Franko B is an artist who’s breathlessly celebrated in some quarters and totally misunderstood in others. Long before he was featured on the South Bank Show, Franko’s work came to my scattered attention via the most revolutionary queer club in the history of discos.
The Milan-born artist was a regular feature at Fist, an early ‘90s London fetish club. He performed body art spectaculars which delivered a shocking théâtre du Grand-Guignol, with a clinical post-modern twist.
Blood and sex
Louder than the splashing drips of blood, or white noise symphonies, were the heavy thuds of fainting punters who’d stood near the stage and got more gore than they’d bargained for. At the height of the AIDS crisis, a queer sex club boasting blood baths and Bacchanalia was beyond redemption for the police, polite society and most of the mainstream gay scene. Now That’s What I Call a Nightclub.
Suzie Krueger’s pop-up fuck rave featured a mixed darkroom, mind-blowing DJs and live shows to melt your eyes and spawn sexual nightmares. Everything about the club was extreme, transgressive and violently hedonistic, so naturally, my attendance was religious and enthusiastic.
Art and love
It was in this sticky floored, techno fuelled, diabolical disco where I first saw Franko’s work and formed a tentative friendship. With his stocky build, grill thrilling mouth and chaotically tattooed body, Franko cuts an imposing figure. That vision, much like his work, is easy to misinterpret. In reality, Franko’s an utterly huggable gentleman- gentle, kind and blessed with a brilliant mind.
His latest work, ‘I’m Here’ was recently performed at Ugly Duck in Bermondsey. It sold out in minutes; due to the limited space, de rigeur for the intense experience, Covid restrictions, and a fanatic following. Tickets for the long-awaited show had a Willy Wonka vibe about them. Ever the gent, one call to Franko and he squeezed me in.
War and worry
The expectant queue outside the venue was a colourful mix of heavily pierced ex clubbers and earnest looking art boffins. We filed into the warehouse space and were directed to gaffa tape crosses, which we were instructed to stand on.
We pondered the scenario anxiously, staring at a circular podium in the centre of the room. The designated space between each spectator meant we had perfect sight lines for the inevitable spectacle, but we were all lone islands of twitching humanity.
When the lights dimmed to darkness and Franko emerged, painted white and naked, it was hard not to shudder in concerned excitement. His bare, ghostly body has been a consistent theme over the years, but for this show, the whitewash served to turn his flesh into canvas for a digital montage. The rotating dais echoed those creepy children’s ballerina boxes, but this was no nursery rhyme and taffeta tutus were thin on the ground.
Cinema of flesh
As Franko’s form rotated through 360°, several projectors beamed a dizzying collage onto his skin. Edits of his previous film work were spliced with 7,000 images from the internet, forming a ghastly montage of war, revolution, homophobia, liberation, displacement, famine and sex. It was confrontational, witty, horrific and emotionally unsettling.
The weight of the world, its cruelties, greed and desires were fired onto Franko like a cinematic machine gun. Horrific events that we’ve watched on the news, then hidden in dark corners of the mind were dragged back from the dead. The historic pictures flickered on Franko, like a fever dream of the subconscious.
Memories and mayhem
The glimpses of gay porn almost made me smile, but before my face smirked, the howling children, destructive bombs and grinning dictators led to a clenched jaw and weepy eyes. It was an assault on the senses, a technical marvel and a haunting trip into humanity’s foibles.
‘I’m Here’ was produced in collaboration with Anthony Martin, who also developed the concept for the accompanying soundtrack. The music, a modern classical loop of mournful chords and piano sadness delivered an audio trigger to the visual blitz.
Shaken and stirred
And then Franko was gone. The lights came up, and we blinked at each other, like slapped children, unsure why we’d been hit, but distantly aware that we had it coming.
Like all Franko B shows, it was profoundly confusing from an emotional perspective. The piece was beautiful, but jarringly ugly, familiar, but totally alien, exhausting but weirdly uplifting. There are those who would argue otherwise, but if that kaleidoscope of feelings isn’t sign of artistic depth, I really don’t know what is.
Group exhibition at Palazzo Reale, Milan - 27th October 2021 - 30th January 2022
FRANKO B SOLO EXHIBITION New Art Projects, London - 4th November - 23rd December 2021
I'M HERE performance at Colchester Arts Centre - 10th November 2021
For more info: Franko B