Thursday, 15 November 2012

Abject Art and the Aged Body: Learning Self-Delight in the Photography of Melanie Manchot (part 3)

The image of the abundant body can be a site of subversion rather than anxiety, when the subject is displayed as being in possession of lived experience and corporeal substance. My project is interested in reversing the binaries that suggest that women who are not young or slim are missing something. Joanna Frueh comments of Western visual culture that, “The runway model and the porn icon symbolise youth itself and create longing. In addition, for the older woman, they represent loss”, but this does not have to be so; what is being proposed here is that the older and corpulent body is not something that lacks but something that is plentiful, a body of abundance. Francette Pacteau comments on the weight of expectation and regulation the body is put under, noting that the body itself is a shifting, growing and ageing thing, yet is expected to forge itself into a semblance of social stability, "The social body seems to burst at the seems under the pressure of a recalcitrant physicality, which breaks out, out of place, as dirt, as disease. Coming into being at the edges of our existence, straddling the dividing line of formative binary oppositions, threatening to infect, pollute, the sanitised zones of our subjectivities, the grotesque body partakes of the abject".

The abundant body is a body that baulks at these pressures and rebels against the constructions of norms that dictate that displays of age and flesh on women's bodies are to be treated as marks of excess, which through airbrushing, face creams, surgery and diets can be reduced and disappeared. This supposed excess comes to be seen as bodily abjection: the excess flesh is felt not to belong to the body, but to be its “weight” and therefore its waste. The same can be said for age: in its proximity to decay and death, it also has been saddled with abjection. What will be discussed here is how the “abject body” can be seen as subversive, a body that transgresses its own limits to flaunt its own abundance.

In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva advances a theory to account for the fear and fascination, horror and sometimes excitement we experience when encountering or thinking about our bodily fluids, viscera and waste. According to Kristeva, “It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”. What is perhaps most revealing about Kristeva's theories of abjection is the way in which it describes the oppression of women through the disavowal of the very fact and function of their bodies. It is the very fecundity of the female body that is treated as horrifyingly abject: menstrual blood, breast milk, the moistness of the vagina and the dark unknown of the womb.

In the work of Melanie Manchot, the display of an ageing body provokes a renegotiation of the visibility of bodily abjection in art. It is evidence of a subversive artistic gesture that turns the ugly and horrifying into its negation, a self-delighting positive representation of alternative femininity. In Obscene Abject Traumatic Hal Foster comments, “For the most part...abject art has tended in two other directions. The first to identify with the abject, to approach it somehow – to probe the wound of trauma, to touch the obscene object-gaze of the real”. In the case of Manchot's portraits, the trauma of the abject lays in the suppression of images of women in later life. He continues, “To be sure, the violated body is often the evidentiary basis of important witnessings to truth, of necessary testimonials against power”.

Exploring the effects of power on older women's sense of self, Chris Phillipson makes the point in Capitalism and the Construction of Old Age that, “Many of the problems women face are not in fact, due to the effects of physical ageing or to the shock of losing a partner, but to the restrictive opportunities available to them after they have performed productive/reproductive roles. These restrictions are compounded via the low income and sex role conditioning which women bring into old age”. This suggests that is not ageing itself that has stripped women of their own sense of self-delight, but the trauma of their treatment by society that strips them of status. After an interview with the subject/senior, Chris Townsend explained how Mrs Manchot developed her own sense of self-delight through exhibiting her body. At first she was apparently ashamed of her body, not wanting her face to be used in the pictures, wanting to distinguish her self from the effects of time and change upon her body. Townsend comments, "but after a year Mrs Manchot felt that she belonged in a new body, one in which she could take satisfaction. It wasn't that the body had changed, wasn't that through massive surgery or miracle cure that she was suddenly more youthful, thinner, more 'beautiful'. What had changed, because of the work, was the relationship between mind and body – instead of shame, there was dignity. What was ugly and asexual was recognised as having always been beautiful and erotic".

In Sitting and Posing,1997 (left) the expression on Mrs Manchot's face is one of real self-delight; the lighting shines brightly on her face as her eyes cast upwards in a gesture of pride and dignity, a strong feeling of pleasure shines out of her face. Her breasts and torso are visible but they are not the focus of the picture, it is her/our “face-to-face” we are drawn to, she is a subject we are encountering, and we share her delight.Val Williams says of Manchot that “her photographs are about portraiture, about relationships not only with the subject but with the medium of photography, about space and form, light, shade and surface. Through her use of an ageing woman as her principle subject has been controversial we should not mistake sitter for a symbol or the fantastical for the real”. However, I would suggest that William's formalist reading totally misses the phenomenological embodied experience the work is about, as apart from what they are about formally, they are also experientially about overcoming objectification and social and personal fears of uncontained boundaries of the abject aged body. This work is also about the subject's desire and our visual pleasure as well as a tactile appreciation and haptic sympathy with the works' subject. Our embodied reception of Manchot's photograph is close to the realm of the sublime, as they are not classically beautiful yet possess qualities that evoke awe, attraction and disquiet from its a close encounter with abjection: as Hal Foster hypothesises with respect to abject art in general, “it is as if this art wanted the gaze to shine, the object to stand, the real to exist, in all the glory (or the horror) of its pulsating desire, or at least to evoke the sublime condition.”

Part One: Art History and Ugliness: Bodily Abundance as Subversion
Part Two: Powers of Pleasure and Disgust, Jenny Saville

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Powers of Pleasure and Disgust: Jenny Saville (part 2)

My ongoing project has been interested in drawing parallels between images of the old and the corpulent female body, in making connections with the way they are received and experienced culturally, socially and phenomenologically. Although there are many such connections, there are also differences between age and corpulence. One of the major differences concerns control. Ageing is ultimately out of our control: we may use cosmetics or surgery to lessen the appearance of age, to put it on hold temporarily, but it remains an inevitability. Corpulence, on the other hand, is a relatively controllable bodily reality that can be repressed, prevented or avoided by asserting strict control over mind/body/lifestyle and diet.

As we see in the research of Susie-Orbach and Susan Bordo, gaining weight is one of the major fears among young women. Out of the two states of ageing and corpulence, it is corpulence that provokes the strongest reaction of repulsion and fear - while the display of the aged female body may be shocking and unnerving to some viewers, it does not provoke the same level of disgust as the presentation of corpulent nakedness. Joyce L. Huff's essay A “Horror of Corpulence” goes some way to explain the reasons for this: “the corpulent body was seen as particularly resistant to normalisation, because it was visibly individuated; it would not resolve itself into the supposedly universal body defined as average”. It is with this idea of rejecting the normalisation, in favour of radically different and challenging bodies in mind that a discussion of disgust can take place.

In her essay Jenny Saville and A Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust, Michelle Meager makes a connection between disgust and an ethical encounter with the image of the other, arguing that Saville's art of unknown bodies provokes knowledge of others' realities. Her argument is that disgust acts as a form of knowledge-gathering, in that it prompts the viewer to make thought-inquiries about the state of bodies' representations in art history as well as in culture and society. Meager suggests that “Saville presents bodies rarely appreciated in contemporary Western culture. In a cultural climate that encourages women to conceal, if not exercise, those parts of their bodies considered fat, jiggly, out of control, and excessive, Saville insists upon revealing precisely these features.” Continuing the theme of physical disgust as visual and moral injury, she writes: “The fat female body, laid bare on Saville's canvas, provides an opportunity to find out what disgusts, and what disgusted and disgusting bodies can do, and in short it offers the opportunity to pay attention to the visceral reminders of how we embody social contexts and cultural expectations”.

In Propped, 1992, (left) Saville presents the viewer with an image of the female form on a pedestal; the woman looks down at us as the great mass of her body towers precariously above us. This body does not fit the pedestal that women have been placed upon in the history of art and Western culture: she runs the risk of any moment falling/failing, the uncontrolled abundance of her body knocking her off its pedestal. Yet this image is actually still, she does not fall. It is an image full of paradoxes and contradictions, for despite the precariousness of this large body on a tiny stool, the composition is balanced and pleasingly symmetrical. All the full rounded parts of her body are displayed to full advantage, her breasts squashed together, her hands and fingers grasping at the generous flesh of her thighs and calves, yet this is combined with rather slender ankles with the thin traces of tendons running down from ankle to foot; this is then met by the hint of pointy white strappy shoes wrapped around the stool. This mixing of the excessive body out of bounds with the conventional beauty of dainty ankles in feminine shoes causes a stir: it is shocking as well as familiar. It also breaks with the conventions of the nude by showing a nude wearing outdoor shoes; this trope in fact has more in common with the styling of pornography in which women are often only wearing high-heeled shoes. This choice of keeping the shoes on does not however act like a pornographic fetish, but rather through this reference to sex inscribes the body as a sexual subject. But because this body on display is so unusual for both contemporary pornographic and art historical nudes, having the shoes kept on gives the body back a personality: it is the body of someone who walks about, wears and chooses shoes etc. Therefore she is not just a nude, not just a body on a pedestal, but a subject with agency.

Speaking of her choice to use usual corpulent bodies in her work, Saville comments: “We live in a time where that type of body is abhorrent. A body this size represents excess, lack of control, going beyond the boundary of what's socially acceptable. I wanted the paint itself to be kind of obese, to have a diseased quality to the the paint – a overabundance of paint on the surface”. Saville achieves quite a feat by both managing to give agency back to the owners of these corpulent bodies, and presenting them as aggressively challenging to look at. This yoking together of tenderness with disgust is a powerful mixture which makes her work difficult and confrontational.

It is by making the abundant flesh that is so taboo the main focus of her work that Saville makes her paintings so viscerally disquieting. They are also portraits of flesh itself, presenting the excessive and culturally undesirable as worthy of regard, pleasure and appreciation. It is also this very aspect which many viewers find disgusting. Mark Cousins explains our visceral relationship to the ugly as follows: “the case of the obsessional shows that the ugly object, in its relation to the subject, is not static but is always eating up the space between it and the subject". Applying this to the experience of a Saville painting, our spectatorial position can be seen as one of invasion: we have a sense of our personal space being intruded upon. Chris Townsend explains the phenomenological threat with which Saville's work confronts art viewers, noting that there is “in Saville's even larger paintings, an overwhelming figure of domination and threat. What was, what is, classified as abject, and perhaps pathetic returns as an object of horror and aggression that is barely limited by the glass. The sensation that these pictures give is that the screen is more there to protect the viewer, than imprison the subject-victim”. The glass here is that of the painting's frame; it is this that holds this body of abundance at a safe distance from the spectator. The horror of disgust is approached but we are protected from being overwhelmed by the corporeality of the real boundless body. This is an example of the sublime: we come close to being overwhelmed by something but are at a distance that allows for pleasure to arise from an encounter with the disgusting, free from real pollution.

In Savouring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, Carolyn Korsmeyer uses Kantian theories of the sublime to link the arousal of the feeling of disgust with that of the overwhelming negative pleasure of the sublime, both of which possess attributes of fear, fascination attraction and repulsion. But she then backtracks, unsure of her conjecture: “There is a reward for encountering terror if it results in the sublime, which is a transcendent experience well worth the pain of its achievement. But encounters with disgust do not seem to pay this kind of dividend, as its objects are base and foul – unworthy of our regard”. Yet, as suggested here, this is not always the case: the bodies considered in this project can be, and have been, described in terms of disgust, and yet also are very much “worthy of our regard”. As we have seen, feelings of disgust, appreciation and pleasure can be experienced simultaneously; indeed, such feelings are closer together than is often thought.

George Bataille suggests that transgressing the rules of Western morality and art history - rules that posit that bodies categorised as disgusting, abject or obscene can only be experienced negatively as morally or physically unpleasant – can provide a source of subversive pleasure; for Bataille, indeed, this transgression is the definition of Eros. In Eroticism he asserts: “Because beauty counts insofar as ugliness cannot be further sullied, and the essence of eroticism is filth itself...Beauty is desired in order that it may be fouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it”. Bataille's assertion then is that there is a strong element of pleasure and delight in the experience of the “disgusting” body. Korsmeyer's writing confirms this notion, “[D]isgust becomes part of deep aesthetic apprehension of difficult experiences, including some that might even qualify as beautiful – and even more surprisingly as delicious”. This also demonstrates the way a body that is thought of as ugly, or disgusting - not a body that is surface perfection and beauty, but a body that is a product and producer of abjection - shares an affinity with the murkiness of sexuality. This approach to the disgusting recasts the abundant body as an agent provocateur of visual pleasure and feminist desire.

Part One: Art History and Ugliness: Bodily Abundance as Subversion

Part Three: Abject Art and the Aged Body: Learning Self-Delight in the Photography of Melanie Manchot

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Art History and Ugliness: Bodily Abundance as Subversion (part 1)

One of the questions my research seeks to explore is how the supposedly ugly body can in fact produce delight, how “disgusting” and “repulsive” images of abjection can also be received with pleasure, and how the transgressive body can be subversive. I have proposed elsewhere that the viewing of the abundant body could effect an embodied sublime experience, combining uneasiness, disorientation and repulsion with aesthetic pleasure, with a sympathetic visual caress. What it is about the abundant body, what fears and horrors it stirs up, that produces such a transgressive sublime experience?

The abundant body is not classically beautiful; it has been more readily described in terms of the ugly. The quality of ugliness that images of such bodies possess comes from their transgression of boundaries, rules and norms. In their presentation of really lived and functioning bodies, that age, decay, seep, expand and swell, they positively subvert the notion of the body as a fixed stable and socially controlled entity - a notion that denies the reality of human existence as perpetual flux.

Beauty has held the same privileged position in art as it has in society, yet there have been instances where the trend for the beautiful has waned and artists as well as writers have turned their attention to depictions of the negation of beauty. During the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th century, there was a shift towards what Umberto Eco has termed “the redemption of ugliness”. Writers such as Victor Hugo, Matthew G. Lewis, and J.-K. Huysmans etc expressed fascination with, pleasure in and excitement about the repulsive and ugly. At this time, art was also taking up these themes; the Symbolists in particular were interested in the macabre, gruesome, grotesque and abject. Yet when women were depicted, it was in the guise of the hag, the wanton, the diseased prostitute and the femme-fatale of monstrous sexuality. Thus this turn towards the undesirable, this rejection of the beautiful, did not provide alternative ways of representing being for women, but rather revealed an inherent misogyny in the “redeemers” of the ugly.

My research is concerned with art works which attempt the negation of the negation of the Western beauty standard; with images that transcend the often misogynistic presentation of the ugly woman, through a subversive, transgressive representation of bodily abundance that could provoke delight and visual pleasure for all. First of all, however, we need to understand the negation itself: what is the ugly, what does it stand for, how do we receive it, and what does the avoidance of ugly images in art and visual culture ward against?

Contemporary art historians and aestheticians have attempted various theorisations of ugliness, linking it to the appearance of dirt, and abjection: the ugly is often described as being in the wrong place, an unwelcome presence that must be disavowed; as something to protected ourselves against, as if an encounter with the ugly could corrupt and infect. For example, Mark Cousins's essay The Ugly describes the ugly as, “an excess which comes to threaten the subject”. Similarly, in a catalogue essay on ugly art Nausea: Encounters with Ugliness, Mark Hutchinson hypothesises that, "Ugliness is close, threatening and exciting. Both obscene and fascinating, the ugly is a trope of contradiction and excess: it is too much...Ugliness is relentless. It threatens to dissolve distance. It is apocalyptic. In ugliness the subject sees the end of distinctions; the end of difference; the end of space; the end of time; the end of everything. As such, the ugly both threatens death and promises to fulfil utopian longing".

In these terms the ugly is framed in much the same way as the sublime, as an encounter with the horrifying-yet-fascinating that threatens as strongly as it attracts. As this is an ethical approach to how the ugly functions, it is worth thinking not just about how we may take pleasure from the encounter, but also about the wider issues of ways in which the ugly may possess subversive potential. As Cousins points out, “if ugliness is to become an object of inquiry, this inquiry will have to be conducted outside of the scope of aesthetics”. Therefore, theories of the ugly body also have to be thought about in reference to the context of cultural conditioning and the regulating powers of society.

Representations that show the workings of the body as viscerally abundant, that physically and metaphysically spill out of the confines of the ideal, neatly sealed, controlled body that visual culture asserts as the norm. As argued in the first chapter, the ideological norm of beauty holds that the beautiful is smooth, sealed and tight, such that any body falling short of these requirements is treated as ugly and in need of correction. In Vile Bodies, a study of photography and bodies received as ugly, freakish or grotesque, Chris Townsend proposes that the uncontrolled body holds great fascination for audiences, as it represents an aspect of the socially invisible, and the therefore unknown bodily realities of ageing and corpulence. He comments, “What a fascination the interior of the body holds for us! What a fear too. The human being is a paradox, simultaneously container and contained, a vessel that unless brim-full is meaningless. We are recognised, we derive our identity, from our surfaces”. The ugly body is not a sealed unit but rather a body of “seepage” (as described by Elizabeth Grosz): as the unknown insides of this body are not contained, its breaching of borders threatens our own. Townsend elaborates on this: “The threat that the ugly, abject condition poses to the maintenance of the category of the body means that it is always made the object of confinement and containment”.

The idea here is that images of the ugly or uncontrolled body tap into a human need to come to terms with our bodies as vulnerable constructions of flesh, blood, skin and organs, and that viewing this aspect of being is both frightful and fascinating. The display of bodies out of bounds firstly creates through vicarious voyeurism a visual pleasure in experiencing the novel, then secondly allows for knowledge-gathering by giving access through art to a bodily reality that the smooth, airbrushed bodies in the media deny. The ugly image forces the viewer to acknowledge issues surrounding the body that western culture in general is frightened by: to confront the fears of losing control of one's own bodily integrity, of ageing and finally of death itself.

Images of the “ugly” aged and corpulent body that deviates from idealised beauty, are confrontational: the viewer's reaction of fear and disgust reveals the way such bodies have been as socialised as “other”. In Ageing and Agency, Mike Hepworth states that, “The decaying body is one where the contained or 'boundedness' of the body breaks down and internal bodily secretions can no longer be contained within but leak out and contaminate the self of the sufferer and those around”. This expresses the way that Western culture is afraid of others' realities that are found to be undesirable: the fear of those viewing depictions of ageing bodies is that the decay of the old body will invade the viewer. Yet such images are important for this very reason: they force the viewer to take note, and give visibility back to older people.

As Celia Hartley states in Letting ourselves Go: Making Room for the Fat Body in Feminist Scholarship, in terms which apply equally to age and corpulence, “women who do not maintain rigid control over the boundaries of their bodies, allowing them to grow, to become large and 'unfeminine', are treated with derision in our society, that derision is tied inextricably to the personal freedom of women”. One would hope that when the old and young are treated with equal affection, desire and respect in art as in life, that the images of ageing female bodies would cease to be shocking, frightening or repellent and instead be seen as a different kind of beautiful.

Images: Jacqueline Hayden, Figure Model Series, 1991-1996.

Part Two: Powers of Pleasure and Disgust, Jenny Saville
Part Three: Abject Art and the Aged Body: Learning Self-Delight in the Photography of Melanie Manchot

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Woodland Romps in FORESTS by Calixto Bieito at the Barbican London

Calixto Bieto's Forest tonight at the Barbican was a wonderful production. "Composed from original verse from Shakespeare’s woodland and heath scenes, the play takes audiences from As You Like It's forest of Arden through the moving trees of Macbeth’s Birnam Wood, ending in the bare wilderness of King Lear’s cliffs of Dover: a vivid theatrical journey from the calmness of paradise to the uncertainties of purgatory and finally into the flames of hell". So, lots of saucy and sometimes violent romps around a wood, with plenty of undressing, putting on the clothes of the nearest person then swapping genders, rolling around in dirt, sons mistakenly killing fathers, fathers mistakenly killing their only sons, soliloquies on love, death, sex, greed, monstrosity...the usual fare. But what was really spectacular about this play was the set designs - enjoy the stills: