Hair; Abject, Uncanny and Taboo

by Lara Mumby-Croft

This body of work is a broad examination of human hair. Three strands of research and experimentation are being explored: human head hair, human body hair and an investigation into the aesthetic possibilities of human hair as material and subject for artworks. Theoretical research is helping me explore these strands and apply them to my practice. Such theories have uncovered some things hair may suggest in the human subconscious mind in Western culture. Abject theory as written about by Julia Kristeva (1941); is a large influence upon this exploration, as are Sigmund Freud’s (1856) ideas about the uncanny. Furthermore Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s ideas relating to female body hair, are stimulating new approaches and viewpoints into this investigation. This theoretical research is providing a platform from which I can base my ideas and the creation of my work. There are several artists whom interest me due to their work with hair, the two most predominately are Gabriel De La Mora (1968) and Wenda Gu (1955). I am mainly interested in their work due to the aesthetics of their creations using hair and how they address installation or exhibition. The purpose and meaning of their work is also of interest and comparisons are evident. It is these theoretical and artistic influences that are currently shaping my practice this year, creating a framework for it to develop from.

To explore the possibility of classifying different aspects of hair via theory is important for grounding my studio work. Subsequently my initial research led me to abject theory. In 1982 Julia Kristeva published her essay on abjection The Powers of Horror. This provided a dissection and theory of abjection and the various forms and realms it can be attached to (Barrett, 2011, p.93). Once received in an encounter, abjection manifests as a symptom of repulsion and disgust (Barrett, 2011, p.70). Kristeva further discussed abjection in relation to art and how an artist becomes a type of theorist, questioning in such a way a theorist cannot (Barrett, 2011, p.1). It is my intention to question in this way, via theory, through art. She classifies abject as being neither subject nor object. As it is neither, it becomes less definable (Kristeva, 1982, p.1). Therefore an abject thing can fall under a biological artifact that has been excreted or lost from the human body, hair being an example of such (Kristeva, 1982, p.5). Interestingly Kristeva proposes that abjection serves as a type of protection. One may be wary of the abject and the dangers it may pose (Kristeva, 1982, p.3). I relate this to the repugnance of naturally shed head hair on the level of hygiene, but also in relation to humanities constant subconscious knowledge and fear of death, at least by Western thought.

The subconscious suggestion of death that stems from the abject connects to Sigmund Freud’s ideas regarding “the uncanny”. In his 1919 essay The Uncanny Freud discusses this notion when he deliberates over emotional responses being repressed and re-emerging as fear, resulting in the experience of the uncanny. Something that is familiar, but becomes hidden and re-emerges as the uncanny experience (Williams, 2007, p.170). Naturally discarded hair becomes uncanny when rediscovered in the process of un-clogging the plughole. To some, it becomes repugnant, sending a shiver down the spine. Freud continues by stating that human primal thinking and emotive processes have hardly changed through human cognitive development, especially in relation to fear of death. The uncanny is commonly related to death (Williams, 2007, p.170).

In a similar area Kristeva discusses the abject as being an “object” of primal repression in The Powers of Horror. However, Kristeva discusses primal repression in the sense that humans apply abject feelings to some artifacts because they are reminders of humanities repressed animal nature. It is removed as “abject” in order to break away from animalism (Kristeva, 1982, pp.12-13) Kristeva acknowledges that areas of the abject are excluded as taboo (Kristeva, 1982, p. 17). In a similar way to Kristeva, Karin Lesnik-Oberstein states that taboos are a form of regulation in society; that they control how one should deal with the said taboo (Lesnik-Oberstein, 2006, p.12). Lesnik-Oberstein’s observation of how taboo dictates response, directly relates to the Western perception of female body hair.

Lesnik-Oberstein explores female body hair directly in The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair (2006). She considers some interesting perspectives regarding body hair, and also discusses these in relation to feminism. Highlighted feminist discourse of the patriarchal ideal woman, are predominately discussed in terms of body weight. While female body hair is largely ignored (Lesnik-Oberstein, 2006, p.2). The abject is an area that has often been presented within the feminist tradition of art. Yet it is intriguing to me that female body hair is rarely acknowledged in this tradition, due to its patriarchal imposition. Lesnik-Oberstein affirms that she is not attempting to encourage women to stop removing their body hair. Rather, she would have women acknowledge this area as another form of action to highlight patriarchal traditions still prevalent in Western society (Lesnik-Oberstein, 2006, p.6). From this perspective human hair transcends the trivial into a legitimate topic for debate. My practice has the potential to become a visual text of this loaded discussion. The fact that Lesnik-Oberstein does not confine her critique to the Western patriarchy, but extends it to feminist analysis interests me further. The discovery of such an opposing view to parts of mainstream feminism provides a wealth of substance to my investigation and this further encourages my practice.

While feminists seek to establish an identity free from traditional patriarchy, both Gabriel De La Mora and Wenda Gu work with aspects of identity. This partly explains why they both use human hair. Evidently human hair contains an essence of a person in DNA, which indicates genetic heritage. However, de la Mora works with identity pertaining to his personal lineage, being his family and the corresponding narrative (De La Mora, 2011, p.55). Whereas Gu works with identity concerning cultures on a global scale, in hope that one day they will merge in utopia (Bessire, 2004, p.13). Both artists are unique in their practice regarding contemporary art. Both deal with abject, uncanny and taboo inherent to hair, and are useful to my practice in the ways they broach these visually. They use hair as a direct link aesthetically to the context that spans their practice.

Hair has different cultural and ritualistic uses through out the world and respective histories (De La Mora, 2011, p.53) this is another consideration that De La Mora and Gu share in common. Ritual patterns are becoming evident in my own work, in a similar way to the ritual aspects that are evident in De La Mora and Gu’s practice. Both have a systematic way of collecting hair. De la Mora collects hair in jars classified by the colour, length and thickness (De La Mora, 2011, p.54). On his continuous travels Gu collects hair from all over the world, receiving hair donations and visiting hairdressers or barbers. It is important to the context of his work that he actively collects hair from people who have all kinds of diverse cultural backgrounds (Bessire, 2004, p.12). The fact that he collects the hair on his travels reinforces the context, relating to the hope and idea of a merging cultural utopia.

The hair I am collecting is only from close friends and family but it is largely my own hair, however this way of collecting may change. The hair I am currently salvaging is mainly head hair and is either naturally shed or due to be cut anyway. This maintains the natural cycle of the body, versus the habitual grooming of the body. It is not forced by purposely removing the hair, or asking for the involvement of strangers. Gabriel De La Mora collected his own family members hair for the work Memoria 111, 24.10.07, this relates to the identity and lineage of his family. In a minimal composition, De La Mora presents unique portraits of 19 members of his immediate family, both alive and deceased. Using an MRI of their skulls, with a thumbprint and a signature drawn with hair, he makes a three-tiered portrait. Blank works are displayed for the deceased who are unable to provide fingerprints or signatures. (De La Mora, 2011, p56). The work is symbolic of his family in ways I have never seen presented in family portraiture before. De La Mora has blended the subject of the portrait with DNA, individuality and perhaps even hints at personality in relation to the signature. In other works he has used stranger’s hair and even synthetic hair, for different reasons denoted by the work he was making.

Gu has been working on an ongoing project, the United Nations series that he began in 1993. Through the blending and pressing of thousands of different people’s hair he metaphorically promotes the idea of a united humanity (Bessire, 2004, p.12). He displays an interest in societal taboos, not only in his deliberate use of hair but also through the use of blood and placenta (Bessire, 2004, p.13). Gu challenges these taboos simply through the use of these materials, despite the fact they have a genuine meaning and purpose for the context of the work. Gu also uses hair to make a type of ink that he paints with. He describes hair as a “human plant” as it is a renewable source (Bessire, 2004, p.152-3). I am particularly inspired by Gu’s use of hair as his principle medium. Aesthetically this links to my initial ideas about human head hair, which led to this investigation and practice in the creation of my original hair prints. I still wish to highlight that something perceived as trivial and even disposable, can have a use and a meaning.  Hair can be transcendent. Gu is successfully achieving this in his work, albeit for different reasons.

The associated themes to this broad examination of hair, is driving my practice into areas I have previously been unaware of. Abject theory, the uncanny and taboo are currently integral to my practice. I am entering unfamiliar ground, stirring new thought processes, new ideas and ways of treating these strands of work. Much of what Sigmund Feud, Julia Kristeva and Karin Lesnik-Oberstien discuss in their writing, crossover and link to a new idea for me to explore. Their thought and discussion has become integral to this stage of my work. As I have outlined there are parts of abject theory, uncanny and the nature of taboo that are naturally inherent to De La Mora and Gu’s practice with hair. I can take stock of their methods of installation and exhibition, before considering how to best display this body of work and which areas to discard or further develop. There are two vastly different aesthetics to their work, which are only tied together by material. Both offer aesthetic inspirations and considerations that will become more important to my practice as the year progresses.



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