BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 27 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 23


Why has abjection gained renewed currency in art?

BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 27 MAR 16

Nicolas Ceccaldi, Coffin cam, 2010, mixed media, dimension variable. Courtesy: the artist, Kunstverein Medienturm, Graz; photograph: Rainer Iglar

‘An otherness [is] represented by material debris’, writes Peter Schwenger in his book The Tears of Things. Melancholy and Physical Objects (2006). ‘This debris is not, as one would usually think, ephemeral, but is a  constant – an enduring parallel universe of matter indifferent to human existence.’1  Fragile and broken down, debris has lost an original, constituting form and is essentially fragmented. It speaks of a past function or state of wholeness, but has been cut loose and drifts to the periphery. Unlike trash or waste that is permanently expelled, it remains floating around the margins, resilient like a tidal line of driftwood and oceanic junk. Schwenger quotes Joseph Cornell on cleaning up after a day of working on his boxes:  ‘“Had satisfactory feeling about clearing up debris on cellar floor – ‘sweepings’ represent all the rich crosscurrents ramifications etc. that go into the boxes but which are not apparent (I feel at least) in the final result.”’2 For Cornell, although he constructed his works from leftover bits and pieces – seashells, cotton reels, screws, beads, fragments snipped from newspapers – these ‘sweepings’ form a second-level debris that is the antithesis of the narratives carefully constructed in his boxes; it remains unbound and formless, but is nevertheless rich as a repository of the crosscurrents of thought and experience that define the artistic process. 

In 1851 at the dawn of the modern age, Charles Baudelaire described the relation of debris to the products of the new industrialization through the compelling figure of  the ‘rag-picker’: ‘This man is responsible for gathering up the daily debris of the capital. All that the city has rejected, all that it has lost, shunned, disdained, broken, this man catalogues and stores. He creates order, makes an intelligent choice; like a miser hoarding treasure, he gathers the refuse that has been spit out by the god of Industry’.3Debris forms an omnipresent, pulsating undercurrent beneath the commercial productions of urban modernity. The ensuing century’s art history is littered with rag-pickers, from Kurt Schwitters – whose self-devised ‘Merz’ system in the interwar years was intended to ‘create relationships, ideally between all the things in the world’–to the newspaper collages of Gerhard Rühm and the Wiener Gruppe, to Jeanne Mammen’s string, tinfoil and candy wrapper collages of the 1960s4. In mid-1960s Paris, advocates of Pierre Restany’s Nouveau Realisme like the artist Arman sealed vitrines full of waste,  or stuffed a whole gallery full of garbage  (Le Plein at Galerie Iris Clert in 1960), while Raymond Hains presented torn layers of billboard advertisements as painting surrogates, which he described as ‘a sort of archeological kidnap’.5 Meanwhile in the United States, Robert Smithson was exploring and documenting the industrial wastelands of New Jersey in his Monuments of Passaic (1967), discovering concrete abutments, pipes spewing foul water, and ‘ruins in reverse’: ‘the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built, but rather rise into ruin before they  are built’.6 Other examples abound: Marcel Broodthaers’s pots of mussel shells (1965), Daniel Spoerri’s Snare Pictures (1960–onwards), the exhaustive junk collections in Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing (1965–77), or even the abject  remnants of the mother-child relationship included in Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document(1973–9).

Lucie Stahl, Untitled (Mega Foxy), 2014, aluminium, inkjet print, epoxy resin, 1.7 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles

These art forms had their literary  equivalent in Walter Benjamin’s monumental project, begun in 1927, that would later become The Arcades Project – a collection  of notes and textual fragments intended to sum up the history of the 19th century through refuse and detritus, the insignificant traces of daily life. It never coalesced into  a cohesive form but remained as several hundred notes, reflections and citations (in the published version, over 150 pages are devoted to Baudelaire alone). Benjamin abandoned  it when he fled Paris in 1940, but it remains a colossal assemblage of commentary and  quotation – a textual monument that rose into ruin before it was built – to form a spectral picture of his time, as seen from within.

Approaching the turn of the 20th century, Isa Genzken emerges as a consummate rag-picker for the age. Her pervasive strategy of ‘Basic Research’ began in the late 1980s with frottages of her studio floor and continued as she subjected the material qualities  of her urban environment to rigorous scrutiny. In her diaristic artist books I Love New York, Crazy City (1995–6) and its Berlin counterpart Mach Dich Hübsch (2015), each page  is thickly crusted with newspaper cuttings, coloured tape, snapshots of streetlife, buildings or interiors, or restaurant menus and other printed detritus, all of which is collated, copied and reworked, page after page. Time and space collapse into a narrative non-space of accumulated impressions and encounters, violently juxtaposed and underlined through repetition. 

Seen today, Genzken’s collaged pages and more recent cyborg-like mannequins seem to presage and counter the technological developments of the last few decades, which have conspired to bind us to screens as providers and producers of meaning, and – consequently – left us ever more distracted from material sweepings and leftovers of experience. The limitless capacity of the Internet to expel and absorb has resulted in a fundamental shift between centre and margins, and an extreme flattening of experience, matter and information. Screens contain or compose their own form of debris, a vast accumulation of electronic information,  slowly succumbing to ‘data rot’. This debris  is no longer extracted and expelled to the sidelines, but remains, inhabiting the Web’s wide horizontal spread. Obsessed with the newest of the new, while quietly swallowing historical archives by the dozen, it concertinas past and present, relevance and irrelevance, rendering everything equivalent while obviating the need for memory, in particular collective memory, as a force of social cohesion. ‘The conditions of communication and information access on an everyday level ensure the systematic evasions of the past as part of the fantastic construction of the present,’ writes Jonathan Crary in 24/7. Late Capitalism  and the Ends of Sleep (2013), a book about the erosion of sleep-time, considered wasteful within the spectrum of 24-hour production and consumption.7 Do the resultant  broken thoughts and fragmented attention spans themselves constitute a kind of flotsam of unanchored mental debris?

Renaud Jerez, D, 2014, PVC, aluminium, cotton, rubber, office chair, sneakers, 130 x 60 x 55 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Johan Berggren Gallery, Malmö 

‘I don’t really distinguish between the frame and the content’, says German artist Lucie Stahl, ‘[m]aterials are the subject and object all mixed up in a big mush.’8 The literal flattening out of content that occurs on the screens we rely on is maximized by Stahl in her collages, which use the flatbed scanner as their primary tool. All elements, whether two- or three-dimensional, are treated in  the same way by the scanner’s flattening eye to create a planar effect, more screen than image. Stahl’s recent collages include materials ranging from packages of processed food to an organic detritus of leaves, petals or pomegranate seeds and, most conspicuously, her own hands, which hold and manipulate these various entities. The prints are enclosed in epoxy resin, giving them a synthetic and alien appearance and a gelatinous glibbery materiality, somewhere between two and three dimensions. A brief text by Stahl describes the force of these compelling works: ‘Tracking down a strange, loose narrative of the acutely violent aspects of power and resource distribution, informed by a female factor that  runs like a bloody current pulling loose debris in from the shores of a male dominated landscape where shouting is the only way to be heard over the roar of yourself.’ Another text included in the collage Prepubescent Fears and Desires (2011) concludes: ‘Please dear Reader keep in mind that I am the type of person who was never so envious of penises as when I found out that they can, if they  so choose, from time to time purposefully miss the toilet and piss on the floor’. Waste  products and fluids may be used as retaliation, bringing distasteful subjects back into  discussion, or pissing on the floor, if you will. 

The series of Piss Paintings (2014) by Scottish artist Morag Keil springs to mind. These copper plates were oxidized by urine in the manner of Warhol’s late-1970s Oxidation Paintings, but here the artist pisses as much on phallocentric traditions as the material itself, creating a whole new, anatomically afforded pattern – an outpour rather than an artful Pollock-esque dripping. This use of bodily fluids enters the territory of the abject while introducing the ‘female factor’ Stahl talks about, ‘the bloody current pulling loose debris in from the shores of a male dominated landscape …’ See also Michaela Eichwald’s smeared and collaged paintings; Juliette Blightman’s fragmentary films of diaristic incident; Hilary Lloyd’s Robot (2015), a compendium of automatist digital scrawlings; Olga Balema’s fluid filled transparent sacks; Judith Hopf’s electronics packaging reconfigured as primitive masks.

Paul Kneale, Free Software 01, 2015, compact disk, c.12 x 12 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Arttuner

Debris slips out of the centralized system of meaning and use value to become wilfully associative and analogy-driven, generating  a second-level sense. In her book Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things (2010), Jane Bennett describes an encounter with various items washed up in a drain in Baltimore: ‘Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick. As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing – between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar as it betokened human activity […] and, on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects. In the second moment, stuff exhibited its thing-power:  it issued a call, even if I did not quite understand what it was saying.’9 These remnants have an undisclosable significance beyond  the symbolic order of what we know. Coloured by grief or a wan nostalgia, debris can articulate the past, or the inevitable changes washed along with time, without recourse to the sentimental.

Junk residues, sound extracts and visual footage self-made or borrowed, are encountered in James Richards’s dense and precisely edited films and soundtracks. Richards’s is not a process of excavation but rather one of trawling and collating – the rag picker again, busy gathering, sifting, storing, comparing and ordering into new, insistent form. To Replace a Minute’s Silence with a Minute’s Applause (2011) at the Whitechapel Art  Gallery, proposed a soundtrack to accompany Francis Bacon’s 1953 painting Study for a  Portrait. A dense collation of atonal phrases, hammering typewriter keys, strange rustlings, moments of pause, or the odd asymmetrical footstep all layered over each other, its compression created a sound environment as physical as the painting itself. Richards’s use of material is a reshuffling rather than appropriation, bringing fragments together not to construct a narrative so much as forge a synthetic environment. ‘I wanted to create  a sense of the material as something channeled rather than something taken’, says Richards about Radio at Night (2015), a film commissioned by Walker Art Center to be shown only online.10 The trivial ubiquitous sounds of personal devices, or the clicks and mistakes of recording equipment usually  cut out, are kept in to lend an intimacy, a reminder of the body in relation to this stuff. 

Marlie Mul, Puddle (Black Market), 2013, Sand, stones, resin, plastic bag, 2 x 80 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Croy Nielsen, Berlin

Not just things and sounds, but also words can offer themselves up as a debris-like material. Here, as Schwenger notes, ‘language is viewed not as a transparent window to signification but as a heap of disparate  and concrete entities,’11 echoing Smithson’s approach: ‘My sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas – i.e., “printed matter.”’12 His 1966 drawing A heap of language is  just that: a pyramidal stacking up of words  in which ‘language becomes monumental.’13 Swedish artist and poet Karl Holmqvist adopts a similar approach, taking fragments gleaned from this great slag heap of left-over phrases, hollowed out slogans or dumb anthems to construct a repetitive, stuttering sense. Relieved of ideas, the words and phrases are stacked up like bricks in a wall, and repeated like mantras that are first drained of meaning and then gradually fill up with a second ulterior logic, guided by association. In the leporello Skyline is the By-Linezz (2014) they constitute a whole new skyline: an urban metropolis built out of poetry.  When reading aloud, Holmqvist’s deliberately flat intonation accords each word the same droning weight: snippets garnered from pop songs become the Tourettes-like refrains  of a chorus trading in banality and relieved of the nostalgia that accompanies the past. These sonic collages cut loose meaning to suggest a synthetic aural drift. Holmqvist’s poems draw attention to the kinds of stock phrases that litter our everydays: ‘SHARING IS CARING’, or ‘LANGUAGE IS POWER’, repeated so tenaciously that both sincerity and irony are evacuated. 

Such degraded forms of language are also the raw materials in performances scripted by Cally Spooner. The British artist borrows jargon from PR speak or commercial breaks, technical manuals and prospectuses; the indifferent automated voices that apologize for any inconvenience caused, technical difficulties experienced, or thank us for our brand loyalty. Spooner takes this anonymous language, detached from a subject or voice, and feeds it back into surrogate subjects  – a singing chorus or a soprano soloist – conflating high and low registers for an effect  at once overblown and pedestrian. Focusing on the mechanisms of language rather than its content, these works move the margins into the centre. The words are there but  their narrative context has been abandoned: there is no arrival, conclusion or coherence. We are left hanging in an interpretative  void, addressed personally by an impersonal construct.

Unlike the analytical or socio-political critique of first-generation appropriationists, here appropriation of cultural materials, whether material fragments, sound or  language, is no longer aimed at an external culprit – corporate culture, advertising or conservative institutions – but rather everything: the whole omnipresent system in  which we too are incorporated. The outside  of this system is no longer perceptible,  as contemporary life has been engulfed by a voracious network, like Schwitters’s Merz programme. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi put it  in his apocalyptically overtoned The Soul  At Work, (2009): ‘We can reach every point  in the world but, more importantly, we can  be reached from any point in the world. Under these conditions, privacy and its possibilities are abolished […] Everywhere, attention  is under siege.’14 The self is sent underground, to prise meaning from the undercurrents  of debris, and establish a ‘history from below rather than from above’, as J.M. Coetzee described Benjamin’s The Arcades Project.

Anna Uddenberg, Lady Unique, 2015, mixed media, 117 x 70 x 75 cm. Courtesy: MEGA Foundation

Gerry Bibby’s work is evidence of this underground self. The debris or the ‘sweepings’ of some preceding event becomes his raw matter, acknowledging a previous presence  or occurrence, but not adopting its narrative as its guiding principle. His self-devised economy is one of breakage and repair, of making-do with tangential solutions which most likely have a social component. The presence that haunts his works is conspicuously peripheral rather than central; more stage direction than soliloquy. A wall text titled Notes to the Reader in his exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bregenz in 2014 asked the viewer to consider the nature of process: ‘Sometimes, irrelevant things occur to both mind and the body whilst performing decided tasks – the white of a page can throb more insistently than the letters printed upon it’. For Gerry / Bibby, his 2014 show at Silber-kuppe in Berlin, he asked the gallery proprietors to help him remove a section from the wall of his kitchen and transport it to the gallery, where it stood like a precarious and down-at-heel Gordon Matta-Clark (Outtake/Curious (Yellow), 2014). A low table nearby, like a glass sarcophagus, contained all of the various detritus that he accumulated while writing his book The Drumhead (2014): newspapers, printed pages, scrawled lists, medicine packaging, postcards, a rubber glove, all sealed in this transparent box, equal shades Arman Poubelle and Warhol time-capsule (Coffee / Table / Book, 2014). Working notes, casual asides, the grit left at the bottom of a glass, the need to rely on friends – all of these gauche signs of the material and the social are to be valued exactly for their awkwardness. They accompany the processes of writing,  fixing, moving – undocumented moments purposely not ‘posted’, which propose  an alternative to ‘attention under siege’.

In place of narration is accumulation for its own sake, and a sense of the material as a response to the anti-material, arrived at through analogy. Debris reaches beyond the glut of 20th century rubble and consumerism, and their dematerialized inflection during the 21st century, towards materiality in its most fundamental form. It represents durability and resistance, refusing the categories of waste or the useless to manifest a self-sustaining beyond. Not only in the things washed up on the tidelines of daily life, but also the stuff floating around in the internet, digital memories detached from their subjects. Both transient and durable, debris haunts the present; though of the past, it does not leave.

1  Peter Schwenger, The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2006), p. 81
2  Ibid. p. 144
3  ‘On Wine and Hahish’, in Charles Baudelaire, Artificial Paradises, trans. Stacy Diamond (New York: Citadel Press, 1996), p. 7.
4  Original text in ‘Mein Merz und Meine Monstre Merz Muster Messe im Sturm’, Der Sturm, no. 7 (October 1926), pp. 106–7. Translated by R. Burmeister in  Kurt Schwitters’ MERZ: a total vision of the world, (exhib. cat., Bern: Benteli and  Museum Tinguely, 1. May–22 Aug. 2004, pp. 147–8
5  Hains quoted in Raymond Hains, Galerie Max Hetzler, 2015
6  Robert Smithson, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,  New Jersey in Artforum, December 1967, p. 54
7  Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013) p. 45
8  Jonathan Griffin, All Shook Up (Interview with Lucie Stahl) in frieze d/e no. 12, Dec 2013 – Feb 2014
9  Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 4
10 flow-james-richards-radio-at-night/
11  Schwenger p. 152–3
12  Robert Smithson, Language To Be Looked at and/or things to be read, 1967, in The Collected Writings  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 61
13  Ibid.
14  Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Soul At Work.  From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009) p. 107

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer based in Berlin, Germany.