SITE EIGHT / 13 to 28 June 2018 Mon to Fri 1-5pm (Opening Thursday 14 June 5-7pm)
With a flair for the abject, four artists are navigating the narrow path between “I” and “it” to investigate what it means to be human. Each work asks the viewer to confront the visceral, to embrace it in order to find new ways of looking and understanding who, what, and why we are.
Julian Cobb is a recipient of the 2018 RMIT:ART:INTERSECT Curatorial Internship. The Curatorial Internship is a six-month internship which concludes with an exhibition of current RMIT School of Art Honours and Masters of Fine Art students, curated by the intern.
Julian Cobb is an emerging curator based in Melbourne, and is currently undertaking a Masters of Arts (Arts Management) at RMIT University. Having grown up with an intense love for all things creative, Julian has always gravitated towards Melbourne’s thriving art scene. Julian holds a Bachelor of Fine Art from Monash University, and is now turning towards curation in hopes of creating shows that inspire and draw a wider audience too contemporary art. With key interests in installation/transformative artworks, and themes of the human condition, popular culture & abjection, Julian hopes to create experiences for people that transport them into strange new worlds, offering different ways of looking and thinking about contemporary art and society.
“I” and “it”—two words that are worlds apart and yet separated only by a single letter. When approaching the abject, “I” is an incredibly important concept; “I” is me; “I” is the sum of all my parts that create myself; “I” is the boundary that defines who and what I am. “It” on the other-hand is everything “I” is not, “it” is what “I” rejects, abjects. “It” is the other, specifically the other that is beneath “I”, because “it” is abject to “I”. “I” names the “it” to remove it from the “I”, to deny “it” agency or autonomy. “It” is just “it”. Yet, this dichotomy of “I” and “it” is merely a construct; the “I”’s attempt to abdicate itself of the “it”. But through the works in this show, Te’ Claire, Shan Crosbie, Niki Koutouzis and Lauren Morehouse are invoking our base abjections—holding the “it” up as mirror to the “I”, to highlight that that which “I” abjects, is “it” which reminds us of “I”.
To understand the premise of l/t is it important to first acknowledge its key overarching theme: abjection, which has been notably theorised on by Julie Kristeva in her 1982 essay Powers of Horror. Abjection tends to be misconstrued as a term used to simply describe something “gross”. While not incorrect, this is a very shallow use of the word, one that fails to grasp the greater connotations something truly abject has. Deconstructing the word provides us with a broader definition. The prefix ‘ab’ means ‘away’, while the suffix ‘ject’ means ‘throw’. Hence, a more faithful interpretation of the term would be that something abject is something we cast aside (throw away). But not everything cast aside is abject, there must be a gravity to the “it” that affects the “I” negatively, for abjection refers to the things we turn away from in order to live. “Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck”. Here Kristeva thoroughly captures the essence of abjection: it is something that insults our mind and assaults our senses. It threatens to defile and corrupt us, thus we must turn away in order to protect ourselves. But what from? What is it we so fear? What must we deny in order to live? The simple answer, and possibly the only true answer, is death. All roads lead to it. We are forever moving towards it. It is the only truth we as organic life can be certain of.
Abjection is the human response to that which reminds us of our finite nature. It shows us for what we truly are, so when confronted with something abject, the body and mind do what they can to stave off the abject. Abjection can hijack our logical being and invoke emotional and sometimes volatile responses within us that we can’t control, which gives the abject a power over us. This is where the artist steps in. By recognising and utilising the power of the abject in their work, artists are able to shock their audience out of the coma of the everyday and present new perspectives they might have otherwise, instinctively ignored. I/t highlights artworks that utilise abjection to communicate important and intimate truths. Each artist has approached abjection in their work differently and for various reasons, yet all function to utilise the abject to empower their respective messages, and engage their audience viscerally and mentally.
Te’ Claire’s Surface Trauma is comprised of two amorphous ceramic sculptures, each resting on top of a pillow and blanket. They are un-imposing in size and yet their presences fills the space. The pieces’ uncanny resemblance to bone and meat is already enough to throw the viewer off-kilter, but with additional use of garish bile yellow, and glistening sweat/semen white glazes, these two sculptures enter a realm of true repugnance. Their ties to the body—so evident in their aesthetics—offends and scares us. They lay ever so still yet appear to have a life of their own. What are these things? Are they from something? Are they human? Why are they twisted, battered and bruised? Why are they covered in vomit and cum? So many questions run through the mind while absorbing the horrors of what their reality may be. Perfectly still with the appearance of abuse and defilement, they seek comfort in the well-worn pillow and blanket they rest upon—as one would expect of a hurt animal or person. It is clear they have suffered. What and to what extent we can only speculate, but the fear is there. The work begs the viewer to push through the wall of abjection: to continue to look when the immediate response is to turn away, and to even possibly muster up an ounce of empathy for the “it” before them. Maybe “it” is not so different from “I”. Surface Trauma enables audiences to keep questioning its origins and state of being, leading them to consider the types of trauma they have been inflicted, as well as the negative psychological and physical impact they sustain.
This call to empathy is also a key component of Niki Koutouzis’ She. A woman—sculpted of wax—looks at herself in the mirror, spreading her legs, perhaps trying to understand truly what she is. The mottled uneven texture of the wax, the brown colour that immediately calls to mind refuse, the stringy sludge hair that dangles from the head; it is as if this creature has risen from the mud, a new form of life that repulses us through its strangeness. But as much as we wish to deny it, this creature is human, she is a woman doing what many of us do every day—observe ourselves in the mirror. But is this a representation of how she sees of herself? Is her body so foreign to her that it becomes alien or creature? This work truly forces home the complex and often times distressing connections, or lack thereof, we as people have with our bodies—and in She’s case, the female body. This female form, altered to the state of abjection, confronts the viewer. Far removed from the ideals of beauty so typically thrust upon women, She becomes “it” —we make it an “it”—so that we may distance ourselves from what it represents to us. But we must face the “it” we reject to better understand why we reject it in the first place. She inhabits the horror that all women face, through the various stages of their lives, trying to understand and contend with the patriarchal abjectness projected upon them by society.
Continuing to look at the disenchantment of the female body, Lauren Morehouse’s The Gazed abstracts the female form, dissects it, and reassembles it into a nightmarish toy straight out of Sid’s room in Disney’s Toy Story (1995). The crocheted sculpture sits firmly in the realm of the uncanny. Its structure, seemingly taking inspiration from Hans Bellmer’s surrealist dolls, resembles two sets of legs joined together via a mutual waist. But the strangeness of the form is, at least at first, counteracted by its materiality, crocheted dolls aren’t typically something to find frightening. Yet the more this “it” is observed, the more abject it becomes. This slow burn of realisation is quite threatening, for it lulls us into a certain sense of security, that its otherness is far enough removed from the “I” that it isn’t a threat. Except, the sculpture, with its overstuffed and malformed appearance, perfectly mimics “struggles” of the female body. The stretch of the wool and lumpy surface conjures up imagery of cellulite, stretch marks, and obesity; which to capitalist media standards of beauty, equates to modern day horrors. Like She, The Gazed highlights the numerous stresses of the female body from both a societally conditioned woman looking internally, to the external perceptions placed upon the female form. This object is struggling in its suspended state between self-loathing and the disgust of others. The Gazed embodies this abject feminine “it” that society has created. So by utilising a delayed abjection, The Gazed is able to highlight the trappings of societal conditioning on the female form.
Yet humanities’ control doesn’t stop at its subjection of the femme, it holds itself above all other life on earth. Shan Crosbie’s provocative work Redacted is a narrative sound piece that tells the stories of the voiceless, the masses that are systematically slaughtered, those that stood no chance: farmed animals. Humans consume animal meat and by-products each day, many without second thought, we farm them purely to use them for our needs. They are born, bred and ultimately killed so we may live our lives unrestrained in our diet. The supermarket has become the new hunting ground. No longer do we see the faces of our prey before we consume them; humanity has abjected the animal from its meat because when the cold reality of its production is brought to light, it is hard not to feel the guilt. But the cruelty of the meat industry isn’t necessarily as big a mystery as we’d all like to believe, we are not so ignorant as to deny that animals must be breed and killed on mass for the amount of meat we consume to exist. So how do we live with ourselves knowing this truth? Abjection fuelled arrogance; we tell ourselves that animal life is below our own, we remove their autonomy as not to view them as equal to humanity. This is where Redacted confronts the listener. By censoring out any specific reference to animals, the stories told from abattoir workers and whistle-blowers in this work ignite concern and empathy within us. We fear that these disturbing and morose tales might be referring to human suffering, so when it is slowly revealed that these stories are in fact about animal suffering, we are forced to confront our own morality and complicity in the meat industry. Are animals “it”?
We must observe what we typically shun if we are ever to truly know ourselves. We are “I” but we, eventually, are also “it”; we aren’t gods, we are carbon-based life forms that will one day fall beyond the “I” and become the “it” we so fear. We live our lives ignoring our fate, for it is the only way to live, but our wilful ignorance betrays us, it blinds us to the suffering of others to spare us from recognising our own suffering. “I” refuses the “it” we create to maintain our fragile reality. But ignorance begets complacency, and suffering is allowed to continue. Each work in I/t has been created with the key intent of eliciting an abject response in its audience, yet how it does that, and for what purpose is unique to each piece. Yet what the works share is their defiance of human conservatism, they refuse to pander to societal sensibilities that would keep us from speaking out about lived pains and injustices. The works embody these harsh realities, they express and convey them in a uniquely artistic ways, that engages the viewer reflexively. And it is this ability to trigger self-awareness that gives the abject its impact and power to push aside the veil that tries to protect us, yet only blinds us in the end.
 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 2.
2 Ibid., 3.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge, 1993.
Freud, Sigmund. Writings on Art and Literature, California: Columbia University Press, 1997. https://monoskop.org/images/f/f5/Freud_Sigmund_Writings_on_Art_and_Literature.pdf (accessed June 4, 2018)
Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. L Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.