• Sara Kramer

ECSTATIC ESCAPE | Cartoon Gore and Confronting the Destruction of the Body


{I always worry too much about what if my heart stops in the night. Every time I have a stomach ache I am afraid I’ll have a heart attack. When I hear my stomach gurgling I repeat to myself “it’s only your stomach valves turning on and off.” I read Hatchet too young. I always worry too much about how the pilot from Hatchet clutches his stomach and starts farting uncontrollably then dies and crashes his plane. I always worry too much about what if I end up like the pilot from Hatchet and a 12 year old boy finds my indecent skeleton in the bottom of a lake with a minnow swimming through my eye socket and snails eating on top of my bones. When I go to sleep at night, I always worry too much about what if an earwig crawls in my ear. I cover my ears with my blankets so the bugs can’t get in there. I think I can hear some big juicy ants crawling around in the walls and crunching on the wood. I always worry too much about what if I eat something that turns out to poison me and make me shit and puke horribly and fatally. I always worry too much about what if I read Hatchet too young.}




Practices of making find their satisfaction in the refusal of the abject. Gory television and cinema (and stories in general) find their satisfaction in the acknowledgement of the abject. These ways of dealing with the destruction and negation of the body are far reaching culturally and historically (see Kristeva, Powers of Horror). And, both are present in contemporary art. I argue that these two different ways of dealing with the destruction of the body can be combined in such a way that they are more productive together than separately.


To make is to push yourself outside of your destructible body. There is a certain connection that we hold with the objects we make. We will die and the things we make will not die, but they will have a connection to the person we were (or at least, we hope that they will still have a connection to who we were). Obsessive concern for perfect archival qualities in art demonstrates this impulse. The urge to have children to live on after we die is also part of this

effort to negate the destruction of our bodies (see Lee Edelman, No Future). The contradiction of this instinct is that once something becomes material it will certainly be destroyed some day. Or, there is a more serious and immediate threat to its existence because it is singular and physical rather than, for example, an idea or memory held by many people.



Figure 1: Drawing of a still from Scanners. This man (a scanner) was trying to read the mind of a random volunteer from the crowd. Unfortunately, the volunteer was also a scanner, and took control of the mind-read, overpowering the other man and destroying his mind (and brain).



Although making to resist the abject is common to many modes of creating, I find crochet to be an especially fruitful way to act out and evoke for the viewer a more obsessive making. Crochet proceeds, one stitch at a time, without need for a diagrammatic plan or end product in mind. Any material can be used, as long as it is in the form of a long strand. The most obsessive maker, when they run out of yarn, might begin using old plastic bags, tshirts, or fishing line. A desperate need for busy hands is communicated, as the product of that business can grow outward infinitely, limited only by amount of long-stranded material available.


Descriptions of gore and dismemberment have existed in stories long before the advent of cinema and the subsequent proliferation of televised media. In this specific cultural moment, however, the visualization of the destruction of the body seems to be particularly potent (and particularly closely related to my interests as a visual artist). I am specifically concerned with moments of extreme or total bodily destruction, rather than small or incremental depictions of painful things such as needle insertions or scalpel slices. In David Cronenberg’s 1981 film Scanners, there is a perfect example of this build up of tension followed by a violent release of energy (see figure 1). The moment when a man’s head explodes, spraying blood, is a moment of catharsis for the viewer. Pressure builds as the character on screen attempts to prevent the destruction of his own body. The man shakes, turns, red, and clenches his fists in agony. When this tension created by the attempt to seal up and secure the body is released, the viewer feels a cathartic release as well.


One subset of these kinds of bodily-destructive moving images is what I will call “cartoon gore.” In these moving images there is a distinctly made quality to the depictions of blood-and-guts. Not only do these include actual cartoons (such as Rick and Morty and Adventure Time) but also live action productions that use practical effects (and sometimes digital effects) which announce their made-ness ( as in Scanners, Ash vs. Evil Dead and many more). These live action productions are more concerned with exaggeration and strangeness than replicating reality. It is safe to say that for the average person, witnessing the actual destruction of the human body in a violent way would not produce a positive cathartic experience, but rather a traumatic one. Most adults can intellectualize the unrealness of gore in movies and television, but moving images that present the destruction of the body as real do not have the same satisfying effect on the viewer as that described above. There may be more building of tension and bodily uncomfortability that does not necessarily resolve (nor want to resolve!) with the same cathartic effect for the viewer (as in Ari Aster’s Midsommar). With cartoon gore, there is a distinct difference, in which the making to resist the destruction of the body is beginning to merge with the cathartic confrontation of the same.


In an episode of the Cartoon Network television show Adventure Time (“The Jiggler”, s1.ep6), the protagonists, Finn and Jake, bring home a creature to keep as a friend and pet. After a little while, the creature “Jiggler” begins leaking and spewing its insides, a reddish-pink goo. Finn and Jake try to fill Jiggler’s holes with glass eye balls and eye patches. Figure 2 shows the brief point at which the holes are plugged and keeping Jiggler’s insides in. Tension builds as Jiggler shakes and squeaks. Finally, the pressure reaches its peak and red goo erupts from Jiggler’s holes, stretching out its body and covering Finn and Jake in pink insides.



Figure 2: Drawing of a still from Adventure Time, “The Jiggler.” Finn and Jake have been sprayed with copious amounts of innard goo; they’re about to encounter a whole lot more.



In my piece Bad Thought Brain Rain I bring this cartoon (i.e. made) gore out of the realm of the moving image and into the realm of obsessive crafting. The foregrounding of obsessive making in this piece causes the made aspect of the gore to be more prominent than in the moving image examples I described above. The two disparate strategies for dealing with the destruction of the body come together to create an experience for the viewer that is more sad, scary, pathetic, desperate, hedonistic, and satisfying than the two would be alone. I am aware of a scenario in which the two could negate each other and render one another powerless. Rendering images with a cute cartoonishness that lacks any bite or stickiness is a good way to deflate and flatten a potentially moving or disturbing image. My drawings have some elements common to cartoons—bright colors, thick outlines, and a close depth of field—but are specific rather than generalized in their rendering. This replicates in the viewer specific feelings like those of a remembered nightmare or bad memory. Art that uses the visual language of non-art craft, in this case work that uses crochet, also has the potential to fall into the vernacular of cuteness for cuteness’s sake. In Bad Thought Brain Rain I use crochet to bring warmth and hominess to what is essentially a representation of blood and viscera. The viewer experiences a vibration of associations between “inviting fibrous nest” and “soaking blood rain”.



{Bad thoughts arrive when I’m driving. They can also come when I have too much caffeine before bed. They can also come whenever they want. My daydreams will lead me straight to the bad thought if I let them. It’s not so hard to get there. They are too close to the surface, maybe I just need more distance. I can’t get miles between me and them because they are in me, but I can get away over time. Being far away from a bad thought means every time I have the bad thought I remember the memory. Maybe I need to exorcise the bad thought so it stops bothering me. I shake my head to make it leave, I close my eyes or open them, I tense my shoulders and I make a fist. I occupy my mind with words words words words words words words words words words words drows words words words words words words drows words words words words so my daydreaming doesn’t take me to a place I don’t want to go. When my body is finally destroyed the bad thoughts will cease to exist. ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnmmmmmm thank god!!!! }




Figure 3: Drawing based on a combination of photo documentation of Kabakov’s The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment, and Kabakov’s planning sketch of the piece. Here we see the moment when the man breaks through his ceiling with the help of a propulsion system of elastic and springs. He is encased in a homemade plastic space sack, which will allow him to survive in space.



An important part of my practice involves exercising a type of forward dreaming. Some projects compel me to project myself into the future, to imagine the situation I would like to find there and how I would act in it (as in my project What I Would do After After the Apocalypse). My imagined relationship to an imagined collective society is just as much a reflection of how I interact with the real society that I am a part of in the present. The tension between a leftist desire to organize collectively to do politics, and a deeply individualistic impulse to make art that is mine alone, is present throughout my practice. The extremes of the privilege-reproducing myth of individualistic artistic genius on one hand, and art by committee’s failure to produce compelling work on the other haunt me. In my work I hope that a balance can be struck in such a way that the two impulses work off of each other in a productive way.




Figure 4: Drawing of a still from the television show Ash vs. Evil Dead. These two characters, Pablo and Kelly, are covered in demon guts after being dragged along on a mission by Ash, Deadite hunter extraordinaire.



Ilya Kabakov is a visual artist whose work I admire. His early work and more recent collaborations with his wife Emilia Kabakov deal with the ideas of forward dreaming and post-utopia. He is known as the founder of “total installation art”. His installations include not only a transformed space but also a very well-developed diegesis, in which there is often a semi-fictional artist and a set of circumstances that the work was made in that is also invented. Kabakov’s 1985 installation The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment (see Figure 3) is about the desire to explode out and away from the place you’re in. Though in this narrative, the Man Who Flew into Space takes his body with him, his escape from his communal soviet apartment bedroom is just as violent, and just as cathartic as more gory and explicit scenes from films like Cronenberg’s Scanners.


In the “artist’s comments” related to this piece, Kabakov discusses his lifelong urge to leave, escape, where he is at the time—to be where he is currently not. Kabakov writes,


“Always…there has been a desire to run, to get away from that place where you are now; to run without looking back, so as never to return; to run so far away that they can’t bring you back from there…I wanted to, but I couldn’t. What interfered was that which always interferes with everyone…Propriety, pretense, fear of the consequences, the absence of a goal, the reason for escape, the uncertainty of what would happen next.”


The seeming impossibility of achieving the goal of leaving behind (your body, your everyday life, your home) makes stories and images the realm in which we can confront these fantasies. We can turn them over and look at them from different angles. Man Who Flew into Space speaks of the ecstatic energy released at the instant of eruption from the apartment by showing the aftermath of that release of energy. This is similar to the “post-splatter” scenes in the television show Ash vs. Evil Dead, in which the protagonists are covered completely with blood and various chunks of viscera after the complete destruction of their “deadite” foes (See Figure 4). Just as Kabakov’s installation shows the apartment covered in rubble and dust from the hole in the ceiling, we see the bodies of our heroes covered in the rubble remains of the exploded demons.



{I was the most scared of scary movies of any of my friends. I went to a popular boy’s house with some other kids and we watched Tropic Thunder. I was so afraid of the gore I had a stomach ache and was hiding behind the couch while trying to eat my pizza but trying to play it off like it was cool to be sitting on the floor away from everyone else. I didn’t understand the gore wasn’t supposed to be scary. Seeing blood in real life always made me faint. Seeing blood made me lose control of my body and my mind. Over time I trained myself to stop seeing the gore in movies as real. And once I could laugh at any gory movie moment I felt a certain power. I still enjoy this power. I have mastered the idea and image of the destruction of the body. Is it mastery? I can take in these images and not feel afraid or nauseous. I take pleasure in seeing all the creative ideas the filmmaker has for all the ways to destroy a human body. I see the art in it. And seeing the art, transcending the fear and body response, the Firstness, makes me believe I have mastered it. Maybe I really want to get back to an unmediated and unanalyzed experience of these images. I want keep the cycle moving continuously; Firstness>Secondness>Thirdness>Firstness. Yeah, that’s one way to look at it.}



Viewers of Ash vs. Evil Dead see protagonists Pablo and Kelly covered in blood and viscera fairly regularly. The actors who portray Pablo and Kelly, Ray Santiago and Dana DeLorenzo, have a very different experience with that bloody image we see. They even have a name for it: “splatter matter.” DeLorenzo says. “You’re ripping layers of skin off when you take your clothes off. People think it’s just gooey, but it’s not the blood going on that’s the problem. It’s getting it off.”ii This is a primary, materially based, embodied experience of cartoon gore. In the terms of Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics, viewers of Ash vs. Evil Dead will experience this same event first through actualization and then interpretation and symbolization. Using Peirce’s framework, we could call the feeling of splatter matter on the skin of the actor “Firstness”, the viewer’s realization of the fact that they are seeing a body covered in blood and guts “Secondness”, and the viewer’s interpretation of the blood as a representation of cathartic release as “Thirdness” (See Laura Marks’ Touch).


Bad Thought Brain Rain allows the viewer to cycle through these modes of interaction; analysis and symbolization loop around to a new embodied sensation, then spiral out to additional realizations and feelings. Some elements of the piece bring to mind (and to the body) the cathartic release of pressure described above, like the many long strands of red material which imitate blood rain, or long pieces of viscera exploding from the central figure. By contrast, some elements are situated in an uncomfortable or queasy feeling, such as the drawings and smaller crocheted elements (see Figure 5). The material quality of Bad Thought Brain Rain brings a third sensation of Firstness: softness and comfort. As the viewer cycles through the stages of experience, they may encounter each separately, and then slowly begin to integrate them as they make symbolic connections.


I find Pierce’s semiotics (and Laura Marks’ interpretation of his work in particular) to be extremely helpful in pulling apart (and reassembling) how my work acts on the viewer. I think more about what a piece does rather than what it means or is about. I think more about the atmosphere it creates, the sensations it lends the viewer, and the affect it embodies than how it will be decoded by the viewer. Human people are powerful analyzers and skilled at creating systems of meaning, and I wish to embrace this response to my work. I do believe, however, that my work should never rest in Thirdness, but that Thirdness should lead to new sensations, emotions, and embodied experience. Any piece that becomes mired in analytic decoding has left the realm of embodied perception and feeling that I hope my work can effect. Using yarn and crochet and everyday fabrics makes a work immediately sensational in more ways than visual. In Bad Thought Brain Rain, I intend for the viewer to touch the crocheted strands as they move through and around it. But even if the viewer doesn’t physically touch the work, they can easily imagine and feel in themselves the tactile quality of the yarn because it is something they encounter in their homes. This is one way I aim to keep the viewer’s encounter with my work always moving through different modes of perception, from body to mind to body and back again. I will carry these values forward in my future research and strive to make art which does the thing that only art can do: exist primarily to act on bodies, expressing the ineffable and communicating through material relationships.




Reading

Hatchet, Gary Paulson, 1986

Ilya Kabakov Installations 1983 – 2000 Catalogue Raisonné, Edited by Toni Stoos, 2003.

No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman, 2004

Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva, 1980

Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Laura Marks, 2002


Television

Adventure Time, Created by Pendleton Ward, 2010-2018

Ash vs. Evil Dead, Created by Ivan Raimi, Sam Raimi, and Tom Spezialy, 2015-2018

Castlevania, Created by Warren Ellis, 2017-

Rick and Morty, Created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, 2013- (See especially season 1, episode 6 “Rick Potion #9”)


Film

Akira, Directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988

Horse Girl, Directed by Jeff Beana, 2020

Midsommar, Directed by Ari Aster, 2019

Naked Lunch, Directed by David Cronenberg, 1991

Scanners, Directed by David Cronenberg, 1981

The Thing, Directed by John Carpenter, 1982






Figure 5: Drawing of sculptural element from my piece Bad Thought Brain Rain. I’ve combined the dog foot from one of the nightmarish drawings on the roof of the piece along with some strange silver pills that fill a bowl in another. It’s a drawing of a sculpture of a drawing of a dream.




i Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. “Artist’s Comments,” The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment, Accessed May 3, 2019. https://ilya-emilia-kabakov.com/installations/the-man-who-flew-into-space-from-his-apartment/


ii Liz Shannon Miller, “‘Ash vs. Evil Dead’ Cast Break Down the Disgusting Process of Being Soaked in Fake Blood, Brains and Goo,” IndieWire, Penske Business Media, March 6, 2018, https://www.indiewire.com/2018/03/ash-vs-evil-dead-cast-how-to-clean-up-fake-blood-shaving-cream-1201936427/


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