Interview by Ryan Holladay
SICK: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, a poignant, disturbing, yet very funny documentary examining one man’s personal odyssey to gain a measure of control over his body by inflicting pain on himself will be screened at Artisphere this Sunday. The film documents Flanagan’s fight against the illness and his creative process with his partner and dominatrix, Sheree Rose – showcased by their visceral performances and installations that informed his philosophies. While some scenes are not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, this film is ultimately an uplifting, life-affirming, love story about the importance and the evolution of his relationship with Sheree Rose over their 15 years together. The film won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as winning Best Film at the Berlin and Los Angeles Film Festivals.
We had Ryan Holladay chat with Sheree Rose, a talented woman in her own right. Rose helped Flanagan, who’s adopted a philosophy of fighting pain with pain, explore ritualized pain as a means to absorb the punishment of the disease and to find a space that could bring a measure of peace.
RH: When was the last time you watched the film SICK?
SR: I honestly don’t remember when I last viewed the film. It was probably at least 5 years ago.
RH: I noticed that you are also credited as a co-producer of this film, in addition to being one of its primary subjects. What did that entail exactly?
SR: My credit on the film was reluctantly given to me after much legal wrangling with Mr. Dick. I had been photographing and videoing Bob since we met in 1980. I was documenting him because I found him to be the most fascinating person I had ever met. He had told me that he wasn’t expected to live more than two years and I felt that I wanted to capture as much of his extraordinary talent and personality as possible and share it with the world. Of course, he lived for another sixteen years-and the documentation of our relationship became more and more public. The culmination of my “producer” role came in 1992 with the opening of “Visiting Hours” at the Santa Monica Museum of Art-whose credits read Bob Flanagan in collaboration with Sheree Rose. Mr. Dick was brought in to the equation in 1994, when the show was in preparation for its New York debut at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Bob and I decided that due to Bob’s failing health and my feeling that I needed an additional person to help me in the documentation-we invited our long-time friend, Mr. Dick, to accompany us to New York. We had no formal agreement with him, and never had one while Bob was alive. After Bob’s death, when I was in a very weakened state, Kirby presented me with a “contract” and told me to just sign it and that I should trust him. Mr. Dick did not want to list me as a co-director-even though over 70% of the footage in the film was shot by me, because he felt it would take away from his role in the making of the film.
RH: Bob noted in the film that sex, orgasm and an endorphin rush relieved his pain. At one point, though, he refers to Catholicism in his life. I wonder where you feel he stood with his beliefs and if he ever had difficulty reconciling them?
SR: Bob was raised a Catholic, and Catholic imagery played a large part in his life and art. I would say that Bob was an agnostic in his religious beliefs–but he identified with Christ as the first “super-masochist” who also found his “passion” through pain.
RH: Bob was used in a video for Nine Inch Nails (NIN). Do you know how that came about and did Bob and Trent Reznor know each other?
SR: The director of the music video,”Happiness in Slavery” was a friend of ours, Jonathan Reiss, who attended the “Nailed” performance in Los Angeles in 1989, where he witnessed Bob in a torture chair being “attacked” by clothespins attached to his genitals. Jon was later contacted by Trent Resnor to direct “HIS” and he came up with the story of the video based on Bob’s performance. The rest is music video history. Bob and I (as technical assistant) had a wonderful time on the set. We found Trent to be very friendly and supportive of Bob being the star–however, in subsequent videos, Trent played himself!
RH: Do you stay in contact with Kirby (Dick, the film’s director)?
SR: I saw Mr. Dick at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 where the film won a special jury prize. Mr. Dick did not want me to take any credit for the film, other than being Bob’s partner. We have been involved in a legal dispute for many years. Although I am entitled to 33% of the profits from the film, I have never received a financial statement nor any monies from the worldwide sale and distribution of the film.
RH: Do you feel like audiences today are more receptive to a film like SICK than they would have been when it was first released?
SR: To this day, I receive emails from fans all over the world who tell me how much the film has meant to them–how it changed their lives and gave them the courage to be their authentic selves–either as a cystic fibrosis sufferer or as a masochist. I think the graphic imagery was rather shocking in 1997, but the power of the film’s message, along with Bob’s honesty and humor, has only grown through the years.
RH: Have you continued to make art since Bob died? And if so, what kinds of things have you done? And finally what are you currently working on?
SR: Over the years, I have continued to make art related to Bob. I have been invited to show at museums and galleries all over the world, including the Tate Museum of Art in Liverpool and Jeu de Paume in Paris. I created “Boballoon” for an Art Expo in Tokyo: a twenty-foot vinyl sculpture of Bob in a leather straight-jacket sporting a four-foot erect pierced penis. I have a current show, “The Wedding of Everything”, at Country Club Projects in Los Angeles, in which I reimagine “Visiting Hours”, with a new piece entitled “He Is Risen”.
More about SHEREE ROSE: Sheree Rose was born in Los Angeles, CA. in 1941. She was married in 1964 and had two children with her late husband Dan. Starting her career as a teacher, she obtained her Master’s degree in psychology in the late 70s, and was extremely involved in political activism and The Women’s Movement. After getting divorced in ’78, she spent some time in the LA Punk Rock scene, and briefly dated Billy Zoom from seminal punk band, X. She met Bob Flanagan at a Halloween party in 1980 and began collaborating in life, love and on artwork with Bob until his death in January of 1996.
Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose have exhibited work at Beyond Baroque, Los Angeles, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Otis College of Art and Design, California Institute for the Arts, Santa Monica Museum, Exit Art, The New Museum, and P.S. 1 in New York, the Musée d ‘art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland, and more recently at the Tate Liverpool, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, and the Hamburg Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany. Their video collaboration “100 Reasons” with Mike Kelley has been shown in museums and galleries throughout the world including LACMA & Jeu de Paume in Paris. They have been the subject of pieces written in REsearch magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Village Voice and numerous other publications. He is also featured in music videos directed by Jonathan Reiss for Danzig, Nine Inch Nails, and Mind Bomb. Flanagan and Rose are represented by Country Club and Western Project.