Saturday, January 30, 2010

Look Closer

It's amazing what you can find when you plug 'grotesque' into a search engine...

Today I found American artist Kris Kuksi, who was interviewed in 2007 for the Website Dark Roasted Blend in a post titled 'The Art of the Grotesque.' The Interview is short, but worth a read.

I like the personal philosophy expressed on his website:

"His fascination with the unusual lent to his macabre art later in life. The grotesque to him, as it seemed, was beautiful. Reaching adulthood his art blossomed and created a breakthrough of personal freedom from the negative environment experienced during his youth. He soon discovered his distaste for the typical American life and pop culture, feeling that he has always belonged to the ‘Old World’ [...] In personal reflection, he feels that in the world today much of mankind is oftentimes frivolous and fragile, being driven primarily by greed and materialism. He hopes that his art exposes the fallacies of Man, unveiling a new level of awareness to the viewer."

There is certainly something incredible happening in his work, as I think you will agree...

I mean... wow. I highly recommend checking out his painting, drawing and especially his sculptures.

They are made from recycled toys.

The closer you look, the more you see. My favourite kind of art.

You can find Kuksi on deviantART as well. You should totally go there right now. More wow than you can handle.

Friday, January 29, 2010

There It Is

When, perchance, one falls to reading, one must always keep a pen and paper to hand in order to note down passages that catch one's fancy.

Yes, I actually copy out passages from books like someone from days of yore. And I don't do it using a cyborgian ihand controlled via the silent but deadly power of my Jedi mind vibrations, either. I actually use my very own meaty digits. Yes, I fully understand that photocopying has been invented. It's just that copying quotes out by hand seems to impress them more fully into my consciousness. Of course, you can't copy down every word. That would take forever. Just take down those lines that are particularly brilliant.

Which makes it very difficult for me to make much headway into Thomas DiPiero's White Men Aren't. Almost every sentence sends my hand patting desperately for the pen while my eyes fix on the page like a startled goldfish. Or just a regular fish...

In any case, DiPiero's work, while concentrated on the construction of whiteness, articulates a lot of what I am starting to believe about the construction of grotesqueness. For example, when it comes to the issue of defining what a "white male" is, DiPiero argues that one finds what one expects to find:

"It is devastatingly simple merely to point to someone who appears to be both white and male and say, "There he is." But the apparent simplicity of that operation is part of the problem. Like LeVay's confidence that he will find what he's looking for because he knows in advance what the answer will be, it turns out that we need to know what a white guy is before we can see him" (10).

DiPiero then explains a bit about the impossibility of actually finding a 'pure' white person who isn't descended from 'non-white' peoples at any point in their ancestry, and the further complexity caused by the fact that the group 'white' has included different peoples at different times in history (for example, sometimes Irish immigrants in America were 'white' and sometimes they weren't).

He then comments:

"Thus it is not simply the case that we can unproblematically - or even reliably - identify who white males are [...] if it were simply the case that any person who appeared to be a white male simply was a white male, the identity would have no problematic political or ideological dimension since there would be no question of a legitimacy to which some people were not entitled. That is why we cannot simply and unproblematically point to the person who seems to be both white and male: you have to know what he looks like before you can actually see him" (10-11).

You must know what something is before you identify it. Now, consider this in terms of the grotesque... Consider that before we can point to something and say "that is grotesque" we must first know exactly what grotesqueness looks like. In just the same way as DiPiero's white male, definitions of "the grotesque" have changed constantly over the centuries and been a source of disagreement and debate.

This is one of the most disturbing elements of academic analysis, the realisation that the writer's preexisting beliefs regarding the nature of her topic will inevitably be expressed in what she 'discovers' about it. I'm hoping that judicious text choices will ameliorate the situation, not to mention tackling it face-on, as DiPiero does.

Incidentally, all going well I should be submitting my thesis before the end of this year. Please, don't ask what I'm doing after that... the answer should be obvious:

That won't actually be happening.

[Fishy pic via / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Finally joined Steam over the weekend. Found this little gem in the 'indie games' section. Disclosure: I'm not a huge fan of puzzle games. But Machinarium is just so gorgeously rendered and intricately constructed that even I have to appreciate it. It's like a child's story book come to life. Plus there are robots.

You can play the free demo here.

Grotesque Doubles

For the last few weeks I have been thinking about the grotesque in terms of doubling; specifically, how the notion of grotesqueness is made use of in Western cultural texts that are consumed with dichotomies. The comics I'm looking at for my current chapter really highlight the subjective, culturally situated nature of the grotesque, because the story-arc is arranged about a racial dichotomy: white hero/black grotesque.

This scenario mirrors what Paul Hoch (1979) describes in White Hero, Black Beast. Fictional tales, Hoch argues, historically portray the battle between heroes and villains as

"a struggle between two understandings of manhood: human versus animal, white versus black, spiritual versus carnal, soul versus flesh, higher versus lower, noble versus base. These all correspond to the basic moral dichotomy that was assumed in order to provide legitimacy for the first hierarchical societies: the superior morality and manhood of 'civilised' and 'noble' upper class white heroes in contrast with 'barbaric' and 'base' lower class villains" (p45).

'H' for Hero indeed. These tales require the annihilation of blackness via whiteness, in order to confirm the masculine power of the (super)white male:

"despite the awesomeness of the threat, white heroes duly bring down the black beast; and thus mind eventually triumphs over body, civilisation conquers nature" (p49).

Superboy looks more pink than white here... but that's another story.

It seems clear to me that this hero/beast dichotomy says a great deal more about whiteness than it does about blackness. The 'white hero' depends upon the idea of the 'black beast' to maintain his own self image, his own sense of value and power. Hoch quotes Satre (from the Preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth) on the first page:

"... the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters."

I would add 'grotesques' to this list of creations.

These binaries are complicated, however, by a tendency to see the (presumably white?) self as doubled, as containing a hidden "dark" side. Jung's concept of "the shadow" is interesting in this context, for he argues that the human mind is divided:

"there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is" ("Psychology and Religion" (1938) p131).

Jung conceptualises this "shadow" as a raging monster within:

"The individual seldom knows anything of [the shadow]; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster's body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature"("On the Psychology of the Unconscious" (1912) p35).

The character of Two-Face is an explicit representation of this imagined dynamic:

In this context, the white hero's battle appears to be fundamentally with himself:

"The hero's main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious" ("The Psychology of the Child Archetype" (1940) p284).

Let's face it... the thing in the mirror is pretty mesmerising for most creatures.

Ouch! I'm sure there is a lesson in there somewhere.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

(Hu)Man -Thing 3

Here is another entry relevant to the human/nonhuman theme I have been posting about for a while. Dutch artist Iris Schieferstein has recently attracted attention for her creative boot-making:

Hoof shoes are apparently a growing trend, one which seems to be taking the merging of human/animal/object into fashion territory. I visited her site for more details and found an unexpected bounty; beginning with this intriguing introductory statement:

"For many years, Iris Schieferstein has worked with dead animals as raw material for her pieces of art. She joins the fragments together to [make] new creatures and thus gives a new face to death."

Schieferstein preserves animal bodies with formaldehyde, before grafting different body parts together to create new forms. This is a literalisation of the traditional 'grotesque style' of art in which bodies were assembled from assorted species and objects to create fantastical results.

Amazing. See more in her galleries here and here.

[via InventorSpot, pics taken by Stephan Rabold]

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When Metaphors Attack

Considering today is the second day in a row the temperature in my garden has reached 45.7C, I don't feel quite able to provide the erudite prose that might otherwise spring from my fountain pen/bedazzled keyboard.

(In the spirit of 'screenshot or it didn't happen' - I have pictorial evidence of the actual temperature gauge that I will put up later. It was 45.7. Do not believe the TV news, they always undercut the actual temp by about 5 degrees to avoid everyone chucking a sickie.)

EDIT: here we go. It was overcast, which is why the gauge is predicting rain. Rain would have been nice.

In any case, I thought I would take the opportunity to draw attention to a startling example of metaphors on the rampage.

Not sure how I missed this movie. I'm pretty sure hoards of writhing phalli slurping across front lawns would have caught my attention.

Now, I will agree that this is not a particularly subtle example. The catchphrase "what's gotten into you" isn't too bad, nice double entendre. "They're doing things to people" ... fine, fine. But "don't let 'em in your mouth"? That is taking it to the next level.

And this is just the trailer. Obviously I will be renting this movie over the weekend for research purposes.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


The video game BioShock (2007) has played a crucial role in expanding my thesis argument (and my mind) beyond the usual suspects of print and film. Not to mention opened up a whole new arena in which to theorise the notion of grotesqueness in terms of agency, power and the body. I won't go into my argument regarding BioShock and the grotesque; there would be many, many words, my keyboard would catch fire, and your eyes would grow weary. Maybe later.

Plus, my appreciation is not solely academic. The music is a big part of why I love BioShock. Each gaming scenario has its own special theme, and each level and character has a particular tune that really lifts the FPS experience. These are pretty good examples of what I mean:

The Art Nouveau surroundings and stylish graphics are also part of it.

The game is set in an abandoned underwater city where the overuse of genetic mutagens has sent most of the remaining (mutated) citizens insane. The scenario is thus both nostalgic and futuristic; set simultaneously in the past and the future. At least, in an imagined past/future. The whole game is a kind of alternative history akin to Steampunk. (Or perhaps a kind of 21st century Neo-Nostalgia?) It is interesting to try and situate the real 'now' in relation to this game; you could say it is both a prequel and sequel to the present, letting us play out our dreams of lost naiveté and future corruption at the same time.

The emotional heart of the game lies in the relationship between the Little Sisters that trot about extracting valuable genetic materials from corpses and the attentive Big Daddies in scuba suits who protect them. The player must make a moral choice to save or sacrifice the children in order to progress in the game.

Depending on your choices, you achieve a 'good,' 'neutral' or 'bad' conclusion at the end. I like to see games introducing moral questions such as 'to kill or not to kill'. I know it isn't real. But I could never bring myself to hurt the little ones. I also started wishing I could choose not to kill the Big Daddies. Once agency is introduced, you start wanting to exercise it more and more.

In any case, BioShock 2 is coming out in a few weeks. The developers have promoted it as a prequel/sequel to the first game, so it looks like the past/present vortex will only get more confusing. The teaser trailer is intriguing.

The full trailer doesn't give too much away either.

Big Sister is a good idea. Gender equality and all that. It would be nice to play as her though, which probably won't happen. Either way, this game needs to come out soonish, preferably before I spend any more impatient money on merchandise. (They are figurines, not dolls.) I am curious to see what visions of grotesquery the creators have constructed this time around.

[Screenshots via IGN]

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Writing full tilt right now. I've pegged January 31st as my 'chapter four full draft - pens down' date, so it's all go like Frodo in here.

Percolating some gross posts; I will be writing my intro chapter soon, which means rereading a lot of the early essays on the Grotesque style. They are all very interesting and entertaining, so I will probably pop up a few choice samples.

Also reading François Rabelais, whose passion for toilet humour is refreshing. No doubt many would find his love of turds childish, but, as the man himself comments, one would be remiss to overlook the possibility of deeper meaning amidst the faeces.

"[Y]ou jump at the conclusion that these tombs are filled with mere jests, vulgarities and buffoonery. Alas! you leap at the outward and visible sign; you swallow the title in a spirit of levity and derision without pausing to make further inquiry. How unseemly to consider so frivolously the works of humankind! Is it you who profess that clothes do not make the man nor robes the monk? [...] you should look beyond my title, open my book and seriously weigh its subject matter. The spice secreted within the box is more precious, far, than its exterior promised. In other words, the topics treated are not so foolish as the title suggested at first hand."

(From the Preface to the English translation of The Very Horrendous Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel, first published 1534).

Despite being written in the 16th century, and most likely with his tongue firmly in his cheek (where it seems to jam permanently), this is a brilliant defense of popular culture. It resounds with attitudes that continue to circulate in academia and society more generally regarding 'low culture' texts.

I also like how Rabelais' description of analysis positions the critical reader and/or scholar as a hungry, raging hound:

"Modelling yourself upon the dog, you should be wise to scent, to feel and to prize these fine, flavored volumes. You should be fleet in your pursuit of them, resolute in your attack. Then, by diligent reading and prolonged meditation, you should break the bone of my symbols to suck out the marrow of my meaning."
While this is naturally how I would like to imagine myself, savaging texts left and right, in reality the drama of research is more on a level with the film below. By which I mean it's ungainly but enthusiastic.

Poomaman. He said poo. Heh.

Back to work.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Beautifully Grotesque

Artist Sylvia Ortiz creates amazing work concerned with women, bodies and cultural constructions of beauty. This clip gives an insight into her understanding of the grotesque and her artistic philosophy. Check out The Beautifully Grotesque for more examples of her colourful art.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cultural Grotesques

An offshoot of the historical 'grotesque' style is the Grotesque Heads trend. Here are a few examples from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's online collection database.

By Gaetano Piccini (Italian, Rome fl. 1710 - 1730).

By Jusepe de Ribera (Spanish, Jativa 1591 - 1652 Naples).

By Anonymous (Italian, 16th to 17th century).

One thing you might notice is that a significant portion of these heads depict the physically deformed, the elderly, or racial caricatures.

Gaetano Piccini (Italian, Rome fl. 1710 - 1730)

Gaetano Piccini (Italian, Rome fl. 1710 - 1730)

Sometimes these images are given the explicit title 'Grotesque Heads,' but often they are grouped together retrospectively by those who select the keywords. A similar process occurs for putting together exhibits. When I visited the British Museum last year, I was intrigued to find a section amongst the Greek/Roman sculptures that was dedicated to 'Grotesque figures.' The associated caption read as follows (click to enhance):

The comment that "there is no evidence for their original context or function" is interesting, for it acknowledges how subjective and contemporary this grouping of 'Grotesque figures' actually is. Here are a few of the heads and bodies that were brought together under the banner of the Grotesque:

They included the disabled, the diseased, a discomforting man/spout, a little person, and the head of a quite magnificent old woman. Rather a miscellaneous bunch of social outcasts compared to the rest of the ye olde action figure crew...

So stylish and well draped.

And yet there is nothing 'natural' about the separation of these figures from the rest. There is nothing innately 'grotesque' about the face of an old woman. The category 'grotesque' comes into being more via subjective arrangement. Perhaps we may call these Cultural Grotesques? Perhaps, for that matter, all so-called 'grotesques' should be situated in this manner? I think yes.

UPDATE: A follow-up to this post can be found in Cultural Grotesques II.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Neil Gaiman's Statuesque

This is interesting. Not strictly 'grotesque' but it reminds me of the statues that come to life in BioShock.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


It's 2010 and the unholiday is nearly over, so I thought I'd share a few of the more intriguing gifts I received for Christmas this year. This isn't entirely out of pace with the theme of the blog. My mother has assured me that she went looking for "grotesque" presents. Apparently this was quite a challenge in Perth.

I received, among other things, a tin of monster band-aids (Americans would call them 'plasters' I think?):

This sabre-like yet stylish weapon (which I assume is a butter knife):

And this, the pièce de résistance, a bedazzled sticky tape dispenser:

So shiny. So useful. I'm told there was also a completely bedazzled electric keyboard in the shop, but mum resisted "because we already have a keyboard." Next time, Gadget, next time.

It has not escaped me that these are all things that would come in handy during a zombie apocalypse. Just saying.