The Agony and the Ecstasy

Feature in Issue 19-3 | Autumn 2007

How to respond to the body art of fakir? You have to be there, really be there, says Miriam King.

Is there a need to witness the primal? The raw nature of the body? In a world in which birth has become industrialized, ruled by technology, and death is hidden away – perhaps so.

There’s a question in my thoughts about how the work of ‘body artists’ relates to body memory and the psyche, specifically a connection with the body memory of birth: flesh, nakedness, blood, ‘opening’ of the body, an endurance, a sufferance, a transcendence… We are all born through a labour, an endurance, in blood, perhaps in pain, and certainly in a heightened, intense state. Is this body memory of birth what artists evoke and what audiences feel and remember when witnessing this sort of work?

In May 2007, American artist Fakir Musafar made a rare visit to the UK, celebrating his 60 years of ‘body play’. The season comprised performances and numerous participatory events, including the Safe Piercing for Performance Masterclass at Corsica Studios, London, which I attended.

Fakir Musafar grew up in Dakota, the founding father of the Modern Primitives. In his work, Fakir has been both the enactor and the audience: as a young man his preference was to take self-portraits of his body suspensions and piercing rituals. Beginning in the 1940s, he kept quiet about what he did for 30 years – Fakir is not into shock and awe. This is a form of work that is something you have to experience personally, to engage in fully – art, magic and spiritual ritual all wrapped up together. If it is real, if it is strong, traces are left of what we do – it remains there, something greater than the everyday: it is felt.

The potent energy that surrounds his work is an energy that can be walked into or fled from. He says ‘It’s your body, do with it what you want. You are performing for the higher part of yourself, expanding your boundaries’. Fakir calls in archetypal and primal energy and is a facilitator to these energies. He pays homage with gratitude and respect to the cultures he has taken practices from: Native American Indian, Hinduism, and the Sufis. For Fakir, it’s a way of worship and finding a higher truth. Fakir says there is no such thing as pain, there is body sensation that is either mild or intense, it’s down to how you interpret the sensation. In his workshop, Fakir invokes the Hindu god Muragan. Through creating a piercing into flesh, illness, distress, and ‘dark’ can come out. Clean energy? Dirty energy? Powerful energy? It’s all energy and that is art. The only bad response is no response. He says that often during the trance state, it happens that one becomes an observer of what one is doing. He suggests fainting is a block in chi energy. He sees his work as akin to yoga, which means union – union with the spirits that we cannot see, using the body to get into a peaceful place, a spiritual place. For example, during a body suspension or flesh pull, it is as if there’s another body that lives inside a physical body, and this body, the ‘electrical’ body, can walk away, can float out. When you are you, the real pure essential you, there is no time. Body rites or ‘body play’ take that essential you into other dimensions. Putting stress onto your flesh body separates ‘you’ from your physical body. Fakir feels that most of us live in a sedated state – going out of your body is a transformative experience. Fakir says he’s experienced the ‘white light that is love, greater than any love you will feel from a human’.

And what of birth? He believes the spirit enters the body at birth, following that endurance, and at that first breath. This work is an essential human experience of fleshiness and transcendence. Ritualistic? Yes. Recalling birth, death, rebirth? Yes – and the deep body memories that we all carry inside of us.

Spirit + Flesh UK, the first UK visit of Fakir Musafar and Cleo Dubois in 12 years, took place 18–26 May 2007. See Miriam King is an independent artist working in live art, dance and film. She is also a trained birth doula.

This article in the magazine

Issue 19-3
p. 15