attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: art

Niki de Saint Phalle: the art of corporeal vulnerability

Niki de Saint Phalle. “Le Cabeza”.


Niki de Saint Phalle was a French sculptor, performance artist, painter, poster maker, writer, film-maker and feminist. A producer of voluptuous sculptures of female bodies that alternate between Goddess worship and the affirmation of vulnerability, her work is almost always oversized, brash and colourful. There is an innocence to her work that reflects her desire for her sculptures to be touched and literally inhabited. For instance, this skull was designed for human bodies to move around within it and to this day her intentions are being respected. She also wanted her art to communicate a sensuous call to children and after having taken our 5 year old to see an exhibition of her work at GoMA I can attest that it does. Even when her work is exploring the darkest of themes (and often her own lost innocence after being sexually assaulted as a child by her own father) her work’s instantiate a revealing in the production of an aesthetic sensibility of joyful abundance. Even threatening material remains an exotic flash of colour and warm with the softness of curves. Traditionally a leaden reminder of mortality and finitude, here the skull becomes playful, vivacious and obscene in size: death itself is captured as a thing of beauty and joy.

The Great Devil.

The Great Devil, like her “Nanas”, might be soft, voluptuous and inviting but they are also disfigured. Heads and arms appear under-developed or don’t appear at all and faces are obliterated. There is the suggestion of incompleteness within abundance and of an ambiguous reversibility of malevolent and nurturing forces. This might best be illustrated in her small but important book on Aids. In the materials she produced in her early “shooting paintings” de Saint Phalle also revealed the necessity of violence that subtends the creative process and would talk about the experience of watching the painting “bleed” colour. By taking aim at cans or balloons of paint she was able to force the canvas and the objects attached to it to reveal its corporeal dimension thereby revealing both it, and her own, vulnerability in a performative gesture. Her career as an artist was a therapeutic response to a “nervous breakdown” that centred on her traumatic exposure to male sexuality and so violence had both a demonic and cathartic operation in her art. What gesture could be more ambiguous than seizing the phallic power of the rifle and turning it on one’s own creations? Yet in making them bleed she punctures the paintings making them more than they were, rather than diminishing or killing them.

a shooting painting

In another of her enormous sculptures a giant Nana lays with her legs open while the spectators shuffle between her part labia and walk into her vagina. Adult bodies are returned to their infantile size by the effect of the relative scales of their organic and inorganic corporeal dimensions. Grown adults return to the womb having been made small and put in the mimetic place treacherous body of infancy and childhood. At one and the same time this is a return with both comforting and horrific aspects but which ultimately reminds each of us that our fragile bodies began as growths held within the uterus of our mothers.

She: A cathedral

We return to the place we have left as a collectivity and a public rather than as isolated children. At least in theory; galleries tend to be among the most alienating environments, which goes some way towards explaining why she often displayed her work in extra-institutional spaces. But it is not just as mother that this giant body welcomes us but as lover: the public enters the cunt of an artist who once described herself as one of ‘the biggest whores in the world’. There is no shame in this though- her body is big and welcoming and never closes, is never finished with new lovers. This is both the celebration of motherhood and of a particularly female eros. Furthermore, it is an eros that is indifferent to the sex, sexuality or gender identifications of those that enter her. And in entering we also see another aspect of the vulnerable corporeality of bodies: they penetrate (us) and our penetrable (sculpture); they may be broken into (sexual assault and rape) or they may welcome us (consensuality). This particular female body opens itself up to a waiting public and so loses performs or prophesies the time when female bodies aren’t considered in the negative as deprivation and confined to the private sphere. The very title, She: a cathedral, at once suggests congregations flocking to a Sacred space and the publicity that such spaces can take on. This is the happy side of feminism but de Saint Phalle is engages its more militant face too.

La Mort du patriarche/Death of the patriarch

In this shooting painting (or tir) we find that the patriarch is neither a male or female body but a blank white and sexless form. The body of the patriarch is not just a body but a territory bounded by darkness and populated by aircraft, missiles and torn apart dolls: the weapons of war and the broken bodies of their victims. The red explosion so obviously suggestive of blood emerges from the place where the heart is located in the popular imagination suggesting that the patriarch’s heart has exploded. Of course this is the effect created by the artist shooting it herself. If this is the dead body of the patriarch then the cause of death was assassination. At the same time as performing the destruction of the patriarch (at once patriarchy itself and the very “name-of-the-father” that had abused her and countless others) the painting is also an explicit and somehow lurid and stark elaboration on the relationship between that patriarchy, war and the image of femininity that women were expected to consume throughout the 1960s. In the time since it was first exhibited this angry feminist image has lost none of its power.

In coming to the end of this appreciation- rather than review or critique- of Nikki’s de Saint Phalle’s work I wanted to turn to her own words. The exhibition at GoMA is accompanied by many quotations and features copies of her books. So it is odd that I can’t find any of her writing available online, except for non-preview e-books. The insurgent vitality of her artwork, often dismissed as merely “playful” and thereby missing the way that the early aggression still haunts the later work, sings and screams loudly about corporeality, sexuality, trauma, women and feminism; but her words seem to be largely ignored by the institutions and publications that announce her as cutting edge. This depoliticisation and repackaging as “exciting” “dangerous” or “innovative” is often the fate of political art within the circuitry of the art-market’s consumerism. So instead of reading some of what she had to say about the world and her own artistic practice, let’s watch her shooting the fuck out of a painting:


Antoni Tapies

Current exhibition of artist Tapies work in the Timothy Gallery in London. I’d advise any readers in or near London to go along.

From his biography on his website:

Tàpies shared a general sensibility which affected artists on both sides of the Atlantic after the Second World War and the dropping of the atomic bomb, and soon expressed an interest in matter – earth, dust, atoms and particles – which took the shape of the use of materials foreign to academic artistic expression and experiments with new techniques. The matter paintings make up a substantial part of his work and are a project he is still engaged in today. He believes that the notion of matter must also be understood from the point of view of Mediaeval mysticism as magic, mimesis and alchemy. That is how we must see his wish for his works to have the power to transform our inner selves.

Tapies died last year.

Mute: Becoming camwhore, becoming pizza

In the hot larva of social media flows the critical distance between performing and being a ‘somebody’, a subject type, seems to collapse, along with the ‘integrity’ of art’s own space and frame. In the lead up to their exhibition at Arcadia Missa, Web 2.0 artists Jennifer Chan and Ann Hirsch discuss the politics of performance and the productive nausea of networked becoming with art historian Cadence Kinsey and curator Rozsa Farkas


The escape chair

It is not so much a question of production (of a text or an image). Rather, everything pivots upon the art of disappearance. – Jean Baudrillard, ‘The art of disappearance’.

A University of Brighton graduate has designed a “womb” chair called HUSH for people wanting to escape the hubbub of modern life.

Freyja Sewell said that with soaring property prices and more people having to share homes it was increasingly important to find ways of escaping into a places of solitude: “We need to develop new ways of allowing people to comfortably co-exist in our increasingly densely-populated environments.

“By creating an enclosed space, HUSH provides a personal retreat, an escape into a dark, quiet, natural space in the midst of a busy airport, office, shop or library. It can also be transformed to provide more traditional open seating.”


The New Aesthetic

i demand nothing. the new aesthetic? this tired old modernist obsession with ‘the new’… how monotonous… look at it, it’s even about collections and is linked to object-oriented philosophy#s obsession with lists/litanies… just putting things, any old things, down next to each other and hoping against hope it’s interesting, shocking or innovative.

monotony as form. the conscious self-deception that there is no ‘new’ on the horizon, that if ever such a seduction tickled its tongue on the ballsack of our aesthetic intellgibility then we broke that frame along time ago and found out that it wasn’t a frame at all… it was just some bits of wood hammered together.

the absence of a manifesto… that’s just an invitation to all the amateur manifesto writers. it’s impossible to say nothing; everything that is silent must be spoken for. chattering imbeciles, we write boos, documents, essays, blurbs and blog posts.

We had art to save us from truth but its gone awry. now we need truth to save us from art… the most fully developed market of banal illusions.

Get weirder

Article by the object-oriented philosopher, author of Unit Operations and ALien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost on something called the new aesthetic.

This part is especially relevant to my interests:

In one of many nonplussed responses to the New Aesthetic’s newfound status as meme, the interaction designer Natalia Buckley observes that, “we already live in the reality where digital and physical are beginning to blend.” But whether one is pro- or contra-New Aesthetic, isn’t it bizarre to think that digital and physical are necessary or even logical spheres into which to split the universe? Is this not just another repeat of the nature/culture divide that has haunted all of modernity?

Read in full here.


We meet in town. She is reading the book I left in her house and looks engrossed, her glasses reflecting the gentle dull grey of the clouded sky outside. She looks beautiful there. I approach. Video art: the architecture of faces as enmeshed in the architecture of the megopolis, the non-place that spans the permeability of the blurring zones- airports, hotels, identical corridors connecting identical rooms. We’re sitting on the floor. She is as engrossed as I was a moment before I broke away to steal a look at her body arching back, her hands pressing into a black carpet behind her in keeping her upright. She is beautiful. And wandering around photographs of Pripyat, a place I have longed to see in reality, a non-place I have written about as desolate but flooded with faith (is it so easy to confuse faith and radiation?). She is beautiful. I hold her in the dark of the viewing room. Then coffee and talking about art. Then back to mine and all bodies contorting and eyes pulling one into the other and the moans and wet sounds of pleasure- the noises that form the truest communication. And sitting on the bed she tells me ‘I really like you’; and sitting on the bed I tell her ‘I really like you’. She has been gone for 20 minutes give or take but tonight I will see her again. The smell of her lingers in the room. I inhale deeply.

Hennessy Youngman explains post-structuralism and narrative

a painting

A life is a vitality proper not to any individual but to ‘pure immanence,’ or that protean swarm that is not actual though it is real:
– Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things

Absorbed by a digital image of the canvas, I can’t tear away an particular uncertainty. A scene by some water; a river, a bridge, houses in the background, a full and bursting bush in the fore. Everything is luminous with ripe colour, almost manic in an abundant sense of life. With it all also a serenity that an agitate mind must employ opiates to know, either this or that strange exhaustion that follows nights of mutated chronotypical existing. I here the lyrics of a song: I’m going upstairs now to turn my mind off. A street viewed from the perpendicular, as if I- I assume I would be alone- were viewing it before the final approach, having stopped on some parallel bridge to take in the view and breath an air so clean and crisp that my lungs would shriek at such an alien exposure.

Yet there are no people in this scene. No lovers on the bridge and no retired agricultural workers hanging from their balconies. There are not even hanging baskets on the stucco walls. No one lives here. It is a beautiful and desolate scene. I am reminded of a lost friend, once thought of as a comrade when such aspirations could be retained.

There is only the uncertainty; is it something in the image, the artist or something in the one who observes it? An empty faith that this image conjures up a vague nostalgia. It represents the vibrant existence, the vitality and confidence, of organic and synthetic life . It is a vibrancy lost to consciousness, one that no human being could experience for more than a fading moment. It lacks the shadow and the ash of reality and therefore fails any criteria of realism. I doubt the artist cares or sought such a vulgar way of seeing.

It is a seduction and a tease, an invitation and a closure or denial; here is the urgent life you so desire and which is foreclosed to you after the advent of knowledge, after contact with the truth. It is the life we dream for ourselves in fresh spring mornings spent in parks or in a new lover’s beds. It is the lost. The impossible.

This painting is a wish; ephemeral as all our hopes, and just as distant. Simulataneously, I have no doubt it is also the poor human apperception of a wonderful nonhuman joy. The writer and the artist share this in common; the impossible project of standing outside their own mind. Here is an ecology of divorce and connection, an intimacy that is still separated by the intractable layers of humanity. As I sit here looking into it, unable to populate it with more figures who might live like me- not wanting to complicate it with such fragile systems– I realise why I cannot look away. I am afraid. The superfluity of things, all things, myself included, is overwhelming, petrifying and brutal.