The Twisted Yet Transfixing World Of Abject Art

The Twisted Yet Transfixing World Of Abject Art

What most people consider gruesome, a select few artists consider art of the highest order. Welcome to the world of Abject art. Read on to know more about it - at your own risk.

TW: The article contains imagery that may be disturbing/offensive to some, please proceed with caution.

Art is a subjective experience, there’s no doubt about it. If I ask you what the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of art is, you might be inclined to think of a Renaissance oil painting. An abstract, paint-splattered Jackson Pollock, perhaps. Maybe you’re leaning towards the geometric abstraction that the Bauhaus movement offers. In today’s day and age, the subjectivity of art has gotten to a point where a singular red pixel is being sold for $900,000 as an NFT, and it’s considered business as usual. And then there’s Abject art.

Abject art re-examines the human body after decades of neglect in previous art movements. As Pop art, the Minimalism movement, Conceptual art and Postmodernism largely ignored the visceral human body, Abject art projects the human body in its most raw form. I’m not talking about the idealised body traditionally seen in Western figurative sculpture dating back to the ancient Greeks either; this new body is dejected, diseased, filthy, wounded – in a word, it’s abject and can only be described as providing you with a feeling of discomfort and eeriness, to say the least.

Now, I’m not one to argue here – unconventional art can cause feelings of discomfort, and it’s in between the spaces of that discomfort, that art manages to be evocative and stray away from the feelings of pacifism that traditional art creates. But when depicting abjection in art, how do you distinguish between something that can be considered ~art~, as opposed to something that’s just plain gruesome?

Sarah Lucas,
Chicken Knickers (1997)
Sarah Lucas, Chicken Knickers (1997)Source: Tate

Let’s throw it back to the conception of the term abject itself. The abject is a complex psychological, philosophical and linguistic concept, first developed by Julia Kristeva in her 1980 book Powers Of Horror. Partly influenced by the earlier ideas of the French writer, thinker and dissident surrealist, Georges Bataille, Kristeva explained that the abject covers all the bodily functions, or aspects of the body, that are deemed impure or inappropriate for public display or discussion. For Kristeva, abjection is the feeling of revulsion and disgust when the boundaries we use to categorise the world, such as inside/outside, animal/human, animate/inanimate and life/death, are transgressed.

“The Abject is simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that the Other, having become alter ego, drops so that the "I" does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence.”

Julia Kristeva, Powers Of Horror

And this is evident in most forms of Abject art, too; in a sense, it’s hard to draw clear boundaries between what is of the body and what is outside it. Abjection in art goes back a long way. Artists before the Renaissance showed a fascination with blood. The Marquis de Sade, a notorious French philosophical thinker, investigated the abject in relation to sexuality in his two novels, Justine and Juliette. The Dadaists took the notion a step further in their explorations of the taboo and the violation of moral principles. The Surrealists, such as Manet, also displayed a sense of abjection in their art.

Untitled (Puzzle) by Cindy Sherman, one of the least horrifying pieces of Abject art from her collection.
Untitled (Puzzle) by Cindy Sherman, one of the least horrifying pieces of Abject art from her collection. Source: Artspace

Post Renaissance, while the movement lost its traction, it was revived in the 1900s, emerging as a response to the harsh censorship of art by the religious right wing during the height of the culture wars in the United States. One of the most acclaimed artists in the Abject movement is Cindy Sherman; primarily known for her works relating to the female body, Sherman strayed away from the convention in her 1985-1991 Untitled series which was described by art historian Rosalind Krauss as ‘Disasters and Fairy Tales,’ and the ‘disgust pictures'. The originally untitled series featured overt elements of abjection; from metamorphosed and mutated figures, to disintegrated/wounded bodies mingled with various fluid and abject substances.

Louise Bourgeois’ work is a little more… subtle, in a sense, but is heavily laden with overtones of abjection. Take her equal parts horrific, equal parts psychologically charged sculpture, Maman, for instance; it depicts a spider straight out of any arachnophobic’s nightmare, at over 30 ft high and over 33 ft wide. As the name would suggest, the spider is inspired by the artist’s mother, and encapsulates her childhood fears, and manages to evoke wonderment combined with uneasiness. (I mean, it’s a 30+ foot spider. What do you expect?)

Maman by Louise Bourgeois
Maman by Louise BourgeoisSource: The Guggenheim, Bilbao

The role of psychology does, indeed, play an important role here – in not only the creation, but the perception of Abject art. As aforementioned, traditional art aims to pacify – if you see, say, a painting of Monet’s Water Lilies, for instance, your first instinct would be to remark, ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ as opposed to a vehement, ‘Get this out of my face!’ right?

And it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Abject art can invoke the latter sentiment. But a lot of it also depends on the gaze of the viewer; since the essential purpose of the abject is to evoke a visceral, subconscious response from the perceiver, it is meant to be enticing, and be enjoyed as a subliminal de-sublimation that lets go of the known, and focuses on the unknown, the uncomfortable, and the unconventional.

But let’s face it – anything that’s so out there is bound to catch a lot of flak and attract controversy, and surprise surprise, Abject art is no stranger to that. Looking at critically acclaimed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work – which portrayed overtones of sadomasochistic homosexual sex (which was frowned upon in the ‘60s and ‘70s) – it was heavily criticised for its characteristics of attractions to the demonic, the violent and the abject; although now, he’s revered for it. But the biggest controversy with the abject emerged with ‘Piss Christ’; a highly aestheticised photograph by Andres Serrano created in 1987, which depicted a crucifixion bathed in a glow of red, and in fact, the artist’s urine. The work is typical of Serrano’s portfolio, which includes photographs of bodily fluids, and caught a lot of flak, especially from religiously-charged groups for obvious reasons.

Piss Christ by Andres Serrano
Piss Christ by Andres SerranoSource: Brittanica

Apart from religious contexts, the abject also has a strong feminist context. Keeping the fact that female bodily functions in particular are ‘abjected’ by a patriarchal social order, in the 1980s and 1990s many artists became aware of this theory and reflected it in their work. Cindy Sherman’s work, again, becomes more contextual in light of this. Other artists who used the abject to encompass the female abject narratives include artist Mary Kelly, who caused a stir in the ‘70s when she exhibited dirty nappies at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Titled Post-Partum Document, the installation was actually a six-year exploration of the mother-child relationship, which provoked tabloid outrage.

Kiki Smith also reimagined the human body in all its glory – to focus on the depiction of women in society, she transgressed the border of the skin and put the organs and intestines on the outside, to create a female body that was free of taboo, embarrassment, and shame. In her work Tale, 1992, a papier mâché and beeswax figure crawls on her hands and knees, trailing behind her a long extended line of excrement. In part the work was about “embracing the shame of the out of control body”, but it also challenged the idea that the women’s body was merely the subject of the male gaze.

Post Partum Documents by Mary Kelly
Post Partum Documents by Mary KellySource: Hammer Museum

And again, we come back to the gaze of the viewer in terms of Abject art – while viewing any form of art, the bottomline remains, ‘What do you make of it?’ rather than what conventions dictate. For all I know, what I consider to be abject may not align with your definition of abject, and while my notions of art may differ from yours, Abject art’s cultural, even political influence still holds massive relevance.

And to give Abject art credit where credit is due – the movement’s artists managed to tread where very few dared to, and made an impact that is rare to find. Not only that, its influence on a whole generation of younger artists amongst whom anti-art processes have become de rigueur is undeniable as well. And as for the question of drawing boundaries between what constitutes abjection and what constitutes the grotesque? It’s the gaze of the perceiver.

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