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

REVIEW: Violence of Everyday Objects: Thoughts on Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s “Flame Tempered”

Violence of Everyday Objects: Thoughts on Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s “Flame Tempered”
written by Conor O’Brien, The Living Gallery

"Flame Tempered"

“Flame Tempered”

The first object in Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s show “Flame Tempered” is a ceramic knife. It is without much definition, and barely noticeable from a distance, fading into the white walls of the gallery. It seems small and fragile compared with the other pieces on display, especially the dramatic eponymous piece of the show. But this object sets a certain tone for when one goes on to encounter these other objects. The knife occupies a strange space in the world of objects: it belongs equally to the world of the everyday mundane and the world of violence. The particular knife Lindsey-Hall has chosen to cast highlights this fact. It is unclear without further definition whether this particular knife is a normal kitchen knife or some kind of hunting tool. The distinction between mundane object and weapon is obscured.

Objects do not have intent; they reflect the intent of their user. It is this reflective quality that is most unsettling aspect of everyday objects. And it is for this reason that even prior to understanding their context, the collection of ceramic objects exhibited in Lindsey-Hall’s show seem so unsettling cast in their ghostly, monochromatic white. The knife is the most obvious example of the crossover between the world of the mundane and the world of violence, but as soon as one is put into this frame of mind, it is difficult to not imagine the inherent danger of the other objects: a plunger, a bottle of bleach, a soup can, baseball bats. Without further definition, the objects in the show are reduced to pure reflectivity, bound neither by the world of the mundane or that of violence: each could cross with ease between these worlds.

Phoenix Lindsey-Hall speaking before the screening of 'Paris is Burning.'

Phoenix Lindsey-Hall speaking before the screening of ‘Paris is Burning.’

Phoenix Lindsey-Hall, a former lobbyist for queer-rights in Kentucky, researched and catalogued in a database a series of violent hate crimes targeting homosexual and transgender people, using this research to form the context for her work. While initially a photographer, Lindsey-Hall has of late produced ceramic sculptures of the everyday objects that she has discovered often become weapons in these violent crimes. At the “Paris is Burning” film screening and artist talk event at the Living Gallery, the artist talked about her process. She takes the ceramic objects out of their molds before they’ve dried completely so that she’s able to manipulate the slip. During the talk, she commented on how unlike photography, this process allowed her some intimacy with the object: how her hand-print is implicit in the manipulation of the clay, and how this manipulation of clay object parallels the violent act. It is an attempt at understanding the act by bringing her into closer intimacy with it, rather than the distanced understanding afforded by photography.

This process is most prominent in the surreal “Flame Tempered,” an installation of over 70 ceramic baseball bats, manipulated so as to suggest a swarming motion around a lightbulb situated in the center of the piece and which casts the piece in a dramatic, cinematic light. The artist’s photographic background translates into this piece, in the play with light and shadow, the sense of suspended motion. The piece was based on a hate crime that occurred blocks from the Living Gallery in 2008. The bat she used for the mold is one from her childhood: one with which she learned to play softball. This is a further heightening of the two poles of the object, at once a symbol of nostalgia and irrational hate. This personal context also heightens the artist’s intimacy with work, and by extension, the act it is based on.

By moving the crime from outside to inside the gallery, the artist asks for all viewers to participate in this intimate understanding of crime, criminal, and victim. Lindsey-Hall says on her website that she was interested in the bat as “an American symbol of masculinity, sport, and in this case, violent object.” Speaking at the artist talk about her interest in casting the bleach bottle, Lindsey-Hall mentioned how she felt the idea of cleansing, the need to “clean” someone who perceived to be dirty or immoral, was wrapped up in the use of the object for violent purposes. The work suggests that these objects, so often encountered and barely noticed, blending into the fabric of daily experience, not only have the potential for violence, but also that their mundane use is not entirely divorced from their violent use. Something about the fantasy of masculinity in the use of the baseball bat, the desire to purify in the use of the bleach, translates with an unsettling ease into an these acts of violence. We are invited to contemplate how the ideology and the violence exists already even in the object’s conventional use. In part due to their reduction to these characterless form, the objects in Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s show ask the viewer to understand the crimes in which they are used not as a detached observer but as an intimate participant.