Throughout my years at university, my practice took many different turns, dabbling in an array of different mediums as well as adopting a range of distinct styles influenced by both artists and texts that I found interesting. During the third year of uni, my work became heavily influenced by psychoanalytical texts and literature; an analysis within second year of Freud’s widely known 1919 text ‘The uncanny’, lead me to discover French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva and her findings on the similar, but more ‘violent ’ theory of ‘the abject’ (Kristeva, 1982:5) which she discusses at length in her 1980 text ‘Powers of horror: an essay on abjection’. I ended up writing my thesis based around the abject within visual art, learning more and more about the way in which fear and art can coincide to produce a particular reaction within the audience.
If you’re not familiar with the ‘abject’, it is a theory coined by Kristeva herself, that describes the reaction people have when confronted with something that has been outcast, for example bodily fluids, faeces and even corpses (Kristeva, 1982:2). This theory can also be used to describe the technique used within art throughout history in order to create a strong psychical sensation within the viewer, such as disgust and repulsion. I have always created my own work in order to create a reaction from my audience, whether it’s simply getting the viewer to think about mental illness and its effects on sufferers, or creating a sense of curiosity that leads the viewer to challenge themselves when trying to figure out the meaning behind a piece of work. When beginning to think about my practice at this time, I really wanted to create work that would somehow shock the viewer and so I decided to try employing the theory of abjection into my own work. This is when I began creating images using photo manipulation, photographing both myself and models and changing them in order highlight the parts that I felt would be outcast by the audience’s minds. I started with some images of my hands – because of my severe OCD, I can wash my hands up to 350 times a day, a compulsion that leaves my hands sore and bleeding and in quite an unsightly state. Abjection is a actually sensation that I experience a lot when it comes to people being confronted with my hands – friends and family recoil in horror when they see the withered dry skin, the large gaping cuts of the flesh and the yellowing of the folds of my fingers where copious amounts of alcohol sanitizers and cleaning products have eaten into the dermis causing acute infections. Once I realised this reaction was somewhat equivalent to the response you find when confronted with the abject, I began to photograph my hands making sure that the pictures captured the most gruesome details. This also lead onto other works in which I began binding my hands arms in ways that looked both painful and disturbing to the viewer.
For a whole two years now, my practice has largely revolved around this theory, combined with others to create work that will hopefully provoke a strong reaction from the viewer. I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking of new ways to inform my audience about mental illness whilst simultaneously creating a sense of abjection, much like the sense of disgust and fear that I personally encounter when confronted with everyday tasks that send my OCD into overdrive. Not only did I want to create a dialogue about metal illness but I also wanted to also see if it was possible to make my viewers feel the same uncomforting sensation I feel when met by a worry. However, it has come to a point in my practice where I feel that a change is needed after new research has lead me to want to explore the field of abstract expressionism.
As I previously mentioned, my new project is one in which I create an abstract painting each day in order to express how I am feeling in relation to my mental illnesses. Of course this may seem quite a radical change from my work regarding the abject, and visually their differences appear almost a polar opposite, but in fact I believe the works have more in common than it would appear. Take for instance my statement in which I describe my intentions as an artist, whilst the way in which I am doing this has differentiated, the message still remains the same. I am still exploring the concepts of mental illness through my art, and I am still looking to create an emotional response within the audience.
I believe that it is this desire to create an emotional response that creates a sense of unity between two very contrasting styles. In addition to this, I am still keen to maintain a sense of ambiguity in my work. My battle between the obvious and the ambiguous is something, which I shall discuss in a separate blog post, but it is worth mentioning in regards to the abstract nature of my work. As you may have noticed, whilst some of my more abject inspired works are quite obvious with their subject matter, for example my piece ‘wash’ (picutured below)
which quite clearly shows my wrinkled, cut hand and is rather obvious with it’s message, I also have works that are not particularly obvious when you first encounter them. My untitled piece, shown below, whilst after viewing for a while can be distinguished as a bound arm leading to a lifeless hand, does not initially reveal what it is. I photographed and edited this arm in such a way that it takes a while to actually work out what the image is of, and as well as hiding the subject of the photo I was also keen to obscure the meaning of this piece too. I wanted to create a sense of repulsion in my viewer by showing them something that looked rather painful, but at the same time I didn’t want the piece to obviously be about mental illness. My aim, at the time, was to create work that provoked a certain reaction in the audience but that required more thought into the meaning behind the piece. I believe this is very similar to what I am trying to achieve with my new project. I don’t particularly want the pieces to resemble anything obvious, but I also want the image to challenge the viewer and to evoke an emotional reaction, be it confusion, happiness, anxiety or fear.
To conclude, I am going to be moving on from the abject as my main focus and inspiration, to instead looking at abstract expressionism as a way to express my experiences with mental illness. I’ll be looking into colour theory, exploring theories on abstraction in relation to emotions, and much more! In reality, I have no idea where this new direction will take me, and whilst it is the main focus of my new project, I never like to pin my practice down to one style only, so if I want to revert to the abject with a piece then I may do. What ever I do, however, I look forward to seeing what kind of reaction and interpretation it gets from the viewers, because after all that is what my practice is all about.
Freud, Sigmund. (2003) The Uncanny. London: Penguin Classics.
Kristeva, Julia. (1982) Powers of horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.