In "The Object Stares Back" James Elkins included reproductions of the images that horrified Bataille- showing a women in late 19th century china being flayed alive - and he wrote that only a masochist would stare at such images longer than a few moments.
My copy of Elkins book is paperback on cheap newsprint so the grainy photos look even grainier - which kind of makes them compelling - because what they depict is so gruesome - and unbelievable - a person turning into meat ............
I've just had breakfast (taro bun and coffee) - why am I writing this?
I experienced similar levels of fascinated horror in Hanoi. I was buying yellow plastic handled knives (highly recommended - they have a round broad blade but are sharp and great for uncoordinated left handers) at the markets and looked across and saw what looked like red glazed piglets (Like ducks in the windows of Chinese BBQ restaurants) but weren't. I keep staring, mouth agape into the red fried features of what I usually 'read' as the expressive face of a sentient being - until a moped nearly ran me over and I had to move on.
Here I'm exposing and admitting my own very narrow cultural specificity of affective responses. A dead duck laquered on a plate doesn't worry me, nor does seing the feathered head of a plucked chicken on sale at the french markets. I even think I'm going to a hungi on a weekend. I do find dead fish uncanny but it doesn't put me off judging them as meat (I want FIRM CLEAR EYES please!). the dog thing is recent too. Somehow when I hit 30 - I became a thirty something lesbian, with a thickening waist and a penchant for pooches. Weird eh?
Anyway - this is slightly off track - I was wanting to write about really full on images - largely inspired by Judith Butler's talk on Saturday. I was thinking of my own perversely ex-catholic moral outrage which delights in certain forms of pain. I remember 15 years ago seeing the images of Lucia Vergara - a chilean activist who had been tortured to death. These images circulated in that very catholic country and amongst its exiles - in slim gestetnered (now there's a word from the seventies) volumes filled with revolutionary tracts. Such things are a very very narrow departure from freaky religious paintings of martyrs - St. Sebastian with the arrows, that virgin with her tits on a plate, and that bloody guru of torture - Jesus . Such images are compelling and in drawing the fascinated stare - are meant to inspire a flurry of totally inarticulable feelings: fascination, curiosity, horror, terror, even desire. (Looking at transgressive/forbidden stuff is always a little bit sexy). This weird mixture of emotions - and I'm thinking of the blood rushing through me as a kid especially - are framed by and channeled through the instructive text which almost always accompanies such images. Catholic matyrs - got viewed in a church with the background of some ranting priest. "Hell and fire awaits you if you don't repent! Others have suffered so you can be free!" et cetera. My kneecaps still haven't recovered from splinters and chillblains from morning mass at subzero temperatures so I never really bought the whole freedom bit.......... but seriously politically aware and passionate - horrible images of torture and brutality incite my righteous rage - and fuel our continued weary battles against the behemoth of sanctioned state shit that is err....... the world? , well the news anyway.
I don't often receive the news. I threw out the telly a few years ago, and only sporadicaly listen to the radio. As much as I love the feel of newsprint on my fingers as my bleary eyes take in the daily fodder - I have tried to eschew the Herald - largely because it is filled with mindnumbing soul destroying toxic garbage. I read daily the headlines of a number of international papers when I check my email and supplement this by questions to my avidly news consuming mother once a week. Mum is a current affairs junkie (Mercifully only ABC, SBS and Fairfax) but still has trouble remembering the major news stories of the week. She cites early alzheimers - but I reckon its overload. Stupidity is contagious - so I try to limit my own contact........
Anyway this is a long winded way of saying that it was only recently that I copped a newspaper image of the scary human images from Abu Ghraib. (in January this year) Yes I knew of the torture (the net, word of mouth), yes I'd seen some of the images (largely in street and 'political' art/interventions), but this was the first time -I'd been confronted wiht the banality of a 4cm square photo on newsprint - surrounded by text and ads for flat screen TV's. Golly. Where was the instructive uplifting sermon? The picture was used to indicate an article on Private England and scary whatsiface- the posing torturers who'd been charged, trialled and convicted for their offences. The picture showed the two of them grinning luridly over the carrion mass of their victims, and I enjoyed gloating into the ..... damn - why dont' they have dots on newsprint images anymore?
Anyway I took my gloating onto the net and did a google search - so I could enjoy gloating into the pixels - trying to locate the minute crevices where pure evil could be located. In his sunglasses? In her haircut? In their green gloved thumbs giving the "Going Great!" salute? In their desert grey camouflage pants? In their boots? In the crevices of their teeth? their nostrils? I spent half a day - downloading all the abu-ghraib images I could, zooming in close and peering intently at these ghouls of grinning torturers. Evil has a face! and it smiles for the camera! How convenient for me! I went further and did B&W prints of some of the images - and blew them up on the photocopier. Do I seem insane? I took the photocopied images into my studio and then gridded up canvases - to paint copies of the photocopies - all in my most hated colours of beige, teal, grey. Because I am a painter - I can admit to such freaky indulgence. a philosopher would have more difficulty. Visual artists by deinifition are mean to immerse ourselves in visual phenomena and if something we look at provokes a strong reaction then all the more reason to keep looking at it. The subdued colour range of the paintings give them a tasteful aspect - which when juxtaposed with some suitably ironic advertising slogans of deathtech inc. (General Electric: Imagination at Work) provided an attractive and compelling cultural product. I know this coz one got sold in a gallery early this year.
Feeling Queazy? Evil is Banal isn't it? Even my lucid rage can be subsumed into a cultural production industry, the products of my horror can be commodified and sold. Rest assured - I didn't spend the sales money on lollies - it all went to charity - something worthy - and the buyer could feel assured at their aquisition of an image which would display their own care, concern and cutlural connossiership. You gotta love capitalism - all affective paths smoothed by continuous ooze of lucre - we can all buy, sell, be bought. If it weren't for the big K - those images wouldn't have been taken with a handy digicam, or posted in an ad-bannered email message back home to the family PC, or taken out and blasted across Newsweek to boost its sales, or stuck on the edition of the herald which I then bought - and I wouldn't have seen them. Just to implicate myself further in the murky waters of beige - if a prominent commerical gallery ahdnn't been doing a charity show of political plaquards - thus giving me a chance to stick my fairly unknwon work on its walls - then my image wouldn't have been resolved so quickly - or even if it had - it would be sitting in my studio, gathering dust with the other paintings.
As for the other paintings - they are still in my studio, as unfinished acrylic sketches on canvas. I haven't brought myself to finish them - althought I've got some shows coming up and need more work. But they are ....... erky - and I wonder what type of freak would want to buy this sort of image? some one out to assuage their own feelings of guilt? someone who likes the beige and thinks it will match their couch? I had a plan of showing them with some trasnciptions of Rubens "Massacre of the Innocents" and Goya's etchings on war - but then the Rubens trasciription took over my life and my studio and is now this behemoth resembling a kind of Peter Booth scene in Flouro Pink. It kind of drowns out anything near it. Oh God.
The Predator and the Jokester
5 weeks ago