The body is a narrative device; it embeds our stories in our wounds and scars. Art explores this narration in various ways. Especially after the 1960s, self-exhibition started to form the basics of performance art. Rather than an object of a performance, the body has turned into a main subject: the body as a subject of its own. This focus has become more prominent, especially in disability performance art. One of the significant issues these performances tackle is how the body narrates disability. In this blog I will try to answer this question by looking at the performances of disabled artists and various body narratives in different art forms, such as sculpture and paintings.
Before starting, I want to mention a few things. First of all, in these performances, disability becomes a generative force. And these disability performances liberate both the performers and the viewers from the definitions of disability. They also free both parties from prejudices and long-established assertions of what a body is capable of or not. Secondly, in an ableist world, where the ideological installations of what a normal should look like impose certain aesthetic ideals, disability performance art offers a world beyond it.
How did it all start?
With Surrealism, dadaism, cubism, the definitions of art had already started to change shape. The new forms were very fragmented, experimental and abstract. The colours were not very natural. Multiple perspectives were applied on the object to see the human form from different angles. As a result, the human body was deformed and disfigured. To put it differently, there were new formulations for the representations of the human body. This period in art history is really important for the emergence of disability art. Therefore, before delving directly into the disability arts, first, I want to mention what modern art is and how it represents the body.
“There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” Francis Bacon
In “The Aesthetics of Human Disqualification”, Tobin Siebers focuses on the significance of modern art and its employment of disfigured and deformed human bodies as the gist of artwork. He states, “If modern art has had such enormous success, it is because of its embrace of disability as a distinct version of the beautiful” (35). In other words, he suggests that modern art finds its own definition of unconventional beauty. For instance, we see the discoloration of faces, which investigates the different moods of the figures. The broken lines explore the limitations of the body and possibly convey the message that we are more than where our body ends. Different perspectives applied on the subject of the human form also demonstrate a similar mindset.
In Picasso’s paintings, especially during his Blue Period (1901-1904), the human figures look pale and their faces are coloured with blue, which matches the background as well. It feels as if the figures are in dissolution with the background and losing their contours and becoming vague. This discoloration also makes the human body look sick and sad. Edvard Munch’s Scream, for instance, suggests anxiety, an existential crisis or possibly a nervous breakdown. In this painting, the contours of the human figure are softened. It seems as if it’s melting. Perhaps unconsciousness finds an expression in disfigured human form. In regard to these examples, modern art occupies a significant place for presenting the human body in a non-idealistic and non-perfectionist manner. Disability performance arts move in flow with a similar mindset to the human body, exploring what it means to feel and what it means to have a disabled body.
Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Famous for his disfigured and abstract portrait studies, Bacon’ s art redefines aesthetic ideals and what art is. His paintings inhabit uncanniness and demonstrate the human body’s flesh and bone structure rather than focusing on the body’s idealistic form. His portraits give the sense of rawness, so to speak. Dismembered faces of the portraits perhaps are attempts to explore what a human being is at its core. His studies are mostly in triypthic, which allows us to see the human form from different angles.
For those interested, there are two documentaries on Bacon’s art. One is the 2017 version of the BBC documentary Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence. The other one is a 1966 version of the BBC documentary Francis Bacon: Fragments of a Portrait.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
One of the most inspiring artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo, was a chronic sufferer and reflected this pain in her paintings in quite magical and surreal ways. During her childhood, polio left her “disabled”. Then,at the age of 18, she had a car accident, which left her with a broken spine, a broken pelvis and a pierced abdomen. This found embodiment in her paintings. One of them is The Broken Column (1944), where she painted herself with the medical corset which she had to wear during most of her life.
When her health deteriorated, a mirror was installed on the ceiling so that she could see the reflection and continue with her series of self-portraits. She was one of the great artists who found inspiration in her body and disability, and turned it into a work of art.
The founder of Impressionism, Claude Monet, was a very prolific artist. The inseparable elements of his artworks consisted of water lilies, lakes, Japanese bridges, flowers and ponds. Before painting the landscapes on his canvas, first, he would filter the scene with his eyes and feelings. In his later career, he had cataracts, which blurred his vision. This deterioration found embodiment in his paintings as they got blurry too.
The first implications of his weakening eyes were seen in his 1907 paintings. It was 1912 when he was diagnosed with cataracts. In time, every element of the paintings started to blend with each other and lose their contours. More, the color palette showed a drastic change. Brown and red were the dominating colours. Above all, these paintings proved that disabilities don’t necessarily “disable”. Rather, they allow for new ways of seeing and perceiving the external world.
Disability performance art
In the aftermath of the Disability Rights Movement in the second half of the twentieth century, the disability arts movement gained a voice too. Their protests were against the approaches which stereotyped and marginalized them. Step by step, through legislation, they earned a voice in art and culture. In their engagements with disability through performance art, people with disabilities began to question the assumed limits of their disabled body.
Every disability has its own unique story that finds embodiment through art. In particular, in performance art, the epistemology of objects changes. For instance, wheelchairs and crutches come as an extension of the performance artists rather than mere objects which enable them to move. Rather, they enrich the performances by allowing the performance artists with disabilities to build new movement vocabulary. Thus, they gain a character in a sense.
The sound artist Christine Sun Kim
A California-born and Berlin-based artist, Christine Sun Kim, has been deaf since her birth. Although she always took an interest in art, she didn’t get the opportunity to work on art until her 20s because the school’s curriculum emphasized sciences and writing. After finishing her undergraduate studies, she continued to study, first, Visual Arts, and then, Sound and Music. After visiting sound-articulate exhibitions in Berlin, she started to develop her own art. Christine Sun Kim’s art studies include video installations, interactive performances and writing. One of her main questions she tackles in her art is how we experience sound. In other words, the mindset of her performances or video essays redefines what it means to hear or how the deaf community experiences life.
For instance, in her artwork, Close Readings, she compiled film clips from The Little Mermaid, The Addams’ Family, and Ghost. And she asked her friends with hearing impairment to come up with sound captions. To do so, they selected which sounds they wanted to refer to and wrote them in the captions. Thus, the experience of the movie was totally dependent on the captioner.
More, just assume that you are watching a horror movie. The theme music starts to play, which is a very important ingredient to evoke targeted feelings. Unfortunately, for deaf people, it leaves a blank space. Bearing that in mind, Christine Sun Kim mentions how important captioning is to create a certain mood which matches the tone of the movie at particular moments. For instance, in the captions, it might only say ” violin music playing.” But she enriches this caption as in the following: “mournful violin music that sounds like crying alone in an empty bar in 1920s Paris.”
Besides all this, in the biggest picture, her aim is to create works which reflect deaf identity and to raise awareness on this topic. She finds means which replace the sound. In her interactive performances, she invites others to explore the world in very different ways, to make the audience get into her/ her community’s world and feel it.
Previously a professor of English and Comparative Literature, Alice Sheppard’s life takes a turn after watching the disabled dancer Homer Avila’s performance. From then on, she dedicates her life to dancing, which feels like a surreal experience, full of power and freedom.
Sheppard starts a collaborative project with Laurel Lawson: DESCENT, which takes place on an architectural ramp installation. The design of the ramp has no other kind. It is not only aesthetic but is also designed in such a way it really enhances the dancers’ movement vocabulary. This performance tells the story of Venus and Andromeda adapted to the theme of interracial love. As Lawson and Sheppard exchange and balance their momentum, they attribute many other possibilities to disability and to the body. They exceed expectations with their movement vocabulary. More, Sheppard shows that functionality, which the wheelchairs and crutches are aimed for, can also be artistic. Nowadays, she continues her life as a choreographer, dancer and director of the company Kinetic Light.
The representations of disability in sculpture
Perhaps sharing the same mentality with the Japanese art of kintsugi, which composes the shattered pieces of pots into a new whole, the sculptured disabled bodies tell a similar story. The pieces that “complete” the body can be prosthetic devices, wheelchairs and crutches sometimes. Only this time the main subject is the human body. Deformed aspects of the body open up new possibilities, new definitions, enriching the concept of aesthetics in art. Alison Lapper and Mary Duffy are some of the artists who play with the image of the body by using their own bodies as an art subject.
Marc Quinn Fourth Plinth
Since the 13th century, Trafalgar square has been one of the landmarks of London. Located in the City of Westminster, Central London, this public square exhibits commemorative statues and sculptures and hosts political demonstrations and gatherings. Divided into plinths, the northwest part of Trafalgar square displays commissioned artworks temporarily. One of these works was Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper’s Pregnant, which was exhibited between the dates of 15 September 2005 and late 2007.
Born with a phocomelia condition, Alison Lapper, an artist herself, questions the norms of beauty with references to her own body in her works. She uses digital imaging and photography. Lapper also influenced Marc Quinn, who made a sculpture of Lapper’s pregnant and “disabled” body.
“By confronting people with my naked body, with its softness, its roundness and its threat, I wanted to take control, redress the balance in which media representation of disabled woman is usually tragic, always pathetic. I wanted to hold up a mirror all those people who had stripped me bare previously … the general public with their naked stares, and more especially, the medical profession.” Mary Duffy
Born without arms, the Irish artist Mary Duffy makes herself a subject of her own art. Even though her first medium of art was painting, later, she took up an interest in photography and video. After her graduation from the National College of Art and Design, she became a performance artist. In her 1995 live performance, she laid herself naked. And she posed as the classical statue of Venus de Milo, known as the icon of beauty. This posing is a statement which re-establishes what beauty is or could be. It also reveals the paradox of how Venus de Milo or other broken statues are being admired, while the living forms of these statues are marginalized. Unlike Marc Quinn’s, Mary Duffy’s reference to sculpture is more symbolic and idea-based rather than a concrete marble representation of her body.
Significance of Disability Arts
“It is not a matter of being able to view disabled people as representing works of art; it is a matter of being able to view works of art as representing disability. This fine distinction is important because it underscores that the difference ascribed to the artwork relies on the difference of disability, and as long as it remains unacknowledged, disability can be used to disqualify and oppress human beings. The distinction itself between disability in art and in reality is a function of the aesthetics of human disqualification.” Tobin Siebers
Modern art is important to understand disability because it represents human form in an unconventional manner and redefines aesthetic ideals through abstract and fragmented investigation of human form. It also reveals the inner self or tries to find an expression for it through the use of colours and painting techniques. Also, we explore disability culture better as disability is more included and nurtured in modern art’s socio-cultural matrix.
Lastly, disability doesn’t signify a lack. Rather, it provides us with a lot of other skills, such as feeling the world from other languages. More, disability performance art tears apart our established notions of what disabled bodies are capable of doing or not. Also, it teaches us to embrace and appreciate human variation.