Art / Books

The Human Body as War Zone and Receptacle of Pain: The Body Art of Martin Bladh and Karolina Urbaniak’s “The Torture of the 100 Pieces”

©Infinity Land Press

Represented by a logo of a human eye and eyebrow, with the eye acting as a razor blade, Infinity Land Press is, by its own website’s description, “a press that provides exclusive, clandestine publications which are inoculated against the circulatory system of the established book market.” Created and founded by artists Martin Bladh and Karolina Urbaniak, it has indeed succeeded in editing, curating and publishing truly challenging art books that go against all conventions and morals, that question all positions towards violence, death, sadism, sexuality, pornography, et cetera, and that push forward sincere and honest artistic explorations of and meditations on these subjects. The press has published books by artists such as The Great Dennis Cooper–always with the certainty and intention that books, by their very nature, should always be, for lack of better words, dangerous, “unsafe” things.

This is certainly the case with the Bladh and Urbaniak’s latest collaboration which has resulted in the agonizing, seducing, absolutely fascinating, and extremely powerful book The Torture of the 100 Pieces (available for purchase at the Infinity Land Press website). Its title is influenced by Georges Bataille’s obsessive exploration of and interest in the Chinese method of public humiliation, torture, and execution carried out by the government and the police named Lingchi or “death by a thousand cuts,” which was ended in the first years of the XX Century, officially. The seemingly exclusively male persons subjected to these punishments were taken to a public place full of witnesses, aficionados, fans and groupies, stripped completely naked, tied, apparently sometimes forcefully drugged with opioids, and then subjected to a very slow death by way of having their skin slashed with knives, being slowly skinned (mostly in both breast areas and legs) and many times having limbs amputated. This was all carried out methodically, slowly and, again, in the plain sight of the witnesses, aficionados, fans and groupies, onlookers, and passersby who stopped to witness the agonizing and slow torture, destruction, and execution of these condemned, naked men. Often they’d cheer/egg on the punishment and take photographs.

The Torture of the 100 Pieces is the compilation of 100 photographs taken by Urbaniak of the series of all kinds of self-inflicted wounds to which Bladh subjected his body over a period of eight years. The goal was always the same: that the wounds would produce permanent marks/damage on Bladh’s body/skin. Taken with macro lenses, the photographs depict only scars, marks, ampules, pustules, bleeding, fresh cuts, pus, sores, exposed, raw, burnt, severely scarred tissue, blisters, burns, raw flesh, and a very long et cetera. 

Done purposefully by the artists, with the exception of a handful of photographs, we are unable to decipher what parts of Bladh’s body we are seeing, isolating the piece of skin from its context, playing with its very form and look, and confounding and dazing the spectator/reader. Only in a very few and rare instances, Bladh’s nipples and thighs disclose exactly what part of the body we are seeing. In this way, we are witnesses to pain transformed into landscapes thanks to Urbaniak’s utterly stunning macro-photography. Landscapes that many times recall war zones, devastation of land and people, desolation, destruction, annihilation, and climate disasters.

The Torture of the 100 Pieces by Martin Bladh & Karolina Urbaniak (©Infinity Land Press)

Each one of Urbaniak’s photographs is accompanied by texts carefully selected, edited, and curated by Bladh discussing violence and death by way of literature, medieval texts, philosophy, medical descriptions, discussions and meditations on pain, its power, its meaning and its effect on the receiver, the horror provoked by pain and by the prospect of physically damaged disfigurement, police reports, excerpts from essays, excerpts from other works by Bladh, conversations, online discussions, and depictions of real scenes of torture, mutilation, amputation and murder. The texts serve many functions, acting as introduction, commentary, counterpoint, comparison, and influence on the images and the entire project as a whole. For example, the very first text is simply the definition of the word “Horripilation” (“the erection of hairs on the skin due to cold, fear or excitement”) preceding a photograph of Bladh’s skin displaying that very phenomenon; whereas the fifty fourth text is an excerpt of a 1963 interview with Andy Warhol conducted by Gene Swenson about the artist’s “Death And Disaster” works preceding a photograph depicting marks and ampules on Bladh’s skin.    

On occasion of the official launch of the publication, Filthy Dreams spoke to Bladh and Urbaniak to find out about what lies behind this new and very unique art book and discuss serial killers, music, childhood, fears, frustrations, camera lenses, and more:

Martin Bladh, Karolina Urbaniak, thank you very much for agreeing to talk with Filthy Dreams about this incredible latest project and collaboration of yours.

It’s our pleasure.

How did the idea of creating this book come about?

Karolina Urbaniak: Initially, at that point in time when the book (specifically the final form it would eventually take) was being conceived, macro photography was a vehicle for my experimentation with abstract art which, with a few exceptions, never posed that much of an attraction to me. Seeing Martin’s already heavily scarred skin tissue set-off my imagination. Not through morbid interest, but the concept of the human wound as a universal symbol of suffering and sacrifice, and the chance of entering completely new visual territories as a photographer. Martin then told me about an abandoned project he had in mind, and in this way with 100 images ahead, we were at the beginning of a very challenging yet extraordinary journey.

Martin Bladh: The structure and the literary content of The Torture of the 100 Pieces goes back to my final years in art school. I wanted to do a complex piece inspired by Bataille’s obsessions with the lingchi execution photographs; that is, my obsession with Bataille’s obsession. The initial plan was to use 100 Polaroids that depicted my own body in extreme, cramped postures and covered with fake wounds. Each Polaroid would be pinned next to a short piece of text that, when brought together as a whole, would serve as a summary of my personal obsessions and form a kind of body language. However, this project never came to fruition as I decided to focus on another project instead: a work called DES dedicated to another of my obsessions: the British serial killer Dennis Nilsen. It was four years later, in 2012, after I met Karolina, and she told me about an idea she had for a series of photographs that it was being realised.

Martin, you state that you are neither a sadist nor a masochist and that the harm inflicted on your body has nothing to do with any kind of sexual gratification, correct? It’s all done for the sake of your art, then.

MB: Well, my work includes a great deal of sadistic and masochistic components. I would not categorise myself as either a full-fledged sadist nor a masochist, but I’m intrigued by how these agents work along and together with each other: the relationship between the victim and the executioner, how one bleeds into the other on a psychological level and vice versa. What I wanted to point out in the introduction to The Torture of the 100 Pieces was that the epic process of wounding and recording had nothing to do with heterosexual S&M games (considering that myself and Karolina have been a couple during the whole process). If there is a sexual agenda involved, at least from my perspective, it is an unconscious one. All the hurting was done for the single purpose of producing the image, and the aesthetic choice always surpassed pure documentational value. Several of my other works like DES or Marty Page might rightly be perceived as erotic, but The Torture of the 100 Pieces is different due to the abstract, almost medical depiction of the body: the “woundscapes” as Jack Sargeant call them. Saying that, eroticism is subjective. Do you find this work to be erotic?

Yes, I only indulge in acts of self-mutilation for the sake of art. I do not have a history of self-harm related to episodes of mental illness or depression and I do not practice S&M. But as an agent of cruelty, I like to endure, to push myself further into unknown territories–speaking pretentiously, a will to power if you like.   

How did this years-long project of self-destruction begin? Were you always, since a child, fascinated by and curious about your body, your skin, and the transformation that occurs as a result of getting hurt or harmed?

MB: Physical pain and bodily damage horrified me as a child. I was a hypochondriac. Visits to the dentist or the local GP I perceived as terrifying. Still, violence was one of my main obsessions, which I believe helped me to overcome these infantile neuroses–if the concept of the monster scares you, turn yourself into a monster; if you are afraid of dying, become death.

Even though violence has played a major part in my work since my first recordings with the post-industrial band IRM in the late 90s or in my earliest juvenilia as a metal musician, the first act of actual self-harm was executed as part of a greater multimedia work called Qualis Artifex Pereo, a collaboration project with the late Swedish artist Bo I. Cavefors in 2009. Prior to this performance, I had used animal entrails, which I usually tore apart in a frenzy, but from that moment on, I decided to project all the violence directly upon my own body.   

How did you two meet and discover your artistic and aesthetic affinities?

MB: Karolina was a keen follower of my work, especially the pieces that had a connection to Dennis Nilsen, which was how she found out about me in the first place. She invited me to participate in an artistic collaboration and as I soon realised that we had lots in common and that she was a great photographer, I accepted (I was living in Sweden at that time). Karolina wondered if I was still interested in working on yet another project connected to Nilsen, which was really convenient as she lived in Northern London, close to Nilsen’s “hunting ground.” I came up with a proposition: to do an “on location” tour through Nilsen Country, including the two houses in which the murders took place. Karolina in turn came up with additional places, which included some of the gay bars where Nilsen had picked up his victims. We met in London, the project, Tour, ended up as a part of my book DES (2013), and the rest is history.

The Torture of the 100 Pieces by Martin Bladh & Karolina Urbaniak (©Infinity Land Press)

You both are deeply immersed in the depiction of violence, mutilation, and destruction of the body and death in your work. What is it about these themes that move you to focus on them when you make your art?

MB: I believe myself to be a pathological artist. I’ve been obsessed with these subject matters since my early childhood years, and I cannot (or wouldn’t want to) express myself creatively in any other way. Then there might be a universal, basic human need to express extreme emotions and topics such as pain, fear, exaltation, death, immortality. In some ways, we are all the same. 

KU: For as long as I can remember, I could only relate to works of art that were able to pull me out of my comfort zone. Always looking for that subliminal glitch between what’s seen and what actually lies underneath the surface. Then there is the innate need to test my mental capacities, to see more and feel harder, to cross over. It’s something I would argue with today, but I always regarded myself as an extremely balanced and strong individual who gazes at the madness and anomalies of others with detached and calculating eyes, but who has a deeply disturbed desire to walk in their shoes even for a short while–as one can, for example, through a work of art. Human self-destructiveness also interests me a lot, and perhaps my idea of violence is rooted in the concept of primary masochism. I would also like to think that my Polish heritage, with its land haunted by the dead written forever into the universal history of atrocities, played some part in the choice of subject matter I tend to engage with. But perhaps it’s only wishful thinking.

Karolina, photography has always been your main medium, is that correct? At what age did you begin taking photographs? What were they like?

KU: I’ve had an analogue camera and a Polaroid for as long as I can remember, but it was actually music that meant the most to me at an early age. I had played piano since I was 6 years old, then electric guitar from the age of 13, and bass and drums in my later teens. I started a few bands, to the great discomfort of my neighbours in the quiet residential area I lived in; we did some gigs, but never recorded any albums. At the same time, darkroom photography, drawing, and graphics were among my favourite subjects in art college, but in the end, I decided to apply to the Art Academy in Krakow, department of sculpture. My failure in entering the academy frustrated me deeply, and to move away from Gdynia (my hometown), I ended up studying History at Jagiellonian University in Krakow instead. There, with very few means for my usual artistic and sonic practices, photography became the choice of convenience. I would photograph everything, but mainly a close circle of my young and eccentric friends, loaded with history, architecture, theatre and music performances, found objects, myself, etc. It would all amount to a carefully crafted visual diary. That was also the time I utilised my talent and started making money from photography and it’s something I do to this day. I currently run a photography studio in Central London under a different name to avoid any confusion between my personal work and professional occupation. Starting Infinity Land Press in 2013 has definitely been a catalyst in my life and a propellant for my creative output. Busy and expensive London life keeps me in its grip, but if I had a choice and a bit more time, I’d employ multi-media in everything I do. The concept of Gesamtkunstwerk has always been important to me.

What was your first reaction when you learned of Martin’s project of artistic self-harming?

KU: Martin was using the means of self-injury on stage long before we met, so I was both familiar with this practice and assured that his work isn’t rooted in a psychological malfunction, illness or depression, but rather a performatory tool to overcome and discipline his own fears and personal weaknesses. 

In the case of The Torture of the 100 Pieces I was obviously thrilled to stand behind the camera and meditate over these unexplored skin areas. From a photographic point of view, opportunities like that don’t happen every day. I was delighted for sure.

What did these acts and body modifications awake in you as an artist?

KU: I am not sure how to answer it, but every photography session had its intense yet structured dynamic. From preparations, getting into the right mindspace, through the actual act of wounding and recording, I would remain tremendously alert throughout the session, sometimes fighting against time, clotting blood, or levels of Martin’s discomfort while taking the photos with clinical precision. The unfolding drama, revealed in the spotlight of my studio engulfed in darkness, certainly transgressed the boundaries of my idea of suffering for one’s art and possibly heightened my desire to challenge my practice as a visual artist even further.

What was your main purpose as an artist while taking these photographs?

KU: To be a sophisticated, immobile, recording machine fueled by the aesthetic virtues of light, colour and composition.

The Torture of the 100 Pieces by Martin Bladh & Karolina Urbaniak (©Infinity Land Press)

Did you do anything in particular to prepare for this project?

KU: There was very little research I could do due to the unusual subject matter of the project, but I did test several lenses before I found my ideal partner in the Canon MP-E 65MM F2.8 macro. Apologies for the dry technicalities. 

Not at all, please, ”dry technicalities” are exciting. You participated in the harming of Martin’s body and flesh with his consent and under his direction. How does it feel to participate in violence inflicted on a human being under these specific circumstances?

KU: As Martin has already mentioned the process of wounding and photographing had nothing to do with S&M games and no matter how much I’d try, I wouldn’t be able to recollect a single instance of deriving pleasure from the act of harming. The aim was to make a sublime mark on Martin’s body by approaching the skin the way one approaches a canvas. And although his endurance is definitely provocative, apart from a simple accident, like the application of Sodium Laureth Sulfate to Martin’s right arm, which had long lasting consequences, I hope I haven’t indulged in injuring his flesh beyond what was strictly necessary.

I assume you took much more than 100 photographs. About how many were left out and what was the selection process like?

KU: There are probably around a thousand images left. Some are very beautiful, but had to be dismissed due to the strict selection process. In principle, each part of the book was meant to be accompanied by nine photographs representing one type of wounding: burns, cuts, scratches, piercing, bruising, flogging, etc. I would then select three photographs from three different wounds of that particular wound-type and run them through the chapter in an agreed system–1.1, 2.1, 3.1, 1.2, 2.2… and so on–to correspond with the text fragments.

M & K, was the parallelism with war zones and devastated areas due to climate disasters something deliberate from the moment you were creating this project?

We’re only concerned with the depiction of the human body “in extremis,” nothing else.

The Torture of the 100 Pieces by Martin Bladh & Karolina Urbaniak (©Infinity Land Press)

Martin, for how many years have you been collecting these texts and excerpts of texts that accompany each photograph? Just like with Karolina’s photographs, I assume you left out many, many texts you originally wanted to include. What was your selection process like?

MB: Yes, I believe I wrote this book pretty much from scratch about three times before it was finished. I started to work on it intensely during the summer of 2013, and went back to work and re-work the content and structure until its final completion in February 2020. The initial idea was to give each chapter a specific concept, all dealing with the relationship between an artistic medium and cruelty; each one responding to a specific method of self-harm. The range of topics could vary from the theatrical aspects of public executions to the killer/artist’s way of sublimating murderous violence into paintings or drawings. For example, in the chapter titled “The Evil Eye,” a series of photographs depicting self-inflicted burns are juxtaposed with a collection of text fragments dealing exclusively with the concept of sadism, ethics, and exploitation linked to the medium of photography. All the text fragments and chapters were to be constructed in such a way that they would form a pseudo-narrative, which could be read as an intertextual novel.  

Can you expand on that anecdote included in the book when you stabbed both your thighs in front of a live audience in an art gallery?

MB: In October 2012, I performed a multimedia piece titled The Island of Death at the Slimelight club in London. It was a collaboration with Karolina, which combined sound and film with a theatrical performance. The work was particularly concerned with blood sacrifice, which was illustrated by me, standing on a chair, wearing a plastic pig mask, cutting each of my thighs with a razor blade, and while observing the audience, letting the rivulets of blood poor down my legs onto to the seat to form a puddle. When the time came to execute the cuts, my endorphins peaked, and I was so intoxicated that I was insensible to pain. Needless to say, the damage became much more severe than expected. I was bedridden for a couple of days with fever and had to tend to the cuts for weeks to come. Anyway, the photographic documentations of these wounds, some taken directly after the show and others during the proceeding healing process (paying particular attention to the change in colour and texture) was to become the starting point of The Torture of the 100 Pieces.  

Karolina, in the book, Martin describes a video featuring the real torture, amputation, and execution of a man that plays a central role in his opening text “Communication.” Do you remember when you first came across it? What did it make you feel and why did you decide to immediately share it with Martin?

KU: It was shared with me by an old friend Olaf, one of my earliest extreme music collaborators from Gdynia. In “Communication,” Martin gives a detailed description of the 2:44-long mobile video clip, scene by scene, depicting an act of torture through to dismemberment, inflicted on a man who is still alive and aware enough to witness the process, whilst hysterically screaming, mumbling, and begging his executioners to stop. Within those three minutes, a couple masked men dismantled the victim’s body and used his cut-off limbs to hit him all over, playfully placing them on his torso and throwing them at him from a height, kicking him and shouting at him simultaneously. They are excited, but methodical and interact with the camera from time to time while cutting off the man’s left arm and both of the legs just beneath the knees. The video ends seconds before his right arm comes off.

It is, indeed, the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. It felt like my brain experienced some kind of short circuit and reacted by flooding my entire body with a heavy sensation of nausea. I felt sick for hours afterwards.

This clip probably ended up online as a warning, and in one way it made me wonder if public executions or public punishment by torture, like the Chinese lingchi, or medieval burnings, death by sawing or breaking on the wheel, made the same impact on the spectators. This unprecedented and raw viewing will stay with me forever, like an on-demand sensation of how it really feels when you look at dying. I just want to see it all and feel it all to understand better the anatomy of a human’s soul, and of course, for that reason, among a few others, I had to share it with Martin.

©Infinity Land Press

As always, humanity’s in unstable, uncertain times. Was that ever an influence of any kind on the project?

MB: No, The Torture of the 100 Pieces is based on private obsessions. If there is a connection to our violent, unstable times, it’s an unconscious one.

KU: Well, no matter what you do, in one way or another you are always a product of your times. 

Do you have any interest in what the reader/spectator might take from this project?

MB: I just need some kind of confirmation that a potential audience will be observing the hurting process at a later date. There is an obstinate will to endure and to continue to endure, to take pride and pleasure in the other’s reaction to my pain. I want to leave a mark, a bloody imprint, that can only be achieved by the creative necessity of cruelty. I believe The Torture of the 100 Pieces to be a new form of corporeal theatre, which hasn’t been explored before, and it would feel satisfying if someone would recognise this.

KU: The power of this work lies in the discourse between art and violence, ushered through the act of self-harm aestheticised by the medium of photography. In the end, it’s a performance act delivered in the format of a book, a condensation that offers an intimate confrontation with pain, inviting the readers/spectators to find themselves on the wide spectrum between the suffering victim and the sadistic, aroused voyeur.

Martin and Karolina, anything else you’d like to say to the readers of Filthy Dreams?

Many thanks for inviting us, it was a pleasure to talk to Filthy Dreams.

A.W.W. Bremont is a member of Generation Y and has written and published film criticism and analysis. Hey Boy (Rebel Satori Press) is his first novel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s