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Exciting suffering: the sexualization of pain

Writing by Vivienne Čorgoová. Artwork by Kate Granholm.

‘Someone cut my neck with the knife and sucked the blood. I still have the scar.’ (Abramović 69) This is one of the memories of Marina Abramović, an experimental and conceptual performer from Serbia, about the creation process of her ground-breaking art piece Rhythm 0. Performed in 1974 as a part of her 5-piece art cycle, the piece successfully proposed questions of morality, human desire, objectification of the female body, and the thrill of suffering. When the visitors arrived at the studio in Naples, where it was first performed, they found Marina Abramović and a table with 72 objects placed on it. The instructions on the table were simple:


There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.


I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility.

The variety of objects on the table suggested this performance could take any turn: comb, lipstick, flowers, water, mirror, camera, nails, needle, scissors, saw, red paint, bread, honey, knife, gun, bullet, and many more. Abramović aimed to test the limits of the audience by making them active rather than passive observers. In her memoir, Walk Through Walls, she revisits this performance describing the first three hours as very shy, with only a few people engaging in giving her flowers and hugging her. As the performance lasted until 2 in the morning, it was later in the evening that the raw and sexual desires of the audience were unleashed. Cutting her shirt off, spelling the word END on her forehead with lipstick, and pouring a glass of water over her head were only the beginning acts of the main show. Abramović was treated like a puppet, directed by the audience themselves. Soon people turned violent and started to stick pins and nails into her, leading to even more intense behaviour. Abramović´s recollection at the very opening of this article is only a gleam of the beastly practices inflicted upon her. The climax of the performance was almost carried out by a man who reached for the gun and the bullet, moving it toward Abramović´s neck before being swiftly removed from the room by members of the audience. Escaping her death sentence at the last minute, Abramović´s performance soon came to an end, revealing the remaining audience members as scared of Abramović. The artist immediately recognized that not only did she push the public towards their repressed animality but also became the witness and the victim of what she had brought to surface, a terrifying yet unforgettable experience. “They were terribly sorry, they didn´t really understand what had come over them,” (Abramović 71) describes the aftermath in her memoir, emphasizing that her role was only to serve as a mirror for the audience exposing the universal fear of suffering, but also fear of our deepest desires.

One of the more recent ‘mirrors’ reflecting humanity's obsession with suffering, pain, and sexual pleasure is Julia Ducournau’s body-horror Titane (2021), winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival. Like Marina Abramović´s performance, Titane depicts the sexualization of a female body and the popularity of sexual pain. It takes a distinctly unique approach of tying technological advances and the eroticization of cars. The movie´s star, Agathe Rousselle, plays the role of Alexia, a car accident survivor who had titanium plates implanted into her skull as a result. In the very first minutes of the film, we see Alexia´s half-naked body slithering around, humping cars as she works as an erotic dancer at car shows. A highly sexualized scene with Alexia climaxing in the backseat of the car is immediately followed by a brutal scene where she murders an obsessed fan, signalizing the strong interconnections between sex and horror, ecstasy and pain. Judging by the awards and praise the film received, wide audiences are drawn towards these fragments showing hyper-sexualized female bodies, murderous women, mechanophilia, and the connection of all three. What is truly remarkable about Ducournau´s craft in this movie is the way she managed to link the struggle of changing and ageing bodies- a subtle, very human and omnipresent issue- with appalling horror scenery and visuals. It is well-known that sex sells in any industry, Ducournau, however, took this idea even further and revealed that not only is modern society obsessed with sex but also withand pain.

The question is why are both Abramović´s and Ducournau´s audiences so captivated by the sight of pain inflicted on someone else´s body? Philosophers like Sigmund Freud and Herbert Marcuse historically studied sexuality, its taboos, and the effect of repression on sexual behaviour. Their theories suggest that the centuries-long repression of sexuality and the idea of absolute sex liberation could lead to sadistic perversions and brutalism. “Instinctual liberation is relapse into barbarism,” (Marcuse 198) explains Marcuse, emphasizing the dangers of complete libidinal freedom. Seeing the two artistic expressions, we could argue that society is currently on the path to reaching absolute sexual freedom as the fascination with suffering grows higher. Giving freedom to the spectators of Abramović´s performance erased any sense of self-regulation or social constraints resulting in pure barbarism. Based on Marcuse´s theory, society is most obsessed with the forbidden perversions, which, in our current time, take the shape of mechanophilia, the infliction of pain on others but even watching hardcore or torture porn. What both performances have in common is the same disturbing yet fascinating character. In both cases, the audience knows it is something taboo, prohibited, and almost criminal to be complicit in and, therefore is naturally and sexually drawn to it.


Abramović, Marina, and James Kaplan. Walk through Walls: a Memoir. Fig Tree, 2016.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: a Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Routledge, 1987.

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