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August 20, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Freedom and the Fury

The highs and lows of transgressive art



“In ten years, there’s one question nobody’s ever asked me. Why is this art?” ~ Marina Abramovic

Transgressive art, by definition, is meant to be shocking. It’s disgusting, vile, and a degradation of everything that society holds sacred. By peeling back the veneer of normalcy and expectation, transgressive art aims to challenge norms and raise questions, all in the name of reflective vision. This is art’s raison d’etre, but in the age of stylised violence and hack entertainment, are artists going too far?

Facing the dragon

Performance art is one of the more representational—and confusing—expressions of public subversion, but takes its place in the museums of the world as important social critique. If you thought Gotye’s music video for ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ was conceptual, you should meet Chris Burden.

Possibly the poster boy for misunderstood genius (and the face of the controversial art community of the ’70s) Burden captured the public’s attention with his series of dangerous performances. On November 17th, 1971, Burden unleashed ‘Shoot’, his most infamous work to date. Acting on orders from the artist, Burden’s friend took aim at his left arm and with his long rifle, fired a single bullet. When asked why he did it, the answer he gave in ’71 was “to be taken seriously.” In 2012 however, Burden qualifies his actions as a reaction against social conditioning. “There are always two sides to a coin. Society is usually fixated on only one side of the coin… Being shot is considered by society to be a bad thing and to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes it is of some interest to flip the coin and face the dragon head on.”

Burden would later go on to be nailed to a Volkswagen and be hung upside down and naked in a school gym. For his ‘Doomed’ museum installation, Burden set a clock by the floor, and lay motionless beneath a glass sheet while passersby watched curiously. In their roles as the audience, not one member of the public approached Burden in any way. After forty-five hours (during which Burden soiled himself) a young museum employee took pity on the artist, placing a water pitcher within his reach. With this, Burden rose and smashed the clock. It might seem pointless at first glance, but Doomed exposed the ridiculousness of the ‘viewer role’. In assuming that the audience shouldn’t mess with the art, almost everyone relinquished the ethics and responsibilities that they would usually have upheld, leaving Burden to stew in his own excrement and hunger without questioning whether the value of the work outweighed the value of his life.

In a similar vein, famed artist Marina Abramovic sat motionless in a room with 72 different objects of pain and pleasure, and a sign inviting guests to use whichever ones they wanted on her unyielding body. Among the objects were feathers, roses, whips, knives, and a gun with a single bullet. Abramovic’s passive role was a reaction to the criticisms that artists were too sensationalist and masochistic, passing their own egos off as social commentary. The audience’s initial gentility was soon replaced by malice, beginning with the removal of Abramovic’s clothes and culminating in the gun being pointed at her head.

“It was real horror”, she later said, “the audience cut me with a knife across the neck and drank my blood. They carried me, half naked, to the table and slammed the knife down between my legs, into the wood”. Abramovic’s experiment showed that anyone, from the most cultured of audiences to the random museum goer, could descend in to acts of pseudo torture when presented with a body that wouldn’t fight back.

After the performance finished—six hours later—Abramovic recalls that the audience were suddenly terrified. “When it was over, I started walking towards the audience, naked, bloody, with tears in my eyes. Everybody ran away, literally ran out of the door”. There are those that think this type of behaviour is insanely self-destructive, a gateway to even more absurd and dangerous, antics. Yet for Burden, Abramovic, and their critics, the transgressiveness of their art is what makes it important, and elevates it to the realm of artistic validity.

When the other shoe drops

Though the critics love a high-minded conceptual piece, transgressive art really finds its niche in the perverse. Author Peter Sotos has been vilified for his novels, which depict sexual violence and sadistic paedophilia in a first-person narrative. While he’s been accused of being a predatory scumbag, Sotos insists that his work isn’t self-indulgent and that his motives come from a good place. His 2005 novel Comfort and Critique recounts the kidnapping and murder of 8-year-old Sarah Payne, and Sotos attempts to critique the press through a mixture of philosophical interpretation and uncomfortable sexual musing. “You don’t get news reports that are devoid of spin and you don’t get news reporters who don’t wink at you because of that”, he says, “I’m far more interested in how that thinking creates the bodies and personalities it reports on.”

In that regard, he claims that his work exposes how the 8-year-old victim became “the product that the news wanted”, albeit in the most blood-chilling way possible. His sound collage, ‘Buyer’s Market’, compiled graphic interviews from law enforcement officials, parents, and abused children detailing their experiences with the child sex-trafficking industry. It’s a difficult listen, sparking everything from disgust, terror, and empathy. “Most art, literature, music, journalism is blurred by a selfish interest in earning a living”, explains Sotos. He contrasts himself to the many artists who “pretend that they’re offering an objective honesty”, citing his interest in “how that fluidity seeps into concepts of respect, love, sympathy, and otherwise”.

The Vienna Actionists have also smashed boundaries in the name of art. The four avant-garde artists associated with the movement (Otto Mühl, Günter Brus, Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Hermann Nitsch) broke every decency law there was by using the naked body as a vessel for violence and sacrilege. Nitsch’s Das Orgien Mysterien Theater was an indictment against the disengagement in affluent societies, which he chose to express by flinging pig flesh and blood over the naked members of his audience. When asked what other types of animals he’d like to incorporate in to his work, Nitsch’s reply was human cadavers. “I’ve been trying for years to procure a human body for my theatre”, he claimed, “Universities for medicine can have cadavers for their research, why can’t an artist also have access to such tools?”

His colleague, Brus, takes this symbolism to extremes. In protest of the limitations placed upon the body, he makes images that depict extreme pain. Twisted genitalia, men covered in faecal matter, a face cut in half, hands nailed to the wall, his own self-destruction laid bare in difficult-to-stomach statement pieces. At least The Viennese Actionists were respected artists. In the world of underground punk— often seen as less ‘legitimate’ than other mediums—GG Allin was notorious. As the self-professed embodiment of transgression, Allin made it his mission to live life as controversially as possible.

His lyrics—hateful, racist, misogynistic— complemented his on-stage antics, many of which involved flinging his own faeces at the audience and threatening suicide. He went to jail for lighting a woman on fire and insisted on being buried as he was—covered in faeces and booze. To most people, Allin seems dangerous, if not insane, and deriving any artistic value from his life would be a stretch. But to his legions of fans, he represented an anti- authoritarian, extreme-individualist viewpoint, and is still hailed as a pillar of transgressive punk.

Leaving Allin in the dust though, is film maker Fred Vogel. His movies embrace everything that repulses society, and in terms of artistic credibility, he’s at the bottom of the heap. Vogel’s August Underground trilogy are faux- snuff exploitation films that follow a pair of serial killers as they rape, decapitate and torture their way through the movies. The acts caught on tape—and shot home-video style—are so realistic that it’s difficult to believe their fictional nature. It’s been suggested that Vogel’s presentation of human behaviour at its worst will provoke emotion that’s rarely brought to the surface. Some will feel disgust and helplessness while others may be shocked to discover that they’re curious, or fascinated by the gore. Commentators have pointed out that it might be a counter-attack on our desensitisation to standard horror films, and that by allowing us to experience the terror of murder in the most realistic way possible, Vogel’s audience will be forever changed.

At some point, fans have argued, sadistic mayhem transcends in to something more than the sum of its parts. While Vogel’s vision will never hit the mainstream, there’s still the issue of why we can tolerate an image of self- mutilation in a museum and herald it as an expression of genius, but revile a low-grade torture film that uses the same motifs. Society is perturbed by almost any digression from the norm, but for some reason, we’ll give ‘serious artists’ the benefit of the doubt. Maybe society is drawing the line of decency. What’s more likely though, is that we won’t let go of our cultural limits. Above all, transgressive art reminds us that everything—especially art—operates within a system of privilege and prejudice. Just like life.


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