Archive for June, 2010

Ron Mueck

Posted in Uncategorized on June 29, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

Ron Mueck’s sculptures reproduce the human body in minute detail, the ‘hyperreal’ quality creates an uncanny impression.

‘A Girl’ plays with scale to create a disconcertingly jarring impression – the figure is so lifelike it is uncanny, but the scale creates a disorientating effect.  

‘Dead Dad’ is a sculpture of the corpse of Mueck’s own father and is the only of his sculptures where he uses his own hair on the figure. The realism of the figure is uncanny in itself, but moreso as it may evoke a suppressed, primitive fear of the dead. As the figure convinces as a real corpse we may sense an unconscious fear it will become animated or move at any time upon closer inspection.   


Gina Czarnecki

Posted in Uncategorized on June 28, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

Gina Czarnecki’s work encompasses film and installation, with an emphasis on human relationships to image, disease, evolution, genetic research, created in collaboration with biotechnologists, computer programmers, dancers and sound artists. Czarnecki’s projects confront issues surrounding the convergence of biology and technology, and the possible corruption of the human genetic mix.

This still is from a piece entitled Infected “a film about the nature of the physical body in the context of future technological possibilities, seen through dance and digitally manipulated imagery. The new bio-engineered body is still a sexual, stark, brutal, organic, pounding bloody system with ripping tendons. It is beautiful and repulsive, indulgent, curious, emotional, un/controlled, breeding, changing…”

The movement of the body within the piece is unnatural and creates an uncanny impression. Her work is in the Liverpool Art Prize and I have voted for her as my favourite artist in the competition!

This image and related text, along with more examples of her work can be found at:

Stelarc: Stretched Skin

Posted in Uncategorized on June 28, 2010 by pauljohnwhite


Image found at:


Posted in Uncategorized on June 28, 2010 by pauljohnwhite


In my research and art practice I have been exploring the ‘uncanny’; a disturbing impression that may be experienced when confronted with a particular object or situation that causes the unconscious, primitive mind to encroach upon rational, civilised thought processes. This theme has been explored in depth by Freud, and in the process of my own investigations I have used my body in a filmed performance, displaying acts of a violent nature and self mutilation in an attempt to recreate an ‘uncanny’ impression and comment upon connected themes within my enquiry. The use of the body as medium is an area which I intend to develop further in my own practice. I therefore feel it is important to explore this theme within this assignment in order to support my area of interest and also broaden my research into a related theme that is developing within my work, in order to identify strategies for further progress. I will examine the use of the body as a medium within a postmodern context as a process to situate themes within my own work in the present. I will not use the assignment as a place to debate differing views on postmodernism, but choose a widely respected and referenced source as a working definition on the subject.

The piece of work I have chosen to focus upon not only uses the body as a medium within a postmodern context, it also has connections to related themes within my work; psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind and the use of violent or disturbing behaviour. I hope to develop my knowledge and understanding of these themes further and make connections between them through my analysis.

People have responded to the performance I filmed either with fascination or repulsion or a mixture of both, which is befitting to the nature of the ‘uncanny’. The subjective experience of the audience and their engagement with the work intrigues me and this is one reason I have chosen the piece of work to focus upon as it explores and develops these issues, which are also relevant to current developments and debates within contemporary art. Although I have looked at other works, such as Olafur Eliasson’s ‘The Weather Project’, which also involves individual and collective interactions between audience and work, I will concentrate upon my chosen focus in reference to this theme.

The use of the body as a medium has been instrumental to developments within art, contributing to the time based dimension present within much contemporary art. Collaboration is also a common practice within contemporary art and the artist whose piece I will be focussing upon has also worked collaboratively in many other works. However, these are separate themes to the context of my analysis and are not pertinent to elaborate upon further for the purpose of this assignment. This assignment will not be a linear and chronological account of the artist whose work I will examine in my focus. My literature review will explore the use of the body as a medium within art, the nature of art that uses the body as a medium, and look at developments in this area in order to understand how it is has become defined within postmodernism. My focus will be used to enforce the key themes within my literature review. Through my assignment I hope to support and expand my knowledge and understanding of themes that are relevant to my work and identify fresh avenues for further exploration. By examining these themes within a postmodern framework, I also aim to understand and identify my own work in a contemporary context.

Review of Literature

There are various interpretations of postmodernism and some are clearly reflective of the times or perspective from which they were written, while others have proven to be more perceptive and influential in an area that can be seen as multi-faceted and difficult to define objectively (ironically, as postmodernism is seen to characterise rejection of objective truth and global cultural narrative). For the purpose of this assignment I will be using Jonathan Harris’s influential and widely referenced article from 1996 as a working definition on the subject. Harris recognises postmodernist culture as “a collection of individuals or groups working in diverse media and locations”, and identifies postmodernism as being characterised by:

“(1) An appropriation and/or pastiche of historical conventions; (2) the making of allegories (stories); (3) reference to, or use of, mass or popular culture; (4) a return to figurative or naturalist conventions, though in forms that sometimes include fragmentation of imagery; (5) a promotion of differences and striking associations;(6) an invocation of nostalgia; (7) depiction of the human body as a site of, or agent in, sexual and/or violent actions; (8) a foregrounding of representation (‘self referentiality’); and (9) a return to politically interventionist art.” (Harris 1996: 178)

I will be focussing upon on the human body as a site of, or agent in, sexual and/or violent actions in my assignment. In doing so it is important to examine why these ‘primitive’ impulses have become central to the depiction of the human body in postmodernism, and to understand this it is essential to consider modernism as a context. As Harris recognises, there are crossovers between modernism and postmodernism and both have utopian and dystopian qualities. Harris states that “’Modern’ society is dated usually from the mid-19th century and seen as synonymous with the development of urban, industrial and capitalist social life.” (Harris 1996: 176) The reorganisation of social life excited and repulsed influential thinkers of that time and Karl Marx wrote that “on the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces which no epoch of human history has ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay.” (Marx in Harris 1996: 179) Harris identifies a cause of discontent in that,

“Modern life was not a choice that could be accepted or rejected. The forces of economic and geographic transformation released within capitalist development, however, exerted relative degrees of influence over how, where, when and why people lived and worked, as well as over the organization of their family life and prospects for wider social interactions of all kinds.” (Harris 1996: 179).

It is perhaps unsurprising that many artists developed an opposition to capitalism, and within modernism, a “kind of imagined ‘antidote’ to the actual modernity of the urban West began to appear in depictions of idealised ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ societies.” (Harris 1996: 176)These societies, (represented in the paintings of Paul Gauguin or Picasso’s work influenced by African carvings) had become accessible through colonialism and were naively or even ignorantly “believed to be without history, and therefore to have been spared the crises of modernisation.” (Harris 1996: 176) Primitive life was therefore seen as ‘exotic’ in its freedom from civilization. According to Ritchie Robertson ‘chronological’ primitivism deals with the primitive that is “consigned to the remote past, and it is defined negatively, by lacking the constraints and complications that human life has subsequently acquired.” (Robertson 1990: 80) Robertson goes on to state that “primitive life is now seen, not simply as an earlier, rudimentary version of our own, but as qualitatively different,” and with ‘cultural’ primitivism, “primitive peoples are credited with a highly developed physical consciousness, just as we have…an over developed mental consciousness.” (Robertson 1990: 80)

A strong connection can be made with Psychoanalysis and the workings of the unconscious mind which had a major influence upon the art world, particularly upon surrealism, during the modernist era. In ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ Freud suggests that “intellectual, social, and technical achievements of civilization have not made modern man happy, but arouse envy for the simple life of primitive societies” (Robertson 1990: 80) and civilization causes us to repress our instinctual urges. Margot Lovejoy further states that “Freud’s theories emphasised the importance of the instinctual and unconscious side of human behaviour and asserted that emotions and urges are more important than rational thought.” (Lovejoy 1989: 39) Nietzsche criticises the value of civilization in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ by using Greek culture as a context, the ‘birthplace of civilization’. To the Greeks, the Appolline represented the beautiful and harmonious ideal, yet they were drawn towards the “savage, orgiastic” cult of Dionysus (encountered within the nations further east). “The festivals of Dionysus freed people temporarily from the burdens of civilization and even of individuality, and allowed them to release their pent-up impulses with the aid of music and dancing. Purged of its cruel and bestial elements, the cult of Dionysus was incorporated into Greek culture.” (Robertson 1990: 81) Nietzsche argues that the savage impulse is as necessary as the desire for beauty and harmony. Psychoanalysis has played a central role in my recent work and the subjective conflict between the unconscious mind and rational thought has become a fundamental area of interest and investigation. The experience of the ‘uncanny’, according to Freud, brings hidden and repressed fears to light, such as a primitive fear of the dead, which conflicts with our civilized and rational understanding of the world.

The unconscious mind, primitive impulses and ritual have also been a major influence upon Performance Art in the 1960’s and 1970’s and can be seen within the work of Marina Abramovic and her contemporaries. Thomas McEvilley argues that “the urge to forget one’s inherited cultural situation led not only to historical regression but also to multiculturalism.” (McEvilley 2005: 218) Spirituality was a major influence upon Performance Art and the religious ceremonies, rituals and belief systems of other cultures also influenced the work of Abramovic and others. Performance Art was also influenced by religious history and McEvilley identifies two major strands;

“In general, performance works involving the appropriation of religious forms have fallen into two groups: those that select from the Neolithic sensibility of fertility and blood sacrifice, and those that select from the Paleolithic sensibility of shamanic magic and ordeal; often the two strains mix. Both may be seen as expressions of the desire, so widespread in the 60’s and early 70’s, to reconstitute within modern civilization something like an ancient or primitive sensibility of oneness with nature.” (McEvilley 2005: 242)

McEvilley argues that, although not exclusively, the Neolithic has both feminist and primitivist meanings and is found mostly in the work of female Performance artists, while men have mostly use Paleolithic sensibilities in their work. The Neolithic fertility rite clearly influenced Carolee Schneemann’s ‘More than Meat Joy’ of 1964 where nearly naked men and women interact “in a rather frenzied, Dionysian way, with one another and with hunks of raw meat and carcasses of fish and chickens. They smeared themselves with blood, imprinted their bodies on paper, tore chickens apart, threw chunks of raw meat and torn fowl about, slapped one another with them, kissed and rolled about to ‘exhaustion.’” (McEvilley 2005:241) The use of the body and the inherent violence and sexual behaviour within the piece clearly fits within our postmodern framework.

McEvilley states that Body Art “which might be regarded as the ‘strong’ or undiluted genre of Performance Art – sought to uncover every hidden social taboo, exploring madness as a hypothetical path to sanity, confounding the craze for order with the simplest infantile regressions.” (McEvilley 2005: 218) McEvilley further states that much Body Art is based on the shamanic performances of Paleolithic cultures, and Mircea Eliade’s ‘Shamanism’ was a book that was read by and had a profound influence upon Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy amongst others. Female imitation was a common shamanic motif and in McCarthy’s ‘Baby Boy’ the artist lies with his legs in the air in a missionary style position and gives birth to a doll covered in ketchup (representing blood). Self injury and self mutilation are also common to shamanic performances and primitive initiation rites; whilst in a trance like state Siberian shamans cut themselves and Tibetan shamans can allegedly reveal their entrails after cutting their abdomen open. In my recent work I simulated self mutilation as an exploration of body modification and identity. Whilst McCarthy also simulates self injury and mutilation, others go further. In ‘Shoot’ in 1971, Chris Burden was notoriously shot with a rifle in the arm from close range in a gallery, and went on to crawl through broken glass with his hands tied behind his back in ‘Through the Night Softly’ in 1973. In ‘Trademarks’ in 1970, photographs were taken of Vito Acconci sitting in contorted positions as he bites himself all over his body before using the resulting impressions made on his skin to make prints.


In his ‘Suspension Piece’ of 1976, Stelarc suspends himself in the air by hooks embedded in his flesh which are attached to rocks that counterbalance his weight, which reproduces feats carried out by Ajivika ascetics in India. These and similar pieces often reveal injury to the body but can also be connected to shamanic practices in which spiritual transcendence from the body occurs through challenging the limits of bodily endurance.

Contemporary art is often criticised for its taboo or extreme subject matter.  I believe that if a piece is solely designed for ‘shock value,’ it is likely that it will be easily recognised as such. I agree with McEvilley who advocates that art of a transgressive nature that follows a relevant and genuine line of enquiry within an appropriate context is valid;

“Though the erotic content of the works based on the theme of fertility has been received with some shock, it is the work based on the shamanic ordeal that the art audience has found most difficult and repellent. Clearly, that is part of the intention of the work, and in fact a part of its proper content. But it is important to make clear that these artists have an earnest desire to communicate, rather than simply shock. Seen in an adequate context, their work is not aggression but expression.” (McEvilley 2005: 242)

The use of the body as an agent in violent or sexual activity is far from one dimensional. In McCarthy’s work his body is often used in a shamanistic manner, “in an atmosphere of grotesque mockery” (Rush 2007: 101) as a vehicle for social criticism, while Carolee Schneemann uses her body within a feminist context. In ‘Interior Scroll’, performed in 1975, she stands naked in front of an audience and paints herself before pulling a scroll from her vagina. She then reads the text from the scroll which describes the status of women artists. Throughout art history the female form has been objectified, usually by being portrayed in an eroticised or idealised way. Schneemann and other female artists, particularly during the 1970’s (including Marina Abramovic, Lynda Benglis, VALIE EXPORT and Barbara Smith), used their bodies in aggressive acts of self-definition and were instrumental in challenging attitudes towards women within art and society, and redefining the role of the body as a medium. The view is held by Michael Rush that Hans Namuth’s photographs and films of Jackson Pollock painting in the 1950’s “helped place the body at the centre of the work of art” and transformed the artists role from “a bystander outside of the canvas to that of an actor whose every actions were its subject” (Rush 2007: 63), but further goes on to state that,

“Transgression is a time-honoured practice in the history of art: Manet’s Olympia (1863) and Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a urinal. In the history of performance and media art, women artists especially have exercised a transgressive voice.” (Rush 2007: 110)

As my working definition states, “a return to politically interventionist art” is another characteristic of postmodernism. Female performance artists of the 1970s combined politically interventionist themes of feminism with the use of the body as a site of violent or sexual behaviour. The body as a medium, raw and visceral, is an ideal form of expression to confront and challenge in an immediate, direct way, and bodily acts of an extreme or taboo nature create a strong impression and can be used as to emphatically convey meaning. I have found that the use of the body as a site of transgressive, taboo or extreme acts are, for the most part, situated in a sense of reaction, either political, social or cultural. Preceding Performance and Body art of the 1970s, the Viennese Actionists are known for using the body in taboo acts that caused moral outrage in Austria during the 1960s. The Actionists reacted against fascist elements within the nation at the time, and Michael Rush states that, “They wanted their art to be sensational, not only in response to social repression, but also as an antidote to the high modernism embraced by museums.” (Rush 2007: 98) Their wilful violation of conventions and taboos led to the arrest and prosecution of several of the artists. Gunter Brus was sentenced to a six month prison term for his part in the ‘Art and Revolution’ event in 1968 where he covered his body in his own excrement, urinated into a glass before drinking it and vomiting. During the performance he sang the Austrian national anthem and masturbated. Otto Muel who was also prosecuted for his participation in a public event, stated in 1963 that, “I can imagine nothing significant where nothing is sacrificed, destroyed, dismembered, burnt, pierced, tormented, harassed, tortured, massacred, stabbed, destroyed, or annihilated.” (Rush 2007: 98) According to Lea Vergine, these destructive impulses are a defence mechanism;

“They apply a kind of inversion of roles and identify themselves with the aggressors…they both imitate his function and assume his symbols. The victim becomes the hangman, the tortured becomes the torturer. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The offender is to suffer the ordeal of the same injury that he inflicted upon the offended. All of the impulses towards destruction are allowed to run free.” (Vergine 2000: 19)

In Hermann Nitsch’s ‘Orgies, Mysteries, Theatre’ performances (some of which Marina Abramovic participated in) a slaughtered lamb or bull would be hung as if crucified and performers would disembowel and tear the animal apart and pour the entrails and blood over each other and cover the environment in gore. These ritualistic orgies, which the police often shut down, reference religious imagery from Christianity but essentially re-enact an ancient Dionysian ritual called the ‘sparagmos’ (or dismemberment) in a context that comments upon modern society. RoseLee Goldberg states that “Such activities sprang from Nitsch’s belief that humankind’s aggressive instincts had been repressed and muted through the media.” (Goldberg 1979: 164) As with other examples discussed, the artist has looked towards the past, appropriating ideas from ancient or primitive rituals and investigations into the unconscious mind in order to comment on the current climate. Our working definition also identifies appropriation and/or pastiche of historical conventions as a characteristic of postmodernism. This helps me to situate my own work, which examines the work of Freud and the unconscious mind, within a postmodern context. My exploration into this area, focussing on the ‘uncanny’, has led to the production of work where I use my body in acts of simulated mutilation, also fitting with our understanding of the use of the body within postmodernism. The ‘uncanny’ impression can unsettle and disturb and the violence inherent within my work therefore seemed appropriate. However, through examining the work of other artists who have explored both the unconscious mind and ‘primitive’ rituals and behaviour, where the body is involved in violent or sexual acts, links between the two themes can be identified (e.g. repression of our primitive urges) and this has enabled me to make further connections between the themes developing within my work and provides ground for further investigation, possibly into ritual behaviour as a connected theme.


I have chosen to focus upon a performance by Marina Abramovic called ‘Rhythm 0’ as this has relevance to all of the key themes covered so far and expands upon related themes of interest. In this piece which took place in a gallery in Naples in 1974, Abramovic lined up seventy two objects, including whips, chains and feathers, on a table; instruments that were capable of inflicting pleasure or pain on a table. She wrote instructions on a board stating;

“There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility.” (Stiles 2008: 62)

She then stood passively for the length of the performance, which lasted six hours. The audience behaved tentatively at first, raising her arm and turning her around, but as a photograph of the performance shows, by the third hour they cut her clothes from her with razor blades to expose her naked body.

The thorns of a rose were pressed into her skin, numerous minor sexual assaults took place as she was touched intimately, someone took Polaroid photographs of her and placed them in her hand, another person slashed her throat with a razor so they could suck her blood. Although her eyes brimmed with tears, she remained passive throughout the event. At one point, a man picked up a loaded gun from the table and held it to her head, this act prompted a protective group to emerge and a struggle broke out between factions of the audience, during which time someone else grabbed the gun and threw the bullet from it out of the window. At the end of the six hours, when she began to move about the audience fled the gallery. As Krisine Stiles states, it was the “transformation from object to subject that frightened the audience” (Stiles 2008: 60). Abramovic herself recalls that the audience ran from the space because “they could not stand me as a person, after all that they had done to me.” (Stiles 2008: 60)

Feminism challenged both the passive role of women in society and the objectification of the female body and this work can easily be identified as a sophisticated feminist statement. Abramovic, as a female, presents her body as an object and behaves passively throughout the performance. Even though tears well in her eyes (as the photograph supports) she does not make eye contact with her tormentors or challenge them in any way and so is perceived as a passive object to the audience throughout. As a consequence, violent and sexual acts take place upon her body. This can be seen as damning indictment of behaviour and attitudes towards women at the time. As the audience perception of her changes when she ‘comes to life’ at the end of the piece they become aware of their mistreatment of this person and are understandably ashamed. As previous examples demonstrate, art created in a state of reaction often demonstrates an aggressive nature, displaying violent or sexual behaviour. This confronts the audience to a point, but in this case, Abramovic has gone further in what McEvilley describes as a “classic of passive provocation” (McEvilley 2005: 273) as she creates an environment where it is the audience that carries out violent or sexual behaviour, and do so entirely of their own free will. This reversal of roles, between the artist carrying out these acts upon their own body and the audience doing so, has a much more powerful impact and forces the audience to consider the themes within the work much more directly. The influence of the feminist performance art in the 1970’s can also be identified in ‘Art must be beautiful, Artist must be beautiful’ of 1975, where Abramovic repeats the title of the piece like a mantra as she continuously brushes her hair with a metal brush causing her scalp to bleed. In addition to the use of the body and its engagement in violent or sexual actions, Abramovic’s work can also be seen as postmodern in respect of the politically interventionist themes present within it. However, she firmly rejects being identified as a feminist artist (or a political artist) although she supports feminism. Her work is multi-faceted and she is perhaps mindful of other themes which are integral to her work being neglected. In ‘Thomas Lips’ of 1975 she ate a kilo of honey, drank a litre of red wine from a glass before breaking it, then cut a five pointed star into her stomach with a razor blade. After this she whipped herself repeatedly and then lay on a cross made of ice blocks where she remained for thirty minutes until the audience intervened, removed the blocks from under her. The symbol of the five pointed star which reoccurs within her work has been “the symbol of universal communism and socialism since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used it as an emblem” and “Russia adapted it in 1918 as a symbol of the Red Army.” (Stiles 2008: 56) The star can be seen as a dual reference to her family’s strong ties to communism and her upbringing in communist Belgrade, which has in a literal sense ‘embedded’ itself within her identity, and also as a ritual symbol.

Ritual, in the context outlined previously, is fundamental to Abramovic’s work. Her body’s engagement with violence or extreme acts of endurance can be identified with the Paleolithic sensibility of shamanic magic and ordeal. As the Greeks were fascinated by the cult of Dionysus as a release from civilization, and modernism looked towards primitivism as an antidote to modern life, Abramovic has been drawn towards ritual behaviour within religious ceremony, ancient civilizations and other cultures with a highly developed physical consciousness, or ‘cultural primitivism’. This is less from a sense of reaction and more as a desire to gain an understanding of the human condition by testing the boundaries of human experience. In an interview with Klaus Biesenbach, Abramovic states that “every ceremony, every ritual from ancient times until now, including the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church, stage rituals that include pain”, and that pain “has something to do with mental limits, about which there is so much more to learn. But the reason for me that other religions and rituals and ancient civilizations are so interesting is that they master the body in so many ways. Aborigines at ceremonies will literally become clinically dead in order to understand what is behind all these things.” (Biesenbach 2008: 22) Violence, pain, ordeal and endurance inflicted upon her own body within a performance mirrors the shaman carrying out similar acts within a ceremony that challenge the limitations of bodily endurance in order to achieve a heighted state of consciousness, or ‘transcendence’ where the consciousness becomes detached from or leaves the body. In ‘Rhythm 0’ her body is present but she mentally detaches herself from the situation, and this sense of separation is amplified as the piece progresses and her body is subjected to an increasing level of abuse. She explores the connection between the mind and body and the concept of dualism associated with non-western philosophies. I have also been investigating the connection between the mind and body in my work in the context of modern technology and the effect it has upon our body and identities. I am exploring body modification, fragmentation and reconstruction of the self, seeing where the physical body is no longer an accurate reflection of the mind that operates it and contemplating how important the connection between mind and body is. If the mind could exist in another state through technology, would the physical body still be necessary? If the connection between the two were broken would we lose our true sense of identity or would moving away from the limitations of the human body be a natural advancement and represent fresh possibilities for individuality?  As Marx recognised symptoms of decay within the advancements of modern society, advancements in technology can also be seen to herald cause for great optimism and caution alike. I explore these themes in my work but do not take a particular standpoint.

‘Rhythm 0’ is also charged with religious symbolism. Christian references may be identified as the thorns of a rose are pressed into Abramovic’s skin, also as she endures prolonged physical suffering, without resistance at the hands of others, as a process to reach a state of transcendence from the body. Sally O’Reilly states that in recent years Abramovic has moved away from testing the boundaries of the body as she believes “such shamanistic practices have lost currency”, yet the “transcendental properties of drugs, on the other hand, may be considered an equivalent.” (O’Reilly 2009: 45) While the chemical effects of drugs on the body and sensory experience have been investigated by artists such as Francis Alys, appropriation of historical conventions as a device to comment upon the current climate is a valid artistic process in the postmodern environment. The exploration of the boundaries and limitations of the body within Abramovic’s work is also as vital today in light of advancements in technology and fragmentation within contemporary society, which calls for us to re-examine and attempt to redefine the body and its place within the contemporary environment through artistic enquiry. As Lea Vergine states,

“The nineties saw the spread (not only in the visual arts but also in cinema, literature, theatre, fashion and ways of life) of the phenomena of shifting identities, technological contaminations, and generally of hybridizations. Though now reduced to a mangled appendage of a post-human condition, to a fragment interfaced with others, to martyred or exultant flesh, grafted to prostheses of every kind and ever more orphaned of sexual or racial traits, the body made its return – at nearly thirty years of distance from the scandal (which it once had been) of Body Art – as the seat and arbiter of multiple identities.” (Vergine 2000: 280)

The social themes present within Abramovic’s work can be overlooked, but are a central feature within ‘Rhythm 0’. Stiles states that, “while ritual is widely acknowledged in her performances, most viewers and critics have missed her work’s outwardly directed social content,” and that “in her art, Abramovic deploys the body as an index of experience embedded in and shaped by public and private relations and events.” (Stiles 2008: 52) In ‘Relational Aesthetics’ Nicholas Bourriaud describes contemporary art as a “state of encounter” (Bourriaud 1998: 18) and that an exchange has taken place “between the status of passive consumer and the status of witness, associate, customer, guest, co-producer, and protagonist.” (Bourriaud 1998: 58) This ethnographic approach to art which investigates human behaviour, interactions with each other and engagement within an environment can be seen within ‘Rhythm 0’, where the audience become active participants engaged in a physical and sensory experience and where their individual and collective input within the set environment forms meaning within the work. Abramovic may have an expectation of events that will occur within the performance but provides the audience with choices to make which shapes the direction of the piece. In my most recent performance piece titled ‘Body Soup’, certain acts were planned as I interacted with objects in a bath, but as I continued filming I allowed improvisation and chance to play a greater part in my behaviour and interactions. Allowing my instincts to control my behaviour during the performance was liberating and appropriate to an exploration of the unconscious mind. This performance attempts to evoke an ‘uncanny’ impression within the viewer and this has produced responses varying between visible repulsion, fascination, and even laughter. In ‘Rhythm 0’ the audience interacts individually and collectively in different ways and what fascinates me most about this is the subjectivity in the desire to either protect or inflict violence, based upon the unconscious urges of the individual.

My work has explored the unconscious mind in relation to hidden or primitive fears imposing themselves on our minds, yet ‘Rhythm 0’ reveals the nature of the unconscious and primitive impulses in the absence of any rational filter, rules or civilised structure. A year before ‘Rhythm 0’ was performed Stanley Milgram’s study of the ethics of conscience was published, in which he “concluded that cruel authority over others won more often than not over morality.” (Stiles 2008: 61) ‘Rhythm 0’ brutally exposes a repressed desire to exert power over the weak, or sacrifice the weakest subject within a social group, and the escalating level of violence and cruelty inflicted reveals that the more defenceless the subject is, the more ferocious the attack.

While Abramovic allows violent and sexual acts to be carried out upon her body in order to create a powerful and effective piece of work, ethical responsibilities must be considered where the artist engages in a more collaborative relationship with the audience. McEvilley states that “Performance Art usually involves the artist’s own body and occurs in the real space in which bodies meet and act upon one another; hence it is inherently ethical and social.” With ‘Rhythm 0’, Abramovic was so committed to the piece that “she would not have resisted rape or murder” (McEvilley 2005: 273), yet in other circumstances the expectations and limitations set by the artist may differ from those of the audience. O’Reilly states that, “with participation comes the need for a sense of responsibility from artist, participants and audience alike.” (O’Reilly 2009: 202) This is particularly important when dealing with the body as a medium in a postmodern context where violent and/or sexual acts are commonplace.


Through this assignment I have developed an understanding of how and why the use of the body as a site of or agent in violent or sexual acts has developed from within a modernist context into a postmodern phenomenon. On this theme I have uncovered a prevailing sense of reaction to the environment or context the art was produced in; either as a reaction to society and its inequalities, a reaction to the political or social environment or the art and culture of the time.

This study identifies that the body can be used as a powerful and effective medium to convey meaning as our own bodies have experienced heat, cold, and pain to some degree and we can empathise when we are confronted with the body that is subjected to pain, torment or extremities of endurance. When the artist uses the body as a means of endurance, or appears to cause harm to the body, we can relate to the experience directly which makes the experience difficult, challenging our comfort zones and leaving a deep impression. The often transgressive nature of my area of focus has been explored and provided, at least personal validation of work of this kind through an understanding of the context in which it has been produced.

Analysis within this assignment has enabled me to put my interest in Psychoanalysis and the nature of the unconscious mind into a context within modernism/postmodernism and connect this interest to the body’s engagement in violent or sexual actions, as explored through primitive and ritualistic behaviour within performance and body art. This has helped me to broaden my area of research and see potential avenues for further enquiry within related themes.

I have also examined my area of focus within the context of current issues and debates within contemporary art, particularly social relations between artist, audience and environment. As a result I intend to develop my interest in the subjective experience of the audience possibly through audience engagement and interaction, as demonstrated in ‘Rhythm 0’which reveals more about the human condition and nature of the psyche than art produced within a linear and predetermined structure.

Ambrose Bierce

Posted in Uncategorized on June 26, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

Ambrose Bierce was a dark and pessimistic writer with a cynical nature which was reflected in his work. Elements of horror and the grotesque were present in many of his short stories, and the following are examples where he has used the uncanny as a device in order to evoke a strange and unsettling mood within his stories:

‘I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down – crushed it so that it did not rise; and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly towards us.

‘Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this unfamiliar and unaccountable phenonemon, yet I am unable to recall any sense of fear. I remember – and tell it here because, singularly enough, I recollected it then – that once in looking carelessly out of an open window I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety , a warning of unthinkable calamity.’ (102, The Damned Thing)

‘The superstitious awe with which the living regard the dead,’ said Dr Helbertson, ‘is hereditary and incurable. One needs no more be ashamed of it than of the fact that he inherits, for example, an incapacity for mathematics, or a tendancy to lie.’…

‘But do you think,’ said the third man, ‘that this superstitious feeling, this fear of the dead, reasonless as we may know it to be, is universal? I am myself not conscious of it.’

‘Oh, but it is “in your system” for all that,’ replied Helberson; ‘it needs only the right conditions – what Shakespeare calls the “confederate season” – to manifest itself in some very disagreeable way that will open your eyes.’…

Mr Jarette was not at his ease; he was distinctly dissatisfied with his surroundings, and with himself for being so. ‘What have I to fear?’ he thought. ‘This is ridiculous and disgraceful; I will not be so great a fool.’ But courage does not come of saying, ‘I will be courageous,’ nor of recognising its appropriateness to the occassion. The more Jarette condemned himself, the more reason he gave himself for condemnation; the greater the number of variations which he played upon the simple theme of the harmlessness of the dead, the more insupportable grew the discord of his emotions. ‘What! Shall I, who have not a shade of superstition in my nature – I, who know (and never more clearly than now) that the afterlife is the dream of a desire – shall I lose at once my bet, my honour and my self-respect, because certain savage anscestors dwelling in caves and burrows conceived the monsterous notion that the dead walk by night? – that – ‘ Distinctly, unmistakably, Mr Jarette heard behind him a light, soft sound of footfalls, deliberate, regular, successively nearer!’ (70-73, A Watcher by the Dead)

Bierce also incorporates the Abject (often connected to the uncanny) in his work; dealing with that which is cast out of the symbolic order or which confronts our safe and accepted sense of reality, leading to outright rejection and repulsion: 

‘A snake in a bedroom of a modern city dwelling of the better sort is, happily, not so common a phenomenon as to make explanation altogether needless…Beyond a smart shock of surprise and a shudder of mere loathing, Mr Brayton was not greatly affected…If not dangerous, the creature was at least offensive. It was de trop – ‘matter out of place’ – an impertinence. The gem was unworthy of the setting. Even the barbarous taste of our time and country, which had loaded the walls of the room with pictures, the floor with furniture, and the furniture with bric-a-brac, had not quite fitted the place for this bit of the savage life of the jungle. Besides – insupportable thought! – the exhalations of its breath mingled with the atmosphere which he himself was breathing!’ (82-84, The Man and the Snake)           

The following link is a site devoted to Ambrose Bierce and includes work by contemporary artists who have made installations based upon his work:


Posted in Uncategorized on June 21, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

The disturbing and unsettling found within an everyday and familiar environment; the dinner table.


Posted in Uncategorized on June 21, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

Visceral, surreal imagery made more disturbing through sound, building in intensity and horror as the scene progresses.