Skip to content

Horror on the Margins: Embodying Otherness in Craft Media

Written by Erika Kindsfather
Edited by Aimée Tian and Miray Eroglu

In the tradition of Western art history, craft as a genre of creation has been marginalized and excluded from the canon, undermined for its association with the feminine, domestic sphere. Recent scholarship attempts to rehabilitate craft from the periphery of the canon to a place of critical engagement. While this work is inherently feminist in its goal to elevate the labor of marginalized individuals, it often fails to destabilize the binary models of identification that validates this hierarchy of art over craft, and by default, intellectual over physical labor, and masculinity over femininity. Rather, craft media’s traditional location on the margins makes it a particularly salient method of artistic production in dealing with embodiments of individuals marginalized in society beyond the confines of the art world. In examining the work of artists engaging with body horror through craft media I will reveal how its materiality and historical associations subvert patriarchal expectations of abjection, supporting the concept that craft serves an audience that shares its given identification with otherness. In dealing with the abject body, these works reveal issues of visualizing “otherness” in engagement with the patriarchal art historical canon. [1] I argue that craft media’s proximity to the feminine and its traditional association as the other in relation to the art historical canon heightens its potential to solicit affective responses associated with horror, namely disgust and fear from an assumed white male viewer, while holding the potential to communicate solidarity to the marginalized viewer.

Craft media is a useful tool for subverting the default male subject in beholding abjection, engaging ambiguities in representing embodiments that deviate from a hetero-patriarchal norm. Mary Russo’s theorization of the abject body in art will guide my understanding of the definition of abjection as an ‘other’ in hetero-patriarchal visual culture. She nuances the regulation of the female body into the categories of classical versus the grotesque, or abject, asserting that a classical female form is contained and regulated, while the grotesque female form is unruly, secreting, and deviant from the classical “norm.” [2] The abject transgresses the boundary between the interior and exterior body; where the classical body is contained, the abject is open and cavernous. The abject female body is a central theme in the category of horror, as it solicits feelings of unease and disgust from a beholder in witnessing this transgression from the ideal classical form. [3] The abject body solicits a dual affective response in the category of horror; the beholder is simultaneously drawn in and repelled by the object of wonder, consistently identified as a threat to the status quo that upholds a passive vision of ‘appropriate’ femininity. This dual solicitation of the abject disrupts binary oppositions between repelling and attracting forces by driving them to exist together. Further, when the beholder has been actively identified through their ‘otherness’ in a society that privileges the white heterosexual male subject, this act of identifying the self against the abject ceases and challenges the balance of attraction and repulsion. In this way, the abject body, beheld by a subject or creator who has been “othered” in hetero-patriarchal western society, has the potential to challenge the Hegelian binary of the self against the other in rejecting a presupposed white male viewer, which disrupts the default affective response that encountering abjection is understood to solicit. [4]

Figure 1. Hans Bellmer, Untitled from the Die Puppe Series, 1936. Gelatin Print, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

However, male artists have employed the abject to uphold the marginalization of women and enact violence against the feminine body. Hans Bellmer’s Die Puppe (Fig. 1) demonstrates this violent fragmentation of the female body as a means for the male artist to reduce women to a vessel through which patriarchal motives can be enacted. Bellmer uses doll parts to create a monstrous female form, calling attention to Freudian castration anxiety and the perceived threat of a transgressive female body. Bellmer stated, “the female body is like an endless sentence that invites us to rearrange it, so that its real meaning becomes clear through a series of endless anagrams,” demonstrating a male desire to enact this violence against the marginalized body to uphold his privileged position in society and maintain gendered hierarchies. [5] This theme of the male enactor of violence and female victim is pervasive in the genre of horror. Carol Clover states, “the killer is with few exceptions recognizably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression; his victims are mostly women, often sexually free and always young and beautiful.”[6]

The male aggressor is presupposed in artworks displaying a feminine embodiment marked with acts of violence. Beccy Ridsdel deals with this violence against the feminine as it translates through the imposed hierarchy of art and craft in her porcelain series Art/Craft (Fig. 2). The porcelain plates show layers of white glaze decorated with flowers, peeled away with an implied incision held open by forceps. The incisions reveal different floral patterns that cover the exposed surface. Ridsdel comments on the series, stating, “the installation takes the form of an observation of a surgical experiment in progress. The ‘surgeon’ is dissecting the craft object to see what is within. He finds craft through and through. He tries the experiment again and again, piling up the dissected work, hoping to see something different but it is always the same.”[7] Ridsdel indirectly rejects scholarship that attempts to rehabilitate craft in her assertion that her work is “craft through and through.”[8] For example, Jo Dahn attempts to insert ceramic practices into the realm of art historical critical engagement by examining contemporary conceptual ceramics as moving beyond ceramics’ traditional association with decoration and the domestic interior through works that explore the medium’s potential in the realms of conceptual and performance art.[9] This scholarship reinforces the devaluation of craft’s associations with materiality, femininity, and decoration in attempting to distance the medium from these traditional connotations. That is, in using traditionally masculine modes of intellectual methodology to assert contemporary ceramics as transcendent of the medium’s material qualities and feminine connotations, Dahn confirms that femininity, ornamentation, and domesticity are seen as unsavory associations coded in failure and deviance from the canon, which is validated through her use of canonical methods to push ceramics into its culturally-privileged realm. Ridsdel’s work, however, embraces its materiality, femininity, and failure to perform canonical demands in denying the male surgeon anything beyond craft and all its traditional connotations. Art/Craft (Fig. 2) creates an embodiment of craft itself, assumed feminine, that experiences medical violence at the hands of a male surgeon, whose experiment is destined to failure.

Figure 2. Beccy Ridsdel, Untitled from Art/Craft Series, 2016. Ceramic, Beccy Ridsdel Ceramics.

Art/Craft (Fig. 2) identifies craft as deviant from the realm of art and personifies it as a feminine body being mutilated by the male surgeon. This visual register mimics the binary systems of identification on which the genre of horror relies: male and female, aggressor and victim, beauty and medical monstrosity. Yet these juxtapositions are performative and often enacted to maintain patriarchal value structures. I argue that binary models of visual identification, either one is or one isn’t, serves a distinctly patriarchal worldview. [10] Judith Butler asserts that the cultural phenomenon of gender is established through stylized acts that are repeated, coded in gendered language, and therefore perpetuated over time.[11] Here she identifies the concept of gender not as a pre-existing natural condition, but rather one that has been developed through the repetition of acts that came to be visual indicators of gender assignment in western society. Through Butlerian gender phenomenology, the dangers of binary models of construction and identification of the self in the actualization of masculinity and femininity as not only binary opposites but also signifiers of cultural hierarchy become apparent. The feminist artist’s undertaking to destabilize the institutionalized hetero-patriarchal legacy of art history is a challenge of interacting with the field’s canonical past and rethinking methods of coding bodies that rejects the violence that comes along with binarism in visual culture. Ridsdel successfully complicates the performative aspect of the binaries associated with the art/craft hierarchy in relying on the beholder’s cultural bias to enact the work’s meaning; she implies a feminine victim and male aggressor, forcing the viewer to confront and question why these genders are assumed and how this gendered violence has come to be by critically examining the constructed patriarchal society in which they live.

Marginalized artists complicate this issue of juxtaposition further to engage with histories of material violence against the feminine body by employing it in their work literally to subvert the expectations of a patriarchal audience and potentially empower the marginalized beholder. Shary Boyle uses horror and the fragmented body to reference the media’s traditional feminine associations and history as associated with a decorative body. Her work, Untitled (Fig. 3) depicts a slender porcelain woman wearing an intricate black and light blue lace gown with a historicizing silhouette that covers most of her figure excluding her arm and neck. However, her head is severed from her body and she holds it gently in front of her waist. Her neck and head display marks of violence, with a choppy red surface where they were severed from one another. In cutting off the head of the woman, who still exhibits the affective register of a decorative figurine, Boyle subverts expectations of craft as a polite mode of decoration by employing visceral horror and violence enacted to the woman’s body. The ceramic woman is characterized by her failure to perform her traditional craft function of decorative beauty and non-disruptive presence. Boyle disrupts the binary of the classical versus abject body by using elements that define both, displaying the passive figurine woman as classical in her pose and dress, but abject in her physical fragmentation.

Figure 3. Shary Boyle, Untitled, 2005. Porcelain, china paint, lustre, Shary Boyle Sculpture.

Engaging with the concept of the classical body, Mikhail Bakhin states, “…that which protrudes… is eliminated, hidden, or moderated. All orifices of the body are closed. The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable façade.”[12] Bakhin’s language identifies the classical body with its impenetrability, tied up not only in concepts of virginity but also of guarded interiority. Untitled (Fig. 3) depicts a woman who is contained and guarded, yet fragmented through violence. This complicates the beholder’s reading of her body as a transgression; rather, one sees violence transform her from a classical figure to a monstrosity. Like Ridsdel’s Art/Craft (Fig. 2), the aggressor is not pictured in Boyle’s Untitled (Fig. 3), but rather implied through the mark of violence on the victim’s body. Yet in both cases, the transgression of the embodiment lies not only in the transformation from a classical form to an abject one, but also in its materiality as a craft object, which codes the work as deviant by nature.

Julia Kristeva engages with the duality of abjection, stating, “abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it- on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.”[13] Yet this conception of abjection, like Russo’s, presupposes a viewership that would be threatened by a non-normative other. Likewise, Barbara Creed uses Kristeva’s scholarship to assert, “the abject threatens life; it must be ‘radically excluded’ from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self.”[14] However, this understanding of abjection presupposes the existence of a default self, culturally defined as a white heterosexual male. The life that is threatened by the abject is not life as a singular signifier of everything living, but rather “life” as defined through oppressive structures of power, holding the white heterosexual male as the self and any deviant from this norm as the other. Boyle’s Untitled (Fig. 3) and Ridsdel’s Art/Craft (Fig. 2) subvert this relationship between the presupposed male viewer and the abject body by calling to attention the aggressor’s role in rendering the feminine form monstrous through violence. The indexes of violence imposed upon these embodiments identify them as victims of an unidentified yet implied male assailant. Kristeva’s understanding of the abject as ambiguous in its potential to both draw in and repel the threatened beholder recognizes the system of opposites through which bodily identification operates. The marginalized artist, as demonstrated by queer women artists Ridsdel and Doyle, complicates this binary in considering the marginalized viewer as the privileged audience that may identify with the victimized body, while the traditionally assumed male viewer is forced to identify themselves with the disembodied, masculine assailant. Craft media, here ceramic in both cases, confirms the identification of violence as masculine in paralleling the figure’s wounds with the devaluation of craft, coded feminine, while the art historical canon, paralleled by the entity of the aggressor, is coded masculine.

While disruptive of gender and material binaries, the artworks hold the potential of being coded with failure due to the embodiments’ characterization as others. That is, the embodiments displayed are intentionally deviant from a cultural norm, and while the marginalized individual may reclaim deviance as a mode of subversive self-identification, patriarchal Western society rejects otherness as failure to achieve the privileged identification of a white male. Engaging with Edelman’s No Future, Jack Halberstam states, “the queer subject [Edelman] argues, has been bound epistemologically to negativity, to nonsense, to antiproduction, and to unintelligibility, and instead of fighting this characterization by dragging queerness into recognition, he proposes that we embrace the negativity that we anyway structurally represent.”[15] While other scholars challenge this notion, Halberstam calls for an embrace of failure and negativity as queer experiences.[16] Whether or not the queer community should embrace failure is not a concern of mine for the purpose of this essay, but the concept of the other as doomed to failure appears in the otherness of craft and feminine embodiments represented through craft media. Ridsdel’s Art/Craft (Fig. 2) fails to reveal the depth beyond craft that the surgeon searched for and the embodiment of Untitled (Fig. 3) fails to adhere to the classical expectation of the viewer in beholding a porcelain figurine. Though the horror of witnessing the dissected and fragmented body nuances the binary of art and craft and likewise abject and classical embodiments, the transgressive nature of craft and any quality of abjection force these artworks into the position of the other against the canon, therefore coded in their failure to achieve a culturally-determined normativity. Arguably, both artists embrace failure as a tactic to subvert the authority of the canon, but mourn this ideology’s material repercussions on the queer feminine body as the cause of violence against their subversive embodiments.

Failure attached to the identity of the marginalized individual in Western society forces them to perform a distinct affective labor of engaging both with the instituted repulsion of their perceived otherness and their own difficulty in subverting pervasive systems of oppression to heal from these deeply rooted histories of Western binarism. Jennifer Doyle brings the unique labor of the marginalized artist in engaging with histories of oppression in the field of art to light in asserting, “artists working from the margins find themselves burdened with a distinct form of affective labor: dealing with the audience’s fascination and guilt as well as that audience’s desire to absorb such works into prefabricated narratives about what it means to make work informed by, for example, discourse on race and identity.”[17] Women artists working with craft media today are forced to engage with histories of erasure and devaluation of the labor of women before them and a systematic exclusion of their work from ‘high culture’. Artists working from the margins who choose to work with craft media perform this affective labor twofold: dealing with the audience’s expectations that Doyle describes as well as these histories coded in the medium of their work. Amelia Jones states, “art exists as a pivot between artist and interpreter (each of whom, in structures of Western aesthetics, views himself as uniquely positioned to make/view the work). Art in this sense is always “identified” with an individual.”[18] While this may be true in the traditional formulation of male artist and erudite male viewer, I argue that craft’s history as a relegated process of visual cultural production allows the marginalized artist to appeal distinctly to the marginalized beholder, creating a sense of shared experience in picturing the systemic oppression imposed upon them. Boyle’s Untitled (Fig. 3) supports this argument through her empathetic depiction of the woman for those who have likewise been dehumanized through structures of male violence. Horror in its traditional genre formulation relies often on the sexualization of female victimhood and sexualized violence against the woman as a plot device. In picturing the woman after the act of violence without narrative, she is the only visual focus, forcing the viewer to dwell on her visceral pain and suffering and their potential complacency in it. The marginalized viewer, who is left to fill in the figurine’s narrative, can identify with her victimization at the hands of the patriarchy, identifying with the figure’s corporeal pain and experience of epistemic and material violence. The affective labor that the marginalized individual carries in their daily life existing within a white hetero-patriarchal society is shared with the embodiment in Boyle’s work and is coded in the figurine’s materiality, establishing a potential framework of establishing solidarity through craft.

Figure 4. Louise Bourgeois, She Lost It, 1992. Fabric, embroidery floss, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Louise Bourgeois addresses the marginalized viewer and their distinct affective experience through embroidered textile in She Lost It (Fig. 4), a white quilted dress with the words “The Cold of Anxiety is Very Real” embroidered in red capital letters frontally on the garment. This work deals with anxiety, a psychopathological affect, and uses craft to address the misogyny in medical histories of mental illness treatment. Hysteria, a concept created by men to discredit women’s suffering in a patriarchal society and to punish their failure to perform contained and passive femininity, demonstrates the pathologization of women’s emotions. Bourgeois forces the viewer to confront the visceral burden of anxiety and heightens this discomfort in the formal qualities of the white garment, evoking a straitjacket. The sufferer of anxiety whose emotions have been undermined in a patriarchal society, may feel not the cold of anxiety, but a sense of solidarity in knowing that they are not alone in this feeling. Like Art/Craft (Fig. 2) and Untitled (Fig. 3), She Lost It (Fig. 4) is coded in failure; not only does it evoke a woman’s transgression of culturally appropriate femininity but also uses the craft medium to facilitate and heighten this transgression.

Christine Ross states, “as sufferers [of depression] or companions of sufferers we draw on discourses to give meaning to pain, to feel pain, and to construct identity in relation to pain.”[19] This is enacted through the works I have examined as they attend to issues of otherness in relation to emotional and physical pain. The collective pain of marginalized groups becomes a means through which one can work through histories of oppression and create a system of solidarity. I establish that the affective burden in recognizing a connecting violence against the body that deviates from the privileged white heterosexual male can be referred to as cultural trauma. This refers to the systematic violence imposed upon the individual who is collectively othered by hetero-patriarchal society and its structures of oppression that pervade contemporary culture. Indeed, pain as a collective affect, though imposed upon the individual with marked difference, can be reclaimed as a productive means through which marginalized communities can establish solidarity and reinstate a community identity beyond the otherness imposed upon them. Ridsdel’s Art/Craft (Fig. 2) erases the individual body, creating a personification of craft in its place, thus emphasizing the collective nature of the work. Ridsdel does not deal with an individual subject or object, but rather relies on the viewer’s understanding of the historical associations of craft to give the work meaning. The beholder witnesses craft’s embodied pain in failing to achieve art’s cultural status, yet the marginalized viewer may identify with the pain of the work in both its affective labor in failing to perform a norm and inability to escape the confines of this oppression. Bourgeois’ She Lost It (Fig. 4) recognizes this pain in carrying the affective labor of anxiety and engaging histories of misogyny, but more explicitly draws the aspect of viewer solidarity into light by evoking a visceral experience of the body.

Returning to Doyle’s discussion of the affective labor of the artist working from the margins, one can see this labor translated into a relationship of empathy with the marginalized viewer. [20] In carrying this burden of dwelling with the pain of being actively othered in society and the art world, these artists create a dialogue to address systems of oppression within and beyond the art world. Further, artwork that engages craft to depict violence against the marginalized body brings visibility to the material consequences of oppressive ideologies that are pervasive in the institutional space of the art world. This visibility enables individuals to empathize and interact with the artist behind the work, establishing solidarity through the pain of being forced to identify with deviance, a relational concept that Ross refers to as intersubjectivity.[21] Craft, the abject body, and atypical affect transgress patriarchal boundaries of appropriate identity and serve a distinctly non-normative audience, disrupting the assumed male artist and beholder. This engagement, therefore, challenges oppressive binaries and the hierarchies they established in calling for the reconsideration of art’s audience and its potential in establishing networks of solidarity through which communities of individuals can collectively heal from the material and epistemic violence they, and those before them, have experienced.

The horror of the craft works I have examined does not repulse the viewer without nuance, but rather engages the viewer in a reciprocal dialogue regarding their position in systems that establish and maintain violence, or perhaps their identification as the suffering body. While each work shows a form of embodiment in a state of a wounded presence, whether the body is absent, abject, or symbolic, their pervasive lack of narrative invites the viewer to experience this wounding with the figure and understand pain as a process through which healing could not be facilitated otherwise. Craft’s systemic exclusion from the art historical canon and devaluation in its associations with the feminine make it a particularly powerful medium through which the subject defined through otherness in Western hetero-patriarchal society can engage with histories of marginalization and violence.

Notes

[1] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “Self-Consciousness,” in Phenomenology of Spirit, eds. Arnold V. Miller, and J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

[2] Mary Russo, “Introduction,” in The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 11.

[3] Mary Russo, “Freaks,” in The Horror Reader, ed. Ken Gelder (New York and London: Routledge, 2000), 90-97.

[4] Hegel. “Self-Consciousness.”

[5] Hans Bellmer quoted in Sarah Friedman, “Endless Anagrams: Hans Bellmer and Anna Gaskell’s Imaginary Conversation,” in Inside/Out: A MoMA PS1 Blog, published June 14, 2012, accessed April 18, 2017. https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/06/14/endless-anagrams-hans-bellmer-and-anna-gaskells-imaginary-conversation/.

[6] Carol J. Clover, “Her Body, Himself (Extract),” in The Horror Reader, ed. Ken Gelder (New York and London: Routledge, 2000), 294.

[7] Beccy Ridsdel, “Art/Craft,” Beccy Ridsdel Ceramics, accessed April 18, 2017. http://www.beccyridsdel.co.uk/page7.htm.

[8] Ridsdel, “Art/Craft.”

[9] Jo Dahn, “Elastic/Expanding: Contemporary Conceptual Ceramics,” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 153-71.

[10] Hegel, “Self-Consciousness.”

[11] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. April. 2017.

[12] Mikhail Bakhtin, “The Grotesque Image of the Body and its Sources,” in Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 320. Emphasis added.

[13] Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection,” in The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 4.

[14] Barbara Creed, “Kristeva, Femininity, Abjection,” in The Horror Reader. ed. Ken Gelder (New York and London: Routledge, 2000), 65.

[15] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005); Jack Halberstam, “The Queer Art of Failure,” in The Queer Art of Failure (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 106.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jennifer Doyle, “Feeling Overdetermined: Identity, Emotion, and History,” in Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 94.

[18] Amelia Jones, “Art as a Binary Proposition; Identity as a Binary Proposition,” in Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts (New York: Routledge, 2012), 19.

[19] Christine Ross, “Introduction,” in The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xxv.

[20] Doyle, “Feeling Overdetermined,” 94.

[21] Christine Ross, “Nothing to See?” in The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 172.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *