Monday 30 January 2012

Taboo - the psychology of the unthinkable

Lennie in the Chariot of Death
I was working at City Limits magazine back in the 80s when my friend George came up to my desk. ‘I’ve just come back from THE weirdest place,’ she said. ‘And met THE weirdest guy. He’s causing a stir in Hackney with this car called The Chariot of Death.  He’s mad. You’d absolutely love him.’ 

How could I resist?  So I trundled off to visit Lennie Lee and, boy, did he love to create an impression.  On our first meeting he calmly offered me some of his blood (in a communion goblet) and wondered if I fancied signing a pact with the devil.  He then asked if he could paint my portrait – and proceeded to scrawl with thick felt pen on a vast sheet of paper on the floor – I watched my face turn into a series of sigils and symbols.  ‘Have you captured my soul?’ I asked with a frown.  He just raised a sardonic eyebrow.
We became very good friends. 

Lennie is one of those people who simply never compromise. He’s a true artist, a free thinker, a provocateur.  He loves to shock, to challenge, to appal. Everything interests him and he sees incredible beauty in the most mundane, commonplace, despised places, people and objects.  But, above all, he’s fascinated by taboo. ‘I target things that are hidden,’ he says. ‘I want to confront people with their assumptions in the hope they will be released from fear.’

Taboo. Now, there’s another subject that fascinates me.  Why is it that certain subjects, images, objects, practices are deemed not just revolting and disgusting, but beyond that - not to be considered, not even countenanced. Even to think about them is somehow to infect yourself.  It’s this belief that some ideas are so incredibly dangerous that the very thought itself is sinful.  Interesting, huh?

What are your taboos? What pushes your buttons?  Think about it if you dare. What is so sacred you cannot bear even to contemplate it?  Psychologists call it the ‘mere contemplation’ effect – the observation that there are times when, merely to contemplate a decision, marks you as morally suspect.  One thought too many.  The psychology of the unthinkable. 

Some taboos are logical, reasonable even. Homicide is generally a sensible taboo (though deep green activists could probably argue against it quite plausibly). Incest isn’t a great idea, from a strictly genetic viewpoint. Cannibalism isn’t too bright, given you can catch a form of encephalitis from human flesh.  The rest, really, are moral and shift according to your culture. 

Yet they get us very hot under the collar.  They even help us clan, herd.  Certain issues, images, ideas are considered so sacred that if you even have that ‘one thought too many’ you are instantly outside the herd, you have shown disloyalty to the cause; you’re an apostate.  Politics offers a very mild example.  The other day someone dared to post on Facebook that she was surprised to find herself agreeing with something a Tory politician had said.  Within seconds her post was bombarded with fury. ‘That bastard’; ‘that prick’, and so on. Had they even read the opinion? Of course not.  It was pure kneejerk.  Tory = evil Etonian rich prat.  It works the other way too, of course.  Politics?  Meh.

Anyhow. Lennie.  Not a guy who’s afraid of poking a stick in a nest of rattlesnakes.  I won’t post his more extreme images or videos up here as I don’t want to offend delicate sensitivities.  If you do decide to click on the link, BE WARNED that there are some pretty extreme images. Here's the link:  ENTER.  Don't blame me if you don't like them. I have to add, however, that there are some very beautiful images there too - it's not all blood and guts and gore. 

But he does look at things most of us shy away from – sickness, personal shame, fear and prejudice.  Blood, vomit, disease, death, mental illness, food. He touches the boundaries of morality, taste, religion, politics, shame – and what he calls ‘unpopular culture’.
‘I’m interested in the power of certain objects to create strong emotions,’ he says. ‘Subject matter that people find disgusting and fascinating. The contradiction between the civilised surface we present and the animalistic violence that lies beneath.’

Food for thought.  And, talking of food, I’d suggest you don’t visit his site if you’re about to eat your supper.   Shock or schlock?  You decide.

If you want to read further on taboo, I’d suggest you check out Philip Tetlock, a psychologist who has conducted research on whether certain taboos have logical reasons or if they are pure affect. He questions whether taboo is compatible with any idea of intellectual vigour, arguing that - surely - any idea is worth thinking about...even if only to determine whether it is wrong.

Note: All images are ©Lennie Lee, reproduced here with his permission. Please do not reproduce without his permission. Many of his images are for sale via his website.   


Ashen said...

Are you testing your readership? Are you mourning surrealism? Are you reacting against the super positive spiritual movements? Is your live lacking intensity? Just questions.
Great post :) But I guess any war veteran would have a reversed list of unthinkables - beauty - tenderness, vulnerability ... when it comes to being human we are fragile creatures.

Exmoorjane said...

Ah Ashen...probably guilty on all counts, m'lud... :) Sometimes one just needs some contrast... and I do think it's an interesting issue. What won't we look in the eye?

Rob-bear said...

Hmmmm. Interesting. I wonder though, not knowing Lennie, if he does shock for shock's sake.

Exmoorjane said...

@Bear - oh, for sure! He's an artist, after all. And a drama queen. But, even so, he makes some good points about our hypocrisy. IMHO. :) Hey, you're supposed to be in your cave!

F said...

I don't have many "unthinkables"-- sickness and death, mostly. That's where my gut reaction happens. I think maybe the taboos, the things you can't even think about, are most powerful when they come from the things that are real to you, pertinent to you. I imagine if I ever came face to face with cannibalism or a forbidden incestuous lust for a sibling, those things would be on the list, but as it is, they're just intellectual exercise, not emotionally loaded.

F said...

Also, I really like the used tampons in the heart shaped box. (Though they look awfully red to be actual used tampons.)

Exmoorjane said...

@Frankie..lovely to see you back. I'm saving your post for my afternoon tea-break. :)
No, I don't imagine you do have many unthinkables - you're one of the rare and brave...
And yeah, those were used tampons. But I think he does add a bit of red paint occasionally to perk things up - dried blood goes such a boring colour. ;)

F said...

Also there's the smell to consider. I can't decide if the stench of decomposing uterine lining would add or subtract to the piece.

Sydney Psychologist said...

Thanks for posting this! I'm trying to find information on psychological assessment, intervention and counselling for children, adolescents and adults and this has definitely helped me in this process.