Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Monolithically


This is the Adamas stone image that I mentioned in the note I added at the end of my previous post.   I've been thinking about it since in relationship to a discussion in my medieval art course earlier this fall.

I taught that course differently this time around, structuring it around the essays in the Medieval Art History Today - Critical Terms volume that was published last spring as a special issue of Studies in Iconography.  In the first half of the semester, I alternated between lectures and discussions of the essays, and in the second half, I only lectured twice and we focused on discussions.  Before each discussion, the students were assigned to do a "reading report" in Blackboard, answering a set of questions about the reading and posing a question or two for our class discussion.  I was able to see these before class and use them to plan the class.

One of the more interesting discussions we had was about Karl Whittington's essay on "Queer."  At this point in the semester, the reading report asked the students to pay special attention to the author's use of previous scholar's work and many of them asked about a word that appeared in one quote in the essay - monolithically.  It's a quote from Eve Sedgewick that defines queer as "the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality, aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically" (p. 157 in the Studies in Iconography volume).  After establishing the basic meaning of monolith as one-stone, I paraphrased the last part of the quote as "when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality" don't or can't be made to act like one big stone.  We were then were able to discuss what it might mean for gender and/or sexuality to be like one big stone - and why neither is really like that at all.

For me, the Adamas stone became the image of that impossible monolith: a perfectly round closed sphere, elevated as perfect up on its mountaintop; but isolated there, stranded outside of any and all relationships. 

But is it really?  Looking at it more closely now, I notice how its black outline not only separates from it from the surrounding parchment, but also flows down into the mountain side and then into the frame of the image and even into the form of the initial above.  And so the very outline that at first seemed to set it apart as a closed form in fact creates connections into the world around it.  Nothing lacks connections.  And I notice that the stone isn't internally consistent: inside of that black outline is a lighter parchment patch, but then a darker center, so that the stone has internal parts that are in relationship to one another.  Relationships don't have to be external.  And so the monolith isn't really monolithic - perfect, closed, whole, independent - and the monolithic is again revealed to be an impossibility.

Karl's essay also set me off on a tangent of readings and re-readings - to Karma Lochrie's Heterosyncrasies and from there to the letters of Abelard and Heloise.  The link being Lochrie's reference to Heloise's discussion of the issue of visitors in the monastery - specifically female visitors in a convent of nuns.  Heloise was worried about their presence as being seductive for the nuns since she writes, in my Penguin volume's translation, that "nothing is so conducive to a woman's seduction as woman's flattery, nor does a woman pass on the foulness of her corrupted mind so readily to any but another woman" (p. 161).  So much for keeping your firestones separate! And yet in reading her letters, what struck me more was her confession of her own continuing desire for Abelard, probably because it seems much more personal, where her discussion of the nuns' visitors is shaped by the official discourse of misogyny.  Her description of lost love also resonated with my own feelings this fall.   She writes: "In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we have shared have been too sweet - they can never displease me, and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts.  Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies that will not even let me sleep...Everything we did and also the times and places are stamped on my heart along with your image so that I live through it all again with you.  Even in sleep I know no respite.  Sometimes my thoughts are betrayed in a movement of my body, or they break out in an unguarded word" (p. 133).  Abelard's response to her broader question about the nuns' situation - no visitors and keeping silence - advises becoming monolithic - closing and isolating the community and the body - and yet her expression of the unwanted effects of desire of her body and her mind shows that to be impossible.  Again, relationships don't have to be external.

Finally, this fall, even as firestones and monoliths have been on my mind, I've been making paintings of various stones that I picked up last summer on the Oregon coast.  These are done in watercolor pencil on hot press paper.  They are small, 2 inches by 1.5 inch; in part because it's easier to get a saturation of color in watercolor when working small, in part because I like small things, and in part because I want them to resemble the paint chips you might get at a hardware store - while being obviously handmade.  The shapes, then, are not meant to replicate the shapes of the stones.  The only qualities of the stones that I am paying attention to are color and texture.  Here are three, photographed with the original stones.  And while each is a single stone, none has the quality of a monolith, for each has overflowed its boundaries to some degree and each has internal variations and differentiations.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Firestones


A pair of firestones, from a twelfth-century English Bestiary.  And the first interesting thing is simply the appearance of stones in a book about beasts: these are beastly stones, then, and so lively rocks.  And as living things, of course, they are gendered.  One category distinction, that between animate and inanimate, is refused and so that another, between male and female, can be extended.  Their gendering is crucial to the meaning that the bestiary text assigns to the stones.  Kept apart, male and female firestones are perfectly safe; but put together, they immediately burst into flame.  Just so its better to the keep male and female religious apart - and for male religious to keep away from women entirely - otherwise the flames of lust will be ignited.

But.  What is curious to me about this and other images of firestones, is the way they downplay the distinction of gender.  Firestones may be male and female, but in these images they don't really look all that different.  In this image in particular, both have long hair that curls down their backs.  Both have big hands in similar poses that make active pointing gestures.  And both have prominent curved shapes on their chests.   The female, on the right, is identified only by her nipples, and the male, on the left, by a beard  But apart from those small signs, they are remarkably similar.  Could this also be, at a first glance and so for a few moments at least, that supposedly safe single-gender environment?  And nevertheless be going up in flames? 


Another set of firestones, from a thirteenth century Bestiary.  At the top of the page, the two are divided, I would assume into that supposedly safe single-gendered environment.  But if that's what it is, then both are alone there.  And they are divided by a tree, but it also joins them together, and gives the scene a very Adam and Eve in the garden kind of feel.   It could be the moment before the fall, which was also a fall into gendered difference: first revealed by Eve's weakness when faced by temptation and by her tempting of Adam, and then reinforced when he is set to work and her to bear children in pain.  But in this image, both of the figures are picking fruits from the tree - together and simultaneously.   And again, the two look remarkably similar: the one on the right maybe has longer hair, but that's about it.  Below, as the central tree disappears, they wrap their arms around each others' shoulders, while flames shoot up from below.  They are essentially mirror images of one another and so I again see that supposedly safe single-gendered combination itself going up in flames.  Maybe the only safety is in solitude?  

*********************************************

A few more thoughts on these after reading Jeffrey Cohen's post on them over at In the Middle and following up his link to the manuscript from which the second comes.

First, in the manuscript, the firestones images appears on the page before the text on firestones.  The text on the page with the image is actually about death - its the conclusion of a longer text on different words for the dead person, the dead body, the funeral, etc.  What an interesting juxtaposition for these very lively stones.  The text about the firestones themselves, then, appears on the following page and mentions both Eve - as having been tempted - and Adam - as the first to have been harmed by the love of women.   That follows up nicely on the Adam and Eve (or Adam and Steve?) suggestion in the firestones image itself.  Finally, the firestones text appears on the page with another image of a very different stone - the adamas stone - and the beginning of the text on this type of rock.  The adamas image is interestingly different, as Jeffrey Cohen points out, as it is shown as a stone not as a human form and it is shown all alone on the top of a mountain.

Maybe maybe maybe, the layout of this manuscript would allow me to mix and match, though, and see the adamas image as a solitary firestone.  That is, as a firestone kept from bursting into flame by being kept carefully apart - not just from stones of the other gender, but from all stones, and really from everything.   Maybe maybe maybe, this rock's splendid isolation pictures my final thought from above - that the only safety lies in solitude.  But then safety also comes with the loss of humanity, the solitary stone's loss of anthropomorphic form.  And finally then, maybe, the lesson here has to do with community.  That only through interaction with others do we become human, but that always bring with it the danger of it going up in flames.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Endings

I've loved this since I first saw it: it's a late Roman sarcophagus with Dionysus, unfortunately now faceless, gloriously sprawling in the center, leaning on one of his followers, and Ariadne, splayed out, asleep at his feet.  She is going to wake up to HIM.  And since this is a sarcophagus, her sleep has to be read as death, and that awakening as a final one, to - as I always say to students when I teach it - an ecstatic erotic encounter with the god.  And so, suddenly, death doesn't seem so bad.

Right now, though, I'm thinking about it a little bit differently.  Because I'm thinking about how sleep is different from death.  Because sleep, and waking from it, repeat - over and over and over again.  Day after day after day.  Where death happens once (and I don't know what if anything happens afterwards).   So as asleep, Ariadne isn't going to awake just once to her encounter with the god, but is going to do so daily, over and over and over again.  To me, that's even better.

Because I love repetition.  I'll read the same books, watch the same movies and tv shows, over and over again.    I make habits easily: to do something for the first time can be very hard for me, but do the same thing twice and it's already a habit.  I will go on to do it over and over again.   I like days to repeat: all Mondays to be the same, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, etc.  I think that is why I've always liked school, because it sets a pattern for the day and the week and the year, that happen over and over again.  The hardest times in my life have been times without that structure: summers as a child, the year I was out of school between high school and college, the period in graduate school when I had finished coursework and was supposed to be writing my dissertation.  The only way I finally did that was by learning to create patterns for myself; mornings are for writing, afternoons for reading or teaching, repeat over and over and over again.  I still use that pattern in the summers.  And it's one of the things I loved about ballet.  Class is always different, but there is a pattern to the exercises (plie, tendu, second tendu, and so one) and exercises contain patterns that repeat (in fours or eights, en croise, en dehors then en dedans, right and then left) over and over again.  My teacher, Barbara, used to set these crazy exercise that began on the right, repeated about half way through on the left, then had a different ending, and then started all over again from the beginning on the left and ended with the partial repeat on the right.  You had to mark those constantly to drill them into your mind.

And not only do I love repetition, but to me repetition feels like love.  I read this passage from Peggy Phelan years ago and it has stuck with me ever since: "love is, among other things, the performance of belief in repetition - that the beloved with return, that each of you will come again."  (Mourning Sex, p. 150)

The relationship I was in for the past few years was never regular and predictable like the rest of my life - the parts that are in my control.  I never knew when he was going to come.  I would get an email or a text and few hours later he would be here.  But, surprisingly, I didn't mind.  Not knowing when it would happen meant that it could happen at any time, on any day.  It was possible every day.   And if I didn't know when he was going to come, I could count on the fact that was going to come again.  Over and over and over again.

But he is not going to come again this time.  And that is very hard for me to accept.  The idea of getting back together with someone is always very attractive to me, more so than meeting someone new.  But he and I have already done that once and it is not going to happen again -  I struggled just to write that down.  I still want to believe that there is some chance, even though I know better.  To have to let go of any hope of his return feels like a death to me.  Total.  Sudden.  Inexplicable.  Unredeemable.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Haunting

This is one of my own photographs from my time in Paris that I've altered quite a bit, trying to get it to look something like the photographs by Eugene Atget that I saw at an exhibit at the Musée Carnavalet.  Its close, but not perfect.

The Atgets were remarkable for the sense they gave of the historicity of the city - of its past as both distant and somehow present at the same time.   Of the city, then, as somehow haunted by its past.  Many of the sights he photographed no longer exist after a century or more of urban renewal projects.  And yet the Marais - the area right around the Carnavalet - escaped most of that and so looks more like Atget's Paris than much of the rest of the city.  So you can walk out of that museum and still see something like what you saw in his photographs inside.  The photographs were intended to document the old city even as it disappeared and so to capture it for the future.  But they are now visibly old too, sepia toned and mounted on grey cardboard.  And so you have these old things, documenting a still older city, but a city that you can still see around you in parts of the city as it stands today.

One aspect of the Atget photographs that I was not able to replicate here is the presence of the blurred forms of people who must have passed by during their relatively long exposures.   Atget's images, and so the city as represented by them, seem haunted by these fleeting Parisians.  Their presence makes these photographs become images of time as well as space or place.  And that time has passed, even if the places still exist, at least in part.  Seeing them just barely there in the photographs is like seeing the past made present, and seeing it disappear, both at the same time.

I would have liked to somehow include myself in this image as one of those blurred forms, first because it would do well in capturing my experience of this actual place.   Its the doorway into a church, Notre Dame des Blancs-Manteau, which has a statue of the Virgin and Child in a niche above the doorway.  I had walked by here several times without noticing it, until: on the Sunday before my last week there, walking to a yoga class in the rain, I heard the sound of voices intoning something together, coming out of the open doorway.   I looked to find the source of the sound and then looked up and saw Virgin and Child.  It was a perfect moment.  I went back later to take photographs of the doorway, but had a hard time finding it again at first, and then never was able to get that perfect moment back - of course.  The city was still there, but the moment had passed, except for the traces it left, this time in my memory.  I feel haunted by it.

At the same time I feel like part of me is now haunting this place and Paris in general.  And so I'd also like to insert myself as a blurred form into the photograph to show that part of me that got left behind there. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Adam encore - or maybe en-corps

So more of Adam, this time one of his hands and importantly showing yet another odd part of his body - the attachment that runs between his thumb and his chest.  Of course I know why its there, technically, in order to support that bent up arm, otherwise it would most likely have broken off at the elbow.  These kinds of struts are visible on lots of stone sculptures, starting already in antiquity, and typically we just look past or through them, not allowing them to disrupt seeing the sculpted body as similar to our own.  But what strikes me about this particular one is its elegance, its graceful form, which seems to me to integrate it with the rest of his body and so ask for it to be taken seriously as part of that body.  We have already seen how weird this body really is, so why not add this in too: not only does he have two belly buttons, but also a growth of some sort that attaches his hand to chest, apparently from his fingernail and to a place near his nipple.  This is one of the ways I want to start to think about sculptures: as quasi-human bodies, but as only quasi-human and so as having anatomies and physiologies all of their own.  What might this kind of a connection as a bit of body be or do?   Does it mean that he can't move that hand?  Or could it grow and flex as he moves?  What kind of connection does it establish between his hand and his chest?  After the belly buttons I can't help but see it as somewhat umbilical, as feeding something back and forth between his torso and his extremities.

I took a good look at his hand and starting thinking more about it when I went back to the Cluny as a way of starting to wind up my time here, by going back to its beginning.  I had a specific reason for looking at his and other hands.  I've been writing about this group of stories in which a man puts a ring on the finger of a sculpture, only to have the sculpture take him seriously and start to pursue a relationship with him (if you aren't familiar with these tales, Michael discusses them in the Gothic Idol and so does David Freedberg in Power of Images).    I discuss them in the first chapter of the book I'm working on and I'll be talking about them at the upcoming New Chaucer Society conference in Portland.  I was starting to think ahead to that talk and wonder what I was going to do in terms of images.  It's really a text-based talk and so doesn't need images.  But I can't quite imagine giving a talk without images - what are people going to look at as I'm speaking?  Me??  And I thought, well, its New Chaucer Society, emphasis on the "new," and so I could do something very arty and distracting with just close-ups of hands from various sculptures dissolving in and out.  So I decided that when I went back to the Cluny I would take some photos to use for something like that.   But here is the thing: the most relevant sculptures would be images of the Virgin (since the sculpture in the story is identified sometimes as the Virgin and sometimes as Venus), but they don't tend to have independently carved fingers that you could actually slip a ring on to!  Either their hands and so the fingers are attached to something - the child, some draperies, an object, the fingers to each other - or else the hands are missing - sometimes leaving broken stumps and sometimes leaving holes that suggest the hands were separately carved and then jointed on. 

So that's a bit of a problem for me, since I've been rather confidently asserting that medieval people did put rings onto sculptures: there is even an anecdote, that Michael again mentions, about an archbishop marrying the Virgin by placing a ring on the finger of a statue.  Does it matter if they didn't?  They did dress devotional sculptures of the Virgin in real clothing and adorn them with other kinds of jewelry: how important is it that this a ring?  Does it matter if they did put rings on the fingers of sculptures, but just not to Virgin (or really Virgin and child) images?  The few things I was able to find with independently carved fingers weren't Virgins with children, but a John the Baptist, a Christ on a donkey, a Mary and John pair from a Crucifixion, and then Adam - although I believe his are partly stuck together

Or, and I am going to admit that this is pure speculation, could it be that the sculptures that now have missing hands are the ones that had the independently carved out fingers that might have had rings put on and pulled off?  Hands with fingers like that would be more fragile and so more likely to break off or to deteriorate over time.  And hands with fingers that attracted that kind of handling would be especially likely to get damaged or destroyed.  And that would be interesting, to come back around to where I started here, as another way of distinguishing the sculpted body from the human body: that treating the sculpted body as if it is a human body does actual damage to that body, since of course it isn't a human body, even if I can put a ring on its finger.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Death and therefore life (or vice versa)

I was thinking about death a for while there, but didn't want to write anything about it, largely because I didn't think I had anything all that interesting to say.  I don't want to die, the end.  Or else, since we are all going to die anyway, what's the point of doing anything, and so why write at all?  Not surprisingly this post has been hard to write.  Its taken longer than most, this is my second try at it, and I'm still not sure its all that great.   I'm going to start with my image since that I know how to write about, at least most of the time.



This is (part of) the transi of Jeanne de Bourbon -Vendome, which I've been visiting at the Louvre and so may explain my train of thought.  If you aren't familiar, a transi is a type of tomb sculpture that represents the dead and so decomposing body.  Look at the swirl of her entrails that have apparent burst out of her body - although the real bursting seems to happen in the draperies that frame her lower torso and lap and overlap on top of themselves.  By contrast the entrails themselves make an oddly neat little pile. Above that some worms eat their way out of her flesh.  And then I'm not sure what is folding back around her breast - fabric?  flesh?  Caroline Walker Bynum has some interesting things to say about this type of sculpture in her Christian Materiality, writing about how the stone material makes strangely permanent the squirming changefulness of decay.  Although I loose interest when she goes on to contrast this type of sculpture to body-part reliquaries, as representing the "bad body" in contrast to a body elevated and sanctify by precious metals and stones.  She moralizes and so normalizes the transi as a type, where I would rather sit with the contradictions of a lively death shown in squirming stone.

And Jeanne herself seems particularly lively here, beyond the liveliness of her body's decay.   Unlike many transis, this one is intended to be vertical so that she seems to be standing, with both feet placed on a little lump of earth, and even walking with one foot slightly in front of the other.  And look at her hand placed on top of the surrounding architectural niche, as if she is moving forwards out of it.  And then, in my favorite part beyond the draperies, her other hand pressed up among the drapery folds as if trying to hold herself together even as her body is bursting apart.  And finally her head turned away, as if trying to deny it all. 

My train of thought also probably had to do with the reading I was doing.  First, thinking about death may simply be what comes from sitting in Parisian cafes on rainy afternoons reading philosophy.   And then there is what I was reading, Jane Bennet's Vibrant Matter (see the wonderful post on it over at the Material Collective's blog).  There are a lot of things I liked about that book.  In particular, I was taken by her championing of anthropomorphism as a way of resisting anthrocentrism (i.e. if we attribute things other than human beings with some of the same qualities as human beings we will be less likely to subordinate them to our human needs).  I'm hoping that can help me continue to think through my issues with sculptures, as I obviously tend to anthropomorphize them - as I just did with Jeanne above, seeing the sculpture as her rather than as it and even as her still struggling to be her  after her death.  But at the same time I found myself reacting against Bennet.  She makes everything - human or not, organic or not, animate or not - so vibrant, so lively and I kept thinking, but I am going to die!  Isn't that what makes me special?? 

And I should say that my thinking about death had less to do with bodily decay and decomposition, with the bursting entrails and squirming worms of the transi tomb, than with the ending of my conscious existence, with what I see Jeanne herself still struggling to exert in that sculpture.  I have a plan to deal with my dead body (Cremation of course, than a scattering of ashes, one third in Cleveland, one third here in Paris, and the last third at home in the Pacific Northwest.  My mom helpfully pointed out that I'll need to leave money behind for someone to make that trip or trips).  But I rather like being conscious, at least most of the time.  And I don't have a plan for getting over that.

Other things may die in that first way, may decay and disappear over time, but do they die in the second?  Do they??  What would it mean, for example, to say that a sculpture was dead itself, rather than that it represented a dead body or a dead person?  And not dead in that its physical form had been destroyed, but dead in some other sense??  Here my train of thought passes over into the writing I've been doing, about stories of sculptures doing lively things and thus seeming to have lives of their own.  But if they have lives, don't they also have to have deaths? 

And finally, my train of thought probably had something to do with the tummy ache I developed after being here for a while, which clearly had to do with the amount of dairy I was consuming.  I've cut way back and am feeling much better now.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

International Yarn Bombing Day

Yesterday was International Yarn Bombing Day and this was my small contribution: crocheted covers for the tops of some of the metal posts that edge the sidewalks all around Paris.  These happen to be right in front of the building where I'm staying.

If you aren't familiar with yarn bombing, its a mash-up of traditional "feminine" craft techniques,  knitting and crocheting, with street art or graffiti and so installed in public spaces, most often without permission or authorization.  I've done this kind of work since I was a child -  I learned it from my mother who learned  from her mother... - putting it to more conventional applications, sweaters and scarves and the like.  I've been intrigued by yarn bombing for a while, but I've had a hard time  getting into doing it myself because I've been hanging on to some of the expectations about this type of work that bombing is meant to subvert.  I've wanted a pattern to follow.  To make measurements and check my gauge to make sure it will turn out just right.  And I've still felt that the investment of time this type of hand working takes makes the end products too precious to abandon to the city.  In fact I think "preciousness" is probably the right word for all of these expectations. 

With a little encouragement from Leesa, though, I decided to take some scrap yarn and my favorite crochet hook with me to Paris - my ergonomic one with a ball at the end that rests in your palm.  Then I saw these posts running along my street and for some reason wanted to reach out and grab the little balls on their ends, to feel their shapes in my hand .  That's where I got the idea for these little toppers.  I like the combination of hard and soft. Of process and result.  Of repetition and difference - each of the toppers is a bit different in color, size, and shape.    There are seven in total, one for each day that I had been in Paris before they went up.  I put them up very early Saturday morning, when no one was around but a woman walking her dog.  I photographed them a little later in the day as I started a long walk along the banks of the Seine that ended at the Marché Maubert (strawberries, zucchini, heirloom tomatoes, mushrooms, chives, some hummus and roasted peppers, a fresh goat cheese, and bread).  I've been checking on them out the window and whenever I go out or come back.

Its a little over 24 hours later and so far one has disappeared.  Most people just walk on by without apparently noticing them.  That's interesting to me, because putting them out there was such a big deal for me.  Its another reminder of what I call the genuine otherness of others - beginning with other people: the fact that what is a big deal to one person can be absolutely invisible to others, who have their own big deals going on that are likewise invisible.  As I've written about here before, I experience that otherness most strongly with sculptures, its what I really like about sculpture as a medium, its the way I think sculptures are most like people and have something to teach us about people and relationships with people.  In this experience, I found something exciting, something freeing, about the absolute unimportance to most people of what I had done here.  It means that I can do - whatever I want, more or less, and the world is not going to come crashing to a halt.

In this case, it also got me thinking back to the "Fuck" and manifesto sessions at Kalamazoo, specifically to the paper on book reviews and some of the discussion.  One point of that paper was to argue that we ought to be decent towards one another as we do the work that we do, because really our work isn't all that important, isn't important enough to attack someone else personally over it.  But the discussion in the manifesto sessions revolved primarily about how we can convince others of the importance of what we do.  I can see the point of the latter, we want to argue for our importance because we feel threatened and so feel the need to defend our jobs, our programs, ourselves.  But I find something enormously freeing, again, in the idea that we do isn't really all that big of a deal.  That most people don't know, don't care, about my research (or yours).  Because it means I don't have to be so "precious" about it, about getting it just right, following the patterns, measuring it to fit.  I can be more experimental, take more chances, and the world will keep right on going like before (and of course I realize that its having tenure that allows me to say that).

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Adam's Belly-Button(s)

I've been in Paris since early Friday morning.  And its great.
To tell the truth I'd been feeling a little guilty about coming this year, since I'm not doing any work here that I couldn't do at home - no research, just writing, reading, and thinking.  And staying home I would have saved myself a lot of money.
But then I got here and went for a walk in the city - from the apartment where I'm staying near the Place des Voges over to the cathedral and back - and all of that guilt just disappeared.  This is where I want to be.  The money is so worth it.
Sunday I was planning on going to a group French language class, since I'm trying to do more in French when I'm here (and by the way, Blogger is in French right now and I don't know how to tell it to be in English).  But the class was cancelled at the last minute and so I went to the Cluny museum instead.  I've spent a lot of time at the Cluny in the past, when I was here looking at Virgin and Childs (Virgins and Childs?  Virgins and Children?), but this time I just walked through, looking for whatever stood out to me.
And it was this statue of Adam from Notre Dame, which I've seen before but never really looked at.  What struck me is Adam's belly-button.  Or really, belly-buttons!
Ok, so its weird enough for Adam to have one belly-button.  Because, if you think about it, he really shouldn't.  The belly-button (le nombil in French, I just looked it up) is the mark of being born from a woman.  Its the mark of the body's origin inside of the mother's body, of the body's original dependence on that other body, and of the rupture of the connection between those two bodies.  As the original man, Adam shouldn't have that mark of another origin, of originating inside of another/mother. 
And then there is the second, the mark slight above and to the left here.  I'm assuming it's actually a bit of damage, since there are nicks and missing bits all over the sculpture.  Yet the shape is so similar to the belly-button below and the two marks are in such close proximity that I can't help putting the two together in my mind.
And doing so is helping me think through some of what I am here to write.  I'm returning to the first chapter of this book that I've been working on for about 9 years now (yes, that's a long time, but its been an on and off thing, and a lot has happened in the meantime).  While the book is about medieval sculpture and medieval women's experiences of motherhood, this first chapter was about medieval forms of "visuality," that is, how these sculptures would have been seen by medieval viewers.  But that needs to change now, with the turn from visuality to materiality and from seeing to perception more broadly.   Rereading the chapter as I originally wrote it, I was struck by just how little I had taken into account that the images I am writing about are sculptures and so not just images but also material objects.  This is related to the issues I was having with my Kalamazoo paper that I wrote about in my last post, which was at least in part a problem with sorting through the relationship between sculpture-as-image and sculpture-as-object.
And so we have the two belly-buttons: the first, the original, the intended, the carved, as part of the sculpture-as-image; and then the second, the unintended, the accidental, a mark of this sculpture's history as an object in the world.  To borrow some language from Graham Harman (who has it from Heidegger and that right now I have from Ian Bogost since I spent yesterday's rainy afternoon reading Alien Phenomenology at the cafe), the first belly-button is part of the sculpture-as-image's status as ready-at-hand, that is, as something that you don't really even think about since it's doing its job for you, in this case its job as a representation of a human body (and don't really think about to the degree that you don't even realize that it's weird for Adam to have a belly-button at all); but then the second belly-button makes the first seem strange and so the sculpture-as-object comes to stand out as present-at-hand, as an object in the world with a history - a story, a life - of its own.  The two marks are juxtaposed on Adam's abdomen/the stone's surface, but they do not overlap: the sculpture-as-image and sculpture-as-object are related to one another, but they are not the same thing, and neither one can or should be subordinated to the other.
And I don't think I could have come up with that at home, since it took the chance of going to the Cluny and having Adam and his belly-buttons jump out at me.  So Paris is paying off already.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Use your words/Loose your words

Its been an overwhelming few weeks.  The semester completely got away from me and I was running just to keep up.  Kalamazoo was amazing, which it never is, especially not the art history sessions.  Then I went straight to Jury Duty, which was just mostly sitting around and at least allowed me to finish up my grading, but then ended suddenly after I got called up for a criminal case and the defendant decided to plead guilty - to kidnapping, rape, and assault.  Finally my personal life seemed to fall apart around me and I still don't know what the resolution to that will be.  To make a first reference to the title of this post - the problem is something I said, compounded by the person to whom I said it, whether or not she said something to someone else, and so on.  I'm really not supposed to talk about it.

Instead I'm trying to get back to that new awesome new Kalamazoo spirit by writing about some problems I had while I was working on my paper for the conference, which was about Gothic Virgin and Child statues and statuettes and so I'll be showing a few here even if I don't talk directly about them.  To tell the truth, I'd done the work that this paper was based on several years ago and had even presented very similar papers at other conferences, to other audiences. My problem in working on this version, then, wasn't with the ideas contained in the paper, but with the words I used to present them.

To put it simply, I suddenly wasn't sure how I was supposed to write about sculptures.  Here for example is the first paragraph from my Kalamazoo paper and all of the problems I suddenly had with it:
Images (or sculptures? what's the difference or the relationship between those two words?) of the Virgin and Child, from the  thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, and in stone, wood, and ivory - such as the selection shown here - share a visual emphasis on the Virgin's clothing (or the forms of her clothing?  Or the forms that form her clothing?  Or the form that form what appears to be clothing?  Because those aren't really clothes, of course, and that's not really the Virgin.  This is just stone, wood, and ivory, not fabric and not flesh).  Her (or the?) garments (that aren't really garments) make up the majority of these images (or objects?) for the fabrics form the majority of her body (except those aren't fabrics, that's not a her, and not a body), with her (or the) flesh (which is isn't really flesh) exposed (or appearing, because its not being exposed, not coming out from underneath the clothes, since these are solid forms and those aren't clothes) only for her (but that's not a her) hands (which aren't really hands) and face (which isn't a face) - and sometimes a breast  (that's not a breast). Furthermore her (the?) clothing (which isn't really clothing) provides much of the visual interest in these images as the mantles and veils (or the combinations of shapes and lines that appear as mantles and veils) in particular (appear to) wrap and drape (since they don't really) around Mary's body (that isn't Mary and isn't a body), creating visual movements that (seem to) animate her (its or the) form.
As you can tell, I got myself into some deep trouble here.  And I could go on like this, troubling every reference in the paper to clothing, bodies, Mary, and the Christ child, by refusing to allow myself to name them as clothing, bodies, Mary, or the Christ child, and instead insisting on their status as as images and as objects.  I could, but then the paper would get to be about three times as long (if I have to replace the word "mantle" with the phrase "the combination of surface and lines that forms what appears to be a mantle") without actually saying anything more.  Is the slip from images and objects to clothing, bodies, Mary, and Christ, o.k. as a convenience, then, because we all know what I really mean?  Because we all I know that I know those aren't really clothes or bodies... I'm just using those words so I can get on with what I really want to do here, can get on with the work of interpretation.  Or is there something to be gained by refusing that slip?  Refusing that convenience? Refusing to get on with it all so easily? 

Or at the very least, is there a way of meaningful differentiating between the words, so that this same ivory might sometimes be an object and sometimes an image, sometimes an it and sometimes her.  When I look back at my previous post, I notice that I made a change in how I wrote about the Aphrodite of Knidos, from her to it, when I wrote about it refusing the man who tried to have sex with her, and so about its sincerity as an object manifesting itself in its refusal to perform as he desired.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Sincerity

This is the of the most sincere sculptures I know.

I am going to talk a little bit about the sculpture first, and then come back to that, because I am using sincerity in a idiosyncratic way here.

The sculpture: Its not medieval.  Despite the title I gave this blog, I'm realizing that the images I've written about here have not been "mostly" medieval.   It is part of a grave monument in Lakeview cemetery, which is just down the road from me here in Cleveland Heights, and is one of my favorite places in all of Cleveland.  When I first moved here, I walked in and through the cemetery on a regular basis and it became an important part of my mental landscape.  The monument consists of this standing sculpture, a second kneeling figure, and the actual tomb.  I'm assuming this is meant to be one of the three Maries coming to the tomb, with her jar of ointment in her hands.

I like how its placed.  First, almost directly on the ground and so on your level as a viewer.  And secondly, so that you walk up to it almost from behind and so first see the whole form absorbed in its draperies. You really don't see much until you walk around to its front side.  So that you have to discover it as you walk around it.  Even then, although it holds the ointment jar out in its hands, its face still recedes back into the draperies.  Seeing the face requires invading its space, in what feels like an inappropriately intrusive act, like the Christ and St. John sculpture I wrote about in a previous post.   There I wrote about the "creeped out" feeling that I get from certain sculptures.  That's the feeling I want to rename here as sincerity.

 I started playing around with that word during Christmas break, when I was reading Graham Harman's Towards Speculative Realism.  
Some of the relevant passages:
- "Not merely a product of a limitless chain of causal forces, the other is absorbed in some task, acts in accordance with the imperative summons lying before her mind, expends her energy in taking herself seriously."  (p.14)
- "The human actor is always locked in some stance toward the objects surrounding him; he is immersed in this sincerity, a behavior candor that does not escape our notice, and that weighs on us with equal force." (p. 15)
- "In this way the whole of the human realm is shown to consist of two basic principles: the other as regarded as the nexus of conditioning forces and energies, and the other as sincere or as occupied with the world that surrounds her." (p. 15)

Harman here is writing about the human other.  About coming to realize the genuine otherness of other human beings.  That is, about going beyond seeing others from the outside as the products of outside forces, but realizing that others have insides (agendas, mental lives, interests and occupations) that are like, but entirely separate from, our own (or at least that is what I get from him).  In using that term to think about sculpture, I'm obviously shifting to think about a non-human other, but I think Harman would be o.k. with that.  Its part of the point of post-humanism; pushing beyond our tendency to privilege human beings and human experiences in order to accept the genuine otherness, the interiority, the sincerity, of the non-human.  And so pushing beyond seeing the non-human as unfailingly oriented towards our own humanity.  This sculpture would be sincere, then, in its refusal to engage.   In turning its back and withdrawing into its draperies.  In being totally engaged in its own task and so in its own world.   In refusing to reach out to me as a human viewer, but forcing me to seek it out, and making me feel uncomfortable in doing so.

Thinking of the sculpture in this way, as possessed of its own sincerity, makes me start to think again about one of my favorite stories about sculpture; that of the man who tried to have sex with the Aphrodite of Knidos.  I tell that story in my Intro Early Western survey, in part because I like to see the male students squirm in their seats, and mostly to try and get them past seeing realism as simply a technical accomplishment.  I want them to think about just what was interesting about realism to ancient viewers, from this story its ability to get you just a little bit confused about the status of the body in front of you.  And I want them to think about the final moral of the story; the man can't have intercourse with the sculpture because, in the end, it is just a sculpture.  A solid block of stone.  He ejaculates on its exterior because it doesn't have an interior that he could penetrate.  To me, this isn't a story that celebrates realism, but that warns against it by warning against being taken in or fooled by it.  That's the reading of that story I've been working with for a long time.

But.  Its a cult statue of Aphrodite.  Its a statue that the goddess might have been expected to inhabit in order to allow the man to have intercourse with her.  But, she doesn't.  She - or it - refuses him; it refuses to transform into the goddess for him and so refuses to open up to him.  And, even if it did have an interiority that he could have penetrated, does that necessarily mean it would have been o.k. for him to do so? I am starting to see this story as about an attempted rape of the sculpture.  And to see its refusal to transform for him, to open up to him, as its protection of its own separate interiority, of its sincerity as a genuine other to the man, as it refuses to perform in a way that meets his desires.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ivory Elephants/Elephant Ivories

 Yes!  My love for self-refentiality is finally satisfied with some elephants made from elephant ivory!

 I encountered both while slogging through the 1504/1534/1634 inventories of the treasury of Saint-Denis (the 1504 inventory is reproduced in the 1534 document which is then reproduced in the 1634 list, which remarks on any changes to the objects over the previous hundred years).  Both are listed as game pieces, probably chess pieces, that were associated with Charlemagne - although that association can't be accurate.  The more elaborate object, the one on the left, is unlikely to have been a game piece since its quite large.  And both post-date Charlemagne, the one on the right is 9th or 10th century and the other is from the 11thC.  It seems to be Italian, while the first is Indian, but also Islamic; an inscription on it identifies it as the work of one Yusuf al Bahili.  You have to wonder by what path it came to be at Saint-Denis: maybe through Spain as an intermediary?

Their association with Charlemagne may come from the fact that he had a real elephant and, relevant to the Indian/Islamic object, that elephant was a gift from the caliph Harun al-Rashid, who apparently inherited it from his predecessor, who got from an Indian ruler.  Its name was Abu l'Abbas. (See http://www.historybookshop.com/articles/commentary/charlemagne-elephant-ht.asp for this and more.)  So even if these ivory elephants came to Saint-Denis later, memories of Abu l'Abbas, records of him in the annals and in Einhard's life of Charlemagne, may have prompted the monks to associate them with Charlemagne.

And that association makes sense in terms of my larger reading of the appearance of ivories in the Saint-Denis inventories.  I've been reading inventories for a while now, starting with those of French kings and their family members, looking for evidences of how ivory as a material was understood in the later Middle Ages. For the kings and queens and the like, ivory is, on the one hand, a material used in precious objects for deluxe display - augmented with precious metals and dripping with jewels - and, on the other, something used for everyday, practical items - handles for knives and fans, candlesticks, boxes and buttons.  I've been teasing out where ivory religious images, in particular ivory Virgin and Child statuettes, might fit into that larger pictures and my answer is somewhere in-between; some are clearly deluxe objects, but many were objects of everyday use.  

The Saint-Denis inventory is interestingly different.  A major use for ivory documented in it is as book covers.  Some of these are old ivories - Carolingian and Ottonian pieces - used as covers for similarly old books - and this corresponds to what we know of ivory; that in the early Middle Ages one of its primary uses was for book covers.  But there are also a couple of examples of Gothic ivory diptychs that were separated and then reused as book covers, creating something new in the model of the older ivory covers already in the monastery's treasury.  One of the manuscripts that got covered this way was a copy of the works of St. Dionysus the Areopagite that was given to Saint-Denis by the Byzantine emperor after he visited there in 1401.  There are some interesting associations accumulating for ivory here.  First, an association with the past; both the new book ivory covers modeled on the old, and Dionysus the Areopagite as conflated with the monastery's founding saint and so connected with its past.  Was that new book being made to look old in order to associate it with the founder?  A second set of associations would be with imperial power, both that new ivory cover for a book given by an emperor and the ivory elephants as associated with Charlemagne - and so with both power and the past, or with the power of the past.