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We are the things of shapes to come.

(1) Georges Bataille, "The Big Toe" (1929). Translated by Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. Excerpted from the book Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Minneapolis: UMP, 1985.

(2) Hollier, Denis, Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, and Marina Galletti. Il Collegio Di Sociologia (1937-1939). Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1991. Print. Nuova Cultura 024.

(3) The deformation or “alteration” of the human figure was an essential strategy in Bataillean aesthetics: “the word alteration provides the double advantage of expressing a partial decomposition similar to that of corpses and at the same time the expression of the passage to a perfectly heterogeneous state that the protestant professor Otto named the ‘wholly other', that is the sacred.” Translated from Georges Bataille, ‘L'art Primitif', in Georges Bataille Oeuvres Complètes Tome I , Gallimard, Paris, 1970, 251

Bataille, G. Oeuvres complètes Tome I , Gallimard, Paris, 1970.

Bataille, G. (1929) The Big Toe, translated by Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. Excerpted from the book Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Minneapolis: UMP, 1985.

Hauptman, J. & O’Rourke, S. (2014) A Surrealist Fact. In Mitra Abbaspour, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg, eds. Object:Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909–1949. An Online Project of The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2014.

Krauss, R., Livingston, E. J., ADES, D. (1985). L'amour fou: photography & surrealism. Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Miriam Rejas Del Pino (Barcelona, 1993) is an independent curator living in Venice since 2015. Born in Spain, she graduated in Fine Arts at the Universitat de Barcelona. In 2015 she moved to Italy, where she completed several experiences related to the museum field, specifically an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and worked at the Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia as a cultural mediator. She graduated in 2019 in Visual Arts at the IUAV in Venice with a dissertation focused in visual semiotics, awarded as Best Thesis of the year 2018-2019. In the same year she was selected to participate in Campo, the curatorial course of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. In 2020 she co-founded TBD Ultramagazine, a curatorial and publishing project that investigates broad contemporary issues through the lens of contemporary art.

Author - Miriam Rejas Del Pino
Published: 4th Mar. 2021

In 1929 two photographs of thumbs were published full-page in the sixth issue of Documents, a journal published by Georges Bataille from 1929 to 1930, which used photography and film images in a transgressive way to undermine the concept of anthropomorphism. Documents, which set itself in opposition to the more mainstream Surrealist activities overseen by Breton, was where some of Boiffard's best-known works were shown; Big Toes were published with a text by Bataille titled 'Le Gros Orteil', in which he describes how feet, for some individuals, are sexually charged. The visual brutality of the big toes and the mocking tone of the text that accompany the image, are typical of the magazine, characterized by the exploration of exotic cultures, eccentric artistic productions, sacrificial rituals and dismissed historical periods.

Surrealist photographers used photograms, double exposures, photomontages, negative images, and solarization among other new and experimental techniques to achieve these plastic effects that reversed perspective and re-signified the image they produced. Boiffard himself employed several of these techniques; Big Toe, for example, embraces a visual strategy that isolates the toe from the background, decontextualizing and dramatizing it. The image in question, presents a highly lit human finger completely immersed in a dense, dark shadow. This chiaroscuro, which dramatizes the bizarre scene, isolates this ingrown toenail within an improper scene, giving the viewer a privileged and extremely close point of view, as if looking at it through a magnifying glass. These strategies, long studied by Rosalind Krauss throughout her career, are described by Jodi Hauptman and Stephanie O'Rourke in the article "A Surrealist Fact" as follows:

"the toe, rendered with crisp visual detail, dominates the frame and creates an uncomfortable sense of proximity. The "closeness" of a stranger's toe to the viewer's eye is all the more unfamiliar because it disarticulates the vertical alignment of the human body, bringing its lowest part into contact with one of its highest."

The feet, the organ destined to keep us upright, a fact that makes humans so proud and that has dictated much of the anthropocentric philosophy of our times, has for centuries been considered the most grotesque, deformed and taboo part of the human body. As Bataille will say, classic foot fetishism leading to the licking of toes, categorically indicates that it is a phenomenon of 'base seduction', which accounts for the burlesque value that is always more or less attached to the pleasures condemned by pure and superficial men (1).

Bataille, in a lecture given on February 1938, argues, in a few words, that horror is the basis of overall social movements and states that human community is possible only when livin beings are united by violent feelings of repulsion or disgust(2). Death, and crime in particular, constitutes social existence and, at the same time, destroys it. For Bataille, therefore, it is possible for human beings to form a sacred community only through awareness and knowledge of the tragic spirit and acceptance of the central role of tragedy. The concept of inter-repulsion, the oscillation between attraction and repulsion, has as its theoretical core the concept of death itself, that brings forth not only the subject and its discontents but also the social with its taboos and prohibitions. For Bataille the big toes had the task to bring forth through the sensations of visceral reactions and gut feelings that had remained hidden and repressed. These feelings, which should unite readers and communities, were conveyed above all through the visual operations carried out in the different photographs published in Documents, which presented a violence in the images through the deformation of the body and the human figure, infection, torture, pain or brutality, compared by Bataille himself to the decomposition that corpses suffer(3).

If it is a matter of arousing in the viewer the feeling one has before dying, American artist Joel-Peter Witkin (1939, Brooklyn) works are extremely pertinent here; Witkin makes carefully planned photographs, where the highly theatrical compositions seem to become the stage for what has been defined above as inter-repulsion. Witkin's photographs depict characters living on the margins of society - midgets, hermaphrodites, people with disabilities or physical deformities - mutilated bodies or body parts, taken in medical schools, asylums or morgues. The photographer seeks beauty in horror through the exaltation of physical deformities, alternating life and death, disgust and eroticism, attraction and repulsion. This celebration of diversity highlights the vulnerability of the body, going beyond the macabre, and going instead to bring together fragments of broken bodies, destroyed and lifeless in a single shot that is able to return anything but the absence of life.

This is where Boiffard's photographs, made in collaboration with Bataille, and those of Joel-Peter Witkin coincide in this text, despite the fact that the plastic qualities, the compositional elements and the post-production of the photography put them in two opposite poles.
Witkin dismembers and sutures together multiple visual traditions, recalling in his compositions parody, bodily representation found in classical and neoclassical sculpture, ornamental motifs, the art historical still life, medical exhibits and photographs, and the early modern freak show. The use of black and white makes Witkin's photographs dramatic, but it is the subsequent insertion of scratches and stains on the negative that completes them, perverting the supposed neutrality of the camera's gaze.

Witkin's images raise profoundly provocative questions about the historical representation of disability; one wonders what is the status of the disabled body in relation to Witkin's concerns with the taboo, the macabre, as well as in the context of classical traditions? Furthermore, Witkin's work raises frictions about the representation of bodies across the centuries and in visual culture; in his photographs, bodies appear to be depicted that escape conventionality, that transcend the frames of representation, and that generate a counter-aesthetic that manifests itself and lives through the stages created to naturally show and perform. Beyond the concepts of normal or abnormal, Witkin's work is immediately interpreted as an exaltation of the grotesque, of death, of the body understood as human flesh and of violence; however, if the observer spends a few more minutes in front of the photographs, digesting the first impressions and embracing and accepting the discomfort provoked, he will understand that these photographs also speak of the most vital elements that exist in our world: sensuality, eroticism, desire, exhibitionism and hedonism or, maybe, the acceptance of the configuration of one's own body, demonstrating that even the abnormal can be infinitely desirable, and , who knows, perhaps pushing toward a future in which the gaze of communities is cohesive and appreciative of diversity.

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