A Materialist Re-reading of Abject Art: Non-reproduction, Abjection and Aesthetics




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The article uses a materialist approach to readdress ‘abject art’. Abject art makes the body, its wastes and states not only the subject but also the material of art practice; it mimics the excessive productive waste of capital and critiques the ever-compromised and unequally exploited state of gendered, sexed and raced bodies under biopolitical capitalism.

While North America saw a culmination of art that was deemed abject in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the abject in visual culture and theory became a Western global phenomenon by the mid 1990’s. Therefore I ask if the concept of the abject is an important tool for understanding the body under capitalism? By 1990 both the UK and US had endured a decade of neoliberal conservatism and ensuing welfare reform, leading one to deduce that ‘abject art’ is symptomatic of encroaching constraints on the social body. Therefore I will make the claim that abject art is inherently tied to the sphere of social reproduction.

I argue that while all of the processes and materials necessary for social reproduction are not abject; blood, semen, vomit, breast milk and faeces, and the maternal body are predominantly confined to the sphere of social reproduction. I locate the abject within Karl Marx’s Capital, Georges Bataille’s ‘Les Miserables’ and Marxist feminism, and purport that the law of accumulation produces abjection. This then sets into motion a conflict between the abject as a by-product of capital (that should be rejected) and conversely its redeployment as an emancipatory language and material of the exploited.

These contradictions are explored through three distinct historical periods and works of art, asserting that abject art need not be confined to the 1990’s. Beginning with the 1960’s Japanese artistic collectives Zero Jigen and Hi Red Centre, whose performances that clean or pollute, operate as a response to American imperialism and Japan’s ‘economic miracle’. Secondly 1970’s feminist visceral and ‘maintenance’ performance that reflects a period of economic stagnation and neoliberalism’s ‘roll back’ of services; discussing the work of Barbara Smith, Ana Mendieta and Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Finally I consider global abject art and culture in the 1990’s, addressing the aesthetics of abject waste in Trainspotting (1996) and exploring the idea of non-reproduction as a resistive stance to reproductive capitalism in the work of ‘sick’ Bob Flanagan, and Cheryl Donegan


Conference Paper that may be published in upcoming journal


Abject Art, Social Reproduction


Brand, C. (2017) A Materialist Re-reading of Abject Art: Non-reproduction, Abjection and Aesthetics. Waste: Papers on disposability and Decay Conference, Birkbeck University, London, September 2017.


Research Institute

Institute of Art and Design