Monday, September 9, 2013

Touching Ivory

I've been thinking about ivories for a while now.  Then, a few days ago, I got to touch some.

To explain more: I've been working on an article on ivory Virgin and Child statuettes for several years now.  Originally, it was an outgrowth of the work on Virgin and Child imagery that I was doing for the book that I've also been working on for a long time now (about 10 years).  I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Virgin and Child statues that I was encountering in museums and so I decided I would limit my work for the book on larger-scale stone and wood versions and then use some of the same contextual and theoretical framework for a separate article on ivories (for some of that thinking see this previous post).  But I quickly realized that I would also have to take into account in the difference in material and all of the differences that go with it - in size and scale, in ownership and viewership.

I started to read up on ivory and got more and more interested in the material itself and so the article began to change from one about Virgin and Childs that just happened to be made ivory, to one about ivory objects that just happened to represent the Virgin and Child.  The thing that really interested me about ivory as a material was its diversity of uses: on the one hand, for religious images/objects like these statuettes, but on the other, for functional things - boxes and mirrors, the handles of knives and fans, and little things like game pieces, dice, and buttons.  I started to wonder about how this other use for the same material might have informed medieval people's experiences of the statuettes.  And what struck me about these other things is that they are all hand-held things and so would have brought ivory into the hand, making it a material to be experienced through touch.

To write about that experience with any authority, I wanted to touch some ivory myself.  And so I asked the curator at the CMA if he had any ivories he could let me touch: the subject matter didn't matter, neither did the date, nor the condition.  He came up with several things in their education collection, two Virgin and Childs from the 17-18thC and one very damaged 14th C folding tabernacle, and I spent an hour or so touching them.

The first interesting thing to me about the experience was my reluctance to actually touch them, even though that was what I was there to do.  My first automatic response was to clasp my hands behind my back and lean in to look.  How different from the response of someone, a medieval person, for whom ivory was an everyday material, the stuff of buttons and boxes, and so one meant to be held.

Then, the curatorial assistant who was with me encouraged me to pick one up and experience what strikes her about ivories every time she handles them: their weight.  They are surprisingly heavy for their size.  I struggled a bit to lift the largest object they had brought out for me and even the small fragments from the tabernacle had a recognizable heft.  The larger Virgin and Child statuettes cannot have been lifted, held, or moved very often.  And even the smaller statuettes and functional objects would have had substance and presence in the hand as the were lifted, held, and used.  The weight would let you know the ivory object was there.

After lifting them, I spent some time running my (gloved) fingers over them and was struck by the different textures the material is capable of conveying.  It can be polished smooth.  Or it can be cut into deep depressions in irregular patterns.  Or into tight groups of parallel grooves at varying depths.  The last was probably the most interesting of textures, to me at least.  I went back and forth between wanting to move my fingers along the grooves, to almost pet the piece, and wanting to move across them, to feel their resistance to my touch.  And finally I wanted to discover the difference between the carved texture and any naturally occurring texture and so I sought out some veins.  You can feel them, they aren't just color changes, but they feel very different from the carving, much finer and much sharper.

When I was done touching, I went out into the galleries to visit the statuette above - my favorite at the CMA - and to use my experience of touching the other ivories to imagine the experience of handling this one.  First, picking it up: it is rather small, only a few inches high, but would pack quite a bit of weight into that small size, calling your attention to its presence in your hand.  It has all of the different textures: the deep openings between the Virgin's legs, the grooves on her chest, the smoother surface on the faces, but then the veining on the Virgin's face in particular.  The veining has an interesting relationship to the other textures: disrupting the smooth skin on her face, then running with the grooves on her chest, and finally countering the lines that make up the deep folds between her legs and running back into their depths.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Gothic Ivory Virgins: A Poem

Note: I've been writing poetry over this past few months by cutting-and-pasting (literally with scissors and tape) words and phrases from scholarly art-historical texts.  I've posted examples on some other blogs: Fumblr and the Material Collective group blog.  Here I turn that activity onto one of my own texts, a recently rejected article on ivory Virgin and Child statuettes, to both rescue something from this rejection and advance my thinking on this project by coming at it in a different way.

Embellishing Ivories

Allow us to imagine:
some ivory buttons,
an ivory comb
several ivory and silver boxes.
And a set of metal chains -
set into a gold flower on the Virgin's chest.
Gilt in her hair, red on the inside of her veil,
a green belt with gilt embellishments.
Supplemented by precious stones,
emeralds as well as an emerald,
and thirty-two pearls (one missing).

Allow to us image,
against the background of the scarcity
that just appears from behind her,
in anticipation of his death,
with unnamed images,
with its accompanying angels,
solitary figures joined by a string.
Just a casual accumulation of goods
reaches out and breaks the boundary
to perform miracles for others.

The object's miraculous potential
rests on its silver chair
and emphasizes its preciousness:
one with a jewel in its chest and the other with a silver crown.
Garments moving over her body.
Gazes directed outwards.
Boxes, buttons, combs, fans, game pieces, handles, and mirrors:
St. Christopher kept in a box.
Highly embellished objects with no embellishments.
No documents for its prior existence
preserved her hand from decay.

Monday, May 27, 2013

À mon seul désir

This post has been brewing for a while - since my Spring Break trip to Paris.  It springs from one of my visits to the Cluny during that trip, when I ended up in the Unicorn tapestries room.

I've been in there before of course, if only because it is the only air-conditioned space in the museum.  My first month-long trip summer trip to Paris I took in July instead of June and it was hot (and a little smelly).  I was spending my afternoons in museums looking at Virgin and Child statues and most of the Cluny's are gathered in a gallery right next to the tapestries room, so I would duck in there to sit in the a.c. for a bit whenever I got just too uncomfortable.  On this most recent trip, in March, it was freezing cold and I got routed through the room because that space with the Virgins was briefly closed for some reason.

And for some other reason I was struck by the panel above, sometimes labelled as the Lady and the Unicorn.  Struck not so much by its imagery, as by its text: the inscription that appears on the tent right above the lady, "à mon seul désir."  The phrase stuck with me and started repeating it to myself: I liked saying those words and hearing them.  So much so that I wanted to keep that experience going, so that when I got home I made myself a bracelet with beads that spell out that phrase.  I've been wearing it everyday since.

This despite - or maybe really because of - some tension over the phrase's meaning, which is what I want to write about here.  The tension comes from an ambiguity in its translation: "à mon seul" or "to my only" - that much is clear - "désir" - which literally means "desire," but could be interpreted to mean love.   "To my only desire" or "to my only love," which is it? What is the difference between the two?  And finally, what could either or both mean to me and so explain my sudden attachment to this phrase? In trying to think through all of this I came across Lauren Berlant's aptly titled Desire/Love, which I am going to make occasional use of here (and which you can download from Punctum Books here).

First, I am very resistant - and so also very attracted to - the "to my only love" interpretation.  Because I don't - and yet secretly want to - believe in the idea of an "only love," of a one right person. 

In general, I don't believe in it because it is so obviously illogical, unreasonable, impossible: in this whole wide world, how could there be a one right person, an "only love," for each of us?  I don't believe in it because it is so conventional as to be cliched, a product of every romance narrative from the Middle Ages forward.  And I don't believe in it because it is coercive and limiting: if there is a one right person, then there is also a one right way to live a life, in a couple pair-bounded with that one right person; and if your life isn't like that - as mine isn't - it must be a failure of some sort; you must not have met that one right person yet and ought to be spending your life looking for him (or her); and if you aren't, if you don't want to, because you find the whole processes of dating to be disheartening and humiliating - as I do - then there must be something wrong with you.  As Berlant points out, romantic love's failures are consistently read as personal failures rather than as evidences of its impossibility and in this way ideology sustains itself at a cost to the individual (p. 101). 

And yet, the first of my reasons for not believing in an "only love" - it's illogical, unreasonable, impossible - is exactly one reason why I want to believe in it: because given that it is illogical, unreasonable, and impossible, how much more special must its real existence be?  And then to hell with all of the rest of my objections.  And because I secretly believe this, I'm not willing to settle for a good enough relationship with a nice enough person in order to have the one right lifestyle with someone other than the one right person (and am I the only person who gets a ad every time I log out of Facebook that promises "more relationships" than the site's competitors, as if simply being in a relationship, any relationship, were a worthy goal in itself?)

I am also both resistant and attracted to the "only love" reading of this phrase at this moment in my life because I both don't and do want to attach it to the last person I was involved with, in a relationship that ended just about a year ago (in fact I am very conscious of writing this on the one year anniversary of the last time I saw him, although at the time it was not in any way evidently an end to the relationship).  I don't and do want to identify this person as my "only love," precisely because he is gone from my life and is not coming back (something that I am still struggling with a year later).  I don't want to attach this idea to him because he is gone and so if he was the only love than that experience is in the past and not being able to sustain that relationship is an ultimate failure.  But at the same time I do want to attach it to him because it seems like a way of somehow holding on to him even in his absence.  I am evidently experiencing melancholia, in a Freudian sense and as explained by Berlant, a way of merging the lost object into the self in order not to experience the loss and so an inverse of the idealized love relationship understood as the fusion of two into one (p. 29).  I identify him as the "only love" now that he is a lost love precisely in order not to lose him.  In doing so I write our relationship into a slightly different, more tragic, but equally conventional and cliched narrative structure.  

And so I, ironically, make our relationship much more conventional than it ever actually was.  Because even though he and I were together for almost four years (a record for me by the way), our relationship did not conform to the quasi-marital pattern that people expect of a boyfriend and girlfriend.    That was difficult for me to accept to begin with, because I had those expectations too; but after a while I came to like it, because for me it was a way of being in a relationship with someone without losing my sense of myself as I have in previous more conventional relationships.   It continued to be difficult for other people to accept, however, and I experienced directly the coercive qualities of our culture's ideology of romantic love in other people's negative reactions to my decision to stay in the relationship as it was (see Berlant, p. 44-5, 87).

Not wanting and yet wanting the phrase to mean "to my only love," then, I've been trying to consciously read that last word as "desire" instead.   And reading Berlant, that seems appropriate as desire can be distinguished from love by its ambivalence, which the narrative conventions of romantic love attempt to stabilize in order to produce a stable sense of self (p. 25, 44, 76, 95).   Recognizing desire's ambiguity introduces some irony into the phrase, however; for how can there be an "only desire" if desire is always at least doubled?  In desire, the drive for merger - for the "only love" - coexists with the drive to destroy - to critique all of these coercive cliches and conventions out of existence, at least in my own mind if not in the wider world.  And the drive to master the other - to finally make our relationship conform to convention and so resolve the conflict with myself and others - meets the drive for recognition from the other  - something that I cannot get from him in his absence and that makes the lost-love narrative finally unsatisfying (p. 39).  

I choose to read it as "desire," for desire can be deeply positive exactly in its ambivalence or really its multiplicity: I read the bracelet as asking me what I desire in this or that situation, even situations that have nothing to do with romantic love.   As Berlant writes building on Eve Sedgwick, desire can be productive of pleasure, of creativity, newness, and possibility - but only if it is not confused with the desire for stability or schooled by convention and by fear not to stray off of romantic love's overly beaten tracks (p. 44, 95). 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Henry Chichele's Junk

I loved my Kalamazoo paper for this year.  Just absolutely fucking LOVED it!

Which is pretty amazing, since before I wrote it, I'd not written anything in months and was despairing a bit about my ability to write.  I was deep into this curriculum craziness that is going on at my university and was feeling more like a mid-level bureaucrat than a scholar or an intellectual or a writer or a person or...  You may have noticed that I've not even written here since February, when I try to write at least one post per month.  I have to dive back into all that craziness now, but I want to try and capture this feeling first (in fact I fell down the curriculum rabbit hole for about a week and am now coming back to finish this and try and recapture that feeling).

On the one hand, the paper was a tight historical argument about the tombs of Henry Chichele (above) and Richard Fleming understood in the context of Lollard anti-image rhetoric and occasional acts of iconoclasm (given that Chichele and Fleming were both involved in anti-Lollard prosecutions and so would have been familiar with Lollard words, ideas, and deeds).  And at the same time, it made some general claims about life, death, and sculpture.   The links come through the transi figure on the lower level of the tomb, which represents Chichele's dead body, and the Lolllard tendency to identify sculptures as dead things; in combination with the effigy on the upper part of the tomb, which combines signs for death (the horizontal posture) with suggestions of life (the open eyes and active gesture), and Lollard acts of iconoclasm that kill images in order to prove that they were dead to begin with (because they weren't).  The combination of the tombs and the Lollards gave me a way of articulating historically some of the same ideas about sculpture I've worked with here in terms of my own responses as creepiness and in terms of theory as sincerity.

Some quotes from the paper, because one of the things I LOVED about it was the language:
For the addition of the transi effectively emphasizes the fact of death and so highlights the deathly aspects of the effigy, but without eliminating the effigy’s contrasting signs for life.  He is dead, he is dead, he is dead – it seems to say – except in the ways in which he is still in fact just a little bit alive.  Thus we are again doubly haunted, by the tomb’s doubled form, by the presence of death in the transi, and by the presence of life in death in the effigy.  And how much more true would this have been in the approximately twenty years between the creation of Chichele’s tomb in the 1420’s and his death in 1443.  For his tomb announced that he was dead, dead, dead, except that he was still alive! Perhaps even seated in his throne positioned opposite the tomb inside of Canterbury cathedral.
The Lollards were thus haunted by images. Their insistence that images were dead, dead, dead – that each was the site of an absence – seems to have been a response to persistent disruptive perceptions of their potential for life – for each to be a presence. And so images had to killed in order to prove that they were dead all along, because they weren’t, or at least not entirely. Or else they had to be punished by burning, either for their disruptive potential liveliness or for their disappointing deadness. And so there are some structural similarities between the forms of Chichele and Fleming’s tombs and Lollard attitudes towards images: both insist on death, the tombs in joining the transi to the effigy and the Lollards in their rhetoric of dead sticks and stones, and yet neither can let go of the signs of life, the tombs through the effigy’s ambiguities and the Lollards through their iconoclastic actions and desires.
The language about haunting in both quotes refers to the theme of the session and to my own provisional definition of haunting as the disruptive presence of that which is supposed to be absent.  I want to turn this piece into article in which this rough idea about haunting is replaced by some theoretical work on zombies, but I have to read up on that first.

The discussion in the session took an unexpected turn in focusing on one detail in Chichele's transi, which I'd not really thought much about, his gesture of covering his genitalia with the shroud.  Its a little easier to see in this detail:
on the right side, the lower bit of cusping in the arch overlaps with his hand which is holding the cloth in place. 

My first though was, well of course his junk is covered up, he was the archbishop of Canterbury after all, he's not just going to be letting it all hang out right there in the cathedral.  But then, if it was just a matter or propriety or prudery, the sculptor could have covered his junk without making use of the dead man's hand.  The shroud could have been there on its own, for example; its not really cloth after all, it's carved stone, and so it doesn't need to be held in place, it's not going to go anywhere. The hand gesture could be artistic convention, since its something like a pudica pose from ancient sculpture.  Although that could suggest some interesting gender-bending, the archbishop of Canterbury as Venus Pudica?  And yet as a dead and decomposing body?

Because the gesture is most interesting to me at least in relationship to the obvious deadness of the rest of his body.  It is the one little sign of life in that otherwise clearly dead body.  It then extends the ambiguity of the effigy into the transi, so that neither is entirely or simply dead nor alive.  Both are both, at least to some degree; the effigy is maybe more alive, but still partly dead, and the transi mostly dead, but still a little bit alive.  And life as signaled in the transi is defined in a very specific way by that gesture.  What does it mean to be just a little bit alive?  Is it to be able to produce life, thinking of the genitalia as life-giving organs?  Or is it to have a sense of self-control, self-protection, self-possession - or simply of self - thinking of the gesture itself more than what it is covering?  

Thursday, February 14, 2013


I've loved these since I first saw them: Kate Clark's Ceremony on display at CSU gallery as part of Animatopoeia: A Most Peculiar (Post Modern) Bestiary, an exhibit curated by Art History major Omid Tavakoli (here for the artist's website and here for the gallery's).   Other people kept telling me they found these creatures creepy, but of course one of the things I love about sculpture in general is its creepiness.  And I didn't find these creepy at all, I thought they were so - Nice.  Gentle.  Kind.  Maybe it's the tilts of their heads, all off a bit to the side, as if in sympathy with their observers. Maybe its their skinny little legs, and hooves like pointed toes, that make them seem so delicate and their stances so precarious.

Like this guy, I got up close to peer into their faces and try - but never succeed - in meeting their gazes.  Maybe that's what others read as creepiness, the way the creatures seem to draw you in to look, but then refuse to engage with you directly.  Again, that didn't seem creepy to me.   Instead it seemed, again - Gentle.  Shy.  Sincere, in the way I've used that word in that past here.

I've wanted to write about them, but haven't gotten around to it until now, because this is a crazy semester (hello endless curriculum paperwork).   And because I didn't feel like I had much more to say about them that what I've already said about sculpture in general in the posts I've linked to here.  Only that the combination of the human and the animal in these, and in Clark's work in general, pushes the creepy/sincere combination of proximity and distance that is basic to sculpture, for me at least, in a slightly different direction.  These are close to me in their human faces and their awkward stances even as they are distant both in their animal bodies and in their status as sculptures. 

But in that combination of proximity and distance I also see some basic truths about human relationships: for other people are both as close and as distant as these sculptures, as animals and as sculptures, are to me.  And then I read this, in Barthes A Lover's Discourse, which I picked up at Powell's over Christmas and have been reading before bed:
I am caught in this contradiction: on the one hand, I believe I know the other better than anyone and triumphantly assert my knowledge...and on the other hand, I am often struck by the obvious fact that the other is impenetrable, intractable, not to be found.  I cannot open up the other, trace back the other's origins, solve the riddle...Then all that is left for me to do is to reverse my ignorance into truth.  It is not true that the more you love, the better you understand; all that the action of love obtains from me is merely this wisdom: that the other is not to be known; his opacity is not the screen around a secret, but, instead, a kind of evidence in which the game of reality and appearance is done away with...Or again, instead of trying to define the other...I turn to myself; "What do I want, wanting to know you?" What would happen if I decided to define you as a force and not a person?  And if I were to situate myself as another force confronting yours?  This would happen: my other would be defined solely by the suffering or pleasure he affords me.
And so I say again that I love these sculptures.  But not in a loose, sloppy, gushy way.  In a very precise, structural way - as Barthes is writing about love as a structure or a series of structures.   This would be the structure of the last and of many of my relationships.  I have a thing for difficult, even impossible, people.   And maybe that is similar to my thing for sculptures.