The Abject – it’s not just about poo, blood, and body bits

What does abject mean?

According to the oracle of words and their meanings (the dictionary) it means: extremely bad, unpleasant, and degrading or experienced to the maximum degree.

This makes me think of Embarrassing Bodies. Why do I (and others like me) love this programme so much?

Nothing provokes an abject reaction in me!

Nothing provokes an abject reaction in me!

This is the one recent image that sticks in my head from that programme that made me feel both repulsed (and guilty for feeling that way) and fascinated (and guilty for feeling that way). Is this an example of an abject reaction?

A tumor has eaten away at this poor man's face

A tumor has eaten away at this poor man’s face

What does it mean in relation to art?

Abject art refers to works, which contain abject subjects, materials and substances.

In relation to art, the term was first used in the 1990s, by the French literary theorist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva. In her book Pouvoirs de l’horreur. Essai sur l’abjection, Kristeva talked about the idea of abjection as the basis of a differentiation between the self and non-self. She defined it as a reaction to the confrontation with the abject, triggered by disgust or phobias which have no status as objects, and do not belong to the self, and therefore are viewed as a threat by the subject, who rejects them.

Is it the opposite of the sublime? The abject representing the basest states of life, the sublime representing the highest states of life. I’m not sure they are so different.

'Reject those bits you don't like.'

‘Reject those bits you don’t like.’

In other words, abjection happens when a subject separates, ejects or divides anything that is part of it in order to define itself. The subject can be a person, society or perhaps a corporation. Abjection happens when the subject looks for its ideal, therefore putting aside those parts that are not. When the subject is confronted with a part of itself that has been separated the subject feels a sense of trauma along with feelings of nausea and repugnance. To see a corpse provokes this shock as we perceive the absolute separation of the person from its body.

What else, besides dead bodies, provokes an abject reaction?

An open wound, excrement, sewage, cancer, disease, vomit, bad grammar, mold, the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk, a homeless man (from society), genocide (from society), homosexuality (from the self), socially-unacceptable sexual desires (from the self). Abjection occurs when we sense a danger to our life: danger comes from disease, germs, viruses, bacteria, infection.

Things that make you go hmmmm...

Things that make you go hmmmm…

Abjection in art goes back a long way. Artists before the Renaissance showed a fascination with blood. The Marquis de Sade, notorious French philosophical thinker, investigated the abject in relation to sexuality in his fiction (his two novels Justine and Juliette). The Dadaists took the notion a step further in their explorations of the taboo and the violation of moral principles. The Surrealists also displayed a sense of abjection in their art. Antonin Artaud, mentioned below, who was active in the 1930s, is perhaps the forerunner of the idea of the abject and performance with his ‘Theatre of Cruelty’. The Viennese Actionists dabbled in the abject in the 1960s and Hermann Nitsch, one of the members, set up the radical theatre group, known as the Orgien-Mysterien-Theater which involved animal carcasses and blood being used in a ritualistic way. Other members of the Viennese Actionists, such as Gunter Brus and Otto Muehl collaborated on performances. The performances of Brus involved urinating, defecating and cutting himself and this had a huge influence on abject art. Rudolf Schwarzkogler dealt with the abject in his photography. The growth of extreme performance art coincided with the radicalisation of politics in the late 1960s. In the second half of the 20th century, the theme of abjection has exploded, for example with Andre Serrano’s  ‘Piss Christ’ (1987), which shows a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. Many feminist artists have been connected with abjection in art , particularly in connection with an increased focus on the body. In the 1970s, for example, Judy Chicago made menstruation the focus of a number of her works. Other feminist ‘abject’ artists include: Vito Acconci, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke.

Piss Christ

Piss Christ

Five artists, besides the above, who have explored abjection in art

Not an artist as such Antonin Artaud introduced the idea of a theatre of cruelty in the 1930s. He aimed for a form of theatre that he hoped would unleash unconscious responses in audiences and performers that were normally hidden. He hoped that audiences would find in the theatre not an area for escape from the world, but the realisation of their nightmares and fears. He attempted to provoke conditions that would allow for the release of primitive instincts he saw to be below the civilised social veneer masking all human behaviour. He hoped to entice irrational impulses that could be stimulated by suffering and pain and argued that every facet of theatricality should be used to encourage a sense of danger, violence and disorientation in the audience.

The theatre is not for entertainment

The theatre is not for entertainment

In the early 1970s Mary Kelly caused a stir in 1976 when she exhibited dirty nappies at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Post-Partum Document was actually a six-year exploration of the mother-child relationship. The work provoked tabloid outrage.

These nappies were not part of Mary Kelly's project

These nappies were not part of Mary Kelly’s project

In Edinburgh last month I got the chance to see Helen Chadwick‘s piss flowers, which scream abjection to me. I found these sculptures fascinating. They were both beautiful and repulsive. The sculptures had been cast from cavities made by both Helen Chadwick and her husband David Notarius urinating in the snow.

Nature calls in cold climates

Nature calls in cold climates

My next artist, Sarah Lucas, seems to be following me with her fried eggs photograph. I first saw it in Berlin and then recently it appeared in Edinburgh. I’m not sure this piece is an example of abject art but Sarah Lucas is an artist who has explored the abject with other works, such as ‘Au Naturel 1994 Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges and cucumber’.

The photograph that follows me around Europe

The photograph that follows me around Europe

There's nothing wrong with cucumber sandwiches

There’s nothing wrong with cucumber sandwiches


Jake and Dinos Chapman are British visual artists, also known as the Chapman Brothers, who work together (they are brothers). Their artwork is definitely abject as they like to shock with the appalling, vulgar, or  offensive. Perhaps their most ambitious work was ‘Hell’ (1999), which was an immense tabletop display, showing over 30,000 two-inch-high figures, many in Nazi uniform and performing egregious acts of cruelty.

The Chapman Brothers aim to shock

The Chapman Brothers aim to shock

Last but not least, Cindy Sherman. I’ve just come across this image, Untitled no. 175, which is an assemblage of rotting fruit, half-eaten cupcakes, and vomit. Surely this is pure abjection? Ironically perhaps it appears more distasteful than the Chapman Brothers’ Hell.

I can't imagine calling this anything except 'untitled'. It is beyond description.

I can’t imagine calling this anything except ‘untitled’. It is beyond description.

Is it universal?

I wonder whether the abject is a universal thing or whether every individual has their own abject response. Does it necessarily have to be something grotesque or distasteful? Could it be something feared (something not everyone fears equally)? For example, spiders or buttons. Or can it be a part of the self that the self dislikes but which might be generally regarded as acceptable? For example, sexual feelings, nakedness.

I am cute and cuddly to some, an object of repulsion to others

I am cute and cuddly to some, an object of repulsion to others

Why are children so fascinated with the abject? Doe we lose that as adults? Do they feel revulsion to the same degree as adults or is that something that we mature to?

Does the degree of abjection depend on familiarity? People working in medical professions are either able to suppress their abject reaction or different people feel abjection to different degrees (hence some become nurses, pathologists, doctors etc). Is the abject response stronger in the 21st century than it might have been in the 16th century? We are now not used to butchering animals for our dinner, walking down streets strewn with rubbish and feces or people close to use dying young and painfully at home. The world now is so sanitized that when we come across the abject we feel revulsion.

The abject and the sublime – are they the same thing?

Is the abject really that different from the sublime? They are both triggered human reactions when confronting the unknown and unknowable. The sublime is a reaction, a state of mind, an individual response to what is ‘terrifically terrible’. Do we not also get a sense of terror and wonder when facing the abject? A fascination (and shame of that fascination) with something repulsive to us? There is a contradiction going on inside the viewer: a repulsion away from the abject presented to us, but a fascination with it as well. We want to see more. Images of death, for example, present us with the unknowable enormity and finality of death. This relates to that notion discussed by Kant of our minds imagining what is greater than what our senses can experience. We are made suddenly aware of the existence of things that we cannot grasp; we become aware of the gap between lived reality and a a real world we don’t normally see.



Ketterer Kunst, [last accessed 20 March 2013]

Wikipedia on abject art, [last accessed 20 March 2013]

Hypocrite Design, [last accessed 20 March 2013]

Wikipedia on the Piss Christ, [last accessed 20 March 2013]

Cat Una O’Shea, The Abject/Sublime Reaction and the Genius of Damien Hirst (presented at the Brian Stoker Club 8 Feb 2012),

Notes made on visit to Museum of Modern Art, Edinburgh

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