Sensualising Deformity Conference

Article text
Self Portrait REMIXED © Robert Bauder
Ignorance is Bliss: What contemporary artists want us to see

Sensualising Deformity: Communication and Construction of Monstrous Embodiment,
Two-day International Conference, University of Edinburgh
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As an artist captivated by the human condition, I will deliver the work of contemporary artists whose illustrative, painterly, sculptural and photographic figures embody distortion and deformity. Artworks will include those by established artists – Joel Peter Witkins and Berlinde De Bruyckere – and of less renowned talent – Matt Lombard and Francesca Dalla Benetta – amongst others.

Bearing witness to these artworks, one might be repulsed, or fascinated, look away, or sneak a peek; the psychological and emotionally conditions inherent in witnessing these “freaks of nature” is ultimately self-reflective, inasmuch as it exposes and widens the fissures in the viewer’s own consciousness.

The paper will examine where the contemporary artworks reside in the pantheon of nineteenth and twentieth century freak show and medical photography. Do our contemporaries marry the scientific to the spectacular in their rendering of monstrous bodies? Attention will focus on the meanings attached to bodily difference generated by the historical presentation of human anomalies and “freaks”, and how the sensual aesthetics of contemporary artwork transcend these meanings. How do they resonate with the altered attitudes toward disability and deformity since the condemnation of freak shows, which significantly affected our willingness to ogle ‘Others’?

I will entertain mythical and metaphorical readings of these artistic displays of human deformity, and how their aesthetics – not limited to sites of entertainment and science – bring us face to face with corporal volatility; evident in the larger personal, social and cultural anxieties.

Seventieth century philosopher and scientist, Francis Bacon, believed that once we know how the monstrous, the strange, the deviant reveal the laws of nature; we can reconstruct the world as we wish. Here, we sense that ignorance is not, and never has been, bliss. These contemporary artworks exude the sensuality of aberrant bodies – of the universal bodies – so we cannot uphold ignorance any longer.

Contributor to edited collection Spectacle, Sense and Sensuality: Exploring Extraordinary Embodiment, released 2014