Trangression Leads to Understanding

Miriam Arbus

Identity politics, a rather new theoretical discourse, has taken hold of artistic and intellectual spheres. Advances in feminism, queer theory, and ethno cultural studies, as well as an increasing focus on representations of the body in the visual arts, shows evidence that the development of identity politics is an important contemporary issue.[1] Theorist Amelia Jones describes this resurgence of interest in the body and identity that is apparent in the fine arts world; she states, “the body has become increasingly – and aggressively – visible within more recent practices and theories.”[2] Representations of the human body appear in diverse ways in the visual arts, crossing between disciplines, mediums and categories. Many visual representations of human bodies can be understood as expressions of a desire for furthering the comprehension, or the definition, of human identity. The focus that many contemporary artists have shown toward depictions of the human body which involve elements of the grotesque or the carnivalesque shows evidence of this concentration in furthering knowledge and awareness of self and other, as well as individual and collective identity. This interest can also be found in representations that incorporate the hybrid body; an idea which has come to mean, in most cases, a reference or depiction of a body that shows evidence of technological involvement. Representations of both the carnivalesque, and the hybrid body, can be considered images which promote or feature a transgression of established social norms concerning behaviours, social interactions, and self-presentation; and which therefore allows for viewers to interact with ideas of transgressing the constructs and rules which govern our social behaviours. Using familiar forms and shapes to reference the human body, artists Louise Bourgeois and Christian Boltanski transgress the rules of normal representation of bodies. Neither Bourgeois’ series The Cells (1986-1998) (fig. 1), nor Boltanski’s installation Prendre la Parole (2005) (Fig. 2), features a real human body; instead disconnected shapes create references to the idea of a body.[3] These artists, using the concepts of hybridization and the carnivalesque to portray the human body, confront the viewer with depictions of transgressed social norms, and provoke a consideration of what it is that creates personal identity, and what it is that affects and controls human emotion.

From Rabelais’s Gargantua, and the numerous Renaissance paintings which seem to give the damned more attention than the blessed, to the carnival traditions of Europe, continuing on to contemporary artists like Orlan and Stellarc, there has been a long standing tradition of representing the human body as a grotesque image. The tradition of Halloween or All Hallows Eve, and the ancient rituals of carnivals in various European cultures, also emphasizes the long standing tradition of incorporating the grotesque and carnivalesque concepts into societal practices. Societies require rules and laws in order to function, and transgressions of these rules are also necessary in order for people to exercise their individual desires and emotions. The customs which allow for expression of the carnivalesque are social institutions, but ones in which the normal order of things has been reversed, or turned upside down. These carnival or grotesque events are controlled spaces for transgressing the usual rules of society. The carnivalesque tradition allows for transgression in a controlled manner, and incorporation of the carnivalesque in visual arts creates an even more controlled space for transgression. Images that represent the body allow for a certain freedom, as a real body is not required, and an individual does not have to have any physical involvement. Therefore, incorporation of the carnivalesque not only allows transgression, but by removing the transgression from the human body to an image, a viewer is allowed to contemplate the grotesque or carnivalesque, without physical engagement.

The transgressions of normal behaviour and social constructs that are facilitated by the carnivalesque are derived from the need for expression of excess emotions and energies. One of the most satisfying ways in which people express excess emotion is through laughter, and laughter comes from that which is comic.[4] The carnivalesque representation of the body is inextricably linked to the concept of the comic, and theorist Umberto Eco, in his article, The Frames of Comic Freedom, determines that in order to define the carnival, it is necessary to provide a definition for comic, which he calls an umbrella term, “that gathers together a disturbing ensemble of diverse and not completely homogenous phenomena, such as humour, comedy, grotesque, parody, satire, and wit.”[5] The comic therefore can be assumed to encompass the carnivalesque and the grotesque representations of the body, which use vulgar humour to cross lines of normality. The carnivalesque, in representations of the body, refers to images that deal with grotesqueness, or abjection – anything that crosses lines of acceptability and normality in established society. The carnivalesque representations of the body therefore create a space which allows for a freedom of expression and understanding.

In representations of the human body the theory of the hybrid body is often inextricably linked to the carnivalesque. Grotesque and carnivalesque images are most often achieved in contemporary arts through the means of technology, and when technology is used to manipulate references to the human body, the body becomes one that is hybridized.[6] The meaning of a hybrid body can be understood as a human body that is represented as having technological or mechanical characteristics. With the abilities of technology today, this has become an option which is more easily accessible all the time. Hybrid bodies can also refer to ideas usually found in mythology or fantasy; the idea of a human body with animal characteristics, a centaur for example. The concept of hybridization has a long history, and is intricately connected to the carnivalesque. Eco describes, “Carnival is the natural theatre in which animals and animal-like beings take over the power and become the masters.”[7] Rosalind Krauss, in her article Corpus Delicti, devotes her discussion to the surrealist photographers but discusses this interconnectedness; “The body cannot be seen as human, because it has fallen into the condition of the animal.”[8] This intricate term has also come to reference those people who have recently acquired new identities, whether in terms of nationalities, social identities, race, or gender. Therefore, someone who migrated from one country to another may be considered to have hybrid qualities. Though complex in definition, the concept of hybrid bodies is one which has become more noticeable and common in contemporary society as the influence of technology and globalization is an ever-increasing component. Often a hybrid body is described as a cyborg, which is the terminology derived by Donna Haraway. Christine Ross, in her article The Insufficiency of the Performative, describes Haraway’s term, “Donna Haraway sees the conflation of body and technology as constitutive of the cyborg – a hybrid of machine and organism in which technologies of communication and biotechnologies articulate the polymorphous re-crafting of bodies.”[9] Just as the carnivalesque violates rules of behaviour and etiquette, hybridization violates established rules of bodily function and form.

The violations of social norms and constructs are created by integrating aspects of the carnivalesque or hybridization into representations of bodies simultaneously allowing the viewer a freedom from these social constructs, and challenging the viewer to accept and allow this freedom. These embodied transgressions can provide a means for the mind to cross lines and barriers of thought which are normally not considered appropriate. Furthermore this crossing is also a challenge which forces viewers to question if we can maintain our humanity amidst the grotesque, and if human activity will be overcome and replaced by technology. Bourgeois and Boltanski both incorporate these questions into their artistic work and practice.

Louise Bourgeois is an artist who has produced an astonishing body of work, and though born in 1911, she continues to produce work in a multitude of media, all of which deals with an array of themes and most of which pertain to individuality and emotions[10]. Focusing on the difficulty and sometimes impossibilities involved in expressions of human emotions, Bourgeois has always recognized that her work disturbs people. Quoted by Rainer Crone and Petrus Graf Schaesberg, in Louise Bourgeois: The Secret of the Cells, as saying, “My work disturbs people and nobody wants to be disturbed. They are not fully aware of the effect my work has on them, but they know it is disturbing,”[11] it is apparent that Bourgeois has the intention of challenging the societal constructs and limits which control human behaviour with her artworks. Though her body of artwork is extensive, connections between the various installations and sculptures can be drawn in terms of her continuous exploration of identity and emotion. Specifically incorporating the carnivalesque and hybrid bodies is The Cells, which is a series of installation and sculptural works. This series addresses ideas concerning the impermanence of human bodies and the complexities of human emotions. Without actually using real bodies, the various installation and sculptural elements of The Cells reference the idea of bodies, and therefore, through the means of fragmentation and hybridization, Bourgeois creates a representation of bodies that can be rather unnerving. The grotesque is incorporated by the represented bodies which are only shown in disjointed pieces or parts. Within The Cells, isolated body parts often appear; sometimes in the form of stitched and quilted fabric, sometimes sculpted from marble, or created from metals. Speaking in terms of the body parts that Bourgeois often creates through the means of fabric and stitching, such as the triangularly arranged heads in Cell XXIV(Portrait)(2001) (Fig. 3), curator and theorist Robert Storr, in the catalogue, Disparities & Deformations: Our Grotesque, says, “The radical transformations which her men and women undergo are not magical in quite that way, but like Greek and Roman legends, they isolate and accentuate basic existential states and expose the multiple facets and antithetical attributes of supposedly unified human nature.”[12] By placing disconnected body parts in The Cells,Bourgeois is focusing on individuality, and negating unity. She presents disjointedness and confusion, and uses hybridization and the carnivalesque to do so.

Bourgeois’ body of work, as a whole, displays evidence of her investigations and manipulations of human bodies through the use of hybridization and the carnivalesque in her representations. Crone and Schaesberg, describe her earlier series, Personages (1945-55), saying that, “the umbrella title Personages, does clearly refer to their contents, defining the steles as personalities, characters, or some similar role. Their formal qualities are initially impenetrable, since they use an abstract, reductionist, curtailed sculptural language.”[13] Her work developed in a tradition which focused on expressions of individualism, freedom of thought and expression, and the complexities that result from thought and emotion. By representing bodies in abstract forms, Bourgeois emphasizes human complexities. In The Cells, this emphasis on complexities is very apparent in her use of the grotesque and hybridity, such as in Cell (Hands and Mirror) (1995), and Cell II (1991), where the disconnected arms with clenched hands create a feeling of disassociation. The viewer is confronted by the grotesqueness of arms without body, and the hybridization of human body and marble. Storr describes the grotesque aspects of The Cells:

Most recently Bourgeois has filled her ‘cells’ with closet hangers and seamstress’s dummies draped with her old dresses and undergarments, whose sizes and period styles from dainty 1920’s lace to hot 1960s geometric prints constitute an autobiography in clothes. Some she has stuffed, leading to a series of grotesque dolls – small ones as well as others which are ominously larger than life – who populate some of her ‘cells’ and vitrines or appear by themselves or in pairs.[14]

Bourgeois’ work forces the viewer to question themselves and their own humanity. The Cells beg the questions of where the emotional begins, and what affects individual emotional states. Bourgeois herself has stated that her work has much to do with the overwhelming aspect of emotion, and the impossibility of understanding and containing one’s own emotion at a level society might consider reasonable. In the documentary, Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine, Bourgeois discussesThe Cells, and states, “the purpose of the pieces is to express emotions, my emotions are inappropriate to my size, my emotions are demons… it is not the emotions themselves, it’s that the intensity of the emotions is much too much for me to handle, that is why I transfer the energy into sculpture.”[15] The carnivalesque and hybridized aspects which can be found in the representations of bodies in The Cells shows an abstraction of emotion which causes a need for self-investigation and contemplation.

The work of installation artist Christian Boltanski also offers an exploration into individuality and identity through the means of carnivalesque and hybridized bodies. Born in Paris, Boltanski has had international success with his works, most of which integrate video, audio and visual elements. The installation Prendre La Parole (2005) uses audio and visual means to pursue the idea of the singularity of an individual being, existing amidst the masses. This art installation features an arrangement of wooden boards, each of which wears black clothing, displayed to appear as though a human body. When viewers pass by the arrangement, a voice reaction is triggered, and the clothed boards respond to the viewer’s passing. The collection of boards appears as though representing a group of bodies in mourning. The wooden boards wear black clothes but the words that are spoken are out of context and unexpected. Boltanski creates a hybridization of the body in this installation; the use of the arranged clothing, as well as the audio reaction, suggests the human body without there actually being a body. The form of a body is referenced through wood and cloth but there is no real body to anchor the indication. Conclusions and interpretations are left up to the viewer.

Pursuing concepts of singularity amidst masses, and of complexities in identities, Boltanski uses technologically created hybridized bodies to achieve his goals. Ross describes, in a discussion about the work of contemporary artist Jo Spence, that “the loss of control, or what should be called the contingency of the body and its failure to be what it is supposed to be in contemporary western society (productive, healthy, and young) are at play throughout the work of Spence.”[16] This aspect of a loss of control is apparent in Boltanski’s work as well, the flat, but clothed, wooden boards simultaneously reference the existence of a body, and a loss or disappearance of a body. Feelings of discomfort and dislocation often result after interacting with Boltanski’s hybridized bodies, similar to the feelings that result after confrontation with carnivalesque bodies, such as Bourgeois uses. These emotions stir important contemplative thought for the viewer, in terms of self, behaviours, emotions, and social interactions.

Using the term carnivalesque to encompass the concepts of the abject, (as presented by Ross, through her understanding of the work of Julia Kristeva), the work of Bourgeois and Boltanski can be understood as Ross describes, “…(as using) this desire to break with resolution and categorization through the paradoxical use of categories of the abject.[17] This strategy is subversive insofar as it manifests the failing of a subject to correspond to the predictable, disciplined, coherent body of contemporary discursive formations such as medicine, law, and psychology.”[18] By challenging definitions, Boltanski’s and Bourgeois’ use of the carnivalesque and hybridized bodies, achieves a resulting consideration of self, humanity, emotionality and individuality. With these considerations, these artists also call into question the problem of defining that which is considered normal. Theorists Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin, in their work, The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age, bring up the problem of defining normal, “Artists, too, engage the problematic definitions of “the normal”. In her “Special Faces” series, Nancy Burson photographs children and adults with congenital cranio-facial disorders, as in, Untitled (Jessica and Her Mom)(1991).”[19] This challenge of normality begs the viewer to consider their own humanity and individuality, and provokes important considerations and thought processes that the viewer must go through after confronting The Cells, or Prendre la Parole.

The concepts of the carnivalesque and hybridization of the human body are inseparable. The tradition of incorporating abject or grotesque elements to transgress social boundaries is achieved through the means of these two categories, and it has become apparent that neither can be considered mutually exclusive. Examination of the works of both Bourgeois and Boltanski clarify that the concepts of hybridity and the carnivalesque are interconnected. The ideas and concerns that these two artists focus on find expression through each category. The use of technology to enable the carnivalesque and hybridization in The Cells, Prendre la Parole further emphasises the interconnected nature of the categories of carnivalesque and hybridity. Both Bourgeois and Boltanski incorporate the use of hybridization in their representations of the body, and Ross describes how the cyborg or hybrid body can address issues of identity, “Fluidity of identity is articulated but only through the consideration of bodily fallibility.”[20] The recognition of the ease of which a human body transgresses is an important characteristic of both hybridization and the carnivalesque. Bourgeois and Boltanski both show this recognition, and by allowing for transgression, a further understanding of self and other is created for the viewer. Charles Stainback, the executive director of SITE, Santa Fe, where the Biennale, Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque, occurred, describes in the exhibition catalogue a note he received which rudely suggested that the show was dreadful, and that focusing on art and beauty would be a better route. Stainback responds: “clearly, this message was the result of someone thinking about the ‘grotesque’ as a word/idea/concept – wrestling with it, getting down in the mud with it, processing thoughts about it…”[21] His positive reaction to negative criticism points to the reasons why representations of the body so often incorporate the grotesque, carnivalesque and hybridization. These elements provoke a deeper investigation into identity.

Anker, Suzzane, and Dorothy Nelkin. “The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age.” Cold Springs Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, New York. 2004.
Crone, Rainer and Petrus Graf Schaesberg. “Louise Bourgeois: The Secret of the Cells.” Prestel, Munich, Berlin, London, New York. 2008.
“Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque (The Fifth International SITE Santa Fe Biennial)” ed. Sarah S. King. SITE Santa Fe Publication Fund. 2004.
Eco, Umberto. “The Frames of Comic Freedom.” Carival! (ed) Thomas A. Sebeok and Marcia E. Erickson, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton, 1984. 1-11.
Hyman, Timothy and Roger Malbert. “Carnivalesque.” Hayward Gallery Publishing, London.
Jones, Amelia. “The Body.” Critical Terms for Art History Second Edition (ed.) Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003: 251-266.
Krauss, Rosalind. “Corpus Delicti.” October, Vol. 33. 1985: 31-72.
Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress, and The Tangerine. Dir. Amei Wallach and Marion Cajori. Ed. Ken Kobland.Zeitgesit Films, 2008. DVD.
Ross, Christine. “The Insufficiency of the Performative: Video Art at the Turn of the Millennium.” From Jones Amelia et al. “The Body and Technology,” Art Journal, Vol. 60, No. 1, (Spring 2001): 20-33.
“Redefinitions of Abjection in Contemporary Performances of the Female Body,” Modern Art and the Grotesque, (ed.) Frances S. Connelly, New York: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2003: 281-291.
Storr, Robert, “A Sketch for a Portrait: Louise Bourgeois.” From Robert Storr, Paulor Herkenhoff, Allan Schartzman. “Louise Bourgeois.” Phaidon Press Limited. London.New York. 2003. 85.

1 Identity politics can be described as the theories surrounding the understandings of individuality and fluctuating identities.
2 Amelia Jones. “The Body,” Critical Terms for Art History Second Edition,(ed.) Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003: 255.
3 The majority of cells were created during this time span, but there are cells that appear later, like Cell XXIV (portrait) (2001). Rainer Crone and Petrus Graf Schaesberg. “Louise Bourgeois: The Secret of the Cells,” Prestel. Munich, Berlin, London, New York. 2008: 111.
4 In discussion of terms which are so highly charged it is important to always allow for the fact that individual experience and association affects the ways in which an individual may understand a term (ie. comic). For the purposes of this discussion, the terms should be considered according to generally accepted definition.
5 Umberto Eco, “The Frames of Comic Freedom,” Carival! (ed) Thomas A. Sebeok and Marcia E. Erickson, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton, 1984, 1.
6 Examples of this sort of contemporary art can be found in the works of artists such as, Tony Oursler, Bruce Nauman, Orlan, Stellarc, Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, and Eduardo Kac – as examples, and there a vast number of others who incorporate technology as the means to pursue the carnivalesque.
7 Eco, 3.
8 Rosalind Krauss, “Corpus Delicti.” October, Vol. 33, 1985: 34.
9 Christine Ross, “The Insufficiency of the Performative: Video Art at the Turn of the Millenium,” From Jones Amelia et al. “The Body and Technology,” Art Journal, Vol. 60, No. 1, (Spring 2001): 28.
10 Crone and Schaesberg. 15.
11 Ibid., 11.
12 Rober Storr. “Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque (The Fifth International SITE Santa Fe Biennial)” ed. Sarah S.King. SITESanta Fe Publication Fund. 2004: 38.
13 Crone and Schaesberg. 63-64.
14 Robert Storr, “A Sketch for a Portrait: Louise Bourgeois.” From Robert Storr, Paulor Herkenhoff, Allan Schartzman. “Louise Bourgeois.” Phaidon Press Limited. London. New York. 2003. 85.
15 Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress, and The Tangerine.Dir. Amei Wallach and Marion Cajori. Ed. Ken Kobland.Zeitgesit Films, 2008.
16 Christine Ross, “Redefinitions of Abjection in Contemporary Performances of the Female Body,” Modern Art and the Grotesque, (ed.) Frances S. Connelly, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003: 287.
17 The abject, Kristeva names, as waste, excrement, menstrual blood – that which the body rejects or excretes. But it must be noted, as Ross points out that, “For Krauss, Kristeva’s naming of the abject negates the potentially destabilizing effect of abjection; once it has been defined, the abject cannot be the means by which one undermines definitions. ” Ross, “Redefintions of Abjection in Contemporary Performances of the Female Body,” 282.
18 Ross.”Redefinitions of Abjection in Contemporary Performances of the Female Body,” 284.
19 Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin. “The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age,” Cold Springs Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, New York. 2004.
20 Christine Ross, “The Insufficiency of the Performative: Video Art at the Turn of the Millenium” 31.
21 Charles Stainback, “Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque (The Fifth International SITE Santa Fe Biennial)” 7.