REVIEW: The Artist Relieving Herself: Response to Katherine Bauer’s “Teenage Dream Sequence: Seduction of the Eye” at Microscope Gallery

The Artist Relieving Herself: Response to Katherine Bauer’s
“Teenage Dream Sequence: Seduction of the Eye” at Microscope Gallery
written by Conor O’Brien, The Living Gallery

“At the bottom of their hearts, they are quite aware that this is urine.”

“At the bottom of their hearts, they are quite aware that this is urine.” (Photo: Conor O’Brien)

Story of the Eye begins with an awakening. The unnamed narrator of Georges Bataille’s little 1928 novel confides in the first line that he grew up “alone” and that he was “frightened of anything sexual.” [1] He soon meets a girl named Simone, whose sexual proclivities are described in this way: “She so bluntly craved any upheaval that the faintest call from the senses gave her a look directly suggestive of all things linked to sexuality, such as blood, suffocation, sudden terror, crime; things indefinitely destroying human bliss and honesty.” [2] It would be a mistake to think that the narrator’s fear of sex is opposed to Simone’s desire for upheaval; the fear is the whole point. The narrator does not awaken out of the fear associated with sex; his awakening is a coming to consciousness of this fear, and constant desire to meet it. Fear is at the heart of upheaval, is what distinguishes it. Fear is the sense used to identify the point where upheaval is possible. And fear is felt most keenly at the moment before a coming out of unconsciousness, before fear is brought to an awareness of itself, before the transgression of what Bataille calls the “discontinuous existence,” the realm of that private and sacred individuality and self-compartmentalization we are conditioned to desire; the realm of routine, ritual, and all things safe and solid, which, for Simone, becomes necessary only at the moment it is dissolved and profaned.

Katherine Bauer and associates mid-performance (screenshot from Microscope Gallery’s Vimeo)

Katherine Bauer and associates mid-performance (screenshot from Microscope Gallery’s Vimeo)

Katherine Bauer’s performance at the Microscope Gallery is an interpretation of Bataille’s novel. It is the third in a series of works entitled “Teenage Dream Sequence,” which according to Microscope’s press release explores the “coming of age rites of the American female teenager,” in this case “dirty novels.” For those who discovered it at a young age, reading Bataille’s story becomes a performance of transgression, and the effect mirrors the narrator’s awakening with which the novel begins, the sudden and shocking awareness of the unconscious in the process of submitting to Bataille’s extreme fantasy. Bauer’s piece can be seen as representing the performance of reading Story of the Eye, this act of personal and intimate transgression, the reader’s submission to the author’s work transmuted from private to the public, the inner experience becoming a shared experience between performer and viewer, and an enactment Bataille’s philosophy. Bauer’s work can also be thought of as a translation of the novel (and translation is always necessarily an act of interpretation) using film, photography, performance, and those physical materials important to Bataille’s text: eggs, milk, wine, and even urine. A short video excerpt of the performance can be viewed on the Microscope Gallery’s Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/82072713

Remnants of the performance

Remnants of the performance (Photo: Conor O’Brien)

The objects displayed in the Microscope Gallery are the remnants of Baeur’s performance/“translation”: three large, abstract “Eye-O-Grams” made by applying the aforementioned materials on fiber paper, four excerpts from the novel written on fiber paper from which the performers read (the ink now smeared and the text distorted), film reels of the artist’s eyes which were projected during the performance, a sound recording, and a wine glass filled with a mixture of champagne and the artist’s urine. The latter object is one of the more literal translations of the text, inspired by a segment in which a character named Sir Edmund explains Catholic symbolism: “And as for the wine they put in the chalice, the ecclesiastics say it is the blood of Christ, but they are obviously mistaken. If they really thought it was blood, they would use red wine, but since they employ only white wine, they are showing that at the bottom of their hearts, they are quite aware that it is urine.” [3] Bataille mocks the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, but also uses this doctrine to elucidate one of his techniques. The imagery in the Bataille’s work slides between forms: eyes become eggs become breasts become testicles; urine becomes sunlight becomes yolk becomes milk becomes semen becomes tears. The novel dwells in this world of shifting forms, and the elements of the “continuous existence” (which opposes the “discontinuous existence”) revealed by the association and transubstantiation of distinct yet similar forms.

An “Eye-O-Gram”

An “Eye-O-Gram” (Photo: Conor O’Brien)

Bauer’s “Eye-O-Grams” are adaptations of this technique: like Bataille, Bauer forces associations between eggs, milk, wine, and urine within the confined space of the page. The difference is, with Bauer’s work, these objects are translated from the linguistic to the material. A major example of linguistic association in Bataille is his comparison of the French words oeil and oeuf (eye and egg), brought into association with each other because of their similar spelling and sound (it is not coincidental that the objects they refer are also similar in shape and color). The linguistic association (metaphor, pun, etc.) is meant to contain both words equally, without giving either component dominance. With Bauer’s material association, the effect is similar: the substance in the glass is both wine and urine, not one thing or another and not one thing standing in for another thing; the two substances are indistinguishably combined. The result is like the unconscious association surfacing on the level of material reality, transgressing the realm of the psychologically/symbolically resonant to that of the physically blunt: an upheaval akin to Simone’s fantasies.

Four excerpts from the novel read during performance

Four excerpts from the novel read during performance (Photo: Conor O’Brien)

This upheaval, one which renders the symbolic object material, is significant in Bataille’s philosophy as a means for people to tap into the “continuous existence.” The “eye” is the supreme object of Bataille’s philosophy because the eye is a symbol of sight and is the organ associated most directly with illusion, and thus it is also most susceptible to disillusionment. When the eye is removed from its socket, rendered sightless and thus useless as a symbol, the remaining object becomes strange to us, those so accustomed to understanding it through the lense of its symbolic function, ridiculous and egglike in its naked materiality. Such is the reason for the eye/egg metaphor, and the purpose of the novel’s climactic scene wherein Simone removes a priest’s eye and uses it for stimulation.

Film reel projected during performance

Film reel projected during performance (Photo: Conor O’Brien)

Bataille, in his 1943 preface to Story of the Eye, explains the penname under which the novel was originally published: “‘Lord Auch’ refers to the habit of a friend of mine; when vexed, instead of saying ‘aux chiottes!’ [to the shithouse], he would shorten it to ‘aux ch-.’ Lord is English for God: Lord Auch is God relieving himself…Every creature transfigured by such a place: God sinking into it rejuvenates the heavens.” [4] Katherine Bauer enacts this process. It is the process of the symbol profaning itself: a disrobing of all pretense of symbolic self necessary to understanding what Bataille termed the “continuous existence,” the most heightened manifestation of which is death. Bauer’s act of immersing her art and herself in “base” materials has behind it these ideas: the artist relieving herself, self-debasement as self-sacrifice, and self-sacrifice as a means to rejuvenation. Bataille was obsessed with the idea of sacrifice, and sex (being linked with death) was for him a form of sacrificial roleplay. Because it requires a relinquishing of self and a submission to foreign fantasies, the act of reading is also related to the sexual/sacrificial ritual. One encounters the novel the same way the narrator encounters Simone, a purely subversive figure who is at once exciting and frightening to him. Bauer performs this “coming age rite,” during which the reading of dirty or subversive novels becomes an act of transgression.

“The faintest call from the senses gave her a look directly suggestive of all things linked to sexuality”

“The faintest call from the senses gave her a look directly suggestive of all things linked to sexuality” (Photo: Conor O’Brien)

[1] Bataille, Georges. Story of the Eye (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1987.) p. 3
[2] Ibid., p. 6
[3] Ibid., p. 76
[4] Ibid., p. 98

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