I went to see Franko B. A curious experience, not embarrassing exactly, or at least not at the time, but afterwards, I felt embarrassed about my motives, my taste.
I had booked an ‘appointment’, an exclusive one-to-one encounter, an opportunity to ‘see’ Franko B. I had paid. It was an unexpectedly hot day, a day when Trafalgar Square was full of tourists. They flocked, with maps, backpacks, and waterproofs, indiscriminately photographing each other and the pigeons, and I was impatient to get through the arch and out of the square. Franko B was appearing at the ICA in a performance piece titled Don’t Leave Me This Way, (‘Please note that this performance contains nudity’) and once on the Mall I walked slowly so as to make my time slot, so as not to be too early.
I handed over my ticket, a man took me by the elbow and guided me through a doorway into the dark. Not dark entirely, but a thick and airless gloom. As my eyes began to adjust, I could sense shadows and glimmers, a sense of cavernous space. Franko’s lair. My guide took me a short distance, seated me, and then he stood back. He may have left; he may have stayed to watch me. I forgot about him. Sitting in front of me was Franko B. He was fat and naked, his body seemed to give off a faint hum of light. I felt what Barthes describes as ‘a kind of alert fascination’:
I am nailed to the scene and yet very wide awake: my attention constitutes a part of what is being acted out, nothing is external to the scene, and yet I read it: there are no footlights – this is an extreme theatre. Whence the awkwardness – or, for some perverse types, the pleasure. (A Lovers Discourse)
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this man was today, ugly. He was ugly for me. His ugliness was of corpulence, excess; he spilled over the edges of himself. It was as if his inside mass could barely be contained by his tattooed and scarred skin. He sat silently with a toad-like stillness, displayed in a way that seemed barely human. He seemed sad, but I suppose he could have been bored. Bored of sitting still to be stared at; bored of showing himself. As I consciously tried to see as much as I could in the poor light, and to see all I could in my allotted time, I was extremely aware of ‘seeing’. I strove to see. I wanted to look, no, stare, at his rolls of fat, at his love handles, at his jowls, at his penis lying like a slug, sleeping between thighs. I wanted to see if he was sweating in the stifling heat, around his armpits perhaps, or the folds of his neck. But what I saw most was his eyes. I saw the pink rim of his eyes, unexpected and hurtful, as if I had seen it before, and I would see it again, and be bruised again, I would always see it. It was like looking into the eyes of a caged animal that stares out between the bars in silent rage and disappointment. Franko was staring straight at me; but his eyes seemed sightless. I was looking for a sign, a token, a sign to know for sure that he saw me. But I was left wanting. I felt invisible. Was I just another tourist?
At the end of the time allowed to stare, a white light flickered briefly. Its brightness calculated to make me blink, to miss the exit of the object of my gaze. The light interrupted me, captured me, like the flash of a camera, or the death-zap of a take-away fly-killer. I was exposed, caught, and dispatched.
Now my time was up, the guide reappeared and showed me the way out. Out, into the sunshine, out through a back door with empty beer kegs lined up against the wall.
‘You can go round again if you like’ he said, ‘just get another ticket at the desk.’
I walked away. I cannot easily say whether I saw art, or an artist. Maybe neither. Maybe I saw a freak, a monster, a relic, a shrine. Maybe I saw a hoax, a faux. Maybe I just paid to look at a naked chub. Maybe I am no knowing consumer of art, just a voyeur, with my eye at the keyhole, putting my penny in the slot, a penny to see the peep show, the sex show, the freak show, the bearded lady, a piece of the true cross. Just a sucker easily parted from her penny. Yes, afterwards, on reflection, I felt embarrassed.