Shock art: can grossing people out be considered an art form?

In her new web series, art historian Christina Chau asks whether disgusting viewers runs the risk of closing minds instead of opening them

Emerging from a bath filled with stew potatoes, carrots, onions and all the art historian Dr Christina Chau is a little disgusted and not entirely impressed. If you really want to confront peoples stereotypes, I think youve got to ease them into it, she says. I think if you make them feel uncomfortable, theyre going to think more conservatively.

Chau is the host of ABC iViews new web series Shock Art, and the bath was concocted (and, I suppose, cooked) by the performance artists Peter Cheng and Molly Biddle. Sitting in the tub, the nearly naked duo eat from an oily, onion-y broth, which swims around their bodies. Christina sits in with them but politely declines the degustation. The piece is called The Human Soup. Me-nestrone would have also been acceptable.

In the first episode of the six-part series directed by Sam Bodhi Field and available on iView only Chau admits Peter and Mollys piece runs the risk of closing minds instead of opening them. By the seasons end shell be assisting the visual artist Georgie Mattingley in the photography of her blue shit, which is exactly what it sounds like. Needless to say, closed minds probably need not tune in to Shock Art. But ajar minds? There might be something here for you, yet.

Stewing in it: Chau (centre) sits in Peter & Mollys artwork The Human Soup. Photograph: Screen Australia

Each episode, Chau eases viewers into her world, asking, Is offending, disgusting or grossing people out an art form? To get closer to an answer, she interviews Australian artists about their forms of expression. Some attach leeches to their heads. Others light sparklers in their rectum. And then theres the really strange stuff.

As Rudyard Kipling might have asked: Its clever, but is it art? (Maybe we should instead quote 30 Rocks conservative antihero Jack Donaghy, who believed there were only three appropriate subjects for paintings: The horse is one of only three appropriate subjects for a painting, along with ships with sails and men holding up swords while staring off into the distance.)

Shock Art sets itself the lofty goal of condensing and clarifying these extreme provocations for viewers who might look at, say, someone caressing their own faeces and raise a concerned eyebrow. (Prudes!) Could it work? Chau tries her darnedest with non-judgmental interviews, followed by thoughtful critiques. She even admits when shes grossed out, drawing the line at a patchwork of human hair.

The series is at its best when digging into the ramifications of experimental artworks, such as that of the satirist Paul Yore, who was charged with production and possession of child pornography for an installation that featured images of Justin Bieber, dildo-adjacent. The charges were dismissed but not before police raided the gallery showing his works. Will conservative viewers see Yore as a fighter for free speech, as they do the late Bill Leak? Or will they find themselves confronted with a different kind of indecency, which they simply cant defend?

Other viewers in the so-called liberal bubble may have to ponder those same questions. Im not trying to equivocate; Im just pointing out what makes art at its riskiest most interesting: youre gonna have to come to your own conclusions, eventually.

The artist Casey Jenkins, who was publicly shamed for her infamous vaginal knitting, gets an opportunity to reflect on some of the abusive criticism she received. Some people need a punch in the vagina, reads one comment, reminding us that the use of the female body as a canvas generates a special kind of vile reaction. She tells Chau the ordeal has made her feel fragile and strong; wary but also brave.

Compare that with the goofy contortions by the celebrated Puppetry of the Penis co-creator David Friend, who believes audiences in 1998 were ready for his phallic wrenching. Today? Not so much. The worlds far more conservative now, he says. In 2017 Shock Art is both a little late and stunningly relevant.

The famous ruling of Justice Potter Stewart on Louis Malles supposedly obscene film The Lovers concluded, I know it when I see it the it being hardcore pornography. But anyone turning to this educational ABC web series for carnal delights will be disappointed. It does contain naked bodies doing things youve probably not seen naked bodies do before; youll also meet a pleasure activist and mingle with ecosexuals. The series most memorable nude scene, however, comes from the 70-year-old futurist Stelarc, who insists hes not trying to be controversial; cut to his comatose, naked body, hanging by skin hooks from a ceiling, rotating until his scrotum pivots towards the camera like a fleshy pendulum. As Stewart said, I know it when I see it and this aint that.

Can abstract art accidentally close the minds of viewers on the cusp of conservatism? Shock Art argues as much and its hard not to agree while watching some of the more aggressively bizarre performances.Chau at least provides clear context for seemingly impenetrable artworks, making even Stelarcs birthday-suited chandelier act appear perfectly reasonable.

Perhaps all this handholding limits the audiences perspective to that of either the host or the artists themselves. (Since when did we start allowing artists to be entirely responsible for how their pieces are understood and received?) Still, in bite-sized form, Shock Art is an ideal gateway drug to another entire dimension of artistic expression. Just dont watch it while youre eating.

Art Bites: Shock Art is now available to watch exclusively on ABC iView

Read more:

Vaginal Knitting I The Feed

Art takes many forms, from detailed oil painting to a vagina carved out of soap. But just a warning for the squeamish or the easily offended, this is a period piece and it has some strong themes and ideas that some people may find confronting.

Produced by Miles Bence.

You can see more of Casey's work here:

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