Adventures with weird rabbits and dismemberments: Sara Tuss Efrik's deformation zone

by on Apr.19, 2012

I’ve posted a bit about Joyelle’s and my booklet, Deformation Zone, which Ugly Duckling published a couple of months ago. It’s partially about translation, but it’s also what happens to our other ideas about art when we change the way we think about translation. Obviously translation (and the dreaded “paraphrase”) is a very important part of how poetry is discussed in the US. It is afterall the most famous definition of poetry – poetry is that which is lost in translation. Translation produces kitsch – it’s exotic, it’s unreliable, it’s an attack on the lineages of the individual talents, it’s excess, it produces and reproduces like doll-factories, like Jack Smith photographs. Joyelle’s essay in the booklet asks why we can’t re-think translation as people use it in media theory, where it’s constantly and necessarily in use, and from there she goes on to talk about Matthew Barney and Fi-Jae Lee.

So I’d like to use the deformation zones as a way to talk about Sara Tuss Efrik, one of the most interesting young writers in Sweden. Efrik is a writer and performance artist (and sometime writer for Montevidayo and sometime editor of Action, Yes). Her first novel is getting published this fall. I first came in contact with her when she wrote a kind of review of my book Pilot. The review wasn’t exactly a review as an amazing poem/story in and of itself, a kind of rewriting of my poems that treats through a deformation zone. And since then I’ve read a lot of her writings, including the novel.

Efrik is involved in a performance group called Teater Mutation (Theater Mutation). Here’s a trailer for their piece “Styck Mord” (“Dismemberment”):

This is the description from youtube:

Styckmord (Dismemberment) is a chamber play which purports to be a detective story. Two people are locked in a room that is a slaughterhouse that is an autopsy room that is an interrogation room that is a court that is a sterile mirage in which the mystery must be resolved for the relationship to continue or end. One of the two must take the blame.
teater mutation is a new independent theatre group from Malmö that examines and distorts the body, dissects the white woman, stares down at power relations, abuses and allow themselves to be assaulted. Mutation Theatre include artists from various backgrounds in an interdisciplinary artistic process.

But the Swedish also contains the following: “Styckmord är en djupdykning i skräckfilmens land, när mysteriet avtäcks svämmar världen över.” Or: “Dismemberment is a deep-sea dive into the land of horror movies, when the mystery is uncovered, it will flood the world.”

This piece and the accompanying trailer and description brings up a lot of the stuff I find fascinating about Efrik’s writings/performances: the trailer in this case works as a kind of performance of a performance (translation); dismemberment removes the stable identity of the victim (I’m very interested in the relationship of violence and art and media); and the sense of excess that will be released when the “mystery is uncovered” in the land into which paradoxically one has to “dive”. There is this constant mediation of everything, constant excessing of the media, constant anachronism (we dive in and thus flood the land).

In many ways, Efrik’s work is an investigation of what Mark Seltzer (drawing on Kittler’s work) has called “wound culture,” the epoch of mass media, starting in the early 20th century in which the public arena is one of wounded bodies, mass-reproduced killers/victims (“serial killers”) and media. I also think of how this trailer shows something important: how the violence of art does not necessarily have to be what we typically think of as violence and dismemberment – hard, severe, rigorous (the fantasy of the avant-garde), but can come out making out, cuddly animals, permeation. It is an interesting spin on Bersani’s “shattering” experience of art – art can tamper with the self in other interesting ways than the “hard” kind of “shattering.” The self already contains the mutations and the art and the autoimmune disorder that will undo it and undo it and redo it and rewind it and unwind it.

Now on to “Chin Chin:”

I am the Twin Girl who breeds new degenerate species. I happen to be the Siamese Girl who consists of different parts that come loose. The Puzzle Animals escape from me. I am the Twin Girl or the Siamese Girl. It is impossible to magnify me. I am two girls or many. I have been doubled in all eternity, been polished aglow. I have a necklace around my own throat. I am We… (more)

This is one of Efrik’s “Automanias.” They are diary entries of sorts, but instead of diary entries, which invoke the very private take on lived experience, these diary entries are written through the experiences of art, as the texts move through other artworks. They are “automanias” rather than “autobiograhies” – they mania-ize the texts rather than biographize.

As I wrote yesterday, this particular peice on the paintings of Berlin-based artist Emeli Theander as well as a kitschy painting by Efrik’s grandmother. “Chin Chin” is a series of images (from what I gather) that were grafiti–ied on various city walls around the world, translated already through various cityscapes:

So already the diary is based on a reproduced images. But the poem is not “indeterminacy” in the old postmodern way, nor is it really about “reproduction” (as in a lot of art of the 1970s), but it’s about a constant tension between the many and the singular, the diary-narrative and the forces that break apart the body: she becomes not just two people (two copies without an original) but also “chin chin,” a name that evokes the realm of orientalist-freakshow-otherness kitsch (the exact realm through which translations – of say The Arabian Nights – produces the very idea of kitsch). It goes without saying that she’s “inauthentic”; she’s not worried about authenticity or mediation. For me this is about art as deformation zones.

The rabbit is the “brand” or “symbol” of this violence; and like the tension between the one and the reproduced, like the diving in the land that produces the flood (in the statement by Teater Mutation), the speaker both doesn’t want to free the rabbit or bury it.

The Rabbit that lives in our breastcage is our brand; the symbol of the Siamese. The Rabbit is our epidemic, the nest of the coal-burning. Above our joined Girl Body fly vulture birds, screaming for food that our mother dropped somewhere along the way.

It is not properly speaking a symbol because it unsettles the topographic models of the symbol: it distorts the depth that is needed in a symbol by living inside the ribcage (ie it is inside, where one is supposed to find the meaning of the symbol, but instead one finds the symbol, the vehicle) as well as outside. And unlike a conventional symbol, the concrete singular that holds together the more abstract, the vehicle that leads the way to the tenor (to paraphrase Coleridge’s famous definition), this symbol is an “epidemic” and a “coal-burning” – the singular vehicle multiplies in itself, becomes an auto-mutilation, burning itself into orphan birds. The vehicle of the symbol moves up toward the tenor/meaning, but the meaning is stuck in the insistent deformation zone (vultures ready to eat the text).

[Note: here the relation to translation is clear. The old poetry-lost-in-translation asserts this ultimate symbol, that original, authenticity, and that’s what’s lost. In Efrik, it’s the zone where the symbol eats itself, where the translation/deformation takes place that is the poem.]

There is this constant automutilation, self-cannibalizing that leads to the girl-holes:

The Rabbit that hides in our breastcage is the hole into our joined Girl Body. It is the black glowing, staring, gazing, the inward peephole. There is the nest with the bird bones and children’s bones in the bed of body parts. Our Rabbit flirts with the escapee who is the White Rabbit. It is the white one who has escaped from us, who runs outside our body and teases the imprisoned Breastcage Rabbit. The gape opens in our open breastcage. Our narrow tongues move inwards, into the Rabbit’s throat and answer the harangues with a gurgle.

Through this hole we get bird bones: far from symbol, it is body and it is a hybridizes body, an anatomic pageantry. By the time the Siamese girls begin to lick the Rabbit’s throat, the rabbit has come out of the girl and the girl is going into the rabbit. The inside becomes outside, the outside inside. The speaker may scream all she wants, may ask the world to “plug it up!” but the body is a moebius strip: there is not interiority here, no self-mastery, but instead what Bersani might call a “shattering,” and the only way to stop this melee is to use the “fixating strangle.” To end the poem:

We scream in each other’s Twin-Ears: Stop the attacks! Stop the flow! Stuff the finger into the nothing-hole. Plug up that which hears, which travels in air-drownings. Plug it up! Kill that which is astray in the breastcage! Our Breastcage Rabbit is mute. The Rabbit is the concentrated point in our joined Twin Body. It is the fixating strangle, our lonely destiny.

It’s amazing how patently false the “destiny” and “fixating” seems, how un-ending the poem seems, how the “strangle” doesn’t allow the poem to end. It continues. It will continue. It will be written on walls in Tokyo and Seul.

I love all these explorations of gothic artifice, engagements with tensions and violent eruptions and disruptions, performances of distortions and multiplications. Greenberg famously objected to kitsch for its visceral impact: Here we get the symbol (that redeemer of Art) but its consumed by itself, turned into visceral kitsch. When people talk about using “kitsch” it almost always seems to be with the gloves of irony, thus reaffirming the division between true art and kitsch. In this poetry, the kitsch is visceral, it doesn’t have that ironic distance.

My friend Kate Marshall suggested I a reference to Lovecraftian horror and “the New Weird’s” (China Mieville etc) revision of this paradigm:

“In this kind of fiction… body transformations and dislocations create a visceral, contemporary take on the kind of visionary horror best exemplified by the work of Lovecraft – while moving past Lovecrat’s coyness in recounting events in which the monster or horror can never fully be revealed or explained. In many of Barker’s best tales, the starting point is the acceptance of a monster or a transformation and the story is what comes after. Transgressive horror, then, repurposed to focus on the monsters and grotesquerie but no the “scare,” forms the beating heart of the New Weird.”

I think this gets at the constant covering/uncovering, flooding and not flooding, diving into the land to flood it, of Efrik’s paradigm. There are of course obvious differences (Efrik doesn’t do much with alien species, though Aase Berg does in Dark Matter, and that work is definitely part of this orbit), but it does seem relevant.

PS #2

This is also an aesthetic you can see in contemporary Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg’s work: claymation girls/women in bright colors with exagerrated features getting eaten/killed by icons of Art – whether birds or snakes. The claymation invoking both the tasteless “thereness” of childhood kitsch and the mobility of art itself.

[Here’s a link to an earlier post about Djurberg.]

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Ailbhe Darcy


    the first part of this piece, the section on Dismemberment, seems so haunted (intentionally?) by the latest horror photos from Afghanistan, of US soldiers posing with body parts, some of which were published on Wednesday by the LA Times. I’ve carefully not seen the photos, but I feel like they’re seared on my mind’s eye anyway, because I know what it will be like to see them, because we’ve been through this circus so many times.

    I don’t suppose that mentioning these specific images adds anything to what you’ve already said about “the public arena…of wounded bodies, mass-reproduced killers/victims (“serial killers”) and media,” but there you are. The slippage between your dismemberment metaphor and the images of actual dismemberment currently awaiting our consumption was too awful for me to resist…

    Thanks for this fascinating bit of writing!

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Outrageous and inrageous. Enrageous ingenues!

  3. Johannes

    Yes, I’m very much interested in the relationship art and torture, especially these fantasies that seem to be playing out in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan etc. And they both definitely have to do with Seltzer’s “wound culture”. Your observation that we’ve been “through this circus so many times” seems to speak to the reproducableness of these kinds of events, that they are already reproduced to begin with so to speak. They are reproductions. This is part of the media-body-wound-violence-art intersection. I’ve been meaning to write about Nancy Spero’s “Torture of Women” which makes this connection even more obvious.