Friday, June 13, 2014


 Étant donnés, by Marcel Duchamp
          Do you know the story of how John Lennon fell in love with Yoko Ono? He describes in an interview how he met Yoko at an art gallery. Lennon had been a classically trained art student so he was skeptical about conceptual and performance art. But when he saw a tall ladder set up in the gallery as part of the show, he dutifully climbed up anyway. Dangling from a panel on the ceiling was a magnifying glass and printed on the ceiling, too tiny to be deciphered by the naked eye, was the single word: Yes. The experience Yoko had wanted to create was one of affirmation and relief, like a hope realized after the struggle of a long ascent, or the answer to a prayer. The rest is history.

Yoko observing her work called Yes Painting

          Conceptual and performance art make a lot of us uneasy because they engage us in a level of participation otherwise absent from normal art. In the former, a viewer becomes part of the concept or performance and contributes to its shifting meaning; in the latter a viewer is primarily a critic, a voyeur among other voyeurs, perhaps commenting in hushed tones about a painting or sculpture, or experiencing a more private response, but always at a safe remove behind plexiglass or a velvet rope.

          On my Facebook newsfeed recently someone posted a Banksy video and, judging from the responses, you'd think every viewer was looking at a completely different film.

Banksy's Sirens of the Lambs

          We were all looking at the same film, of course, but it was we, as individuals, who were different. In fact, my first reaction was outrage for the slaughtered lambs and a brief flirtation with veganism, but an hour later I was laughing my ass off. Part of my laughter, I'm afraid, had to do with embarrassment at my initial reaction. Regardless of Banksy's artistic intention with Sirens of the Lambs, we viewers define who we are—or how we wish to be seen—by how we react to his work.

How the artist wishes to be seen and how the viewer wishes to be seen are often at odds, and this creates a dilemma which is itself, I believe, a purpose of art. Through our highly subjective responses to art, we are almost violently brought to the brink between who we are and who we wish to be, how we see and how we wish to be seen.

          In my inbox today, I received another video from the Campaign for Truth & Justice in Sri Lanka for their Stop Torture campaign. Their public relations scheme was disturbing. In Sri Lanka, where women and girls are raped and tortured with impunity by members of the military police, they have no protection or legal recourse. In the video, Cara Delevingne, a very pretty, blond actress, performed a dramatic reading for the Campaign during which she read a Tamil woman’s actual account of her own torture and gang rape. There was a warning on the video stating it may be very upsetting to watch.
Cara Delevingne—International Truth & Justice Project Sri Lanka

          That the actress is pale and blond while Tamil women are dark was a little disconcerting, but I figured this is about human rights, after all. Why discriminate against blonds? Halfway through the film, though, it dawned on me that the actress was nude. Doubtless, Delevingne and the Campaign are sincere in their effort to help the plight of Tamil women and had no intention of appearing to titillate. Perhaps her nakedness is meant to convey her vulnerability. But we're not being asked to watch a woman's rape, we're being asked to listen to a real-life account of it. Something feels terribly wrong. Where do we draw the line between censorship and titillation? But perhaps a harder question, especially in the context of a human rights appeal, is just why is rape so titillating? 
Courbet's "The Origin of the World"
At the Musée d’Orsay every day people admire Gustave Courbet's painting, "The Origin of the World." In a lavish gilt frame, the painting depicts a faceless nude woman, close up, with her legs spread open at the foreground drawing our attention to the mysterious place from which all life emerges. A few weeks ago, a performance artist named Deborah de Robertis walked up to the painting, lifted her sparkly golden mini-dress, so like Courbet's golden frame, and sat down, opening her legs and using her fingers to spread open her labia, for the following reason.

          "If you ignore the context, you could construe this performance as an act of exhibitionism, but what I did was not an impulsive act,” she explained to Luxemburger Wort. “There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.”
"Mirror of Origin"

          De Robertis performed "Mirror of Origin" in the same museum several times, but she was only arrested once. Do you think Deborah de Robertis is courageous? Is she a profound thinker making you think? Is she witty? Absurd? Irreverent? A slut? I wonder how you feel about this performance and, if you are disturbed, how do you interpret your own response? Do you find yourself thrust violently to the terrifying precipice between awareness and self-awareness? Or is it bullshit?

          I thoroughly admire de Robertis, but my initial responses were purely practical; I thought Her ass must be cold and That looks like my vagina and I bet she's embarrassed, wouldn't it be great if someone joined her, which led to I'd love to see this live, but not with my kids. But once I settled in and really looked, I was reminded of another provocative painting in another museum.

A long time ago, I had a boyfriend whose idea of a hot date was to take me to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés. It was very "special," he said, one of his favorite works of art and he wanted me to see it for the first time with him.

Normally the tiny, windowless room leading to the wooden door is dark
          The work of art was in a small dark room all by itself and the boyfriend instructed me to go in alone. But there was someone else in the room, peering into a crack in the door, and he was shaking violently. At first I had thought he was part of the installation, but when I cleared my throat he turned around. His hand was in his pants and he was smiling.

          "Isn't this wonderful?" he said, right before turning back to the peephole. How strange, I thought, that those happen to have been the very words uttered by the boyfriend after our first kiss. I had thought the words charming then.

          The boyfriend was waiting for me, puzzled about why I'd come out so soon, but before I could think of how to explain, the masturbating man emerged, smiling in complicity.

          When I returned to the dark room and pressed my eye to the peephole, I was afraid. What I saw behind the closed door, beyond the ragged edges of a blasted brick wall, was this three-dimensional environmental tableau.
I believe that most women imagine this faceless woman is dead, that it's an image of the aftermath of rape. I pressed up against the peephole to see what might be hidden out of direct view but it was a perfect microcosm. I worried how the sharp, bare twigs would cut into my flesh, how cold I would be outside and stripped bare in the winter; I thought of the man masturbating to the sight of her hairless, defenseless, dead vagina; and I recalled the time the boyfriend shared with me a single entry from his Dream Journal—how he'd been cross when I'd skipped ahead to a different dream about a naked woman who spread her legs but "her pussy hairs were tightly woven together so I couldn't get in"; and I wondered what was so wonderful? Was it just that Duchamp's nude was penetrable?

          But I expressed none of my worries and asked no troubling questions. To please the boyfriend, I asked, "I wonder how he made that shimmering waterfall in the background?" If he was disappointed in my response, I didn't notice because he quickly walked into the dark room for his own viewing of Étant donnés. It may have occurred to me then that men must view the image differently. What a woman experiences as defenselessness, a man may view as willingness.

          What occurs to me now is a cascading stream of other people's opinions. Life imitates art (Oscar Wilde); Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth (Picasso); One eye sees, the other feels (Paul Klee); Art is not what you see, but what you make others see (Degas); A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells the less you know (Diane Arbus); One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself (Da Vinci); Your mind is working at its best when you are being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity (Banksy); We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are (Anaïs Nin); and We have art in order not to die of the truth (Nietzsche).

          Rilke says simply, Go into yourself, and this is really a way of approaching life, art, and all relationships and problems, and I believe it's what conceptual and performance art asks us to do.

Still, aren't you curious about Duchamp's motivation for Étant donnés? Yoko Ono knows and speaks about what The Yes Painting means to her and de Robertis has explained The Mirror of Origin to the Luxemburger Wort, allowing our interpretations to perhaps be influenced by their maker. But what about Duchamp?

Duchamp's instruction manual for Étant donnés

          For 20 years Duchamp constructed this final work of his in secret, while pretending to the world he had given up art to play chess. This gave him complete privacy and freedom to create.

In his Will, Duchamp stipulated that Étant donnés, which was hidden in his Manhattan studio, be posthumously placed on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where there was already an extensive Duchamp wing. He left an instruction manual for the careful dismantling and exact reconstruction of his work. 

          The nude is a hybrid of women he loved; the body was cast from his wife, a sculptor who advised him on how to use parchment for the skin, and the arm holding the lantern was cast from the girlfriend who came after the wife. Originally, the wife's dark hair was used, but later it was replaced by the hair of his blond girlfriend. His lovers were both the objects of his work and his collaborators. Apparently, some of his earlier works were painted with his semen and there were collages made of hair. An atmosphere of spirited taxidermy then, or perhaps of fervent erotic devotion in the compulsion to immortalize...what? A person—a feeling—a purpose? 

          Étant donnés is always translated into English as Given, but the French title is plural. More than one thing is being given. The work's full title is, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage or, in English, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas. Doesn't that sound like a detective listing the clues or perhaps offering viewers a chess-like strategy for solving the question of meaning?

          The waterfall in Étant donnés is a kitschy, illuminated, trickling rainbow like a vision from a fairytale or dreamscape, a strange mixture of nature and artifice. The water appears to be falling because it's made from translucent plastic backed by rotating discs powered by a motor housed in a biscuit tin. The gas light actually illuminates and is held up by the raised hand of the girl; if she is meant to be dead, then how are we to imagine she is holding up her arm? She must be illuminating a clue. Perhaps she—the object of desire—is able to direct us powerfully and posthumously. But where?

          The off-putting title of one speculative article I found online is "Duchamp's Eroticism: A Mathematical Analysis." The artist Hannah Wilke who was "repulsed" by Étant donnés did a performance in which she took the place of the nude. Another critic I stumbled on earnestly concluded that the waterfall symbolized piss and the gaslight was farts.

More and more, I'm convinced we live in a Tower of Babel, that we all speak different languages but want to be able to understand, and be understood. Yoko and John shared a deeply personal interpretation and experienced it as the epiphany of love. I understand Duchamp as having wanted—and had—the last word; his meaning dies with him and yet is immortalized in the enigma of his lifework. 

          That we have such widely divergent reactions and interpretations about everything under the sun doesn't make any of us right or wrong, just desperate to justify our own claim to meaning and, perhaps, we feel a teeny bit Godlike when we succeed in making our case. But by that logic, every interpretation is merely a declaration of self, never an objective declaration of truth. Is my interpretation. For the moment.

If you made it this far (congratulations), you might be wondering what the hell is my point in all this. That's what I've been wondering all night. Is this perhaps more absurd than the guy who vigorously defends farts as a valid interpretation of a gaslightbecause at least he's trying to make a case for something. What am I doing so earnestly and imperfectly here?

          What I'm attempting isn't a scholarly investigation of avant-garde art, nor is it a feminist critique of art history and the male gaze, not a misogynist defense of rape-culture, not an existential argument for or against meaning, not a celebration of the triumph of John and Yoko (maybe that).

          What if the peephole through Duchamp's gate, beyond his smashed brick wall, allows us to glimpse the origin of all things, life and death, exposed like a terrible, gorgeous, bewildering truth? 

          What if all I do is raise a lantern, looking for my own Paradise?

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