The 'art' of the disgusting (National Post May 23, 2007)

The 'art' of the disgusting

Barbara Kay, National Post
Published: Wednesday, May 23, 2007

This Friday, a terminally ill 47-yearold visual artist will petition a Montreal judge to approve a posthumous exhibit of her heart and lungs. Credit Francine Gagnon with thematic consistency. In 2001, she mounted a photographic installation featuring her surgically removed cancerous right breast encased in a Plexiglas box (entitled "I want to get it off my chest" and bizarrely described by Gagnon as "an organ donation ? to our society in need of happiness ?").

Gagnon's disgust-inspiring projects are by no means unique. Over the past two decades gallery-goers have seen exhibits of body sculptures like those of Hannah Wilkes's, covered with simulated sores, Karen Finley's, smeared with chocolate (representing excrement), Cindy Sherman's, outfitted with grotesque sexual prosthetics, and Andres Serrano's, displayed in a state of putrescent rigor mortis.

Public institutions, such as the Maison de la Culture that housed Gagnon's exhibition, are supposedly ideologically secular. Our heritage religions have indeed been effectively banned for years from the public square (except, of course, for purposes of mockery or disparagement). But what contemporary tax-supported exhibits like Gagnon's tell us is that ideological support has actually shifted away from secularism -- the absence of religion-- and simply aligned itself with another form of religion: paganism.

The locus of obsession for all religions is the body. Both Judaism and Christianity, perceiving Man as created in God's image, are consumed with corporal decency: appropriate limits to physical self-display, permissible latitude to sexual desire and the proper degree of respect for the body's integrity. With lesser or greater sectarian rigour, both insist on covering nakedness, hallowing sexual drives and protecting the body, live or dead, from indignities.

Like traditional religion, paganism is both judgmental and prescriptive -- except that where traditional religion preaches decency in the service of holiness, paganism promotes (ever-escalating) indecency in the service of sensation for its own sake. Like some religions, paganism is also triumphalist, always pressing for greater public validation, and often getting it: in legal decisions (the normalization of group sex by the SCC in 2006), in fashion (hooker-wear) and, of course, publicly funded houses of culture that promote Gagnon and co.'s style of paraphiliac, or "abject art," as one museum dubbed art that evokes disgust.

Paraphiliac art at least does not dissemble. More insidious is "play"-giarizing art, where the art's voyeuristic essence is served up in superficially whimsical or jokey forms. Toronto art student Deb Wiles, for example, recently coaxed 52 initially embarrassed, but eventually co-operative women into impressing their vulvas on to a mixture of Vaseline and powdered alginate for eventual casting in bronze as benignly shell-like sculptures.

On a far grander scale of pagan "play"giarism is Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds, an anatomical exhibition touring the planet since 1995, now showing at Montreal's Old Port. Herein are displayed 200 actual skinned cadavers, fat and moisture replaced by polymers, with innocently candy-bright colours differentiating various muscle groups, organs and blood vessels. These "plastinated" bodies have by now been exposed to the curious gaze of 20 million viewers. Beguilingly, innocently ludic in appearance, these are nonetheless mutilated corpses, and their audience, however unintentionally, has been seduced into complicity in their defilement.

(Interestingly, while enjoying huge success over here, Body Worlds has been shunned in Europe since 2004, when Germany's Der Spiegel reported that some of the "consenting cadavers" received from China, von Hagens' principal source, contained bullet holes in the skull, suggesting they were executed prisoners. Von Hagens protested the charge, but is alleged to have immediately cremated all potential evidence.)

The transgressive impulse is never satisfied. Von Hagens has conceded that he does not reject the idea of one day arranging his more naked-than-naked corpses in explicit sexual poses. Can anyone doubt that he will make good on this promise? Or that government funding will be provided to expose such a pornographic display to the widest possible public?

O brave new aesthetic world, some avant-garde secularists might say, in which, God having been banished, all is permitted. In truth, it is more accurate to say, O depraved new aesthetic world in which, reverence for life having been banished, self-respect is forbidden. In past eras of our cultural confidence, artists projected images of Man as only "a little lower than the angels." In this dispirited era, pagan artists project a selfloathing version of Man, nostalgic for the primal ooze from which he was created.

© National Post 2007