Indeterminate Identities: Body Art, Ritual and the Subject

  • Abstract:

    Psychoanalysis has been a potent tool for interpreting the relationship between body art and concepts of identity and subjecthood. Since the 1970s body artists have interrogated the experience of subjecthood, undermining the concept of subjectivity as stable and cohesive through a number of strategies, such as the presentation of the body in performance and the use of violent and transgressive acts. US art critics Amelia Jones and Kathy O’Dell and Australian art theorist and historian Anne Marsh argue that body art demonstrates the foundation of identity on lack and loss by recovering what is repressed and (re)presenting the split-self of psychoanalysis in performance. On the other hand, the frequent use of violent and transgressive acts in body art is reminiscent of strategies employed in the enactment of rituals. According to the French intellectual Georges Bataille and the US anthropologist Roy Rappaport participation in ritual offers the possibility of transcending one’s experience of subjectivity and achieving an experience of union with others, with the universe and possibly even with spiritual beings. This paper will explore the seemingly contradictory approaches to subjectivity that are addressed in body art and ritual, proposing a potential solution through British anthropologist Victor Turner’s theory of the liminal and the liminoid.