Thursday, February 20, 2014

Joel-Peter Witkin and Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject

Joel-Peter Witkin is an ambiguous photographer, whose photographic images bridge the sublime with the abject and deal with issues such as mortality, body/ gender/ sexuality and also integrate themes from Christian religion and the history of painting and photography.
Julia Kristeva is a philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst and novelist. The main theory which links her and Witkin is the theory of the abject. For Kristeva (Powers of Horror, p.15) abjection “is above all ambiguity” (p.9).
During the 1980's there was a general spread of the aesthetics of the grotesque and the abject, partly as a means of defetishising the female body and questioning identity. One of the most influential books concerning the abject was Kristeva’s book "Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection". According to Kristeva, the abject refers to the reaction to a potential breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object. An obvious example for what causes such a reaction is a corpse (which raises issues of mortality and identity). The realization of mortality is an acceptance of the abject or, in other words, the negation of the self. For Kristeva (1982, p.3), “the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything” and is “the utmost of abjection”.
Kristeva argues in Powers of Horror that the abject is an absolute given of culture. It not only refers to what threatens our body but is also that which "disturbs identity, system, order". For Kristeva the abject has an element of ambiguity: it is that which both revolts and attracts; she compares the aesthetic experience of the abject to a cathartic experience, “an impure process that protects from the abject only by dint of being immersed in it”. She also establishes a connection with religion and art, which she sees as two ways of purifying the abject (p.17):

The various means of purifying the abject -the various catharses- make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion.

Witkin’s art is infiltrated by his personal experiences -experiences which include witnessing the decapitation of a girl in a car accident (when he was a child) and photographing human corpses during his army service. His work is also connected to his spiritual beliefs: for him photography is a means to make visible his personal view of the world and especially his perception of God. He describes the creation of his art as a reactionary and simultaneously religious/cathartic experience (Revolt Against the Mystical, 1976):

I revolt against the mystical in order to be overwhelmed and won over by it. It is unfathomable, yet I attempt to understand it. It is invisible, yet I try to objectify it, hoping to find revelation and truth.

For Kristeva, artistic creation and all creativity requires revolt. Revolt (2003, p.217-8) has to do with the restructuring of the psyche and “can involve a return to the subject’s past in order to displace it, and, in a therapeutic sense, to find release from it.” She also establishes a connection between the abject and the sublime because in her opinion (1982, p.11) both involve a sense of loss of the self. For her (p.9) “the time of abjection is double: a time of oblivion and thunder, of veiled infinity and the moment when revelation bursts forth.”
A typical example of Witkin’s attempt to be “purified” by the means of abjection, art and religion can be seen in his photograph “Penitente”. “Penitente”
is a rather ambiguous image which portrays his view of God in a negative/abject manner. Witkin has mentioned (Revolt Against the Mystical, 1976) that his intension is to create positive images, “but in the process…the very thing that is sought becomes twisted and represented as something else.” Chris Townsend (Vile Bodies, 1998, p.52) has commented that “Witkin’s art (is) the product of an uncertain spiritual quest rather than religious conviction”. His photography (p.52) “invites us to share in uncertainty…(his) allegories of suffering should guarantee an assurance of faith, but never quite succeed.” He also suggests (p.47) that “the desired reaction (to Witkin’s photographs) is not an understanding of our ‘superiority’, our bodily integrity, but a sense of inadequacy, of our spiritual failure.”

                                                  Witkin, J.P. Penitente (1982)


Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of horror: an essay on abjection. New York : Columbia University Press.
Kristeva, J. (2000) The Sense and Nonsense of Revolt. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lechte, J. and Zournazi, M. (eds.) (2003) The Kristeva Critical Reader. Edinburgh University Press.
Townsend, C. (1998) Vile Bodies: Photography and the Crisis of Looking. Prestel Verlag.
Villasenor, M. C. (1996) ‘The Witkin Carnival’. Performing Arts Journal. 53.
Witkin, J.-P. (2001) Joel-Peter Witkin. Phaidon Press Ltd.
Witkin, J.-P. (fall 1997) ‘Danse Macabre’. Aperture. 149, p. 37.
Witkin, J.-P. (1976) ‘Revolt Against the Mystical’, in Celant, G. (ed.) (1995) Joel-Peter Witkin: A Retrospective. Scalo.

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