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The term abjection literally means "the state of being cast off". In usage it has connotations of degradation, baseness and meanness of spirit; but has been explored in post-structuralism as that which inherently disturbs conventional identity and cultural concepts.
Drawing on the French tradition of interest in the monstrous (e.g., novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline), and of the subject as grounded in filth (e.g., psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan), Julia Kristeva developed the idea of the abject as that which is rejected by/disturbs social reason - the communal consensus that underpins a social order. The "abject" exists accordingly somewhere between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, representing taboo elements of the self barely separated off in a liminal space.
According to Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience, as with the repulsion presented by confrontation with filth, waste, or a corpse - an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. Thus the sense of the abject complements the existence of the superego - the representative of culture, of the symbolic order: in Kristeva's aphorism, "To each ego its object, to each superego its abject".
From Kristeva's psychoanalytic perspective, abjection is done to the part of ourselves that we exclude: the mother. We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, in order to construct an identity. Abjection occurs on the micro level of the speaking being, through his/her subjective dynamics, as well as on the macro level of society, through "language as a common and universal law". We use rituals, specifically those of defilement, to attempt to maintain clear boundaries between nature and society, the semiotic and the symbolic, paradoxically both excluding and renewing contact with the abject in the ritual act.
The concept of abjection is often coupled (and sometimes confused) with the idea of the uncanny, the concept of something being "un-home-like", or foreign, yet familiar. The abject can be uncanny in the sense that we can recognize aspects in it, despite its being "foreign": a corpse, having fallen out of the symbolic order, creates abjection through its uncanniness - creates a cognitive dissonance.
By extension, in contemporary critical theory, "abjection" is often used to describe the state of often-marginalized groups, such as women, unwed mothers, people of minority religious faiths, prostitutes, convicts, poor and disabled people. The term space of abjection is also used, referring to a space that abjected things or beings inhabit.
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The roots of Abject art go back a long way. Painters express a fascination for blood long before the Renaissance but it wasn't until the Dada movement that the fascination with transgression and taboo made it possible for Abject Art, as a movement, to exist. It owes a considerable debt to Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. Well before the Abject Art movement was given a name by the Whitney Museum, New York in 1993, the movement towards Abject Art had long been in existence.
It was preceded by the films and performances of the Viennese Actionists, in particular, Hermann Nitsch, whose interest in Schwitter's idea of a gesamtkunstwerk led to his setting up the radical theatre group, known as the Orgien-Mysterien-Theater which involved the use of animal carcasses and blood shed in a ritualistic way. Nitsch served time in jail for blasphemy before being invited to New York in 1968 by Jonas Mekas where he organised a series of performances which greatly influenced the radical New York art scene.
Other members of the Viennese Actionists, Gunter Brus, who began as a painter, and Otto Muehl collaborated on performances. The performances of Gunter Brus involved publicly urinating, defecating and cutting himself with a razor blade which had a powerful influence on later Abject Art from the 1980s and 1990s. Rudolf Schwarzkogler who committed suicide by jumping from a window in 1969 is better known for his photos dealing with the Abject. The growth of extreme performance art coincided with the radicalisation of politics in the late 1960s.
In the late 1960s Performance Art took off in New York. For a short period, Carolee Schneemann made performances that led to her inclusion in the 1993 show at the Whitney Museum of Abject Art. In the early 1970s Mary Kelly caused a scandal in 1976 when she exhibited dirty nappies at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. This was followed by the concentration on the abject which is implicit in punk rock and, in particular, the performances of Genesis P. Orridge and GG Allin which involved spit, urine, blood, semen and feces.
In the 1980s and 1990s, fascination with the Powers of Horror, the title of a book by Julia Kristeva, led to a second wave of radical performance artists working with bodily fluids including Ron Athey, Franko B, Lennie Lee and Kira O' Reilly.
The abject also began to influence the work of a number of mainstream artists including Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Gilbert and George, Robert Gober, Kiki Smith and Jake and Dinos Chapman who were all included in the 1993 Whitney show.
Other important artists working with abjection include New York photographers, Joel Peter Witkin, whose book Love and Redemption is made up entirely of photos of corpses and body parts, and Andres Serrano whose piece entitled Piss Christ caused a scandal in 1989 when it received $15,000 dollars of public funding.
Julia Kristeva, Black Sun (1989)
Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (1980)
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)
Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet (1952)