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Below the waste: A brief look at the extreme world of bodily fluid art

As regular readers of my blog will know, I have a long-standing psychological interest in any extreme human behaviour. This also encompasses the world of popular culture and includes individuals that engage in extreme art (such as surrealists like Salvador Dali), extreme fashion (such as those that wear extreme lingerie, extreme body art (including both extreme tattooing and extreme body modification), and/or fetishistic body costumes), and extreme music (such as bands like Throbbing Gristle and the Velvet Underground).

Back in 1997 I was one of the many people that visited the controversial art exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy of Art that featured a wide range of work by the ‘Young British Artists’ (and all owned by Charles Saatchi) such as the ‘shock art’ by Damien Hirst (‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’), Tracy Emin (‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995’), Jake and Dinos Chapman (‘Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994’), Marcus Harvey (‘Myra’), and Ron Mueck (‘Dead Dad’). One of the pieces that I was particularly struck by was ‘Self’ a sculpture by Marc Quinn that was a cast of the artist’s own head made from approximately nine pints of his own frozen blood. As the Wikipedia entry on Quinn notes:

In interview in 2000, reflecting on the iconic artwork, [Quinn] remarked, ‘Well, I think it’s a great sculpture. I’m really happy with it. I think it is inevitable that you have one piece people focus in on. But that’s really good because it gets people into the work’. Described by Quinn as a ‘frozen moment on life support’, the work is carefully maintained in a refrigeration unit, reminding the viewer of the fragility of existence. The artist makes a new version of ‘Self’ every five years, each of which documents Quinn’s own physical transformation and deterioration”.

In interviews about his body of work (no pun intended), Quinn has said that he has gravitated towards the use of unconventional materials that address his “preoccupation with the mutability of the body and the dualisms that define human life”. In a short (but interesting) interview with The Huffington Post, he was asked how the metaphorical immortality in his work given that his work literally contained a part of him. He replied that:

In a funny way I think ‘Self’, the frozen head series, is about the impossibility of immortality. This is an artwork on life support. If you unplug it, it turns to a pool of blood. It can only exist in a culture where looking after art is a priority. It’s unlikely to survive revolutions, wars and social upheaval, I also think that the total self portrait-ness of using my blood and my body has an ironic factor as well, in that even though the sculpture is my form and made from the material from my body, to me if just emphasises the difference between a truly living person and the materials which make that person up. The sort of literalist point that has been missed by the cryogenicists who freeze themselves for supposed future regeneration”.

I was reminded of Quinn’s extreme art more recently when I was interviewed about the art of 36-year old Australian-based artist Dr Rev Mayers for the Discovery television series Forbidden (a program on which I am the resident psychologist. You can see Dr. Rev and my appearance on this programme here). As the documentary’s production notes made clear:

“Dr. Rev loves to paint. Like most artists he tries to put something of himself in to all his creations. But Dr Rev takes this concept to a whole other level. His paintings are created using his own blood, pumped fresh from his own veins and sprayed direct on to the canvas…He’s a natural born showman, lapping up the attention he gets while performing his death defying blood art stunts in front of live audiences. He’s survived his last feat – a live show painting with the blood being pumped directly from his arm – though he’s vowed never to try it again. ‘It’s a dangerous process if the airbrush had have blocked up, blood could have been pushed back into my body. I could have suffered a heart attack and died’…Mayers has just quit the tattoo business and blood painting is now his fulltime job. He’s been doing it for 6 years ever since he convinced his nurse to let him take home a vial of his own blood”.

Mayers describes himself as borderline bipolar, a showman and a talker. The motivation behind his art appears a lot less intellectual than that of Quinn with a seemingly simple rationale for doing what he does – contradiction and shock value. As he noted in the television program: “I don’t mean to sell myself but I’m certainly not boring and if it’s shocking that you guys want then you’ll get shocking!” Mayers also claimed that he likes the idea of contradicting the stigma that surrounds blood: “It’s not scary. It’s what gives us life” 

Quinn and Mayers’ artworks might be considered less extreme than examples of other ‘bodily fluid’ art that I came across during my research for this article. Many of you reading this may be familiar with the art of English Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili who often incorporates elephant dung into his paintings. However, the late Italian artist Piero Manzoni (who died in 1961 at the age of 29 years) filled ninety 30-gram tin cans with his own faeces (labeled ‘Merda d’artista’ that translates as ‘The Artist’s Shit’). Each in was valued as its weight in gold and the most recently sold can went for about £100,000. It is thought that none of the 90 cans has ever been opened so no-one is entirely sure whether they really contain Manzoni’s excrement or not. In an online essay about Manzoni by Stefano Cappeli, the author briefly made reference to the more psychological (in this case psychodynamic) elements of the faecal artwork:

“Manzoni’s cans of Artist’s Shit have some forerunners in the twentieth-century art, like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (‘Fontaine’, 1917) or the Surrealists’ coprolalic wits. Salvador Dalì, Georges Bataille and first of all Alfred Jarry’s ‘Ubu Roi’ (1896) had given artistic and literal dignity to the word ‘merde’. The link between anality and art, as the equation of excrements with gold, is a leitmotiv of the psychoanalytic movement (and Carl G. Jung could have been a point of reference for Manzoni).
 Manzoni’s main innovation to this topic is a reflection on the role of the artist’s body in contemporary art”

Another controversial piece of art containing the artist’s own bodily fluid was American Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph Piss Christ. The photograph depicts Jesus on a small plastic crucifix drowning in a glass of yellow liquid (i.e., Serrano’s own urine). His artworks also include other iconic statuettes in liquids such as blood and milk. Unsurprisingly, accusations of “cheaping Christianity” have been made towards the artist. But Serrano has consistently stated that Piss Christ is itself “a commentary on the cheapening and commercialization of Christian icons in the modern age”.

Other artists that have incorporated bodily fluids into their artworks include those that have used human sweat (e.g., ‘Waste to Work: Everyman’s Source’ by Daniela Kostova and Olivia Robinson that explores the relationship between work, sweat, pay, and unemployment), vomit (e.g., ‘Nexus Vomitus’ by Millie Brown, a half-hour operatic vomit performance), and menstrual blood (e.g., Ingrid Berthon-Moine’s portrait photographs such as ‘Forbidden Red’ and ‘Rouge Pur’ where lipstick is always replaced by menstrual blood).

The psychological motivations and eccentricities of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dali have long been the discussion of both academics and non-academics alike. Abnormal psychology specialist Professor Gordon Claridge noted that many psychological studies have examined the minds of artists. This research has often showed a pattern of unhappy and/or lonely childhoods, and that artists are often highly sensitive individuals that may have experienced trauma (pushing them into art as a form of escapism, self-expression and/or therapy).

A study of 291 world famous men by Dr. Felix Post in a 1994 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry found that over two-thirds (69%) had a mental disorder of some kind. More specifically, scientists were the least affected by mental health problems, while artists and writers had increased diagnoses of psychosis (i.e., mental conditions that involve losing touch with reality and may in extreme cases result in various types of hallucination). In her 1996 book Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament, the psychiatrist Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison concluded that, among eminent artists, the rate of depressive illnesses (particularly bipolar disorder) was 20 times more common than in the general population. For instance, Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock are all thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder, and Andy Warhol appeared to demonstrate all the signs of Asperger’s syndrome (i.e., a type of autism). Whether those engaged in extreme art activities are any more psychologically prone to mental disorders than ‘normal’ artists remains to be seen.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Capelli, S. (undated). Artist’s shit: Consumption of dynamic art by the art devouring public magic bases – Living sculptures. Located at: http://www.pieromanzoni.org/PDF/EN/Manzoni_Shit.pdf

Frank, P. (2011). Marc Quinn discusses self-portraits made of his own blood. The Huffington Post, June 8. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/08/marc-quinn_n_1581132.html

Jamison, K.R. (1996). Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament. New York: The Free Press.

Jones, J. (2011). Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is the original shock art. The Guardian, April 18. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/apr/18/andres-serrano-piss-christ-shock

May, G. (2013). 10 crazy pieces of art made from bodily fluids. Listverse, July 27. Located at: http://listverse.com/2013/07/27/10-exceptional-pieces-of-art-made-from-bodily-fluids/

Post, F. (1994). Creativity and psychopathology. British Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 22-34

Smith, S. (2011). When blood runs cold. Big Tattoo Planet, June 22. Located at: http://www.bigtattooplanet.com/features/artist-interview/when-blood-runs-cold-dr-rev

Spooky (2012). Dr. Rev’s creepy artworks are painted in blood. Oddity Central, May 8. Located at: http://www.odditycentral.com/pics/dr-revs-creepy-artworks-are-painted-in-blood.html

Art attack: A beginner’s guide to Stendhal Syndrome

One of the more unusual psychological disorders that I have come across is the psychosomatic illness Stendhal Syndrome – also known as Florence Syndrome and hyperkulturemia. The trigger for the condition is works of art that are perceived by the individual to be beautiful and all housed in one place (e.g., an art gallery).

When exposed to the concentrated works of art, affected individuals experience a wide range of symptoms including physical and emotional anxiety (rapid heart rate and intense dizziness, that often results in panic attacks and/or fainting), feelings of confusion and disorientation, nausea, dissociative episodes, temporary amnesia, paranoia, and – in extreme cases – hallucinations and temporary ‘madness’. The syndrome has also been applied to other situations where individuals feel totally overwhelmed when in the presence of what they perceive to be immense beauty (such as something in the natural world like a beautiful sunset). The effects are relatively short-lived and do not seem to require medical intervention.

The condition was named after the 19th century French author Henri-Marie Beyle (1783–1842) – better known by his penname ‘Stendhal’ – who at the age of 34 years (in 1817) described in detail his negative experiences (in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio) of viewing Florentine art of the Italian Renaissance (and hence it’s alternative name as Florence Syndrome). When Stendhal visited Florence’s Santa Croce Cathedral and first witnessed Giotto’s famous ceiling frescoes he became overly emotional about what he saw:

“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty…I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling”.’

Since Stendhal’s published account, there have been hundreds of cases of people experiencing similar effects – particularly at the famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and had often been referred to as the ‘Tourist’s Disease’. (I also noted that in online self-confessions that some people call it ‘Art Disease’). However, it wasn’t until 1979 that the condition was given the name Stendhal Syndrome by the Italian psychiatrist Dr. Graziella Magherini (who at the time was the chief of psychiatry at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital). She began to observe that many tourists visiting Florence appeared to be overcome with a range of symptoms including temporary panic attacks to seeming bouts madness lasting two or three days.

Based on her recollection of reading Stenhal’s account, she named the condition Stendhal’s syndrome. She later documented 106 similar cases admitted to the hospital in Florence between 1977 and 1986 in her 1989 book La Sindrome di Stendhahl. Her book described detailed accounts of people (including many Americans) who after viewing famous paintings or sculptures had severe emotional reactions leading to high anxiety and/or psychotic episodes. She believed the psychological disturbances were typically associated with “a latent mental or psychiatric disturbance that manifests itself as a reaction to paintings of battles or other masterpieces” The 106 cases were classed into three types:

  • Type I: Patients (n=70) with predominantly psychotic symptoms (e.g., paranoid psychoses).
  • Type II: Patients (n=31) with predominantly affective symptoms.
  • Type III: Patients (n=5) whose predominant symptoms are somatic expressions of anxiety (e.g., panic attacks).

She also reported that 38% of Type 1 individuals had a prior psychiatric history, while over half (53%) of Type 2 individuals did. To date, there are relatively few cases published in the academic literature. The most recent case I came across was from 2009. Dr. Timothy Nicholson and his colleagues published a case report in the journal British Medical Journal Case Reports. Their case involved a 72-year old who developed a transient paranoid psychosis following a cultural tour of Florence. More specifically, they reported:

“While standing on the Ponte Vecchio bridge, the part of Florence he was most eager to visit, he experienced a panic attack and was also observed to have become disorientated in time. This lasted several minutes and was followed by florid persecutory ideation, involving him being monitored by international airlines, the bugging of his hotel room and multiple ideas of reference. These symptoms resolved gradually over the following 3 weeks”.

In 2005, Edson Amâncio, a Brazilian neurosurgeon published a paper arguing that there was evidence that Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky suffered from Stendhal Syndrome, particularly when viewing Hans Holbein’s masterpiece, Dead Christ, during a visit to the museum in Basle. In a 2010 issue of the British Journal of General Practice, Dr. Iain Bamforth claimed that Marcel Proust also suffered from the condition and also suggested that psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both wrote about experiences suggestive of Stendhal Syndrome. Despite hundreds of documented cases, the condition does not – as yet – appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to an article in the Daily Telegraph, a team in Italy is currently examining the phenomenon more systematically by measuring tourist’s reactions (heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, etc.) as they view the artworks inside the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. As far as I am aware, they have yet to publish their findings, but when they do, I’ll update this blog.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Amâncio, E.J. (2005). Dostoevsky and Stendhal’s Syndrome, Arq Neuropsiquiatr, 63, 1099-1103.

Bamforth, I. (2010). Stendhal’s Syndrome. British Journal of General Practice, December, 945-946.

Bogousslavskya, J. & Assal, G. (2010). Stendhal’s aphasic spells: The first report of transient ischemic attacks followed by stroke. In J. Bogousslavsky, M.G. Hennerici,  H. Bäzner & C. Bassetti (Eds), Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists – Part 3. (pp-130-143). Basel, Karger.

Fried, R.I. (1998). The Stendhal syndrome: Hyperkulturemia. Ohio Medicine, 84, 519–20.

Freud, S. (1936). A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis. Reprinted (1953-1974) in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (trans. and ed. J. Strachey), vol. 22, p. 239. London: Hogarth Press.

Guy, M.  (2003). The shock of the old. Frieze (Volume 72). Located at: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the_shock_of_the_old/

Magherini, G. (1989). La Sindrome di Stendhahl. Firenze: Ponte Alle Grazie.

Munsey, C. (2005). Bottles make me sick (Stendhal’s Syndrome). Bottles and Extras, Spring, 72-75.

Squires, N. (2010). Scientists investigate Stendhal Syndrome – fainting caused by great art. Daily Telegraph, July 28. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/7914746/Scientists-investigate-Stendhal-Syndrome-fainting-caused-by-great-art.html#