It Takes Guts
Making art out of body parts
Published July 29, 1999 in Whoa!

The body and its politics have been an abiding theme in contemporary art since the 1960s, and an extreme few have used actual bodies -- their own -- as the raw material of their work. But even Chris Burden's 1974 autocrucifixion on a Volkswagen beetle pales in comparison to the increasingly Gothic body art of the '90s, from the ritual bloodletting of postmodern primitives like Ron Athey to the one-man Inquisition of Bob Flanagan, a self-styled "super-masochist" who nailed his penis to a board and called it art.

See also...
... by Mark Dery
... in the Whoa! section
... from July 29, 1999

Flanagan, who died of cystic fibrosis in 1996, once toyed with the sick-funny notion of installing a closed-circuit TV camera inside his casket, thus enabling spectators to witness his final performance: the decay of his mortal remains.

Taking up where Flanagan's fantasy leaves off, a handful of artists, entrepreneurs, and pop-culture bottom-feeders are transforming human remains into fetish objects for the Gothic imagination. In 1997, the British designer Alexander McQueen sparked controversy by allegedly incorporating human bones, teeth, and other body parts into Givenchy's Autumn-Winter collection. "Human Body Parts May Be Latest Paris Couture Craze," a Reuters headline screamed.

The Post-Modern Gothic

The gap between our technological culture and our psychological nature seems to widen with each passing day. Dolly's cloning and the Human Genome Project take place against a backdrop of ethnic cleansing and schoolyard shootings. Just as the Victorian reaction to the Industrial Revolution was bodied forth in Gothic novels like Dracula, the future shock we're experiencing in the wake of the computer revolution -- escalating media bombardment, runaway social change, and the seemingly vestigial nature of our bodies in an ever more virtual reality -- is registered by the Postmodern Gothic.

Despite the culture's attempts to sell us bottled optimism, from Clinique's Happy perfume ("Wear It and Be Happy") to Wired's zero-forehead "optimism" meme to the New Age vacuity of the angel craze, the Gothic, back from its 19th century grave, confronts us at every turn.

"During the last decade of the century (and millennium), horror plays a central role in American culture," writes Mark Edmundson in Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic. "A time of anxiety, dread about the future, the fin de siècle teems with works of Gothic terror."

Not only is the Gothic alive and well in all the obvious places -- Anne Rice novels, Wes Craven movies -- but its shadow is creeping across our culture's "apparently nonfictional forms" of discourse as well, he asserts. "On broadcast news, in the most respected daily newspapers, on TV talk shows," writes Edmundson, "the Gothic mode is ascendant."

He sees the risen specter of the Gothic in the tabloid treatment of the Nancy Kerrigan/Tanya Harding episode as "a Gothic tale of opposing twins," in the nightly TV news that is increasingly "a sequence of shock footage, a collection of horror shorts," and in the media's racially charged portrait of O. J. Simpson as a Dr. Jekyll who lost control of his darker self.

Even that theory-clouded redoubt of high culture, the art world, has had its fling with the Gothic. A 1997 exhibition at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, "Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late 20th Century Art," included Abigail Lane's wax mannequin of a comely young corpus delicti half-buried in a mound of earth, Zoe Leonard's photo of the preserved head of a bearded woman, and Gregory Crewdson's staged photo of a leg overgrown by writhing vines and punctured by large, brutal thorns -- an unforgettable outtake from an imaginary Hitchcock movie.

Exquisite Corpses

More Gothic still are the tabloid tales of Gunther von Hagens and Anthony-Noel Kelly. Von Hagens, a professor at the University of Heidelberg School of Medicine, is the inventor of "plastination," a Norman Batesian process in which cadavers are preserved by removing the water from every cell and replacing it with molten plastic.

Museumgoers at a 1998 exhibition in Mannheim, Germany, were fascinated and repulsed by the "Figure with Skin," a flayed corpse carrying his skin draped over one arm, and "The Runner," his outer muscles blown backward, off his bones, in the anatomical equivalent of speedlines. The good doctor's insistence on referring to his exhibits as "anatomical artworks" proved especially troublesome, stirring memories of Gothic monsters like the deranged artist in Mystery of the Wax Museum, whose sculptures turn out to be cadavers dipped in wax. "He who styles human corpses as a so-called work of art no longer respects the importance of death," said the Catholic theologian Johannes Reiter.

Tell it to Anthony-Noel Kelly. An abattoir worker-turned-artist, Kelly was convicted in 1998 of smuggling up to 40 human body parts from the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Unknown to the art world, his sculptures incorporated gold- and silver-coated casts of corpses and body parts. "Those who treat the bodies of the recently deceased as though they were canvas and oils," railed The Times of London, "are reducing reverence for the human."

Perhaps. But whatever else they may be, Kelly and von Hagens are true sons of the zeitgeist. As the curtain falls on the 20th century, our collective thoughts turn naturally to death -- in the figurative sense, meaning the death of the old bedtime stories about Truth and God that the postmodernists call "master narratives," and in the literal sense, as the baby-boomers who thought they would stay forever young confront mortality in the bathroom mirror.

As in Gothic novels, the body is the screen on which we project our bad dreams. Christoph Grunenberg, who curated "Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late 20th Century Art," notes that the postmodern Gothic often takes the shape of "formless, horrendous, shocking images of mutilated and rotting bodies with limbs covered in boils and wounds," of disjoined body parts uncannily "transformed into nightmares."

Diseased or dead, malformed or monstrous, the vile bodies of Gothic fiction began as nightmares inspired by the Reign of Terror. The genre's first flowering, in late 18th-century England, was an artistic response to the French Revolution, whose rampaging mobs and guillotined heads floated through the dreams of English novelists. A shudder of body horror ripples through the Gothic canon, from Frankenstein, whose man-made monster's "yellow skin barely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath," to Poe stories like "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," whose coup de grâce is the disintegration of the main character into a "nearly liquid mass of loathsome -- of detestable putridity."

Even so, at the same time that the Gothic sought to exorcise visions of the madness of crowds, it liberated the irrational terrors and perverse desires repressed by the Age of Reason. The medieval past that gave the Gothic its name stood simultaneously for the barbarous, superstition-shrouded times the Enlightenment was leaving behind and the unreasoning, primitive impulses that Freud would one day call the Id -- an uncanny double of the conscious self, like the doppelganger of Gothic fiction, to which the Romantics were irresistibly drawn.

Head Trip

The Gothic is still with us in the age of gender reassignment and computer viruses because, as J.G. Ballard observed, we've brought the "diseases of the psyche" -- "voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings" -- with us, into the Cyberspace Age. "Despite McLuhan's delight in high-speed information mosaics," he notes, "we are still reminded of Freud's profound pessimism in Civilization and Its Discontents." The postmodern Gothic conjures up the diseases of the psyche and millennial anxieties haunting our visions of a future so bright we've gotta wear shades.

Thus, the frozen head in the cryonic vat, a fixture of pop-science fantasies, is just a guillotined head in high-tech guise. Like us, 19th century scientists speculated that consciousness might survive decapitation. In an attempt to revive them, they jolted freshly severed heads with electricity, transfused them with dog blood, and shouted into their ears. In millennial America as in Disneyworld, the Carousel of Progress and the Haunted Mansion are never far apart.

See also: People Parts as Good Luck Charms

Mark Dery has written about new media, fringe thought, and unpopular culture for The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice Literary Supplement, Suck, and Feed. His collection of essays, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink was published by Grove Press in February, 1999.