The photograph I’m looking at is black and white and blurry. A woman climbs a ladder in a plaid shirt and jeans, but her feet are bare. Look closely. The rungs of the ladder are spiked. It’s not a ladder, but a torture device.
Taken in the artist’s Paris studio in 1971, the image documents Gina Pane’s first ‘pain performance’, Escalade non-anesthésiée (Unanesthetized Escalation), in which she climbed up and down the metal frame for 30 minutes, until her hands and feet were so wounded that she could not continue. The ‘action’, as Pane came to describe her performances, was photographed by her friend Françoise Masson. I wonder what it was like to photograph somebody mutilating themselves? I presume it would require a certain kind of devotion, a belief in some higher purpose. A declared Christian, Pane identified Escalade non-anesthésiée as a commentary on the 1955–75 Vietnam War, a conflict that had, by then, escalated for 16 years; her self-inflicted wounds were a way of shaking an anaesthetized society awake. She described her pain as protest, her body a sacrifice.
Although she was a painter and sculptor for much of her life, Pane is remembered for the intense physical trials she subjected herself to in the 1970s, five of which are documented in ‘Action Psyché’, a solo exhibition at Richard Saltoun gallery. Pane performed her actions silently, in front of small audiences in France and Italy, piercing her body with thorns, cutting her tongue with glass, scorching her skin. Masson must have been in the performance ring, too, camera clicking, following Pane’s meticulous instructions to gather up what she called constat d’action (event proof).
The eponymous work, Action Psyché (1973/74), takes centre stage in a large room at the back of the gallery. Close-ups of wounds and objects in metal cases – bloody ropes, a bloodstained shirt – are presented alongside a grid of 25 colour photographs. For this action, Pane drew an outline of her face in a mirror before cutting her eyelids with a razor, evoking Saint Lucy, the Christian martyr who gauged out her own eyes to dissuade a persistent suitor. In Masson’s photographic sequence, Pane blinds herself with bandages and gesticulates with her arms before binding her wrists and clasping symbolic objects in her hands – feathers, coloured balls. Finally, she suckles her own breast and engraves her belly with a cross.
Drawing on the iconography of religious suffering, Pane exploits traditional motifs for novel purposes. Saint Lucy’s eye-gouging becomes a vehicle for demonstrating cultural anxieties around female looking, and the voiding of the female gaze. The iconography of martyrdom is also inverted in Action Sentimentale (Sentimental Action, 1973), a grid of 16 black and white prints displayed in the next room. Dressed in white, Pane pierces her arms with rose thorns, turning herself into a kind of kitschy female Christ; she lowers a razor to her palm and swipes a symbolic stigma. In her novel Cool for You (2000), Eileen Myles attempts to conceptualize a female Christ, but fails. ‘Could that drive culture for 2,000 years? No way.’ Female suffering is so ordinary, she argues, that it lacks spectacle. ‘What would be the point in seeing her half nude and nailed up? Where’s the contradiction?’ Viewed through this lens, Pane’s attempt to make a spectacle of female pain pushes against a vast historical tide.
Despite her intentions, the artist’s methodology is troubling. By using her body as a sacrificial object, spilling her blood to shock an audience into sensitivity, perhaps even deliverance, her actions subscribe to the idea that looking at violence increases our potential for empathy – yet the opposite may also be true. ‘The practice of violence, like all actions, changes the world,’ wrote Hannah Arendt in On Violence (1970), ‘but the most probable change is a more violent world.’
Main image: Gina Pane, 'Action Psyché', 2019, exhibition view, Richard Saltoun, London. Courtesy: Richard Saltoun, London