Art and Disgust – A Female Perspective by Barbara O’Donnell

Image: Frida Kahlo’s “The Broken Column”

Wandering through the Tates and other venues in London recently, various representations of women were apparent. The majority of the subjects appeared to be female, and the majority of the artists male. This seems to have been going on forever and is the usual disservice to women on multiple levels; as if the sole thing women are good for is to be looked at.

The Guerilla Girls campaign poster was there, boldly asking the question: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”  This campaign won’t be news to serious art fans or feminists, but it struck a chord with me, particularly in the moment.  It is, frighteningly, thirty years old, yet it seems like we need it more than ever.

Part of the current Tate Modern collection are photographs by Rineke Dijkstra, a Dutch photographer who specialises in single portraits. One series was of three postpartum women, each one at various stages in their life with their new child.

One photograph was taken of a woman an hour post-partum, one woman a day, the third a week.

The portrait: “Saskia, Harderwijk, Netherlands, March 16 1994”, was of the woman who was a week postpartum. All the women are photographed naked, holding their naked child protectively to themselves, child’s back to the camera.

Saskia stood out for me.

She showed signs of having had a difficult labour and birth, by the visible, incredibly crooked, fresh caesarean scar. Looking at it more closely, it was also showing signs of possible scar dehiscence.  It is reasonable to surmise that that caesarean section took place as an emergency, and was possibly performed by someone junior, unskilled or both.

In the weeks that followed that photo being taken, Saskia may very likely have found herself going back to the doctors for further treatment, in the middle of recovery from pregnancy and surgery, with a newborn to care for.  Often the treatment is allowing the scar to close by what is known as secondary intention, allowing it to heal naturally without further suturing, which takes some further weeks. It also involves more antibiotics and trips to the doctor, all the while limiting her return to normal activity and occasionally the ability to care for the newborn.

While explaining this to my friend, a young woman overhearing nearby, displayed every sign of being particularly disgusted by what I was saying.

Here is a portrait of a woman who has likely been to hell and back, physically and emotionally, and all another woman can muster is disgust.

Her reaction speaks volumes about the work that needs to be done amongst women themselves, around body image, acceptance and supporting each other.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland recently ran a workshop around the subject of body image, aimed at 16-24 year olds. Arguably, due to their age, these are the demographic most at risk of absorbing the current distortions around female body image and carrying it with them for life, passing it onto their own boys and girls.

The men need to be involved yes, but it is the women who are really bearing the burden, literally. The message still needs to go out to women of all ages.

Would this woman’s disgust have been lessened if the scar and postpartum belly had been photoshopped away, leaving Saskia looking like postpartum Barbie with a perfect child? Like she could step back into a little black dress at any moment, just so people could say how well she looked so quickly after the ordeal.

The photos themselves might be viewed as controversial.  But isn’t this the point of Art – to question, challenge our current perception of the world and hopefully bring us to a greater understanding of ourselves and others?

Alison Lapper’s self-sculpture, naked and disabled, proudly stood on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; likely garnering a much bigger audience than anything in the Tate, even if by default. It was however, allowed to be there intentionally, to send its message of LGBTQ pride, body and disability acceptance.

Saskia’s portrait is what the Guerilla Girls wanted all along, representations of women in Art that are not solely focused on the sexual.

Saskia did one of the most natural things in the world – birth a child, ending up with a high level of medical intervention and all its consequences. She is beautiful, if literally scarred, and more so for having endured what she must have done. Her picture is put up in a world class gallery, and all another woman can muster is disgust.

When a ceramic object is broken in Japan, it is often mended using gold or silver, in a process called “kintsugi”, meaning golden joinery. This often leaves the item both more beautiful and precious than it was to begin with.  Some take the view that the object is all the more beautiful for it’s imperfections, and that the repair job elicits a kind of re-birth.  How is it that we cannot accord our women that level of respect?

The thing that disgusts me is how far we still have to go.

More about Saskia, and the portrait here:                                                                  

More about Guerilla Girls poster here:                                                                   

More about kintsugi here:                                         


Contact Microphone Playlist.

Contact microphones are a tool used by many sound artists/new musicians to record normally unheard sounds. They do not record airborne sound, but only structure-borne sound – such as the sound the wind makes inside a tree or a phone mast. The sounds discovered in this way are then are either showcased on their own, making an intriguing sub-category within the already fascinating field-recordings genre, or are processed and layered in with other sounds to make composite pieces. Either way, it is as if we are eavesdropping on the secret talk of objects in languages beyond our knowing. The results are often both beautiful and terrifying. Below are a few examples to give a taster. Read more about contact microphones here, and about how musicians make use of them here.

Dave Lordan


Honest Publishing 2014


Ah, Irish fiction, what would you do with it. So beautiful, so lyrical. As a reader it has given me a lot of joy, a lot of thinking about a lot of things and being a reader matters a lot to me. I write, yeh sure, feel I have to and feel I want to. But I read as a matter of being, as a way of negotiating the days. And Irish fiction, yeh, lots of it. Yet. Yet, over the years, I realise that in the last ten to fifteen years if I’m reaching out for a book I’ll pick up a North American novelist or a European over an Irish one. I see the Irish ones and I just think, erm, all that loveliness, all that, I don’t know, Irishness. Do I want that? I can think of a few exceptions, of course, like Gerard Donovan’s Julius Winsome or Eoin McNamee’s The Ultras but their dark enchantments were just that, the exceptions. Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn &Child is there too, standing way out on its own, which is quite fitting as it was the one book that came to mind reading these stories by Aiden O’Reilly. Not because it directly reminded me of that work but because I was trying to think of comparisons and could only come up with Keith Ridgway in terms of it being fairly incomparable with most other Irish fiction I’ve come across. In fact at times it reminded of writers like D. W. Wilson or the great Breece D’J Pancake before veering off into a territory all of its own.

Who O’Reilly’s influences are is anyone’s guess, though I can see why Mike McCormack would offer a blurb, not only because the book itself is refreshingly free of authorial information and guff, remember those days when it was just the work you were enjoying and the writer’s ‘profile’ wasn’t getting in the way, but because these really memorable stories strike out in directions all of their own. In fact one author that did come to mind more than once when reading these stories was J.G.Ballard. That is not because O’Reilly wanders off into sci-fi territory or suddenly puts central Dublin under water or covers it in tropical sand but because these stories have the knack of pushing you off-kilter so that you end up seeing more clearly. His tales of men adrift, of people stuck in shitty jobs in a world full of migrants and people from somewhere else, of drink and bewilderment and cold, icy entrepreneurism is actually how most of us experience the world. Whereas most Irish fiction is like travelling in a plush car where you marvel at the landscape, Aiden O’Reilly’s is like travelling on public transport with students and immigrants, like feeling you are actually in the country. Whether that country is Ireland, Poland or some part of Eastern Europe depends on which story you read but the dislocation at the heart of his work, the quiet, unfocused anger of many of the characters, is so powerful and so skilfully done that for days afterwards I really felt like I was seeing things differently, as if I’d been granted another way of looking at the country around me. And that’s some achievement isn’t it?

The stories themselves are hard to describe, whether it be the clumsy sexuality of an indeterminate place in A Fine Noble Corpse, the harsh existence of Contempt or the strange, enigmatic truth of the title story, Greetings, Hero. Many of these stories, in fact, with their aimless, slightly bewildered, angry, misplaced young men often felt to me like vague memories and that feeling of being in a memory is something only very good fiction is able to invoke. The young boy in Stripped Bare who concludes that ‘those who will not yield to pretence must learn to endure an eternity of cold’ reflects much of the brave exposition in this work. Swapping between Ireland and eastern Europe this really is a most welcome voice for those readers who care about Irish fiction. In the story Laundry Key Complex one character asks of another, ‘where did he get himself from?’ It is the kind of odd, slightly askew question that could sum up this really quite wonderful book. With this often coruscating, humane, idiosyncratic, yet perfectly accessible work Aiden O’Reilly has marked out a territory all of his own. Purely as a reader, I really hope we see a lot more of him.

Joe Horgan

A Bone By Dave Lordan

A Bone

One day, or night, a man arrived in to me carrying a bone. The bone was a large knee joint, as would befit the leg of a cow or a horse. But it belonged to neither of those. I did not recognise the animal of origin, and I do not like to guess. The light was as poor as it usually is where I am standing, so how could anything be defined and categorized with any confidence? To tell you the truth, this once, I was not troubled. It was a bone. That was all. It would do. I did not recognise the man either. He didn’t belong to our group. But so what? Members of other groups often drop by without any hostile intentions, and they sometimes approach me with an offering for the stew, thinking to get some stew for themselves in return. You may be sure, if they have come to see me, and they are carrying a bone, they are hungry.

You may believe a bone to be a poor offering but it is not. Bones are brittle honeycombs at the core of every animal. They are the core material of any decent stock, stew, soup or broth. So much flavour is held in the marrow of every bone, awaiting heat and a pot and a cook to release it.

Having said all that, of course it’s not possible to accept any old bone, from any old hand. Each ingredient for the stew, bone or no, must be properly inspected and found free of all threats and defects.

I am the person in our group with sole responsibility for the stew. I have to stir it, all day long. I have to ensure it is evenly and continuously heated. I have to add ingredients, with all necessary prudence, as they become available to me. I have to proportionately distribute the stew to the members of my group, and occasionally to members of other groups who, for one reason or another, find themselves in our location.

Distribution of the stew is a complex affair. It must take place according to custom and practice, of which, by custom and practice, I am the interpreter. But also according to need. The hungriest has gained a certain priority. They have often done the most work, whether or not they have been successful. But not the fattest. I do not feed according to girth. Lastly, I do have to factor-in merit. It is possible to deserve more or less than the average helping of stew. I am the agreed and only judge of this deserve. I would say I try to be objective but that would be obvious gibberish.

As you can imagine, my position as the Stew Custodian, a position I have held for quite some time now, means I have a great deal of influence and power within the group. But it also makes me feel very vulnerable and nervous. Bacteria can run riot anytime. So, anyone could accuse me of poisoning them. In a week of thin stew, when hunger gnaws away like saw teeth at the tensing bonds of our mutuality, many tempers can flare simultaneously. A catastrophic riot is not an unlikely event. This, by the way, is how I came to be guardian of the stew. Hunger is the great catalyst in human affairs. I am not sure anyone but me remembers the previous Guard, the awful grimace which was his last contribution when I skewered him. This group is not given to remembering. I have belonged to other groups who were obsessed with record, ritual and recall. But in this current group there are no record keepers. We do not speak to each other of our yesterdays. There are no rituals or customs to speak of outside of those to do with the stew, and these are not ornate. The stew consumes our energies and satisfies our wants. That is its purpose of course. We hunt therefore we eat. We eat therefore we hunt. We stir the stew and the stew stirs us.

So far then, I have not been seriously challenged for the stew. The overarching reason for this is simple: the power vested in me by the group to ration or even entirely deny the stew to offenders against the stew. If you offend me, you offend the stew. If you offend the stew you offend our entire group, simultaneously. The offense multiplies among us until it becomes capital. It is not taken lightly. So far, in the heart of each individual member of our group, and in their collective heart, the fear of not getting any stew atall has prevailed over the desire to win control of the stew.

+     +     +

I pass the time childishly, as if there were right and wrong, by imagining myself in certain pantomime roles. The wicked witch or conniving wizard. The pirate cook in the South Sea galley. A vicious washerwoman in fairytale from the black woods. A dubious prophet or prophetess stirring the stew as if the stew were time itself, full of whirling meat and scraps.

+     +     +

It is also true that the consistent and regular stirring motion and noise are conducive to trancelike states and hallucinations, to which I have never been averse in first place. I can retain certain lucid leverage over these stew visions, or I can let go and see what happens. The one danger is falling into the stew, which would ruin both it, and me. I seem to instinctually know when this is about to happen and to snap myself aware again.

Lucidly, my favourite stewdream is to watch the faces of old friends and relations rise up to the surface of the stew and bob and revolve awhile there, each in their turn. They are always clean shaven and I like them to have their mouths open so I can look down into them. I have always found looking down into people’s mouths a great distraction. There may be a gold tooth to be spied, gaps and fillings, or a tongue that unfurls into a dragon.

When I let the stew take over anything can happen, as in dreams. A child visits an elderly lady on her deathbed. White linen everywhere. I mean the bed, the room, the child, even the old woman are all made of white linen.

+     +     +

Onions, of course. Root vegetables. Salt and pepper—strictly rationed, meticulously apportioned. Meat: various beasts, various cuts. Nettles. Dandelions. Berries. Mushrooms and toadstools. Toads. Lilypads. Whatever can be picked, plucked, gathered, murdered, salvaged. Almost everything still abroad and edible finds its way into our stew.

+     +     +

Sometimes they are not faces of the people traipsing down the long tracts of my memory that I conjure up in the stew, but faces of stars and planets and comets that I have invented and can busy myself in naming and forgetting.

+     +     +

Where did you get the bone?
I found it.
You were alone?
Far from here?
Not far.
And the rest of the beast?
No idea.
What was it?
No idea.
Some new animal?
Perhaps. Perhaps it was a new kind of man.
Or an old kind we haven’t heard of. There used to be so many kinds. Long ago.
Really. You know so much.
It is a bone. That’s all I know.
Bring it over here.
It’s yours.
It’s as smooth as a basin. You have picked it clean.
That was how I found it.
Open your mouth.
Your mouth!
(He opens his mouth.)
You have kept all your teeth.
And no one else’s.
You know someone who wears another person’s teeth?
I know of no such. But I can imagine it.
I have heard it is done. I knew a man once who wore a crown of ears. He had subjected them to some process. They were as hard as marble, and glistened like it too.
The bone?
Have you a use for it in the stew?
I’m not sure. It has so little perfume to it.
Because it is clean, and fresh.
You think it has any flavour?
More than likely, yes.
I prefer them to be older.
Well, lay it by then.
But the stew is losing substance.
Then use it immediately.
You are too quick to find solutions.
Excuse me.
I prefer not to solve things so quickly.
It is easier that way. Never solve one problem until you have another one ready.
Without obstacles I would malfunction.
How do you avoid it?
I just put things off and keep stirring. Time passes, without a resolution.
What do you make of time?
It is an infinite womb.
Or a birth canal from which there is no exit.
What’s inside it never truly sees the light.
You’re optimistic.
Imagine the void that awaits us at the end of our troubles.
Imagine. I can’t. Impossible.
We should have no excuses left then.
At the end of our appetites.
There would simply be new appetites, new senses, new lusts upon us.
If only hunger and lust could both be satisfied with the one bite.
That doesn’t add up. Hunger ingests, lust expels. Sex is a kind of excretion.
I can’t argue with that. I thought that up myself, ages hence.
I’m getting mixed up. Did we decide to put the bone in or not?
We hadn’t decided.
I’m putting it in. I might as well. There.
It bubbles.
It hisses.
It whistles.
It yabbers.
Do you think it is trying to speak?
Yes, like all things.
What is it trying to say?
It is trying to say thank you, to pay tribute, surely.
To what? To whom?
To us both, and, for allowing it to speak, to the stew.
Most of all to that. Let’s join it then. Let’s toast. Your cup?
I thought I might take a sip from yours.
I sip from the ladle.
You drip-feed yourself?
I do.
You won’t share?
I can’t.
There is only one solution.
There is a solution? Don’t terrify me.
I will enter the stew.
You will not.
I will.
(With that the second, unrecognised man leaps into the pot and disappears whistling and bubbling beneath the steam)

+     +     +

Because I do not sleep while I am stirring the stew does not mean I do not dream or wake up from my dream in which there is an almostcorpse. A person who has suffered some terrific mishap and is now lying unconscious in a private room in an ultra high-tech hospital attached to complicated and impressive life support machinery.

This near-death individual does not know where they are nor what has happened them to be in such a state. In fact, when he or she occasionally opens his or her eyes it is always to a slightly different gleaming room with slightly different gleaming machinery keeping him or her alive. Perhaps he or she is in a different room on a different floor or ward or in a different hospital altogether each time.

Varying levels of insurance cover are implied, and even different incidents or accidents as the cause of the hospitalisation.

+     +     +

Was it fields that gave war its start? I mean, how could there be war without fields?

First Book Of Frags