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April 6, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Queasy Like Sunday Morning

You may have heard of up-and-coming performance artist Millie Brown. She recently made a name for herself by vomiting on Lady Gaga. You may also have seen her, to your horror, on your Facebook news feed (as I did), with thick strings of brightly coloured vomit pouring from her lips. This may have triggered a gagging reaction from you, as it did for me, or perhaps you successfully stomached it. Brown’s vomit paintings (is painting even the right word?) have received mixed responses, with some accusing her of glamourising eating disorders like bulimia and others adding themselves to the 4500 who already like her on Facebook. Brown drinks litres of artificially coloured milk and then vomits it up onto a canvas before an audience. As strange of an apple as this idea may seem, it has actually not fallen too far from the tree of abstract expressionism. However, unfortunately for Brown, she doesn’t even make use of this one, potentially redeeming feature of her work.

The paintings reflect, perhaps unintentionally, many of the ideas about paint and art as Jackson Pollock’s work – the autonomy of paint; the artist as a medium through which greater forces can be expressed; the canvas on the floor to maximise the effects of gravity and chance. But if vomit paintings are apples, Pollock’s paintings are oranges. And while Millie Brown vomits, somewhere, deep underground, Jackson Pollock is crying.

I was crying too after reading a recent interview for BULLETT Media in which Brown claims, “My whole thing is about pushing my own boundaries and right now all the performances I’m doing are mentally and physically taking me to the limit… all of my performances are meant to inspire viewers to question the concept of classic beauty and femininity, rather than perpetuate those standards girls and women are faced with everyday.” With such a wealth of originality, I see she went to art school and assume she probably watched Tyra. And there’s more – Brown goes on to explain how her work, in some way which she does not care to clarify, actually rebels against society’s standards of femininity. Mmmm girl, that just reads like a Tumblr thinkpiece. Claiming feminist themes is not enough alone to change vomit on canvas into art. It also does not disguise that the art itself is average. Or perhaps I had better say average for some – Lady Gaga, for one, believes in her and Brown’s performance, and has a message for the h8rz: “We believed in the performance and what it meant to the song… Martin Luther King thought he could start a revolution without violence and Andy Warhol thought he could make a soup can into art.”

 

I’m not sure where Gaga was going with those comparisons and I assume that perhaps she, like most of us would, faltered under the pressure of having to make an educated comment on performance art. Admittedly, performance art is one of the most challenging genres of art to approach from any perspective and it has also seen some of the most absurd/obscene/incredible/ridiculous/obscure pieces of ‘art’ in the entirety of history. Even its categorisation as art is contentious. Its style and often deeply buried abstract ideas and multiple layers of meaning tends to limit its audience, even within the art world, to an exclusive group, but in a way I think performance artists like that. I would not hesitate to say they dig it. Performance art is one of the most contemporary forms of artistic expression and in cases like the vomit paintings, many are wondering: ‘Where to from here?’

Millie Brown will not be the last to surprise us with her vulgarity, and she certainly isn’t the first. The past century has seen worse than milky vomit grace the art market, for example: Piero Manzoni, Merda d’artista, 1961 – canned and sold 90 cans of his own excrement; Hermann Nitsch, Das Orgien Mysterien Theatre, 1962–1998 – used urine, faeces and blood in ritual performances; Andy Warhol, Oxidation Series, 1977 – invited friends to urinate onto canvas of metallic copper pigments to create abstract patterns; Marc Quinn, Self, 1991 – made a frozen cast of his head made entirely out of his own blood; Phil Hansen, The Value of Blood, 2006 – drew a portrait of Kim Jong-il using 500 mL of his own blood.

It is hard to know whether the more controversial art of today will spark a return to more conservative and traditional styles and media, or whether it is only one step in the long staircase to absurdity. We cannot know whether Millie Brown is repelling us upwards or backwards or totally off to the side in a different direction altogether. The future of art is as unpredictable and impulsive as a splatter of vomit on the floor.

 

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