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Atthis for you

by Grace MacNair




Looking back over her shoulder at some fear


she rescued flowers before cold

could bruise or backbend tender green into


masses of misshapen buds. All vessels—

porcelain, glass, metal—filled with


the thirst of stems cut and trimmed diagonally.

So he drank from faucets until the flowers bowed,


blushing everything bright with fallen crumbs of

pollen. Those springs smelled of rescue.


This one disturbs. Mason jars full

of dark stuck to their ringed prints in the cabinets.




Note: Title is a line from “Home Burial” by Robert Frost









After leaving him she buys a gardenia—


The one with         bulleted buds to replace the marriage                 

violets                   wilting                                                                          

in her lap               on the subway until a blossom                                         

mostly                   un-whorls

goes                      pitching scent

astray                    as far and wide as a voice thrower




Note: Italicized text taken from fragment 21 in “If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho” by Anne Carson









Atthis for you


How to get out of bed? How to go back and forth

on a floor that is warping back the sounds

they taught it to say as they skimmed

their bodies over and under

until finally sinking into the other

like stones breaking

surface tension.


You were gentle Atthis but that did not unbind her

from longing for one that came before and in longing

for him she loved you. In longing she would lie

on the floor with eyes closed,

with fingertips counting the cold nails

that pierced the sapped hearts

of the heart-pine boards but the longing

never loosed her long enough

for her to be Atthis for you then.


Atthis for you like a woman who labors both for the child

and for the man who gave her that child; like a woman

who labors for what a child will give her and that man

for giving each other a child.


In dreams far above the bed but far below the vault of blue

she is Atthis for you  but in waking she bites her tender mind.




Note: Italicized text taken from “If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho” by Anne Carson



Back to Issue

After Eros

by Sara Christoph



Artist unknown, Illustration of Petrach’s Triumph of Love, 16th century.

Artist unknown, Illustration of Petrach’s Triumph of Love, 16th century.

“Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me // sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up”

Sappho, 7th century BC

“When he inhales Eros, there appears within him a sudden vision of a different self, perhaps a better self, compounded of his own being and that of his beloved. Touched to life by erotic accident, this enlargement of self is a complex and unnerving occurrence.”

Anne Carson, 1986

I. An Erotics of Art

When Susan Sontag proclaimed the urgent need for “an erotics of art,” it was a radical assertion in the critical world of 1965. Almost fifty years later, it remains one today.  The root of the particular word in question—eros—has survived centuries of mutations and caricatures, a history Sontag was surely aware of when selecting her prose. What, precisely, did Sontag mean when she chose to champion “eros?” It might be useful to trace the idea of eros back a few centuries, to the civilization in which we prefer to locate our Western selves: Ancient Greece. I’ll leave aside the obvious observations of the erotic in Greek art, we’ve all seen our fair share of marble genitalia. What I mean to discuss is the metaphysical conception of Eros, the way the force of love was adopted as a paradoxical presence within the Greek intellect—both abstract and anthropomorphic, both catastrophic and liberating. We must not think of Eros only as Cupid, the chubby, rosy-cheeked toddler whose mischievous games could take down the most indomitable of men. As often is the case in the Greek pantheon, the mythology around Eros is highly fluid, with contradictory tales coexisting side by side. In one myth he is a fundamental cosmic force present at the beginning of time, in another he is the offspring of Aphrodite’s affair with the brutal Ares, the god of war. Yet such incongruities seem appropriate: love is not orthodox, it never follows one strict evolutionary path. If manifested into a being, such an unpredictable force would demand a rebellious and enigmatic figure. Let us begin with the Eros drawn up by Hesiod, the first of the Greek poets to write down the creation story in the 8th century BC. 1 Such a historical context for Eros may shed light on the stakes of Sontag’s appropriation of the word.


II. Creation: Before and After Eros

In the beginning, there was only darkness. Hesiod, in his Theogony, named this void Chaos. Unlike our modern understanding of the word, this chaos was not pandemonium but a boundless dark expanse, pregnant with emptiness. From Chaos, came three elements: Gaia (Earth), Tartaros (Underworld), and Eros (Sexual Love). This primordial Eros was abstract, pure procreation, unadulterated by romance. He did not have wings or arrows; he was not even a he. Gaia and Tartaros lived in symbiosis, their darknesses separate and serene. Gaia was above, Tartaros, below. With Eros, the boundaries between the two dark worlds melted. Above and below became lost in one another. They mixed and mixed until they made light. Pure, new light. Twin lights. Aither (the clear atmosphere) and Hemera (day). This was Eros’s first conquest: an attack on bounded separateness. Now space had to be shared; darkness had to make room for light. Everything that came next—the Titans, the Furies, the Nymphs, the Olympic Gods and their mortals below—all were offspring of this first union between Eros and the world. And so went the creation story of the Greeks. The language is epic, the players abstract, but the narrative is clear: Eros—love—was an essential and potent catalyst from the start. It was Eros who in disrupting the balance of darkness, begat the conditions for life. Yet as we know from the innumerable Greek tragedies that would follow, rarely is Eros steadfast. The force of love is fickle and fleeting, leaving brokenness and loss in its wake. Despite such recklessness, Eros was understood as an omnipotent force, occupying a central role of power in the Greek universe. And so, how did the power of Eros manifest in the world of flesh-bound mortals?


Attributed to Francesco da Barberino, The Triumph of Love, illustrating Francesco da Barberino’s Tractatus de Amore, c. 1315.

Attributed to Francesco da Barberino, The Triumph of Love, illustrating Francesco da Barberino’s Tractatus de Amore, c. 1315.


“Their metaphors for the experience [of love] are metaphors of war, disease and bodily dissolution,” writes Anne Carson in her book on the subject, Eros: The Bittersweet. She is speaking of the great lyric poets of classical Greece, specifically of their descriptions of the god of love’s assaults. As both a poet and a scholar of Classics herself, in Eros Carson traces the role of love within Greek thought through a detailed analysis of lyric poetry, literature, and the iconographic traditions of vase painting. The entire text is rich with philosophical meditations, but I would like to unpack just one: that of Eros’s relation to boundaries—of his ability to push the lover to the edge of self.

As Carson documents, for the Greek poets this was a violent and epic event, not one of childish, frivolous arrow play. To experience Eros is to undergo “piercing, crushing, bridling, roasting, stinging, biting, grating, cropping, poisoning, singeing and grinding to a powder.” Putting aside the explicitness of their language, most important is this notion of Eros as a being that inflicts fundamental change of self. It is a narrative we continue to attest to today: to be in love, our stories still tell us, is to lose your bounds of self in another.


III. Boundaries: Clarity at the Edge

We live within boundaries, our lives are regularly dictated by their rules. Referees rely on painted lines to denote “fair play” from senseless violence; governments erect walls and turn neighbors “illegal.”

In the Greek world too, boundaries were upheld to maintain stability. Between neighboring city-states, between the home and the polis—such cultural boundaries were deeply set. But as one might imagine, the deity who could sway such boundaries was Eros.

Lovers are forever troubled by boundaries. The physical distance between two lovers is not merely empty space, but tentative, loaded space, crucial to the formulation of desire. There is you and me and then there is this space between—this space that begs collapsing, this desire that grows within. May I ask, dear reader, have you felt this? This reach for impossible closeness? This desire to steal the breath of your beloved, to feel their heartbeat ricochet off your own?

I turn to Carson:

Eros is an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do. In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance, between ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too,’ the absent presence of desire comes alive.

In the Greek universe, love was not solely the play of two people; there was always, inescapably, a third. This third player—the space between—anthropomorphized into a physical presence. Quite literally, Eros is the god between.

It was conventional for Greek artists to paint Eros betwixt two lovers. Usually smaller in scale and winged, he often hovers around shoulder height. He physically impedes the lovers’ touch, preferring to do the touching himself. The lovers sit, stoic, and it is Eros who reaches, connecting the two.

Again, Carson:

But the boundaries of time and glance and I love you are only aftershocks of the main, inevitable boundary that created Eros: the boundary of flesh and self between you and me. And it is only, suddenly, at the moment when I would dissolve that boundary, that I realize I never can.

We often think of new lovers as inseparable; we chastise roommates lost to their bedrooms or engaged friends gone absent. But for the lovers, what pains them so and drives them to spend moment after moment reaching for each other, is this desire to collapse the space between. Grieved by their own bounded skin, they cannot overcome it. Two must remain two.

This is the ancient Eros; the paradoxical way in which the bounds of self are both melted and reinforced.

All at once a self never known before, which now strikes you as the true one, is coming into focus. A gust of godlikeness may pass through you and for an instant a great many things look knowable, possible, present. Then the edge asserts itself. You are not a god. You are not that enlarged self. Indeed, you are not even a whole self, as you now see.

It is only here, when the lover finally arrives at the edge, “the boundary of flesh and self,” that the lover’s own limits—bodily and psychological—crystallize into view. Standing at the cliff of self-consciousness, after eros, we learn our true dimensions of self.

I wonder is it warranted to borrow such language, as Sontag has done, and apply it to the experience of viewing art? (I beg of someone, please, argue yes.)

But further, I wonder, was she ever in love, like this?


IV. The Sublime: After Eros

Yes, such wording feels a bit trite. It resounds with 18th century jargon and the outmoded notion of the Sublime, a romantic pursuit no self-preserving critic today would advocate. But here I am, knocking at this massive, ancient, decrepit door, asking Eros for enlightenment. I sink into nostalgia, romanticize, I unabashedly write about love—it goes against all my training.

Yet I think there is something here, something to be gleaned from this mythological description of life. Perhaps it is this ancient concept of eros, the metaphysical, body-desolating one, that can help us think about what it is that we expect from an experience of art.

In Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, he begins with an account of a middle-aged man distraught by 15th century crucifixion paintings. The narrator, hungover and high on hash, follows the stranger from room to room around the Prado, attracted to his inexplicable outbursts. Van der Weyden, San Leocadio, Hieronymus Bosch—each masterpiece throws him into a weeping frenzy.

Confounded, the narrator asks: “Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?”

When reading the passage, the brilliance of the scene is almost laughable. The narrator so cynical and guarded; the stranger so unabashedly vulnerable. But laughable too, it is worthy of note, is the idea of a sixty-pound infant jetting around the world, wreaking havoc with his pint-sized arrows. Yet it is this version of Eros that has stuck. For me, the ancient lyric poets feel closer, closer than our watered-down notion of Cupid, closer than much being written or made today.

Once or twice in life, our selves dilate and contract within the violent light of love. For Sontag to call for this—if this is the eros she meant—is to set the stakes rather high for art. It is to call for art that risks madness.

Eros is epic, impossible to fight off. When we face him, our selves cannot stand unchanged. How many works of art could wage a similar assault?



Sara Christoph is a freelance creative writer from New York City.

  1. I cannot claim to be a classics scholar, and so must work from a remove. My adaptation of Hesiod’s story is pulled from Richard Caldwell’s translation of Theogony, and Jenny Marsh’s Book of Classical Myths
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Paul McCarthy at Hauser & Wirth

by Noah Dillon




Paul McCarthy / Damon McCarthy, Photographs taken during the filming of ‘Rebel Dabble Babble,’ 2011 – 2012, Photo: Joshua White, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Paul McCarthy / Damon McCarthy, Photographs taken during the filming of ‘Rebel Dabble Babble,’ 2011 – 2012, Photo: Joshua White, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.


This summer, Hauser & Wirth presented a sprawling, multi-site series showcasing much of Paul McCarthy’s recent work at five different New York locations: the piers in West Chelsea, the gallery’s 18th street and 69th street locations, at the Park Avenue Armory, and on Randall’s Island during the Frieze Fair. All of the work is described as being part of an ongoing video and installation project.

In Chelsea, McCarthy’s “Rebel Dabble Babble,” a video installation made in collaboration with his son Damon and with the actor James Franco, is the last of the exhibitions to open. It premiered last spring at The Box in Los Angeles, a gallery owned by McCarthy’s daughter Mara. The multi-channel installation presents a horrifying vision of contemporary America hung primarily on the 1955 B-film Rebel Without a Cause and the sordid triad of the film’s stars, James Dean and Natalie Wood, and its director, Nicholas Ray. Consisting of video, still photography, and two film-set houses that were meticulously recreated in the gallery space, McCarthy’s installation parodies the original movie, its characters, and its players as they depict scenes of carnality and violence.The characters (both historical and imaginary) inhabit dynamic subjective positions throughout the artwork, obscuring the boundaries between one self and another, and between representation and reality.

For those who don’t remember the original film, Rebel Without a Cause begins with authoritative social workers counseling three youths at the local police station, each having been brought in on various charges of delinquency. The kids (Dean as Jim Stark, Wood as Judy, and Sal Mineo as Plato) are given pop psychology lectures suggesting that he or she is trying to alert their parents to their feelings of inadequacy, neglect, or alienation—that their misbehavior cloaks Oedipal demands for affection and respect. This scene isn’t mimicked in McCarthy’s version, but the show does take that underlying psychology to extremes.

Much of the drama in Rebel Without a Cause centers on the inability of the three protagonists to assimilate into socially acceptable roles, either within their families, the local community, or among peers. Towards the climax of the film they abscond to a vacant mansion and pantomime a realtor’s tour before they play house, discuss their domestic anxieties, and invent a surrogate family. There are hints of Plato’s non-platonic desire for Jim and the whole scene is made more florid by tabloid rumors that during and after the film’s production Ray, Dean, Mineo, and Wood shared a bungalow at the Château Marmont where they maintained a debauched ménage à quatre that was creepily familial.


Paul McCarthy / Damon McCarthy, Photographs taken during the filming of ‘Rebel Dabble Babble,’ 2011 – 2012, Photo: Joshua White, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Paul McCarthy / Damon McCarthy, Photographs taken during the filming of ‘Rebel Dabble Babble,’ 2011 – 2012, Photo: Joshua White, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.


The characters in McCarthy’s Rebel are the same or similar to those in the original movie, and they, along with Ray, Dean, Mineo, and Wood, are each represented by one or more people in McCarthy’s cast. Judy/Natalie Wood is essentially one character played by two women—one is Elyse Poppers, who has worked on previous McCarthy projects and is the most constant performer in the troupe. She also appears at the Park Avenue Armory installation and is reproduced in full-sized resin models and video for “Paul McCarthy: Life Cast,” at the gallery’s 69th street location. Poppers’s character is the locus of the show’s complicated web of familial and sexual relationships. Rebel director Nicholas Ray/Judy’s father/Jim Stark’s father/an unnamed pornographer all represent one overbearing and lascivious archetype played by multiple men, including McCarthy. Occasionally several of them appear on-screen at the same time, each with an enormous prosthetic, phallic nose. Jim Stark/James Dean is played by Franco, except for a number of genuinely pornographic scenes in which Stark/Dean is portrayed by the real life porn star James Deen. 1


Paul McCarthy / Damon McCarthy, Photographs taken during the filming of ‘Rebel Dabble Babble,’ 2011 – 2012, Photo: Joshua White, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Paul McCarthy / Damon McCarthy, Photographs taken during the filming of ‘Rebel Dabble Babble,’ 2011 – 2012, Photo: Joshua White, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.


Poppers’s Judy/Wood character is abused and/or molested by all of the men she encounters, no matter whether she is playing their sister, daughter, ingénue, or paramour. These encounters are taped by one or more of the father figures and form the bulk of the show. The madness, fighting, screwing, screaming, and exaggerated representations of filmmaking are broadcast in a jumble of non-sequential videos playing simultaneously across the walls of the gallery and within the house-sculptures.

The chaotic nature of the show, with its aural bleed and its hyper-stimulating barrage of juxtaposed videos, is overwhelming and difficult to parse as a straight narrative, hence the titular “babble.” It’s perhaps unnecessary to consider the project in terms of its own tale, apart from the original film and its creation. Included in a rear gallery is a selection of more than 400 production stills, displayed along four walls in order, giving an over-arching view of the story. This simplification straightens the narrative but represents it absent much of its power, which resides precisely in its confusion and conflation of identities through the pastiche of tormented/tormenting vignettes. It’s important to viscerally understand Judy/Wood as an unstable admixture of performer and performance, approached by men who may variously be a stud, a father, an abuser, an authority, or a submissive, and that every other character inhabits the same dilemma. McCarthy is able to make the entire show an assault of aural, visual, and sensual excitation while maintaining the sense that there is a great deal still hidden within that bombardment. Part of this is simply the impossibility of understanding all the dialogue amidst the shouting, grunting, and banging going on. But there are also hints at deeper, larger problems entangled in the imagery and noise.


Paul McCarthy / Damon McCarthy, Photographs taken during the filming of ‘Rebel Dabble Babble,’ 2011 – 2012, Photo: Joshua White, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Paul McCarthy / Damon McCarthy, Photographs taken during the filming of ‘Rebel Dabble Babble,’ 2011 – 2012, Photo: Joshua White, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.


Although catalogue essays by both the elder and younger McCarthy have emphasized the installation as being concerned with Hollywood and the psychic tortures of actors inhabiting states of extremity, we perform many of the same processes in daily life, if often to a lesser degree. Vicarious participation, the adoption of alien personae, and the confusion of who we are with what we do are not unfamiliar to ordinary citizens, though the extent to which “Rebel’s” agonists experience these situations is particularly acute.

In some videos we see Judy/Wood and the other protagonists argue or have sex—scenes which are then duplicated as cinematic re-enactments, often with handheld cameras being shoved, cock-like, towards the actors in gestures of mechanical and visual penetration. Judy/Wood fights with her father/Nick Ray and stabs him to death; whether that event is rehearsal or pathos is unclear. She then reproduces the same event with another nearly identical man, while the first one trails them with a camera. She masturbates on her bed and is doubly invaded by twin pornographers shooting her and each other. In another scene, she lies in a bathtub, getting covered with a yellow, pudding-like substance extruded from bags held below the naked anus of her father; soon the two switch positions and she soaks him. 2  While the character of Judy in Rebel Without a Cause appealed to her dad in a more or less traditional, static, Electral mode, all the characters here trade places constantly as they gratify, humiliate, and observe one another. They transition fluidly from positions of power to those of obedience, from desire to hatred, from identity to identity.

The house filling much of the exhibition space is the set used by the McCarthys during production. It has been re-constructed exactly as it was at the end of taping, having aggregated all the sexual and psychological violence enacted on its premises. The building is composed in two parts—one enclosed save for windows and peepholes, the other bisected to display its disturbed inner life. Videos are projected around the house on the gallery walls and also within. Haphazard, rectangular peepholes have been cut into the homes to encourage our voyeuristic consumption of the hardcore porn on display throughout the space. Like the rest of the cast, the set itself is a Janus, modeled on both Ray’s aforementioned bungalow and the home of Jim Stark, the original film’s lead.

Signs of violence and violation build up on the house’s corpus. Materials and detritus are strewn about—heavy-duty cables running in through windows, stains and crust, soda cans and champagne bottles by the wall outside, and dead flowers on the kitchen table. The semi-cavernous suburban domicile has been viciously renovated, giving it several extra orifice-like openings. The peepholes—cut with a circular saw by a man playing Ray/Judy’s father/Mr. Stark—allow viewers to look into or through the house, spying some of the videos in a way that more concretely sites them within the home. Judy and Ray/her father, who take turns ramming or beating the wall with a phallic length of steel pipe in a deranged act of territorialization, have inflicted other punctures.

The house is one of the more powerful and insistent images in McCarthy’s production and a generator for much of the action. Following an era wherein home-ownership manifested as a kind of national, cataclysmic fetishism, it doesn’t seem too reaching to suggest that McCarthy’s houses and the things done in them are pathologically inextricable. Family homes are private models of the public sphere, where we are expected to foster respectable attitudes and behaviors. Here, the home of the actor and the character are totally confused, uninhibited, and consequently demented. When, satirizing the original movie, Jim Stark’s father (played by McCarthy) dons an apron and wanders dumbly around the set, his pants around his ankles, staining himself with shit-brown gravy from the craft services table, we get a sense of the home’s warping power: he is obliged by his domesticity to inhabit simultaneous, contradictory roles, becoming the father, mother, child, creator, spectator, and so on.

The show’s action is pathologically similar to the febrile and lurid depictions of home-ownership on reality TV in building and remodeling shows, 3 whose dramatic arc usually revolves around a protagonist’s unfulfilled desire being resolved by attractive and dexterous men suggestively handling various tools. In some of these shows, such as ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (2003-present), the family is exhibited as cheerily abject: suffering, but not grievously, with none of their private darkness disclosed. They often break down in cathartic tears when their remade home is unveiled at the episode’s end; whatever struggles they face have been overcome by the power of perfect home-ownership. No mention is made of the way that such ideals helped, however indirectly, to bloat the United States’ housing market, nor is any attention paid to the new financial burden faced by many of these families when their new dream homes command higher property taxes and energy bills. None of the action on these TV shows is overtly sexual but, as in “Rebel Dabble Babble,” the voyeuristic thrill of watching people perform predetermined roles to a satisfied, ecstatic climax is certainly present: they appear to have obtained an experience of fulfilled desire and, consequently, so have we. The whole manufactured and taped event is pornographic.

The aesthetics of porn have tinted so much of culture—in reality TV, political stagecraft, the housing bubble and its bond traders, or the way we read Rebel Without a Cause. Everything is reduced to a tortured performance of need, delivery, and gratification, tailored to satisfy its viewers’ proclivities, and as such, appearance takes precedence over content. This is a confusion fully inhabited by any actor, perhaps especially by method actors such as Dean: the division between a projected character and the dramaturge’s substantive personhood becomes indistinct. The animus or likeness promised by the actor is mistaken for the truth of the matter. They and we are induced to accept that a fantastic image is real and full, that the market is working, that sex is easy and uncomplicated, that poll-tailored sloganeering yields good policy, that reality programs (and hence reality) follow meaningful, purposive plotlines. The pornification of the world is a curse. To be clear, the problem isn’t with people performing or fucking, either here or in adult video stores, or at shareholder meetings, or wherever. Rather it’s the seemingly ubiquitous preference for a flattering façade that is so poisonous.

In “Rebel Dabble Babble,” McCarthy takes the original film and contemporizes it, expands it, disturbs and perverts it. His characters aren’t Freudian egos but Lacanian subjectivities. They’re not children searching for adulthood; they’re grownups arrested in their development. Their amoral and obscene demands mask an abyssal, vacuous core instead of pointing to a desire for fulfillment. They don’t play suggestively at eroticism; they brutally impose their prurience. Rather than stereotypes of young people, they reflect us: our world, our television, our politics, our economy. Maybe we’re a darker culture than existed in 1955—probably not. All the elements were there in the original film, waiting for McCarthy to run with them. It sucks, but it’s true.


  1. Deen (née Bryan Sevilla) has since complained that Franco treated him as the butt of a joke, though this criticism may lose some of the torque when considered against Deen’s own use of a novelty pseudonym alluding to the famous actor. And his presence in the cast further confounds the differences between actor and character, past and present, teen icon and sex object, legitimate actor and porn star.
  2. In Paul McCarthy: Life Cast,” Poppers is similarly covered with blue casting goo, an image that takes on amniotic qualities when her image is birthed as a series of resin statues.
  3. This allusion is nailed home by the use of a cinéma vérité style of shooting and occasional diaristic segments with Poppers facing the camera alone.
Back to Issue

Imagination and Blind Perception

by Sam Swasey



Artist unknown, Untitled, 1850s, U.S.A, Courtesy of Vintage Works, Ltd and I Photo Central, LLC

Artist unknown, Untitled, 1850s, U.S.A, Courtesy of Vintage Works, Ltd and I Photo Central, LLC


Photography literally means “drawing with light.” Named this way in the early part of the 19th century when the technology was invented, the camera, it seems, was once perceived to have a different connection with what was located in the viewfinder. Nothing was “captured” or “taken” like some sort of fractional piece of reality held hostage inside itself. Rather, the photograph, as with its predecessors of documentation, was simply sketched, drafted, or drawn. Yet unlike the drawings of previous centuries, the image was not brought into being by the hand of an artist. It was as if light itself traced the lines and contours of the scene and recalled, like a vivid memory, a reflection of the past and seemingly the reality of what was.

Compelled by a desire to verify their own existence, or, at the very least to leave something of themselves behind for future generations, Europeans and Americans flocked to Daguerreotype photography studios during the latter part of the 19th Century.

The blind went too. Perhaps they wished to leave behind an artifact containing their visual appearance, a testament to a reality that they could not perceive. Or maybe it was their desire to hold the photographic reproduction, to grasp with their hands that which they could not see with their eyes. Or perhaps it was by way of their image contained within the photographic frame that they, though unable to experience it, could participate in a reality that was no longer, if ever, their own.

Conversely, it might be this paradoxical desire that has compelled photographers throughout the centuries to attempt to make visible the invisible, to capture the un-seeable secrets in the faces of the blind. In Paul Strand’s photograph from 1916, Blind Woman, New York, an aged woman stands against a stone wall. We are certain of her bodily deficiency for around her neck she wears a sign that reads “BLIND.”


Paul Strand, Blind Woman, New York, 1916. Copyright © Aperture Foundation, Inc., Paul Strand Archive.

Paul Strand, Blind Woman, New York, 1916. Copyright © Aperture Foundation, Inc., Paul Strand Archive.


Though she cannot see this sign that is indicative of her bodily impairment, she feels its significance as a gentle weight around her neck. It rests on her chest attached to strings in a way that glasses might for someone with functioning eyes. Closer to her throat and composed of a soft glow reminiscent of the twinkle in her sideways eye is a badge that reads “Licensed Peddler 2622.” In the years after the Civil War, when amputees and the war-torn insane returned to their city, New York had established the right for the physically and mentally afflicted to sleep at night in certain public parks, giving them various jobs as street vendors as well.1 What her job was we cannot know, and just as she could not see the world around her, we cannot hear the sounds she heard.

Perhaps she stands down on or around The Bowery—a location Strand photographed often—where recent immigrants, drunks, and drifters often congregated and lived, drawn in by vice and poverty. In this case, she might have heard belching men cat-calling prostitutes, the hum up above of conversing people squeezed into all-too crowded tenements, flies that buzzed and lingered around puddles that formed in the streets, or the snore of a sleeping man curled up in a darkened hollow like some forgotten pup. Had we been there when the photograph was taken we might have heard far different things, busy with our eyes and all that was there to be witnessed.

We see her as she has never seen herself, while she perceives the world as we never have. “It was only by deceiving his subjects,” wrote Geoff Dyer in his book, The Ongoing Moment, “that [Strand] could be faithful to them.” 2 Though in the case of the blind woman, her sense of self is anything but an appearance attained through ocular perception, whether that be the eyes or lens.  It is not she, but the viewer who is deceived. This image does not move us for what it contains, it moves us for what it does not contain, that which we cannot see or grasp—the absence of vision. She perceives what we cannot—the subject of the image: blindness. Whereas we see what she cannot perceive—the visual form, her appearance, which is suggestive of the subject. It is an image which is nearly negated by absence, but which is effective precisely because of this negation.

In Strand’s photograph we find both hardship and poverty but also something beyond us, something ungraspable. It compels us to question the significance of another’s gaze. There are the dreamer’s eyes that are at times far off and vacant and at other times concrete and penetrating, the “pale blue eyes” so often spoken of in song, red eyes aflame in life’s struggle and blind eyes that forbid us entrance—instead our gaze spreads like wax over their empty hemispheres. For centuries the blind, not unlike artists, have been thought of and discussed on two divergent levels: on one they are pitied as melancholic outcasts somewhere between bohemian and beggar and on the other they are glorified as visionaries somewhere between human and god.

Imagination is inextricably connected to the image (imago) and therefore to vision, thus blind eyes defy us, for what is absent cannot be imagined. Conversely when vision goes missing from those afflicted with blindness, they are at times throughout history described not as losing, but in fact gaining something. In the Matrix Trilogy, for instance, Neo faces the recurring conundrum that what he, and likewise, what we are seeing is not actually what is. In the final fight of the third film he is blinded. Before winning the fight with the swing of a blunt metal object he states, as if astonished, “I can see you.” Though visually blind he can, in a sense, see beyond the virtual sleights, or rather, because he cannot see, he is unaffected by them and therefore perceives the world as it really is.  Phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that,

More directly than any other dimensions of space depth forces us to reject the preconceived notion of the world and rediscover the primordial experience from which it springs: it is, so to speak, the most ‘existential’ of all dimensions, because… it is not impressed upon the object itself, it quite clearly belongs to the perspective and not to things. 3

Our conception of depth is “primordial” and not directly related to sight. If we were blind suggested Merleau-Ponty, a walking stick would be used to “mark, in our vicinity, the varying range of our aims and gestures…to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body.”4 Though in the case of the Greek prophet Tiresias, his useless eyes, which prevent him from fragmenting the world into objects and visual planes of depth, allow him to perceive eternity in a single instant. Subsequently he dismantles his findings and composes them in the fragmentary language of his listeners. It is as if he can momentarily vanquish any conception of space or depth from his being to perceive the pure duration of existence—to separate space from time.

Neo and Tiresias fascinate us not because they, as the story often goes, overcome their bodily afflictions, but because they perceive the world differently. Their perception of the world is potentially more acute, their imagination more powerful and their conception of an objective reality more complete.

During the Middle Ages it was believed that something called the pneuma played a vital role in perception and more specifically vision. The pneuma, according to William of St. Thierry, acted as an “intermediary between the spirit [or the breath of God] and the body.”5 When viewing a painting, the pneuma exited the pupil of the spectator, made contact with the color and form of the art object and returned to the eye to activate the imagination. Like the observed similarities found in contemporary science between the orbiting of electrons around the nucleus and the planets around the sun, the microcosmic systems of perception during the Middle Ages—namely vision—mirrored the macrocosmic system connecting the Medieval God to all beings on Earth. Accordingly, when a child was born the pneuma left the body and travelled upwards to the heavens to collect the spirit of God. After returning to earth and entering the child, the soul was “originated” or activated, much like the imagination of the spectator who ponders a painting on a wall.6

The idea of an outside element or a spirit that stimulates artistic innovation is ever-present. From the inspiration Woody Allen has claimed to have derived from his relationship with Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Scarlett Johansson etc.; to the over-powering, nauseating, and erotic inspirational effect the young Polish boy, Tadzio, has on the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, of Thomas Mann’s Novella “Death In Venice”; to Beatrice, the both Godly and (arguably) erotic source of inspiration for the Pilgrim in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The muse, though forever changing in formal appearance, has occupied a permanent and, for the most part, uncontested aspect of artistic production for centuries.

In the Divine Comedy, the Pilgrim enamored with the appearance of Beatrice, often, though ineffectually, attempts to put her beauty to words. In Canto XXXI of Purgatorio he exclaims:

o splendour of eternal light,

who’s ever grown so pale beneath Parnassus’

shade or has drunk so deeply from its fountain,

that he’d not seem to have his mind confounded.7

Later, while in Paradise, the Pilgrim states “now I must desist from this pursuit in verses, of her loveliness, just as/ each artist who has reached his limit must.” 8 The Pilgrim is “cofounded” in both instances, unable to put to words the beauty that stands in front of him. However, it is not the beautiful essence of Beatrice or a profundity attributable to an aesthetics of the body that confounds.It is the light of God—“the breath that animates [everything]” and “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”—that leaves the Pilgrim speechless. Beatrice, while in Purgatory is geographically distant from the heavenly realm of God—the realm of unbounded love. The beauty that emanates from her is not simply a reflection of nearby Godly rays of light, but rather an internal combustion of sorts, because she is always spiritually close to God and permanently aglow with his love. This concept, if related to the work of art, implies that the closer the work is to God spiritually the more love it radiates and the more breathtaking it is. When the visual pneuma receives the essence of God reflected from a profound work of art, the more Godly the viewer becomes for the moment he has the image in his gaze, the more love he is filled with and the more powerful the workings of his imagination grow.

This phenomenon likewise occurs when an artist experiences moments of epiphany. When all disjointed aspects of the universe and human consciousness seem briefly to align, he too might be described as momentarily making contact with God—his mind clarified and moved by unbounded love. Though the source location is reversed from heaven to hell, this is perhaps the root from which the belief came that the violinist Nicolò Paganini and guitarist Robert Johnson sold their souls to the devil in order to achieve musical virtuosity.  The former God-related belief certainly has close ties to the concept that those with the greatest imagination, and for our purposes artists, are perpetually plagued by depression. The untimely deaths of artists by way of alcohol, drugs, and suicide, from Van Gogh to Kurt Cobain, Mark Rothko to Amy Winehouse (etc.) corresponds with this early medieval logic.  This is not to say that all artists are depressed, or that each death by suicide or misadventure derives from identical sources. But according to the logic of Medieval hermeticism, the more profound the artist’s idea or work of art is, the more Godly they momentarily become and the more they are filled with love. But also, as the epiphanic opening is sealed over once more, the further they fall from grace and the more deprived, depressed, and even wretched they might become.9

Artists, like the blind, have historically been deified because their vision of the world is thought to surpass our own; it is otherworldly, supernatural. Conversely they are pitied because if this vision is to be contemplated by us, it must be dissected and understood, fall and fragment—like the artist’s thought and wellbeing—to a place of simplified human cognition. Pablo Picasso once said that “they should put out the eyes of painters, as they do with goldfinches to make them sing better.”10 It might be that a perception of the world unobstructed visually by concrete objects creates an imagination that is more powerful, closer to God, and composed of greater love. In the case of Neo or Tiresias, this perception allows them to see the world as it actually is.

Between 1980 and 1981 Bruce Davidson photographed a different blind woman. She, like the subject of Walker Evans’s photograph, New York (25 February 1938), plays an accordion in an aisle of a subway car. In this photographic space where time does not pass through, but around, her being and the music she played have no medium on which to be carried; they are objectified and silenced. She will hold this inaudible note forever, her vision of the world hidden like secrets between her fingertips and the keys. In his famous poem “Ode On A Grecian Urn” John Keats wrote “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”11

It is a line that is suggestive of the conceptual underpinnings of the Romantic school of thought and their belief that it was the creative spirit of the artistic genius and not the created byproducts of that spirit (their photographs, paintings etc.) that was the true art to be contemplated and celebrated. When we view these photographs—both Strand’s and Davidson’s—we can imagine what the women’s shawls might feel like if they instead hugged our heads tightly. We can almost feel the texture of the stone wall beneath our fingertips and imagine the whine of the accordion gasping. But what confronts us most directly in these images we are unable to perceive. The subject of these photographs—blindness—like Keats’s sweet melody goes unheard, unseen. Photographs of the blind evade us like a mystery and astonish because what they contain is potentially greater than us. In a sense, they expose us to our own inability to see.



  1. For more on this read Luc Sante’s book Low Life.
  2. Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment, (New York: Vintage, 2005), 13.
  3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, ed. Ted Honderich, trans. Colin Smith (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul and The Humanities Press, 1962), 256.
  4. Ibid., 143.
  5. Giorgio Agamben, “Spiritus Phantasticus” in Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 96.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Dante Alighieri, “Purgatorio,” The Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Madelbaum (New York: Bantam, 2004), 293.
  8. Dante Alighieri, “Paradiso,” The Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Bantam: 2004), 273.
  9. For more on this read chapter five of Giorgio Agamben’s Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, “The Phantasms of Eros.”
  10. John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 32.
  11. John Keats, “Ode On A Grecian Urn” in John Keats Selected Poetry, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 177.
Back to Issue

The History of Her Universe: Jennifer Bartlett’s Retrospective

by Matthew Farina



Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941), Boats, 1987, Oil on canvas; enamel on wood, steel, Painting: 118 x 168 inches, Each boat: 66.5 x 47.5 x 46 inches, Collection of the artist.

Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941), Boats, 1987, Oil on canvas; enamel on wood, steel, Painting: 118 x 168 inches, Each boat: 66.5 x 47.5 x 46 inches, Collection of the artist.


In her second career retrospective, currently on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, Jennifer Bartlett’s paintings and sculptural installations are newly considered within the haunting register of her own poetry and fiction writing. The exhibition, “Jennifer Bartlett: History of the Universe—Works 1970-2011,” was curated by Klaus Ottman of the Phillips Collection and will travel to the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York next spring.

Though Bartlett’s images and installations don’t normally depict human forms, her work establishes a place for humans—especially as she shapes the boundaries of our common experience with her recurring motifs—things anyone would call familiar: houses, boats, pools, low-lying clouds, and blue oceans pressed crisply against horizons. Her signature enamel paintings present this imagery—brushed and screen-printed onto steel plates and hung in wall-spanning grids, alongside sculptural installations and works on canvas. Standing out in the exhibition, the houses create an undercurrent of tension that separates from an otherwise serene and placid viewing experience. It is in this separation that Bartlett’s theatrics—of lost love, emotional entrapment, or thwarted desire can be found.

To fully understand Bartlett’s particular brand of drama, one must first learn the principles that govern her nature-inspired environments. Rhapsody (1975–76), an abstracted landscape, was Bartlett’s early career-feat. With a thirty-year legacy behind it, the work hung in MoMA’s cavernous atrium in 2006 and again in 2011 but was not available for the current retrospective at PAFA. Despite the absence of her seminal work, the new exhibition gives viewers a clear sense of the artist’s interest in nature and how that interest is an entry point into more complex expressions of sentiment.

In one of the most recent paintings in the exhibition, Grasses (2011), Bartlett knits together strands of pea and acid green pigment which criss and cross—wiggling about in irregular bunches. As many of the plants and flowers she paints are lush and in-bloom, it could be said that Bartlett celebrates seasons of growth. In Grasses, green blades fill the canvas completely as they streak and plummet like comets burning across a green meteoric sky. Reddish lines, laid opposite the green strands, create optical dissonance that gives the painting an enduring rhythm. There’s a woven component to the atmosphere of the painting, to its net-like comb. Every plant, like every open vista or pool of water she paints, is imbued with this sense of human life. The subjects are activated by lifelike intricacies—fragility, complexity, and vulnerability among others.

Above all this, Bartlett strives to heighten the viewer’s awareness of the irregularities that gouge into the facades of natural beauty filling the gallery. At first glance, Grasses seems rendered on top of the artist’s trademark grid, the kind she used in works like Rhapsody where her painted forms rise and fall atop separated square plates. Her perpetual structure and order are used as implicit parts of her content—heightening our awareness of what is unordered. In Grasses, her technique laces inconsistency into the fiber of the blades as they grain longitudinally and latitudinally. The painterly lines and their points of intersection waiver a hair higher or a hair lower than the median. The air around the grass—too still to be called wind—pushes gently against each leaf.  The artist’s depiction of microcosmic natural cycles is ripe with the intelligence of geometry but sags and bulges with small variables.


Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941), Grasses, 2011, Oil on two canvases, 36 x 72 inches, Courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.

Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941), Grasses, 2011, Oil on two canvases, 36 x 72 inches, Courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.


Bartlett’s effort to systematize a seemingly unsystematizable natural world began years earlier.  In the late 1980’s she created three-dimensional versions of her painted subjects in steel and enamel-covered wood as she forayed into installation work. Leading up to this point Bartlett was producing multi-panel landscapes that mimic snapshot photography. Multiple canvases were often displayed side-by-side as one image, like a strip of staggered film showing slightly different versions of the same subject. Creating Boats (1987), Bartlett painted two white boating vessels resting on a shore, covered in cool shadows from trees looming out of view. The painting became a backdrop for actual boats that are now positioned side-by-side on the ground, a few feet in front of the painting in the current retrospective. Ostensibly the same two boats in the rendering, the sculptural boats, unlike those seen in the painting, are white and free of surface imperfections, algae, detritus or leaves. Their masts jut skyward, allowing a viewer to study the perspectival alignment of their counterparts in Bartlett’s painting, much like an architect’s rendering viewed next to a pristine white model. The sculpture’s clean line separates it from the painterliness of the boats on the canvas. It is in this separation that connections form between a zone of detailed flat imagery and a zone of unadorned three-dimensional form. The sculptural parts of this equation are purposefully tenuous. Though they seem to have emerged from the painting, they’re too cleanly objectified to read as real boats and are therefore stuck between worlds—of imagery and object.

In Bartlett’s 1985 novel, History of the Universe, from which the title of the retrospective was plucked, she writes:

Born at night. Fewer houses than now.  The ocean and bay covered and flooded the land in a storm at night. Fish were all over the land.  Apartment not house. The land began receding.  I was accidental.  My mother made more money than my father.  She got toxemia at Harriman Jones Clinic when I was born and she might have died.  She had Rob, Jon and Jenny.  She got arthritis at Harriman Jones Clinic, Seal Beach, California, when Jenny was born.

In the text, Bartlett places the reader in the tumultuous position of her characters’ lives. Her succinct narration, though often ringing with poetic flair, lacks fluidity. Her sentences stack in a list-like sequence and like the tiny measured gaps of white wall between her plates in the installations, one must wait, as if inside the drama, for the big picture to emerge. In light of Bartlett’s writing, a new solar system of connections can be considered within the visual work, speckled with storied constellations for the viewer’s finding. Esoteric narratives in the writing further compel the viewer to read into each visual image, however banal the home-and-garden subjects may seem at first.

On occasion in Bartlett’s writing, the subject of home is tragically bleak. Dramatics of love and dependence press beneath the surface of domestic life. Double House (1987), an installation in the current retrospective, was completed two years after Bartlett’s novel. Double House melds representational painting with a sculptural actualization of the two dimensional image—this time using a boarded-up house which is mirrored by a painting that hangs behind it. Shadows ominously mask the shingles of the house, which is topped by an odd disjointed roof. The importance of two worlds can be felt, as different forms of representation create distinct atmospheres for the subject while the bisected roof, as a symbol employed in both mediums, raises important questions for the viewer. Using History of the Universe (the novel) as a guide, it is fitting that we color the relationship of those living within Double House as a romantic one. Perhaps it was desire that brought harmony to the lovers, though an eventual, perhaps inevitable, discord between them can be seen. Even while standing across the gallery, this insular domicile, with its diminutive scaling and ill-constructed split roof, encloses the mind with these opposing tensions. Where Boats gives us two escape vessels, the windowless Double House elucidates a frightening sense of containment. Looking at the work is a tug of war for the mind and heart—opposing artifice and personal truth. The subject is precariously broken—a house that has been badly, perhaps horribly, reconfigured but has yet to break in two.

Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941), Double House, 1987, Oil on canvas; enamel on wood, steel, Painting: 118 x 168 inches, House: 68.5 x 83 x 50 inches, Collection of the artist.

Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941), Double House, 1987, Oil on canvas; enamel on wood, steel, Painting: 118 x 168 inches, House: 68.5 x 83 x 50 inches, Collection of the artist.


Bartlett’s work has a way of keeping viewers on a path that feels comfortable to follow but ends up being dangerous enough to warrant alertness. At the outset, we notice a translation from image to physical entity. Then, the outdoor setting, an emotional universe of sorts, becomes a place to confront bewildering personal junctures that are universal enough to be our own. Within the shifting emotional layers, the journey through Bartlett’s retrospective is darker in moments than it seemed it would be and it is this unexpected range that makes the many peaks and valleys of its terrain worthy of our continued exploration.



Back to Issue


by Tara Stickley




The Birth of Baby X, performance photograph, inkjet on archival paper, 18 x 24″ 2012, ed of 3. Copyright Marni Kotak, courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery.




Marni Kotak says that men would proudly shoot out their babies “like jism in porno videos.” The performance artist speaks from a reclined position in her grandmother’s rocking chair, which she’s brought to Microscope Gallery in Bushwick. Kotak is nearing her due date and intends to give birth at the gallery in the presence of a small, pre-selected group of viewers.

The compact space has been transformed into a birthing room. A smudgy mural of the sea covers the bottom half of the walls and is bordered by a strip of wallpaper with a boat motif. A shiny grey birthing pool takes up most of the floor space, while a tight path between it and the rocking chair leads to a bed with a beach-themed bedspread. There is also a small shower that the artist has installed off of the main room. The sounds of breaking waves emerge from nearby speakers; the sea relaxes the mother-to-be. Two monumental trophies sit like bookends on each side of the pool. One says for Baby X for being born. The other says for Marni for giving birth. Across the wall hangs a collection of collaged infant faces that were made during the artist’s baby shower performance. A rough oil painting of a fanged female yeti by Kotak’s husband, Jason Robert Bell, glowers at the foot of the bed.

While Marni is deciding how to chronicle the project with her documentarian, I recall the lo-fi birthing video shown to me in a junior high sex-Ed program (which happened to immediately follow a grisly STD slideshow). This had been my only encounter with delivery; it had terrified me and left me feeling vaguely ashamed. Marni and I talk a bit about the fear that enshrouds labor. She says that women are too often absent from their birthing process: sensing little after an epidural, they must discern contractions through a monitor and nurse. The conversation ends with the artist’s blunt description of the one-stop c-section/tummy tuck that celebrities schedule.

The Birth of Baby X involves a radically different relationship to time and visibility, one that transgresses. A few days after visiting the gallery, I receive an email invitation for a dinner to meet the midwife, family members of the couple, and other viewers. On the evening of the dinner, I find Marni setting up large platters of simmering Mexican rice, some of the couple’s cheerful friends, and then a more detached group of six or seven observers.

The midwife arrives. I introduce myself. She peers up into my eyes and immediately asks, “How do you know Marni?” I was randomly selected from a list. She looks incredulous. Similar encounters occur with other guests. I realize that all of the invitees happen to be critics or journalists just as I hear the midwife forbid any writing about the delivery. She says the act of observation affects the observed. Midwifery is under threat; its practice without a nursing degree is banned in eleven states, and she states even unbiased press often leads to a backlash. The artist and the midwife maintain that the hospital birthing industry is depersonalized and that unnecessary C-sections are administered for the sake of patient turnover. Some women go into labor at home, only to arrive at the hospital and find the physiological process shut down after a bumpy taxi ride, insurance forms, hospital gowns, and I.V.’s.

The midwife talks about the continuum of home births. It will sound guttural, “like really good sex.” A doula is there to support the mother, and a birthing assistant (or “birth bouncer”) to monitor us. These women say that our fear or other emotional responses can influence the process. The midwife asks us to sit in a circle and describe our motivations for being there. I realize she was completely unaware strangers would be present at the delivery. She declares her priority to be the family’s well being: “This is life and death.” Jason reiterates the midwife’s position and seems to be everywhere, while Marni rocks in her chair, says very little, and glows. Our evening ends with a non-disclosure agreement.

While the installation is aesthetically limited, the conversations with and near the artist operate on many registers—ranging from the most intimate, to the political, to broad questions concerning the taboo realm of birth and death.

When Marni’s water breaks, I’ll get a call and rush to the gallery to sit only a few feet from the delivery. As the performance culminates, there will be new life, and art’s ultimate promise—the possibility of transformation.




Almost two weeks have passed since the dinner at the gallery and I’m ambling through a lambent dreamscape. My phone rings. I roll over and go back to sleep. Now I’m standing in a house with bare walls and worn oak floors suffused in balmy light. Marni Kotak is there, denuded, pregnant and serene. We walk to the hall. “You’re going to give birth now,” I say assuredly.  “Yes,” she replies as she unveils some sanguine, holy book. The folios of the book unfold into other books, like some infinite origami. I wake up and feel certain that the call was from the gallery.

It was. I run the blocks to Microscope and find the doula smiling in a folding chair beside the front door. The artist had been in labor at the gallery throughout the night and felt that the birth wasn’t progressing. The midwife advised a long walk, and then Marni gave birth shortly after. The doula smiles generously and talks about the stroll in terms of a “change of perspective.”

I walk silently into the small, newly humid space. Most notable is the presence of human fluid, a slight waxy sort of smell, surely almost off the spectrum of what’s detectable by the human nose. The birthing pool contains three feet of inky water. Across from the pool, the midwife’s assistant is showing our new mother how to breastfeed. Marni is on the bed, recovering from the passing of the afterbirth; her hair is drenched and her gaze is fixed as Jason feeds her glops of yogurt and Gatorade. The newborn is on the blue end of lavender, nursing quietly. There are two other viewers like myself sitting on the floor; one volunteers to go find a Tupperware container for the placenta.

We’d missed the birth. And so had the gallerist, who asks the birthing assistant why no one was notified in time to witness it. The assistant replies she doesn’t know, she just delivers babies. Then she quietly adds that the birth wouldn’t have been the same if spectators had been present.  Her white eyelet shirt is bloody and her feet are bare. She begins plunging towels into the well of fluid in the center of the room, collecting remaining liquid that hasn’t yet drained through a system of hoses into the bathroom.

The assistant scoops clotted blood from the pool, carries it to the toilet and springs forward when she spots the newborn’s tarry meconium. The doula explains that the meconium is a deep black-green because it’s composed of epithelial cells; the fact that it has already present indicates that the baby’s digestive system is working well. The stool will turn from a mossy green to mustard hue as the old cells pass and Marni’s breast milk is digested.

One of the family’s friends enters the gallery and declares, “It’s a truly beautiful day—the bluest sky.”  Jason, cradling the newborn, replies, “That’s our escape.”




Jason brings the baby across the room in a velvety black blanket. Baby X has become Ajax and looks up at us through ointment eyes with a surprising calmness and intelligence. We marvel at him and he marvels back. Everything feels soundless and very solid for a moment.

Jason beams at Ajax and declares, “You came out of my balls.” He’s corrected by a woman’s voice, and I offer that he is, in fact, solely responsible for the baby’s gender. Another voice responds that women, however, were executed for failing to produce male progeny. We start chatting about monarchs and Jason mentions jus primae noctis, or the king’s right to spend the first night with any newly wedded woman in the empire.  Then, still holding his silent, contented baby, he begins the epic of Gilgamesh.

It seems Ajax will have the privilege of lively bedtime stories. Jason’s father had explained the entire world to him in parables of cavemen. As another yarn begins, the midwife and assistants help Marni to her feet so that she can get to the toilet. Jason is recounting his old horror at the birth of his younger brother; as he looks down at his son’s umbilical cord he recalls fearing that his day-old brother had some sort of gangrened penis. An eruption of movement happens a few feet behind Jason. Marni is losing a lot of blood and her balance. She calls out for her husband, who is the only person around comparable to her in stature. They get her in bed, she’s dizzy—the midwife scrambles to wipe the blood off of Marni’s legs. “Fuck the blood,” she says and asks for something to ease her vertigo. The midwife is beside me now—her hands frenetically splitting perforations to release sterile materials. She injects the artist with something to slow blood loss and says that Marni’s uterus has not yet contracted because her full bladder is keeping it in a shifted position. A catheter is next.

I leave to get drinks at the cafe beside the gallery. When I return there is a cameraman and a female reporter shooting multiple takes in front of the gallery door. One of the gallerists motions to me and whispers that the news crew is unaware the birth has just happened. The performance has garnered a lot of attention: much of it is negative.

None of us want a swarm of reporters at the gallery door during Marni’s recovery. The newswoman is saying, “and there’s even a list to get notified when the birth will take place.” She keeps getting it wrong and shakes her head in between takes, bathed in silver sunlight and self-disparagement. Afterwards, she comes over to us, blinking a lot, and asks a few questions.

We demur and go back into the gallery. The flow of blood is slowing and there are several relaxed conversations going on between the few people there. Jason kneels beside Marni and Ajax and speaks in a hushed voice. They exude a cloud of serenity, as if all were right in the world. Marni and Jason converse with us, but when their gaze falls on Ajax, the room changes dimensions. It’s as though we’re looking at a projection of them. They no longer see us. This exceptional intimacy of nuzzling and lowered voices is divided when they remember we’re there—then they engage again in generous sociability and ribald humor. During those interactions, they’re hosting a party, and a really fun one. They devour Chinese food and talk about meeting on Nerve, a dating website for “casual sex with people who are probably emotionally unstable.”

Someone knocks at the gallery door. A gallerist goes out and we can hear a heated conversation with the reporter, who’s attempting to negotiate an entry. She’s been interviewing neighbors and must suspect that the birth is imminent. The doula mentions that the pharmacist across the street had come over that morning “between verses of the birth song”; he’d just read an article about the performance and realized it would happen here.

A strategy for the press release is discussed. Marni suggests letting visitors in from the street. This proposition appalls the midwife. The gallerist is worried about information leaking and doesn’t want any of us to leave while the news crew lingers. Everyone waits and thumbs their phones. The person sitting next to me shows a photo of the placenta, perfectly centered in the frame, with scissors standing upright in the middle of the dappled burgundy flesh. It looks completely unreal. The artists and two gallerists continue to vacillate on the media strategy and finally decide to announce the news as soon as the family has left.

We start to clean up a little and discover an abundance of bloody materials—a Coca-Cola bottle rolls from an unfurling heap of dirty gauze at my feet. I find another container of Chinese food and pass it to Jason; he begins to feed Marni broccoli as she praises him for having boiled water so well through the night. The baby sleeps peacefully beside them. There’s symmetry to the scene—a still beauty that will again be punctured by either the couple’s obscene humor or consciousness of the performative.

Marni is mirthful and recuperated after only three hours. I ask her about the pain and she replies that it was like really harsh anal sex. She says it must be much better than recovering from a C-section and its accompanying drugs, before admitting that there had been a moment of despair when she curled up on the floor and pleaded for anesthetics. The instant she decided she was too exhausted to continue the baby was born. The doula interjects that the same thing has occurred at each birth she’s witnessed—complete surrender brings babies.

We clasp our hands behind our backs in reverence as we lean over Ajax. The same stance I take before Jan Van Eyck. Someone dims the lights and we move away. The baby has gone from lavender to radiant electric pink, a roseate thing in front of the sun.

Outside, everything appears more spacious and bright. Marni Kotak has said, “I am showing them, as in my previous performances, that real life is the best performance art, and that, if our eyes can be opened to it, all of the meaning that we seek is right there in our everyday lives.”

Where are we as a culture if an artist is asking us to reclaim the most essential parts of the human experience? Amplifications of the everyday, such as Marni Kotak’s birthing performance, imply a deep separation from both the real and the imagination. Birth and death are primary moments where we recognize the expanses and boundaries of human life. They are indications about how we are to proceed, and when we forget, the artists and poets are there to remind us.


Marni & Baby X Ajax on-site during "The Birth of Baby X" 2011, copyright Marni Kotak, courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery

Marni & Baby X Ajax on-site during “The Birth of Baby X” 2011, copyright Marni Kotak, courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery

Back to Issue

The Back Does Not Lie

by Nayun Lee


The picture depicts a man’s back, he is gazing at a butterfly. Even though the man has a pair of heavy wings, he cannot fly. He merely envies the butterfly’s light wings and its free flight. He is a frustrated dreamer and artist. I did not know why the picture made my heart throb when I saw it the first time. It evoked a very strong feeling in me. I guess my situation allowed me to deeply empathize with the image, and this exposed back. When I saw the picture in the late fall of 2006, I had lost all of my dreams and ambitions that I’d had when I was a little child. I had no idea what my desire was. I had gotten a job where I could rely on the salary, so I was just spending my time without any specific goals. I wanted nothing at all. As a pathetic novice who barely adjusted to society, I admired the artist who refused to give up his art and dream.


Also, the man’s back reminded me of Michel Tournier’s saying that a back does not lie, unlike a face. While the back does not have as much expression as the face, it cannot make false expressions. The back is humble and honest. Therefore, sometimes the back gives us more valuable lessons than a fluent tongue or a wide array of countenance. The back of the artist attached to flightless wings seemed to tell me numerous things: dreams, hopes, and ceaseless pursuits towards an ideal land.


I met the artist to hear his stories about the painting. He told me that the butterfly symbolized his friend. The friend committed suicide since she could not overcome the pressure of making art. He said that he realized how important it is to paint to survive. After losing his friend, the artist decided to sacrifice his life in the pursuit of one masterpiece. Listening to this dream and desire to live as an artist, I felt a lump in my throat. As long as I’m living, I can do anything. At least, I have to keep in mind the hope that I can do or make something valuable. To improve and change myself, I set a goal to study abroad. I needed some strong and special impetus to overcome the long enervation.


I think I should not mention how the artist and I met, and live here in New York City together. The specific story might be boring to others. Anyway, I am writing this essay watching the artist’s back. He is always sitting in front of the easel, while I am sitting at the desk reading or writing. His back always comes into sight. I have become intimately familiar with every strand of hair on his head.


Min Joon Park, Volare, 2006, oil on canvas, 31 x 39 inches, Courtesy the Artist.

Min Joon Park, Volare, 2006, oil on canvas, 31 x 39 inches, Courtesy of the Artist.