Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

See you in 2010 for more words, books and grotesquerie!

[CC pic by Julia ann lock]

Monday, December 28, 2009

People In Art

I know I'm on holiday and everything, but I just can't leave it alone. Following in the human/nonhuman theme: check out this jewelry by Aussie artist Polly van der Glas.

"All works are handmade in Melbourne, with sterling silver, human hair and human teeth. Human teeth are locally donated and sterilised, and human hair is either locally donated or sourced from India and China."

That last one is a human hair purse.

I have to say, the use of human body parts to make jewelry reminds me of another situation in which "the production of soap from human bodies and the tanning of human skin for industrial purposes" occurred. I realise these items are separated in time and space, and constructed in totally different contexts, but human soap and human tooth jewelry are disturbing on similar levels.

The transformation of a human into a thing (or 'Man-Thing') is likely to make many people very uncomfortable. And yet, we humans make so many of our things out of other creatures. A leather bag is a bag made of skin. Would you wear shoes made of human skin? I own leather goods, yet seldom do I think of the leather/skin relationship. I suspect most would call the above jewelry 'grotesque,' yet this is not a description used in relation to bags and shoes. Or feather bedspreads. Or chicken sandwiches.

Clearly the border of animal/object is, for many, much more easily crossed than that of human/object. It's very curious.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Time Hoff

I'm taking a small holiday from researching the grotesque at the moment (small, because I'm still teaching). Maybe until next year, but I'm not sure I can last that long. Four days seems like an eternity. However, people tell me there is more to life than work and I am endeavoring to discover what this is.

Now, I'm not entirely sure... but I think 'more' might look something like this:

Michael Leavitt's Hoff toilet seat costs only $600! Bargain, you say! Surely this is the best life can offer? And then you see these theorist action figures:

Ooh. Sure they don't really exist, but does anything, really?

Yep, looking forward to 2010.

[via Cakehead Loves Evil and]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa Claus Conquers the Blog

Dear Reader(s),

Apparently there is something called 'Christmas' happening at the moment, which a lot of people are pretty excited about. This blog is also excited. This blog loves a holiday. Also, talking about itself in third person.

In the spirit of sharing and caring, I humbly suggest Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) as possible festive entertainment/family torture time. It receives a tragically unjust 2.2/10 from IMDb but don't let that put you off.

Just switch it on after everyone has eaten themselves stationary and can't escape. What is it all about? Well, obviously Santa is involved. Also some Martians. And a robot made out of a cardboard box.

Don't want to spoil the surprise.

I've embedded the MST3K version. If you don't know what that means... you are in for a treat. Or you will think it's impossibly stupid. Either way, it's Santa versus Martians so you can't go wrong.

[Edit: the copyright police blocked my embedded version but fear not you can watch Santa battle Martians right here. Until it gets blocked again.]

Alternatively, you could watch Santa Claus (1959), which receives an even more devastating 1.8/10 from IMDb. Why?? Well, perhaps because an alternate title might be 'Santa Claus Conquers the Devil.'

As you can see, the Devil is going around trying to make children evil. Apparently God is busy delivering presents because it's Santa's job to make the kiddies good again.

This film is also rife with offensive racial stereotypes (is the Devil in blackface? Don't get me started on the 'multicultural' children in Santa's workshop) and bizarre technologies.

The film still is from a blog dedicated to Santa Claus where, among other things, you can vote for the 'creepiest gadget' in Santa's secret lab. Yes, he has a secret lab. And it's pretty creepy. And grotesque. Giant lips emerging from walls, anyone? Ears attached to satellite dishes? Eyes on stalks? Check, check aaand check.

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays!


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

(Hu)Man -Thing 2

I commented a few posts ago about how the theme of human and nonhuman merging, typical of the traditional 'grotesque' style, has a particular poignancy in the 21st century. As the natural world begins to express its suffering more persistently, and we are forced to reevaluate our status as one creature among many, the style that was once 'grotesque' is experiencing a political rebirth.

American artist Kate MacDowell has a body of work that speaks to this theme amazingly well, and I was thrilled to discover it. Click on the images for a closer look.

MacDowell's philosophy is worth quoting, for it articulates the way in which artists and creators are reworking traditional techniques and visual themes for the contemporary context:

"In my work [the] romantic ideal of union with the natural world conflicts with our contemporary impact on the environment. These pieces are in part responses to environmental stressors including climate change, toxic pollution, and gm crops. They also borrow from myth, art history, figures of speech and other cultural touchstones. In some pieces aspects of the human figure stand-in for ourselves and act out sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous transformations which illustrate our current relationship with the natural world. In others, animals take on anthropomorphic qualities when they are given safety equipment to attempt to protect them from man-made environmental threats. In each case the union between man and nature is shown to be one of friction and discomfort with the disturbing implication that we too are vulnerable to being victimized by our destructive practices."

These are beautiful, disturbing images. And, as always, I see them as part of a larger movement in visual media. I am intrigued by the sculpture below, called 'Cross Pollination,' because it reminds me of a certain game I like to play:

In BioShock, the player modifies the body of their avatar in a way that breaks down the border between inside/outside and human/nonhuman. Using Plasmids - mutagens that enable the body's genetic code to be 'rewritten' - the player is able to perform a number of acts, including turning their hands and arms into a beehive. Bees (are they wasps? I'm not an entomologist) crawl in and out of holes in the hands, ready to form a swarm and attack enemies at your instruction.

As the PC blurb puts it, the player is given the opportunity to "biologically modify your body: send electric bolts storming from your fingertips or unleash a swarm of killer hornets hatched from the veins in your arms." This clip is a bit dark, but you get the gist:

It's interesting how the theme of human/nonhuman merging is presented here as a form of power. The term 'grotesque' appears with notable frequency in both the reviews and promotional material, for the game tells a tale in which becoming grotesque is a form of agency. Despite the violence involved: being grotesque signals a gain, rather than a loss. Rather a political story in today's context.

[Images used with permission from the artist. Screenshot via CVG.]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Skin that Speaks

In The Book of Skin Steven Connor talks about the cultural significance of the body's largest organ and examines how it operates as an expressive device. Marks on the skin (such as moles and freckles) have long been 'read' and 'mapped' in a manner akin to divination.

Connor quotes A Book of Knowledge (1696), which claims that "a mole on the belly, denotes whoredome, luxury, and gluttony" while "a mole on the side of the neck, shows that the person will narrowly escape suffocation." Moles can also provide information on the gender of the person concerned: "a man having a mole on the ancle, it bespeaks him to take on him the woman's part of an hen huswife: if a woman, that she shall wear the breeches" (97).

Or one of my favourites, from The Spaewife, or Universal Fortune-Teller (1845): "a mole on the outside corner of either eye, denotes the person to be of a steady, sober, and sedate disposition, but liable to a violent death" (98). You have been warned.

Skin is still 'read' in the 21st century, albeit in different ways. As Connor says, "innocence is unthinkable without the thought of an unmarked skin" (95). And skin is marked in so many ways, most obviously with colour. After watching beautiful Avatar last week, I was struck by the ease with which the human protagonist shifted into the body of another species. This shift is communicated, in part, by a spectacular change in skin colour.

The above is actually a fan made poster, and it highlights the real flesh contrast between species much more than the official poster:

Dude is blue. I find it interesting, but not surprising, that the designers chose to play down the contrast between Human and Na'vi skin in the official poster. Racial cross-dressing is a highly charged act. It suggests a certain politics, a power relationship that is not exactly conducive to romance. The Na'vi cannot 'wear' human bodies, even if they should want to. The transformation is one-way.

I'm too pooped to comment on the connection to the grotesque here. But it must be there, I've been writing skin/body/grotesque all day. Chunk of chapter four due on Tuesday. Should be doing that right now, see how you distract me internet!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Beyond Words

My research into the comics medium has got me interested in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. My first encounter with his philosophies was reading this entry in the Graphic Guide series:

Apart from being an extremely readable introduction to his life and writing, this book managed to encapsulate his theories in such a way as to make me want more. In particular, I'm interested in Wittgenstein's early work on the limits of language.
In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) he argues that the intimate connection between language and the 'world' (which he defines as the totality of thinkable, communicable 'facts') means that certain things are beyond our power to express.

These limitations are extremely difficult to describe, for "in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought). The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense" (27). He can't give any examples, because he has no words.

Meaning is all about context. Words relate to 'facts' that exist within a larger network of interrelated 'facts.' An experience that exceeds this preexisting network cannot be adequately described by the words that operate within it.

This is from Derek Jarman's film Wittgenstein (1989). I'm not sure why his students are dressed as The Wiggles here.

Wittgenstein later changed his mind and wrote Philosophical Investigations, which rebuts much of his previous work.

I like the idea of language as a "game," and words as mobile signifiers dependent upon context. For my thesis, I am thinking about the contemporary grotesque as a contextual notion, an idea that changes according to who uses it and how they position/represent it in relation to other notions (such as race, gender, the body, power and so forth).

Tangent: I think Wittgenstein would have liked Twitter. His Tractatus is structured as a series of short, numbered points - many of which would satisfy the '140 characters or less' rule. For example:

I.I The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

I.II The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.

I.I2 For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.

I.I3 The facts in logical space are the world.

I also like to think that not all his tweets would be studious. Apparently he always wore tatty clothes and hated academia, so maybe he would tweet about op-shopping or insult his colleagues. Apparently he also loved nonsense ( So do I! We are like the same person) so I like to think he would have talked a lot of rubbish. I like to think a lot of things.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

(Hu)Man -Thing

I've posted a few times now about human/plant hybrids. From the ancient Green Man to contemporary comics characters such as Swamp Thing and Poison Ivy, these are figures that clearly have some kind of enduring magnetism. The idea of a person merging with the ecosystem is, perhaps, particularly poignant today given the breakdown of the relationship between humans and the larger natural world.

I find it interesting that so many human fantasies revolve around a symbolic or literal union between the human and nonhuman. Some argue that the purpose of this integration is to reinforce the limits of the human, that the enmeshing is a catharsis that ultimately firms the borders between what is human and what is not. I'm not so sure. Perhaps we humans are less subtle.

Some more beautiful Italian 'grotesque' prints and sketches (from the Metropolitan Museum Database). These are by Jacques Androuet Du Cerceau, from his Petites Grotesques, 1550 and 1562 respectively.

These animal themed sketches are attributed to Spanish artist Andrés de Melgar, after 1554.

Andrés de Melgar's work very much reminds me of Alice in Wonderland. The titles do also, for example the above is referred to as "Term Holding Turtle over Dragon with Satyr-grotesque, Whose Tongue Holds a Snail."

On the topic of human/plants, did you know DC's Swamp Thing had a rival at Marvel Comics? His name is Man-Thing, and he was 'conceived' and published the same year (1971) as his swampy brother.

He haunts the swamp and everything.

Like all good fearsome beasts he has a penchant for carrying barely dressed lades up hill and down dale, although I suggest he keep his 'giant sized man-thing' to himself. Especially when poor Howard the duck is around.

(Pics from Marvel Wiki. Where there is plenty more Man-Thing to be had.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Shoes of Wrath

I'm not a big fan of super expensive fashion and general parading around. But these Alexander McQueen shoes sing to me in the language of the grotesque.

My favourite is the pair that resemble a misshapen skull. I imagine they are the kind of heels a malignant villainess might wear as she sweeps through her castle - every step crushing the bones of her enemies:

Sweet. I suspect McQueen had this image in his head also...

The thought process behind this is a little harder to ascertain:

Models are skinny. I can't tell if that's an arm or a leg. Lets assume its a leg, and those are shoes. Perhaps these will soon feature on the 'get the look for less' page of some fashion mag, showing step by step how to recreate the same effect by wrapping ones feet in brown paper. That's some authentic grotesque stylin.

(pics via style rookie and Fashionising)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Strange Bodies

The term 'grotesque' was coined in reference to a style of ornamental design that usually occurred around the edges of larger artistic works. What made this marginalia unique, and worthy of its special new title, was the way in which the style blended plants, animals, humans and objects into intricate patterns. These panels are an example of what I'm talking about. They are from Seer aerdige grotissen dienstich, a series of 12 engravings by Johan Bara after Nicasius Roussel's (1623) 'De Grotesco Per utilis ... Liber' (from the British Museum Print Database).

Click to have a closer look.

Heads grow from stalks and pedestals, delicately farting buttocks perch on ostrich legs, combination bodies erupt from all directions and twist together. Such ontological mangling was something of a shock to the principles of God and nature in the 17th century. It was also very exciting and daring, and soon everyone wanted their own grotesque decorations.

I'm very interested in how this theme of combination bodies has translated into today's pop culture. Once you start looking, you see it everywhere. For example, I was reading Swamp Thing comics the other day (what, it was for research) and this cover image really caught my attention:

(Series 2, #52. If you want more swamp - go here)

Swamp Thing is simultaneously man and plant, animal and mineral. And here his swampy body merges with the Gothic architecture: the dome of his head takes the place of the roof, the peak of his nose forms the pointed arch while his gaping mouth acts as the window. The intricate tangling of the vines running down and around the walls are also reminiscent of the intermingling vines of the traditional 'grotesque' style. The Swamp Thing comics also feature characters called the 'Un-Men,' and spend a lot of time examining the line between human and 'un'-human.

On another note, I bought this game today:

It seems the human/object/plant/animal figure not only remains a significant presence in contemporary culture, but has grown even more complicated. I like how the arm merges veins/roots/wires into the giant crab-claw blade: the man is simultaneously mechanical and organic. (No, I didn't buy it for the cover. How could you even suggest such a thing.) I'm promised "deadly shape shifting action." It's a whole two months before BioShock 2 comes out... I have to entertain myself somehow. Thanks to modern media I don't just have to sit like a lady and look at shapes shifting on pages, I can do it myself.

Did you know Swamp Thing had his very own TV show?
Also, a lovely theme tune:

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Grotext II: you can read it

A while ago I posted about the new 'Grotext' font and how disappointingly mundane it is. Well, apparently the universe heard my plea and kindly provided me with more font-like misery in the form of Fred and Sharon:

Yeah. I really don't know what this is. But... I think I like it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Juxtapose My Zombie

At the Gothic conference last July I was lucky enough to be in the audience for Elisabeth Bronfen's plenary presentation, titled Gothic Wars - Media's Lust. This was particularly interesting to me as it involved one of my favourite pop cultural figures: the zombie. Bronfen drew together two seemingly disparate texts, Rupert Brooke's war poem 1914 and George Romero's zombie film Diary of the Dead, to argue that the figure of the zombie is deeply implicated by the politics and imagery of war. She explains the process by which the soldier and the zombie came together in her mind:

"I began to think about the dead soldier Brooke's invokes precisely along the line of a zombie, dislocating the boundary between the living and the death. I saw him as part of an invading army, come to contaminate a country, whose boundary this force has also crossed."

And further:

"[Brooke's poem] invokes a body, left to rot in a foreign field that will, by virtue of physically merging with the soil, impregnate this foreign site with English culture. While I am fully aware that this was not Rupert Brooke's intention, one can, by cross-mapping his lyricism with the lore of voodoo zombies, see an uncanny infestation being anticipated. The foreign field will forever be a double, hybrid cultural site, conjoining over the dead body of the English soldier two cultures that were at war with each other."

The dead are not gone, they rise. Killing is not the solution to invasion, for the bodies of your enemies embed themselves within the physical and ideological landscape, never to be erased. In turn, the survivors of war also experience a kind of living death. They have witnessed horrific carnage and performed outrageous acts: "those who return from the war are revenants of themselves, and their visions are monstrous spectacles."

Bronfen also spoke of the racial politics of the zombie as an image of the 'other.' In the context of American military strategies, "the zombie proved useful to a crude propaganda of the occupation forces; he became the emblem for anxieties and fantasies about the other 'black' body of the Caribbean people." This point reminds me of the controversy surrounding this trailer of Resident Evil 5. RE5 is an installment of the popular first person shooter series Resident Evil, which chronicles the spread of an infection that turns normal citizens into hoards of highly contagious, flesh eating undead. It is the player's task to kill as many as possible, a task that becomes more disturbing as the location of the disease shifts from white America to African shanty towns.

One of the first to comment on the trailer in question was Kym Platt from the Black Looks blog: "This is problematic on so many levels, including the depiction of Black people as inhuman savages [and] the killing of Black people by a white man in military clothing."

Gamers violently denied the game was racist, and game developers quickly made new trailers that focused upon other game elements and a new African heroine.

Bronfen's work helped me to observe the historical connection between zombies and war in this controversy. It is not 'simply' racist imagery that informs the trailer, but a specific relationship between violence, boundary crossing and zombie 'others.' The juxtaposition of zombie/soldier made me consider both figures in a new light.

You can read Bronfen's paper here. I highly recommend it.

(pics from MapIt1418 and