What’s behind the most disgusting art material?
Japanese myth-histories focus on puking gods (Shinto) and puking ghosts (Buddhism), and Takashi Murakami paints a bit of both here in his gigantic 2002 Tan Bo Puking — a.k.a. Gero Tan. We see the Japanese character known as Mr. DOB—Mickey Mouse’s “mutant cousin”—playing the monster Tan Tan Bo dying. 2002, the year the US declared war on Iraq... Mini versions of Mr. DOB erupt from sores on his head, each one vomiting vomiters. One stream ends in a high-five between two hands and a black star! Visual metaphors abound, stepping back, the entire composition resembles a nuclear explosion. Interestingly, Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) also weds these two images, an atomic bomb and vomit, and we know co-creator David Lynch likes to focus on vomit imagery specifically in his paintings.
One reason there’s a tradition of vomit art is that the disgusting is also magnetic. Brinkema: “Vomit tempts; it solicits.” Kristeva: “The abject is edged with the sublime.” O’Toole: “With society a circus of sensations, anything truly terrifying (by definition, truly surprising) is saliva for a jaded palate.”
Hieronymus Bosch compares a mouth to an anus and vomit to poop-money—or is it pee-money?—in The Garden of Earthly Delights (1515). Hans Holbein draws a man puking in his 1525 book The Dance of Death. Sue Williams works with webs of viscera and spewing orifices in her recent paintings Two Parties, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and Record Profits. Puke is a layered metaphor.
Hermann Nitsch’s drip paintings evoke blood, puke, and feces (see other Viennese Actionists who used real vomit in their performances). The “patron saint of the party” Leigh Bowery of Minty used fake vomit to shock audiences in the early 90s. The fairy godmother of slime Marilyn Minter glorifies substances coming out of women’s mouths in her large photorealist paintings and videos.
Bjork’s video Hidden Place follows magical substances in and out of the artist’s body, and another music video was filmed from insider Bjork’s mouth. In Cocoon, her nipples spew blood-ribbons that dance and then wrap her naked body up in a shell. Bjork has a thing for orifices and the body’s numinous effluvia. See her spine spew gossamer ectoplasm in Unravel (2001), and her chest hurl kaleidoscopic toruses of dancing supercelestial beings in The Gate (2017).
Cindy Sherman photographs fake vomit (“beef stew”) in Untitled #190 and #175, or did she just say it was fake? Marc Brandenburg, in his 2011 series Where You Are Not, draws in graphite beautiful puddles of vomit he photographed in the streets of Paris. He says:
I know that many people are fascinated by the medium of drawing and I use that to attract people, to divert their attention to things or situations they wouldn’t otherwise spend very much time looking at…
There are artists who draw and paint vomit and those who use actual vomit imaginatively and symbolically. Jubal Brown in 1996 went to the MoMA in New York and deliberately puked icing and blueberry yogurt onto a Mondrian painting in protest. He was really puking on Modernism. In 2010, also at MoMA, someone puked behind Marina Abromavic during her performance The Artist is Present. In 2005 Kristofer Paetau puked in a gallery in Germany and it became a meme.
Paul McCarthy’s performances in the 1970s, like Hot Dog and Tubbing, involved force-feeding and vomiting. In the short film, Painter (1995), McCarthy interacts with a large tube of paint that appears to puke out its insides. There are moments in the film where McCarthy is fisting the tube of paint, the mouth suddenly becoming the anus. There are also moments when you could swear the paint was vomiting the artist. In his essay Cezanne’s Doubt, philosopher Maurice Merlo-Ponty wonders if painting could really be, in some cases, a manifestation of ill-health.
In Nexus Vomitus (2011), Millie Brown spews colored milk onto the floor to make paintings, calling to mind Jack the Dripper. The great Mike Parr in 1977 performed The Emetics (Primary Vomit): I am Sick of Art (Red, Yellow and Blue), which involved a chair, curtain, and the artist puking primary colors onto paper on the floor. The staging echoes portraiture and late 19th-century English photography of mediums vomiting ectoplasm. Parr, having been born with only one arm, says he takes his own deformed identity as a starting point and unfolds a…
confrontational and mystical artistic language of the radical that revolves around the psycho-social dimensions of the self and the community, subjectivity and memory, the issue of human existence and its control.
Micol Hebron also works with puke as paint in her 1999 multi-channel video installation, Fountains. For each film, she sits in the center of the frame wearing a different monochromatic outfit, holding a clear plastic bucket. Then she vomits into the bucket the same color liquid as her outfit. The rainbow of images circles around the gallery and the viewer. Like Lynch, Hebron says she wants to address issues of painting first and foremost, “issues such as color mixing, the color wheel, different color combinations, as well as the position of the artist as Creator and physical and psychological conduit for the production of art.” She also wants her insides to match her outsides, what Bjork says when asked why she looks so weird.
Let’s also consider Sick Film by Martin Creed (2006). It’s a series of short performances by 10 different people (edited from 19) who walk into an empty room and proceed to shove their fingers down their throats and vomit. The camera does not cut away and we can hear all the gagging and burping.
Creed says there is a narrative: the vomits get bigger and bigger, the colors change, and the amount of time it takes for each person to puke changes. The entire film is about 20 minutes. For more details, check James P. Hanson’s great essay Sick Shit Happens. The first performance is available on youtube.
Creed’s puke, like Hebran’s, Parr’s, Bjork’s, Bosch’s, is explicitly a metaphor for the ‘art life’ and creative process — of trying to get something from the inside out—and coming to terms with what you create. Creed:
You don’t really know what’s going to come out, it’s painful, but you feel better afterwards. The films are like portraits of people expressing themselves … something uncontrolled. I am sick and tired of thinking. I want my work to be more like a vomit than a rumination. I just want to go ‘Blah!’ or ‘Woosh!’
Ectoplasm Art and Golden Linghams
Lastly, let’s look at vomit art that relates to the history of horror films and spiritualism: Victorian spirit photography of mediums expelling ectoplasm. Nancy West writes that by the turn of the 20th-century ectoplasm photography had developed into elaborate theater and even miniature horror shows. The lights had to be off completely, and the ectoplasm had to be reabsorbed into the medium (David Thompson claims that sudden light could kill the medium), so there was never any evidence except for the few photographs. People would pay good money to get to see any evidence of ghosts, and they also trusted photography to capture the truth. Now of course we know better, that you don’t take a photograph, you make a photograph.
Ectoplasm is a complicated symbol. Like biological ectoplasm, the cytoplasm extruded by an amoeba to help it move through space, spiritual ectoplasm leaks out of a medium’s body to help them connect with the spirit world. It is gossamer, webby, even rubbery, and sometimes faces appear within it to help performers convince the public they’re really getting in touch with the dead. Maybe just a magic trick and puppet show, spiritual ectoplasm is still an externalization in order to help us move forward.
Contemporary artists like Tif Robinette, Michael Barraco, and Marc Ryden work with ectoplasm imagery, and photographers Maria Molteni and Lacey Prpić Hedtke invite us all to participate in their DIY Ectoplasm Selfie project in the spirit of Eva Carrière. See also The Ectoplasm of Self Delusion, a kinetic sculpture by Ian Wolter. The German design duo Aerosoap just released footage of electro-conductive slime they’re calling “Limbo Cocoon” that looks like ectoplasm. The eyes light up when the slime is touched, and flicker out when the connection fades. (thank you, Michael Garfield, for pointing me to this). See also Mike Kelly’s series of Ectoplasm Photographs from 1978–2008.
Ectoplasm images are an artform: part performance, part prestidigitation. Nevertheless, contemporary mediums like David Thompson and Kai Muegee claim they can produce “real” ectoplasm and other manifestations or apports. Similarly, the Indian “avatar” Sathya Sai Baba was famous for his manifestations and would sometimes puke or “give birth” to golden eggs called “Hiranyagarbha Lingham.” There are videos of both Sai Baba and Viswananda vomiting these other-worldly eggs. This resonates with Kronos vomiting the omphalos stone, and with other religious images of precious gifts expectorated into the world.
For more, see Religious Vomit.