Monday, 4 June 2012

Yayoi Kusama: The Loss of Ego and Sublime Skinlessness (part:3)

(This is the final part of a three part essay series on the art of Yayoi Kusama in reference to the sublime, anxiety and sexuality)

Leo Bersani's theory of masochism suggests that, paradoxically, the effect of self-shattering may be used to reinforce a shoring-up of one's sense of self, enabling the transition from the challenges of childhood trauma into adulthood. He states: 'I wish to propose that most significantly, Masochism serves life. It is perhaps only because sexuality is ontologically grounded in masochism that the human organism survives the gap between the period of shattering stimuli and the development of resistant or defensive ego structures...Masochism would be the psychical strategy which partially defeats a biologically dysfunctional process of maturation. Masochism as the model of sexuality allows us to survive our infancy and early childhood'. This system of self-shattering alternating with a shoring-up that actually protects the self can be seen at work in the life and career of Kusama. Kusama describes her first traumatic experience of hallucinations as one of feeling annihilated by her environment.:
One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of a tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt I had begun to self-obliterate, to dissolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.
Thus, in order to cope with this fear of disappearing into 'nothingness', of being overwhelmed by one's surrounding situation, Kusama could be said to perform (in the process of creating art) the defensive strategy of allowing herself to temporally shed her protective boundaries, to become metaphorically skinless in order to allow herself an encounter with that which causes her anxiety. This experience takes place in a controlled and safe environment as part of the process of losing oneself in the creative process. The skinless touching of the unthinkable and unrepresentable allows for fear to temporarily recede – once one's terrors have been faced, they can then be held off for a time.

Although writing hundreds of years apart and from different countries and cultural backgrounds, Burke's and Bersani's ideas on sublime and masochistic pleasure are not as far apart as they may at first appear. As I have suggested, the unpleasure inherent in the aesthete's sublime experience shares much in common with the masochist's desire for a negative pleasure or delight. The feminine sublime theorised by Joanna Zylinska, that proposes the wilful transgression of boundaries and limits, approaches ever nearer to the pleasurable self-shattering of masochistic behaviours. According to Zylinska, the feminine sublime is concerned with '[e]xploring the limits of meaning and its links with excess, abjection and waste'; it can thus be seen as 'an ethical proposition for the necessarily disparate encounters of the heterogeneous world. It is not an easy ethics: it requires the self to expose its vulnerability and come to terms with the undecidability which characterises the moment of awakening the other'.

The work of Kusama is an art of skinless vulnerability: in dealing with her ambivalent attraction/repulsion to the masculinist ownership of symbols of sexuality, she exposes her own fears of losing herself during a sublime encounter with her own sexuality. So, then, it is perhaps not the sexuality of the Other that is most fearful to Kusama, but her own sexuality as a woman that most threatens. Andrea Dworkin writes that it is not just female sexuality that is threatening, but that all sex inherently carries a form of sublime risk of self-dissolution. Dworkin's point is that the sexual act requires one to shed the protective guard of the super-ego, as the realm of sexuality resides down in the dark unknown of the Freudian Id. Sex for Dworkin can be seen in the very terms Zylinska suggests for viewing the feminine sublime, of an exposure to the abject, the visceral, the unknown and the other. Writing of this sublime skinlessness, Dworkin says:
Sometimes, the skin comes off in sex. The people merge, skinless. The body loses its boundaries. We are each in these separate bodies; and then with someone and not with someone else, the skin dissolves altogether; and what touches is unspeakably, grotesquely visceral, not inside language or conceptualisation, not inside time; raw, blood and fat and muscle and bone, unmediated by form or formal limits. There is no physical distance, no self-consciousness, nothing withdrawn or private or alienated, no existence outside physical touch.
In the above photograph, Kusama is attempting such a radical, metaphysically skinless encounter with the Other.. Yet, it is open to interpretation whether in blurring the borders between her self and her phallic creations she successfully transcends her (and our) anxieties about our gendered sexualities. Is she actually complicit in reinforcing these differences, as becoming skinless loses subversive potential if gendered stereotypes of the supremacy of the phallus prevail? For example, for a female artist living and working under an oppressive patriarchal society, the ability to represent one's own sexuality may become compromised. For Kusama, it may mean an inability to present the unrepresentable, or that she is to some extent so enclosed within structures of misogynist disavowals of female sexuality that she is herself threatened by the idea of an autonomous female sexuality and thus cannot create new symbols of desire free from phallocentric influence.

Although this reading attempts to interpret the excessive use of the phallus in Kusama's work, the ambiguities of mixing desire and sexual ambivalence remain. Udo Keltermann suggests that these disparate connections aid an 'interconnecting oneness that binds Kusama's people and things' and that 'dissolves the distinction between self and other, subject and object, animate and inanimate'. This idea of a blending connectivity is illustrated in the above photograph, in which Kusama the woman positions herself within the phallic landscape to become part of it. Although her body is posed coyly, in a position redolent of a centrefold pin-up, the excessive spots painted onto her naked body remind one of disease or infection and thus divert visual pleasure away from her body as an object of titillation. The formal similarities of her elongated body posture, slightly erected at the elbow, with the sticking up and out of the phallic objects unites her body aesthetically with the environment, as she becomes the phallic-woman of her own artistic creation.

After all, the process of multiplication and creation is an act of feminine fecundity containing the pleasurable and the painful which are both involved in the process of creation. This feature makes Kusama's art a giddy mix of paradoxical emotions: the fear of risking the integrity of the self exists side by side with the delight of a sublime polymorphous sexuality that is fecund as well as self-shattering. Throughout this three part essay series, my aim has been to recast the sublime as a method for understanding the expression of a form of sexuality that in its contradictory complexity, like the sublime, is almost unpresentable. Although at first the meeting of an anxious masochistic sexuality with the sublime seems unusual, I believe it has been a fruitful way of rethinking and questioning the validity of separating categories of aesthetics, experience and desire that can actually be put to task together. As I hope this essay has shown, when we pay attention to the strong similarities in the ways in which Kantian 'negative pleasure' and masochistic unpleasure are experienced, threads appear that join up the low and libidinal with the lofty sublime.

(part one: "Yayoi Kusama: Sexuality, Anxiety and The Feminine Sublime")
(part two: "Yayoi Kusama: Self-Obliteration and The Masochistic Sublime")

Illustrations

Yayoi Kusama, instillation of Kusama with Accumulation No. 2 and Infinity nets painting (1959)
Gelatine photograph (1968)

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