Urban Exoticism: Aux abattoirs de la Villete to Athens wet market
by Alia Tsagkari | 8 February 2022
Eli Lotar, Aux abattoirs de la Villette, 1929. Photo ©Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Eli Lotar.
Eli Lotar’s Aux abattoirs de La Villette series (1929), a collection of photographs of the Parisian slaughterhouses in the nineteenth arrondissement, constitutes the unsettling point of convergence of stark realism and surrealist imagery. The disturbing body of work was commissioned by the “excremental philosopher” Georges Bataille in 1929 to be published in the review Documents alongside the latter’s Critical Dictionary essay “Abattoir”. However, only three images appeared in Documents, while a larger selection of eight photographs was reproduced by the Belgian Surrealist E. L. T. Messens in the avant-garde journal Variétés in 1930. Nonetheless, the ones selected by Bataille emphasise the peculiar juxtaposition of clinical orderliness with sanguinary chaos. This particular mixture is explicitly communicated in one of the most frequently reproduced images of the series, the infamous Pichard. Published as a full-page picture in the original Documents spread, the photo in question captures a disquieting assemblage of amputated bovine hooves that methodically arranged in a procession prop themselves against a masonry wall below the neat uppercase letters ‘PICHARD’. The striking homogeneity of the animal limbs as it shines through their identical height indicates the thorough industrialised precision with which they were severed. The clinical purity of the dismembered parts forms a macabre horizontal line that accentuates the formal order of the sharp counterposed diagonals and verticals of the image. Under this light, the unsparing formalist elements of the composition render it a gripping specimen of modernist photography that demarcates the boundaries of the exploration of the urban space as a limit-experience that unravels progressively. Initially, the seemingly hygienic ordered space of the metropolitan arrondissement entices the viewer to enter the composition and devour the ‘noble simplicity’ and ‘sedate grandeur’ of the recently gentrified area. Indeed, the alleged neutrality of documentary photography underscored by the long shot and the straight angle give the veneer of a proper formalist picture that conforms with the polite modes of spectatorship of the bourgeoisie. However, as the beholder immerses himself into the composition, a morbid fascination with the primitive, the archaic and the sanguinary emerges and disrupts the quieting narrative: the cadaverous collection of hooves confronts him with a corporeal reality that threatens to lacerate his subjectivity. After years of scholarly neglect, Neil Cox was the first to draw attention to the shocking aspects of Lotar’s imagery, especially the impact of the strange coexistence of ‘ordered system and bloody chaos’ on the viewer. Following the prevailing avant-garde shock tactic, as Cox points out, Lotar exposes ‘the paranoid-hygienic bourgeoisie to the abattoir’ in order to cauterise the ‘sclerosis of polite society.’ However, the visual power of the abattoir iconography is so overwhelming that Cox chooses to read it solely through the comfort of established schemes of interpretation, namely the tired identification of the avant-garde with the shock of the bourgeois viewer. Still more importantly, Lotar’s affective breakthrough lies in the notion of distance. Indeed, the slaughterhouses imagery introduces the viewer to a cerebral game of to-and-fro transitions from the “polite” distance shot to the unsettling details of the morbid delights of the abattoir and the loss of unified self. To this end, the Romanian photographer distances his lens from the perfectly ordered calves’ feet obeying the polite modes of spectatorship of the 18th century according to which the ‘principles of safety and distance from actual events of distress’ were critical in the production of delight. According to the English critic Joseph Addison, as highlighted by Aris Sarafianos, ‘the delight in the arts of representation’ we might feel ‘when we look on hideous objects’ is dependent on the fact that ‘we are in no danger of them.’ Simultaneously, however, Lotar permeates his imagery with abject anatomical details elaborately orchestrated to subvert established modes of spectatorship and introduce a new physiology of viewing regarding the urban space. The constant oscillation between safe distance and disquieting anatomical details render the urban phantasmagoria of the abattoir the spatial counterpart of limit-experience. In other words, depicting a liminal social space where the boundaries separating life from death are blurred, Lotar immortalises ‘that point of life’ which, according to the Foucauldian approach to limit-experience “lies as close as possible to the impossibility of living, which lies at the limit or extreme.’ But how could we understand the obscure notion of limit-experience with regard to the urban space? Trying to answer this question during the challenging realities of COVID-19 in Athens I came up with the term URBAN EXOTICISM. “Urban exoticism” in an obviously expanded sense circumscribes a perception of the metropolitan space that values fragments, unexpected juxtapositions, and elements obscured by everyday experience. Revealing the mystery beneath the apparently banal surfaces of the modern city, it provokes the emergence of extraordinary realities drawn from the realms of the exotic, the erotic, and the unconscious. The organic sensuality of Athens’ wet market juxtaposed with architectural remnants of underlying depravity and imbued with the mystical qualities of the neglected ancient relics render Athenian cityscape a visual manifestation of urban exoticism. For Athens is not entirely desanctified. No doubt a certain theoretical and practical desanctification has occurred in the form of gentrification. However, it may still have not reached the point of the strictly regimented western city. One could say, by way of retracing the history of space in Greece very roughly, that there is still a hierarchic ensemble of spaces: open places and obscured places; gentrified places and hidden, neglected places; unified, homogeneous places and fragmented places of Otherness. The latter exists as counter-sites, as spaces within spaces that bearing the traces of their oriental, mystical, and licentious past constitute what I shall call, by way of reference to the Foucauldian term, heterotopias of exoticism. They are marginalised places that in relation to their human and architectural environment are being perceived as foreign, strange, exotic. Under this prism, urban exoticism draws upon and deconstructs the bewildering array of ideas that harbour within its cultural progenitor, the exoticism of the nineteenth century. Set in specific cultural and spatial circumstances it recontextualises the original phenomenon in the modern metropolis. More precisely, it turns to the urban fabric of Athens to trace and anatomise the exotic Other which is identified with a defamiliarized cultural reality that pervades the familiar topography of the western city.  Johann J. Winckelmann, Reflections on the painting and sculpture of the Greeks: with instructions for the connoisseur, and an essay on grace in works of art (London, 1765), p.29.  The abattoir and surrounding live cattle market at La Villette was raised in the 1860s as a part of Haussmann’s modernisation and gentrification of Paris.  Neil Cox, ‘Sacrifice’, in Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and Documents, ed. Dawn Ades and Simon Baker, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery (London, Massachusetts, 2006), p. 56.  Ibid.  Aris Sarafianos, ‘Wounding realities and ‘painful excitements’: real sympathy, the imitation of suffering and the visual arts after Burke’s sublime’, in The Hurt(ful) Body: Performing and Beholding Pain, 1600-1800, ed. Tomas Macsotay, Cornelis van der Haven και Karel Vanhaesebrouck (Manchester, 2017), p. 175  Joseph Addison, The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, vol.3 (London, 1721), p. 509 and Aris Sarafianos, ‘Wounding realities and ‘painful excitements’: real sympathy, the imitation of suffering and the visual arts after Burke’s sublime’, in The Hurt(ful) Body: Performing and Beholding Pain, 1600-1800, ed. Tomas Macsotay, Cornelis van der Haven και Karel Vanhaesebrouck (Manchester, 2017), p. 175  Michel Foucault, ‘How an ‘Experience-Book’ is Born,’ in Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori (New York, 1991), 27.