Upchuck, barfing, retching, puking. Losing the contents of one’s stomach to nausea is a shared experience, and yet, an experience that most probably didn’t wish they had. Vomiting is an unpleasant sensation. Most human beings do all they can to avoid it. For some, the mere thought, image, or smell of someone else vomiting is enough to make them nauseous, but this is not the case for these vomit artists. Like all artists who use body fluids in their works, these artists utilize the abject to cause shock and disgust. They create a space in which cultural norms are ignored and invite viewers to join them in thinking critically about these works and the discomfort they create. In many of these works’ artists puke up their paint. In doing so, these artists transform into their own color palettes. They are physically connected to their materials and, therefore, become emotionally connected to their viewer(s) through nausea.
Paul McCarthy – Hot Dog (1974)
Paul McCarthy performed Hot Dog to a small audience in his basement studio. He began by undressing and shaving his body, taped a hotdog bun to his penis, and slathered mustard onto his bottom. After this, McCarthy drank ketchup and stuffed his mouth full of hot dogs. He then bound his head with gauze and taped his bulging mouth closed. McCarthy and his audience struggled not to vomit for fear that McCarthy would choke due to his mouth being taped and blocked by hot dogs. While vomit isn’t physically seen in this work, the threat of being sick is palpable and plays an essential role in the work. The shared nausea of the artist and viewer connects the two and urges viewers to think critically about the work. Hot Dog employs everyday household food items to invoke disgust to scrutinize overconsumption. McCarthy covers his body and stuffs his face as a parallel to the constant stream of items consumers buy without thought.
Mike Parr – The Emetics (Primary Vomit): I am Sick of Art (Red, Yellow and Blue) (1977)
In this work, Mike Parr drank acrylic paint in the colors red, yellow, and blue. He then sat in a chair with a photographer’s backdrop and vomited the colors onto a paper on the floor. When puking the colors red and yellow, the backdrop was blue, and when puking blue, the backdrop was red. Parr also wore monochromatic outfits of blue or red while performing the work. The work’s title, I am Sick of Art, alludes to Parr being both literally sick and possibly emotionally sick of creating art. He vomits the primary colors, which can make all other colors, to suggest just how tired Parr was with art at the time.
Micol Hebron – Fountains (1999)
Micol Hebron’s Fountains was a video installation featuring six videos on the three walls of a square room. Each video shows Hebron centered in the frame, seated, and holding a clear plastic bucket. She pukes a different color into her bucket while wearing a monochromatic outfit that coincides with the color of the vomit. To get other colors, Hebron would ingest colored foods and liquids before vomiting. The videos rotate around the room, creating a rainbow around the viewer. In this work, Hebron explores the role of an artist and utilizes her own body to make her paint/art. By vomiting the same color as her outfit, she erases the barrier between the interior and exterior of her body. On her website, Hebron shares that this work “addresses issues of painting – color mixing, the color wheel, and different color combinations.” She invites the viewer to reconcile the fetishization of beauty with the cultural disgust surrounding vomiting.
Martin Creed – Work No. 610. Sick Film (2006)
Sick Film is a 21-minute video that features ten different people who individually walk into a clean, white room and stick their fingers down their throats until they vomit. The time it takes and the amount of vomit varies between individuals. The audio of gagging, burping, and, sometimes, laughing adds to the disgust of the film. In some cases, it takes the individual multiple attempts before vomiting. It is tough to watch these portions as the performers repeatedly shove their fingers down their throats. Creed has created several works featuring people vomiting. For Sick Film, Creed hoped to exhibit how difficult it can be for people to share the things we hold onto inside our bodies. Our feelings, desires, and ideas can sometimes be as difficult to communicate as trying to make oneself throw up.
Millie Brown Nexus Vomitus (2011)
Millie Brown’s Nexus Vomitus is a 34-minute performance piece that was recorded to be viewed multiple times. The work features Brown drinking colored soy milk that she vomits onto a canvas while opera singers Patricia Hammond and Zita Syme sing. The performance takes place in a white room. On the left is a white chair Brown sits in to drink her soy milk, and on the right is a white podium behind which the opera singers stand. The two women, wearing white, sing angelic songs such as Flower Duet by Leo Delibes. In front of the podium, placed on the floor, are eight tall glasses with metal straws filled with four different colored milks. Brown, who is wearing all black and vomiting between each green, blue, yellow, and purple beverage she drinks, stands out in stark contrast to the serene, white room. Her hair is slicked and secured, and her makeup is a bold black. Her appearance as she crotches over her canvas to vomit looks like a grotesque angel of darkness. Brown has shared that she just wants her work to move people. Whether they feel negative or positive emotions, she does not care as long as they are forced.
These pungent works create a visceral connection between the artist and the viewer through feelings of nausea. They construct spaces of extreme discomfort, especially since vomiting is often associated with illness. General society wants nothing to do with puke; the mere thought is off-putting. Artists who utilize vomit in their works ignore society’s expectations while simultaneously using them to invoke specific feelings in their viewers. Art's purpose as a purveyor of beauty is also called into question with these pieces. They subvert our ideas of what defines beauty and force us to consider how we relate to spaces of disgust and discomfort. Vomit's use in art creates unique spaces in which viewers are forced to face their most basic instincts of comfort, health, and cleanliness.
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