woensdag 15 december 2010

abject art

Orly nezer wrote an article on abject art and mentioned my installation Pieta 2010

The concept of Abject in art and the potential of ceramic art in the representation of “the other”.

The writing of the prologue for this article was made possible by a two-week trip to China’s pottery districts. The culinary generosity of our host at the Third conference of the International Ceramic Magazines Editors Association (Icmea), included the head of the roast duck with its eye gazing from the plate, spiced fingers of chicken, chopped meat served with bones, cartilage and skin, and trembling cubes of clotted blood.

What was for my dear Chinese friends daily, or delicatessen food, was, for me, suitable for photography but by no means perceived as appropriate for putting in my mouth.

What is the despicable and what is Abject?
Despicable: contemptible, despised, sleazy, groveling, worthless, wretched, snotty, slavish, menial, picayune. The despicable consists of those elements, especially of the body, which threaten to violate the feeling of cleanliness or adequacy, which are perceived as not pure and unworthy to be displayed, for a public debate: discharge, feces and urine, vomit, blood, internal body parts, corpse, incest or pedophilia.
The term “Abject” was developed by the philosopher Julia M. Kristeva in her book from 1980 “Powers of Horror:

An Essay in Abjection”. The concept of “Abject” indicates what was removed from the body as a discharge and was made “other”. Kristeva describes the “experience of being” as a dialectical experience, fraught with internal tensions that sexuality and fear control them in different ways. By doing so, she exposes the human conflict regarding the Abject: what came out of me is indeed despicable, but what came out of me was in me and so is part of who I am. Dealing with this conflict makes Abject the junction of the phobia, obsession and perversion. Religion has defined Abject as impurity that requires a complete set of prohibitions and purification ceremonies that take place in all religions and societies.

Abject Art
The roots of Abject Art are in the early twentieth century in the works of Surrealist artists. But only in the sixties, with the outbreak of feminine art, the despicable has received a significant place in artistic practice. That is since the female body functions in particular are despised by the patriarchal social order. The Abject undermines the identity, the system, and does not respect borders, positions and rules. Abject art practice is based on materials that are considered “low”. That is preoccupation with prohibited organs, disruption of patterns, fragmentation, penetration and voyeurism, Intertextuality, borrowing cultural and religious symbols, traumatic phrases, ritual performances, innovative and feminist theological interpretations. Expression of artists contains diverse aspects of cultural criticism: political, social, gender and religious.
In 1993 the Whitney Museum, New York, staged an exhibition titled Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art, which made the term known in the art world.

The Despicable that leech on the beauty

Ceramics represents something very domestic, and ceramic works that deal with Abject, abuse an innocent approach to ceramics which is usually associated with beauty and visual pleasure. The figurine, for example, is a fertile ground to show various aspects of the Abject, taking advantage of the expectation from the figurine to show a daily pleasant situation. Justin Novak in his work “Disfigurine Number 47″ is riding on the viewer’s complacency when watching a porcelain figurine, and undermines the sense of comfort with a surprising image of a girl stitching her own skin. The practice of “the despicable” with the starting point of the ceramics’ stereotype of beauty is found in the work of Grayson Perry, winner of the 2009 British Turner Prize for art. Perry creates vases with a classic look, but when examined closely we reveal scenes of pedophilia, masturbation and abuse of children. Another approach would be not through the narrative as it appears in the figurines or image on vases, but by creating objects that produce that kind of contexts that creates, in the viewer, a sense of threat or alarm. Artist Juz kitson suggests in her 2010 series “Just a few Temptations” the troubling connection between Abject and beauty, by entering the viewers to a distorted world made of beautiful and at the same time repelling fleshy bits.

The container of the despicable

A powerful starting point for dealing with the Abject is the container, and the function of containment of the despicable. Ceramics is used in this case as a metaphor for the body containing the Abject or, alternatively, as a receptacle for the despicable removed from the body. That is, if I can’t contain it, the ceramics container can (or will!). Marek Cecula’s hygiene series simulates a containing body on the one hand, but on the other is engaged with pouring, drainage or containment of fluids, saliva, urine, feces or blood that were removed from the body. On the same time resonates hygiene of hospitals, with all its deterring context. Artist Kim Dickey in her “Lady D Series” 1996 has created a series of beautiful funnels for the use of women standing while urinating.

The despicable among the technique
In the craft that is technique and skill-based we find visual expressions of the despicable among the technique itself. A good example is the works of the “Mad Potter” George Ohr (1857-1918), who worked in the middle of the 19th century. Times when appreciated potters were expected to demonstrate work that testify an outstanding control in technique. His body of work has been despised and rejected by his colleagues, but today is considered the most radical of his time.
Looking for the despicable among the technique itself, invites a new and fascinating reading of ceramic works. For instance exposing the presence of the despicable in the destructive actions of the artist, who does not respect rules and techniques and creates distortions and cracks. Artist Birgit Saupe in here work “Sheep” 2010 combines her interest with the abnormal and the dark side of science while ignoring technical codes and challenging the technology of ceramics.

Artist Wilma Bosland in her series “Pieta” 2010 is dealing with the universal bereavement and the temporariness of the body through using the moist and plastic stage of the clay, when clay still looks organic and fleshy. Bosland stretches as far as possible the plasticity of the clay and causes its failure. The work was tossed away at the end of the exhibition.

I recall another direction of taking the technology of ceramics as a starting point to engage with despicable or inappropriate. It was in the exhibition at the Israeli art school (Hamidrasha) in 2009 in where the student Idit Bar-Tal has introduced a series of preliminary work on the wheel which she marked with the different percentages of grog component in the clay mixture. This action aroused in me
thoughts on the human components and of the degree of its adequacy.

Cracks, unwanted leakage of glazing, distortion due to “memory of the clay”, mistakes while working with molds, all could be considered despicable in certain periods. But certainly not today, when “anything goes”, even with ceramics. So what can be an expression of Abject today? The despicable is cultural originated and in contemporary time it is a subjective idea. That is, the perception of the viewer is what makes it despicable. We also realize that once the despicable is handled by art it stops being so. That is, inside the walls of the gallery we stopped being agitated when we come across a work dealing with sexual identity, urine and blood. On the contrary, I can see how despicable could be found in the preoccupation with elderly, radical or traditional communities in a world that is at its edge of tolerance. Or, what about ceramics in the art world? In this context, ceramics has a great potential in representing the “other”. It was said already that art is a language, and ceramics is a dialect. To date, if we place pottery on the side of art, ceramics is “the other” (not to say Abject!). If so, imagine a vase in an exhibition of contemporary art: how much energy of “the outsider” it can be charged with.


Dewald, Gabi, “No Title”, think Thank, 6th Edition 2009

Kristeva,M., Julia, “Powers of Horror:

An Essay in Abjection”, 1980, Columbia University press, NY.
for illustration see the link