Searching for the disgusting

I am interested at the moment in exploring that no man’s land between attraction and repulsion. I have knocked up a several maquettes which I hope evoke that ambivalent response and  am currently busy building a sculpture which isn’t quite a stomach, or a heart or something gynaecological but is a sort of a mixture of the three. I see it as being definitely human and female; there is, or rather she has, a cavity and it will be filled with ……well I will do a short post about it when it is finished and reveal all.

Meanwhile I wanted to examine what I found disgusting and see how other artists approached the subject of disgust  and whether there was common ground between them. While I could think of contemporary artists who work in that area–Peter Buggenhout,   Jenny Saville, Damien Hirst, I was also interested to discover whether this was just a twentieth and twenty first century phenomenon, and look at the work of earlier artists

Jenny Saville: Torso 2

The Wellcome Collection with its collection of medical oddities seemed a pretty good place to start. Also I had seen pictures of John Isaacs sculpture “I can not help the way I feel.” It looked as if it might hit the spot. Indeed it does.

It is a huge, grotesquely obese figure, composed out of some pink flesh like substance. Isaac explains in a notice to the side that the work is “a metaphor for the way in which we become incapacitated by the emotional landscape in which we live and over which we have no control.” At Wellcome, it appeared simply to be a metaphor for  the disadvantages of getting fat. As I heard one of the thoughtful attendants explain to a group of fascinated schoolchildren, obesity is a western disease, whereas malaria is a disease of developing countries. She also pointed out, in case they hadn’t noticed, that the the body had no head and no genitals so it was impossible to know what sex it was. I didn’t allow this detail to confuse me; I decided instantly that it was male, something about the relative size of the bottom compared with the rest of him. The thing that made him so compelling  was his horrible legs which were covered in rather lifelike sores and his very small feet. I found it an interesting work,  not one I might add which you would really want in the corner of the kitchen or dining room but I spent quite a lot of time examining him it. So there was a kind of attraction there and the combination of fleshiness and disease did evoke the disgust response.  I soon found that the disease aspect alone was not enough to do it.

John Isaacs: I can not help the way I feel
Kuan-Chung Su: Cell Division

In a neighbouring gallery there was a display of the images which were winners of the Wellcome Image Awards. The image below of cancer cells dividing for me had absolutely no emotional impact; it was rather beautiful; in no way did it produce a disgust response.

Interestingly the picture of the brain did – before knowing what it was, I had that kind of momentary shudder.  Judging from the reactions of others to whom I have shown the photograph it was not just me. However, on reading the caption beneath – I found it wore off; the more I looked at the photograph, the more it seemed rather wonderful. Nevertheless there is something about the wetness and coils which repels and particularly that dark wormy shape which transects the photograph which is actually a vein taking de-oxygenated blood back to the heart.

Robert Ludlow:Intracranial recording for epilepsy

The brain belonged to  a living person and the photograph was taken during an operation to introduce an intracranial electrode in a patient suffering from epilepsy. So how about bits of dead people? I went back to the exhibition about the body; there was one of those platiscated cross sections of someone. I had read about these in the past and it certainly sounds a disgusting procedure; carving somebody up in slivers and pumping plastic into them to preserve the cross section if not for eternity for a number of years.  Imagining the process is not for the squeamish,  the circular saw cutting accurately through tissue, you would have thought the end result would be repellent, but the actual result seemed surprisingly antiseptic. No disgust response at all.

Wellcome Collection: Peruvian Mummy

This was not true of the Peruvian mummy. I always feel rather uneasy with real dead people in museums; it’s one thing knowingly to donate slivers of yourself to medical science and the curious public and rather another to be dug up and have a spot light literally trained onto your old dead bones. Incidentally, I don’t think this is an entirely rational response – the dead Peruvian mummy couldn’t possibly mind but we are talking about emotion here and I do mind a bit on his behalf. Lying hunched up under a spot light is not very dignified especially if it falls on the way that your gums have somewhat rotted away from your teeth. Though he is real, he could almost be a sculpture and it  is is  interesting that it is not the fact that he is dead that produces that disgust response, it is also his thinness – the bones and the skin – the complete contrast to the Isaacs work.

Wellcome Collection: interior with a surgeon attending to a wound in a man’s side

I turned to see whether any paintings of the paintings had that effect. There were plenty of possible candidates. Interior with a surgeon attending to a wound, – to some extent.

A dissected pregnant female by Jacques -Fabien Gautier D’Agoty. Her face is to0 benign but the dissected babies at her feet almost have it.

The one that did it most for me was a painting of Herodias mutilating the severed head of Saint John the Baptist.

Pieter de Grebber: Herodias mutilating the severed head of Saint John the Baptist

There are many far gorier paintings in existence – Saint Sebastian bristling with arrows like a porcupine, battle scenes, even within the Wellcome, collection, souls being carted off to Hell. The disgust response is elicited in this painting I think because they are doing something to his tongue – that and the truly chilling look on their faces. That is what makes it such a truly marvellous painting.


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