How do we find beauty in the things people are repulsed by? What makes the dirty, the vulgar, the disgusting, something to be admired? We stare: we know that the idea, the image, the emotional sensation is disturbing, but we continue to stare.
I first encountered this phenomenon today in the Rot Room of the Science Center’s Ecosystems exhibit. I was expecting to see a spare millipede silently munching on a slice of papaya, but I found two unrecognizable carcasses, dissolved to their bones except for their head. The eyes stared out, film in their eyes, oblivious of the thousands of maggots living off their stomach.
I had recently read Mary Roach’s book, Stiff, and I found a certain separation from the carcass than I would have found earlier. This rabbit, this dog, whatever it is, is no longer a rabbit or a dog or whatever, but a feast for the insects.
There was a video presenting the rotting process for a rat, a bunny, a pumpkin, and some strawberries.
“How gross!” But we kept staring for what, watching the animals swell as maggots and their excrement fill up the cadaver, and then gracefully melt into the ground.
When we were piling into the school bus, we happened to run into the raving crowd waiting for the Electric Daisy Carnival. People with no pants, no shirts, and other disturbing exposing clothing skipped around our bus as we gaped. The same phrase came again: “How gross!” It may have been gross, we may have been offended and disgusted and horrified, but we gaped. We gaped and gaped and gaped for minutes and minutes and minutes until we gaped for an hour. And after our bus trip, where everyone secretly missed the view of thousands of neon bras and Totoro backpacks, we found ourself at the Bergamot station.
I had been there a couple times, but only at benefits in the dim moonlight. I remember skipping along with my friend among the sea of weird-smelling hipsters up to the canopy, where we stared as much at the tattoos on everyone’s shaved head as we stared at the paintings. A couple years later, my parents led me around said odd people and into the galleries, where we happened to walk into a performance of a very large, very naked, man sitting on a sweat-stained couch in a living-room setting. He was watching a television that was unplugged. I tried to turn my head, look at the other, milder paintings (I think they had a couple of Ruschas – that was pretty exciting) but through my fingers, I kept looking back. Disgusted and horrified, yes, but compelled.
There was nothing to that extreme today, although for the majority of the galleries, I heard a few uncomfortable people mutter, “This is too creepy.”
It was creepy. There were sculptures of angels with nails encrusting their torso. There were photographs of blood-shot eyeballs. Andrew Lord, the main artist in residence of SMMoA used his teeth, his tongue, his throat to sculpt his pieces.
“You can easily identify the bite marks,” said the docent. “Everyone knows what those marks are.” No one wants to admit that they know what our teeth-marks look like in the same way that no one wants to admit that they know what our bogeys taste like: it’s just not accepted. It’s just… gross (and rightfully so). But here they were, and here we were, silently accepting the penetrations.*
We were faced with the same disturbed fascination when we were left in Venice Beach, free to observe the marijuana loving, trouble-making, humongous-glasses wearing community. My grandmother and I drive to this strip, where she orders a chai tea, I order a milk tea at the Figtree cafe (famously repelling but in the center of the scene) and we point at the men and women roller-skating banging on their bongos and swaying their heads adorned with three-leaved glasses.
We mostly stayed at the beach today, so we only saw two people being pushed into the back of police cars.
*One thing I really admired of of Andrew Lord was the perfect reproduction of Paul Gauglin. It reminded me of a Borges story where a man rewrites every word of Don Quixote.