Chapter 3 Disability as Aesthetic

Section 1: Disability as Aesthetic in Disability Art

In Chapter 2, I focused my discussion on representations of disability as in the social model and impairment as in the medical model, calling this sort of art ‘disability art.’  Here I will build on this concept.  Additionally, I wish to build on a new type of aesthetics developed by Tobin Siebers.  I seek to investigate the presence of the disabled body in such representations as an aesthetic phenomenon which distinctly places these works in a group apart from the works of Chapter 2. The framework that I present at the end of this chapter in the form of a checklist varies little from that of Chapter 2.  However, the work I have curated in this chapter causes and relies upon the sensations observers (PWD or not) feet in the presence of disabled bodies. This is impossible to ignore and defines this type of work apart from representation alone.

In a photo essay here I will feature works by four of the artists who where in the A Somewhat Secret Place Exhibition.  I will include some writings they provided in their applications and a few of my own notes for context.  Three of these artists firmly identify as having disabilities.  One artist does not clearly identify either way, however she writes she has some “long-term chronic health challenges.”  It is my hope that you would observe that identity does not play a role here as much as the detectible presence of a disabled or disarmed body.  As I wrote in Chapter 2, I broaden what constitutes a body to “anthropomorphized objects because if we respond to an object as if it is a disabled body, this is a question of aesthetics and therefore linked to how we represent the sensation of that object.” I will reference a David Bowie album design to relate this idea to the work of this chapter.

I hope to demonstrate how some representations of disability in art are distinctly a different type of representation as they create a different sort of aesthetic judgment (meaning attractive or repellant), or aesthetic experience (how attributes of an object give a total emotional effect via the senses), and aesthetic value (how something is deemed art because of the way the object acted on the senses in a pleasant manner for the purpose of the pleasant sensation with no practical or natural reason).  Now it could be, and I think should be, argued that aesthetics today are much more than the traditional aesthetic value.

In Chapter 2, I defined disability as any sort of variation from the medical “normal,” whether unpleasant or pleasurable to the person who lives the experience, when represented in art works.  Aesthetics is not simply a matter of taste as is still commonly believed by mass culture; but that would indeed be an easier conversation to have.

Siebers defined aesthetics as charting the sensations that a body feels in the presence of another body (i.e. an object of a kind) and it should go without saying that this can be with either active or passive experience of the object.  Looking at art or experiencing a parking lot by passing through it can both cause an aesthetic experience.  This is because aesthetics have been freed from only defining what art is i.e. grouping artifacts by their aesthetic value, deeming them beautiful.

I do not think the aesthetic values of a given body define what makes something fine art.  That would narrow what one might conceive of as art and aesthetic response. It seems Siebers shared my view in his book, Disability Aesthetics, which astutely examines how aesthetics play a role in human disqualification of PWD; disability as an aesthetic unto itself existing in work not by PWD and not about disability subjects; and different ways to think of art vandalism. He writes on contemporary art, art history and non-art objects (as in the built environment) and their aesthetics.  His explorations are highly weighted toward use by disabilities studies. He, though not the first to do so, claims that the marking aesthetic (or trope) of the modern era of art is disability. He does not think of disability as a pejorative.  On the other hand, in his writings on human disqualification and on the culture wars, he shows how disability as an aesthetic value is often deemed the “sick” in art and therefore the proof of a sick culture.  Siebers competently builds on traditional aesthetics, coining the term “disability aesthetics.”  Siebers writes:

Disability aesthetics embraces beauty that seems by traditional standards to be broken, and yet it is not less beautiful, but more so, as a result. Note that it is not a matter of representing the exclusion of disability from aesthetic history, since no such exclusion has taken place, but of making the influence of disability obvious. This goal may take two forms (1) to establish disability as a critical framework that questions the presuppositions underlying the definitions of aesthetic production and appreciation; (2) to elaborate disability as an aesthetic value in itself worthy of further development.[i]

I attempt here to meet both of Siebers’ goals. I note from his work that the themes he has developed could be seen earlier than the Modern Movement in art history and literature; namely I find his themes in the Romantic Movement as in gothic literature such as The Castle of Otranto (1764) and The Monk (1795) where disability though often used stereotypically in character development is also written into (for an aesthetic experience) buildings and objects, making them anthropomorphized.

Aesthetics as a term came into being somewhat recently in human history as a philosophical study on ideas of perfection and art.  Although discussed early in the eighteenth century as an idea with no name, it was not until 1735 that Alexander Baumgarten gave us the term as used for an evaluating system of art rather then merely a word to mean sensation as it was commonly used previously.[ii]  The beginnings of aesthetics were to understand the judgment that some objects are beautiful or sublime (thinking these attributes to be good and thus constitute the objects as art objects).

The widespread project of idealism, which was interested in beauty, order and perfection, was taking root in this period. Thus, the study of aesthetics could not speak to the grotesque, horrific and the outrageous. Aesthetics rejected all things deemed ugly and therefore imperfect as well as the complex sensations these experiences caused.

The very first aesthetics sought to be a means to classify objects as art and only examined objects that were deemed as having no function other than as pleasurable objects to be positively experienced.  Baumgarten defined aesthetic value as a matter of “taste” which is the subjective sensation that something is good or agreeable. Generally today most will agree that “taste” as in what one considers beautiful or pleasurable can be cultural and is therefore learned, so it is not in actuality a good indicator of value.  Eventually, aesthetic value evolved to no longer define the philosophy of art (the study of what art is) but to ask what about an object is attractive or repellent, denoting the aesthetic properties of the object.  Really, I would say aesthetics is a body responding in any way to another body (abstract or rooted in naturalism) and it would appear this is the same conclusion Siebers reached.

What is notable about Siebers’ disability aesthetics for my purposes is that he observes that alteration to a work’s utterance as in vandalization changes such utterance; the presence of trauma and wounds and the history of the disabled body in photography (the learned historical context in which we view bodies and minds of PWD), all contribute to an aesthetic experience.  He says disabled bodies of any kind have an intense way of engaging not just the observer’s body but our culture in general in a very divisive discourse that is rapidly changing how the aesthetics of disability function and ideas of beauty. Siebers’ Disability Aesthetics also posits disability, as an aesthetic value, is an important part of the contemporary conversation on what constitutes art.

In the following essay of images, you will observe Erik Ferguson’s punk style Sharpy drawings are of disjointed bodily elements, speaking to the body as an internal system. The bodies that he draws are disabled bodies like that of conjoined twins.  He notes that he is incredibly influenced by a conceptualization of the internal world of the body and his dance practice in the tradition of Butoh. Butoh is a form of dance with no specific style. It is thought of as movement which uses taboo actions such as belching, drooling, flatulence, spitting and even vomiting. It utilizes grotesque imagery and is very much about what the dancer feels, so it could be performed without an audience and consist of no movement at all.  I would find that difficult to call fine art for as I have stated an art world public is needed to constitute a work as fine art.

Gavin Eveland paints images of violence and deformity. He crams every square inch of his canvases, causing the aesthetic judgment that the image is overwrote with frightening emotions, namely horror and insanity. Heather Zinger’s work I displayed in close proximity to the two works by Caremen Papalia and AJ Vittie. Zinger’s project relates experiences of situations not too far off from actual physical disablement and impairment.  Andrea Roselle takes medical objects and covers them lovingly with shag as if to bring a sense of personal style and the domestic to her medical devices as an aesthetic means to own the walker and to disrupt the medical gaze, all the while pointing to impairment as sort of immutable socially.

Yulia Arakelyan tells her family story of ethnic oppression through a dance she choreographed and performed titled Boud-a-getchere (This, too, will pass). She preformed using a sleekly designed manual wheelchair with slightly angled inward wheels that moved without making any sound, although a few times she made abrupt, audible stops. When the skin of her forearms met the swift moving wheels a quiet but startling hiss was heard. Arakelyan performed the first part of her piece in silence with her back to the audience.  After a few moments the traditional Armenian music by Dijvan Gasparyan began to play. There were two pieces of music played one after the other: first “Surb Im Sasani” (My Holy Land) and then after a brief pause “Nazani” (Don’t Be So Coy).  She wore a peach colored costume designed by Margot Jones and a green scarf that seemed old but not worn and somehow personal.  The green scarf made by her aunt Sveta Dzhangirova. The scarf was wrapped tightly around her neck. She used the scarf at the end as a prop laying it out on the dusty ground as she moved solemnly away. Her face and hands were covered in white make-up, even her lips were starkly painted a matt white. She wore a hood over her head and her face was stony-cold.  Then her head hung down, her hands and arms were straight by her sides and she hunched over. Then her abdomen and chest pulsed like something was boiling upward from within her. At one point there were quite different movements–feminine movements–reminiscent of Armenian folk dance, but with a trace of her characteristic Butoh influence. She wrote “I dedicate this dance to all of my Armenian relatives, those that are living and those that I have known and loved and to those who I have only known through photographs and stories…”

Her body flesh and her body extended in the sleekly designed wheelchair are united as one yet many still view her body as separate. They might say “she dances in a wheelchair.” This is a primarily cultural difference for those who participate as members of the disability community and those who have no experience with it.   I noted that Arakelyan’s work was dismissed as “very beautiful” though many elements seem to evoke intense emotions of fear and mourning and the subject of this work was tragic and about a type of trauma.  I believe this is because the details of the work were documented incorrectly by some and remembered quite inaccurately by others. For example the PERESENTspace web site reported incorrectly, “She performs from her remote operated wheelchair.”[iii]  This inferred that she used a motorized wheelchair with perhaps some form of remote controller moving her about the stage.  The website has displayed an image of her that clearly shows Arakelyan using her manual dance chair (like shoes, some people use a different chair for dance).  It is notable for certain pieces I have witnessed Arakelyan use her everyday motorized wheelchair. This is comparable to someone dancing in their sneakers.  The kinds of movements she makes when using a chair or wheelchair are different then those of a dancer not using a chair and they point to the abilities of her body.  I think of what a body can do not really what it cannot do.  Many conversations could come from this but the aesthetic judgments that individuals have learned may be challenged by the dancer’s (that is Arakelyan’s) body.  Therefore all dance performed by Arakelyan involves disability in the formal elements and this relates to the utterance of the work.

All of these works have one thing in common.  These works seek to demonstrate something of disability or disablement and they do this through the disabled body both actual and imagined. This is even so in Arakelyan’s work where the primary subject is the horrific oppression of her family in Armenia.

But I would add that a work does not have to take disability as in the social model as a subject to have an aesthetic of disability. Take for instance the cover of David Bowie’s album Heathen: Jonathan Barnbrook not only created fake vandalized images that have a disability aesthetic, but also did violence to the letterforms by obscuring them with overlapping and distorting form and size–in effect impairing the text’s ability to communicate, taking away the perceived or accepted purpose of text. A parallel could be drawn here to Patricia Krishnamurthy’s use of text in Background Noise discussed in length in Chapter 2 and then said to be disabled text.

I only mean to point out here that when the disabled body is used or evoked we have a very different way of viewing it, and that this usually triggers deep emotional recoil or a kind of sympathy that is both positive and negative. We live in corporal bodies and the aesthetic of disabled bodies in art is a powerful tool in excavating the psychological effect of this corporality.  I mean it when I often say I find disability all over art, even when it is not the subject. I am not imaging this; it is a live and kicking phenomenon and as Siebers argues, it is a real and previously unnoticed aesthetic value that has always been with us.

Section 2: Disability Aesthetics: An Essay Of Images

Erik Ferguson  Spine  Marker on Paper  18”x24”  2000

Erik Ferguson
Marker on Paper

Erik Ferguson Twins Marker on Paper 9”x12” 2010

Erik Ferguson
Marker on Paper

a. Erik Ferguson Biography

Erik Ferguson was born in 1976 in Lansing, Michigan.  His childhood and early adult life was marked by mental illness and unrest. In 1997, at the age of 21, he traveled to Portland, Oregon, in search of relief from a declining Midwest culture (or lack thereof).

Ferguson began his life as an arts professional in 2003 when he traveled overseas to Trier, Germany, to undertake the DanceAbility International Teacher Training Intensive.  In spite of only six months in dance improvisation, he learned with zeal how to teach people with and without disabilities how to express themselves with movement.  He writes:

It is difficult to explain even to this day how a person like me, that is, a person with a motor disability like Cerebral Palsy, became a teacher of contemporary dance and performance and I am not going to explain it here except to say that my studies of dance and [somatic] reflect a thread that runs from there straight through to my visual arts work in drawing, painting and printmaking. And while most of my training is in dance improvisation and contemporary performance I have always craved and haltingly produced various two dimensional art works. Closely aligned in aesthetic and principal to Outsider and Raw art but too educated to really be one, [for] my early work reflected the influences of Karel Appel, Der Blaue Reiter, and Jean Michel Basquiat.

Around the time of the exhibition, he was obsessed with the influences of medical imaging technology on 20th and 21st century pop culture and the arts. He believes that the ability to see inside one’s physical self has influenced arts for the last 100 years, whether in the electro-shocked cartoon character whose bones become visible, the cracked columns of Frieda Kahlo’s spine or the mystical anatomy of Alex Grey. Likewise, Ferguson sees his own work reflecting his frequent exposure to his own insides via X-Ray, MRI, CT scan and ultrasound. He writes, “jet black, tightly packed and flattened shapes reflecting these scans…The cryptic symbolism lies in wait for interpretation by the specialist in me, the maker and you, the viewer.”

[Place at bottom of page discretely] This biography was jointly written with the artist.

 Gaven Eveland  Anxiety Blast  Oil on Canvas  40x30in  2010

Gaven Eveland
Anxiety Blast
Oil on Canvas
40″ x 30″

 This picture deals with anxiety personified by the aesthetic of human bone, flesh and raw meat reduced to shattered glass, because of confusion, because dealing with the impairment of information processing has serious mental debt. Further, this debt can easily shatter an individual in an unseen fashion that I bring to the surface.


–      Gaven Eveland

Gaven Eveland Laocoönnotaur Oil and broken glass on the canvas 40x30in

Gaven Eveland
Oil and broken glass on the canvas

Laocoönnotaur is busy, as it embodies frustration and the feeling of being overwhelmed, it does not give the eye much of a chance to rest, similar to the blast of fireworks, similar to being overwhelmed.


–      Gaven Eveland



b. Gaven Eveland Biography

Gavin N. Eveland is a figurative painter who lives and works in Portland, Oregon. Born in 1983 in Moscow, Idaho, Eveland was raised in a supportive and artistic family. Eveland began painting during his childhood, had an epiphany while painting, and was then forever devoted to it. Eveland studied art in college as well as at a private art school. Intense sensation and wild expression inspire him and are reflected in his art.

Gavin Eveland Portrait

Gavin Eveland Portrait

Eveland attended the University of Idaho and was an active member of the Artists and Designers’ Club. During 2004, the Dean of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences intended to eradicate the Art Department altogether. As Vice President of the Artists and Designers’ Club, Eveland organized and participated in walkouts, demonstrations and exhibitions to protest this change.

Eveland also studied at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) where he earned his BFA in painting. His 2009 Senior Thesis, My Grotesque, used both historical and contemporary research on the Grotesque in his works.   He writes: “I am a figurative painter, and I personify intense emotions and expressions. My paintings are reflections, or manifestations, of interior states—inner emotions and psychology made exterior.”

Heather Zinger  EndureMS Still #1 (Shower)  Photography  2009

Heather Zinger
EndureMS Still #1 (Shower)

I displayed Zinger’s Endure MS website design and journal in the gallery along with three of the images taken during the project and the skeleton used in the project.  I let people hold it, which once required me to lift it up, off of the bench it was on.  It was then that I realized how heavy and fragile it was.  I displayed it in the front gallery around the corner from Gaven Eveland’s work.

Image  6 A_zinger_5  Heather Zinger  EndureMS Still #3 (ATM)  Photography  2009

Image 6 A_zinger_5
Heather Zinger
EndureMS Still #3 (ATM)








After that I went to the bank and then to grab dinner. Getting into the ATM took a bit of juggling, but a kind woman took my picture at that machine.[iv]


c. Project Proposal: Endure MS

By Heather Zinger

During the week of December 10th – December 17th 2009, I tied myself to a lifesize, 5’2”, 30 pound skeleton to bring attention to the invisible symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) as well as to raise money for the local MS not-for-profit, Multiple Sclerosis Society of Portland, Oregon Inc. (MSSP, The project was titled EndureMS and raised approximately $1700 for the organization. Web designer Payton Biddington created a blog site,, where I tracked my experiences daily with blog posts and photos. I propose to have 8-10 photographs about 11×14 that illustrate my life during this time as well as have a computer where the audience can peruse the blog. I also suggest that the skeleton be on display next to the computer.

d. Heather Zinger Biography

Heather Zinger was born in Downer’s Grove, Illinois, in 1979.  In 2007 she made her way to the West Coast to pursue photography and other digital medias. While she furthered her art education at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, she became interested in portraying and communicating disability and chronic illness. Zinger was inspired by her long-term chronic health challenges as well as her decades-long relationship with the allopathic and alternative medical communities. Because of her life experiences, she wanted to share the subtleties of what living with these conditions is like and how they impact identity visibly and physically. Zinger writes “I find that art is an effective, unique strategy that allows a public, who may be unfamiliar with these conditions, access to experience this perspective.”

Biography written in collaboration with Heather ZInger.

Hem Me In: Exit, Installation View  Appropriated objects & fibers, size varies, 2010

Hem Me In: Exit, Installation View Appropriated objects & fibers, size varies, 2010





Cozy Walker

Appropriated object & fibers

Approx. 24W X 38H X 20D in.







Andrea Rosselle  Exit  Installation  2011  Photography by Alexander Daniel

Andrea Rosselle
Photography by Alexander Daniel

e. Andrea O. Rosselle Biography

Andrea O. Rosselle was born in Utica, New York, in1976. She calls herself a “Conceptual Craft Artist.”  Rosselle uses craft based media and appropriated objects in the making of artwork rooted in handmade traditions while employing contemporary concepts. She utilizes imagery of the internal and external human form as well as iconic medical objects and symbols within her work. She aims to address issues of disease and disability, the experience of patients in medical institutions, and the difficult relationship of a body and illness. Rosselle writes, “I am a medical body, wrestling with medical objects, assimilating visually as a normative, knowing my brain is slowly being scarred by a disease I cannot see.”

She received her BFA from New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, an MA in ceramics at Central Michigan University and an MFA in visual arts from Azusa Pacific University. During her studies in Michigan, Rosselle was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a degenerative autoimmune disease, making her recent artwork a visual dialogue about her relationship to this disease, her body and the experience of being a “medical object” herself.

Performance of Boud-a-getchere  2011  Photography by Alexander Daniel

Performance of Boud-a-getchere
Photography by Alexander Daniel

f. Project Proposal: Boud-a-getchere

By Yulia Arakelyan

Title: My Birth Place: Part 1

Length: 10-15 minutes


This is a new solo dance piece that explores my Armenian heritage and my birth place Baku, Azerbaijan. I will be creating this piece in the next 5 months.

I was born into an Armenian family in a predominately Muslim country. Historically, Armenians are Orthodox-Christians and have been mass-murdered in the early 1900’s. Even to this day there are reports of discrimination and violence towards Armenians in Azerbaijan and Turkey. None of this I knew as I was growing up in Baku. I didn’t know that my great-grandmother had friends and family that were murdered. I didn’t know that my older brother had rocks thrown at him and called derogatory names at school. I didn’t know why we suddenly had to leave our home in Baku, leave all of our things and move to Moscow. In my child mind Baku was perfect. I remember our big bright house, the fireplace with the rooster cross-stitch above it, the shell shaped amphitheatre, the board walk, and the Caspian Sea. I remember crawling everywhere because I didn’t have a wheelchair.

Recently, I have become obsessed with the history of Armenia and Azerbaijan and my family’s history. I am putting these obsessions, findings, memories, and explorations into a series of short solos. Eventually I would like to make a dance film in which I travel to Azerbaijan and Armenia.

This is the first solo of the series.

This project proposal was submitted in Arakelyan’s application packet. Since the time of the show she has preformed this piece a few times and it is available to be viewed on youtube:

IMG_7004  Yulia Arakelyan at A Somewhat Secret Place Closing Night Celebration  Photography by Alexander Daniel

Yulia Arakelyan at A Somewhat Secret Place Closing Night Celebration
Photography by Alexander Daniel

g. Yulia Arakelyan Biography

Yulia Arakelyan was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1982. Her parents, who were both classically trained musicians, have always encouraged her musical endeavors. She grew up playing piano although never had the patience for music lessons. After immigrating to the US, Yulia had a brief stint playing the clarinet in the sixth grade orchestra, sang in choir all through school, asked for and received a guitar for Christmas in ninth grade, and formed a gothic rock band in the 11th grade. Her parents were encouraging up until they saw the afore-mentioned band play at the local YMCA. Devastated, Yulia zipped up her guitar case, covered the keyboard and stopped writing songs. In 2002, Yulia discovered dance when she attended a performance by Light Motion Dance Company in Seattle, Washington. Nine months later she was on stage, dancing with the company in her first performance. Yulia has been dancing and performing non-stop ever since. From 2004-2005 she trained with CandoCo Dance Company in London, England, as part of their Foundation Course in Dance. During her stay in England she also had the opportunity to work with FRONTLINEdance Company.

In 2007, Yulia was the first wheelchair user to graduate from the University of Washington with a BA in dance. Yulia loves to learn and takes classes and workshops whenever time and money allow. Some of her most influential teachers in no particular order are: Sheri Brown, Mizu Desierto, Jurg Koch, Miguel Gutierrez, Natsu Nakajima, Katsura Kan, and Lisa Nelson. Yulia has performed with various people in various locations such as Performance Works NW, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre (UK), Long Distance Project, Impetus Arts, VSA Vision Gallery, University of Washington, Polaris Dance Center and Scratch PDX. Yulia’s rock star dreams have never left her and she is exploring ways that she can combine that dream with dance.

Along with partner Erik Ferguson, Yulia founded Wobbly – a multidisciplinary performance project. Wobbly often collaborates with other local artists and has performed at Water in the Desert Butoh Festival, Boris and Natasha Cabaret, and Polaris Dance Center. Currently, Wobbly is collaborating with dancer Mizu Desierto and musician Francis Francis for a full length evening show to be premiered in Fall 2011, with smaller previews along the way.

Recently Yulia has been making short dance films as part of the Long Distance Project – a cross-county collaboration between 3 friends.


Section 3: Chapter 3 Checklist

  • The subject of the work is bodily.
  • The artist’s intention to make the work is understood through the work’s utterance as coming from disability – their own or another person’s – or as a generalization of disability.
  • This work notes characteristics of impairment, be it intellectual, mental, sensorial, physical or combinations of these.
  • This work is marked by trauma or deformity that makes one think about disability or impairment or respond to it as they might toward an actual PWD.
  • It does not overtly have a political message; the work does not seek to persuade politically.  There is no sign of protesting a social or political behavior or attitude in favor of positive attitudes toward PWD, but it may state or imply personal feeling in response to such things.

[i]             Siebers Tobin. “Disability Art and Vandalism,” Disability Aesthetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2010. 3.

[ii]             Stecker, Robert.  Aesthetics and the philosophy of art an introduction. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2010. 2-3.

[iii]             Alexander Daniel,, (accessed June 21, 2013).

[iv]             Heather Zinger “Day 03 Saturday, December 12, 2009” (accessed June 14, 2013). Please consider donating to the cause as

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