“Meaning”: Part-2: Liminality, Abject, and Transformation

Ernesto Neto (b. 1964) is a contemporary artist from Brazil. He uses installations to create spaces that create feelings of presence by encompassing and embracing the observer within the artwork. He primarily uses forms with a bodily or organic texture, with a visual reference to body tissue, plants, or insects. The works use artificial fabrics, Styrofoam, and natural materials such as coffee beans and plants to create biomorphic spaces. The artist creates the impression of being inside or surrounded by a living organism by arranging the materials in forms that resemble biological tissues, plants, or neurons. Also, the intense, vibrant colors and the smells of organic materials such as coffee add to the observer’s experience.

The works [tapete campo] ondé ki nós vamo? (2012) ‘velejando entre nós, (2013) and yubẽ bushka (2016), are some of Neto’s works exhibited in Kiasma museum of contemporary art in Helsinki, Finland in 2016. The works are inspired not only by the natural macrocosm and microcosm but also by the Huin Kuin indigenous population of Brazil that, according to Neto – in contrast with the Western traditions – they do not distinguish themselves from their natural environment. In other words, the natural environment is not an “object” to be looked at or be “worshiped” or admired by a subject. On the contrary, the subject does not exist as a separate essence: there is no subject/object, there is no knowledge and reflection upon an object, but just an intersubjective and interactive existence. In other words, by evoking strong experiences and emotions, this work invites us to stop looking at the natural environment as a separate object to be exploited, understood, or even saved by us, but rather experience it through unity of experience. In Neto’s words:

For western people there is a disconnection between the one who is thinking and the object, from the indigenous perspective this is not possible: there is no separation between us and the nature, the subject and the object (Judah, 2016).

Taking a psychoanalytical perspective over the work, we can distinguish some more interesting patterns. First, the observer comes in contact with two conflicting perceptions. On the one hand, his personal experience of the artwork gets conflicting: the “external” biomorphic space is – at the same time – an “internal” part of his own body. The other conflicting perception is the one that has to do with the artificial/organic dichotomy. The materials have a strong artificial essence (their intense vibrant – unnatural – colors) visually, but also they have an organic, “natural” element (mostly their shape).

When one tries to identify with the work, one comes in contact with what Julia Kristeva would call “abject.” The abject lies in the liminal spaces, where the internal becomes external and the external potentially internal. Such spaces remind us of the possibility that the subject, as a clearly demarcated and delimited entity (as a living organism, as well as a psychological entity), could – and will eventually – collapse. Bodily fluids that supposedly are “internal” create disgust and horror when they become “external” (Kristeva, 1982). In a way, the subject – as a symbolic entity –  that is demarcated to a self-perception or a body-perception (see “Meaning”: Part-1: self-image, metaphor, mysticism, and poetic images: a psychoanalytic perspective); an Image, will eventually collapse – the corpse as an abject. Such entities that are neither internal (part of the subject) neither external (part of the object) but signify the liminal, and the potentiality of demarcation, are the “abjects.”

 In Kristeva’s own words:

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being (Kristeva, 1982).

Yubẽ bushka, as a work, prevents dialogue with the observer by subverting the limits that distinguish the observer as a subject with the “object” of his gaze (the artwork). It signifies “liminality.” Another interesting dichotomy is that of the artificial/natural. In more “ordinary” works that refer to environmentalism, the observer usually identifies with the human capacity to create artificial environments that are often juxtaposed with the “natural.” The artificial works as another liminal entity that subverts the usual dichotomy of artificial/natural. In that sense, Neto’s work is essentially post-humanist. The post-humanist subject no longer observes and understands, but he evolves within the liminal spaces. He intertwines his “subjectivity” with the abjective and the liminal. The post-human subject is not characterized by change but by transformation. The difference is that change requires alterity, a mental representation of an Other, a different potentiality of existence. On the contrary, transformation is based on a continuum that does not presuppose alterity (Malabou & Shread, 2012). The post-human subject is characterized by plasticity (Malabou & Vahanian, 2008); it lies between the meaning of the words, outside of Discourse, within the rifts of language.

References:

Judah, H. (2016). Ernesto Neto weaves a tribute to the Huni Kuin people of Brazil in Helsinki. Retrieved from The Spaces: https://thespaces.com/ernesto-neto-weaves-a-tribute-to-the-huni-kuin-people-of-brazil-in-helsinki/

Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Malabou,C. & Vahanian, N. [Interviewer] (2008). A Conversation With Catherine Malabou. Journal For Cultural And Religious Theory, 9(1), ISSN (online) 1530-5228

Malabou, C., & Shread, C. (2012). The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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