“Corporeal Malediction”: Franko B’s Body/Art and the Trace of Whiteness

• Amelia Jones (2006)


  1. “the corporeal malediction….. The evidence was there, unalterable. My blackness was there, dark and unarguable.”

  2. - Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks [1]


A skull, which one expects to be bleached white, is (rather) carved in black paint on a rondel (Black Skull). The “mouth” (which of course isn’t really a mouth, which would imply moist insides and ruby lip surround); rather, it is an aperture lined with sharp protrusions. What would be a mouth looks like sutures closing a wound; the skull is faintly menacing. It is complemented by a series of black paintings: a black cross, the edges of which are scraped out of a thick skin of black paint (Black Cross), and by black on black figural paintings –Black Cross Man (a figure, etched in black, standing in front of the black cross), the sorrowful, dead-looking Man Lying, and the Mother and Child, the Mary Cassatt-like sentimental content wiped out byits rendition in lugubrious pure black. These paintings are the grave of Malevich (“Tomorrow,” Mercutio clowns just as he is about to bite the dust in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “you will find me a grave man…..”). These paintings haunt the viewer as if, carved in black granite, they are the last traces of someone she has loved and lost. There is something wry but also inutterably, oppressively sad about these paintings. They point backward to the historic avant-gardes and their utopian abstractions, and to the coded silences of Robert Rauschenberg’s muted black combine paintings of the 1950s.[2] They speak, and yet they say nothing: what of that?[3]



  1. But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous – why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.
    …. in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?

  2. - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or, the White Whale[4]


The black paintings serve as a kind of obverse of Franko B.’s signature whiter-than-white body (literally painted in glossy white makeup), enacted in his performance works; often with skeins of blood marring its shiny surface, this body becomes an over-exaggerated signifier of a purity gone awry. While the body he enacts is signaled explicitly as white and male (its anatomical attributes clearly visible), the performance works seem to point to a matrix of interwoven issues pivoting around the permeability of this body. Franko B enacts the white male body, radically, as deeply perverse, as deviant but in an ambiguous and mournfully gentle way. This is not the aggressive, violated body of Ron Athey’s early work, but an elegiac body of sorrows: Christ doloroso as icon of the ambivalence of twenty-first century white masculinity, which seems to know what it was but not how it functions in a world criss-crossed by globalised networks of communication and identification, informational circuits traveling at warp speed.



  1. “If the felt-attributes of pain are… lifted into the visible world, and if the referent for these now objectified attributes is understood to be the human body, then the sentient fact of the person’s suffering will become knowable to a second person….”

  2. - Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain[5]


I am reminded of the brief appearance of a polychrome statue of Christ on the cross, gaping wound at his side leaking blood, in Franko B’s 2005 digital film My Heart is Broken. It is, paradoxically, the body of Christ that points both to “man’s” access to transcendence (the way in which people who have access to white masculinity can fantasize transcending their brute corporeality, while subjects outside this set of identifications are so often consigned to immanence[6]) and to “man’s” continual neverending failure to transcend. In fact his apparently unavoidable mortality and the, equally intransigent, failure of white masculinity to substantiate once and for all its superiority. A failure testified by the seemingly endless rehearsal of white masculinity’s superiorty (a rehearsal that, of course, would be unnecessary if it were “inherently” true).



  1. [the punctum is] a point of singularity which punctures the surface of the reproduction — and even the production — of analogies, likenesses and codes…. it is the Referent which, through its own image, I can no longer suspend, while its ‘presence’ forever escapes me, having already receded into the past…. It addresses itself to me.
    We are prey to the ghostly power of the supplement….
    [to] that rather terrible thing ….: the return of the dead.

  2. - Jacques Derrida, “The Deaths of Roland Barthes”[7]


Black or white; static and mute, yet vociferously elegant in their language of material and embodiment (crusted ridges of paint; glossy white body traversed with pools and splotches of redder than red blood). Keeping these tensions alive and kicking, Franko B’s project ultimately seems to pivot around the most intransigent and profound tension of all: that between absence and presence, life and death. Where do I begin and end? Where do I find my boundaries? Where is the border of my body/my consciousness, and where is the limit of yours?

These questions play themselves out across Franko B’s oeuvre. When I look at Black Cross I am absorbed into it; when I contemplate Black Cross Man, I “become” the epigrammatic figure in what passes for a foreground of the painting. When I stand, shifting from one foot to the other in the crowd-filled roaring silence of Tate Modern’s turbine hall watching Franko B’s white body, in I Miss You (2003), traverse an increasingly bloodied catwalk (his feet stick to the blood after the first traversal, making a strange snapping, sucking sound as he extricates them), I am both definitively separated from his “present,” live body (which, after all, is staged like the objectified bodies in a fashion show, their agency evacuated by their production as fetishes “over there,” rendering the models “absent” subjects), and absorbed into its inexorable, brute “thereness” (the suck of his feet on the bloodied canvas is my punctum, opening his body to me as receptacle for my desperate projections of my own status as alive).

I use the term “punctum” deliberately, even though it was developed by Roland Barthes specifically in relation to photographic representation. For Barthes, the punctum explains the way in which photographs open a hole in our consciousness, reaching into the texture of subconscious desires, as it were, such that the image “pricks” me. The punctum, he writes, is a “sting, speck, cut, little hole–and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”[8] I use it deliberately because it speaks to the way in which Franko B’s body is simultaneously “live” and “representational”: both “present” and, as noted, signaling of its own inevitable “absence.” (For Barthes, the punctum points to the way photography extinguishes itself as representation by pointing, indexially, to the “real” that it documents – the photograph is “no longer a sign but the thing itself.”[9] The violence of the punctum, signaled by Barthes’ use of terms such as “cut” and, elsewhere, “prick” and “annihilation,” is the violence of the threat of mortality which haunts our every move.[10]

Furthermore, the punctum works as a supplement to the “studium,” the meanings in a photograph derived from cultural reference systems. If, then, Franko B’s body seems to be recognizable as that of a “white European male,” its “studium,” the punctual thrust in both Black Cross Man and I Miss You (the dense skein of black paint roughly indicating the male figure; the sound of the feet stuck to the canvas) is to unhinge what we think this body “is” or “means” (specifically perhaps the well-trodden notion, expansively theorized especially in feminism, of the “white male body” as the coherent origin of an identifiable and unifying “male gaze”). In Black Cross Man, for example, the male figure seems to face away from the viewer and into the depths of the painting (focusing on the cross, itself, however, hovering on the surface of the canvas); the possessor of the “male gaze” is thus himself objectified, collapsed into the cruciform trace that would otherwise (in the Christian imaginary) substantiate his cultural power through reference to his access to divine transcendence. In I Miss You, the poignancy arises from Franko B’s moving yet seemingly ossified body, a body (dripping with the blood shunting from the veins in his arms) seemingly possessed by its own soon-to-be-realised mortality (was it my imagination, or did he become even more pale as the performance progressed and the blood seeped from his veins?).



  1. Shame and immodesty, then, take their place in a dialectic of the self and the other which is that of master and slave: in so far as I have a body, I may be reduced to the status of an object beneath the gaze of another person, and no longer count as a person for him, or else I may become his master and, in my turn, look at him. But this mastery is self-defeating, since, precisely when my value is recognized through the other’s desire, he is no longer the person by whom I wished to be recognized, but a being fascinated, deprived of his freedom, and who therefore no longer counts in my eyes.
        Saying that I have a body is thus a way of saying that I can be seen as an object and that I try to be seen as a subject, that another can be my master or my slave, so that shame and shamelessness express the dialectic of the plurality of consciousnesses, and have a metaphysical significance. The same might be said of sexual desire.

  2. - Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception[11] 


The power of Franko B’s work is to open the still dominant belief in the existence of a normative body (white, European, male, heterosexual, middle class, etc.) to radical doubt. And to remind us that this thing called “art” (things, processes, ideas, practices produced by people nominated as artists) can forge links between people to remind us what matters (and what doesn’t), what or who we care about, and what we fear. The way in which he does this is clearly exemplified in Aktion 893/ Why Are You Here? (first performed at the National Review of Live Art, Glasgow 2005). Here, Franko B invites participants, one at a time, into an empty room fit only with two chairs. While he is fully clothed, the participants arrive naked. He proceeds to engage them in discussion, pivoting around his question “why are you here?”

The subjects (who are also, of course, objects—as well as being part of a performative piece they may or may not get the gist of) seem, surprisingly, relatively comfortable in their nakedness (especially that, if I might say so, attractive middle-aged white man on the DVD document of the piece). None of them, even the tall young man who stands along with Franko B as the artist regales him with his ideas about art and connectedness, complain or resist (they have, of course, already consented to a kind of social contract by taking off their clothes). Franko B notes to one naked participant the way in which, in social settings, “we are invisible, to protect ourselves”; to another “when you meet people you should look them in the eyes… looking for something that is abut engagement”; and, with a heartfelt utopianism, “I believe art should help people to be more open rather than [being] elitist or commercial.”

Having staged the situation in the first place, Franko B thus produces the participants in relation to his concerns. While they can respond (one woman does, at length, but her words are inaudible on the DVD), they have agreed to be part of a contrived situation and thus to acquiesce to Franko B’s structure of engagement. To acquiesce to this contract is, as Kathy O’Dell has convincingly argued in relation to performance art in general, potentially to gain a heightened awareness of the contractual nature of human society and intercourse.[12] In Aktion 893 Franko B both sticks to a kind of contractual agreement (you will come in naked and talk to me while I am clothed) and, by inviting in a third eye –the later “participation” of a viewer of the DVD documentation—breaks the reciprocity (the self-contained relationship between the I and the you) of this agreement. Western philosophyhas well (if not obsessively) rehearsed the dependence of the master on the slave, the I on the you, a system of mutual (contractual, as it were) agreement in which we all participate to substantiate our “thereness” as subjects (the moments when we are “masters” substantiate; the moments in which we are slaves, more frequent for non-normative subjects, tear away our claim to transcendence—to the kind of dominance that promises to circumvent our inexorable lack and mortalitiy). Franko B stages this explicitly: because he structured the dialogues (as their producer) and is clothed while the participants are naked, he articulates himself as master.

And yet, as with all of his work, his claim to mastery is (equally inexorably) exposed as tenuous if not completely impossible. This failure (poignant or in Barthes’ terms punctal and moving) is due to the perversity – the queerness – of his body of work and his body in performance.



  1. queerness… [is a means of] citational politics,… [a] specific reworking of abjection into political agency.

  2. - Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter[13]


As Franko B notes to one of the participants, “I have to be there totally” in his work. And yet, as the piece itself choreographs, being there totally is predicated on being there for and with the other. Being there totally, in fact, can only be substantiated through the participant and the subsequent witnesses of the interaction (viewers of the documentation such as myself). Being there totally involves admitting the inherent dependence of the “master” on her or his “slaves,” who ratify his cultural power.

The deep significance of the self/other relation, then, is its asymmetry—the way in which it points to the failure of, say, the white male body to sustain its transcendence, its privilege, its being there “totally.” The way in which it points to the unavoidable rupture in the social contract that (as O’Dell points out) would otherwise, were it not doomed always already to fail, stabilize human subjectivity by keeping the master and slave in their allotted places while successfully disavowing their dependence on one another. The poignancy of this is enacted in the black paintings (which function in a way as representational signs of loss) and the mournful dripping body of Franko B in the performance works. The queerness of Franko B’s work is in its performance of a queer deformation of the social contract of gender, race, and sexuality that positions us as subjects in the world.[14]



  1. As soon as we admit this continuity of the now and the not-now, perception and nonperception, in the zone of primordiality common to primordial impression and primordial retention, we admit the other into the self-identity of the Augenblick; nonpresence and nonevidence are admitted into the blink of the instant. There is a duration to the blink, and it closes the eye. This alterity is in fact the condition for presence, presentation, and thus for Vorstellung in general.

  2. - Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena[15]


Drawing on and critiquing phenomenology and what one could call its obsession with the body as a guarantor of human experience, Jacques Derrida focuses on the trace as it both substantiates and undermines the “presence” of the body. His critique is central to what I am apprehending in Franko B’s work: the working through of the non-existent borders between the self and the other, the body and the world, absence and presence, life and death –borders we obsessively attempt to shore up and maintain in the face of all evidence that they are constructed and thus fundamentally “unreal.”

In My Heart is Broken Franko B strings together a deeply poetic array of cinematic images: a homeless man asleep in a cardboard box; what look to be American soldiers harassing civilians in Asia; blood oozing from a shunt; the Los Angeles skyline; the arm and opposing hand of a man shooting up; a neon sign reading “I feel lonely, please call me”; the flesh of an arm into which the sharpened ends of feathers have been inserted; documentation of a Hermann Nitsch action (animal blood pouring over a naked body); a series of images of street signs in London asking for witnesses to recently committed crimes…. Wobbling within their frame even when they document a still object, the images testify to a body that held the camera (presumably that of Franko B). We are encouraged, if not (for the brief time consumed by the watching of the film) forced, to see the world through his eyes. In the blink of an eye (Augenblick) we are positioned in and as the artist’s embodied vision.

Across the paintings, performances, and films Franko B navigates the way in which we attempt to make sense of the world: by positioning the other as slave; by containing the cacophony of synaesthetic visual experience that assaults us from all sides in global capitalism; by searching for the punctum to give us entry into the body of the other; by tracking down the trace in order to “prove” that presence is real and incontrovertible (if the other body can be substantiated by a trace, then so can mine). The beauty and emotive power of his practice is the way in which it both enacts and suspends each of these processes. It points ultimately, then, to the way in which, as Derrida indicates in the quotation above, the duration of the blink of an eye(the sticking of the flesh of the feet on the canvas; the wobbling of the camera image) introduces “nonpresence”and thus alterity (the slave, as it were) into the subject . Rather than mourning the stubborn dependence of our sense of self-presence on alterity, Franko B’s practice suggests we continue to yearn for transcendence (“I have to be there totally” and “I believe art should help people to be more open”) while acknowledging its impossibility. Rather than bemoaning our “corporeal malediction” (which Fanon intuited was embedded in all human experience, though in European culture it has been reiteratively projected onto non-white subjects) we can accept it as the price of being human. Rather than seeking to plug our holes, we could accept our permeabilityas that which allows the life-giving force of alterity into our shored-up but never solid “interior.”

The master is dependent on the slave.

The body is full of holes.

The white male body is wounded, permeable, and queer.


[1] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (1952), tr. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 111, 117.

[2] See Jonathan Katz. ‘The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg” in Significant Others: Creativity and Intellectual Partnership, ed. Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron (London: Thames & Hudson, 1996).

[3] This paraphrases Romeo in Romeo and Juliet when he first see Juliet at her balcony: “She speaks, and yet she says nothing, what of that?” I mean to evoke the sense of something about to happen – a combination of erotic and violent tension, which seems apposite in relation to these muted but eloquent paintings

[4] Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or, The White Whale (New York: Dutton and London: Dent, 1975), p.170

[5] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Umaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 13, 16.

[6] These are the terms, of course, established by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949), tr. H.M. Parshley (NY: Knopf, 1952)

[7] Jacques Derrida, “The Deaths of Roland Barthes,” Philosophy and Non-Philosophy Since Merleau-Ponty (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), 264, 267. Following Barthes, Derrida is writing specifically of photography but, as I will argue below, this idea of death is also central to the apprehension of live art.

[8] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 27.

[9] Ibid., p. 45.

[10] Ibid., Annihilation appears on 45; prick, which of course has a double meaning that introduces the phallus into the picture, on 47.

[11] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), tr. Colin Smith (New York: Humanities Press, 1962), 166-67.

[12] See Kathy O’Dell, Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

[13] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993), 21.

[14] This extends Butler’s idea that performative queerness operates as a deformation of the “I pronounce you” of the marriage ceremony, one of the ultimate heterosexist contracts in Euro-American culture. In Ibid., 226.

[15] Derrida, “Speech and Phenomena: Introduction to the Problem of Signs in Husserl’s Phenomenology,” published in Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, tr. David Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 66.

Published in Blinded by Love

[Damiani Editore] (2006)

© 2015 Franko B and the contributors