Taking my seat for Franko B’s latest performance, Because of Love, 2012, it was hard to pre-empt what this evening was about to offer. An artist renowned for using his body and blood in performances, we are in a theatre waiting for his most ambitious production to date to commence, with a title that gives little indication of what to expect from the work. What else can give clues to what we are about to witness? Well, we are at The Place, London’s “place” for Dance training and performance, so this setting is not atypical for this kind of presentation, other than that, we know it is going be quite a spectacle as the artist developed this work in dialogue with Tim Etchells and Giles Jobin with a team of animators, singers set and prop makers. The opening scene sees the stage completely bare except for the distinct light bulb (currently switched off) which is the only “prop” on view. A projected image comes on. It is the familiar grainy image accompanied by white noise commonly used at the beginning of films or at the end.
Franko B walks on stage in a white vest and shorts with trainers as if he is dressed for a work out. He faces the crowd briefly with a solemn expression and begins to walk from left to right quite slowly. He then starts to quicken his pace and you soon realise he is marching in tandem to the projected imagery acting as a backdrop. These images are a spectrum of historical events such as The Vietnam War, soldiers marching in communist China, Papal formalities, Porn etc. I read this as historical references to events in the life of Franko B, perhaps I am wrong but it is certainly a visual representation of the history of events in the last five decades. Whilst repeating the mechanical walk-march-run movements, Franko B at times interacts with the imagery on screen. He waves at a pope as the pope waves across the balcony at a crowd we do not see, he puts one hand on his chest as a group of soldiers carry out this collective gesture in a public march etc. etc. etc. By the time the projection ends, he is slightly out of breath and comes to the front of the stage, the lights come on and he stares at us again solemnly.
There is a blackboard parallel to him where he walks over to and writes the word’I in white chalk, he walks faces the crowd, slowly wipes it off again and walks back to his original position and faces the crowd again. This gesture is repeated but this time he spells the word DINT and repeats the walking, facing the crowd and walking to the board gesture one last time before he draws a house. At this point, he becomes very emotional and is now slowly sobbing. He wipes his tears on the blackboard and up until this point; the whole piece had been erringly silent bar the sound of movements. He sits on his knees at the left corner of the stage and a loud hymnal singing of a young boy interrupts as he continually pulls and places black rope across his knees into a pile on his side. The voice is narrating anecdotes that could either be real or imagined events in the life of the artist. Some statements are quite funny which sees some laughter erupt from the crowd, others dark and personal about childhood and family relationships. A bed is dragged onto stage at this point and the light bulb comes on whist Franko sits on a bed-cum-butcher’s table, stares at us ever so solemnly hugging a red water bottle, lies down and falls to the ground and begins these movements again as the light bulb gradually flickers and dims until its complete darkness.
The next scene is quite unexpected. With the stage in complete darkness, we see the outline of an animatronic Polar bear as it arrives onto the stage. Franko B starts to engage with this creature which could represent a childhood friend/a lover/ a father figure, it is hard to tell the symbolic relevance of this empowering beast but the push-pull, tug of war going on seems to represented unrequited love, abandonment and loss. These actions culminated in an embrace between the artist and the bear with a spectacular light show and musical score that forms a wall of sound for the scene. Then there is a return to stillness as the animal stops and the artist reappears with a sledge full of fox heads which he drags across the stage, loosing heads as he makes this steady walk but recovering them by picking as many as he can and embrace in them before leaving the stage and the lights go out.
Because of Love is a shift in direction for the artist that embodies fragility within visual imagery of theatre but it is not trying to be theatrical. Dance movements within the piece are well rehearsed but it is quite clear the choreography is limited to very basic movements by the artist. Franko B is not trying to master dance but he injects his interpretation of Dance in a unique and original way that is quite refreshing to see. There is a lot to unpack in this hour-long multi-layered work. One could read it as a ‘live’ collage of experiences and the artist has always highlighted that he makes visual images through Live Art. The experience of this work was extremely moving. It presented quite complex interpretations of ‘the experience of memory’, its transience and fragility. Memory forms such an integral part of forming one’s identity and this work highlights not just personal but the collective formations of memories. It provided an insight into the psyche of an artist who continually pushes one’s comprehension of personal fragility to extremes.
This work raises more questions than it provides answers for and anyone who witnesses it will leave with more questions than they have answers for. A process of reflection post watching the performance will perhaps begin to unravel just how unaware we all are of the role of memory in forming who and what we project of ourselves into the world. Lynn MacRitichie describes how “Every artist is engaged in a process of psychological risk taking, testing intuition, conceptualisation and strength of the work against the work’s material production and the public response it elicits” (as cited in Franko B: The Performance Work Monograph, 2005). Because of Love is not just a psychological risk in terms of the uncomfortable subject matters in elucidates. It is a risk as it takes familiar elements of Franko’s individual working practice to a more a collaborative process that also puts the work on a grander scale. Some may accuse him of ‘selling out’ or may be disappointed the ritual and blood are abandoned. The sincerity and overwhelming power-tensions we have become accustomed to in his works are still present and worth experience in this bizarre and poignant experience.
Franko B, Because of Love continues its UK tour to the following venues:
Image courtesy Hugo Glendinning
 Franko B The Performance Work monograph with essays by Lois Keidan and Stuart Morgan, 1997, Black Dog Publishing Ltd, London