Extreme Beauty, a collection of body-manipulating couture, was a recent hit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Fear Factor is a weekly network television phenomenon, as millions tune in to see contestants lowered into vats of rats, bugs, or snakes, dangled from mountaintops, airplanes, and skyscrapers. Wherever you look, the ante’s been upped, whether it’s for those needing to boost the bottom line, escape boredom, or just get a rise out of their own lives. Perhaps it’s our unquenchable desire for something else that helps explain why photographs of Fakir Musafar’s personal search for transcendence through extreme experience, published in Spirit + Flesh, are so oddly compelling. You needn’t be a fan or practitioner of tattooing, piercing, or extreme body sculpting to appreciate Musafar’s quest to transcend life’s constraints by literally crafting and controlling his own. Fifty years ago, Musafar built a darkroom sanctuary in the basement of his parents’ home, which became the first laboratory/photo studio for his body- and consciousness-altering experiments. Since then, this earnest former instructor of both explosives and ballroom dancing has become a cult hero, with a growing audience for his shamanic body rituals, lectures, seminars, and publishing activities.
Interestingly, it is the aching sincerity of Musafar’s pursuit, made evident in his photographs, that puts the arty Minimalism of Robert Mapplethorpe’s S & M pictures, and the self-congratulatory kinkiness that serves Helmut Newton and the fashion industry so well, in startling contrast. Musafar’s photographs of mortification, the extremes of body compression, the puncturing and stretching of flesh, never quite achieve dazzling heights of glamour, slickness, sluttiness, or giddy badboyness. Simultaneously deeply weird and geekishly earnest, gross and nuanced, they tell the surprisingly poignant picture story of one person’s lifelong attempt to find beauty and release in a world run amok.
Fakir Musafar’s Spirit + Flesh was published by Arena Editions in April 2002.