Art can be disgusting in so many ways. When it comes to grotesque art, or more colloquially said – disturbing art, what is unsettling is the fact that it often combines things that shouldn’t be found in one form. It often evokes shock or disgust, and even though the notion of it has changed through history, it seems that this kind of art never gets old. Art can also have disturbing effect if it pushes the limits of socially accepted boundaries and behaviors, leaving the audience unsettled. This sort of art often deals with taboos in the most inappropriate ways possible. On the other hand, art can be disturbing if it’s just plain right down creepy or simply involves bodily fluids.
The grotesque is a slippery category that goes back to the medieval imagination. It is not an easy concept to define, and the notion of what can disgust us has been changing through history. In the book Grotesque in Western Art and Culture, Frances S Connelly states that "grotesques are by their nature intermixed, unresolved, and impure… and to represent them as fixed entities misses their most salient feature". From the works of Hieronymus Bosch or Francisco Goya to more contemporary examples such as Hans Bellmer or Francis Bacon, grotesque seems less to do with what the images look like or represent than with what they do and evoke in the viewer. These works certainly break boundaries and question established conventions. Grotesque often involves some kind of body horrors. Even though the notion of the grotesque is subjected to historical and cultural fluctuations, when it comes to body horror specifically, it seems that it can affect us in the same as long as we have bodies.
Apart from the grotesque, disturbing art is often connected with shocking, weird, narcissistic, voyeuristic, vulgar, masochistic and sexually inappropriate practices. With a rise of the performance art during the 1970s, the aesthetics of shock became an important quality of the art practice. Conquering territories labeled as forbidden, these practices disturbed and often offended the audience by making them leave their comfort zone of what is socially acceptable. Depicting fetishes, disturbing imagery and controversial ideas, shock art seems to respond to the culture of sensationalism and the public’s need to be challenged. Still, since the society is getting more used to disturbing and gore imagery, one must wonder if it is still possible to be shocked or disgusted. In order to explore this, we have compiled some great examples of disturbing art in a broad meaning of the word.
An acclaimed photographer Joel-Peter Witkin has been arranging dark tableus and still lifes using subjects ranging from various societal outcasts such as dwarfs, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, amputees, people with disabilities and deformities to rotting corpses and dismembered body parts for more than 40 years. With death and issues of mortality central to his work, he is also a sculptor of corpses and dismembered body parts meticulously staged and crafted into his still life imagery. His infamous print Ars Moriendi is showing a nude woman surrounded by severed decaying heads. The heads were borrowed from a nearby hospital and their bits of skin, teeth and muscle were often removed for research. Since heads were around ten years old, Witkin recalls the stench was so unbearable that he could fire only a few shots.
Rhythm 0 is a disturbing experiment Marina Abramović did in Naples in 1974. It involved herself as an object and 72 items on a trestle table that the audience was invited to use on her as they saw fit during a six-hours performance. While some of them, such as a feather boa, perfume, honey or bread, were harmless, the others, such as a scalpel, scissors, nails or a loaded gun, were certainly not. Left to the mercy of the public in order to find out how far would they go, the artist was obviously ready to die. The whole performance started off benign as people would be turning her around, kissing her or giving her roses, but after the third hour, it took a darker turn. Her clothes were cut off with a razor blade, her throat was slashed and her blood sucked, she experienced various minor sexual assaults, and eventually, the gun was pointed at her head. This terrifying experiment on human psychology left the artist violated and dripping in blood and tears.
Prior to painting his seminal piece The Raft of the Medusa, Theodore Gericault involved himself in a study of a human body and what happens to it before and after death. Developing relationships with several hospitals and medical students, he started studying the faces of dead and dying and painting them. He often took heads and body parts back to his studio in order to watch them decompose and paint the whole process. Study of the Heads of Torture Victims created in 1818 was one of these preliminary paintings, and despite the initial shock factor, it has been carefully planned and staged. While the head on the left seems calm and almost asleep, the other one has the mouth and eyes wide open as it never saw the death coming.
An Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch has always had a fascination with the intensity of religious feelings and taboo images, nudity and bloody scenes. In the 1950s, he founded Orgies Mysterien Theater and staged nearly 100 performances between 1962 and 1998. Considered both ritualistic and existential and usually gruesome and grotesque, these bizarre orgies involved animal carcasses, slaughters, religious sacrifices, crucifixion, gallons of blood and flesh. With theatrical performances resembling pagan rituals or satanic rites and performers soaked in vital fluids accompanied by music, dancing and active participants, it is often suggested that these shows exemplify cultures’ fascination with violence.
An acclaimed performance and installation artist, Vito Acconci has been exploring the dynamics of intimacy, trust and power throughout his career. Seedbed from 1972 was not a visually graphic performance, but it was still an extremely controversial and disturbing one, transgressing assumed boundaries between public and private space on one hand, and between the audience and performer on the other. The performance was staged at Sonnabend Gallery in New York where he has installed a low wooden ramp. On the days he performed, he would be lying under it and masturbate for eight hours straight, basing his sexual fantasies on the movement of visitors above him. He narrated these fantasies out loud and his voice could be heard through the speakers around the gallery space.
A disturbing masterpiece Saturn Devouring His Son is one of the six paintings Francisco Goya has painted on the walls of his house. It depicts the Greek Myth of the Cronus (Saturn in Roman mythology) eating his son, fearing he would be overthrown by one of his children based on the prophecy. Goya never named these six works and the name was assigned after his death when a painting was transferred onto a canvas. The painting shows a child already missing a head, right arm and part of the left one as Saturn prepares to take another bite. The painting is very dark, and the only whiteness comes from the child’s flesh and Saturn’s knuckles. The painting may have originally portrayed him with an erected penis, but this is still unclear due to the deterioration of the mural over time. It is believed Goya was inspired by Rubens’ painting of the same name from 1636 where the myth was portrayed in a more conventional treatment.
Known for his explorations of the human form through surreal imagery and unconventional materials, British artist Marc Quinn has created a piece Self, a famous self-portrait of the artist based on his body as a material. This cast of Quinn’s head dipped in frozen silicone is created from ten pints of his own blood. Created in the period when he was an alcoholic, the notion of dependency in this piece is apparent since the sculpture needs electricity in order to stay frozen. As an exploration of the passing time and his own aging and changing, he creates a version of this famous self-portrait every five years.
British contemporary mixed media and installation artist James R Ford creates observative projects that contemplate life in the universe and how we use our time by using everyday materials. His disgusting piece Bogey Ball is created from his nose mucus that he has been collecting in a Tom & Jerry cup for two years to form a Brussels sprout-sized snot ball. He stated that he got the idea from a friend who was not a fan of contemporary art and who commented that one may as well pick one’s nose and exhibit it as art. This infamous piece went on sale for £10,000. The price was formed based on the time spent creating the work, distress at handling mucus and price per bogey. As an actual part of the artist’s body, each bogey was valued £10.
Sculptures of remixed human body parts by Jonathan Payne are utterly disgusting. These sculptures depicting warty skin and overgrown toenails, a tooth-penis-nipple hybrid or a tongue with teeth are called Fleshlettes and evoke almost a physical reaction in the viewer. Executed in a very realistic manner, these strange body parts sculptures explore some deep set insecurities with ugliness and deformation. To create these works, Payne uses super sculpey, polymer clay, acrylic, and human hair. As he states himself, he is interested in "bizarre and fantastical surrealist character". The surrealism is certainly what makes these sculptures so unsettling.
Asger Carlsen is a Danish-born and New York-based photographer who creates photomontage art pieces that border between disturbing and wrong. With his uncanny vision of the grotesque, he creates photographs that create a tension between their realist style and unreal subject matter. The human bodies in his pictures are rearranged and transformed to create an impossible body with more sculptural qualities. His Hester series is a collection of freaky body blobs and sculptures molded out of the human flesh. These photographs are certainly a contemporary take on the grotesque, as they combine the uncombinable and evoke an unsettling feeling in the viewer.
An Australian artist Patricia Piccinini explores how contemporary ideas of nature, the natural and the artificial are changing the society we live in. With an ambivalent attitude towards technology, her artistic practice addresses concerns about biotechnology, such as the gene therapy and the mapping of the human genome. Made from silicone, fiberglass and human hair, her weird mutant sculptures present a possible future species that will interact with humans. Her infamous piece Young Family from 2002 depicts a mother creature with her babies. The artist has imagined that the sole purpose of this creature is to be bred for organ transplants, but she still has children of her own that she deeply cares about. So even though the humanity has assigned a specific purpose for this thing, it still wants to exist for the sake of itself. The viewer cannot help but feel empathy for this grotesque creature.
A Polish painter, photographer and sculptor specializing in the field of dystopian surrealism, Zdzisław Beksiński was fascinated with decay, death, darkness, eroticism and Eastern mysticism. The recurring themes in his works are hellish landscapes and disturbing, nightmarish figures, and during his gothic period, he would often include deformed heads and other less dreamlike figures. The painter was stabbed to death in 2005 by his cleaning lady’s son, and the tragedy has added to the whole grim vision of his paintings. The painting Night Creeper is certainly something nightmares are made of and it perfectly succeeds at capturing the unsettling underside of human consciousness.
The South African photographer Pieter Hugo primarily works in portraiture photography and engages both documentary and art traditions focusing on African communities. His latest series Nollywood explores the weird world of the Nigerian film industry, the second-largest movie business in the world. With over 1000 low-budget films a year, the industry trails Bollywood, but it exceeds America’s Hollywood. This series portrays industry's typical but haunting characters in the Southern Nigerian film production centers of Enigu and Asaba. With plots often including horrific and supernatural, characters of these films are mostly archetypical. The stills are artist’s interpretations of the iconic myths and symbols that characterize these films.
Even thought it might be far from the conventional understanding of the grotesque for the modern viewer, Quentin Matsys’ famous painting The Ugly Dutchess certainly falls somewhere between the territories of the ugly and the wrong. Depicting an old woman with wrinkled skin and withered breasts, her ugliness is not what makes the painting so grotesque. It is the hybridity and the uncanny combination of things that shouldn’t be found in one form. This old woman with an almost mannish look is presented as if she is unaware of her age and as if she is dreaming of potential lovers with a distant smile. This painting is an excellent example of wrongly combined qualities such as young/old, ugly/beautiful, spinster/maiden.
A contemporary Swiss artist Andrea Hasler is famous for her wax sculptures that appear to be made from meat simulating objects such as purses or tents. These wax and mixed media sculptures are exploring the tension between the attraction and repulsion and are majorly inspired by works of artists John Isaacs, Berlinde De Bruyckere and Louise Bourgeois. These meat tents are a part of her project Embrace The Base and it refers to a group of women that have staged a massive and long-standing protest at Greenham Common base in the 1980s to protest against the nuclear weapons. Hasler's tents refer to those where the protesters have slept and are executed in a fleshlike aesthetic. Concerning the aesthetics of this historical and political art piece, the artist stated that she wanted to present these tents as the container for emotions and humanize them to create emotional surfaces.
Editors’ Tip: The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play by Frances S. Connelly
Find out more about the concept of the grotesque. Establishing a fresh and comprehensive view of the grotesque in Western art and culture, this book explores the concept from 1500s to the present day. Offering analyses of the key works situated in their social and cultural contexts and historical tradition, Frances S. Connelly presents this expansive overview in a non-linear way. This book presents the concept of the grotesque as a complex one that is comprised of several distinct strands: the ornamental, the carnivalesque and caricatural, the traumatic, and the profound. Providing a model for the understanding of this concept as a rupture of cultural boundaries and accepted realities, Connelly shows that this concept is much more than a style, genre of the particular subject. It is a cultural phenomenon that involves the central concern of the humanistic debate today.