Week 5 Readings
Victor Turner's notion of liminality is a state of 'betwixt and between, a fructile chaos, a storehouse of possibilities' (1982). Other writers have also described some kind of position outside binary thinking, a state disruptive of unity and closure.
Informe, according to Bataille, has no definition but is performative, like an obscene word. It performs the operation of creating taxonomic disorder and a perpetual maintenance of potentials.
In Purity and Danger anthropologist Mary Douglas discussed pollution taboos concerning the unassimilable waste that is outside the constitution of things that are defined (1966). And the Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica argued that art has no autonomous object state, but is instead a searching process, a constructive nucleus, an enactment (1969).
Whilst Turner's limen is the threshold and a striving after new forms and structures, Bataille's informe is an inchoateness through which meaning briefly emerges, and Douglas describes pollution and dirt as a 'fearful generative site'.
Of course there are many differences between the ideas sketchily outlined above, but the focus of this article is a perception of a shared notion in liminality, informe, pollution and process art of an oscillating flux that does not halt. This is an idea that is also present in contemporary scientific developments in chaos theory and quantum physics. This article discusses this oscillating flux in relation to a range of visual artists using their own bodies in their artworks - in performance, painting, sculpture, photography, film and video.
Visual artists using their own bodies as the site for art wreak havoc with categorisation from several angles. The artist's body is an art object that will not stay put and fixed in its role, it is contingent and gets up and walks back into the artist's life. As art object the artist's body is always ephemeral.
The liminal, the informe, the abject and the taboo undo the work of rationalisation. According to French Fluxus artist Ben Vautier, art is dirty work but somebody has to do it. And 'messy' body artists such as Carolee Schneemann, the Viennese Actionists and Paul McCarthy certainly bear him out. Janine Antoni washed and painted a gallery floor with her hair in the performance, Loving Care (1992). Cheryl Donegan made prints of shamrocks with her green paint-smeared buttocks in the video Kiss My Royal Irish Arse(1993).
Gilles Deleuze's analysis of Francis Bacon's paintings emphasises their depiction of the human body as 'meat' (1981: 197-198). Talking about the effect he wanted in his paintings Bacon said, 'I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, like the snail leaves its slime' (cited in Chipp, 1968: 621).
Chilean artists Diamela Eltit and Raul Zurita made performances in the 80s using their own bodies, protesting against inhumanity in an oppressive regime. Critic Nelly Richard comments on their work,
The threshold of pain enables the mutilated subject to enter areas of
collective identification, sharing in one's own flesh the same signs of
social disadvantage as the other unfortunates. Voluntary pain simply
legitimates one's incorporation into the community of those who have
been harmed in some way - as if the self-inflicted marks of chastisement
in the artist's body and the marks of suffering in the national body, as
if pain and its subject could unite in the same scar (1986: 66, 68).
Filmmaker David Cronenberg has described the basis of horror as the fact that we cannot comprehend how we can die (cited in Kaufmann, 1998). At the same time medical, scientific and technological advances relating to the body's health, reproductive function and death, seem to make the body's functions increasingly conceptual and euphemised.
Mircea Eliade writes that, 'The archaic and Oriental cultures succeeded in conferring positive values on anxiety, death, self-abasement and upon chaos' (1960: 14). But in Western culture death and the body as flux is still a taboo vision. Most critiques of this type of body art cannot get past the Western cultural obsession with the central, terminal, cumulative self - the individual ego, to see beyond to a use of the self as universal. Talking about Dada dance, Hugo Ball commented that 'Dance … is very close to the art of tattooing and to all primitive representative efforts that aim at personification' (1996). With his use of the word 'personification' Ball seems to be getting at a notion of the individual body inscribed, carrying the weight of collective ideas, rather than the individual engaged in self-expression.
Marina Abramovic and Ulay sat opposite each other across a table for a total of 90 days, not moving, not speaking and fasting. The complete performance was undertaken over several chunks of time in different cities around the world. Their longest continuous presentation lasted 16 days. The artists presented themselves as embodied consciousnesses, in the process of being. For Abramovic the job of the artist is to reveal the mystery of existence and to act as a transmittor of energy. 'The deeper you go into yourself, the more universal you come out on the other side' (quoted in Pijnappel, 1995).
Susan Hiller's Draw Together (1972) was an experiment in telepathy and Dream Mapping (1974) was an experiment in group dreaming. Hiller describes art ideas as existing below a verbal recognition level where artists grab on to them (see Einzig, 1996). James Turrell's work experiments with perceptual psychology, light and states of being. He has remarked that art is about bringing images back from the dream world to here. Shelley Sacks' Thought Bank (1994) was based on the idea that water remembers and that thought can be imprinted on water. In live performances Bruce Gilchrist has attempted to externalise images and sounds from the interior of his sleeping body (Divided by Resistance, 1996) (see Keidon, 1996 and Warr, 1996). Working with a BBC Outside Broadcast Unit, a group of mediums, a thermal camera and sound equipment, Kathleen Rogers' PsiNet (1994) set up a parallel between psychic transmission and reception and technological transmission and reception (see La Frenais, 1994).
Speech has been over-emphasised as the privileged means of human
communication, and the body neglected. It is time to rectify this
neglect and to become aware of the body as the physical channel of
meaning. (Douglas, 1978: 298)
The body is the proof of identity. The body is language. My consciousness of the body as such became so strong that it became a pressure I couldn't get rid of. I wanted to grasp this consciousness and get rid of the pressure in my painting, but I found that painting for me lacked the possibility of expressing the directness that I felt through contact with the body. Furthermore, painting could not make me feel the existence of my body in my work. I realized that any medium beyond my body seemed too remote from myself. Thus, I decided that the only way I could be an artist was by using my body as the basic medium and language of my art.
...the tendency of self-torturing is not just a personal problem. It is a common phenomenon, especially so in the present circumstances of China today. In the suburban area of Beijing where we live, there also live thousands of peasants who come from all over the country to make a living selling vegetables. Every morning they have to get up at four o'clock for their work. I believe they wish they could have more time for sleep, like the rest of us. But they can't. If one has t o do something one doesn't want t o do, that is a kind
of self-torturing. Everybody has this tendency. Some are conscious of it, while others don't want to admit it. —Zhang Huan