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Contract with the Skin

Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s

1998
Author:

Kathy O’Dell

Contract with the Skin

Places masochistic performance within a social and historical context.

Focusing on 1970s performance artists Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Gina Pane, and collaborators Marina Abramovi`c[accent over c]/Ulay as well as those with similar sensibilities from the late 1980s onward (Bob Flanagan, David Wojnarowicz, Simon Leung, Catherine Opie, Ron Athey, Lutz Bacher, and Robby Garfinkel), O’Dell provides photographic documentation of performances and quotations from interviews with many of the artists. Throughout, O’Dell asks what we can do about the institutionalized forms of masochism for which these performances are metaphors.

This is the first detailed study of the heterogeneous, often elusive movements of the 1970s that not only exposes the gender bias of art criticism at that time, but also introduces an entirely new critical apparatus for the assessment of ephemeral art forms. Kathy O'Dell has provided a scholarly, provocative, and important resource for historians of contemporary art.

Mary Kelly, Professor and Chair, Department of Art, University of California at Los Angeles

Having yourself shot. Putting out fires with your bare hands and feet. Biting your own body and photographing the marks. Sewing your own mouth shut. These seemingly aberrant acts were committed by performance artists during the 1970s. Why would anyone do these things? What do these kinds of masochistic performances tell us about the social and historical context in which they occurred? Fascinating and accessibly written, Contract with the Skin addresses such questions through a reconsideration of these acts in relation to psychoanalytic and legal concepts of masochism.

O’Dell argues that the growth of masochistic performance during the 1970s must be seen in the context of society’s response to the Vietnam War and contemporaneous changes in theories of contract. She contends that the dynamic that exists between audience and performer during these masochistic acts relates to tensions resulting from ruptures in the social contract. Indeed, as the war in Vietnam waned, so did masochistic performance, only to reemerge in the 1980s in relation to the “war on AIDS” and the censorious “culture wars.”

Focusing on 1970s performance artists Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Gina Pane, and collaborators Marina Abramovi´c/Ulay as well as those with similar sensibilities from the late 1980s onward (Bob Flanagan, David Wojnarowicz, Simon Leung, Catherine Opie, Ron Athey, Lutz Bacher, and Robby Garfinkel), O’Dell provides photographic documentation of performances and quotations from interviews with many of the artists. Throughout, O’Dell asks what we can do about the institutionalized forms of masochism for which these performances are metaphors.

Contract with the Skin is a provocative guide to this little-studied area, and offers new ways of thinking about performance art and artistic production.

Contract with the Skin

Kathy O’Dell is assistant professor of art history and theory at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Contract with the Skin

Contract with the Skin weaves a thorough and compelling narrative, laudable for its synthesis of contractual and psychoanalytic theories, its redemption of masochistic art practice, and its commitment to a much misunderstood group of artists. Her efforts to map a new terrain deserve nothing short of praise.

TDR: The Drama Review

O’Dell contextualizes particular masochistic performances in their Vietnam-era political milieu. She seeks to understand them through the notion of contracts—psychological, social or legal—evoked in the book’s title. Masochistic performance artists, she maintains, were pointing out trouble in the social institutions of the law and the home, both of which are founded upon the principle of contract. In short, O’Dell transposes the classic idea of the social contract into the avant-garde realm of performance.”

Art in America

The strength of O’Dell’s book lies in her uncanny sense of our relation to photographic documentation—down to and including the photo—documentation she has chosen to illustrate her argument. The photograph does, at its best, reflect something that we recognize as a part of ourselves that has, until the moment we see it, remained hidden—or, more properly speaking, sublimated.”

Henry Sayre in Art Journal

This is the first detailed study of the heterogeneous, often elusive movements of the 1970s that not only exposes the gender bias of art criticism at that time, but also introduces an entirely new critical apparatus for the assessment of ephemeral art forms. Kathy O'Dell has provided a scholarly, provocative, and important resource for historians of contemporary art.

Mary Kelly, Professor and Chair, Department of Art, University of California at Los Angeles

Kathy O'Dell has broken new ground. Contract with the Skin reveals how artists used self lesion to express both the alienation of maternal separation and the masochism of repressive institutional domination. O'Dell's book is essential reading for all who seek a deeper understanding of masochistic performance from the seventies to the present.

Chrissie Iles, Curator of Film and Video, Whitney Museum of American Art

In her astute analysis, O’Dell untangles the social, psychological and legal implications of such infamous creative acts as Chris Burden shooting himself, Vito Acconci biting his arm and filling the teeth marks with ink, Gina Payne slitting her lip with a razor blade and Ulay sewing his mouth shut while Marina Abramovic attempted to articulate his thoughts. O’Dell argues that we need to move beyond the fact of pain and examine the ways in which these artists’ masochistic strategies push the limits of an implicit contract between the performer and audience. O’Dell draws on an impressive range of sources to develop her theory of how masochism operates in these artists’ work—and indeed it is her ability to draw connections between the psychological and legal aspects of the contract that enables us to make a conceptual leap beyond the fact of pain.

Coco Fusco, Bomb

A significant contribution to the contemporary critique of transgressive art in the last three decades.

Performance Research

O’Dell’s Contract with the Skin convincingly argues that avant-garde performance, despite its ephemeral and sometimes obtuse strategies, can have great social, political, and emotional relevance. This book advances the enterprise of performance studies by blending solid art historical research, cultural and social observation, and critical and psychoanalytic theory into a refined, deeply meaningful narrative about the relationship between performativity, power, and human sexuality.

Maurice Berger, New School for Social Research