Contemporary artist Chris Burden passed away just a few days ago, and as we reflect on his influential (and often controversial) career as an artist I'd like to include other artists for a broader perspective of Burden's use of abjection in his work. As defined by Julia Kristeva in the Powers of Horror, the abject is not simply defined by the abhorrence of bodily fluids or excrement, but a lack of order and control. Anything which deviates from the established norm. Death is certainly the most abject that we as humans must face, but the very idea of death, the realization of one’s mortality, is even more frightening. The spilling of bodily fluids and disease are two of the most obvious displays of abjection from a living body, and this is seen in the works of Chris Burden, Otto Dix, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
Burden used his body to make his early artwork. He did acts of violence upon himself and acts of endurance. In Kunst Kick Burden had someone kick him down the stairs. Burden had a friend shoot him through the arm in Shoot (the actual shot was meant to graze him, but his friend missed and the bullet was lodged in Burden's arm). After 1964, violence became more and more commonplace on television because of the video and photographic coverage of the conflict in both Vietnam and violent racial tension in the US. In Transfixed (1974) Burden had his hands nailed to a Volkswagon Beetle, it was rolled out to a driveway, had photos taken, then released. In Through the Night Softy (1973) Burden had his hands tied behind his back and wore nothing but a bathing suit crawling across 50 ft. of broken glass. Burden, rightly, feared that the American public was becoming desensitized to images of violence.
It is important to remember that the aforementioned pieces are simply a sampling of Burden's work throughout his entire career. A sampling of his large body of work can be viewed here: www.marthagarzon.com/contempor…
Otto Dix’s work depicted combat soldiers who had survived WWII but had returned to society horrifically maimed. Beyond the maiming, which in itself is an abject thought, these veterans were each outfitted with mechanical prosthetics. The bodies of these men which were already violated were manipulated to even more grotesque proportions with metal jaws, leg that stuck out at awkward angles, and missing appendages (sometimes even cut off at the torso). These depictions of maimed soldiers were meant to make a social and political statement about the treatment of wounded soldiers.
Often there is “glory” in either living through war completely unscathed or never returning alive. Society would rather not accept a gruesomely maimed man, regardless of the fact he sacrificed so much to defend those very people. These paintings also objected to the practice of redeploying terribly injured troops up to three times after suffering severe injuries.
In a way...this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favor of a disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes. —Felix Gonzalez-Torres
By contrast, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ piece A Corner of Baci spoke of the profound loss of his partner Ross to AIDS (a virtual death sentence in the 1980s). This piece handles several abject ideas. The very first being love between two gay men. The second is the notion of coming into close contact with a gay man and accepting something from him (in this case a chocolate kiss, which is “baci…” a double entendre). Third, and the nail in coffin, is AIDS. Combined together, all three were a massively frightening monster to 1980s America. HIV and AIDS were widely believed to be a “homosexual disease” at that time. Additionally, anything having to do with anyone LGTBQ was taboo and highly suspect if not outright feared because so many people were dying shortly after diagnosis. Viewers are invited to take and eat as many of the Baci as they like. The chocolates were Ross’ favorite candy, but also represents the wasting of his body as the candies are removed from the exhibit and consumed. Exactly 42 lbs. of chocolate completes the installation, the weight of Ross at his death.
What counter-balances this piece so excellently is the fact that it is portrayed as a loving memorial, and not a grotesque and loathsome reminder of death. This piece is completely non-threatening in this way, and made wholly accessible to everyone. This is supremely important to its themes. Everyone will experience loss (if not the death of a loved one), and to a degree love as well. This piece demonstrates the obvious sameness and humanity of the couple in the adversity of a rejecting culture and destructive disease.
All three artist's effectively tapped into social and political problems of their times by addressing their subjects from the ultimate abject thought: mortality.