Wednesday, November 6, 2019

"The sea was more important now than the shore."

Since starting To the Lighthouse I’d been noticing all kinds of references to subjects and objects, which was prompted chiefly by this passage:
Whenever she [Lily] "thought of his [Mr. Ramsay’s] work" she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew's doing. She asked him what his father's books were about. "Subject and object and the nature of reality," [my emphasis] Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant. "Think of a kitchen table then," he told her, "when you're not there."
At first, I had thought Woolf was setting up Mr. Ramsay’s work to be an extension of the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, but it’s unlikely she would’ve known about Bakhtin. Instead, I think she’s drawing on Henri Bergson’s work. Bergson was much more well known in the early twentieth century, so Woolf would’ve easily encountered his ideas.

The more I read, the more obvious it was that Woolf was very much conversant with Bergon’s philosophy. Not only does she have Mr. Ramsay’s work be about "subject and object and the nature of reality," but she also has Mrs. Ramsay do all the difficult lifting of that work. It’s Mrs. Ramsay who thinks through all the nuances of subjectivity and objectivity.

Mrs. Ramsay fleshes out the parameters of Bergson's proto-phenomenology, dissecting the nuances of subject/object, active/passive, whole/parts, past/present, and perception/memory, mostly while holding court at the table, the object that puts reality and human relations into question.

At times, Mrs. Ramsay see the lighthouse sends out its light. At other times, she “reflects” the light of the lighthouse. And still other times, she becomes (as if) the light itself, like in Section 11:
Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at—that light, for example. And it would lift up on it some little phrase or other which had been lying in her mind like that—"Children don't forget, children don't forget"--which she would repeat and begin adding to it, It will end, it will end, she said. It will come, it will come, when suddenly she added, We are in the hands of the Lord [emphasis added].
And she gets instantly annoyed with herself for that last sentence that comes from outside her own mind:
But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? Not she; she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean. She looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie. She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light. It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one's being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover [emphasis added].
Here you have the whole subject/object, perception/memory problem being worked out and worked over. On top of that, you have the modernist wordplay: a rose (flower), rose (verb) from the lake, and then there’s the daughter Rose. Later at the table (what was to always remind Lily of Mr. Ramsay’s work), they recite poems with the repeated phrase “Chinese rose,” which also merges Lily (another flower, but with “Chinese eyes”) with the daughter Rose.

These phenomenological analyses are even more fleshed out in the middle third of the book and come to a head in the final section, where Lily Briscoe completes and culminates the ruminations of Mrs. Ramsay: "It is finished."

On the back cover of my cheap, used paperback copy is this reductionist bullshit: "The subject of this brilliant novel is the daily life of an English family in the Hebrides." Well, no, Chad (and you know damn well it was a Chad), To the Lighthouse is as much about "the daily life of an English family in the Hebrides" as the Gospels are about the daily life of a Hebrew man with a Messiah Complex. It just as easily is about—and so much more than just about—how human beings are always (in) the act of  transcending what it means to be human.

Thursday, October 3, 2019


As many books about the subject can attest, performance art calls into question passed-down notions of identity and subjectivity. At one extreme, the art attempts to dislocate (if not outright erase) identity. Think of Ron Athey’s staged physical obliterations at the verge of ritual’s limit. Or of the trio of artists featured in curator Philipp Kaiser’s Disappearing—California, c. 1970: Bas Jan Ader, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth earlier this year. This show traced the various organized disappearances of the artists within the context of the California art scene in the early seventies.

At the other extreme, performance art stages an identity, albeit one that may be more fictional and more temporary than not, as an extension of that identity’s performativity. Here, think of Laurie Anderson’s narrative pieces in which she plays a version, often extreme and technologized, of herself. Or of Karen Finley, who in March 2016 brought her show The Jackie Look to Dallas. In it, Finley performs onstage as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, effectively reactivating Onassis’ public trauma as if it were an extension of Finley’s—or Dallas’—own history of, or history as, trauma.

Further intensifying the clash between these two extreme modalities of performance art is the fact that often the sheer identity performance artist is enough to bring into question such fraught terms as identity, subjectivity, performativity, and affectivity, especially when an artist performs the most mundane of activities but within an art context.

In The Artist Is Present, for example, Marina Abramović, who decidedly was not present at all times during the exhibition, nonetheless both staged her absence by casting other performers in her (former) roles, yet also made manifest her presence only insofar as it negotiated with the barest of narrative and artistic content: she sat in a chair facing audience members one at a time. But MoMA’s context, and even the iconic dresses she wore almost as if in costume, guaranteed an expanded understanding of both performance (she’s just sitting there) as well as of art, in this case, seemingly as if to say that because a performance artist is doing the activity, then that activity is necessarily art.

Operating within the nexus of questions that performance art opens is New Orleans native (and currently Dallas-based) Jer’Lisa Devezin’s 2019 mixed-media work Kiss My Ass. This piece was performed Saturday, September 21, as part of curator Liss LaFleur’s Cosmic to Corporeal: Contemporary Queer Performance Practices opening at The MAC. With an impressive 25-year history of programming challenging exhibits, The MAC also prides itself on presenting “performance practice which is often underrepresented locally” in Dallas, said executive director Rachel Rogerson. Having an international open call, Rogerson explains, “ensured that a diverse range of techniques and approaches are represented” in this exhibit that has been in the works for a few years now.

At 7:00 pm, Devezin entered the back door of the museum carrying a bronze of a truncated human form, specifically an ass but also including the thighs and hips. If not for the time of day and the crowd gathered, one could have easily dismissed the action as one performed by a museum worker in the installation of any number of works. The MAC recorded over 150 audience members throughout the evening, with about half that number present during the performance.

But there is another aspect that indicates that the artist is not a mere installer: she carries the sculpture in her formidable arms. A worker would presumably be more detached, perhaps pushing it on a cart. Devezin instead grips it tightly in a bear hug and pushes her way through the crowd into the front gallery where the work is to be performed/installed. Though she is not a museum technician, she takes on this role, rendering visible the rarely seen labor of installation.

There is little question that the sculptural work is hers, though to what extent remains an open question: Did Devezin cast the work herself? Is the ass cast of her own body? And to further exaggerate the questionability of performance with which she engages, she ends up over-installing it: the pedestal upon which she raises her bronze ass is more than six feet high, requiring that a majority of people will need to stand back and look up at it. In other words, she demands from the audience a posture and a gaze that is typically coded as subservient and deferential. Not so much kiss my ass as worship my ass.

Through the bronze, rope, steel, and performance Devezin overturns the binary of high and low art. She literally erects an ass over the audience’s heads. But this work is more than an easy tongue-in-cheek joke. The sculpture as well as the performance are firmly encoded by narratives of queered Black bodies, labor, women’s work, and feminism. But even if we made an effort to ignore its contexts, it would be difficult to not think of the history of American slavery and the policing of Black bodies while watching the artist secure ropes tightly around the stand-in ass so that it can be controlled, restrained, and then raised.

We see Devezin struggle with and through the work: she perspires, grunts, tugs, strains under the weight, wipes sweat from her brow, pushes her long dreadlocks out of her eyes. The 20-minute performance shows itself as labor in both senses of that word. In the artist’s statement, Devezin reveals an interest in depicting a new strong Black woman, one not overly oppressed by history, gender, and sexuality. By unfastening and unhooking the ropes once the sculpture is in place, the artist allows for the ass to be free from such weighty constraints even as it invites the audience to look and admire.

The ass becomes another work of art in another museum, decontextualized from its own origin, from its own narrative, with nothing but the residual traces of the labor it took to get it there. What’s more, the fully installed ass is de-racialized in that the bronze neutralizes the race of its model. And the sculpture of the ass once again discloses itself as de-gendered in that it has neither overtly male nor female sex organs. Freeing the sculptural work from the semiotic relationships activated by the performance (by way of race, sex/gender, sexuality) highlights the radical queering that took place in that performance. This, I think, is the greatest testament to Devezin’s artistic practice.

Cosmic to Corporeal: Contemporary Queer Performance Practices in on view through November 9, 2019, at The MAC’s newly renovated exhibition space at 1503 South Ervay Street in the Cedars neighborhood. Two more evenings of performances are scheduled for Saturday, October 12, and Saturday, October 26. If Devezin’s work is any indication, you won’t want to miss the other performances. Many thanks to The MAC’s executive director Rachel Rogerson for providing details and quoted material above.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Orientalist Arabesque

The Nights of Tino of Baghdad

Else Lasker-Schüler's novela The Nights of Tino of Baghdad came to me a couple of weeks ago. It's free to anyone who subscribes to the Rixdorf Editions newsletter, and it's only in PDF. (Click the cover above to follow the link.)

The laconic text—at only 41 pages—is strangely baroque. It reminds me of the quasi-narrative prose poems of Arthur Rimbaud and of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. There are glimpses of fabled, faraway lands that immediately dissipate into smoke and dreams at any attempt to place them on a map.

The nineteen stories barely hang together; their narrative web, more a ghost structure that operates at the level of hint and suggestion. The characters, including the eponymous Tino, more ghost than flesh and blood. But the book's mood!

There's a quality of hallucination and incantation, as if the author were trying to rewrite Montesquieu's Orientalist Persian Letters or the Bible's alchemy-inflected Song of Songs, but in the stuttering, cryptic language of Wilhelmine Germany's proto-dada, proto-expressionism:
The Grand Mogul of Philippopolis is sitting in the garden of the Imperial Palace in the Sultan’s city when from out of the evening comes a foreign insect and stings him on the tip of his tongue. It is his habit to let it rest on his lower lip as he thinks. And while the physicians attach no greater import to the accident, it transpires that the illustrious master nevertheless imagines himself no longer able to speak. And he darkly refuses to entertain other means of making himself understood; the damage to the land is incalculable. Processions of flagellant priests move through the streets of Constantinople, and the Sultan is on his knees before Allah. He calls his two sons to his private chamber: ‘Lads, you must learn a trade!’
Every reason you should know the world of Lasker-Schüler is detailed in translator James J. Conway's informed Afterword. Conway gives us the perfect amount of biography and history. It's one of the best, least burdensome critical apparatuses I've read in quite a while. Conway and Rixdorf Editions should be commended for rising to the challenge of helping to recreate the worlds of Wilhelminism and the Weimar Republic.


Saturday, August 10, 2019

Burden of Light

"A figure dressed in white, walks along the white line in the middle of the highway. He becomes visible only when sporadically lit by the headlights of on-coming cars." From a Jack Goldstein performance, 1971.
"A figure dressed in white, walks along the white line in the middle of the highway. He becomes visible only when sporadically lit by the headlights of on-coming cars." From a Jack Goldstein performance, 1971.
I barely remember a time when I didn't know who Yoko Ono was. I specifically discovered Laurie Anderson on the night of March 16, 1984. Aside from these two legends, Chris Burden was one of my earliest performance art crushes.

In college I heard about Shoot and Deadman. Rumors reached me about Trans-Fixed, in which he was "crucified" to a Volkswagen. For years, every time I would see a tarp or a box in the middle of the road, I would say, "There goes Chris Burden." I don't say it out loud any more, but I still think it.

After finishing my undergraduate studies and beginning to study art and art history on my own, I specifically sought out a graduate program where I could study performance art.

Earlier this year I visited Los Angeles, and I came upon his Urban Light. I don't think I was ready to receive its gifts. And when The Modern announced their exhibition Disappearing—California, c. 1970: Bas Jan Ader, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein, I have to admit that I wasn't all that interested. But I went, and it turned out to be a great exhibit. I've been obsessively reading about Burden since.

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A text mentioned at The Modern was Frazer Ward's No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience. He writes about how Burden's work negotiates how the private and personal interpenetrates the public and social. We carry our interiorities and particularities "into" and throughout the field of homogenized sameness and performed versions of publicness.

I wrote something of my own in response to Ward's book and Burden's work in this exhibit that seeks to make legible the artist even as he disappears and is gone forever:
The Subject of Last Resort

Burden's work traces the slippages of shaky ground beneath and among public-audience-community, especially as such slippages necessarily play with a contested field activated by artistic intention on display for any viewer-cum-participant, and of the radical dispersal of subjectivity, that is, a subject deterritorialized across, shot through, and riddled by alterities.
The audience is pro-voked: stimulated, incited, challenged while also called for(th) upon an ever-shifting ground of being. And this pro-vocation reactivates the community participant as by-stander and the site specificity by which one might stand. Such work reimagines the presence of an artist through the provocation of an already late audience comprising those who come to view the remains of what remains by the sheer presence of the artist's name on the wall. California qua literal no-man's land: a marked site of disappearance rendered unmappable and ultimately untraceable. A place, a space, left to operate solely as potentiality.
I think I may need to see this exhibit again before it closes.

Chris Burden's The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979, 50,000 nickels, 50,000 matchsticks, and signage.
Chris Burden's The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979, 50,000 nickels, 50,000 matchsticks, and signage