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 (part of) the transi of Jeanne de Bourgogne -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.   The sculpture was probably originally placed horizontally, but in the museum it's displayed vertically, and you can see why when you see the whole - 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.