his own aesthetic, which younger
artists have started to employ. By reading these works it is also possible to see how
they also operate within the lineage of muscular masculinity. Take for example Kris
Canavan and Nick Kilby in their performance Version 2.3 which was presented at
Tempting Failure in 2012. Connected to each other by ropes attached by hooks to
their skin the two fight. They hold each other down, punch each other, and pour
paint over their naked bodies. After setting alight an old rag and hanging it from the
garage door of ]Performance Space[, the two remove their surgical staples that were
used to produce their hatchet fannies. Revealing their penises, they piss on the fire
in order to put it out. This performance demonstrates clearly the use of hegemonic
masculine tropes, violence, control, endurance, and humiliation, but at the same
time this performance is not a reinforcement of hegemony. The work presented is
homoerotic, it blurs the line between heterosexuality and homosexuality, aggression
and passivity, and it reconsiders the concept of agency over ones body.


In addition to the performance of masculine tropes and crisis, what seems to link
these artists together is their consistent attack on themselves. Vito Acconci talks
about the use of the camera to attack his body in Conversions, whereas in order for
Brisley to reject masculinsim he must first of all put his body in crisis. MacLennans
performance of Out the In (1987) locates his body within discarded objects, which
seem to encroach on his subject. Finally Atheys own aggression on his body in Four
Scenes in a Harsh Life feels like an indexical reliving of his trauma. Muscular
Page 32 of 36
masculinity can be defined as a self-destructive masculine crisis, where masculinism
is aggressively turned against itself.


However, there are other examples of male body artists who are not easily read
through muscular masculinity, but still perform a type of masculinity in crisis. Whilst
artists such as Bob Flanagan engaged with sadomasochistic practices similarly to Ron
Athey, his challenge to masculinity was very different. Maybe his access to this was
through his illness. As a suffer of cystic fibrosis, Bob Flanagan performed, what
Judith Halberstam describes as, a rejected scrap of masculinity (Halberstam, 1998,
p.3). Despite this though, his level of endurance and acceptance of pain was in many
respects astonishing. This is demonstrated in multiple spaces, which include his
relationship with his Mistress Sheree Rose; the intense medicinal massages he
received to relieve the symptoms of his chronic illness; and his own masochistic
desires, which are immortalized in the now infamous photograph of Flanagan
performing in Autopsy where he hammered a nail through his scrotum into a
wooden chair (Jones, 1998, p.231).

Bob Flanagan though is not about performing masculine tropes to excess in order to
achieve crisis, rather than destroying himself there is a distinct feeling that he
established his Selfs within the performance space. Other artists who might be
aligned with this type of work include Martin OBrien and also Adrian Howells. As
such this essay recognises the existence of multiple masculine crises outside of
muscular masculinity. There needs to be then an attempt at defining the lineage of
Page 33 of 36
masculine crisis that Flannagan, Howells and OBrien operate within, how it exists on
the body of those artists, and the strategies they use in order to generate it.
Page 34 of 36
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