Embrace the Grotesque and Get Freakish

BY MADS BAJARIAS | There is something in Romeo Lee's "Leengua," showing at mag:net Gallery until May 31, that pulls me in. Its not a pretty picture by conventional means. It's not the type you'd see hanging on the walls of the Citibank boardroom, for instance.

What fascinated me about "Leengua" is the mix (its always a mix, isn't it?) of disgust and grinning that it elicits.

Disgust at the deformed figure sprawled on a couch, body fluids dripping on to the ground from a hulking tumescent tongue that seemed to grow out of its crotch. Mixed in with this bloated vision is the grin-inducing candidness with which she cleans her teeth with her fingers (we all know how it feels to try and dislodge food bits from a hard-to-reach corner inside the mouth, right?) and the nasal mucus rumbling down her face like a mudslide. Her gaze contentedly turned to one side and upwards, away from the dripping mess of her torso. Maybe she just finished a hefty and satisfying meal. Despite the nightmarish quality of her body, her exposed toes and neat toenails express a surprising vulnerability.

In literature, a character that induces a mix of anger or disgust and empathy is called "grotesque." A character that is purely disgusting—one-dimensional—is a monster. Looking at "Leengua," it strikes me that distinguishing the grotesque from the merely monstrous is important in a certain idealistic way.

Grotesque figures, like eccentrics, show a strength of character because they refuse to conform to the standards of normal behavior or appearance. John Stuart Mills famously wrote, "The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained."

He went on to say "that so few people now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time." That was in 1859.

In pop culture, we constantly witness the wholesale culling of those believed to be grotesque. If they remain a side-show, they are tolerated. Unpredictable eccentrics are fun to watch, until they threaten the security of the manipulative. In a reality show-dominated pop culture, when freaks outlive their usefulness, they are fed to the monsters.

Where am I going with this? The best examples of art teaches us that being grotesque isn't being monstrous. Being freakish doesn't mean being villainous. Art, in its best forms, teaches us that learning to appreciate the grotesque in ourselves and in the world make us better human beings. It enriches us.

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