Billie Ray Martin’s haunting, soulful voice soothed many a chill…
Franko B is an artist who’s breathlessly celebrated in some quarters, totally misunderstood in others. Long before he was featured on the South Bank Show, Franko’s work came to my attention via the LGBT S&M scene.
At the now defunct Fist, the Milan-born artist proved a regular feature, performing body art spectaculars which transcended the pseudo-sexual vibe and delivered a disarming théâtre du Grand-Guignol with a clinical 21st century twist.
Louder than the splashing drips of blood or white noise soundtracks were the dull thuds of fainting punters who’d stood near the stage and got more gore than they’d bargained for. It can still be said that the audience at Franko’s shows are almost as interesting to observe as the artist himself.
Infamous for performance work, his sculptures, paintings objects and neons are criminally overlooked. Many curators and galleries refuse to even consider his work as a visual artist, because they’ve closed their minds due to the blood based work.
With his squat body shape, gold-toothed underbite and a scarred and heavily tattooed body, Franko cuts an imposing figure. That vision, much like his work, is easy to misinterpret- he’s an utterly huggable gentleman- cuddly, kind and quite brilliant. Having toured the country with his new show Don’t Leave Me This Way, I caught up with Franko at his London workshop in Toynbee Studios.
His performance pieces tend to etch themselves onto the mind, haunting and disturbing for some time after, but his visual art is truly stunning. It’s hard to believe that garments, objects and canvasses crafted from his bloody catwalk horror show ‘I Miss You!’ could be so delicate and boast a terrible beauty.
Why have you chosen to move away from blood based work?
“I’ve wanted to stop bleeding for a long time, actually, but it was hard to get out of it. It’s evolution really, and the context within which I started to make work 20 years ago has changed. I’m a different person now, and the political, social cultural space that I was in, is totally different from now. I’m 48, not 30 any more. It was important what I did then, but there’s other ways of bleeding. In another way, I think we all bleed. Also, for me, I think there’s enough blood going ‘round at the moment.
I bled upside down, I bled lying down, I bled on my knees, I bled on my back…I just think it’s enough. In a deeper sense, I have stopped bleeding. Twenty years ago, we had an AIDS epidemic, a different understanding of infection and blood. We’ve had the war in Yugoslavia, Iraq…and the politics of the body changes according to where one finds himself.
I also don’t want to be remembered as ‘the guy who bled’. I work in a lot of different ways. I make paintings, sculptures, installations…and I don’t want it (bleeding) to be my signature. This is the only opportunity to do something with my life. You have to ask yourself, do I want to enter the next room? You don’t want to stay in the same room.
Is your work therapeutic for you?
No. If I need therapy, I go to a psychologist. That would be too easy. It can be cathartic, but everything can be.
Your work is mostly personal, I noticed that (painting/sculpture) of the two boys who were hung for being gay in Iran- does that indicate a move into the political?
The personal IS political. Everything is political. Most of the painting I do covers an area of interest which is essentially The Body- the body in war, the body in desire…and like this guy. (Franco highlights one of his black acrylic pictures featuring a young man propped up on a bed)
This guy is in a mental institution and I painted him from a photograph. His family put him in a mental institution when he was 20…and I read this story and it made me cry. It’s political…because it’s about self, being who you are and how sometimes being yourself gets you killed, or sectioned. Recently, I’ve been painting boy soldiers, from Africa and Kosovo.
Do you engage with politics at all?
To be alive is political. Even to do nothing, which is not possible…is political. To sit on the fence is highly political, in fact, extremely. Like a lot of people say, ‘I don’t vote’. This has much more influence than if you did vote. My attitude is that I am an anarchist, but I believe that people should be free, not to shit on each other. I believe that people should be polite and treat each other with dignity. I think, essentially, everybody is political. It’s impossible not to be.
Do you feel an affinity with the gay ‘scene’?
I don’t really give a shit about the gay ‘community’. It’s a business. I’ve always said that there’s nothing special about taking it up the arse, really. It’s not like when Stonewall happened. We’re not in the middle of Yorkshire where we might feel oppressed.
The mentoring scheme- how does that work? How do you choose who to mentor?
A lot of people were asking me to mentor them or comment on their work. How can you do it? You cannot reply to every e-mail. Obviously, I’ve been to art college and sometimes I give lectures (St. Martins School of Art, New York University, Courtauld Institute of Art)…and people find them useful. As an artist, I’ve been successful in what I’m doing- not so that I can buy a £4m studio. Or a Ferrari, but I’m somebody who’s fortunate enough to make something of my life. I think it’s important, I have a responsibility to invest in others.
How do you choose?
They send in the kind of work they want to do, what is their aspiration, why they want to work with me…and then it’s down to two things; what can I bring to the person and whether I can live up to that person’s expectation. I say to people- I’m not gonna change your life…really. It’s not glossy, if you want to be a successful artist…and have hundreds and hundreds of assistants like Damien Hirst, go to Damien Hirst.
I assume you must be very comfortable with your body in order to be naked in front of strangers, is that true?
No, it’s not. It’s probably true of my personal life. I’m more comfortable with my body than I was 15-20 years ago, but I think it’s different to be intimate with a stranger, than it is with someone you know. To be naked, in front of a stranger is easy.
In a way, I’ve been doing this for so long that…this is what I do. It’s much harder when it’s more personal. It’s difficult when you like that person, when it means more to you, than it does to them. I did a performance where I asked people to be naked, where I was fully dressed. They told me they found it more intimate with me, than they did with a partner.
What do you say to those who criticise you for making self harm acceptable?
I never did that. I don’t think anybody intelligent would say that. There was somebody who attacked me. She was the mother of some kid and she blamed me for her son’s self-harming. It was during a workshop in the arts centre in Colchester about 3 years ago. She got it wrong. It’s like blaming Marilyn Manson for Columbine, it’s bullshit.
There’s a difference. I’m making work which is empowering myself and self harm is something else. I have a lot of people who write to me, that think they do what I do. Sometimes I explain to them- I am an artist, I sell my work, I make a living out of it. I’m not here alone, doing it to myself. It’s for the public. Self harm is when you hurt yourself and you’re out of control. To me, self harm is like taking a lot of drugs…or being a prostitute when you can’t handle it. It’s being totally reckless with your self.
Do you think your work has given you an understanding of self harm?
Not really. No. For me, it’s very clinical. I work with a doctor, it’s a procedure I have to do to get the blood. I think it’s very different because it’s calculated. There’s an end to it, it’s a show, there’s photographs taken. It’s not gonna save me. It’s not about releasing. It’s about image making.
People expect you to be a serious and disturbed- what gives you pleasure that people might find surprising?
I listen to classical music, it gives me a lot of pleasure. My dogs. Good food…and my partner.
How would you differentiate what you do in performance pieces from reality TV ‘stars’- one is pop culture, the other art, but both expose and challenge subjects and audience?
I never watch. I’ve never seen it. I don’t have a TV. What’s the difference? I don’t really want to challenge them, because I haven’t seen it, but I can imagine. I think- good on them. With me, I want to be happy…and it’s about living my life with integrity. People may have a different way of getting that. I think, most people want to be happy. If you have an idea of why you’re doing something, and that’s important to you…then do it. I don’t think there is a particular difference- if it’s about you, really.
I guess they want fame, because they think it will make them happy, but the reason why I make the comparison is that their level of exposure is like being naked. They’re emotionally naked.
Oh, totally naked. But another difference is that they are now….and then they disappear.
Your work remains….
My work remains…and I hope the same for them. But, somehow I don’t think so.