Or, Dying, “What does it feel like?”
Torvald Helmer: Oh, you think and talk like a heedless child.
Nora, his wife: Maybe. But you neither think nor talk like the man I could bind myself to. As soon as your fear was over—and it was not fear for what threatened me, but for what might happen to you—when the whole thing was past, as far as you were concerned it was exactly as if nothing at all had happened. Exactly as before, I was your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile. [Getting up.] Torvald—it was then it dawned upon me that for eight years I had been living here with a strange man, and had borne him three children—. Oh, I can’t bear to think of it! I could tear myself into little bits! [Henrik Ibsen, Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House), Act III]
The pictured sculpture, No Life Lost II (2015), was made by Berlinde De Bruyckere, a Belgian artist (1964–) who, at her best, is extraordinary. The photograph—an “installation view” of the sculpture—is by Mirjam Devriendt (1961–), also Belgian and best known for her photographs of De Bruyckere’s work. It is worth noting that, while most photographs of art works are “just” photographs, in this case the photograph itself is a work of art. So it might seem that we are here considering two works. One is a photograph that we can see rather directly, as it is: digital and two-dimensional. The other is a three-dimensional object which we seek to imagine from the photograph. But we cannot imagine what an experience of the object might be—in a gallery, where we could walk around the object and see it from various angles, and where our experience would be influenced not only by lighting, but also by the decor and air of the gallery, by the other people there, by a person who might be sharing her observations with us or who might be absent, not having wanted or been able to join us.
When I first saw No Life Lost II, in a recent show at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York, A Doll’s House came to mind. This had something to do with the theatricality—the sculpture’s glass cabinet raised a bit off the ground, like a stage, and the whole spot-lit in a large dark space. The cabinet itself—there had been furniture like this in a production of A Doll’s House that I saw in London not too long ago. But clearly there was also a more intuitive, elemental connection, as between the dead horses and Torvald and Nora’s marriage or their three children.
I cannot say that I “know”—or can put my finger on—what or all that this connection is. The present text is an exploration that will begin with these intimations. The philosopher of art John Armstrong has championed “reverie”:
the state of giving ourselves up to the flow of associations. . . . a mode of introducing personal material into a picture or building. [I]t brings an abundance of thoughts and feelings into play. It also frees us from merely following routine assumptions.
I have had in mind, too, free associating in a psychoanalytic session. One begins with associations, as little censored as possible, and from there one may be led to understandings and to further associations. It is a Bakhtinian process, unfinalizable, each ventured observation leading, dialectically or otherwise, to more possibilities. (And how, then, can the present text come to an end? I was strongly influenced by the power of three, that is, the idea that things that come in threes are more satisfying than other numbers of things. Hence, after the third literary association, there will be, more or less, no other.)
It is a great strength of De Bruyckere’s best work that it leaves no room for analytic thinking and perhaps even for feeling. By this existing-beyond criteria, No Life Lost II is the best De Bruyckere piece I have seen. The work creates a space, not small, in which the viewer is alone with the work and its power. And if, emerging from gallery onto street, the viewer wished to describe his experience—well, he could speak about it, as I am doing here, and he could describe the components of De Bruyckere’s construction, as I will. But such gestures would leave his, or her, experience back in the gallery with the work.
To show by contrast what I mean, I offer the image at right. It is of one of De Bruyckere’s suite of watercolor and pencil drawings entitled Met tere huid (Of tender skin). I quite liked these pieces, but, I am proposing, this work is not on the same level as No Life Lost, and this because we could get talking right away and directly about Met tere huid.
What is it?
“[T]hese drawings reference the bodily tones of freshly flayed animal skins,” text from the gallery states.
Perhaps, and how about, too, a woman’s haut de cuisses (upper thighs)?
“No, no!”—you disagree.
That’s fine. My point is that we are, right away, finding words, engaged in a dialogue. And, by contrast, No Life Lost stops us, stops our tongues and the wheels within, if only momentarily.
I think of the Platonic conception of aporia, of the handsome young oligarch Alcibiades, besieged by Socrates’s questions, exclaiming, “By all the gods, Socrates, I no longer know what I want to say.” Whereupon Socrates responds that the real work of learning can now begin.
An essential feature of No Life Lost II: it is a non-story. That is, one of our first responses may well be that something has happened here. These horses have been in some way mistreated and disposed of, and in some kind of a shameful way—that cloth covering the one head, this dragging or dropping of these beasts into a place they do not belong. And we might leap from this to another, comforting possibility—there must be someone or some social force to blame, some political position to adopt!
But how can this be? We’re given no accompanying text to help us by describing horrors, proposing that we contribute to some cause, an NGO. And, logistically, these large bodies cannot have been dragged or dropped inside this piece of furniture. And where is the smell? There is no smell, nor any blood. With its vast, gray cement floor and white walls, the gallery could not have been cleaner or more barren feeling.
Slipping away from aporia, I can write that in the middle of a dimly lit, largely empty, old carriage house of a contemporary art gallery, three dead horses—fabricated not killed, though covered with real skin, shriveled ends of penises—were piled inside a simple, seemingly once handsome, now chipped, glass and wood cabinet such as might have been a feature of a bourgeois, northern European home a century ago. One of the horses, in the back, was smushed under the weight and size of the other two. One of the horse’s heads was covered in cloth. (Like the head of a condemned man, about to be killed? Not quite; the fabric fits too well; it’s sackcloth but not a sack.) The horses were bound with leather straps. There are blankets, a bandage. I am telling you things that—by being descriptions—take you away from the experience of the piece. The whole is more than and cannot be deduced from the sum of the parts. And yet I must add: there is a sense that the horses are at peace, the neck muscles relaxed, heads at rest.
And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)
The second time I went to the Hauser & Wirth show, this scene from Gatsby came to mind. Again, there is a simple architectural connection—the open, wood-framed glass doors of the cabinet; the French windows wide open. There are the riding clothes, and intimations of Tom Buchanan’s cruel body and narrow mind and of the smash-up that must result. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made”.
I went online to see what other people were writing about this show. Herewith my favorite observations:
De Bruyckere has long been making work that might be called provocative were it not for the persistent touch of gentleness, of softness, that is always, always at the core. . . . The shock of De Bruyckere’s work [lies in] its vulnerability, its stark but quiet force, its capacity to resonate in the viscera, its intimation of a lost battle, . . . the way in which life and death, love and aggression, are not separate forces in it . . . (Yevgeniya Traps, The Paris Review blog)
Drafting another piece about another artist’s work, I have come to the phrase “stunning beauty,” with my interest lying particularly in the word “stunning.” As regards No Life Lost II, “enchanting” seems another word to use, and even if the sculpture is a diorama of discarded life and of some kind of cruelty, mistreatment—of the should not have happened. Jean-François Lyotard has connected postmodernism and the sublime with an idea of attempting to present the unpresentable. Adorno’s famous line: „Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch“. (After Auschwitz a poem to write is barbaric. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.) I would speak instead of a wish that we might escape language and the making of meaning. And this as we continue to play, as if mindlessly, with symbols, as with fire.
Yevgeniya Traps also quotes De Bruyckere, speaking about another of the sculptures: “And that is something that I really want to try out also in my own work, that we are above pain and suffering, that we’ve survived it.” Yet not wishful thinking.
She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
(Paul Simon, “Graceland”)
Why do we feel that this sculpture has something to do with love? I am always willing to accept that I impose my experiences, culture, feelings, and current mood on others’ art works. But I have not been the only one to find love in No Life Lost. I can go a step further: there is a sense in which it is not horses, but a family, warm and heavy, that is piled in this vitrine, two in straps, one legless, crushed in the back. Or, more abstractly, what’s on view is a heap of life (and this might be a way of describing a family).
Traps quotes De Bruyckere, speaking before the show opened, perhaps trying too hard to give to writers some words, concepts, autobiography to hang her work on:
It’s always about Eros and Thanatos. . . . [W]hen you are young, you can escape from that, it’s far away. And when you are getting older—I am more than fifty, and my parents, they still live but they are older people . . .
Among the focuses of the present text: ways of writing about works of art, and ways intuition or free association may be used to discover or explore our responses to art and life. Armstrong again: “The value of a personal discovery lies in the fact that not only do we arrive at a helpful conclusion, but that we have experience of how the conclusion was reached. We gain acquaintance with the process of coming to see.” I have also here been lobbying, and not for the first or last time, for the greatness of a certain kind of work—work that lies beyond our analytic capacities. It takes its place in the world of symbols and thus of language. But, stunning us, it—all too momentarily?—does not allow us to make anything of these symbols. This is what we treasure.
I happened to read recently, in a Scientific American article on “The Orgasmic Mind,” about how a Dutch neuroscientist and his colleagues had, inter alia, asked the male partners of twelve women to stimulate their partner’s clitoris while she was inside a positron emission tomography scanner (PET scanner). A conclusion: “At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings.”
Once upon a time, one of my son’s grandmothers, my mother, was quite sick, and he and I were lying together on a couch, watching a scene in a movie that portrayed an elderly person very sick, about to die. Jonah’s question: “What does it feel like?”
— Wm. Eaton
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was published by Serving House Books in 2015. For more, see Surviving the website. The present text is one in an emerging series of postmodern juxtapositions. In this regard, see from the Literary Explorer Bologna Postmodernism Bob Perelman Amis and from Zeteo: O que é felicidade (Corcovado, Kalamazoo). One might also see his Montaigbakhtinian and Surviving essay: On Just Being.
Berlinde De Bruyckere, No Life Lost, Hauser & Wirth, 511 West 18th Street, New York, NY, 28 January – 2 April 2016. Images from the show:
- Berlinde De Bruyckere, No Life Lost II, installation view, Hauser & Wirth, 2016, photograph by Mirjam Devriendt.
- Berlinde De Bruyckere, Met tere huid (Of tender skin), 2015-2016, watercolor and pencil on paper; exhibited at Hauser & Wirth, photograph by Koen Vernimmen.
Henrik Ibsen, Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House), Project Gutenberg e-text, translator unknown.
John Armstrong, Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 78. Please see the original for the correct punctuation. In the first quotation, the punctuation has been jiggered to respond to the flow of my presentation of the idea.
Alcibiades and Socrates as in Alcibiades I [often attributed to Plato], 127D-E. Lines given here are my translations from L’Alcibiade majeur, itself translated into French by Pierre-José About (Hachette, 1980).
Yevgeniya Traps, No Life Lost: The World of Berlinde De Bruyckere, The Paris Review blog, February 18, 2016.
Adorno, “Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft” (Cultural Criticism and Society), 1949; English translation by Shierry Weber Nicholsen and Samuel Weber reprinted in Prisms (MIT Press, 1967). Brian A. Oard’s blogpost Poetry after Auschwitz: What Adorno Really Said, and Where He Said It, March 12, 2011, has been of assistance.
The line about orgasm is from Dutch Neuroscientist Gert Holstege. He was speaking at a 2005 meeting of the European Society for Human Development and Reproduction.” As quoted in Martin Portner, The Orgasmic Mind, Scientific American, April 1, 2008.
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