Gina Panes shocking performance was meant to make us aware of our own mortality.
When was the first time you realized that we're all going to die? Maybe it was when someone close to you passed: a family member, a neighbor, or even a pet. In my case, it was when my great-grandfather died, when I was about five years old. It's interesting how I believe that, thanks to the way my parents had explained it to me, I'd never been worried or afraid of death. This extremely human fear arrived about a year later.
I went to Catholic school for many years. There was an old nun who taught religion in the old-fashioned way, telling us things like that every lie we said or every time we misbehaved was a lash on Jesus Christ's back, and other things like that. On one occasion, she said something that stuck with me for a while and created my fear of death. Somehow the theme surfaced, and she told a class of six-year-old children, “When you die, your body rots, and maggots eat you. That's it.” She was right, but after hearing it like that, without any other explanation, I couldn’t help but think of my great-grandfather being eaten by maggots, and for years I was utterly afraid of dying because of what would happen to my body.
The macabre quality of that anecdote is due to the fact that it’s a reminder of an unavoidable fate that will eventually happen to our bodies, and let’s accept it, on a biological level, a decomposing body is stomach-churning. Nonetheless, if we analyze this phenomenon from a rational point of view, we’ll realize that the disquieting part of it is that we see a mirror to the future in the rotten body. In other words, there’s a bizarre process of identification with that body. Then, what can we do with the disturbance that this realization provokes? This is one of the questions performance artist Gina Pane asked the audience in her 1974 performance, Death Control.
Gina Pane, Psyche (1974)
French-Italian Gina Pane is remembered as one of the most important performance artists to do “body art,” that is, the use of the body as a metaphorical canvas for art pieces. However, this aspect also made this type of art go down in history as a “masochistic” current, because many of the performances involve self-mutilation, blood, cutting, or putting the body in extreme situations. Gina Pane isn’t the exception since the main concern in most of her pieces is representing the frailty of the body and exploring our (lack of) empathy for other people's suffering. Now, to understand the idea behind her performances, we have to take a look at the historical and social context of Pane's work.
At the time, people in the United States and Europe were witnessing the horrors of the Vietnam war through media, and there was also a social push for women’s rights and sexual liberation. This situation inspired Pane to invite others to connect with the physical suffering of others. To do so, Pane created visual metaphors of social issues with her own body to invite her audience to experience other people's pain through hers. So, in 1971, she caused a stir with her Paris performance Escalade non anesthésiée ('Non-anesthetized climb'), where she climbed a ladder with metal spikes that hurt her hands and bare feet. Through this performance, she wanted to represent the social struggle against those in power, while expressing society's “numbness.”
Gina Pane, Escalade non anesthésiée (1971)
Pane's work created controversy for the way she cut or lacerated her body to express the pain and fears of a society overwhelmed by media, war, and death. In that sense, she used her body once more to address this last theme in Death Control. Although the only evidence from this performance are witnesses’ accounts and a few close-up photographs of the artist, what we know about the piece is that it exploited the underlying fear of death that comes as we grow older and witness its effects on the body. To represent that, the artist lay on the floor and covered her whole body with maggots while a group of children surrounding her sang “Happy Birthday” as the worms crawled through her face, eyes, and ears. Putting it briefly, the idea behind this performance is that with each birthday you get closer to death.
Yeah, maybe you shouldn't think about that on your next birthday... If we go beyond the first impression of this performance, the main target of the artist was to make the audience embrace that fate by confronting the unspoken reluctance to talk about it. By doing so, she highlighted our treatment of death as a subject that remains taboo despite being a natural process that we will all eventually go through. By looking at her body, next to the children cheerfully singing happy birthday, we as an audience are expected to start a dialogue between our own feelings on death and the scene we’re witnessing.
Gina Pane, Azione Sentimentale (1973)
Even though there are just a few pictures of the performance, its legacy has prevailed, so modern artists have recreated or adapted Death Control. For instance, artist Pascal Lièvre adapted the idea, by cutting a birthday cake and covering herself with it; as she lay on the floor, with recordings of children singing “Happy Birthday” playing in the background, the audience would eat the cake from her body. Basically, she didn't use maggots, but she kept the idea of the body’s decay and eventual disappearance after death.
If you want to have the confronting experience of Pane’s performance, you can look at Lièvre’s adaptation. And as you watch it, it’s worth asking yourself, again, when was the first time you realized you were a mortal being? How did you feel then? How do you feel about it now? Is it a taboo subject for you, or a natural process of life, like breathing, eating, and sleeping? Whether or not you agree with Pane’s way to address the subject, you have to admit that it serves its purpose: make you reflect on death.
Here are other interesting performances you should check out: