Friday, 1 June 2012

Yayoi Kusama: Sexuality, Anxiety and The Feminine Sublime (part:1)

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

Edmund Burke's 1757 Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful uses gender as a way of illustrating the difference between the sublime and the beautiful. Burke's arguments and explanation of this gulf of deviation rests on his attitude that men and women are without question essentially very different creatures: physically, emotionally and intellectually. This idea is not informed by simple observations of the behaviour of the sexes under patriarchy, but it expresses Burke's preference for the reinforcement of the status quo of female oppression and existence as ornamentation.

To explain the way scale and proportion differ in the sublime and the beautiful, Burke states: 'For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished...beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.' If we replace in the above passage the words 'sublime' and 'great' with the word 'male', and the words 'beautiful' and 'beauty' with 'female' and 'woman', then Burke's view of society and aesthetics can be clearly understood.

If this passage did not already make clear the way Burke personifies his aesthetic theory in terms of gendered stereotypes (associating 'beauty' with women, smallness, unobtrusive smoothness and passivity), he goes on to make these connections explicit: 'Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness; the softness; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily, without knowing where to fix or whither it is carried'. This strange and excessive passage reveals Burke's unfamiliarity and distance from the object of his swooning appreciation, both physically and intellectually. This is an account of a fetishisation of a part of the female body that is actually visibly available to him: the bit of exposed flesh above a dress. It does not speak of a knowledge of a real woman or an experience physically with a real woman. Burke is swept up or 'carried' away by his idealisation of feminine beauty; the 'deceitful maze' is his own flimsy construction, an ideal that forever escapes him because it does not exist.

By constructing an idealisation of soft, smooth, dainty femininity to worship, Burke transforms women into something elusive; and through the patriarchal enforcement of codes of behaviour and appearance, and the total disavowal of active sexuality, woman become something Other, something that is unknowable and beyond representation. Seen in these terms, then, female sexuality is the dark lurking sublime that lies under the fabricated veneer of the female as beautiful - beauty to Burke being of less value that the true magnificence of the sublime that he equates with masculinity. Yet, as I've stated, female sexuality has much more to do with the sublime: even the threat of an active female sexuality can be seen as possessing both the positive and negative pleasures of the sublime, of both attraction and repulsion for that which is unknown. In The Trouble With Beauty, Wendy Steiner interrogates beauty from a feminist perspective, contextualising the way women have been judged by their appearance, disavowing the subjective worth of a person by basing beauty judgements over the reality of the person. Steiner states, 'As in the contemporary world, an interpretation of Darwin buttresses male fears by picturing women as unalterably Other. In early Modernism, the thrill and danger of this exotic figure played directly into the Kantian sublime, causing artists to recast female subjects in frightening and dehumanised ways.'

Steiner here is drawing attention to the appearance of female character types that emerged as subjects in art, such as the vamp and the femme fatale, which presented beauty as something untrustworthy and deceitful that seduced the male almost against his will. This idea of beautiful and deadly women - such as the vampire in the work of Edvard Munch or the figure of Salome painted by Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley for example - allowed heterosexual men to relinquish responsibility for succumbing to the unprogressive, unenlightened baseness of sexual desire by placing the blame with evil temptresses. Male artists, then, have dealt with female sexuality in a very similar manner to that in which male theorists have dealt with the sublime: as something that one approaches with desire, but that must be conquered and overcome in order to shore-up the patriarchal-male ego from that which threatens it.

The experience of the Romantic sublime of Burke and Kant can be likened to an intellectualised thrill-seeking game of fort/da, in which one comes close to danger but the threat is always evaded: the danger is here then gone, conquered by the mastery of man’s reason. Kant describes this process of man's assertion of a superior autonomy over the dangers of sublime nature, '[T]he sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of quite a different kind, which gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.'

The feminine sublime behaves very differently. It is interested in exploring the excessive, in shattering essentialist gender concepts and dissolving the boundaries and limits that separate the self from the Other, the very things that the masculinist sublime reaffirms and protects itself against. Joanna Zylinska describes the concept: 'The feminine sublime, which remains open to the experience or unexpected arrival and eruption, inheres the possibility of bastardy, disaster and death...Instead of protecting itself against the unknown, the self extends an invite to the always already monstrous (in the sense of “showing itself as something that is not yet shown”) Other' The point here it is not that female sexuality or identity is in some way inherently monstrous, but that the peeling away at the constructions of that femininity is frightening to society. What is revealed underneath the surface is not always tolerable to patriarchy. The effect of the feminine sublime is to allow the stripping off of socially-inscribed trappings, the shedding of a skin that does not fit, enabling us to get closer to ourselves.

This is not a triumph of reason over the illogical as it carries a much greater risk than the Romantic sublime, for the danger is that by losing what appears to be ourselves, we may transgress the safety function of the self-regulating super-ego. Yet for an artist like Yayoi Kusama such a trip into the unknown can be extremely fruitful, despite the trapeze-walk of self-annihilation towards an artistic creation. By exploring – or, more accurately, compulsively returning to - that which frightens her and threatens her sense of self, Kusama can be seen as conducting an ongoing negotiation with the feminine sublime: rather than reinforcing the boundaries separating herself from her surroundings, Kusama blurs them to the point where her internal fears and fantasies take over and become her environment.

In the recent exhibition of Kusama's work at the Tate Modern, a room is dedicated to the Accumulation Sculptures produced in the 60's. The photograph to the left shows the many pieces of furniture and clothing that have been transformed into objects of exploding sexuality. Phallus-shaped protrusions pop out and up, as if these sculptures possessed an internal desire that was too powerful to be contained and the excess had burst out from the seams to cover all available surfaces. The scene is quite extraordinary to witness. As you enter the room, the first glimpses of the arrangement of the furniture, of the familiar outlines and recognisable shapes of the discarded shoes and hanging dresses, are seen over the heads and between the bodies of other attendees of the exhibition. The misleading first impression of an ordinary recreation of a domestic setting is displaced once a position at the front of the art-viewing crowd becomes available. The feeling of an uncanny disassociation with these familiar objects creeps in: the phalluses that swarm over these familiar objects shatter any feeling of casualness as excitement, amusement and uncomfortableness wash over one. The incongruous mixing of the male phallus with the feminine-inscribed domesticity of these objects is funny and surprising in its blatant obscenity. Yet the excessiveness of this priapic landscape threatens to overwhelm the audience like the spreading barnacles on the underside of a boat.

This is a display of monstrous sexuality that is both pleasing and horrifying. For Kusama, who recreates her fears, her work is an expression of her horror; yet for the visually greedy audience of her work (at least speaking from my experience of it), these polymorphously phallic furniture-items were extremely pleasing to look upon: my vision became haptic as each protuberance was caressed by the eye, while the desire to touch these objects - to test their stiffness, to squish them - was ever-present, yet coexisting with feelings of squeamishness and repulsion. This feeling of an attraction for the excessive and monstrous is very much in line with Julia Kristeva's notions of the horror and fascination experienced when encountering bodily fluids, waste and decay - what she calls “the abject”. In Kristeva's account, the reason why we are fascinated with and often take pleasure in that which disgusts us is that we need to separate ourselves from what we are not - from our waste, for example. This separation allows us to reinforce our bodily limits, to distinguish and distance ourselves from the outside world. The experience of Kusama's Accumulation installation is thus very similar to an encounter with the abject: both leave one with sublime feelings of delightful terror and a need for the re-establishment of the security of our bodily limits. Kusama's work does not allow one to gain mastery over a sexuality that is excessive and overwhelming, but by letting us approach it and be carried away by the threat of bodily and spatial invasion, we are left feeling moved, exhilarated and a little raw.

(part two: "Yayoi Kusama: Self-Obliteration and The Masochistic Sublime")
(part three: "Yayoi Kusama: Loss of Ego and Sublime Skinlessness")

Illustrations:

Yayoi Kusama Compulsion Furniture (Accumulation), 1963 Gelatine silver photo-collage with paint on paper 8x9 in. Collection Christopher D'Amelio, New York
Yayoi Kusama installation of assorted Accumulation Sculptures (all 1962) Tate Modern 2012

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