Tag: Matthew Barney

The Great Ephemeral Skin: Kara Walker, Matthew Barney, Laura Mullen

by on Nov.08, 2010

I’ve been fascinated with Lyotard’s notion of the Great Ephemeral Skin, developed in his book Libidinal Economy, which imagines a libidinous body as a kind of Moebius skin, which has not got two side, but only one, and therefore neither exterior nor interior. Yet this Great Ephemeral Skin hosts a radical contiguity which not only lays interior and exterior out in a continuous surface but also mashes together all other categories—

“[…] the immense membrane of the libidinal ‘body’ […] is made from the most heterogeneous textures, bone, epithelium, sheets to write on, charged atmospheres, swords, glass cases, peoples, grasses, canvases to paint. All these zones are joined end to end in a band which has no back to it, a Moebius band which interests us not because it is closed, but because it is one-sided.”

I find this figure immensely interesting and Lyotard’s vertiginous way of writing about it, which contains many dizzy(-ing) lists, even more so. Amazingly, I find this figure popping back in to my head when I consider any number of artists and writers whose work configures a radical contiguity like this—Kara Walker, for one, whose lateral panoramics force the viewer to mime reading, black on white, to encounter body after body pressed into a syntax of violence, in which not only are hierarchies of master and slave continually broken down, flipped and recycled, but also hierarchies of person and object, weapon and body, before and after, cause and effect. All are flattened out and reworked by this reading, which, as one critic has observed, establishes no vanishing point, and therefore no prescribed point of view or critical distance.

(continue reading…)

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On Debris 2; Or, Vulnerability

by on Oct.05, 2010

Hearing Region

I once had perfect hearing, maybe perfect pitch. I would sing at the top of my lungs with little provocation. After I became a writer, I liked to perform my poems at top volume; a microphone got in my way, producing surplus noise or topping out my voice at a screechy ceiling, performing a violence on the audience’s ears.  I tried to keep away from microphones.

Then I began to lose my hearing. I have what they call a ‘cookie bite’ audiogram. There’s a hole in the middle of a normal range of frequencies and volumes where sound for me drops out.  My hearing picks up again at higher and lower pitches.  It’s not the material apparatus of the ear but the nerve itself that has stopped carrying sound to my brain.

Idiopathic: no known cause.

Now I wear two hearing aids that marginally “improve” my hearing and have a material effect on my relationship with sound. For one thing, sound has become artificial, digital. Everything processed through two tiny microphones. The world has lost resonance.  It’s as if the world’s retreated, a just detectible amount, into its skin.

In the interval that’s opened up, I hear a lot more dead air.
(continue reading…)

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The Body Possessed by Media 2: Hunger’s Dirty Protest; or Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten; or, Bobby Sands, Matthew Barney, Fi Jae Lee, Atrocity Kitsch and Male Anorexia

by on Aug.23, 2010

When I watched Hunger, British artist Steve McQueen’s art movie about Irish dirty-protest-leader/hunger striker Bobby Sands, I freakin’ could not believe how much the Bobby Sands figure (as played by Michael Fassbender) reminded me,visually, of Matthew Barney in the Cremaster cycle. Even for an obviously debased Irish Catholic like me,  this is a sacrilegious thought. How could the body of Saint Bobby Sands twin with the body of an narcissistic anally-fixated bulimic art god?

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

[Wikipedia moment: Bobby Sands is an incredibly interesting (still notorious?) figure—an IRA member who, in various prisons, protested in order that he and his comrades be classified as political prisoners rather than criminals. First they refused to wear prisoner’s uniforms, going naked and/or wearing blankets instead; then they refused to bathe and smeared their prison walls with shit (the ‘dirty protest’); finally they began a hunger strike, of which Sands died. In freakin’ 1981, people. During the hunger strike he was also somehow elected to the British Parliament on the “Anti- H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner’ ticket—H Block referred to the ‘H’ shape of the Maze Prison in which the Hunger strike was taking place]

Sands flummoxed the British government with his blanket protest, dirty protest and hunger strike—these rejections of health and hygiene upended the Foucauldian prerogatives of both the prison regime and the British subjugation of Irish bodies as metonym for their subjugation of Ireland as a plantation, colony, etc. The protests went outside and around the value hierarchies culminating in the whole pure white bodies of Thatcher and the Queen and also activated the immemorial English condemnation of Irish as animals, savages, heathens, etc. The mortification of Sands’s body was also an easy match with Roman Catholic ideas of martyrdom, saints, and the physical mortification of the devout.

Hunger’s Dirty Protest

However , a Wikipedia-informed saint’s-life of Bobby Sands and a movie ‘about’ Bobby Sands are two different things.  What struck me about the movie is how deliciously it indulged in the visual breakdown of Sands’s (Fassbender’s) body—since he’s at least half naked throughout, one can observe he is at first attractively (male-ly) muscled, his cheekbones grow more pronounced; his muscles shrivel; bones appear beneath his skin, bed sores appear—rather than an interiority, it’s as if the body continually has more surfaces to reveal. The whole movie is Sands’s/Fassbender’s body. The flights of birds, the falls of light, the truncheons, the prison structure—all seem to emanate from or return to this body. The much praised mise-en-scene is like a bodily fluid. Sands’s body changes form and hosts other media—it never disappears. It cannot be erased from this movie because it is the movie—the medium through which it progresses.

Bed Sores

The same might be said for Matthew Barney’s oeuvre—his body is the ultimate material, the ‘matrix’ or mother material, through which and from which all the media move and pour. The beads, the vaseline, the flesh that falls away and continually reforms itself in bodies that signal hybrity—of man, animal, god, petroleum product—the tendency of bodies to break down, be consumed or consume themselves so that all physical gestures seem like a species of devourment, defecation or eructation. Gestation and the physical development of sexual differentiation in the womb allegedly provide the underlying structure of the Cremaster cycle, but this is overdetermination is also a kind of oversaturation—the very site of sexual difference inscribed within and shot through with and indeterminate from the continually reconfiguring material of the maternal body… itself indistinguishable from the ‘male’ body of Matthew Barney.

A Cremaster

Hunger and Cremaster link to Fi Jae Lee’s work in that the body is possessed by media but is never obliterated by it despite the violence done to it by media possession (and by becoming a medium). Instead, it multiplies, splits open to reveal new surfaces, digests itself, becomes porous to fluid, breaks down and reforms, extrudes new media and materials. Unlike actual anorexia or bulimia, this logic doesn’t end in death, but makes a zone there in which to continually reconfigure or recapitulate itself.


(Fi Jae Lee, Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten)

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No Such Thing as Minimalism: Or, What’s so restrained about restraints?

by on Aug.20, 2010

I’m convinced there is no such thing as minimalism. I can’t think of an example in any art form that is convincingly ‘minimal’ to me. Works that usually fall into this category scream fetish at me—an elaborately enforced silence, an elaborately enforced stillness, an elaborately enforced sheen, an elaborately enforced pose. And exposed in each of those ‘enforcements’ is ‘force’. I feel space (of the page, of the gallery, of the concert hall) become impacted by these requirements, solid as a tooth in the jaw. Language usually also packs this ‘emptied’ space like infected bone. Moreover, ‘restraint’ and ‘constraint’ always seem to produce or reveal ‘strain’.

My favorite example of ‘restraint’ not producing minimalism is Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraints. Already deeply in debt to Jack Smith among other sources, Barney makes an absolute expenditure of withholding; his restraint from drawing implodes into acts of wild costume, gesture, texture, insertion, extrusion, multiphilia.

A secondary language of minimalism is the economy of spaces and contexts in which it appears: bank lobbies, bank plazas, the middle of carefully cleaned white pages, under magazine laminate, hissing from the microphone in the acoustical hall. All these environments and adornments and contexts amount to a secondary ‘language’ of minimalism which is the opposite of absence.  The tertiary language of minimalism: money. As we all know from ‘shelter’ magazines, it costs a lot to look like you don’t own anything at all. In the case of ‘minimalist’ writing (what is this anyway? writing that uses few words? few lines?) context is the fee.

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