Monday, October 16, 2017

TEXT FROM PRINT ESSAY ON JOSEPHINE MECKSEPER'S WORK, FOR NGV (NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA)

54 NGV MAGAZINE #6

 triennial spotlight 55


TRIENNIAL SPOTLIGHT

JOSEPHINE

MECKSEPER

Josephine Meckseper’s richly
coded conceptual works reveal
the artist’s unflinching analysis
of political aesthetics. Writer
Aimee Walleston interrogates
the art of the German-born,
American-based artist, and
discovers a continuous
dialogue of opposing dogmas.


The work of Josephine Meckseper is foregrounded
in an examination of society’s penchant for
consuming itself through its own objects, images
and ideas. Meckseper grew up in Germany but
moved to the United States to attend graduate
school at the California Institute of the Arts
(CalArts), and currently resides in New York.
As a European artist who is in, but not of, the
United States, Meckseper utilises her doubled
identity – possessing both inside knowledge
and outside perspective – to create a discursive
practice that ping-pongs from coolly detached
social and cultural criticism to hotly invested
political provocation. The artist employs a broad
range of media using painting, sculpture, print
publishing and film to create individual works and
installations hallmarked by an arch appropriation
of the seductive surfaces of retail display. By
creating sculptures that often read like a shopper’s
paradise – as seen through a one-way mirrored
lens of commodity fetishism – Meckseper instructs
her audience to step back and reconsider not
the commodity itself, but the formal vessels of
commerce (mirrored display cases, glass vitrines)
that underpin the idiom of commercial transaction.

For the NGV Triennial, Meckseper has
created an installation that expands upon her
previous inquiries, in part by reckoning with
the contrasting ideologies of Neoclassism and
Modernism. Taking dynamic form in the space is
Las Meninas (2Xist), 2013, a sculpture consisting
of a tall glass vitrine containing several objects
and images. Meckseper first began making her
sculptural vitrines around the year 2000. These
works often showcase meaning-laden objects
and images that allude to ostensibly opposing
dogmata. For example, a 2004 window display,
titled Selling out, juxtaposed the collected
documents of the left-wing revolutionary group
the Angry Brigade with pantyhose packaging,
menswear and cologne bottles. Las Meninas
(2Xist) includes within it an oversized image
appropriated from men’s underwear packaging
featuring a bare-chested male model with the

same muscled physique found in classical Greek
and Roman statuary, its price tag attached
with a wink. The model is Neoclassical, and his
heroic pose and polished torso resemble the
images of youthful vigour celebrated during the
Third Reich – denoting an idea of the human
form as locus for a politics of suppression and
objectification. This image is countered with a
replica of Constantin Brancusi’s 1938 sculpture
Endless column, one of three sculptures
created by the artist to honour Romanian First
World War soldiers who had defended the city
of Târgu Jiu against the Central Powers.

Meckseper’s sculpture creates a space
where one can meditate upon the tendency
for art and aesthetics to be adopted – and
exploited – by regimes both commercial and
political. Complementing this vitrine, and central
to Meckseper’s NGV Triennial installation,
is a narrative film tilted PELLEA[S], 2016–17,
which takes its core narrative and dialogue
from the Flemish Symbolist playwright Maurice
Maeterlinck’s 1892 play Pelléas et Mélisande.
Made into an opera in 1902 by Claude Debussy,
the original narrative of Pelléas et Mélisande is a
classic love triangle, where Mélisande marries
Prince Golaud but falls in love with his brother,
Pelléas. In Meckseper’s re-imagining, gender roles
are inverted and subverted: Pellea[s] becomes a
stand-in for Melisande, and Golaud[e] is reborn as
a feminine character.

Like the world of traditional opera, the world
of popular narrative film has not often expressed
awareness of the normative gender expressions
that dominate its characterisations and storylines.
The term ‘male gaze’ originated in the 1975 essay
by Laura Mulvey ‘Visual pleasure and narrative
cinema’, although its origin – a feminist critique of
popular film – is rarely cited. In her essay, Mulvey
employed the lens of psychoanalysis to explore
the idea that, ‘Unchallenged, mainstream film
coded the erotic into the language of the dominant
patriarchal order … The determining male gaze
projects its phantasy onto the female figure which
is styled accordingly’. While the male gaze remains
the dominant perspective in popular film to this
day, in PELLEA[S], this gaze and these narrative
modalities are probed and upended, bringing
about new questions related to storytelling, gender
and objectification. Of the film, Meckseper says:

PELLEA[S] speaks Melisande’s lines,
and becomes a soft, fragile figure.
And Golaud[e] becomes more of an
authority figure, so the narrative of the
film pushes against the traditional gender
roles in opera, where women are usually
portrayed as vulnerable. Traditional
opera has very few empowered
female characters. I’m interested in
creating an alternative perspective,
something that looks at opera and film
– these overdetermined forms – from a
completely different angle.

While this is the artist’s first time delving
into narrative film, she identifies an unexpected
precursor to her work in the form of a serialised
publication she created in the mid 1990s,
FAT (1994–2000). Framed as a ‘commercial’
publication, FAT was designed in what Meckseper
has described as a ‘tabloid style’, and was
distributed internationally in retail stores. While
playfully reproducing ‘mass’ cultural tastes, the
publication also featured the writing and work of
avant-garde artists and thinkers, such as Dara
Birnbaum and Sylvère Lotringer. ‘In some ways,
this film is connected to FAT’, says Meckseper. ‘I
am interested in taking mainstream media, like film
and publishing, and making it into artwork.’

This conceptual approach is common in
Meckseper’s realm. Although PELLEA[S] derives
its narrative and characters from a well-known
historical work, critical discourse around the
contemporary political climate in the United States
is very much at its centre. The film opens with
high-contrast black-and-white footage Meckseper
shot during the inauguration of President Trump in
early 2017. The artist focuses on the architecture
of Washington D.C., revealing its odd mashup
of Neoclassical ‘wedding cake’ architecture and
statuary (including the iconic Jefferson Memorial)
set against modernist structures, such as the
Brutalist architecture of the Hirshhorn Museum and
Sculpture Garden. ‘It’s a conversation between
modernism and the Neoclassical, played out
through architecture’, says Meckseper.

In her examination of these forms, the artist
also makes reference to the study of sexuality and
space: in the film, for example, the hyper-phallic
Washington Monument is depicted opposing the
circular edifices of the Hirshhorn Museum. By
creating subtle comparisons that reveal gender
codes implicit in architectural forms, the artist calls
to mind architecture historian Beatriz Colomina’s
seminal 1992 essay, ‘The split wall: domestic
voyeurism’, wherein the author stated: ‘Architecture
is not simply a platform that accommodates
the viewing subject. It is a viewing mechanism
that produces the subject’. Colomina’s point, in
essence, is that there is no objectivity –
or asexuality – in architecture, as the voice of its
creators influences the people who reside in and
around it.

Meckseper’s film delves into the layers
of overt and covert political machinations that
define the United States’ contemporary political
climate, lingering on images of protest during the
inauguration that recall an earlier video piece by
the artist, 4.30.92, 1992. In this work, Meckseper
filmed five CalArts students on a rooftop in
Los Angeles who were preparing to document
a performance. The piece was unexpectedly
reframed by the Rodney King protest. Says the
artist, ‘I created a 24-hour performance piece
that was loosely based on Situationism. The
Rodney King riots occurred while the performance was taking
place, and they became a part of the piece – it was a minimal
performance taken over by reality, becoming theatrical’. From
an overhead point-of-view, the video traces police cars and
billowing smoke, noting the aesthetics of traumatic disorder
that emerged spontaneously in the face of gross injustice.

Perhaps the most enticing element in PELLEA[S] is
Meckseper’s documentation of the ‘grand pageant’ of the
inauguration proper, which features stark images of soldiers in
formation marching down the National Mall. This footage – often
filmed from an aerial perspective – bears resemblance to the
Third Reich’s propaganda films, making Meckseper’s implied
critique of the United States’ new regime all the more damning.
‘This election is the contemporary drama of our time’, she says. ‘I
wanted to make work that recognised both the private space and
the public space. And I wanted to create an original narrative, not
just a reaction.’

The soundtrack that accompanies the footage is a rendition
of German avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg’s 1903
‘symphonic poem’ Pelleas und Melisande, which adds another
layer of political meaning to the work (Schoenberg, who was
Jewish, moved to the United States in 1934 after the Nazi
party labelled his work ‘degenerated music’). ‘The footage
in Washington D.C. looks timeless, but of course the event is
already historicised. And opera itself exists as a mythical space
– it’s always in its own time and place, so the juxtaposition of the
two starts to fictionalise reality’, says Meckseper. By creating a
film that intertwines history and the present-day, masculine and
feminine, reaction and revolution, Meckseper reveals the many
complexities that underscore the one question that arguably
defines the United States in 2017: How did we get here? In
true Meckseper fashion, the artist allows the answer to remain
permanently, and radically, in flux.

JOSEPHINE MECKSEPER’S WORK WILL FEATURE IN THE NGV TRIENNIAL FROM
15 DECEMBER 2017 TO 15 APRIL 2018 AT NGV INTERNATIONAL.



READING NEXT TUESDAY, 10/24



ARAS (The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism) presents
EKPHRAZEIN V: THE MIRROR

Featuring poetry readings by Alina Gregorian, Aldrin Valdez and Aimee Walleston
and music by Rachel Brotman & Brooke Herr

Tuesday, October 24th, 7pm
Admission: $12 collected at the door

Here's a poem I read: 

EATING A MIRROR

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you actually got it? I didn’t know it was possible. What I wanted was to eat the mirror, to make it crack inside my mouth, to make it take me back in time. I swallowed the mirror, and it cut me inside, and blood ran down my throat and into my stomach. And then here I was again. Twelve years old. Watching her do the same things. Wanting to love her despite the fact that there wasn’t any room for it. There was only room for a standing ovation. It was standing room only. It was a crowded theater. It is too crowded to hear—she never heard. In the mirror she looks beautiful, then and now. Her mind doesn’t race with beautiful thoughts. It races with thoughts of beauty. How long will this last? How long can I keep this up? I can’t keep it up too much longer. When I look in the mirror, I see myself at 18. I’ve always been 18. I feel like I’m 18. I am 18 going on 18, 18 as a rose. I was born in 1950. I was my father’s favorite girl. I was my father’s only girl. Then and now, the mirror tells me that I am daddy’s little girl. I was never daddy’s little girl. I only wanted daddy’s little girl to hold me up. She inhales deeply. She looks away. She thinks tobacco thoughts. I should have more than this. I am better than this. Only he knows this. Only he knew this. In the mirror, daddy’s love grows to twice its own size. To a few times its own size. To several times its own size. To a dozen times its own size. To a baker’s dozen times its own size. To many times its own size. To five score times its own size. To a forpet times its own size. To tentywise its own size. To twelvtywise its own size. To a pennyland times its own size. To a hundrath times its own size. To an oxgang times its own size. It begins to wiggle and bend. It is a funhouse mirror, and I’m short and shimmy. Her hair stands up. He calls me Susie. A hope, a wish, a prayer, a spell. You look just like her! Not in the mirror. I want to feel her love. I want it so much that the mirror inside me sends me another, almost the same. A mirror reflection, slightly askew. A nose where the eyes should be. A mouth where the face should be. A lip where the breast should be. A chin where the ear should be. A shriek where the heart should be. Will I notice? Does it matter? I’m a little girl. I can have a fantasy. Just me and her. No one will hurt us. My dream is a lie. She needs him. She can’t see herself in the mirror without him. She needs to be held up by some prop, human or artificial. She needs him to stand behind her, his arms slung under hers. His hands clasped over her heart. She needs this so that she may see herself. She’ll turn into smoke and the mirror will crack. I forgot this. I remember it now. Now that the mirror is inside me, it tells me everything with tiny cuts. I can’t pretend anymore. I can’t make it something it never was. I vomit the shards of mirror back up. They shimmer on my tongue. I grind them in my teeth. The mirror turns to dust, and I spit it out. Then it turns into air. 


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ARAS is pleased to announce an evening of ekphrastic poetry and music. Coming from the Greek ek, "out," and phrasis, "speak," the verb ekphrazein means to call a visual object by name. It is the description of one artwork by another medium, thus allowing each form to illuminate and enhance the other. Come see what new forms arise as three poets and a musical duo perform works in response to the archetype of the Mirror.

The performances will be followed by a wine reception in the archive.


ARAS (
The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism)  is a pictorial and written archive of mythological, ritualistic, and symbolic images from all over the world and from all epochs of human history. The collection probes the universality of archetypal themes and provides a testament to the deep and abiding connections that unite the disparate factions of the human family.

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ARTIST BIOS:

RACHEL BROTMAN & BROOKE HERR have been working collaboratively since 2016. They make multimedia compositions using two voices, live sampling and manipulation, and video-visual performance elements. Pulling from very different backgrounds, their process of creation is contingent upon a hybrid approach—a fidelity to holding the polished and the unpolished in the same space. Their previous works include "I Live in Symbols" (premiered at Not Art Presents, at BKSD, December 2016), "Helpless" (premiered at Brackish, March 2016) and "Dead Snake" (premiered at Brackish, March 2016).

ALINA GREGORIAN is a writer and artist whose chapbooks include Flags for Adjectives (Diez) and Navigational Clouds (Monk Books). Alina hosts a video poetry series on HuffPost and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

ALDRIN VALDEZ is a Pinoy writer and visual artist. They grew up in Manila and Long Island and currently live in Brooklyn. Aldrin studied at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts. They have been awarded fellowships from Queer/Art/Mentorship and Poets House. Their work has appeared in Art21 Magazine, ArtSlant, The Cortland Review, Nat Brut, Poor Claudia, the Poetry Project's The Recluse, and elsewhere. Aldrin's first book of poetry will be published by Nightboat Books in 2018.

AIMEE WALLESTON is a New York City-based essayist and editor who has contributed writing to Art in America, CR Fashion Book, T Magazine, Flash Art and The Brooklyn Rail, among many other publications. She teaches at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and the International Center of Photography.

Friday, October 13, 2017

GARAGE ONLINE: AI WEIWEI

Exclusive Interview: Ai Weiwei Fences Himself In

Ai Weiwei's multipartite new public project for New York ruffled feathers even in its planning stages. Does the just-unveiled suite of works, which takes the security fence as a central motif, break down any barriers?

"Mending one's fences"—an odd colloquialism for repairing damaged relationships—suggests that the failure of humanity to align with peace and unity might directly mirror our need to constantly erect and patrol boundaries. Through his sprawling new 300-plus work site-specific public enterprise, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, Ai Weiwei would seem to agree. Opening across New York City on October 12, Ai's project—which eschews idiomatic brevity in favor of a sprawling citywide takeover—is composed of three grandiose installations and several sculptural interventions, alongside 200 individual lamppost banners featuring the portraits of historic and contemporary immigrants. And as has become customary for the artist, the project attracted controversy from the get-go, in particular from Washington Square locals who saw it as an unwarranted political intervention in a supposedly agenda-free public space (it didn't help matters that the work will displace the square's traditional Christmas tree). 
The overarching image of the security fence is also, of course, hardly a neutral one. Ai told GARAGE: "The Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989. At that time, there were only [about] eleven fences worldwide. Now there are over 70. So fences as territory [markers] always relate to our understanding of ourselves, and our attitudes toward others, both economic and political. It's an urgent topic for everyone to be conscious of, especially in the US, which is limiting refugees from entering, and also pushing away the people who [already] live and work here." While the work is unequivocally "about" forced migration and the refugee crisis, it is also very much about the artist himself—his experiences as an immigrant coming to New York from China, his work as a human rights advocate, and his biography as one of the most visible cultural irritants of his time. 
Ai Weiwei, Circle Fence, 2017. Powder coated mild steel, polypropylene netting. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Timothy Schenck, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
The logistical details of Good Fences Make Good Neighbors are of a magnitude that gives serious pause; this is a vast and, literally, exhaustive undertaking. The actual experience of the artworks as installed is more refreshing—albeit inconsistent. At the World's Fair Unisphere behind the Queens Museum in Flushing, the artist riffs on the fence with a winsome interactive installation, Circle Fence, composed of a 1,000-foot hammock that completely encircles the landmark metal globe. The sculpture, made of mesh hammock fabric connected by dozens of metal stanchions, provides visitors with endless opportunities to recline and Instagram.
Gilded Cage, another large sculpture on the southeast corner of Central Park, is essentially a human-sized metal birdcage enclosing old-school "metal tooth" security turnstiles of the kind still found in NYC subway stations. Of the work's golden surface, Ai claims, with implied sarcasm, "I made the sculpture gold to please [Trump]—it's very friendly." But while it may do our leader right, the sculpture feels contrived. Along with the installations, Ai is displaying 98 of his own documentary images detailing his "research" at refugee camps, including the Shariya Camp in Iraq. These images and portraits appear across the five boroughs on bus shelters, lamppost banners and kiosks. And in a few days, the artist's new documentary on the refugee crisis, Human Flow, will open in New York and Washington, D.C.
Ai Weiwei, Gilded Cage, 2017. Mild steel, paint. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio/ Frahm & Frahm. Photo: Ai Weiwei Studio, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY 
Ai's is the type of artwork that has recently become, in a certain sense, beyond criticism, because its content is human suffering itself. Whether or not one questions the artist's sincerity—and many have—the exhibition signals an acutely didactic emphasis, one particularly notable in an artist demonstrably capable of subtle poetic nuance. For example, his June 1994 photograph of artist Lu Qing lifting her skirt to expose her white panties at the gate of the Forbidden City on the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen demonstrations is a work that expresses politics with wit and sensuality. And the artist's more recent exhibition at Deitch Projects in New York, Laundromat—wherein he displayed the belongings of 15,000 evicted Syrian refugees—delivered "show don't tell" refinement. Clearly the nature of public political art now is that the "message" must be more immediately readable to a large audience. If that's the case, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors succeeds—though it's a lengthy read, and rendered in bold type.
Aimee Walleston is a New York-based essayist and editor. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, presented by Public Art Fund, is on view at various locations in New York City through February 11, 2018.

Friday, October 6, 2017

GARAGE ONLINE: At MoMA: What’s Art, What’s Fashion, and What’s Design?



At MoMA:
What’s Art, What’s Fashion, and What’s Design?

Aimee Walleston looks forward at MoMA’s new fashion-centric exhibition, "Items: Is Fashion Modern?", and back at the exhibition’s predecessor, 1944’s "Are Clothes Modern?"

How does clothing transform into "fashion design"—and when do those designs become art? Looking to provide some answers, Items: Is Fashion Modern? is, remarkably, the Museum of Modern Art's first fashion-centric exhibition in 73 years. Though one might expect this vast gap to impel the institution toward defining fashion as an art form in the present moment, Senior Curator Paola Antonelli and Curatorial Assistant Michelle Millar Fisher have chosen to collect 111 "items" oriented by (according to a wall text) "their influence on the world over the past one hundred years." 
The show opens with a row of undergarments—including a pair of Band-Aid-hued Spanx underpinnings and a pertly expectant 1990s-era Wonderbra—presented dramatically in a black vitrine. While a team of fashion-world advisors (including Penny Martin, editor of The Gentlewoman, and Shayne Oliver, designer for Hood by Air and Helmut Lang) were enlisted to consult on the exhibition, a good percentage of the garments on display are things one might find (or have found) at a big-box retailer, from a Hanes white cotton t-shirt to a fleece jacket. The curators pair each "item" with a tripartite explication organized according to "archetype," "stereotype," and "prototype." The focus leans heavily on stereotype, a categorization which is "subjective but drew on collective consciousness." In a filmed interview with MoMA director Glenn Lowry (who, during the proceedings, unexpectedly confesses to a shoe fetish), Antonelli explains that, "The stereotype is . . . close your eyes, and if you think of that item, what do you see?" The ur-hoodie, for example, is channeled through a red Champion pullover that hovers in solitude on one wall, like a ghost from the '80s. In many instances, the designation is less of an exact science (several items are represented through multiple garments, making the specific "stereotype" rather murky). The archetype—that item's antecedent—is represented solely by contextual wall text that traces the item's historical lineage. The prototype—which accompanies only a third of the items and was often commissioned by the institution—is comprised of a "modern" innovation to the stereotype. The little black dress is shown in several stereotypical forms, including an iconic 1925–27 beaded silk chiffon and satin evening dress designed by Coco Chanel. It is followed by a "prototype" that harkens toward dystopic science fiction: designer Pia Interlandi's 2017 Little Black (Death) Dress, a black embroidered body bag overdyed with thermochromatic ink—the same substance used by clothing brand Generra in their faddish Hypercolor t-shirts from the early '90s. The dye allows the warm hands of mourners touching the deceased's body to leave temporarily visible handprints on the garment.
Items' focus on its garments' intrinsic design qualities, over their affect when worn on the moving body, can sometimes make the presentation feel evacuated, as though a crowd of people walked out naked and left only their clothing behind. A selection of historic and contemporary videos helps enliven the galleries, which are otherwise dominated by static mannequins, vitrines, and apparel flattened against the walls. A black tunic and matching pompom shorts from the spring/summer 2014 "Vicious" collection by Paris-based American designer Rick Owens is complemented by a video of Owens' Paris fashion week presentation of the same collection, featuring members of four American step dance troupes (Washington Divas, Soul Steppers, Momentum, and Zetas) performing an 11-minute routine. A Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore-tinged poetic meditation on the turtleneck ( T = Turtleneck) by young Muslim designer Hana Tajima accompanies a 1980 black cotton jersey Issey Miyake turtleneck—a Steve Jobs favorite. Donna Karan's 1985 Seven Easy Pieces collection is joined by an ultra-'80s "power woman" brand film directed by Denis Piel, in which a voiceover asks: "Are successful women different from other women? We're all just lookin' for a little admiration; to walk into a room and have someone say, 'Ahhh, there she is.'" 
Installation view of Items: Is Fashion Modern? Photograph by Martin Seck courtesy of the Modern Museum of Art.
With its phenomenological approach to its subject matter, Items may qualify better as a design exhibition rather than a fashion one, recalling Antonelli's 2004 MoMA exhibition Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design, a celebration of commonplace objects (M&Ms, Post-It notes) positioned as "service design." In the current exhibition, one finds a less-than-servile (though somewhat one-off) gesture to contemporary politics in the curatorial designation of Colin Kaepernick's 49ers jersey to archly represent the standard football top. This refreshingly subjective inclusion provides something of a bridge to the exhibition's far more radical precursor: the 1944 Are Clothes Modern?, curated by MoMA's then-Director of Apparel Research, Bernard Rudofsky. At the time, Time called Rudofsky's presentation—the only other fashion exhibition in MoMA's history— "a strange but provocative show," and cited museum officials who declared the traveling presentation "'violently popular.'" Where the current exhibition presents an expressly objective survey (not the items the curators personally deem important but more what culture itself has decreed vital) Rudofsky was almost inversely inspired: his exhibition proposed a cultural revolution in the ways in which people dressed themselves. Rudofsky, a professional architect and polymath, found the manner in which Western culture dictated fashion to be utterly absurd, bordering on pathological. (Commissioned to give a series of lectures at Black Mountain College, he titled one: "How Can People Expect to Have Good Architecture When They Wear Such Clothes?") In Rudofsky's obituary, the New York Times called Are Clothes Modern? "an examination of the incompatibility of the human body and clothing." In the show itself, Rudofsky included scolding sections titled "The Desire to Conform" and "The Abuse of Materials." In Items, homage is paid to Rudofsky in the form of four 1944 plaster models—"Body Idols"—that he and sculptor Constantino Nivola made to bemoan bourgeois fashion's historic cruelty to the female body. Each—including a haplessly swaybacked creature with a giant monobosom titled The One-Breasted Gibson Girl with Lordosis—reveal what the naked female form would look like if it were to physically mirror the artificial fashion silhouettes that shaped it. 
In the press release for Are Clothes Modern?, Rudofsky posits: "It is strange that dress has been generally denies the status of art, when it is actually a most happy summation of esthetic, philosophic and psychological components." The current presentation at MoMA leans toward positioning its "items" more as functional design than art, suggesting that—from this institution's perspective—garments can aspire to the status of "important design," but fashion itself still has yet to qualify as an art form. While one can speculate on this aversion, it might be more worthwhile to consider Rudofsky's impassioned stance: "While painting, sculpture and dance have very definite limitations, dress at its best not only comprises notable elements of these arts, but its sovereign expressiveness through form, color, rhythm—it has to be worn to be alive—its intimate relation to the very source and standard of all esthetic evaluations, the human body, should make it the supreme achievement among the arts."

Saturday, July 8, 2017

THE SOUND THAT THE LOOKING GLASS MAKES (poem commissioned by Miriam Atkin for the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism)

Jungian dreams do come true. Below is an ekphrastic poem I wrote for the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS)  at the C.G. Jung Center. It is based on the symbol of the mirror. You may also read it on their site: aras.org

MIRROR
THE SOUND THAT THE LOOKING-GLASS MAKES
by Aimee Walleston
On Sunday, January 29, 1939, Virginia Woolf wrote a diary entry detailing her experience meeting an elderly Sigmund Freud at his home in London. At this, their first and only encounter (he would die this same year), Freud presented Woolf with a single narcissus flower. In the same year, Woolf wrote an autobiographical essay titled “A Sketch of the Past,” in which she describes a feeling state that has been with her since she was a child: “the looking-glass shame.” She writes that she cannot look in the mirror and take pleasure in her own appearance, though she knows she was born to a family admired for its feminine beauty. She describes how difficult it is for her to walk into a room wearing a new dress—how self-conscious this experience makes her feel. In this essay, Woolf also describes being sexually abused as a child, and her “tomboy phase” in the years following. She contemplates an unexplained psychic condition of losing time that she calls the “cotton-wool”—a figure of speech that I believe she has designated for the lingering dissociative states many people experience, particularly those who were abused as children. In a dissociative state, individuals spontaneously “tune out” the world. During abuse, children often involuntarily dissociate to keep their sanity intact, and this becomes a way of negotiating reality after the abuse has ended. I am struck by the names Woolf gave to these sensations, and by her effort to make sense of them. I think about Freud’s potentially symbolic gift of the narcissus, a flower that directly connotes both an obsession with gazing into mirrors and an overvaluation of one’s own reflection. To me, Freud’s narcissus represents a psychological polarity to the looking-glass shame. I wonder what Freud knew, without knowing, about Woolf.
In this poem, I have taken excerpts from Woolf’s essay and her diary entry and reformed them. I wanted to peer into Woolf’s looking-glass shame from a different angle—from my own perspective. I’ve also added in my own lines, to join Woolf as a sister might.  

Every day includes more non-being than being.
What would the looking-glass say, if it could speak? I’m so sorry. Not now.
Immense potential, I mean an old fire now flickering.
There is always too much of me to hate. There is never enough of me to hate.
Dr. Freud gave me a narcissus.
When I stand here I can barely look at you. I can’t think about you looking at me. I can’t look at myself.
I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts.
It opened its mouth. It was made all of petals. It did not stop.
I can’t remember the last time I could stop. A mirror that had a mind of its own and could not stop.
I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.
You want it all to make sense. You want to tie it up with ribbons and bows. You want it to have a beginning and an end, like a book. You want it to be all over.
At any rate, the looking-glass shame has lasted all my life, long after the tomboy phase was over.
A mirror that eats people. A mirror that eats itself. A mirror that grows up. A mirror that boys up. A screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkeys light eyes, paralysed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert.
You know. You can see it.
It doesn’t hide itself from you anymore. It wants you to see it. For now.
As a child then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton-wool, this non-being.
Where should we put the mirror? I am hardly aware of myself, but only of the sensation. Where does the mirror belong? A great part of the day is not lived consciously.
Who belongs to the mirror? Who belongs in the mirror?
I could feel ecstasies and raptures spontaneously and intensely and without any shame or the least sense of guilt, so long as they were disconnected with my own body.
Do you find my appearance pleasing? Do I please you? I remember resenting, disliking it—what is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling?
You can do whatever you want to me. I’m not even here.
Just as I raised my fist to hit him I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me.
I can’t feel you anymore. I don’t care.
I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness.
I don’t have to see it if I don’t want to. I don’t have to do anything.
I dreamt that I was looking in a glass when a horrible face—the face of an animal—suddenly showed over my shoulder.
Generation before the poison will be worked out. It isn’t even my face.
Bleed the mirror. Pull out all its petals.

AIMEE WALLESTON is a New York City-based essayist and editor who has contributed writing to Art in America, CR Fashion Book, T Magazine, Flash Art and The Brooklyn Rail, among many other publications. She teaches at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and the International Center of Photography. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

REMEMBERING JOHN BERGER


I'll be reading from Chapter 3 in Ways of Seeing at this event:

 

John Berger Tribute


Thursday, January 19, 6:30 p.m.
132 W 21st Street, 6th Floor, NYC
“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together.” —John Berger. 
Join us in commemorating the life and work of John Berger (November 5, 1926 – January 2, 2017). An evening of readings by faculty, students and alumni of the MFA in Art Writing program, in addition to personal testimonies by those who knew him. 
We will celebrate what he meant to us: a great storyteller and peerless critic, whose lifework took the shape of a pocket of resistance.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

KRISTINA BUCH'S 2016 LECTURE AT ISCP



I first encountered Kristina Buch in 2012, when she was "the youngest artist exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13)" and I wrote about her contribution for Art in America. In the years since, I've followed her work, and we've continued a conversation we began at our first intersect. In my darkest moments, it is the work of an artist like Kristina that allows me—and perhaps even commands me—to believe in a future for art. Or in a future, period.  

Her lecture, held on December 6, 2016 at ISCP, was, for me, one of the more edifying experiences of 2016. And I am pleased to share a link to the recording of it below.

This is what an artist with a soul looks like: