Points of Departure: Portraits of the Body’s Cover-up
Ever since the end of the white cube as a standard mode of modernist exhibiting, exhibition spaces are part of what they show. No longer a neutral background, the space is a section of the world where fiction and reality can not be distinguished. In this sense, every exhibition is a piece of installation art. Beyond the individual art works installed in it, the space has something to say.
If the exhibition room is a space, a section of the world, then the things in the room are the people who walk in that space. Their bodies are on a par with the viewers’ bodies. They share the fantasy space within which the viewer temporarily lives with the art objects. Moreover, western art has selected the human body as its all-time favorite subject matter. As a result, the human body is the measure of all things, the standard by which we gauge proportions. Hence, every work of art is, or can be measured by the standards of, a representation of the human body. What is proportionately smaller we can handle; smaller size confirms the superiority or at least, the normalcy of the human body. What is proportionately larger, however, threatens this self-evident status. Unable to normalize such extravagant shapes, we easily consider such representations grotesque. This also holds for the space itself. Too small, it makes us feel confined, and see the objects in it as not quite adequate to the task of speaking to us. Too large, the space can easily make us feel disoriented, as if the task to harmonize objects and space became too heavy. Once the viewer is given over to the fictionality that reigns in an exhibition space, world and body become congruent.
If the room is a body, things change, and we are no longer secure as the measure of all things. Within a fictional body, the objects are elements, cells or molecules, in a gigantic womb. Jeannette Christensen has enlisted this suspension of proportion and size, and the ontological uncertainty it entails, to create a show in which body and space question one another. Endless space and a sense of confinement coexist when on the large walls, here and there, a large photograph of a navel surrounded by an arbitrarily cutout fragment of belly punctuates the emptiness, while throughout the space figures stand up, bend over, and collapse.
The photographs are still, a stillness that is foregrounded by their black-and-white glossiness, their excessive size, and the abstraction due to the cutout. The center of the human body, the navel, here, is no longer bodily. The figures, consisting of white silk slips made of the thinnest fabric, are filled from within to become bodies. But these bodies only have the shape not the substance of bodies. Not the skin either.
Whereas the photographs are blown up in size, the slips are blown up in volume. Both blow-ups change the object of representation. They serve no illusionary purpose, but like that of Antonioni’s film they induce the desire to see depiction where none comes forward, confronting us with the enigmas of representation. A fan connected with a timer fills the slips with air. The air brings them to life; they stand up, quivering, waking from a sleep of hundred years; they stretch out, but then they falter, bend over, and collapse. They exist, tenuously, in time. The navels, barely recognizable due to sheer size, exist in space. Or so it seems at first sight; but something precludes a hasty viewing, and then it all changes.
Still as they are, stuck to the wall and fixed in the image, the navels carry their own temporality. They exist as scar, rewinding the history of the body back to the separation from the maternal body. The navel is permanent, but also historical. Flaunting the transgression of the boundary between private and public, these navels tell stories of labor, birth, cutting off, bloody becoming.
The slips, distributed through the three-dimensional space, behaving like live matter, keeping you enthralled by their relentless attempts to stand, their merciless failure to stay, change the space within which they enact their temporality. They are there, co-inhabitants of our own space, roommates forcing us to step back when they stretch, to respect the floor space they need in their collapse. Their attempts to stand up appear like a second birth, a coming-into-being as a full-fledged, grown creature. But after blissful sleep, they wake up to the need to bend down, their joyful pride is broken, submission their reality.
The two series appear, thus, in symmetrical contrast to one another, creating a temporality of the show itself. First they seem each other’s counter-part; then they meet half way. The two series have something more fundamental in common that produces the breath-taking unity of this rigorously dual installation. Both slips and navels are questioning the skin as the boundary of the human being through a probing of representation. On a level where thought, discourse and image meet, they offer two sides of a number of tensions, collaborating to question our most commonly held beliefs.
They represent the human body by way of its skin. But what kind of vision of the skin can this be? Not the usual idea of the skin as boundary, as envelope, or touchable surface of the body, as the site of desire and the surrounding of the orifices that open the body up. There is no part of the skin more dubious, ambiguous, confusing, than the navel. The body’s orifices and extremities are easier to understand than this pointless point that is both surface and depth, or neither. The navel is not penetrable, nor can it penetrate. Yet it gives relief to the smooth surface, interrupting it, poking a hole in it. The navel tells about prior depth, existence in the uterus and the fantasies about the safety and bliss, confinement and anxiety we retrospectively project on it. It tells about the mother, the primal female body that produced ours. The slips, in contrast, for all their vulnerability and aliveness, are not part of the body, but the primal layer of its cover-up. They are so thin, like a skin peeling off; the slip is a cultural skin.
Which skin, the natural or the cultural one, is more “real”, which representation more reliable? Here lies yet another enigma this installation proposes. The obvious answer does not hold where real bodies are fragmented as well as aggrandized, flattened on the wall and thin body covers get all the volume. The question of the ontology is articulated through gender. The slips as well as the navels are delicately and uncertainly gendered. The slips are pieces of fine female clothing, intimate underwear that one does not show in public, but their form once standing up is decidedly phallic. In the course of their life cycle they change from feminine to masculine, and from submission or prayer when they are collapsed, to proud and mighty, imaginary images of erections, at the end. These figures are female, and they draw male form. Thus they question the reality of that dichotomy. On the other hand, the navel is more real than anything about the body, it would seem; it is part of us, we cannot shed it off. But in this size, this colorless representation, in this public room, how real can it be? Sheer size—of the navels, of the space around them, of naked skin, and of the space surrounding them in the gallery—makes them grotesque. And so are those anthropomorphic dream-inducing, moving slips.
The navel tells about gender in terms of equality not difference: scar of the mother, men and women carry the visual memory of her. Some of the photographs are of men, others of women, and we have no certainty about the sex of the bearer of each. Sexual difference fades away, it vanishes in this primal point, this point of departure where individual existence begins and where we are all alike, similarly wounded by physical autonomy. Pointing backwards to the crucial moment of sexual difference and biological truth, the birth of the individual out of the mother’s body, the navel promises an equality of all, against the grain of culture. The feminine slips belie that equality, but use form to undermine their own gender bias as their super-femininity stands up in phallic reminiscence. The bizarre gender bending that recurs in their cycle, time and again, is the mode of their existence between white, thin, delicate innocence and grotesque instability.
The installation thus examines the intricacies of representation and gender as the testing ground of ontological truth. In the exhibition space we can walk on the ground of that uncertain truth without being sucked into its quicksand. The slips can brush against our skin, whenever we come too close. The navels can seduce us with their representational allure. But doubt is always built in. The slips, delicate like feathers, allowing or suggesting subtle, soft caress, don’t feel as smooth and ethereal as they look; they don’t feel like the soft skin they evoke. And their deceptive aliveness also brings the phallic form that changes the fantasy of skin each of us may bring to them. The navels offer representations different from the one we know to expect. Difference cries out loud, in these photographs of sameness and the difference within.
For they all look different. Different from one another, and different according to viewing distance. From afar, they appeal to a diffuse sensuality. Smooth surfaces, soft sheen, slight curves. From closer by, the slightly excessive space between them enforces an individualizing look. You must engage them one by one, like you would do with people. Without faces, they still want to be your individualized interlocutor, not a mass of anonymous others; subjects like yourself, not objects. They seem to dictate the way you look at them. Thus they focus and determine the look’s time-bound activity.
One of them looks decisively erotic, a vagina surrounded by satin softness. Seen as an icon, that one cannot help but evoke the female genitalia. But it uses that visual deception to question the quality of looking so pervasive in our culture. For iconic representation has little bearing on reality or truth. The hairs on the skin around this navel leave the gender of the bearer undecided. And suddenly it occurs to me: the navel’s shape is indifferent to gender. The photograph exploits sensuous appeal to suggest theoretical thoughts about what kinds of images and the modes of looking at them they solicit, do to our epistemic environment.
Another navel looks like an eye, evoking Homer’s one-eyed giant monster, most grotesque of Homeric characters, the Cyclops. This figure, in turn, evokes the miniatured Ulysses who hung onto a sheep’s belly as to a mother who must save the child from the monster, and thus made his escape from confinement in the grotto and from death through devouring. Primal fantasies that we remember from Freudian theory, mythical literature, and surrealist art. Here, the appeal is not sensual but narrative. This photograph uses its false resemblance to an eye in order to set fantasy in motion. Of course, we know that the one is not “really” a vagina, the other not “really” an eye. Don’t try to fool me! But as fleeting as the sensation is, the moment of hesitation affects you in the flesh.
Not all navels carry their stories inside their false depth. One of them protrudes, doubtlessly from a pregnant belly, a cross carved in it predicting the suffering to come. Here only can we know the sex of its bearer. Here, the temporal double meaning recalls and predicts the same event of birth. Here, it is not the arbitrary resemblance, the iconicity that is like a found object, but the realism of photography as a medium that sets the narrative in motion.
Finally, an encompassing paradox comes to the fore. Whereas the navel is the spot on the body that we all share, and the slip remains stubbornly gender-specific, it is the navel that individualizes. The slips are not only identical, their “life”, their movements are synchronized. Yet the machine cannot control their life completely. Their movements and timing are also dependent on the circulation of air within the space; hence, of the movement of the visitors’ bodies. The navels, still, colorless, oversized and glossy, emphatically negating their organic nature, are all different. While the person whose navel it is remains invisible and can never be reconstructed on the basis of the image, no two navels are alike. They are the portraits of the skin.
Jeannette Christensen’s installation thus recognizes the individuality of each subject, but refuses to make a clear, binary sexual difference part of that uniqueness. Gender is both acknowledged, even welcomed as a cultural game played by the slips, and denied its certainty, its binary, its reality by the photographs of the navels. But if, as I contend, the space itself partakes of the questioning of representation and gender, by being space and body simultaneously, then there is reason to wonder about the media used so shrewdly.
Both slips and photographs appeal to an irresistible effect of the real. The slips do not simply represent the mundane, cultural stuff of gender; they are such paraphernalia. They are what they seem to be: pieces of feminine clothing. The photographs, representing the absolute index, the scar of the beginning of life, are themselves a medium that, in the wake of Roland Barthes, has been considered indexically bound to the reality it depicts. We no longer believe in that realism of photography. Instead, we acknowledge the reality effect. This effect is quite emphatic and double here, if we consider that photographs in black and white recall photography’s early days when the reality effect was still believed. At the moment we tend to fall for that effect, though, a few steps backward tip the microscopic scrutiny of the skin into a landscape of fresh snow on a slope. Equally real, equally deceptive.
But as both slips and photographs appeal to a reality effect, they work hard to undermine it. Slips do not stand up or move without a body inside them. Here, with fans blowing air into them to replace the absent body, everything solid melts into air. Similarly, photographs of navels that are detached from any sense of reality by sheer size, depictions of relief, however shallow, which are fixed to a wall, deny their reality effect. No navel looks like this; no individual can be recognized by it.
By integrating the paradoxes of art, body and reality, space, time and gender, Christensen conducts an inquiry in which the viewer is not a spectator but a player. Being inside the gigantic body, touching the airy body, visually engaging the solid navels that distinguish and bind, the viewer solicited by this work is simultaneously a subject looking at objects, and a thinker or researcher, a philosopher wondering about the most basic questions of life. This is how the navels acquire a philosophical effect of the real: indexes of the beginning of life, containers of stories of the subject’s past and the object’s making, they face the slips that mark the end of the voyage through beginnings in gendered, adult life. In a “pre-posterous” reversal of temporality, the points of departure—the navels—and the points of arrival—the slips—point to each other, so that all certainty vanishes in this play of innocent and grotesque form. Humor is Christensen’s own primary means of seduction, effectively engaging thought in its most serious depth. Her work is post-modern in this sense: it plays with ideas and forms, bodies and minds, only to better persuade her viewers of their intricate interdependence.
Thus, this installation is both a single artwork and a series of works; a space and a body; a sensuous visual presentation and a performance. The meanings it offers and withholds are both clear and ambiguous. Ultimately, the point is that meaning is like aesthetic experience: it is not a thing but an event. An event in which everything we thought we knew vanishes.
Jeannette Christensen has been probing the thickness of time consistently in her work. In sculpture, photography, installation—mostly, all three at once—she examines what happens when the body’s temporality colludes and collides with cultural time. The most characteristic feature of her work, in all its diversity and creative variation, is the willing relinquishing of mastery. She gives her works over to time. Her jell-o sculptures rot, mold, and dry over the tenure of their exhibition, and there is no way to predict what shapes, smells and forms they will adopt on their own. Her polaroids of The Passing of Time fade away, taking the Vermeer paintings after which they were made, along in the maelstrom of loss. Her glass drippings, in The Birth of Liquid Desire, turn up as they please, thus carrying an amazing mobility in the wake of their material arrest. Instants are fixed, big objects are destabilized. Similarly, the artist relinquishes the stability of meaning. Whether they are clothes or bodies, feminine or masculine, innocent or seductive, the slips are not/one. Flat and in relief, bodily and objectified, reminiscent of sexual difference yet sexually unspecified, mobilizing the body’s memory in celebration of life’s story, the navels release us from the prison-house of determinacy. With a joyful clarity, slips, navels and the space that binds them collaborate signify the fading away of the most tenacious of all oppositions: between the body and the culture that tries, but in vain, to fix its meaning.