In this essay, I make an attempt to consider more responsive and responsible forms of perception, which help to reflect on artworks and ourselves through the shared experience of embodied vulnerability.
Keywords: visual thinking, vulnerability, disability aesthetics, art making, embodied reflection, ableism, variation vs deviance, un-learning artistic and visual practices.
The appearance of disability is chaotic, beautiful, enigmatic—a force that changes the history of art and our perception of the world. Disability is an aesthetic value in itself.2
When critical disability theorist Tobin Siebers calls disability ‘the aesthetic object that makes modern art possible,’3 he makes us rethink whatever notions we might have about art and disability. On the basis of two art works by British artist Marc Quinn, I will make an attempt at such rethinking with a specific goal: to introduce the concept of vulnerability as a tool to re-engage (or practise differently) our ways of looking at human embodiment.
‘How can the concept of vulnerability become a tool for practising artists?’
The aim of this essay is to find partial and multiple answers to these questions: How do art, disability and vulnerability productively relate? How can ‘disability’ change not only the way we feel but also the way we look at others, ourselves, and the art we produce? And, finally, how can the concept of vulnerability—in addition to the individual experience and the universal human condition of vulnerability—become a tool for practising artists?
Marc Quinn’s famous sculptures (see images 1 and 2) of Alison Lapper, who is a visual artist with a severe limb disability, are monumental, sleek, and aesthetically pleasing to look at, yet they are also challenging for the nudity, the advanced pregnancy, and the almost condescending look they exhibit. The sculptures dispute social agreements about what type of art is tolerable to be shown publicly. Yet, Quinn’s work was accepted as ‘public art,’ which is unusual for art inspired by disability. Such acceptance is a useful occasion to look more closely at the (disruptive) effects of these artworks on their viewers and to explore their creative potential. What then can we learn from analysing Quinn’s controversial art? And what do we gain from engaging in what I call ‘disability aesthetics’?4
In an interview, Siebers explains: ‘[The] more artwork incorporates disability, the greater the chance […] to change the body politic.’5 Clearly, the aim of engaging in disability aesthetics is to transform societies, which have dismissed disabled embodiment and cognition as nothing but an aberration of nature. My analysis, therefore, aims to reveal how we can productively participate in aesthetic practices that challenge the belief in embodied difference as deviance and instead treat it as variation of human nature.
My premise is that to participate in such an endeavour is never a simple question of an art work’s success or failure but includes a careful, slow, and sometimes frustrating engagement in the rethinking and unlearning of all the practices, material engagements, senses, and actors involved in the process of producing an art work. I hereby hope to contribute to expanding the tools for art-making and visual thinking towards a more inclusive and diverse aesthetics. I will use two of Marc Quinn’s sculptures of Alison Lapper, Alison Lapper Pregnant (image 1) and Breath (image 2), as examples of disability art, which help me reveal how such practices can be developed.
‘Challenge the belief in embodied difference as deviance and instead treat it as variation of human nature’.
Let me introduce the first sculpture: ‘[…] Alison Lapper Pregnant [is a] marble sculpture more than three meters tall, [portraying] the artist Alison Lapper, showing her nude and eight-months pregnant. It was on display in London for eighteen months (September 2005–April 2007) on Trafalgar Square’s fourth Plinth. Quinn’s sculpture, positioned in London’s crowded center alongside equestrian statues of such heroes of the British Empire as Lord Nelson, shows a self-confident, almost warrior-like woman, who suffers from phocomelia, a congenital condition that caused her to be born with shortened legs and without arms or hands. Cast as a statue in sleek white Italian marble, Lapper is depicted as a mother-to-be with a disabled body. The work caused some controversy: the statue was said to be powerful and inspiring as well as ugly and repellent. It elicits shamed yet fascinated reactions to the pregnant woman’s nakedness along with feelings of empowerment for people with disabilities. Alison Lapper’s own art aims to put disability, femininity, and motherhood on the map of public recognition. But does this representation of her as a disabled maternal subject manage to destabilize conventional aesthetic ideals and challenge ways of looking at disabled bodies in public?’6
‘The experience of being embodied is never a private affair, but is always already mediated by our continual interactions with other human and nonhuman bodies.’
I believe that Quinn’s marble sculpture does not invite its viewers to engage in a corporeal relation with what it represents: a disabled pregnant mother-to be; an-other body. If we define corporeality as our own sense of embodiment in the world and as our sensory and affective encounters with other bodies, corporeality reveals that ‘the body is less an entity [or object], than a relation,’ in which it comes to exist only on the basis of its connections to other bodies and the support of environmental and infrastructural conditions of living.7
In this sense, corporeality is ‘intercorporeality,’ which emphasises that ‘the experience of being embodied is never a private affair, but is always already mediated by our continual interactions with other human and nonhuman bodies.’8 The sculpture unquestionably challenges conventional views of disabled bodies and motherhood and claims public recognition of so-called disruptive bodies. Yet, it does so without inviting its viewers to face their own cultural prejudices towards otherness or their internalised ableism.9
‘Our visual functions as well as our abilities offer us meaningful connections with the world around us, but they also potentially fail us’.
Vision is one of many modes of embodied interaction or mediation with others, which is both a physiological function of bodies who have the capacity to see and a culturally trained ability. Our visual functions as well as our abilities offer us meaningful connections with the world around us, but they also potentially fail us: vision exposes us to breakdowns, such as partiality, blindness, wounding or violence, as well as to pleasures. The mediation that takes place between my seeing and the objects I see is therefore prone to change how I see. If an artwork such as Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant does not address the corporeal as well as the interactive dimension between my seeing and what I see, it will, unwillingly, uphold the discriminatory effects of my trained visual abilities, despite its call for change.
These effects are potentially amplified here by its material attributes: ‘The stabilizing effect of the artwork’s surface quality enforces a seeming accuracy of vision, while vision itself, […] being under the constant threat of blindness, fails to see the complex (social and political) embodiment behind the clean façade.’10 It is indeed not only the placement of the ‘disabled’ sculpture on the heroic plinth, but also the specific use of material, which disengages the viewer from a more intimate and possibly more personally engaging corporeal encounter with the portrayed subject: ‘If Quinn’s artistic and critical tool [here] is the aestheticization of the disruptive body, independent of the chosen materiality, it also has its downside, which is its antagonism to aliveness, sensuality, and embodiedness.’11
In this case, disability art, or disability aesthetics, offers the artist a resource to make a political statement. Yet, in contrast to the lived embodiment of the portrayed subject, Quinn’s marble sculpture fails to fully employ the aesthetic value of disability,12 which resides as much in disability’s chaotic and enigmatic appearance as in disability’s emotional and bodily affordances, which are experienced through fear, disgust as well as admiration.13,14 Alison Lapper Pregnant offers us a view of disability, which exposes us to the fact that all embodiment is also a ‘public affair,’ and which claims for disabled embodiment specifically the right to visibility. Yet, I dare say that the sculpture does not offer us much artistic insights into how to practise art differently. How then can ‘disability’ be otherwise activated as a resource in and for art?15
‘Vulnerability is characteristic of all human embodiment and social life, yet should also be viewed as inherent in every form of embodied cultural practice, such as speaking, listening, reading, looking, and art making’.
I propose to engage with one specific aspect of disability’s important attributes: vulnerability. The main definitions of vulnerability as being ‘capable of being physically or emotionally wounded’ and as being ‘open to attack or damage’16 express two important attributes of vulnerability which interest me here: Vulnerability does not merely mean weakness or limitation, but by involving risk and uncertainty, it also features a radical exposure or openness to the world. Vulnerability is characteristic of all human embodiment and social life, yet should also be viewed as inherent in every form of embodied cultural practice, such as speaking, listening, reading, looking, and art making. Vulnerability therefore also embodies a (re)source for artists (and other subjects) to view their making and thinking practices as potentially risky, uncertain, and radically open to change.
In addition to the more common definitions of vulnerability, American philosopher Judith Butler claims that vulnerability is relational: ‘[Vulnerability] is not a subjective disposition. Rather, it characterises a relation to a field of objects, forces, and passions that impinge on or affect us in some way. As a way of being related to what is not me and not fully masterable, vulnerability is a kind of relationship that belongs to that ambiguous region in which receptivity and responsiveness are not clearly separable from one another, and not distinguished as separate moments in a sequence; indeed, where receptivity and responsiveness become the basis for mobilizing vulnerability rather than engaging in its destructive denial.’17
‘In the (sensory) encounter with disability art, vulnerability can unfold its ‘promise’ through the art work’s demand not to look away’.
This means that vulnerability is not only a personal experience, but foremost a human social and embodied condition, in which the vulnerability of one subject is always dependent on other subjects’ encounters with vulnerability: ‘Butler makes a case for what she conceptualizes as a shared social vulnerability, which must be recognised to reveal how strongly all of us are socially and politically enmeshed in our perception of each other.’18 In addition, vulnerability becomes constructive only, when or if it elicits an experience of receptivity and responsiveness—which brings us back to art: in the (sensory) encounter with disability art, vulnerability can unfold its ‘promise’ through the art work’s demand not to look away and to relate with art’s own representational and material exposure to risk, destruction, decomposition, transformation, and potential misrecognition.
How can vulnerability, then, help us to productively participate in disability aesthetics? The critical connection between vulnerability and disability art lies in the specificity of what happens in the process of viewing (or producing) the art object. In contrast to the visual relation with other art objects, the process here is experienced as potentially more vulnerable, or prone to wounding and uncertainty, and has an influence on our ways of looking and our forms of perception. If we consider art as a mode of perception, we can consider disability in art (or disability aesthetics) as introducing new modes of perception concerning human embodiment: more vulnerable modes of perception.19 In this respect, we can consider disability in art as a ‘tool for rethinking human appearance, intelligence, behaviour, and creativity.’20 Or, as a tool for re-doing our own looking in which disability and vulnerability form an enabling correlation for new and alternative visual practices.
Let me now introduce the second of Quinn’s sculptures, called Breath (2012; see image 2), which offers us a timely insight into the vulnerability of our shared embodied dependencies on the availability of clean air and the functioning of our breathing organs.21 The sculpture also compels us to reconsider our ways of perceiving disability through the experience of what we could call a ‘vulnerable art work.’ This sculpture is an eleven-metre inflatable version of the marble sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant and was commissioned for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games and later exhibited by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice (2013). The sculpture is made of double-layer polyester, to be inflated by high-capacity air pumps. The technology used for this art work is capable of filling the sculpture with air within seconds, which creates an almost magical sense of importance in the viewer, while prompting the recognition of the art work’s potential instability and risk of perforation and deflation.
‘The sculpture is made of double-layer polyester, to be inflated by high-capacity air pumps’.
Yet, the sculpture’s material difference to its original model (Alison Lapper Pregnant) is not only characterised by its potentially vulnerable engineering aspects (which are clearly prone to failure), but also by its haptic manifestation: the original model was photographed, printed on cloth, cut into pieces, and sewn together to create a colored and textured 3D-feeling. According to Quinn, the artwork articulates ‘the difference between an object with mass and gravity, and its image or presence in mass culture.’ Quinn ‘sees the work as a cultural hallucination or a “cultural image of the sculpture literalised as an inflatable”.’22 What Quinn alludes to is the insight that images of disability in mass culture are not congruent with the physical bodies or their artistic materialisation; by recognising this incongruity, Quinn transposes his own representation of Alison Lapper as marble sculpture into a hyper-representation (or hallucination) not of Alison Lapper’s body, but of her sculpture.
Quinn thereby acknowledges the gap, and the potential violence, mass culture exerts on our bodies through representation; yet he also uses his art to aesthetically intervene into this form of representational mediation of disabled bodies, by making his artwork, rather than Lapper’s body, the ‘victim’ of the representational gap. Simultaneously, he appeals to the viewers’ bodily and sensory response to the chosen material, technology, and overall form of presentation. The inflatable sculpture calls attention not only to the represented subject’s disabled body, but also to artistic choices about how to direct the viewers’ looks at disability and art. It similarly shows how art can involve viewers (or the makers) in the production of their own sight and how to elicit feelings of vulnerability that are shared by the artistic object and the looking subject.
What, then, does this artwork offer us in terms of artistic resources? It is not only the difference in material, presentation, technology, colour, or texture that makes a difference between the two sculptures discussed here. But it is also the artworks’ exposure to what Mieke Bal calls ‘embodied reflection’ that changes the way we look. Bal ascribes to artists the capacity to ‘mobilize art for an embodied reflection’.23‘Art that motivates embodied reflection, or involved looking, not only inaugurates an ethically valuable form of looking—by appealing to the viewer’s responsibility in the creation of the image—but it also makes room for the visual object’s agency in the perceived image.’24 Or, in other words: specific art objects have the capacity to influence how we look and what we perceive by appealing to the viewer’s own bodily involvement in both processes.
‘It similarly shows how art can involve viewers (or the makers) in the production of their own sight and how to elicit feelings of vulnerability that are shared by the artistic object and the looking subject’.
When watching Breath inflate to its full size within less than two minutes on a huge stone platform on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, one cannot avoid feeling touched by the immense sculpture’s fragility, aliveness, softness, and fleshliness.
This feeling is also motivated by the artwork’s skin-like texture, its growth from a heap of fabric through an embryonic posture to a sitting position, and by its continuous air intake, which appeal to basic bodily experiences we all share. How, then, does this impact on our practices of looking and on our participation in the production of alternative visions? Tobin Siebers is convinced that ‘the artwork makes us feel because of its unique physical properties, because of the way that it stands among us as a distinct physical manifestation. Art perception involves both perception of the artwork and self-perception.’25
In this essay, I made an attempt to consider more responsive and responsible forms of perception, which help to ‘reflect’ the world and ourselves through the shared experience of embodied vulnerability. To transform one’s own practice of looking, trained, for example, by engaging in disability art and vulnerability will be a potentially radical tool in one’s own art-making practices and in what such art-making can provoke. Technological changes in artistic tools, such as 3D graphics, photographic technologies and digital presentation formats, have reordered our relationship between visual perception and spatial and bodily experience. By introducing ‘tools’ such as vulnerability and disability aesthetics to our art making and visual practices, we will also more critically reorder artistic impact on the meaning making of ‘disability’ and other forms of culturally excluded forms of diverse and variant embodiment.
In addition to exploring the ways in which certain art objects expose us to the vulnerability of ourselves and others, I hoped to have shown that such exposure can lead to embodied reflection, which in turn has the capacity to transform those (visual-cultural) practices we commonly use to produce and receive art. The goal must be to trouble our own looking, and thereby to produce forms of art that will eventually trouble visual culture for more diverse and just ways of looking at others.
- ‘Affordance.’ Merriam Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/affordance.
- Bal, Mieke, ‘The Commitment to Look.’ Journal of Visual Culture 4/2 (2005): pp. 145-62.
- Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London/New York: Verso, 2006.
- Butler, Judith, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay, eds., Vulnerability in Resistance. Duke University Press, 2016.
- Campbell, Fiona A. Kumari, ‘Inciting Legal Fictions: Disability’s Date with Ontology and the Ableist Body of the Law.’ In Griffith Law Review 10, 2001: 42–62.
- Custódio, Angelo and Yara Said, ‘Breathing /sites’. http://foursistersproject.nl/en/calendar/breathing-sites-by-angelo-custodio-yara-said/.
- Diamond, Sara, ‘Physics, Perception, Immersion: Introduction.’ In Euphoria and Dystopia: The Banff New Media Institute Dialogues, edited by Sarah Cook and Sara Diamond. Riverside Architectural Press, 2020: pp. 170-198.
- Elkins, James, The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. Mariner Books: 1997.
- Górska, Magdalena, Breathing Matters: Feminist Inter-Sectional Politics of Vulnerability. Linköping Studies in Arts and Science: Linköping University, 2016.
- Hall, Melinda C., ‘Critical Disability Theory.’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/disability-critical/.
- Hiskes, Andries, ‘The Affective Affordances of Disability.’ Digressions: Amsterdam Journal of Critical Theory, Cultural Analysis, and Creative Writing 3.2 (2019): pp. 5-17.
- Levin, Mike, ‘The Art of Disability: An Interview with Tobin Siebers.’ In Disability Studies Quarterly, Vol. 30/2 (2010).
- Mitchell, W. J. T., ‘Seeing Disability.’ Public Culture 13/3 (2001): pp. 391-97.
- Quinn, Marc, ‘Artworks: Breath.’ http://marcquinn.com/artworks/single/breath.
- Shildrick, Margrit. Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage, 2002.
- Siebers, Tobin, ‘Disability Aesthetics and the Body Beautiful: Signposts in the History of Art.’ ALTER, European Journal of Disability Research No. 2 (2008).
- Sievers, Tobin and Tom Bieling, ‘Disability Representation and the political Dimension of Art.’ DESIGNABILITIES. Design Research Journal for Bodies, Things & Interaction (2014).
- Sturm, Jules, Bodies We Fail. Productive Embodiments of Imperfection. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2014.
- ‘Vulnerable.’ Merriam Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulnerability.
- Weiss, Gail, Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Tobin Siebers, ‘Disability Representation and the Political Dimension of Art,’ DESIGNABILITIES. Design Research Journal for Bodies, Things & Interaction (2014).
Tobin Siebers develops the concept of disability aesthetics as a critique of aesthetic standards and tastes that exclude people with disabilities. Instead, he argues: ‘The idea of disability aesthetics affirms that disability operates both as a critical framework for questioning aesthetic presuppositions in the history of art and as a value in its own right important to future conceptions of what art is.’ (Siebers 2008) I use the notion of disability aesthetics here in an additional sense, by claiming that in aesthetic encounters we do not only involve our emotions and senses, but we also engage in specific bodily and cultural practices, such as seeing, reading, speaking, sculpting and writing. According to a disability approach to aesthetics, these should also be rethought and practised differently when looking at or when making art.
Jules Sturm, Bodies We Fail. Productive Embodiments of Imperfection (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2014), pp. 77-79.
Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay, eds. Vulnerability in Resistance (Duke University Press, 2016), p. 19.
Gail Weiss, Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 158.
‘Ableism is “a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human”. (Campbell 2001: 44) Ableism systematically interacts with other power structures that stigmatise to produce race, gender, sex, and disability. Ableism shapes our world and produces disability.’ Melinda C. Hall, ‘Critical Disability Theory,’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 edition), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/disability-critical/.
Sturm 2014, p. 80.
Sturm 2014, p. 81.
Andries Hiskes, ‘The Affective Affordances of Disability,’ Digressions: Amsterdam Journal of Critical Theory, Cultural Analysis, and Creative Writing 3.2 (2019): pp. 5-17.
affordances as the way in which the form of the representation of disability may evoke affective responses such as fear, disgust, and admiration in viewers and readers.’ (Hiskes 2019, p. 5)
If we define disability as providing new resources for art makers, we must be careful—as with other experience- and identity-based qualities and reserves—not to: 1) instrumentalise disability for the sake of artistic (marketable) profit; 2) use the experience and appearance of people with disabilities as ‘inspiration’ to our art-making (Stella Young, inspiration porn); 3) employ disability as a metaphor for ‘otherness’ and ‘exoticism’ (Mitchell & Davis). Without wanting to presume Quinn’s own bearing on disability politics, his artworks suggest a certain inspirational stance towards disability.
‘Vulnerable,’ Merriam Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulnerability.
Butler in Butler, Gambetti, and Sabsay 2016, p. 25.
Sturm 2014, p. 65.
In contrast to, or in addition to, James Elkin’s revealing theory of how acts of seeing transform the seen object as well as the seeing subject (Elkins 1997), I here argue that acts of seeing disability in art transform our seeing.
Siebers in Levin 2010.
The artwork’s title did not have the same brisance in 2012 as it currently has in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic. Writing this essay in early 2021 makes me more acutely aware of the necessity of a ‘critical aesthetic,’ an aesthetic which not only changes the representations of embodied human reality, but also of the way we perceive the world around us by way of bodily urgencies. For more reading on breath and vulnerability, refer to Magdalena Gorska’s ‘Breathing Matters’ (2016). Please also refer to Angelo Custódio’s valuable artistic work on breathing as embodied dialogue (2021). Custódio’s work is an important contribution to disability aesthetics in performative and sonic art in that ‘it explores the performative use of the voice to develop sonic encounters with the vulnerable’: http://foursistersproject.nl/en/calendar/breathing-sites-by-angelo-custodio-yara-said/.
Mieke Bal, ‘The Commitment to Look,’ Journal of Visual Culture 4/2 (2005): p. 153. Emphasis in original.
Sturm 2014, p. 81.
Siebers in Levin 2010.