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.
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. (http://www.damienhirst.com/)
Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. (http://www.amazon.com/Million-Stuffed-Shark-Economics-Contemporary/dp/0230620590/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1431917257&sr=8-1&keywords=the+12+million+stuffed+shark+the+curious+economics+of+contemporary+art)