Rated RX: Sheree Rose with and after Bob Flanagan
(Ohio State University Press, 2020)
Towards the end of 1994, the New Museum exhibited a poem snaking around the gallery walls: “Because it feels good; because it gives me an erection; because it makes me come; because I'm sick …” The poem, part of the exhibition Visiting Hours, led to a pediatrician’s waiting room filled with phallic cacti and SM magazines disguised as Highlights for Children; a wall of alphabet blocks spelling CF and SM; a plastic anatomy model standing in puddles of simulated sperm, shit, and phlegm; a wall of 750 photographs of a man enduring lashes, stomach punches, and hair pulls. You might struggle to watch a 12-foot scaffold of TVs, arranged in an X, displaying videos of that same man being tortured: a woman sews his lips, carves his chest with a scalpel, feeds him with a baby bottle and sews up his penis; later, he hammers it to a board; these would alternate with clips of cartoon characters in similar positions. Visitors could talk with the man, lying in a hospital bed in the middle of the gallery; visitors who arrived at the right time might watch pulleys yank the man out of bed by his ankles, as if by an unseen force, dangling him above the room, naked and upside-down.
That man, the performer, writer and artist Bob Flanagan, died of cystic fibrosis 25 years ago. Visiting Hours, produced with his partner and dominatrix, Sheree Rose, was part of their long term, pathbreaking partnership exploring the relationship between illness and sadomasochism, and provided a manifestation of their reciprocal working relationship.
A new book, Rated RX: Sheree Rose with and after Bob Flanagan, edited by Yetta Howard, suddenly asserts that this was not the case. Rose, Howard argues, has been regarded as an afterthought in Flanagan’s work, while her own practice—working in performance, photography, sculpture, and video, and documenting Flanagan’s life and Los Angeles culture—goes ignored. The book positions itself as a corrective, compiling essays, poetry and photographs from Rose, interviews and scholarship on her work with Flanagan and performance artist Martin O'Brien, and rare archival materials from the Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose Collection at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. Rated RX, Howard writes, wants to represent Rose's archive in book form and “close some of the gaps” between her and Flanagan. But the book pursues this cause with such force, and with such a striking lack of rigor, that the tension it produces far outweighs the possibility of closure.
Consider the epigraphs to the book's introduction, which flank a quote from Flanagan's The Pain Journal, which he wrote in the last year of his life, with excerpts from interviews Rose conducted after his death. “In an SM relationship,” Rose says in the first epigraph, “only the dominant is empowered to decide. That's my feminism.” This contradicts Flanagan: “a good SM relationship,” he tells Andrea Juno and V. Vale in his 1993 book of interviews, Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist, “is one where the dominant is in control of what he or she wants to do, and the bottom is in control of what he or she wants to do.” The final epigraph also contradicts Flanagan, reproducing Rose’s stunning claim without context or explanation: “The thing that people don't understand is that Bob was my invention.”
The heavy-handed implication is that Rose enabled Flanagan's career. But the book says nothing to directly address this claim—a recurring problem. Rated RX repeatedly makes grand assertions that it doesn't support, often congratulating itself for what little effort it does make or contorting itself to attempt a point. Howard writes that the book's materials should speak for themselves, and that its organization should both "reduce" and “preserve the chaos that often accompanies the archive and its contents.” Rather than provide a roadmap of the book's contents, Howard theorizes contrived connections between its title and the “ex-plicit content" of Rose's work. Several writers struggle to problematize Rose’s work, or do so with a superficial gloss. Rose, the book tells us, “directly contributed to the transformation of museum/gallery/hospital/domestic spaces,” about which it explains nothing. There is no chronology of Rose's life or work. Instead, the book’s first section includes Rose’s rambling essay “Home,” with no indication of when it was written or if it was published previously, and Rose’s poem “Why Not?” (which responds to Flanagan’s poem “Why?” though the book doesn’t tell you this). Instead, it relies on context that the reader rarely receives.
Sometimes the book contradicts the record, even the very pieces it collects. Howard writes that Rose “never got into art for any form of official recognition”; meanwhile, Flanagan reminds us in Supermasochist that "Sheree was more interested in our art career than our SM career.” Because Rose “documented all of Flanagan's solo performances,” Howard writes in a characteristically meandering sentence, “Rose's photography should be understood as its own performance.” Elsewhere, art historian Amelia Jones writes that Rose has internalized Flanagan "through incorporations so profound we cannot know them or see how they work”—a lot of trust to put in someone who, as the artist Luka Fisher writes, "is committed to presenting her version of reality without much reflection, or editing, about what that reality means or says."
This is apparently part of the point. Here lies the sleight of hand. Rated RX excuses its disorganization as methodology. And though the book often condescends to Flanagan—in an overwrought essay critiquing his journal entries, the poet Mary Ann Davis writes, "Bob should know better”—it strains to justify including two rare books of Flanagan’s, Slave Sonnets and Fuck Journal, in an appendix, unwittingly undermining its own project. The book presents Flanagan happily when his inclusion is beneficial; otherwise, he's an antagonist, while Rose comes off as self-absorbed and shallow, and her work a mess—a remarkable feat for a book trying to rehabilitate her legacy.
In fact, not only does Rated RX suggest that ONE's Flanagan and Rose Collection—which remains unprocessed—is definitive, it suggests that only one such collection exists. The Bob Flanagan Collection at the Ohio State University—which holds 35 boxes of materials from Flanagan and Rose's lives and work, before and after their relationship—goes unmentioned, even though the book was published by the university's press. Including such a collection would force Howard to reckon with nuance, which the book flattens, and give it structure, which Howard calls "needless linearity.” It would also provide Rose's work critical consideration within the context of the communities in which she made it—the very context that animates her work. It’s not unimportant to consider Rose’s practice in and out of relation to Flanagan’s, but trying to abstract one without accounting for the other is practically doomed to fail.