In a typically bullish interview (recorded in 1959, but unpublished until after his suicide in 1970), painter Mark Rothko told Harper’s staffer John Fisher, “I don’t prophesy the woes to come. I just paint the woes already here.”
Conceptual artist Franko B knows all about life’s woes. Interviewed before a rare performance of his piece Milk and Blood at East Street Arts [in 2016], the artist nods in rueful agreement. “Yes, life hurts,” he says.
Rothko had been expressing his misgivings about a commission for a series of murals at the swanky restaurant in New York’s Seagram building; misgivings which would see him hand back his fee and bequeath the paintings to the Tate art gallery.
Some twenty five years later, freshly installed in London from his native Italy, a young Franko B would be moved to tears by Rothko’s large-scale visions of terrible beauty.
“I didn’t know anything about this artist,” he says. “There was this dark black maroon painting and I just felt it was like a religious experience – I didn’t find God. I was an emotional wreck, and I said to myself, I want to do art.”
Franko enrolled at Camberwell and Chelsea Schools of Art at a time when interest in fine art was intersecting with fashion, music, performance, and an emergent Queer subculture centred around the club scene.
Born in Milan in 1960, and brought up by the Red Cross, Franko’s brutal childhood experiences would surface in his work. Addressing issues of mortality at a time when AIDS was decimating the gay community, he pushed at the boundaries of what constituted art, frequently using his own body as a living canvas.
Early performances involved ritual violation and the letting of blood, the artist marked by highly personalised stigmata. Tagged ‘body horror’ by salacious tabloids, these so-called ‘blood’ works were not for the faint of heart.
Sympathetic critics likened them to the visceral theatrics of 18th century medical dissections open to the public. Others simply accused the artist of wilfully setting out to shock.
“I think it’s disingenuous when people think I shock,” he responds today. “I would say, poverty is shocking, homelessness is shocking, rape is shocking; all these are more shocking than what I do.”
Franko makes no apologies for his work. For those with eyes to see, there is great beauty in pieces such as 1995’s I’m Not Your Babe. His art is a series of corporeal tableaux, potent with gory fetishism and the bruises of darker truths.
“Anything that I did was a way to claim my body,” Franko says of these early works, “because of where I came from culturally, and in terms of time, there was a strong Catholic taboo around touching your body, desire, masturbation.”
If the work feels like a reclamation, the anger and energy of punk added its own liberating momentum. “Punk was useful for me for education. It was good because it said ‘fuck you!’ Franko says. “But then, punk said ‘fuck you’ to everything,” he adds, suggesting he found its nihilism too restrictive, too reductive.
Spurred on by anarchist politics, the autodidact within him embraced film, photography, painting, collage, installation and sculpture; whichever felt most appropriate at the time. “You learn to become more subversive – not agitprop – but you think about your message. You learn the power of the image.”
Interviewed for the South Bank Show in 1997, Franko reacted strongly to criticisms that his work was merely sensationalist: “My work is not about the act. It’s about the language, what it represents, what I want to say.”
In the intervening years his practice may have shifted, but the imperative still holds sway. “I think language is something the powers cannot take away. I’m not talking about speaking, but they cannot take your vision. Somehow the body – the image – has to transcend the object.”
He feels finally able to absolve audiences of their polarised reactions to his art. “The beauty is that somebody can tap into what they somehow need to tap into,” he says. “Also somebody can totally get it wrong – and I accept that, so long as they don’t harass me with it.”
To borrow a phrase from psychiatry, he seems more accepting of himself these days. “You have to be fluid. Language is a thing that you cannot frame. Somebody can say about me, ‘He’s totally marginal,’ or ‘He’s insignificant,’ it’s fine. You get on.”
That word ‘insignificant’ crops up a lot in Franko’s new works, helping shape their invective. (It is the title of the capsule exhibition which accompanies Milk and Blood.) “Our struggle in the scheme of things is insignificant,” explains Franko, “but at the same time there’s a paradox terming love ‘insignificant’, or pain ‘insignificant’. It’s provocative.”
He alludes to responses earlier in the year to Sleeping Beauty, his exquisitely unsettling marble sculpture of drowned refugee boy Alan Kurdî.
“The key thing for me is to use beauty to somehow bridge the aura and the banality of the image because life is usually not beautiful,” he says acknowledging the paradox that such a dreadful image of loss – one peddled by social media to the point of prurient redundancy – can be re-appropriated as elegiac and spiritual simply through the artist’s choice of medium.
“I play with this sense of banality. I used marble. It’s sacred, something very beautiful. I looked up (Renaissance sculptor) Bernini – I used that carnal sensuality.”
Marble opened some unexpected doors, he says: “In a way it’s subversive. Usually the sort of people who come would never look at my work. Maybe it’s not the kind of thing they want in their living room, but they engage with the art somehow and they find out what it is.”
This dichotomy informs Insignificant with its assortment of bare canvases and coarse embroidered images. Monastic in their simplicity, they are like the ghosts of medieval stained glass windows: a boy throws back his head, a dumb show of pleasure or pain; two men kiss open-mouthed, a sensuous act of defiance.
Out front, a neon sculpture proclaims in gaudy, blood-red cursive: ‘personal / political / poetic.’ It is a signpost that points to the skull beneath the flesh.
“Artists deal with language and I think they have a duty to ask questions, to talk about things that society tries to put underneath the carpet,” says Franko. It is emblematic of the interconnections of his art that exhibition, performance, a series of talks which accompany his visit, together form a whole.
“Everything I do is a strategy, essentially a tool,” he explains. “At that moment, it’s the right tool or strategy to say what I want, where I choose not to say it in another way.”
The works are a bridge. They seem a conscious shift away from the earlier visceral pieces with which the artist sealed his reputation. He has even gone so far as to say ‘I have successfully wrecked my career as a “bleeding” artist and continued my lust for life thanks to language.’
An earlier video piece entitled Milk and Blood – an androgynous youth in a blood spattered t-shirt drinks milk from the carton – might describe a transitional arc between the axes of Franko’s world.
Reminded about the piece he says, “It’s totally unrelated. And I forgot about it,” though he concedes that the two eponymous pieces may share a subconscious DNA. “Now the blood in the performance is expressed by the struggle of being alive.”
In Milk and Blood, Franko wanted to explore boxing as metaphor. Perhaps mindful of Roland Barthes who wrote, ‘boxing is a story constructed before the eyes of the spectator,’ the piece takes the form of a gruelling solo sparring bout.
Over thirteen three minute rounds, Franko – kitted out from head to foot in gold like some pugilist King Midas – pummels a gold lamé punch bag which hangs at the centre of the room. With every punch landed he intones a jagged liturgy.
The gold references boxing’s capacity to confer wealth and status on the dispossessed, says Franko. “It was once a ghetto sport. It isn’t now, but where I train, you get local kids from the estate. For them it’s a way to find a voice, an identity. It’s about self-respect, and it’s about dreaming, hoping to succeed and make a living.”
This might help explain the number twenty-two prominently displayed on Franko’s protective headgear: in numerology, twenty-two symbolises a powerful capacity to transfigure dreams into reality.
Over the course of the performance, the punch bag progressively bleeds milk onto the studio floor: “Milk is the first food we have when we come out of the womb. It’s the food that makes bones which then we break – or have broken for us by life.”
This violence is reflected through the stylised William Burroughs cut-up of the text; the stream of seemingly random words – ‘youth, reflection, ecstasy, less, fear, creep, infections, consumed’ – coagulates into meaning over the entirety of the performance. It is a deeply personal howl into the cosmos.
“I don’t follow (the text) totally. I add three or four different colourings,” Franko says describing the process. “When words come to me, I tend to see images.”
He accepts these words are hard and uninhibited. “Language is like a virus, and a lot of the time, you don’t know when the beauty will hit you. You cannot control it.” He ponders the relationship between beauty and the image for a moment, perhaps mindful of the complex interplay between the two within his own work.
The piece feels redemptive; the final words apposite: “I have language on my side. I have language on my side.”
Curiously Franko has no interest in boxing. “I’m not crazy about it. To me it’s just a metaphor. It’s a struggle. You have to fight for your life.”
To get into shape for the performance, he has been training seriously in a boxing gym for six months. “I was interested in it as a journey. I wanted to learn about boxing and about my body. I box and I spar. Sometimes the trainer hits me too hard,” he says as if nursing the physical memory.
“You’re hitting what you’re saying. Every time you say ‘love’, you punch; ‘pain’, another punch. Actually, it’s hard work to box and to talk, to punch. Boxing is not easy.”
Boxers from his gym, who have never set foot in a gallery, check him out – “to make sure I’m not slacking” – and offer technical points. “They say, ‘You’re punching too much with your left’, or ‘You need to mix it up more.’ The thing I find very difficult is they’re very light, they dance. I can’t. I move slowly, but I do look like a boxer. I look like I do boxing.”
The following night’s performance of Milk and Blood at Patrick Studios goes very well, drawing a strongly partisan local crowd. The piece has only been performed a handful of times outside the capital, so it is a big deal.
“People are much more generous where it’s not taken for granted,” says Franko pondering the different character of regional audiences. “In London you tend to get students or people who do art. Maybe they’re more spoiled? Here (in Leeds) people are not so precious.”
At the Bacchanalian after party, there is nudity and glitter and Franko on the Wheels of Steel. Such scenes of Rococo decadence are part of his art too it seems: “It’s good. It’s not separate. They are as important as each other,” he says with a wry smile. “Also it’s fun.”
Originally commissioned for the catalogue of Franko B’s Milk & Blood performance at East Street Arts in 2016, this piece has been updated.