On Contamination

On Contamination.

What might be the consequences of thinking of the artwork is a contaminant? That is, to think of the artwork as something which infects the gallery, which spoils the space of the gallery?

To contaminate is to render impure by contact or by mixture: to corrupt, defile, pollute, sully, taint, or infect. The contaminant is, amongst other things, that which refuses to stay in its place or, more specifically, that which does not keep its distance. In its proper place, the potential contaminant might not be a contaminant at all. What is not clear, is whether the contaminant is intrinsically impure (because of its own properties) or whether it is its presence in a particular place which renders it impure. That is, to what extent is it the disrespect for spatial propriety that defines the contaminant, as a contaminant?

The same physical sensation of being touched is experienced differently depending on whether the attention is wanted (from a respected, admired or loved person, say) or unwanted. Indeed, the unwanted touch of an undesirable person usually provokes physical revulsion: a defence against contamination. The simplest defence is to move away, to re-establish some distance from potential contamination. But if one feels contaminated already, this induces nausea, or indeed vomiting: an attempt to expel the contaminant, which, ironically, produces more contamination.

It is as if the worst thing that contamination threatens is the collapse of the subject’s distinction from everything else.

The threat (and logic) of the contaminant is not only that it spoils that which it contaminates but also that it is always trying to spread itself: to contaminate more. Imagine, for example, there is a stain on a tablecloth: the tablecloth is dirty. We do not say, as a rule, that it is a clean tablecloth with a bit which is dirty. In a sense, the stain spreads its dirtiness to the whole of the tablecloth, even though in a literal sense the whole of the tablecloth is not soiled. We could say that the stain is always bigger than itself: on a psychological register, the stain has contaminated the space around it before it has physically spread to that space.

There is a psychological truth in the strong neurosis of the obsessive-compulsive: no surface can be clean enough. Imagine a surface with a stain on it. The obsessive-compulsive will clean the stain but this cleaning will not solve the problem: on the contrary, it will make it worse. The smaller, or fainter, stain that remains after cleaning, whether real or imagined, will contaminate the surface more than the larger stain did before. That is, its failure to go away (and contamination never will, in a radical and definite manner, go away) will disturb the obsessive-compulsive even more. Once something has been contaminated it is quite possible that it is already ruined forever: think of the occasions on which we might use the phrase “it will never be the same again.”

Contamination is excessive: the detectible contaminant is a promise of more to come. The contaminant is only ever a small part of a larger whole. It is the nature of the contaminant to appear suddenly and unpredictably, as if contamination was everywhere hidden, waiting for the right moment to release itself (as indeed it undoubtedly is). Contamination lurks everywhere, just beneath the surface. The sight of the contaminant is a sign that the contamination is unable to contain itself, or rather, that the surfaces that hold it in place are no longer strong enough to contain it.

Contamination implies that there was, prior to the contaminant coming, a place free of contamination. The contaminant is a breach of order or purity: it makes the erstwhile fantasy of purity unsustainable.

It is in being unpredictable and uncontrollable – the ability to spread not just itself but uncertainty – that the contaminant destroys the predictable and ordered space around the subject before it gets to the subject. It is as if the subject’s world must be destroyed, by being rendered unreliable and unstable, before the contaminant gets to the subject itself. Indeed, it is not hard to think of the destruction of the subject’s world as being the same as the destruction of the subject.

To think of an artwork as a contaminant, is to think of the gallery as a place of erstwhile sanctity. What purpose does such a fantasy of coherence and purity serve? What illusions does the gallery (or those who embrace it) need to maintain, in order that it function as it does?

The contaminant is a reminder of what has needed to be repressed in order to maintain cultural illusions of coherence and unity. It is a reminder of repressed divisions, contradictions and exclusions.