Grey Matters

15 October 2017

Listen to Liz read ‘Grey Matters’

I vividly remember the first time I saw Piss Christ. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an artwork by Andres Serrano, formally titled Immersion (Piss Christ) and consists of a photograph of a crucifix immersed in a deep yellow liquid. It’s a confronting image, not only because of its explicit religious connection, but because the title forces us to confront the fact that we’re looking at a lot of urine (in which Christ appears to be literally hanging out). Upon this realisation, most people, myself included, had a little cringe of disgust. That’s piss? The warm, radiant light surrounding our Lord and Saviour, deepening to an amberish reddish glow? Ew.

Not that I’m religious. I think my response in that case would have been more along the lines of ‘Blasphemy!’ But there was something instinctively disgusting about looking at so much urine collected in one space. Indeed, for me, the crucifix became secondary; I was consumed by my revulsion for what seemed to me to be an inordinately large amount of piss. But why? It’s a natural waste product produced by the body. Indeed, produced by my own body, the voiding of which is an integral part of keeping me healthy. But collectively we have an instinctive revulsion towards any excretions the body produces, and a social taboo about engaging with any of them.

Spit, blood, breast milk, menstrual blood, urine and faeces all inspire this cringe factor when we engage with them. Inevitably, when we come into contact with them outside of their designated – and seldom discussed – environments, there is a sense of deep transgression. Some artists, like Serrano, utilise this transgression in their work. I think this goes deeper than simply a fear of dirtiness, though certainly that’s a part of it. In most cultures there is a rejection of dirtiness, of pollution. It forms a dichotomy with cleanliness; cleanliness is ordered and organised while dirtiness is chaotic, a rejection of the acceptable social state. It’s a form of social deviation. For many, Piss Christ rejects the appropriate social conduct of faith because it rejects the cleanliness of spirituality. Merda d’Artista, the 1961 work by Piero Manzoni, is a tin can supposedly filled with the artist’s own faecal matter. It, too, rejects a cleanly state, and the purity of the gallery and the prim propriety of the art world is brought down and is violated by this filthy material.

It can’t just be dirtiness that inspires our horror, though. Marc Quinn’s Self, an ongoing project first exhibited in 1991, is a frozen sculpture of the artist’s head made from the artist’s own blood. It’s well sealed in a refrigeration unit, and it would be hard to argue that the sanitised sculpture represents dirtiness. Instead, it plays on the deeper transgression – that from the internal to the external. Blood is a giver of life, a liquid with powerful associations for many. There’s the religious blood of Christ. There’s a strong familial or cultural element, such as when something is ‘in the blood’. It is appropriate for blood (and other fluids) to stay inside the body. When they transverse the body they break this boundary, making them a transitional material and thus a transgression of the presumed order of things. Chilean artist, Carina Úbeda, uses her own menstrual blood in her work. The fact that this is a material that normally transverses the boundary of internal and external perhaps explains why there is such a social revulsion towards menstrual blood. Its transgression from internal to external disrupts not the cleanliness of the body, but its order. This symbolic rejection of order is perhaps what creates our discomfort around it.

The inviolate body is another broken taboo, that is, the body without an opening through which substances may seep. Think of the classic ‘paint me like one of your French girls’ pose of the odalisque. A woman posed reclining with her body presented towards the viewer. Think of those muscular classical Adonises, like Michelangelo’s David. These are not bodies that excrete anything. Any orifice seems non-existent. They are sealed, perfect and whole. Something breaking through that complete boundary, something filthy and revolting, is perhaps created in our minds as violation of the purity, the sanctity of our bodies.

Societal taboos around these materials are certainly changing; the discussion of menstruation and breast feeding has become more mainstream, and thus breast milk and menstrual blood have become less problematic. But the transgressive disruption of order that elicits that cringe is still present. Our bodily excretions still inspire strong reactions when placed out of context, particularly in the prim and ordered world of fine art.

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