The Suffering Body of 1993: Whatever Happened to the “Abject” (Part I)

Kiki Smith, "Untitled," 1990. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
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The best way to fuck something up is to give it a body.

A voice is killed when it is given a body.

Whenever there’s a body around you see its faults.

Theory proves that.

– Mike Kelley, Dialogue #1 (An Excerpt from “Theory, Garbage, Stuffed Animals, Christ”), 1993

In her reportage on the opening of the 2013 New Museum exhibition, titled NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, Artforum writer and artist Rhonda Lieberman comments on a strange mnemonic sensation in seeing an art show about the recent past: “I knew a museum show about ‘NYC 1993’ would be creepy, I just didn’t know what kind of creepy … When the nostalgia train hits a time when you were actually an adult, you palpably experience the constructedness of history.” Discrepancies emerge between Lieberman’s recollection of the 1993 New York artworld and the inevitably different equivalent on display. She notes the most prevalent impression of NYC 1993, its overall melancholic and mournful tone. “The show was heavily skewed toward AIDS, gender politics, kinky sex, prostheses, fucked-up doll parts … all under the harshest medical lighting. We had lighting and white walls in 1993 – but I don’t recall it seeming so harsh,” she writes. “There was an overall seriousness, sterility, and darkness in tone to the show.”

Deliberate or otherwise, Lieberman replays some of the most public art criticism of the 1990s, usually tied to exhibitions around politics and identity. In Roberta Smith’s pointed, yet generally supportive review in The New York Times, regarding the 1993 Whitney Biennial, she writes, “There’s not a lot of eyes-on pleasure to be had inside, where the latest Biennial turns its back on the razzle-dazzle of the 1980s and faces the harsher realities of the ‘90s,” later calling the exhibition a “pious, often arid show.” In the same year and publication, Holland Cotter writes of two exhibitions shown at the Whitney, Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art and The Subject of Rape. “[At] the Whitney, where ‘transgressive’ art is just the byproduct of haute-couture theory, both exhibitions have a juiceless, frozen, inorganic look, as if they were shrink-wrapped artifacts of something already called the Early ‘90s.” Between exhibitions at the New Museum and the Whitney, the personal experience of time is already bracketed as a historical moment. For Lieberman, the recent past returns as an object of museological study, and for Cotter, the present curiously brackets itself as a historical paradigm.

Yet this feeling of loopy time is not a pleasurable abandon of synchronization, but instead something serious, unpleasurable, frozen, creepy. Historicism feels like atrophy, here, where you realize your membership in a distinct moment in time may have been taken for granted. But the unease of an exhibition about art of the early ’90s doubled for these critics in the art itself. Art like Andrea Serrano’s The Morgue series (1992), which turned corpses into high-gloss pictorialism, or Charles Ray’s Family Romance (1993), which took an uncanny isomorphic approach to a troop of naked parents and children, explored sensations and representations centered on the gross and the bizarre, in short, to cite a key ekphrastic of the era, the abject. Weighty and disarming themes permeated NYC 1993, Abject Art, The Subject of Rape, and the 1993 Biennial: AIDS, social injustice, sexual assault, bodily fluids, and racial violence.

With this nexus of feeling, history, identity, and art, we might approach an understanding of the veritable moment in the 1990s of so-called “abject art.” Abjection, the phenomenon of tossing away the undesirable elements of life and their related affects of disgust, became a key explanatory in both the Anglophone artworld and the academic humanities – cultural spheres basically coterminous to begin with. German scholar Winfried Menninghaus, in his Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (1999), notes that between the years 1982 and 1997, 28 pages in the Modern Language Association Bibliography appeared with the word “abjection” in the title. Spurned by the 1982 translation of psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva’s Powers of the Horror: An Essay on Abjection into English, the focus on abjection gave its practitioners, from contemporary artists to feminist theorists, a shorthand to describe the concomitant Culture Wars and the identity-based oppressions inflicted by a conservative populace and its conservative elected officials. The AIDS crisis, the Watts Riots, the Anita Hill trial, anti-feminism, and the general collapse of the American welfare state all pointed to a historical scene replete with crisis. When Lieberman, Smith, and Cotter all critiqued the doom and gloom on display in 1993 and its second wave, it seemed less like an aesthetic judgment and more like the observation of a political reality. The low critical opinions toward this work only magnified, from the most influential of art historians on modern and contemporary art to the United States Congress.

The question is, now, in an artworld and social climate grappling with similar if not identical questions, how to contend with these issues of identity, their expression in art, and the perpetual abjection of certain people without entombing them as a weird phenomena of the 1990s? Contemporary art has never seemed to understand what to do with the wounded, injured, and broken bodies both on TV and in the galleries. No wonder, then, that debates about disproportionate representation and identity surface today as stronger than ever. What could we learn in revisiting abject art?

The organizing object of abject art, institutionally speaking, was Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art, curated in the summer of 1993 by Craig Houser, Simon Taylor, and Leslie C. Jones, all students of the Whitney’s Independent Study Program (ISP). By means of artworks using or suggesting bodily fluids and anatomical body parts considered “disgusting” or “offensive,” the exhibition attempted to mobilize the psychoanalytic theory of abjection for an exploration of the limits of taboo subject matters and their political implications. As the curators stated in their catalogue’s introduction, “Employing methodologies adapted from feminism, queer theory, post-structuralism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, our goal is to talk dirty in the institution and degrade its atmosphere of purity and prudery by foregrounding issues of gender and sexuality in the art exhibited.” As “abject art,” their curatorial neologism meant to describe an art that either utilized or commented on abjection, it would directly challenge normative notions of morality, cleanliness, decency, and invariably, identity.

Under this rubric, the ISP curators assembled a wildly heterogeneous group of works, organized in sections of “The Maternal Body,” “Unmaking Modernist Masculinity,” and “Transgressive Femininity.” In a brief glance over the exhibition’s selection of objects, the aesthetic porosity of abjection as an artistic descriptor becomes clear: work such as Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (c. 1924-36), Eva Hesse’s Untitled (Rope Piece) (1969-70), and Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self-Portrait (1978), which features an artist brandishing a bullwhip in his asshole, were gathered together in the name of exposing social dictums around proper and oppositely disregarded subjectivities. The curators oscillated between degrees of referentiality, from abjection’s suggested presence to its direct citation: if Jackson Pollock’s Number 27 (1950) implied a painterly performance akin to male ejaculate, John Miller’s Untitled (1988) sculpturally mimicked feces itself. Few instances of actual bodily products were curated, save a section from Mary Kelly’s well-known Post-Partum Document (1974), which featured her infant son’s soiled diapers. As its curators defined their premise, abject art “does not connote an art movement so much as it describes a body of work which incorporates or suggests abject materials, such as dirt, hair, excrement, dead animals, menstrual blood, and rotting food in order to confront taboo issues of gender and sexuality” (among others).

As was commented by more astute critics of the time, the ISP curators worked with an overly stable definition of abjection’s materials, as if shit or blood were irrevocably abject in its artistic evocation. Moreover, the use of “abject” as an organizing descriptive principle elided subtle distinctions in artworks about the body more broadly, such as the gestural smears of Cy Twombly’s Untitled (1964/1984), and even conflated other adjectives of ugliness, such as “disgusting,” “uncanny,” or “grotesque” (I leveled a similar charge at the Hirschhorn’s recent Damage Control: Destruction in Art Since 1950, as well). The looseness with which the curators applied “abject’ almost mimicked the condemnatory register they were trying to critique: in Jones’s catalogue essay, she refers to Chris Rush’s Scrubbing (1972) as “abject domestic labor” and describes Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy (1964), a work more about a positive exploration of embodiment, in equal terms.

Yet the most productive ambiguity in Abject Art was its organizers’ assumption of the correlation between the physical components of abjection, its blood and guts, and its social metaphor, as an expression of certain subjects’ marginalization. This came to be the most cited application across intellectual spheres more broadly, even if it represented a willful misreading of its primary reference, Kristeva’s Powers of the Horror. A thorough elaboration of Kristeva’s theory demands more attention than can be given here, but, to gloss, abjection refers to the condition following “primal repression,” or the subject’s psychic and biological split from the mother in infancy. In order for the child to assume a self and enter symbolic communication, they must renounce and repudiate the maternal, a zone representing “no clear distinctions of subject and object, inner and outer, ‘I’ and others,” as Menninghaus writes. This violent fracture from the mother, which necessitates the psychic casting of the maternal as consuming and threatening, haunts the subject their entire life. Kristeva notes, “We may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it. On the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.” Abjection is fundamentally an anxiety of proximity, of what constitutes the self and what does not. The psychoanalytic paternal law and the whole of culture itself relies on the maintenance of primal repression in spite of its perpetually threatening presence.

But in Powers of the Horror, abjection and primal repression are ahistorical, universal qualities in the development of subjectivity and society. Even more technically, abjection theoretically precedes the development of the symbolic, and stands above and beyond mere representation. Thus to depict abjection is, in Kristeva’s account, impossible, though what art can trigger is the affect around disgust, the feeling of engaging the abject. In a famous encounter with the condensed skin on top of milk, Kristeva narrates: “I experience a gagging sensation and, still further down, spasms in my stomach, the belly, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause foreheads and hands to perspire.” Note the cataclysmic qualities of Kristeva’s disgust (for her, the abject is “edged with the sublime”). When applied to aesthetics, this would mandate that “abject art” necessitates a feeling of overwhelming horror. Hard to imagine gagging per se in front of a Pollock.

For Menninghaus, then, the political appropriation of Kristeva in the 1990s moved beyond a flatly phobic reaction toward abjection, providing practitioners of this modified theory “a new articulation that allows both identification with and protest against their own ‘abjection’.” In this dual usage, one strain of critique aimed to expose the “regressive function” of cultural authority while the other sought to affirm “abject” existence as a “socially un-accomodated way of life.” Accordingly, abject art related tactics: it could express the condition of abjection as an existential dilemma or marginalized subject (usually the artist) and thereby expose power in a melancholic request to bear witness to society’s act of abjecting. Alternatively, abject art could incite disgust in the viewer in a performative gesture to lure abjection’s conditioned prohibitionism in subversive irony. We might see the former technique in Kiki Smith’s Untitled (1990), which depicts two seemingly lifeless male and female bodies held upright on poles, breast milk and semen dripping down the work’s two respective bodies. The latter, affirmative strategy manifests in Danny Fass and Joe Kelly’s video Skullfuck (1991), in which one man inserts his head into another’s anus, and then pulls out and gleefully licks his shit-covered face in a parodic exaggeration (from a homophobic perspective) of abject queer sex. Arguably, it is the melancholic articulation of abject art that has remained in historical consciousness.

Although Kristeva’s book came out nearly ten years before abject art’s apotheosis, its theory, in whatever guise, seems to have responded to a specific historical moment. In Abject Art’s introduction, the curators connect their exhibition to the American political climate of 1993, replete with pressures concerning neo-conservatism, the censorship of art, attacks on multiculturalism, the reproductive rights of women, and the pathologizing of queer people. Taylor constructs an entire iconography, noting that the “malevolent associations of the other which the abject (e.g. women and menstrual blood, gay men and disease, the working class and trash, blacks and dirt) have been deployed by artists to trace the stereotypes to re-signify and circulate in alternatively parodic, celebratory, and non-oppressive ways.” Within the historical elaboration of abject art, it seems impossible to remove identity politics from the picture.

Part II of this article can be read here.

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