Senga Nengudi, RSVP (1975).

Nengudi is a Chicago born artist that deals with the abject in a multitude of ways. Firstly, she discusses on her website that she specifically uses the discarded and the commonplace,  dirt and refuse. She states, “
To shape shift paradigms I find different ways to use materials others consider useless or insignificant providing proof that the disregarded and disenfranchised may also have the resilience and reformative ability to find their poetic selves”. This in itself is abject, the use of the discarded, the reification and enshrinement of refuse; taking that which has been excluded and arguing for it’s importance, its power, its necessity.


In the image below from RSVP,  the work is recognizable as pantyhose, stretched, filled, and closed off, their crotches splayed to the world. This is abject through the emphasis on the site of female difference, where the mother as monster begins, the assummedly mutilated and castrated female genitals. There is a lovely slippage into ambiguity that happens in this work, where the panty hose, coded as female, their crotches thrust out, transform into a scrotal form, becoming hybrid and hermaphroditic.  That ambiguity is the realm of the abject.


For more on Senga Nengudi:



Mirror Neurons and the King of Abjection-Damien Hirst #4


A reminder of Hirst”s tank work, A Thousand Years.

My previous post on the science of mirror neurons and the role of kinesthetic or tactile empathy acts as a bit of a prelude to this discussion of Damien Hirst’s two tank pieces which I first introduced in an earlier post, A Thousand Years and Let’s Eat Outdoors Today. I discussed how these installations become abject primarily through their associations with food and rot, but also through their inclusion of death. While these are compelling enough reasons to see the work as abject, to truly understand all of the abject and disgust mechanics at work within these two pieces, I find it necessary to also engage with the idea of tactile empathy put forth in Rokonitz. As explained previously, when we see a purposeful action, the same part of our brain activates as if we ourselves were doing that action. This sympathetic bodily response can, according to Rokonitz, help to understand disgust in works of art. Disgust has already been well established as a knee-jerk reaction being closely linked to the body. It has even at times been understood as a biomechanical or a physiological reflex, a protection mechanism that is beyond the control of our conscious mind. Thus to see someone who is disgusted is to be disgusted, but what happens when we know we should be disgusted, but the actions our brains’ are connecting with are not about disgust?

A fly not unlike those in Hirst's work.

A fly not unlike those in Hirst’s work.

The role of disgust and how Hirst’s works engage with the abject changes in light of Rokonitz’s work. The viewer of these tanks watches as flies consume the head of a cow. This means that parts of our brain that are engaged for eating are stimulated when watching these creatures. Simply seeing rotten food or the corpse of the cow may not trigger mirror neurons, as seeing objects alone do not cause the neurons to fire in the same way as seeing action. The corpse alone may simply be disgusting. However, seeing the flies’ touch, crawl over, and ingest both the cow and the picnic should cause a paradoxical response in the viewer, a paradox that may be akin to the abject. The abject is the jettisoned that haunts from the periphery, that which we want to be rid of, but need so that we can enact the threat to the ego and the exclusion that reaffirms the ego over and over. This makes the abject paradoxically desirable and undesirable; the ultimate foreign object, but also an intimate piece in the creation of self. Similarly, having part of our brains go off as if we eating in presence of rotted food is paradoxical. By all rights, our brains should view these tanks as threats and we should reject them. However, rejection is not the only thing that happens in the presence of Hirst’s art.

Another of Hirst's works, a skull covered in death flies.  I would say that this piece may be abject because of it's association with death and disgust, but does not engage in the same type of mitigation through tactile empathy that the works that involve live flies do.

Another of Hirst’s works, a skull covered in dead flies. I would say that this piece may be abject because of it’s association with death and disgust, but does not engage in the same type of mitigation through tactile empathy that the works that involve live flies do.

I argue that part of the mitigation of disgust that happens is through our mirror neuron responses to the flies who rather than representing death, actually offer an antidote to that death in their lively flitting, crawling, eating, and most interestingly copulating and birthing, in the tanks. These works act as small eco-systems that very intentionally provide their inhabitants with sustenance, as well as a means of death, the fly zapper. But in the interim, the life cycle of the fly is lived out in the tank, including the laying and hatching of maggots in the rotted food and carcass. As we watch the flies go about their lives, our own bodies are implicated in their activities.

I believe that a similar type of tactile empathy is why we often oggle at animals at zoo’s who are engaged in less that wholesome activities. While sex is of course perfectly natural, it becomes a spectacle because we are both attracted to it as the sex centers of our brains are being stimulated, but must also reject it to appear normal in public. That rejection often comes in the form of a joke or laugh.

I believe that a similar type of tactile empathy is why we often oggle at animals at zoo’s who are engaged in less that wholesome activities. While sex is of course perfectly natural, it becomes a spectacle because we are both attracted to it as the sex centers of our brains are being stimulated, but must also reject it to appear normal in public. That rejection often comes in the form of a joke or laugh.

This is the paradox of rot, what appears to be dead or dying, is actually full of life, albeit microbic life. This overabundance of life where it should not be is itself disgusting, however, watching life, an action with intention, also stimulates our mirror neurons, firing up an empathetic response in our brains. I believe that this mirror neuron triggered empathy with that which is disgusting but also something more, is one of the hallmarks of the abject. Empathy in the face of threat is the push-pull desire to flee, but to also linger a moment and watch. Rather than the radically excluded that returns, I speculate the abject is that which we ought to, according to rational processes, exclude, but cannot quite jettison. Part of the reason we cannot jettison the abject, or Hirst’s tanks, is because while being disgusted we are also empathetically invested in what is happening, in the life that seems to ooze or burrow its way out of the death in front of us.

The absolutely least disgusting image of maggots I could find.

The absolutely least disgusting image of maggots I could find.

Queering Waste Through Camp

Not quite abjection but close, from my new found field, Discard Studies.

Discard Studies

By Guy Schaffer
This post is part of the Discard Studies Compendium

Toilet Glitter. Photo by author.

Like queer theory, discard studies is interested in uneven remainders, things that don’t fit neatly into categories. Both concern themselves with the strange and imperfect construction of divisions (in discard studies, that between waste and not-waste; in queer theory, those between hetero/homosexual, between male and female) that do violence to humans, cultures, and environments, while still attending to the fact that these divisions have meaning for people, that they are strategic, and that they structure our thought in ways that are almost impossible to escape.

As a mode of thinking through and beyond and before binaries, or perhaps of thinking binaries promiscuously, queer theory is indispensable to the study of disposal. In particular, the merits of camp as a queer mode of reading trash can blur and transgress and cover in glitter those boundaries between waste and…

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Abjection: A definition for discard studies

Wow! Take a look at this amazing find! Abjection at the intersection of Discard Studies. I must humbly admit, I am unfamiliar with Discard Studies, but I think I may have found a new interest.

Discard Studies

Art by Loren Crabbe, from the series “Purging Abjection.” Art by Loren Crabbe, from the series “Purging Abjection.”

By Mohammed Rafi Arefin
This post is part of the Discard Studies Compendium

Abjection describes a social and psychological process by which things like garbage, sewage, corpses and rotting food elicit powerful emotional responses like horror and disgust. While abjection theory has been used in various ways across the social sciences and humanities, it emerges from the psychoanalytic work of Julia Kristeva.

Drawing on a seminal text in Discard Studies, Mary Douglas’Purity and Danger (1966), Julia Kristeva’s foundational book The Powers of Horror(1982) develops the theory of abjection through literary, psychoanalytic, and anthropological works. Furthering the insight of Douglas that dirt is not an essential characteristic of objects but is produced through its ambiguity and its subsequent inability to be assimilated into existing socio-cultural categories and systems, Kristeva explains how the constant process of keeping the…

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Mirror Neurons & Empathetic Disgust


The concept of tactile empathy and its ties to disgust are explained in depth by Naomi Rokotnitz (2008) in her article “Too far gone in disgust”: Mirror Neurons and the Manipulation of Embodied Responses in The Libertine. Rokotnitz’s analysis of the ways in which the audience is physically moved to disgust in the play and movie The Libertine is embedded in contemporary cognitive neurological research that argues that experiential understanding is predicated on the activation of the mirror neurons system.

Mirror neurons are predicated on actions between a biological agent and an object, simply seeing a cup will not trigger mirror neurons, but seeing someone reach for a cup or interact with one will. Random gestures fail to trigger mirror neurons, but intentional actions, even when the object, say the cup, is hidden from view, will trigger mirror neurons. Mirror Neurons are activated when a meaningful activity is perceived in person, in video, even in paintings, and the same part of the brain that activates when actually doing the activity lights up during an FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Image) upon just seeing the activity. Mirror Neurons have supposedly two functions; they allow us to understand the actions of others and explain our ability to learn through imitation. Most of the research into mirror neurons has been done with primates, but there is evidence to suggest that mirror neurons exist similarly in humans.

The study of mirror neurons has drawn attention in the arts through a link to empathy, as empathy at its core allows identification with other individuals and groups. Empathy is predicated on understanding actions. As mirror neurons allow us to perceive with the motor system, or understand not through an analysis but through a sympathetic reaction in the pre-motor cortex of the brain, we experience an “embodied simulation” (Gallese, 2006) that “allows our body to resonate along with the bodies of others”.

This means that we share a bodily knowledge with those moving around us, which relates to kinesthetic empathy, or the sensation that we are somehow participating when we watch movement. Our bodies, at least in part through mirror neurons, allow us to respond physically to art. This has been discussed at length in the performing arts (see Watching Dance), but is applicable to images, as well. For example, seeing Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, we are not simply intellectually responding to the idea of a sad figure, or even emotionally to both the figure and the color schema, but are bodies are sharing in what it feels like to sit in such a deject and hopeless state.


The Old Guitarist (1903).

The cleverness of Rokotnitz’s work is to take these ideas, which have mostly been applied to pleasant or athletic images, and applies them to disgust. It has been well established that disgust impacts the body more directly than some other emotions, specifically implicating the digestive system. Tactile empathy, or our brains ability to transform visual input that deals with both motion and touch into a sympathetic neural motor response in our own bodies means that to see someone interacting with disgust is to feel what that person is feeling. While little work has been done on the specific of tactile empathy in relationship to disgust, what has been suggested, is that this explains the knee-jerk visceral reaction to disgusting images. This seems to be a generative field in that empathy could also explain our prolonged engagement with disgusting things that should cause us to flee, as we pause in an embodied simulation of what it means to feel sickened or reviled.

Johnny Depp as the Earl of  Rochester, John Wilmot, in The Libertine (2004).

Johnny Depp as the Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, in The Libertine (2004).

Gallese, V. (2006, March 24). Lecture at the Forum on Art and the New Biology of Mind. Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University, New York, NY. Available as an online video at

See RSA Animate: The Empathetic Civilization 

Suggested Readings:

Rokotnitz, N. (2008). “Too far gone in disgust”: Mirror neurons and the manipulation of

embodied responses in The Libertine. Configurations, 16(3), 399-426.

Rizzolatti, G. & Craighero, L. (2004). The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of

            Neurosceince, 27, 169-192.

Jeffers, C. (2009). On empathy: The mirror neuron system and art education.

International Journal of Education & the Arts, 10(15), 1-17.

Damien Hirst – Grand High Priest of the Abject #3: Meat

There are two of Hirst’s “tank” series that seems to hover closer to true abjection, as the works stimulate more disgust through the use of live animals and sensory information beyond sight. Most of Hirst’s works functions primarily on the sense of vision, they, like most works of art created in our scopophilic world, are designed foremost to be seen. Yes, one could touch the glass, and there maybe the faint smell of chemicals or death, like that found in natural history museums, but the works are primarily oriented towards vision. However, his works A Thousand Years and Let’s Eat Outdoors Today both function differently that the other “tank” works because of their use of the senses and through their reliance on tactile empathy. A Thousand Years is a tank work, however, rather than being filled with dead animals and preservative fluids, the tank holds live flies, a decapitated cows head, and a bug zapper. A time dependent piece, the work features the life cycle of the flies as they eat the cow’s head slowly defleshing it, lay their eggs in it, which become maggots and eventually new flies, and then eventually fly into the bug zapper, where they themselves die and drop to the floor with the cows head. The work becomes a type of vulgar closed ecosystem, where the rotting flesh gives birth to new life. Let’s Eat Outdoors Today is another tank, this one set for a picnic with chairs, table, and foodstuffs, but also overwhelmed by flies that have hatched from maggots that were originally contained within a steel barbecue in the tank, a clear reference to the disgust attached to food stuffs past their prime.

RA_DamienHirst    Hirst

The first sense beyond sight that both of these works engage in, and is particularly tied to the abject, is taste and eating. Kristeva notes that some of our earliest experiences with abjection have to do with food prohibitions. She famously linked the spitting out of slightly soured milk that is offered by our parents to the spitting out of, or formation of, our own egos. The works strongly reference food, both in the cow’s head and the picnic stuffs, but also in the flies and maggots who are consuming in from of our eyes, it implicates our sense of taste. The works present a scene that if encountered in another space, might call for the heaving of our guts to try and expel the fictional ingestion that has occurred when we see disgusting things like rotted food and carcasses. The strong link between carcasses and food, a fact we ignore and push away to maintain our clean and proper selves, is made explicit here.


We eat dead things to stay alive; things that, even if chilled and kept “safe”, have begun to decompose. The eating of dead things seems as if it would violate a number of taboos surrounding both death and food. However, since it has for most of human history been necessary to consume dead animals to stay alive, we have found ways of coping with this paradox. We cope by turning the dead animal into chunks of flesh that do not resemble the former being they constituted. Or by preserving meat in a number of ways that both literally and figuratively and literally preserves the meat (smoking something into jerky both literally preserves it and also distances it visually and tactilely from the animal it once was). Even the packaging of meat in clean, often white, plastics that give the flesh the appearance of having always been hermetically sealed, helps to distance it from it’s messy origins in the farm yard and its time in the butchers. However, these dead things remind us not only of our own eventually demise, but that our life is predicated on the demise of many other beings, from the animals we eat to the bugs we squash to maintain our comfort. Moreover, we actually enjoy the deaths of other creatures, or at least find them productive, because their demise gives us the opportunity to contemplate and reject death, a process that re-establishes and firms up the borders of our own egos.

A visitor views

For a cultural and feminist analysis of meat, see Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat.

Damien Hirst: Grand High Priest of the Abject #2

With this rather long divergence from Hirst work explaining the role of mitigation in the abject, I return to Hirst’s works themselves to look at the ways that they monopolize on mitigating discourses. First of all they are deeply embedded in the scientific.

TOPSHOTS A woman looks at a creation by British artist Damien Hirst entitled 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991' during the opening of his solo exhibition showcasing work spanning over two decades at the Tate Modern in central London on April 2, 2012. AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images) ORG XMIT:

A woman looks at a creation by British artist Damien Hirst entitled ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991’ during the opening of his solo exhibition showcasing work spanning over two decades at the Tate Modern in central London on April 2, 2012. AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images) ORG XMIT:

One expects to see taxidermy in a natural history or medical museum, but not so much in an art museum. However, by having works like The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living replicate the common forms of these scientific investigations, the work suspends disgust by pausing death in the pursuit of science. Hirst’s formaldehyde tanks act as a protective agent, a shield against the corpse inside. Like resin-encased tarantulas, they allow us access to that which scares and offends without any fear on contamination. Even when Hirst’s works become more narrative and less antiseptic, like his formaldehyde encased calf, Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, the discourse of religion acts as a mitigating factor, enabling the dead beast and resigning him up like as a martyr, albeit it perhaps a martyr to our own hunger for factory farmed flesh. My favorite of these works is entitled, This Little Piggy*, an obvious reference to the children’s rhyme, which features a pig split in half down the middle and preserved in two separate tanks offset so that the animals internal systems are laid bare.**


This Little Piggy.


While many discuss the critique of the meat industry in regards to works such as these, what I find striking is the way in which both the cleansing discourse of childhood, seen in the innocent nursery rhyme helps to lessen the blow of the dissection. Also, the fact it is a dissection, precise and well preserved, still signals the presence of scientific discourse. It’s worth noting that the scientific discourse that these works reference has at it’s heart the same origins as that of the fine art museum; the Wunder Kammen. Wunder Kammen’s were collections of curiosities, which included fine art, as well as craft items, and natural wonders brought back from trading missions from afar. These collections were supported by scientific discourse of discovery, but also religious discourses of manifest destiny, memento mori, and divine omnipresence. The collection of natural wonders not involved the cataloguing of wonders for the progress of human knowledge, but also acted as a ledger of the greatness of God, in all of his magnificent and strange creations. Hirst’s “tank” pieces all alluded to both science and religion, while creating a modern day cabinet of curiosities, which in itself is a conflation of the divine and the scientific, the artful and the systematic. These circulating discourses, as well as the very real material presence of glass and antiseptic, protect us from the sheer rejection that encountering a dead animal might cause in other situations. These mitigations allow us to be present to and contemplate our reactions to these works which still involved disgust, but disgust in such an alleviate form that we can override our knee-jerk, embodied, even evolutionary drives to get away and flee.

The Artist and His Museum. Charles Peale, 1822.

The Artist and His Museum. Charles Peale, 1822.

Continue reading

Damien Hirst- Grand High Priest of the Abject. (#1)

damien-hirst-skulls-620 Damien Hirst is as household of a name as any contemporary artist could hope to be. Coming to prominence in the late 90’s and early 00’s, Hirst has been one of the most lauded and most controversial of the YBAs (Young British Artists). If one does not know Hirst by name, then you are probably familiar with his infamous formaldehyde tanks and, in particular, a full-grown adult Tiger Shark (See Thompson, The $12 Millions Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art). Hirst’s work runs the gambit of the abject from the aforementioned wet specimens, to the butterfly paintings (a riff on the Victorian craft practice of layering and arranging butterfly wings in pleasing compositions), to the cut away anatomical sculptures like Virgin Mary. Nearly all of his works engage with the abject in one form or another, from their embrace of the body laid open, to their use of dead and even mutilated animal bodies, to the intentional (and unintentional) use of rot in his work. However, what interests me is not just to use of disgusting elements, but the ways in which Hirst has refused the complete circuit of disgust and has instead created the abject in his work. Allow me to pause and explain disgust versus abjection. Disgust, while it is layered and occurs in different degrees, is meant to exclude or reject something from the body. Evolutionarily, this is thought to be a protective system against pathogenic harm. Bad smells or unpleasant tastes often signaled poison or rot, which could cause sickness. The very face we make when disgusted, the scrunched nose, open vomit-ready mouth, and narrowed eyes are thought to be protection against any further ingestion of contaminated substances. The ultimate goal of disgust is to cause a bodily reaction in the digestive system that causes us to purge. For example, body scans have shown that when one is exposed to disgusting images the digestive system of the body, from the mouth down through the stomach, responds the most strongly, lighting up brightly on the scan. Disgust wants us to reject the offending substance, image, or material and a completed circuit of disgust ends in the radical and complete rejection of that which is disgusting. The abject, however, differs in that there is a haunting or a return of that which has disgusted us. While Kristeva calls abjection a radical jettisoning, the abject is placed on the periphery where it haunts, returning to menace us. It is not actually excluded, not entirely. The abject returns and then fascinates, or calls out to us, for a number of reasons. Kristeva discusses the abject as being to similar to the self to radically exclude. For example, shit fascinates because it comes from our own bodies, is literally pressed into the shape of our intestines, and is filled with our own dead cells. It is too familiar, too much like us, to simply throw away. Butler discusses the fascination and return of the abject as linked to the objects role in the construction of the norm. She cites the homosexual body as the abdicated other to the heterosexual body and the need for the homosexual’s existence as an opposite from which to construct the heterosexual body. Kristeva notes that the discourses of science and religion mitigate the abject; because both rationalize death and the corpse as productive and non-threatening because either it is a research subject or it is a shell from which the soul has already ascended. While explains that these discourses mitigate the abject, I believe what she is trying to say is that these discourses mitigate disgust and cause the abject.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 02:  Members of the public view artwork by Damien Hirst entitled 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' in the Tate Modern art gallery on April 2, 2012 in London, England. The Tate Modern is displaying the first major exhibition of Damien Hirst's artworks in the UK, the collection brings together over 70 of Hirst's works spanning three decades. The exhibition opens to the general public on April 4, 2012 and runs until September 9, 2012.  (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND – APRIL 02: Members of the public view artwork by Damien Hirst entitled ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ in the Tate Modern art gallery on April 2, 2012 in London, England. The Tate Modern is displaying the first major exhibition of Damien Hirst’s artworks in the UK, the collection brings together over 70 of Hirst’s works spanning three decades. The exhibition opens to the general public on April 4, 2012 and runs until September 9, 2012. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Take for instance, a corpse at a funeral. It is not that the corpse is no longer disconcerting, it’s plastic life less face is. Nor is it that the corpse at a funeral doesn’t remind us of our own deaths, it does. The corpse at a funeral home is a major trope of the horror genre because of its uncanny status, the fact that it is lifelike enough to fool the viewer into thinking it has moved. Remember that the abject is the ultimate uncanny, thus the uncanny cadaver is also abject. In fact, the corpse at home mortuary is more abject in some ways than a rotting corpse because of the interventions of science and religion. Science has preserved the corpse, removing anything that could rot and replacing its blood with blaming fluid. Religion has assured us that the corpse is just a shell and that our loved ones reside in the pillowy clouds of heaven, not in the corpse before us. This mitigation of disgust through the retardation of rot and the comfort that the individual is not longer present, that the corpse is just an object, not a subject or even an abject, allows for contemplation. The mitigation of disgust does not obliterate disgust, corpses are still disgusting, but it does allow for the accompanying fascination or return that is characteristic of the abject. If the corpse were truly rotted, we would be overwhelmed, we would have to radically exclude the disgusting object and complete the circuit of disgust through exclusion. However, an incomplete exclusion, where the offending object is rejected but returns, fascinating the viewer, drawing them in, appealing to them in a paradoxical moment of pleasure in discomfort, that is the abject. Furthermore, science and religion have not mitigated abjection, they have mitigated disgust and opened the door for abjection. This of course assumes degrees to abjection, just as there are degrees to disgust, and preferences a type of abjection that is more mitigated, which then allows for more contemplation, more interaction with and fascination at the abjected. This is the type of abject that the visual arts deal with in general. If the visual arts dealt with radical abjection, abjection that was a fine hair away from outright disgust, the works would fail because no one could tolerate looking at them or engaging with them. Rather most abject art is a type of stage performance of abjection, a reference to the full-bodied rejection that encountering disgust outside of the mitigating discourses of art, represented by the white walls of the gallery.

More on Hirst and his work to follow…


Damien Hirst. (

Thompson,  The $12 Million Stuffed Shark.  (

Why is there an anatomical model on an abject art blog?

The image on the header of this blog is an anatomical model from La Specola, the zoological and natural history museum in Florence.  It is a wax model of the muscular and nervous system, where the skin of the body has been stripped away.  La Specola was founded in 1790 and this piece was created by the artist Clemente Susini, who was renowned for his anatomical wax sculptures.  Dating from an era before the plastination process of later artists/anatomists like Gunther von Hagens, these works were intended to teach doctors and scholars, when bodies were not always available due to both religious reasons, as well as an inability to refrigerate corpses.  The scientific context of these pieces could in many ways dissipate or counter the initial abjection that images of the body wihtout borders causes.  The abject is most prominent in the corpse, particularly seen outside of science and religion, according to Kristeva,  Science can act as a mitigating discourse that lessens the sense fo the uncanny and the abject that is attached to the cadaver. However, I am interested in the intervention of the discourse of art in these works.  These are not simple anatomical models, rather they are posed as classical sculpture, the figure propped up on one arm, knee bent,  while his free arm bends gracefully up and towards the figures chest.  This is not the flat un-animated body of a cadaver, rather, this body is in motion, in tension, and posed artfully. The discourses of art at this time are focused on beauty.  Arnoldian aesthetics argue for the exclusion of everything that is not uplifting.  Art must be about sweetness and light.  Kantian aesthetics may acknowledge the existence of disgust, but denigrates anything that is not either beautiful or awe-filled, like the sublime, which while terrible, is also uplifting in its experience of the divine through beauty or through awe and terror.  Sculpture in particular is seen to avoid disgust and debasement because of its replication of life in three dimensions.

It’s not hard to see how these anatomical waxes are disgusting; the body is left open, its protection from the world and pathogens is discarded.  The fabrics that it lays on should seep with blood from his open body. The crossing of borders, bringing the inside out, is a taboo associated with the abject’s concern for both rules and space.  Moreover, the presence of bodily fluids are also disgusting because they point to a breach in the body.  If we were to encounter a body mangled like this out in the world, we would be horrified. I argue that we would be so horrified, that we would in fact reject the body, completing the cycle of disgust in radical exclusion. The abject may be exclusion, but it is never complete, it haunts from the edges.  The corpse may be the most abject object according to Kristeva because it haunts us long after the sight of it with the lingering reminder that we too will die, disintegrate, and end. But other objects that reference or depict the ultimate abjection, also create an abject response, one that is perhaps less radical, but more haunting because they can be approached more fully.  Kristeva’s is a sidelong glance, objects that depict the abject allow for a full bodied stare.  What allows for a full bodied look?  The intervention of art.  While part of it is the sheer fact that this is a model and not an actual cadaver, and part of what allows the look is the context that this is in a scientific museum.  But another, important part of what invites the look is the artist’s intervention, the seemingly paradoxical inclusion of beauty.  The reference to neoclassical sculpture, the pose, the inclusion of cloth underneath the figures with provide the bodies with a human and artistic context all allow and even encourage an engagement with that which depicts disgust and is in many ways disgusting. The longer, more sustained engagement with these objects then allows for a greater kinesthetic and empathic connection with the works, allowing the abject greater time to impact the viewer, and return to haunt now and later.

While these works are not art, per se, they do what I believe all great abject art does, allow for a mitigated experience of the abject, which does not fully overwhelm like the sublime or the real, because of its subdued form.  Abject in its purest form runs the risk of simply becoming disgusting, of completing a full circuit in which the offending object is totally, radically, excluded.  When art intervenes in the abject, it mollifies the extremeness, and encourages a haunting, a return, that is far more troubling and long lasting in its impact that something which is purely rejected.   Part of the abject’s attachment to the liminal stems from its paradoxical nature, that one both wants to look and wants to turn away.  Kristen calls this fascinated victimhood: one wants to run or turn away but cannot. Something needs to maintain the victims fascination, some of which is captivation is the obscene pleasure in being reminded of everything we thrust away so that we can go about our lives without perpetual crisis. The pleasure is a catharsis that comes from embracing the return.  However, things can facilitate that catharsis, and abject visuals, both from the art world and the larger context of visual culture can do just that.


For more on La Specola: Encyclopedia Anatomica

Clemente Susini

Museums like La Specola – Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads

Eva Hesse- Abject Materialities

I think its very easy to read the content of Hesse’s work as abject, the first work looks like egg sacks (the monstrous maternal), pendulous breasts (female, monstrous and aged), or droplets of spittle, perhaps sweat or seminal fluids.  In the second work, the piece is reminiscent of intestines, like sausage casings before the meat is inserted, separated from the body and hung like a web (a nod to the monstrous but generative figure of spider woman?) or some sort of tangle yarn, where craft symbolizes the feminine, the debased and the lesser.  Perhaps the viewer has  wandered into the farm house of Ed Geins, not a gallery. In the final work, the sculpture seems to represent overly elongated limbs on faceless torsos, maybe sagging scrotums or other lumps of flesh hanging and pooling on the floor.


However, what fascinates me in Hesse’s work is the materiality and its links to the abject.

In the third image, Hesse again references the body turned inside out. The masses of cordage overwhelm with a kind of frenetic chaos that references intestines again. Or are they giant hair balls?  Perhaps the masses are the nervous system, the intricate and massive system of synapsis, arteries and veins, pulled out of the body and put on display like messy versions of Gunther van Hagen’s plastinated arterial systems.


Moreover, the literal materiality of the works speak to the heart of the abject, the cadaver.  Hesse’s work  performs the ultimate abjection as her world is literally disintegrating, aging and dying before our eyes.  Many of the materials, like latex, are not stable, they degrade at a rapid rate, at least rapid in the context of the art world which fetishizes works that are hundreds of years old.  Hesse’s works, while only a few decades old, are deteriorating; the latex is breaking down, the elasticity that held her works up in and in tension is sagging as the fibers rot and break.  The body is often conflated with texts, and texts with the body.  Hesse’s “texts” are aging just as the body does, heading towards their eventual dematerialization. As the abject is that which must be rejected and jettisoned to maintain the clean and proper, to create the stable ego, death is the ultimate abject.  Death is what we must perpetually deny to continue to function in the world. However, as the abject can never truly be radically rejected, since it always haunts us from the edge of our periphery, death is never truly gone from out consciousness. Hesse’s works perform the abjects return.  Art is understood as timeless, lasting far longer that its creators.  It is the dead speaking to us from the past, a source of perpetual life for those voices.  Yet, Hesse’s work demonstrates that art, like everything else, including ourselves, will eventually cease to exist.

For more on Hesse:

Eva Hesse by Lucy Lippard (