Inside is the Outside: The Relational as the
It may seem precursory to begin
my essay with an image that has been haunting me since September 11, but
in a concise way it prefigures many issues I will write about. It is an
image of a work by the Chilean artist and poet, Cecilia Vicuna, who has
been living in New York for many years. The work dates from 1981 and shows
a word drawn in three colors of pigment (white, blue, and redalso
the colors of the American flag) on the pavement of the West Side Highway
with the World Trade Center on the horizon. It reads in Spanish: Parti
si passion (Participation), which Vicuna unravels as to say
yes in passion, or to partake of suffering. Revealing aspects of
connectivity and compassion, the word spelled out on the road was as ephemeral
as its meaning remained for the art world. Unnoticed and unacknowledged,
it disappeared in dust, but becomes intelligible in the present. This
precarious work tells us how certain art practices, in their continuous
effort to press forward a different perception of the world, have a visionary
content that is marginalized because of fixed conventional readings of
art, but nevertheless is bound to be recognized. My essay will seek to
uncover the latency of this kind of work in the second half of the twentieth
century, which is slowly coming into being today and can be understood
because of feminist practice, but also perhaps because of an abruptly
changed reality. Focusing on the work of two South-American artistsLygia
Clark (1920-1988) and Anna Maria Maiolino (born in 1942), both from BrazilI
will address the topic of the relational as the radical.
In a woodcut from 1967 by Anna Maria Maiolino, two abstract figures, mouths wide open, without eyes face a void. Across their massive shoulders they connect by crying out together, like parents of a lost child, the name of Anna. Insistently, beneath the carved elemental shapes in this woodcut, the name is repeated. Where above it is in white script in a speech bubble against a black background as the wood was incised and cut from the matrix, it now stands in black block letters, the remnant of the wood itselfjust as are the howling mouths and the dark unexplored space surrounding the ghostly white busts. Maiolino began making woodcuts in the 1960s on settling in Rio de Janeiro. Born during World War II in Calabria, she had immigrated to South America at the age of twelve with her family, escaping post-war famine and poverty in Southern Italy, and had moved again from Venezuela to Brazil at the age of eighteen. Dealing with the wounding difficulties a foreigner inevitably encountersone mouth too many and incomprehensible speechMaiolinos work, from the very beginning, relates food to language and language to food. Attached to a vanished place and always feeling elsewhere, she belongs nowhere, except at the nexus of two othernesses, the having been and the endlessly deferred. Her life is filled with a resonance and reasoning cut off from the bodys bittersweet memory of childhood: the mothers tongue and breast. According to Julia Kristeva, once in a new land,
Maiolinos early woodcut
Anna, a self-portrait as a palindrome, seems to trace a split identity:
perhaps one becomes a stranger in another country because one is already
a stranger from within? At once its verso and recto, Anna is double:
positive and negative, white and black, absent and present, out and in.
Divided in the middle, between languages, her realm would be of silence
and muteness, if she had not chosen instead for it to be of mutation on
a borderline conceived as an axis of mobility. This state of being implies
choice, desire, surprise, breaks, and adaptations, but never rest or regularity.
Living out a lost origin and the impossibility of taking root, the artist
soon comes to understand that her time is the present in abeyance: Always
at a new beginning, in action, in transition, where change happens. The
new language, although Maiolino knows that she will never be part of it,
overwhelmingly feels like a resurrection: new soil, new skin, new sex.
In an attempt to join the separate parts of the traumatic division that
is the migrants condition, her work overflows with pathos, anguish,
and energy. Settled, yet within herself, lacking confidence, the foreigner
feels as though without self, living according to circumstances and others
wishesshe is other: I does not belong to me,
do I exist at all? This fragmentation and parceling,
threatening to bring her thought and speech into chaotic confusion, drives
Maiolino to a constant search for fusion, in which there are not
two beings, there is but a single one who is consumed, complete, annihilated.2
Her Neoconcrete drawing Secret Poem [me +thou]
(1971) reveals, as it conceals, a beautiful synthesis of this errancy
as being, as being-in-relation.
Etched in 1971 after her return to Brazil from New York, where Maiolino stayed for three years and learned about Minimalism and Conceptualism, Escape Point consists of horizontal lines finding their way out of an enclosing square, as if the mind were loosing its geometrical homeland and the spirit drifting. A dialectics of division that governs all thought of inside and outside, positive and negative, black and white runs through her work, but is constantly being negotiated, since the space of separation between these simple diametrical oppositions of form, which are often inflected with hostility and alienation, is subject to reconnection within a process of transformation. Inside and outside, in the escapade of her imagination, are experienced as transiting the borderline indicated by A (from Anna) and O (from zero) in her etching Escape Point, and are no longer seen in terms merely of their antagonism, but as multiplying in countless diverse nuances of reciprocity. This lesson in ontological amplification encourages Maiolino to experiment further with paper, which, no longer a surface for her figurative and abstract drawing, she begins to use as space and body. As Maiolino explains:
The Print Objects and Drawing Objects (1971-76) show a fluidity, in whichas at a tide lineinside and outside are not abandoned to their geometrical opposition, but remain, however briefly, in ebb and flow between intimate and undetermined space. For Maiolino they suggest the existence of fullness in the empty.
Exploring paper and its corporeity would situate Maiolinos work close to practices of the European neo-avantgarde, particularly of Lucio Fontana, but even closer to those of Neoconcretism in Rio de Janeiro. During the 1960s and early 1970s her encounters with Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark clearly have an impact on the development of her work. Co-founders of the Neoconcrete movement (1959-61), Oiticica and Clark reacted against their Sao Paulo counterparts who embraced the early, or Concrete, phase of Constructivism in Brazil, which drew heavily on the mathematical abstraction of Max Bill, purely optical explorations, and ideas for scientifically integrating art into industrial society. Against what they considered to be a lifeless formalism, yet without leaving the language of geometric abstraction or the general concerns of Constructivism, they proposed in the Manifesto Neoconcreto to look for an equivalent to the work of art, not in the machine, or even the object as such, but in living organisms.4 Retaining some Constructivist principles, such as the importance given to the materials properties and the perception of structures generated through their action, Lygia Clark revitalizes the geometry in an attempt to reveal its processuality by freeing the line in the plane from its supposedly inanimate condition to recover its vitality and to transform space. The emptiness of the seam between the planes in Modulated Surfaces (1958) becomes an actual line-space, which she calls the organic line. The two-dimensional plane, now pregnant from its fertilization by space and revealing the nascent presence of the relief, is outspread and distended to become a three-dimensional articulation. In The Inside is the Outside (1963), Clarks proposal of the organic is concerned with the fusing of oppositesinside and outside, the subjective and the objective, the erotic and the asceticand is marked by the rebellion against the dissociating experience of what she calls the empty-full in subjectivity. As Clark already writes about the work Caminhando in 1963: The act makes contemporary man aware that the poetic is not outside him but within him and that he had always projected it by means of the object called art.5
In the 1970s, Maiolino developed strategies from Neoconcretism that, for a while, paralleled those of Clarks concerning modern art being faced with one of its most pressing issues: the reconnection of art and life. According to Suely Rolnik their aim is to liberate the artistic object from its formalist inertia and its mythifying aura by creating living objects in which could be glimpsed the forces, the endless process, the vital strength that stirs in everything, and by freeing the spectator from his or her soporific inertia.6 The works most connecting both artists are Lygia Clarks organized group experiments in Paris of Cannibalism (1973) and Baba Antropofagica (1973) and Maiolinos Super-8 film In-Out Antropofagia (1973) shot in Rio. Apart from linking food and language in saliva, their titles are inspired by the modern Brazilian theory of Antropofagia (or Cannibalism). In the 1920s, Tarsila do Amaral and Oswaldo de Andrade formulated this theory of a cultural melting pot, in which they meshed the modernist movement, first Futurism and later Primitivism, with an African heritage in their country. Amaral in her painting (Antropofagia, 1929) and Andrade in his Manifesto Antropofago (1928) declaring Only Cannibalism unites us, searched for a hybrid national culture in which the spiritual, native, African, and European elements were brought together and appropriated in an act of devouring and digestion. Andrades manifesto became the basic textbook of twentieth-century art in Brazil, including the Neoconcretist movement and the social relevance of its art. In Clarks Baba Anthropofagia, the participants expel threads from cotton reels in their mouths, projecting cannibalistic slobber onto a reclining body.
In this exploratory in-between space of relation, Clark continues to make art using a conversational model of recognition and exchange that she materializes in a web of connecting lines or relational objects.8 In Maiolinos film the camera successively focuses on two alternating mouths, which occupy the entire space of the screen: a womans and a mans. At the beginning, the mouth is gagged with adhesive tape, making it impossible to speak or eat; it is censored, but than it appears no longer gagged, attempting to articulate some speechthe utterance of a beginning language. A long black thread is swallowed and reemerges from the mouth that ejects it in a vomit of colored filaments.
Touching upon the theory of Antropofagia and reclaiming access to the body as a hybrid site of a permanent reinvention of existence, Clark increasingly explores the therapeutic potential of her artistic proposition through her relational objects, with which, from 1976 to 1982, she treated many individuals in her studio, while Maiolino promotes subjectivity as relational, constituted from the vibrant dynamic of molding oneself in an encounter with the other through the pulsing life in all daily things and trivial gestures. Insisting on the idea of living organisms in regards to art, Maiolino took part in Oiticicas exhibition Vagrant Myths (1978) with two radical projects: Monument to Hunger consisting of two sacks, one of white rice and one of black beans, tied together with a ribbon and placed on a table in a square; and Scatological State mounting various types of toilet paper to a street wall. The works evidence of activity at both opposite ends of the alimentary canal, which flows as an imaginary line of transformation between them. In Scatological State, where the materials range from the most expensive to the cheapest toilet paper, a newspaper, and a plant leaf, she also points to the state of equality among us all, even if the State and its systems continuously try to institute hierarchy. The work deals ironically with the pretensions of the rich consumer and the market, which strives to confer status and differentiation through the most common bodily denominator. The digestive tract, that lies between in and out, and its transforming capacity can be likened to the artistic trajectory, and its unforeseeable becomings, as a commonalty, equal and accessible between all of us. Here art is not about an image or sense of the world expressed by the artist in the transference of myths, but about the power of permanent creation in the sensing of self and the world, which every person, as a living being, eventually possesses. The dual work presented in the Vagrant Myths exhibition, invoking oral and anal somatic processes, seems to be crucial in Maiolinos approach to the body, as she connects what goes in and out of every body and exemplifies its ability to create through its orifices onto paper From the very beginning, Glu Glu Glu (1966), a painted high-relief and engraving with the same title, picture this idea in a divided scene: depicted in the upper part is the bust of a body with mouth wide open in front of food, and in the lower part an alimentary canal (in the high-relief) and a toilet (in the woodcut). These early works on paper anticipate the later works in clay from the 1990s as the explicit materialization of her purpose to awaken the perception of the creative vitality in all, and not only in the artist.
If Maiolino embraces the imperatives of Neoconcretism, she also negotiates her practice through a complex set of permutations of prewar and postwar art idioms in Europe and in the United States. The recognition of the body itself as force and energy gave rise to an art, gestural and magmatic, defining itself by action and the informe. In Action Painting and l Art Informel, the materials of art were transformed by the artists bodies, spilling and penetrating the canvas, so as to reach into the area of life itself. In the second half of the twentieth century, producing art means incorporating ones own body and manifesting the convulsive and chaotic movement of existential drives in order to find another dimension grounded in everyday experience. Departing from this antithesis of metaphysics and corporeality, of sublimity and contingency, Piero Manzoni is one of those artists most clearly countering the claims, particularly of Fontana, for a space beyond matter. Reminiscent of Manzonis Achromes (1961-62) with bread rolls and kaolin on canvas, Maiolinos clay sculptures, the Others series (1990-95) and the Codicilli series (1993-2000), result from quotidian gestures that are repeated over and over each day, without our being aware of them, driven by primordial impulses and vital actions in the process of life. At the start, her sculptural procedure follows the familiar casting method, developing in three phases: the object is molded in clay (a positive) to execute the mold (a negative) of the final form in plaster or cement (a positive). Shaped through this process, her reliefs come more and more to assemble signs of a new language as well as to resemble food displayed on a tray. Maiolinos molding gestures, paralleling the tasks of la cucina italiana, increasingly manipulate the earth as dough. Slowly, the fathers land and the mothers bread collapse into the fermentation of the abject I, as Kristeva formulates it: Nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. I want none of that element, sign of their desire; I do not want to listen, I do not assimilate it, I expel it. But since the food is not an other for me, who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which I claim to establish myself.9 In Maiolinos body of work, form is at once dynamically affirmed and annulled, in search for an identification that never ends, thereby necessitating the action of another gesture to sustain desire. Seeking confirmation of a subjectivity within a multiplication of clay forms, the artist, in an endless proliferation of drives, now invades the space with an installation of which each piece is made from one and the same mold: One, None, One Hundred Thousand (1993).
Almost at the same time Maiolino starts to develop work in clay that results from the arrest of the casting procedure at the second phase. The Shadow of the Other (1993), The Absent (1993-96), Its What Is Missing (1995-96), and In & Out (1995) consist of the retrieved negative itself. The titles of these works refer to the existence of the opposite, the absent positive that has been separated from the remaining negative. They incorporate the nostalgia for the matrix, since they formed one body at a given moment during the process of making the molded sculpture. As in the Print Objects and the Drawing Objects, Maiolino repeats the attempt to make the other side, in this case of the paperthe negativeactive and participatory. The mold, usually forgotten and discarded, is endowed with new value by the emphasis given to its generative properties, to the vacant space, in which the memory of the other exists in its not being there: the positive-present in absence.10 In Many (1995) and More than One Thousand (1995) the clay is worked on site and left to dry without any mold. These works assimilate the first and third phases of the casting procedure, consisting only of the hand-made positive forms, all the same and different, paradoxically propagating like pre-industrial craft objects on an assembly line or excremental shapes from a geological eruption. According to Maiolino the topological accumulation of these same/different forms, like the sight of a tilled field with its imprints of man and cultivation, is moving. The artist now identifies herself as the ploughwoman of languagethe cultivator who steadily and laboriously cleaves, cuts, lifts, and turns over soil in preparing a seedbed and infusing the earth with a fecal fertilizer. The discharge in her work is in fact a matter of uprooting oneself from that clinging remnant of earth. Maiolinos association of the earths powereschatological and scatologicalto suddenly shift, split, and excrete establishes a connection to language and its subversion. As she maps the construction of the I across private and public spheres, she realizes that the politics of shit converge with the policing and cleansing of language in the construction of a centralized capitalist state. In many ways, the history of shit thus becomes the history of subjectivity, since the formation of the subject relates to language as well as to the abject, which designates that which has been expelled from the body, discharged as excrement, literally rendered Other. This appears as an expulsion of alien elements, but the alien is effectively established through this expulsion. The construction of the not-me as the abject establishes the boundaries of the body which are also the first contours of the subject.11
Awaiting disintegration, the most recent clay formations appear as either chaotic heaps of clinging earthy remnants, or as perfectly well organized items on tables and shelves. Depending on the size of the sculptural installation, this methodical arrangement of informe forms and minimal clots often resembles the storing of paste on trays in a domestic cupboard or industrial baking oven. Alternately, they recall the Sadean apogee of systematization in the display of scatological matter for consumption. Besides the reference to the manufacturing of ceramics, the analogy substantially covers the alimentary cycle from food to feces as the basest human products. In this digestive excursus from the nutritive to the excremental, the artist as molding is the medium between what goes in and out of the body. The casting mold is the palm of her hand doing as her will and the will of the material together indicate. It is within this action of the hand that positive and negative collapse. Like the rejected mold, which was once the generative and uniting matrix, Maiolinos body as mediating between in and out, between positive and negative, between chaos and system is, at the stage of presentation, outcast. Through her affirmation and abjection within the same motion, she not only externalizes the inner process of intestinal molding as a semiotic activity of creation accessible to everybody, but also, in living the point of mutation itself, she eventually succeeds in merging separate parts of self and other. The transformational linking and flexible interaction between both opponents of inner and outer allows, at this point, for a fusion that synthesizes the permanent task of reinventing subjectivity and its mode of existence. Investing the body by divesting the object, Maiolino seems to pick up Clarks assertion at the end of her life that: The art is the body.12 If Clark, before her sudden death, speaks and writes of this next phase in her work, Maiolino seems to bring it to realization by making each one of us aware of being the living structure of a biological and cellular architecture,13 agitated by the dynamic of constant differentiation and fusion.
According to Judith Butler:
Questioning a binary distinction that consolidates the coherent subject, Maiolino's mediation blurs the borderline in her visualizing these excremental passages as transformational links between food and feces, inner and outer, positive and negative, black and white, empty and full, conceiving of creativity in the relation between self and other. Thus her work challenges the modalities based on the phallic paradigm of rejection or assimilation, aggression or identification, which shape how art is viewed as much as how societies treat immigrants. Indeed, again turning to Butler, it becomes clear that:
There have been, of course, many artists attempting to shift this phallic paradigm, such as Nancy Spero, Martha Rosler, and Mary Kelly, to name a few. Torn between an old, by now institutionalized language, part of an all-pervasive imperialism, and a new language, they have challenged the preconceptions of modernism by recognizing a great potential in notions of relation and connectivity in a larger understanding of what art can bethough first they had to state the self as woman in their work. Using words like the matrix, pregnancy, relational objects, and the empty/full, the work of Lygia Clark and Anna Maria Maiolino was for a long time perceived as ambiguous, but their experiments of art are now being recognized. In Clarks case, the relational to the extent of healing was recuperated in psychoanalytical terms of therapy, which has imprisoned it for a while. Perhaps the artist herself was responsible for it, as in her last works she called herself a therapist and frequently used psychoanalytic concepts to interpret the experiences of the so-called patients who entered into her proposition of the structuring of the self. During the so-called session the possibility of permanent creation was assessed in the persons sensing of self and the world. Being innovative, her artistic proposition had no other theory than psychoanalysis to lean on for apprehending its radicality in regard to work with subjectivity within relation. Art critics did not recognize this turn in her work, nor did psychoanalysts. However, in reestablishing the link between art and life in the spectators subjectivity, Clarks proposition bridges the separation between the artistic domain and psychotherapy. According to Suely Rolnik: Clark creates a territory, situated neither in the sphere of art as a department of social life specializing in semiotic activities, where access to the creative power of life is confined; nor in the sphere of therapy, specialized in treating a subjectivity separated from this powerit is a new territory.16
In a similar way, and consequently also running the risk of being seen as falling between two fields of experiment and knowledge, artist and psychoanalyst Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger has set out for herself the daring task of integrating both practices and developing a groundbreaking theory. In the elaboration of her work generated by this suspension, the in-between as the space of co-emergence, relational and fluid, became hers in theory and practice. This shifting experience and blurring of boundaries between the self and the other are embodied in her drawing, painting, and writing on trauma, memory traces, exile, and history as she considers the status of representation, the gaze and the mark. Using a photocopy machine that she stops mid-run, the artist removes the image as it is still appearing from the process and works the residue of dusty ink from the copy into the paint. The textured images, often of family photographs, old newspaper photographs of Holocaust victims, and aerial views taken from different war archives, copied repeatedly to lose detail, evoke an impression of a past haunting the presenttraces of lost generations. In her studio, the displayed works never seem to settle as she unhooks them from the wall, one by one, to rework each in a continuous reiteration. More recently, Lichtenberg Ettinger has come to carry through this painting process during her practice as an analyst while she listens to her patients. In recognizing this self-otherness, she traces, within layers of mark upon mark, the moment of thought being shared, as it belongs neither to the one nor to the other alone. Traces from this encounter are carried over into the conversation, traces not always from the trauma of the one that is in front of the analyst, but traces transmitted from the trauma of another in the patients psyche. Her working method is not specific to a particular encounter with a person and goes beyond expressing these thoughts or feelings, since sometimes, over the course of several years, different traces from different encounters at different moments slowly accumulate on the same sheet of paper. In a way, she is securing the exchange and giving it a visual voice. Her practice has enabled her to theorize and word this new concept of the matrixial gaze alongside the phallic gaze. As she explains: The matrix as an unconscious space of simultaneous emergence and fading of the I and the unknown non-I; it is a shared borderspace in which differentiation-in-co-emergence and distance-in-proximity are continuously rehoned and reorganized by metramorphosis.
Some artists thus treat the work of art less as an object and more as a process that creates the subject. They have submitted the complex structure of visual language to critical analysis, while also increasingly drawing on ideas of the relational that emerge in art making. During the second half of the last century up to the present, these artists have been reaching to bring about a shift away from the utter absorption of the modern individual towards this fluent space of relation where the being does not precede the becoming. The significance of their work lies in the continuity of issues that developed earlier, but that were covered over and denied any importance in art history. Separated from us, but reconstituted in the present, I would mention two fascinating examples of abstract artists, Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz, who are largely unknown both in the United States and in Europe. They have taken untraditional paths by investigating the spiritual, transcendental, scientific, and healing properties of structures defined by line, geometry, and the matrix. Hilma af Klint, born in 1862 in Stockholm, Sweden, died at the age of 82, leaving more than 1,000 paintings and drawings as well as 124 unpublished books, in which she addresses the concept of life as an evolution towards a balance between so-called opposing forces. This was her secret production, and she stipulated that it should be withheld from public presentation for twenty years after her death. Born in 1892 in Switzerland, Emma Kunz too wrote in her publication conveying her world-view in which art, nature, and life are tightly interwoven: My pictures are for the twenty-first century. Her legacy encompasses a large spectrum: she was a powerful healer and an artist who created hundreds of drawings that she used during therapy experimenting with telepathy and radiesthesia (divining with a pendulum). Kunz utilized a pendulum to start each of her drawings and to plan its ultimate structure. She considered them to be images of energy fields from which she would formulate diagnoses.
In the range of works presented, form is significant, though only in so far as it lies within relational and conversational models, which would undo the still overwhelmingly rigid conventions to exist in flux. If modernism was to be more and more dependent on alienation, separation, negativity, violence and destruction as strategies of the radical and inventive, the twenty-first century may very well be developing a changed criticality increasingly defined by inclusion, connectivity, attaching and constituting attitudes, and healing too. This surely results crucially, and in the greater part, from the work by women artists.
This text is based on a lecture given at the Conference: Women Artists at the Millennium, November 2001, Princeton University.
Catherine de Zegher is Director of The Drawing Center in New York City and has curated and published widely on contemporary art, including her book on Martha Rosler (1999) and her recent collaboration with Mark Wigley, The Activist Drawing (2001).