On Maggie Cardelús’ L’Origine du monde

The offer seems, at first glance, inviting, like the words “drink me” written in pretty letters-but even the first glance should forewarn that nothing here is all that simple. Photographs are intricately incised to breed a labyrinth of interconnected fragments –but the overall symmetry of the grotesque figure it renders prevents disorientation. The ephemeral quality of the world’s origin might cause alarm: it is made, after all, not only of delicate paper trails, but of the gaps, pores and holes between them. Yet fragility presents itself with a refined, airy air. It quietly takes command. Images are trimmed and sequined by decorative motif – a battle of contradictory orders; but these negotiate their disagreements and dissents. The artist changes the design daily, tangling further the fragile web, daring its well-being by intricate incisions which become evere more minute- yet the work’s claim for a state of completion is compelling. Istability and change do not disavow authority.

Perhaps the work is so alluring because it does not abandon pleasure and play for the sake of its aesthetic and conceptual aspirations. But as the viewer drinks in, the work gets curiouser and curiouser. L’Origine twists and turns notions that have to do with transition, telling, viewing and voyage; tropes, in other words, connected with time.

Labor & Leisure

The artist works. Her job is contractual: she has to abide by the show’s duration and opening hours, she has to follow prescribed designs, which may seem sometimes to the industrious worker like the infuriating whims of her capricious boss (herself). Her toil is not only manual and repetitive, it has a self punitive quality (from the coerced dictates of work, to the constant danger its fruits will be destroyed by one wrong move of the knife).

Labor is demonstrative. Either the artist becomes a part of the spectacle, or, if she’s not around, labor tags the object as ontologically precarious, suspended in time: this is (a) work in progress.
Labor evokes modernist, revolutionary, utopic agendas set for the work of art by, among others, Walter Benjamin. Art considered as a social form of production; the artist’s labor envisioned as beneficial to a community. Yet something is conspicuously different here. The fruits of labor are self-contained. The utility of the product is ambiguous. The pursuit is emphatically solitary, even insular. The artwork’s aura, deemed to demise, seem to shine brighter by the minute, as “mechanical reproductions” become raw matter for the unique object. Furthermore, labor her is intently aligned with its apparent opposite: leisure. Production, using family photos and craft, implies not only creation, but also recreation. This multi-faceted perspective is, in fact, persistent with Cardelús entire oeuvre, which employed in the past weaving, glass work, welding, tile design and embroidery (with the artist serving at times as artisan, at others as commissioner).
The conflation of labor and leisure, production and pleasure, urgency and spare-time leads me to a comparison, which I think is both ludicrous and constructive, between L’Origine and Vito Acconci’s Seed Bed (1971). For the duration of his show, Acconci lay underneath the gallery’s floor, sealed by a slightly heigtened ramp. He masturbated continuously, attempting to weave his fantasies around unseen visitors, based on the sounds of their footsteps.

While L’Origine is premised on the making of an object and Seed Bed on its absence, both works dramatize ambivalence through self-imposed labor; a works-process associated with pleasure and leisure is tinged with self-punitive impositions (inflicted and accepted with comic zeal). Both works attempt a contact with the viewer through means of mediation characterized by manifest, overflowing devotion. And both, at the same time, demonstrate the problems of insulation, the divide of a private and public sphere, the futility of artistic conduits. Both, in other words, act on faith and present its problems.
There is one more crucial aspect to L’Origine’s labored leisure. Its minute exertion and manual effort rebel against the instant, the speedy, the preconceived and fast-consumed. L’Origine dares a return to reflection, conception and slowness through labor. Labor establishes an ethos of tim for its art. in that sense, in a different way than Acconci’s, we may think of it as a labor of love.

Genesis

If L’Origine has an artistic origin, it must be Courbet’s painting (1866), bearing the same title, an unabashed depiction of a woman’s pudenda. The shock of the painting has to do not so much with its provocative melding of art and smut, nor with its sacrilegious, laconic viewpoint towards both the nude and the world. Within the history of Western art and its representational conventions, Courbet’s rendering stands in clear opposition to what Leo Steinberg penned as “the fear of the cleft” : (masculine) art’s fear of female nakedness even as it depicts it obsessively. That fear is behind a ubiquitous painterly and sculptural convention: smoothing the surface of the mound and erasing its opening.

No wonder Jacques Lacan was fascinated by the painting. For Freud, sighting female genitalia meant, first and foremost, gazing at an absence (of the penis), seeing a bleeding wound that ignites both the horror of blindness and castration anxiety. Lacan extends this signification of a lack even further. For him, the entire symbolic order hinges on the phallus. In that sense, the exclusion of the feminine form from phallocentric discourse is the very condition upon which discourse is constituted.

Courbet’s image echoes masculine befuddlement through direct confrontation with the source of all problems, the origin: the feminine sex as a sight/site of muteness. Cardelús offers a highly complex reconsideration of that locus. The entire figure of L’Origine is almond-shaped, evoking the association between the vagina and the mandorla, the oval frame reserved for the Holy Virgin in Christian iconography. The entire entity is transformed into a feminine sex.

That the cleft, as if in a drastic reaction to the history of representation, would expand to engulf the body is not entirely unprecedented. In Mike Kelley’s Eviscerated Corpse (1989), discarded stuffed toy-animals are sewn together to create a grotesque figure, its minute arms, legs and head being mere supplements to a gigantic, gaping cleft-of-a-body (out of which dangles and crawls on the floor a scatological snake). If castration and blindness, for Freud, are interrelated, Eviscerated Corpse enacts an overreaction to anxiety, an over-seeing of genitalia and insides, through which the fetishistic object assumes the place of a subject- an explicit evocation of the Freudian unheimlich.

Kelley’s work responds with humor and defiance to the condition of anxiety assigned to feminine loins –yet it is still premised on its terms. Cardelús, on the other hand, suggests in L’Origine restructuring of that perception of discourse and representation. Her mandorla-like body flows from the mouths of two young women (the artist and her sister, Sarah). Facing each other, they create the feminine site as an image of a dialogue (which is also a monologue, since the body is one). Not only does the feminine signify, not only is it an iconographic horn of plenty: it is rendered as an emblem of speech, the symbolic par-excellence. The law of the father possessed by the daughters.

One may remember, at this point, Angela Carter’s warning that ascribing speech to feminine body and desire involves a double risk: either of abiding by the rules of masculine desire (whereby the female voice is to reassure the male of its compliant, content counterpart), or of endowing the feminine with the false power of myth (through re-enforcing mystified attributes of the feminine, perceiving it as the organic, natural, nurturing, and so on), thus denying her concrete condition as a real subject.

Carter’s insight may be illustrated by Denis Diderot’s Les bijoux indiscrets (1748). In this tale, vaginas actually do speak, but the magic of their oratory is prompted by the sultan, who is thus entertained with embarassing confessions of lewd escapades, secrets disclosed by over-talkative nether lips, much to the dismay of the women to whom they belong. There is an odd, inverted symmetry between Diderot’s device, and that of the most (in) famous porn flick, Deep Throat. With the former, the vagina speaks to satiate masculine desire, silencing the woman, in the latter, the woman-freak with a clitoris embedded deep in order to satiate her own desire.

L’Origine is conceived out of an acute awareness of these discursive problems, and a refusal to abide by their rules. The sight it offers, with the body spilling out from two mouths, is a complex, non-linear narrative, a garden of forking paths. The very divide of the imaginary from the symbolic is denied. And so, interpretations which will strive to sustain the divide, to insist on the binary model will seem inapt and reductive here. The feminine is not defined, decoded or encapsulated, but experienced as heterogeneous.

In the context of contemporary art, there is much daring in positively engaging the nuptial and maternal roles of woman, as L’Origine does. But these capacities are neither a sign of reactionary glorification, nor perceived to consume or exhaust her identity. Rather, they literally unfold from within the figure, as particles of its identity: constituted elements rather than constitutive dictates.

L’Origine becomes a site where desire and speech are interwoven in a way that invites experiential rather than interpretativ encounter. The feminine is presented not as a mere dialectical reaction to the masculine, but as creating its representational rules, claiming itself as an origin. That it does so with more than a grain of irony, with manifested self doubts, with many knots and tangles, only makes the claim more compelling.

Family Time

The imagery of L’Origine consist exclusively of the artist’s close family, featured in both mundane snapshots, and in formal photographs of festive occasions, such as the artist’s wedding.

Women photographers were keen in molding their families to distill their art, often pursuing deliberate tensions between the inherent sense of security, intimacy and nostalgia, and other, incommensurate strata. Thus, in Tina Barney’s work, family scenes are shorn of sentimentality; the protagonists assume stiff poses and convert living and dining rooms into a stage set to display a theater of American suburban affluence. In Sally Mann’s photos, the budding bodies of the artist’s daughters introduce the viewer to a realm of uncomfortable schism between authentic warmth and prohibited desire-a morality play.

The Cardelús family of L’Origine, though, is less tangible. As the viewer’s gaze dives deeper into the structure’s folds, as it follows the trails carved through beloved features and private past, the possibility to identify with the personae, to consume their story, is both affirmed and denied. For while the unique subjectivity of the family is present in the work with abundant details and nuances(qualifying the work as an odd brand of realism), it retains its secrets in the family, intagible to the outsider’s gaze. L’Origine denies the transformation of its experience into an unequivocal statement. And yet the time spent with its family has several peculiarities that allows this play its own dramatic voice.

First, there is the ambivalence between memorializing and erasing, warmth and aggression, gentleness and violence. The artist’s cherishes her family as the worthiest of subject-matters, even as its members are incised, fragmented, at times defaced. The superimposed tissues of images and memories correspond to the multilayered attitude the artistic gesture conveys. And the labyrinth grows more entangled with the passing of time. By extension, L’Origin express its wavering and doubts of its own authority, the audacious liberty taken to manipulate its subjects. It exposes them and hides them (and paradoxically, the iconoclastic gesture of slicing and adorning the features is, in turn, read as aggressive).

Second, the search for the photographic punctum here, following Roland Barthes, is a Sisyphean task. As images interlace and, the search for the singular anchor of meaning is denied, with more than a grain of irony. But the real achievement is that dispersion does not result in dilution or loss (which would deny the images their integrity). Instead, the work becomes a plethora of punctums, an image of plurality for a restless retina.

Third, after spending time with this family, one understands that it operates not merely as a synecdoche for the rest of the world, but as its veritable substitute. Excluding all images other than familial, L’Origine presents its household as self-sufficient. On the level of object, self sufficiency is asserted by variety and complexity of overflowing details and never-ending possibilities: an autarchic ménage. On the level of action, it is suggested by the implication that working-through the family could have gone on forever: a perpetuum mobile.

Time and Space

Alice trusts the label and drinks. She describes the taste as”…a sort of mixed flavour of cherry tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast”. Or, in other words, as “very nice.”

But the niceties of mixtures are often threatening: they endanger classification, hierarchies, order, purity. They threaten to change the world. L’Origine is such a concoction, with its seductive beauty and generic complexity. An amalgam against all odds: legible photos are endeavors of abstraction; geometric patterns accumulate into an anthropomorphic figure; grotesque vignettes that travesties coherence are clad with pure reason; architectonic fancies are realized as wall decorations; figures become supports and supports mutate into figures both two and three dimensional concurrently; installation art is domestic craft, story-telling, photography.

The fear of fusion has a rich genealogy; the battle against it is charged from within the trenches of the binary model: subject and object, culture and nature, soul and body, time and space, masculine and feminine, word and image, active and passive, poetry and painting. The author of the medieval Book of Beasts, for instance, reads animals like divine allegories. The impure, hybrid beast will most often stand for the devil, evil, the jews. Most frightening is the Hyena, Because””…at one moment it is masculine and another feminine, and hence it is a dirty brute.”

There is an affinity between this fear and the abhorrence of (con)fusions expressed in aesthetics, from Lessing to Greenberg. Each artistic medium is to strive for its essence. Any conflation of mediums would mire art, make it unclean. As W. J. T. Mitchell demonstrated in his astute reading of Lessing and Burke, the terms of the binary model are interconnected. Poetry belongs in time, its words stem from the speaking subject, it is a matter of the body, it apes nature, it is feminine.

In works such as L’Origine, binary divides are not negated or abandoned, but are rather reshaped by experience, doubt, fantasy, self invention. The schisms of time and space, leisure and labor, feminine and masculine, solitary desire and maternal role, are not discarded but rather challenged by an attitude of plurality. Because of this, while Cardelús is indebted to strong precursors such as Mary Kelley and Carolee Schneemann, she is far removed from the cerebral appraisal of maternity offered by the former, and from the unequivocal sensuality of the latter. The one thing that is denied by this stance is a sense of resolution. Look again at the figure of L’Origine, and consider the two feminine profiles that define its twin-peaks. They constantly shift, it seem to me, between two contradictory mythical fantasies. On the one hand, the profiles are a double-head for the figure, aligning it with images of monstrous feminine plurality such as the Hydra and Medusa. On the other, the cut out profiles can be viewed not as the heads of the creature, but as the hands of its two raised arms, making the figure a sister to the Acéphale, the headless man which became such a crucial trope for Georges Bataille in his rebellion against the order of reasoned philosophy. Consider the way the hair was cropped out, connoting conventions of regal portraiture, while at the same time comically emphasizing the wobbly, precarious quality. Experience the plural implications of the flow from the mouths, creating the figure from high (words) or low (saliva)-while at the same time being in themselves, perhaps, mere secretions of the bodypore that houses an entire and busy world. L’Origine, in other words, takes time delighting in being. Its temptations are replete with tensions. Its experience battles resolutions with resolve, but never through stasis.

Roee Rosen

Works cited:

Barthes, Roland, 1981. Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard (New York, Hill & Wang).
Benjamin, Walter, 1969. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (New York, Schocken), pp. 217-252.
Benjamin, Walter, 1986. “The Author as Producer,” reflections, translated by Edmund Jephcott (New York, Schocken), pp.220-238.
Carter, Angela, 1978. The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (New York, Pantheon Press).
Diderot, Denis, 1993 (1748). The Indiscreet Jewels, translated by Sophie Hawkes (New York, Marsilio).
Freud, Sigmund, 1957 (1919), “The ‘Uncanny’,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, translated by James Strachey (London, Hogarth Press), volume XVII, pp.217-252.
Lacan, Jacques, 1977. “The Signification of the Phallus,” Ecrits, A Selection, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York, W.W. Norton), pp. 281-292.
White, T. H., translator and editor, 1954. The Book of Beasts, A Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (New York, Dover).