Semiotic Dungeons

A+a: Art and Australia, Issue Three (54.2): Unnaturalism
and delivered at Experimenta Social #12: The Unstable Body and Its Image, Melbourne, 2017

Racialised signs in the contemporary West are a worrisome apparition of an ancient, abominable spirit. From this linguistic vault, the ‘other’ comes into sight through a wicked textuality that festered in antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Age of Discovery, during which difference was ciphered through terror, magic and mystery. This historical continuum accounts for an enigmatic yet familiar mode of othering: the corruption of racial markers into marks of monstrosity. While not always entirely abhorrent, the disfigured signs that emerge from this crypt of representation carry sadistic traces. Torture and torturer may be out of sight, but the manipulation of the racialised figure is evidence of an occult punishment. Like the growls of a chained prisoner hidden in the sepulchral depths of a torture chamber, the monstrous other reveals its gory confinement.

A recent example is ‘The Strain’ (2014–17), an American TV series, co-created by Guillermo del Toro, about an epidemic of vampirism that spreads through New York. The protagonists are an eclectic group of citizens that band together to defeat the sanguinary ‘Master’ and his infectious disease—all except for a Mexican character named Augustin Elizalde, who joins a gang of dissident vampires (without becoming a vampire himself) which seeks to annihilate the Master. This association grants Elizalde a monstrous aura: the tenebrous Mexican, eternally in the shadow of his penumbra sombrero, appears a natural bridge between humans and the grisly bloodsuckers. The script grows darker when one situates ‘The Strain’ within the history of vampires on the screen. Early figures such as F.W. Murnau’s rodent-like Nosferatu, whose physiognomy invokes anti-Semitic stereotypes, sampled pre-existing racial fears to terrorise audiences of the early 20th century. Augustin Elizalde may not be physically disfigured, but a whip of terror still shapes his monstrous presence. The fact that the director is Mexican brings an ambivalence to the inscription of Elizalde into the American televisual space as it constitutes troubled self-narration rather than total external vilification. Although this ambiguity is not mobilised to participate in identity politics, it certainly indicates there is a potential to recuperate Western delusions and articulate a counter-statement (such as in the form of a more self-reflexive racialised monster). Still, if the vampire is a demon and the Mexican an imp, del Toro (like a true Catholic apostate) is inevitably a masochist because he is co-authoring his cultural identity as a negative other.

The vault of the monstrous other is product of a hallucinatory scopophilia that realises its perversity through images. The sado-nightmarish spaces in which these signs materialise are akin to ‘semiotic dungeons’, textual holes where signposts for non-Western peoples mangle and disfigure their object of representation. In this pit of images, the author is a scopic torturer and the object of representation a tortured ghoul. Typical of the Western gaze, this zone appears to be the result of an unresolved conflation of fear and desire, which manifests with a perverse eroticism. The vampire Nosferatu is again exemplary in this regard, as his repulsive physiognomy—hunched and bald, with long skeletal fingers—is animated by a predatory libido that has him biting his victim’s neck in dark scenes that resemble a bisexual wet nightmare. This is a sensibility that dominates the semiotic dungeon, in which the marked body is the target for fantasies of depravity. This is no surprise, as torture chambers have long conflated sex and cruelty. Just as one spreads the anus to find the rectum—the body’s oubliette of pleasure and pain—and gazes at its hollow, a dark hole awaits the eye, hidden beneath the layers of contemporary racial imagery. Built on centuries of magical execration, this carnivorous region originates in the morbid depths of a medieval bestiary collectively known as ‘the monstrous races’—a catalogue of unnatural creatures that seem fantastical in origin yet were inspired by phantasmagoric encounters with foreign peoples.

Subterranean wailing

The earliest images of the monstrous races date to the Dark Ages. Typical depictions of the races include an illustration with a text describing the monsters’ physiognomy, behaviours and customs, emphasising the social transgressions that led to their categorisation as non-human. These creatures traditionally inhabited uncharted territories, and served as a source of terror for travellers who ventured beyond the limits of Western maps. Because they were often humanoid in form and capable of speech, Europeans anxiously distanced themselves from these repellent, soulless beings. To this end, they framed them as other: abhorrent entities beyond the borders of the self. Neither human nor animal, they became a shadow of Judeo-Christian society, encoded with repudiated practices such as cannibalism, depravity, paganism and murder. If the medieval psyche is imagined as a castle, the monstrous races are its racial dungeon.

While images of the monstrous races reflected the anxieties of medieval Europe, they were in fact inherited from earlier accounts, written by Greek and Roman travellers who described the beasts in classical texts. Alexa Wright traces some of the earliest mentions of the monstrous races to a Greek treatise on India, now known as Ctesias: On India.[1] She shows the races were often malformed depictions of indigenous tribes, including peoples such as pygmies, who were classified as non-human due to their short stature. She also cites the example of the gymnosophist, an apparent monster who stands on one foot while staring at the sun—a description, Wright notes, that bears a resemblance to yogic practice. She makes it clear that the monstrous races were a distortion of non-Western peoples created by xenophobic travellers striving to make sense of the unknown sights they encountered.

With passing time, the popularity of the monstrous races diminished. However, this bestiary regained momentum with the ‘discovery’ of the Americas in the 15th century. When Christopher Columbus voyaged to the so-called New World, the Spaniards quickly revived this racial myth to make sense of the unfamiliar indigenous peoples they met. To illustrate this, Persephone Braham offers excerpts from Christopher Columbus’s diary in her study of ‘The Monstrous Caribbean’.[2] In his delusional chronicle, Columbus notes sightings, on the American continent, of sirens and cannibals with the noses of dogs. While it is beyond the scope of this text, one could expand on the depraved legacies of this myth by charting its (possible) influence on imperial attitudes in Australia.

The man in the latex mask

Having traced the tunnels of these semiotic dungeons, one may ask how to rescue these racial signs from their entrapment. Several artists in Australia reconstitute the language of pictorial cells to recuperate non-Western bodies. One such artist is Abdul Abdullah, who appears to echo the imagery of monstrous races with his photographic series Siege (2014), which features the artist wearing an ape mask borrowed from the Planet of the Apes franchise. In his sombre pictures of discontent, the masked Abdullah, at times in Muslim attire, adopts various defiant poses. The work You See Monsters (2014) has an ape-faced figure clenching his fists as he stares at the viewer with a threatening gaze. Other works include scenes of resistance—such as tossing a smoke bomb—which reference recent uprisings, including the 2011 riots in England, to communicate the disaffection experienced by minorities in the West. This body of work deals with Abdullah’s experience as a Muslim in a post-11-September world, in which his religious identity has undergone extreme vilification. But Abdullah also references the Planet of the Apes films (including Tim Burton’s infamously bad remake) to sustain a broader discourse on othering.

Planet of the Apes is a rich referent, as the films embody a complex web of race relations enacted by primates, including humans. In the original 1968 film—released the same year the African-American civil rights movement concluded—a group of American astronauts become stranded on a planet on which speaking apes have developed a civilisation that oppresses the mute, animalistic humans. While the film’s main racial focus is the experience of a white man turned into an ethnographic curiosity by creatures he considers inferior, the apes themselves exist within a caste system: orangutans are the ruling class, gorillas the warriors and chimpanzees the middle to lower class. As the film progresses, it touches on several aspects of Western society, such as the fragility of racial segregation, the justification of supremacism through Judeo-Christian texts and the self-destructiveness of nuclear technology.

Abdullah’s Siege recuperates the sign of the anguished ape to articulate his lived experience and to formulate a wider statement on the construction of monstrous others. While it could be argued that appropriating the abject other is an ambivalent tactic, carrying the sign in its corrupted form (potentially and masochistically perpetuating stereotypes), it forms an act of recuperation, the figure reinscribed with a narrative beyond the dominant culture. In other words, the gaze in Siege does not belong to the offender but to the offended, as the artist speaks back via the re-valorised figure of the ape.

The shift from object to subject that occurs in this authoring act disarms the racial signposts. Indeed, instead of his identity being obliterated by the darkness of a cell, Abdul Abdullah unmasks the imprisoning mechanisms of representation by proclaiming their names. This is what differentiates his Siege from del Toro’s ‘The Strain’: Abdullah isolates, recognises and deliberates upon sadistic terror as a response to the other. The effect of pinpointing these hostile devices is retroactive, as the original racial markers (the apes in the movie franchise) acquire a new oppositional meaning that broadens their reading. Like tampering with the devouring orifice of a claustrophobic jail lock, this state of ambiguity unlocks the iron gates that seal the semiotic dungeon. The fears of the West have devised an escape.

[1] Alexa Wright, Monstrosity: The Human Monster in Visual Culture, I.B. Tauris & Co., London, 2013, p.11–16.
[2] Persephone Braham, ‘The Monstrous Caribbean’, in Asa Simon Mittman and Peter J. Dendle (eds), Monsters and the Monstrous, Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, UK, 2013.

Ramirez acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Land where he lives and works, the Wurundjeri people. He pays his respects to Elders past, present and emerging of the Kulin Nation.