Liminality in Art (1)

This is meant to be an attempt in coining a new term in the Art Theory field.

Curiously enough, the term Liminality continues not to be recognised by the modern dictionaries of English; even though numerous (stated below) researchers have been using it in academic papers. It doesn’t exist as an aesthetic concept or any distinguished phenomenon in the contemporary fine art. Yet, what I would like to claim and what is the reason of this article is my knowledge that this very notion has been persistently influencing the way of defining and interpreting art of the last decades at least. Though never or very rarely (in its adjective form of the liminal) applied as such by the art critics and scholars it has been circulating in the air each time the hybridity, borderline qualities, formlessness or intersemiotics of the Postmodernism has been loathed or admired.

From Latin limen meaning threshold ‘liminality’ is an existential (metaphysical) subjective, state and realm of hovering ‘between and betwixt’ of two (or more) different planes, spaces and/or existential qualities. First described in anthropology (Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner) as a social theory of the liminal states – spaces of a ‘temporary outcast’ when an individual or a group is being placed by the society on its margin in a ritual of purification and/or recognition. It has got also its usage in the contemporary psychology where the liminal means sub- or unconscious state with one’s sense identity being ‘hold’ or dissolved to some extent. In contemporary philosophy J. Derrida¬† has been called the ‘philosopher of the liminal’ due to his deconstruction attempts of the integral and solid tissue of materiality (more about it in the next parts of this series).

In visual art the ‘threshold’s ‘ aesthetics has been described on the theatre, cinema and performance field (notably S. Zizek, S. Broadhurst) and some curatorial and critical attempts has been made to embrace the liminality of the contemporary artistic expression done by more or less traditional media. Yet, it’s basically the ‘no man’s land’ when painting or sculpture is considered – those realms remain, for the today’s critique and theory (and not surprisingly, by any means) immune to any ‘revolutionary’ ‘new’ aesthetic refurbishment; it became a sort of an ideological cliche – that it’s more convenient to blame painting for its impotency (it’s ‘dead’ anyway, why bother then?…) than to inject any potent conceptual spirit into it by an affirmative reflection.

When J-F. Lyotard has called Postmodernity the nascent state, the state of a permanent ‘becoming’ (The Postmodern Condition, 1979) he basically admitted its innate liminal character; and those artworks that seek to address this condition (both deliberately or not) are probably best recognised for their aesthetics (or anti-aesthetics) of incompleteness – sculptures/installations look as if the artist ran out of the materials to finish them to a decent level; paintings seem to be painfully ‘hanged’ by their own guts with indescribable forms, unidentifiable colours and freaky techniques; videos cry out for any structure, even a hint of a narrative. Their ‘becomingness’ is the only existence they know and it comes invariably as disquieting or even disturbing for the audience. No without a reason the primitive societies considered the liminal states as dangerous, unclean (Turner); and those affected were isolated ‘pro publico bono’.

As hazardous and monstrous in moments as the liminality in art (and beyond it) seems to appear it is also probably the only truly creative state, which – if used wisely – can result in some profound discoveries and metamorphoses. This fructile chaos and the storehouse of possibilities (Turner) is a goldsmith’s workshop of the contemporary art; even though some purists rise an alarm that the state of the constant flux and indeterminacy (where ‘everything goes’) will annihilate all the miserable bits of art that left – let’s be positive… Art is best cared for if it’s accepted just as it appears and shapes itself through the mill of the human spirit; even if refuses to ‘become’ and fit any new uniform – so what?… As far as¬† minds and hearts are enflamed by it, even with a doubt, even with a turmoil – it fulfills its calling of the ‘fifth element’ – the force of life and death, possibility and danger, sanctus and profane

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In the further studies on Liminality in Art (being a part of my studies on the Contemporary Art) I would bring closer the views of the scholars, philosophers mentioned above, as well as I will try to illustrate the theory with some artworks.

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About kasia

Born in Poland. Lives in Ireland, Cork. Visual artist. View all posts by kasia

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