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

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