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The Threshold of the Real: Canalizing the Body as Object Art

Tessa Adams


If we take the Lacanian register of the real to mean that which eludes signification, resonating the body in its brute physicality in contrast to the orders of the symbolic and the imaginary, then the aestheticization of the ‘fragmented body’ both restores and fractures symbolic coherence. Lacan claims that the real is ‘impossible to imagine’ (in contrast to the imaginary and symbolic functions of the body), which indicates that projects of fragmentation can be interpreted as our bid for mediation, which by necessity will inevitably fail.1 Lacan’s vision for the real moves between the unknowable and the reality of the biological. It is a realm of human psychic functioning that is neither signifiable, in the fullest sense, nor mutable.

My interest is to consider this paradox and to explore the status of the fragment-as-body and the body-as-fragment with reference to certain psychoanalytic approaches. The discussion will include analyses of specific sculptural forms which serve to locate contemporary works of the late nineteen nineties in which the body boundary is repudiated, challenged, and revisioned.

As is recognized, Lacan’s contribution to psychoanalysis and modern cultural theory during the eighties and nineties has been formidable, not least since he revisioned Freudian theory by stressing the significance of our experience as a speaking subject.2 What this means is that Lacan locates the structure of language as the crucible of mental functioning, thereby determining the human subject as caught between the web of instinctual desire and linguistic imperative. Furthermore, he indicates that the outcome of this confluence of our brute physicality and the law of the signifier (communication) is our recourse to narcissistic phantasy (the imaginary) from which vantage point we attempt to negotiate desire. That is to say, Lacan offers a tripartite system of psychological functioning, which he cites as Orders, namely, the realm of the Symbolic, the realm of the Imaginary, and the realm of the Real, all of which are heterogeneous and serve our survival.3

While I do not wish to elaborate the complexity of Lacan’s principle of these three Orders in greater detail, I am interested to open up, in keeping with the theme of the ‘fragmented figure’, the relationship between the Real and the Imaginary Orders in respect of body-image. What is relevant here is that central to Lacanian thinking is the concept of the human subject’s fear of the fragmented body. Furthermore, Lacan locates our incorporation of fragmentation as the feature of primal anxiety in the advent of our developing autonomy in early infant experience. In other words, Lacan institutes the prospect of the fragmented body as spectre that challenges our illusion of intactness at the time when in infancy we first locate otherness. This ‘turning-point’ in our early mental development Lacan termed the ‘Stade du Mirroir’ (mirror stage). Simply put, Lacan indicates that when the child first encounters his/her reflection in the mirror, a pivotal mental shift takes place, a shift of perception that installs a critical aspect of our subjectivity, namely, the Imaginary Order. Lacan indicates that in the face of the mirror ‘the baby sees its own image as whole . . . and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of [its undeveloped] body, which is experienced as a fragmented body’.4

Lacan’s claim is that this contrast between the infant’s actual physical immaturity and the specular image sets up, first, rivalry with the intact mirror image, and then a primary (narcissistic) identification with it, which engenders the formation of the ego. That is to say, it is Lacan’s view that the fear of fragmentation is set in opposition to the specular image deriving from the infant’s first encounter with its mirrored reflection. Furthermore, it is his belief that this encounter (which occurs between the ages of six and eighteen months) frames the human subject’s enduring ambivalent relationship with body image. This is summed up in the following way:

[The mirror stage is] a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body-image.5

Thus Lacan accounts for our dual preoccupations: the search for the body sublime in the face of our terror of fragmentation, by indicating that the formation of a synthetic ego is constantly threatened by the memory of this sense of fragmentation. This memory, he claims, manifests itself in haunting images of repudiation, such as: ‘castration, emasculation, mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring [and the] bursting open of the body’.6 In other words, while we are driven to shore up the illusionary ‘intactness’ of the ego, we open the door to the prospect of the failure of the primitive identification with the specular body that mitigated our early infant sense of incompleteness and vulnerability.

In brief, according to Lacan, the spectre of our incompleteness, and, worse, the fear of the body broken, torn, and dismembered, remains subliminally present throughout life. This resonant fear, as already stated, is seen to derive from the impact of our early infant encounter with our mirror image. The question I ask is, what are the implications from his thesis in respect of the trajectory of the human subject’s preoccupation with the aestheticization of the fragmented figure?

Faced with the problem of the fear of our incompleteness, charged with phantasies of dismemberment which coalesce around the phantasy of castration, it could be reasonable to suggest that compensatory strategies would be mobilized in order to mitigate the split that our original mirrored reflection instituted. In this light I suggest that the aestheticization of the fragmented body is just such a strategy. For if the fragmented object, aestheticized, becomes sufficient in its signification then this original fracture can appear healed, since the insufficient object can appear (through astheticization) as the object without absence. Furthermore, since Lacan suggests that the lack of the lack makes the Real, attempts to locate the fragmented object as sublime could be seen to be a reflection of our desire to meet that realm of the body (the Real) which eludes signification.

Obviously the body broken has dominated Western art. Through Christian iconography we have been invited to witness the fragmented body transcended. Images of Christ nailed unmercifully on the Cross, dislocated, humiliated, and wounded are situated in most national museums and galleries. We only have to think of the Grünewald Isenheim altarpiece, or the Caravaggio Flagellation, to be reminded of Lacan’s words. Furthermore, imagery evoked by the language of devotional music can call into question our infant terror. For example, in Handel’s Messiah we are offered the paradox of salvation through words that speak uncompromisingly of the prospect of our body being ‘devoured, and broken open’ in such phrases as ‘Though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh I shall see God.’ As we are called to ‘gaze upon those glorious scars’, it is clear that the fragmentation of the body has preoccupied the Western economy. This preoccupation is nowhere more evident than in the liturgy of the sacrament, in which the concept of transubstantiation indicates that the taking of bread and wine remains more than a simple metaphor of ingesting the body and blood of Christ.

From this perspective I would now like to turn to the work of the twentieth-century artist Bob Flanagan, who can be seen to frame the body as both repudiated and exalted. Flanagan’s project was radical in that he attempted to transform his symptomology of cystic fibrosis into cultural form. His exhibition entitled ‘Sick’ situated his beleaguered body as installation within a New York gallery. As a self-acclaimed ‘super-masochist’, Flanagan coerced his partner, Sheree, to administer to him various sadistic procedures, including being hoisted by the feet to hang from the rafters of the gallery. Head first, and with breath in short supply, as if an inverted Christ, Flanagan offered himself as an ‘Alternative Ascension’. Thus in repudiating and deifying the fragmented body Flanagan’s genetic suffering was revised and aestheticized. Furthermore, Flanagan became an inspiration for other sufferers, mitigating the anxiety of his condition. It seems that Flanagan allayed the horror of fragmentation in situating his sick body as object art. There are other examples of his suffering, administered by Sheree in various ways, such as cigarette burns and flagellation. It is certainly significant that he exceeded the average life expectancy of a cystic fibrosis sufferer. Was this the result of his insistence that certain woundings should be enacted upon him in order that his brokenness could be transcended? While undergoing a series of Sheree’s torturous onslaughts, Flanagan tells us, in the video that records his masochistic reverie, that ‘Christ was the first famous masochist.’ 7 Flanagan flaunts his scars in a rapture of identification.

Before discussing further contemporary works, I wish now to turn to the fragmented figure that is more enduring, namely, that of antiquity. In considering the randomly fragmented relics that dominate museum culture the question arises as to whether a psychodynamic lens would shed light on the fact that broken artefacts have been so consistently deified and commodified. It has been suggested that, since relics invariably have been unearthed in a fragmentary state, we have ‘virtuously adapted our taste to this necessity’.8 But this pragmatic analysis does not explain the weight of interest in the degraded object. More specifically, the principle of virtuous adaptation does not address why, in certain cases, a fragment can appear to gain greater attention than more complete equivalents.

It is just this phenomenon that interested Peter Fuller, who in his book Psychoanalysis and Art (1980) alerts us to the extraordinary historical influence of the Venus de Milo. He tells us that the floor of the section where the Venus de Milo is exhibited in the Louvre suffers from such a saturation of viewing that it is worn down to the point of having to be continually replaced. Fuller also asks why this particular Venus, which suffers considerable degradation by its pitted surface and broken arms, should have accrued such significance in contrast to the many complete antique renderings of the same subject. In other words, Fuller addresses the riddle of why, damaged and without arms, the Venus de Milo outstrips its more complete treasured antique counterparts. When the Venus reached France, in the eighteen nineties, Fuller reports, the interest in the fragmented statue ‘erupted in a . . . minor obsession’.9 Many attempts were made to restore the statue, but what Fuller emphasizes as particularly interesting for that period (in which the restoring of such fragments was common practice) was that all of the variety of restorative projects directed at the Venus de Milo simply failed. It is as if the statue had become more acceptable in its degraded state; indicating that with arms restored the Venus, ironically, was deemed lacking. The implication here is that the fragmentation had been transformed as the agency of sufficiency, and thereby the agency of the sublime.

Fuller attempts to solve this paradox by proposing that the Venus is far more effective in its fragmentation on the grounds that she satisfies our unconscious bid for reparation. Fuller’s analysis is basically Kleinian, suggesting that the Venus de Milo represents the mother, who, in our infant phantasy, has been attacked and torn yet has survived. This interpretation frames the pitted surface and broken arms as resonant of the psychological scars of our phantasized infant onslaught.10 Thus in its survival the Venus is seen to indicate our unconscious restorative desire. This desire for reparation, according to Klein, derives from that period of infancy when the infant relinquishes omnipotence in order to preserve the good. In other words, from a Kleinian perspective the Venus de Milo stands as representative of the damage that we (in infant phantasy) meted out, yet it transcends all mutilation. Simply put, the statue is an object of synthesis in that it recalls the body of mother both idealized and repudiated.

The art historian Stephen Bann echoes Fuller’s approach in positioning the fragmented figure as the site of unconscious primary projection. That is to say, in his paper ‘Clio in Part’ (1990) Bann does not identify the nature of arousal evoked by the fragment as deriving primarily from virtuous adaptation, but indicates (in a similar vein to Fuller) that it is the unconscious compensatory phantasies that serve the aestheticization of the degraded artefact. Bann’s concern is to promote the dynamic of orality (in psychological terms) as the salient feature that draws our attention to those art works which have suffered degradation. By way of illustration Bann directs attention to the antiquarian Faussett, whom he treats as exemplar. He suggests that the specific features of Faussett’s reclamation and exhibition of a thoroughly degraded effigy of King Canute, in 1764, owes more to Faussett’s unconscious primitive early infant libidinal oral desires than to the aesthetic reasoning of the day.11

What I have emphasized above are different psychological explanations that account for the aestheticization of the fragmented object or relic broken and degraded by time. We have seen that Fuller speaks of primary reparation, and it is the dynamic of infant oral arousal to which Bann refers. Clearly these explanations, as I have indicated, somewhat satisfy the prospect of our engagement with, and promotion of, the randomly degraded formally intact antique art object. But as suggested earlier with reference to Flanagan, a dominant feature of contemporary art is the deliberate attention to the living body as the object to be degraded or transformed. In the late twentieth century it seems that artists have emerged who have been preoccupied with transgression and the deconstruction of taboos, specifically in relation to those works that locate the actual body as medium to be revisioned and aestheticized.

At this point it will be interesting to consider the blood bust of Mark Quinn entitled Self as one such example. For this work Quinn took the extraordinary step of plundering eight pints of his own lifeblood – the exact volume needed for human survival – to cast his own head. The harvesting process took five months, because of the time needed for his body to recover and replenish its supply after each pint of blood was taken. Now the bust of this precious substance stands as a monument of incarceration; the electric power of the freezer echoing the technology of life-support. If switched off both Quinn’s features and plasma would immediately disintegrate. Is this a metaphor of the biological disintegration that the human subject meets on a day-to-basis as our cells die and are only partially re-created, keeping us virtually intact?

Perhaps Quinn’s preoccupation with fragmentation and the sublime is more credible when we turn our attention to the impact of his life-sized classical marble sculptures of amputees. For in these works Quinn appears to be purposefully aestheticizing that which speaks of the unbearable, namely, the human body fractured from the illusion of completeness. There is no doubt that works such as these recall the fragments of history. Furthermore, such projects appear to challenge the Symbolic lack (in Lacanian terms) by fusing the reality of the actual body fragmented with the material sublime of antiquity (marble), thereby touching upon the jouissance of the Real.

Other work that seems relevant to this discussion is that of Antony Gormley. What interests me here is the contrast between, on the one hand, Gormley’s solitary statuesque casts of his own body and, on the other, his vast Field installation of a crowded community of thousands of clay half-human forms. This obvious contrast of the sublime and the prosaic is touched upon by Gormley in an interview of 1993. Referring to the Liverpool exhibition (which embraced both aspects of his work) he reports, ‘You get all this work [the self-casts] which deals with solitary experience in one half of the exhibition and suddenly the other half is about community and being faced with collective expression.’ 12 In the context of the fragmented figure, it is not far-fetched to see Field as the primal horde presented for our disgust, a disgust that speaks of our insufficiency huddled together, in contrast to the solitary casts that occupy the singularity of the specular image, idealized in different guises. In other words, his casts tell of a body, complete, ageless, and without flaws, while the community of clay appears to struggle (hugger-mugger) for definition. This suggestion is borne out by the fact that Gormley refers to the sublime of the specular image when he speaks of his self-casts, stating:

[they] are about the widest possible evocation of sense, that being the union of sensation and intelligence, they accept the condition of being in the body as a point of potential, a point of power . . . They are perfect housings for the body.13

Furthermore, the prosaic engagement with the Field is equally recognized by Gormley in his collaboration with hundreds of people to produce the horde. In fact, so far away is the horde from the idealized intact pristine body of self-casts, that even Gormley appears not to resist their ultimate repudiation in telling us that, ‘there is a kind of cuteness about the “Field”’.14 And finally, when we find these fragile dwarfed raw clay figures set in contrast to the indestructible human form of Angel of the North it is clear that Gormley’s essential bid is for permanent transcendence. For when we consider the community of the Field we become aware that it is purposefully manufactured as ‘hand sized’ in contrast to the massive superiority of the Angel. Furthermore, there is little doubt that it is the Angel that reflects the co-ordinates of Gormley’s self-casts, ultimately to preside over all.

Madan Sarup suggests that while the domain of the Real remains that which cannot be spoken in that it is ‘the order where the subject meets with inexpressible enjoyment and death’,15 the question arises as to how to defeat death. In this context it is interesting to address the work of the anatomy artist Gunther von Hagens, whose mission it is to transform the ultimate fragmentation of mortality with permanent form. Hagens trades the actual dead, utilizing the cadaver to serve his aesthetic enterprise. Situated as both sculpture and science his exhibits immortalize the dead to stand naked before us. Stripped of skin, prised apart with muscles gleaming, their flesh is transposed to banish all vestiges of suffering by serving an enduring plastic counterpart. Hagens’ invention is ‘plastination’, and to enter a gallery of Hagens’ figures is to enter a room of actual corpses. But in this arena, while death appears to be defeated in that Hagens’ dead are emblazoned in bizarre postures, the actual flesh of the cadaver has largely ebbed away through the elaborate process that has ensured the vision of its endurance.

Here is the sublime of the specular image sparring with the improbability of its fragmentation, since Hagens has created his plastic body sculptures from the very substance of the person who actually lived. It is an integral moment that involves dehydrating the corpse in chilled acetone thereby removing water from every cell, then replacing the acetone with plastic, then curing the plastic. What this means is that Hagens’ cadaver becomes the ultimate split object: a heroic figure dispensing its degrading fragmented flesh, drawn from the very structure of each sinew, duct, and bone, to stand triumphant and enduring in the pristine odourless silicone of Hagens’ plastination. Thus for these deceased humans the cavities of their absence ironically become the structure of their presence. We could say that their original infant fear of the fragmentation of their bodies has finally been defeated. Perhaps this is why Hagens is not short of people who, in fatal illness, are eager to sign up for this ironic reprieve; as one thirty-five-year-old woman (dying of cancer) stated, being cast in plastic was so ‘very important’ in order that she ‘didn’t end up in a hole in the ground or be burnt or decompose’.16 What actually happened to her flesh was that most of it was withdrawn and flushed away with acetone, yet she held on to the illusion that as a Hagens’ plastinate she would remain intact. Yet, surely here is the infant fear exemplified, for what is Hagens offering in his project of plastination if it is not ‘castration, emasculation, mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring [and the] bursting open of the body’ (in Lacanian terms) which frames the site of our nameless dread. But Hagens is unmoved by the anxiety that his plastinates can create for those who still see his work as a room full of corpses or a hall of the dead, for he states confidently ‘As an anatomist I have never encountered a soul.’ 17

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  1. Jaques Lacan, The Seminar. Book X1, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, London, Hogarth Press and Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1977, p.167. back to text
  2. Jaques Lacan, Ecrits: a Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan, London, Tavistock Publications, 1977. back to text
  3. Lacan, The Seminar. back to text
  4. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, London, Routledge, 1996, p.115. back to text
  5. Jaques Lacan, ‘Some Reflections on the Ego’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol. 34, 1953, p.14. back to text
  6. Lacan, Ecrits, p.11 back to text
  7. Kirby Dick (producer), Life and Death of Bob Flanagan: The Super Masochist, 1997. back to text
  8. Kenneth Clark, The Nude, Harmondsworth, England, Penguin Books, 1956, p.219. back to text
  9. Peter Fuller, Art and Psychoanalysis, London, Writers and Readers Publishing, 1980, p.85. back to text
  10. Fuller, Art and Psychoanalysis, pp.124-6. back to text
  11. Stephen Bann, The Inventions of History: Essays on the Representations of the Past, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1990, pp.114-15. back to text
  12. Antony Gormley, transcript from interview published by Everything, 1994. back to text
  13. Gormley, transcript. back to text
  14. Gormley, transcript. back to text
  15. Madan Sarup, Jacques Lacan, Modern Cultural Theorists Series, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992, p.43. back to text
  16. Drusilla Beyfus, Telegraph Magazine, 20 June 1998. Hagens, quoted by Roger Boyes, The Times, 15 Nov 1997. back to text
  17. Hagens, quoted by Roger Boyes, The Times, 15 Nov 1997. back to text

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Partial Figures and Psychic Unease • Issue 8