On the Sensual in Art, October 2011
On the Sensual in Art, October 2011
On the day on which he [a man] becomes proof against pleasure he also becomes proof against pain […], those most untrustworthy and passionate of masters. We must, therefore, escape from them into freedom. This nothing will bestow upon us save contempt of Fortune: but if we attain to this, then there will dawn upon us those invaluable blessings, the repose of a mind that is at rest in a safe haven. (L. Annaeus Seneca, Of a Happy Life).
The issue of human sensuality and its complexities stand at the center of the current issue of the E-Journal History and Theory: the Protocols.
In difference to 'sensuous', which refers to physical experience in general, the term 'sensuality' refers to the sensory experience that is defined as bodily pleasure, and particularly to that which refers to the naked body. The dual separation between the "metaphysical" senses of hearing and sight, and the "physical" ones of touch, smell and taste, already evolved in Socrates' thinking, and particularly in his distinction between the 'beautiful' – sensed through hearing and sight, and the 'pleasurable' – sensed through the other senses, and especially through those pertaining to sexual pleasure, which, albeit it pleasantness, is certainly not beautiful. This dualism was fortified in the long period of Christian moral ascendency in western culture, and was especially manifest in the theological separation between the worldly and the heavenly which posited the body as a containing but antinomic element relative to the immortal soul, by which sensous pleasure was conceptually separated from the sensual pleasure that was associated with the mortal flesh.
Yet, albeit the strong tendency to conceptually and morally separate the two, the sensual human body has enjoyed a considerable representation in all areas of culture throughout history – both in the western tradition, and in world history in general – and was and remains the subject of many multifaceted discourses which indicate the de facto inseparability of the human body, sensuality and the sensuous.
The conjunction of the sensuous, sensual and spiritual arises clearly from Christian Marclay's 24 hour long video art piece "The Clock" from 2010 that was recently bought by the Israel Museum and screened at one of its spaces in August and September 2011. In this virtuous work, which won the Golden Lion award at the 2011 Venice Biennale, Marclay used sound and iconographic themes to interweave several thousand short segments, taken from a multiplicity of films that include scenes in which time is presented using characters or the depiction of clocks, into a complex collage, which, by being synchronized with the actual time at the physical locale in which the art work is presented, traces the exact hour of the day. In this manner Marclay's Clock related the fictive cinematic time with the actual-measured time of physical space, and is thus able to use the viewer's senses in a manner that posits him/her in front of, and at the same time, within, a multiplicity of suspenseful, anxious, frightening, joyful, hungry, thirsty, loving, desperate and painful moments, which together constitute and give an unforgettable expression to the staggering plurality of human experience.
The ticking of the clock, which emphasizes time's languishing crawl, also foregrounds our own perishability, and thus ties the physical-sensory body with the human spirit – perpetually a captive of time, which it itself defines and in effect forms. This experience manifests the ancient dictum "memento mori" (remember death) by forcing upon the viewer the magnitude of his own finite being, leaving the viewer with either Zadie Smith's conclusion (in discussing Marclay's work) that "Time is not on our side. Every minute more of it means one minute less of us [….] We are tied to the wagon and it’s going in only one direction, whether we like it or not", or with Seneca's age old insight "Let us bear with magnanimity whatever the system of the universe makes it needful for us to bear: we are all bound by this oath: "To bear the ills of mortal life, and to submit with a good grace to what we cannot avoid.""
Yet, precisely through this emphasis on men's transitory nature and experience, is Marclay's Clock able to combine the sensual and sensuous with the spiritual in a manner that refortifies the bonds between the body and the mind, the physical and the metaphysical. This statement about the inseparability of experience and being relays on the artist's masterful use of sound which highlights the interfaces and points of conjunction between the multiplicity of films from which the work was interwove, and thus endows the work's statement with universality that at the same time reminds one of Qoheleth's renowned statement: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
The cinematic manipulations of the viewer's senses using a combination of visual and audial expressions, stand at the center of Aner Preminger's article – "Charlie Chaplin Sings a Silent Requiem: Chaplin's Cinema in the Period 1928-1952 as a Cinematic Statement on the Transition From Silent Films to Talking Films" – that opens this issue. In this article, Preminger criticizes the common view according to Chaplin is associated almost exclusively with the silent film era, by analyzing the relation of sound to picture in his films, thereby exposing their innovation and contribution to the formation of talking cinematic expression.
The next five articles focus on the tension between the sensuous and the sensual in the works of several contemporary artists. Efrat Biberman's article – "On Friendship and Beauty: A Broken Phone Between Deganit Berest and Virginia Woolf" – centers on the sensual and erotic aspects of some of Deganit Berest's works in a critical discussion that elaborates on the interfaces and differences between the concepts of friendship and eroticism. This form of analysis is used in a contrasting fashion in Mati Meyer article "On Sense and Sensibility in the Work of Talia Tokatly", in which Meyer discusses several of Tokatly's clay works, including a bodiless underwear, repulsive prostitutes, transsexual dogs and hardened clay pillows, which together manifest Tokatly's attempt to break out of the boundaries of her born, feminine identity and dissociate from "normative" gender categorization.
The connection of raw materials and gender identity also arises from Dalia Bachar's article, "Nobody’s Sweetheart! – Chocolate and the Feminine Body", and from David Sperber's article, "The Abject: The Menstruant, Impurity and Purity in Feminist-Jewish Art", both of which highlight the role of sculpted materials. Bachar discusses the subversive works of three feminist artists – Hannah Wilke, Janina Antoni and Karen Finley – which seek to undermine the connection between chocolate (a 'lick-able' and sensual candy), and the objectified feminine body (sensual, sexual and available), that is established in popular-consumer culture. Sperber, in turn, focuses on the use of menstrual blood by contemporary Jewish women artists, with a comparative discussion that relates religious present day art with the art of abjection that was made by feminist artists in the 1970-80s through the prism of the Jewish laws (Halachas) that deal with "Nidda" (menstrual exclusion).
In difference to these two articles, Michal Popowsky's article "On Body Modification and the Concept of Sexuation: Orlan's New Face Construct", examines the body itself as a raw material that undergoes modification and reconstruction with a critical discussion of the pleasure that arises from self-remolding as this manifests in the sexuation process of Orlan's works. Finally, closing the first division, is Roni Amir's article "The Sphinx: From a Gatekeeper to a Femme Fatale" that focuses on the issue of gender transformation historically, with an examination of the far reaching transformations the enigmatic figure of the sphinx underwent throughout history – changing from male to female, and from a threating female that represents the riddle, to an embodiment of the riddle itself.
The next five articles deal with feminine sexuality relative to the issue of pornography. Hagai Dagan's article "The Divine Vagina: Theological Thoughts About Pornography", discusses the phenomenological relation between religious elements and female sexuality that combines worship and veneration with hostility and fear. This duality, argues Dagan, is amplified in pornography, which seeks to reinforce the patriarchal Judeo-Christian taboos in order to repeatedly derive excitement from their violation. Following Dagan's discussion are two articles that deal with the relation between literature and pornography, and literary pornography: Nurit Bucjweitz's "Pornography and the Post-Human in Michel Houellebecq's Novels", in which the author analyzes the relation between pornography and Houellebecq's realistic writing, thus gauging its role in his novels' meaning production; and Lily Glasner's "On a Horse, a Donkey and a Woman, or: a Subversive Message in a Pornographic Ploy in Decameron", in which the author discusses one of Boccaccio's pornographic ploys, and exposes a layer of subversive social messages that is embedded within the lewd story, thereby undermining the meaning of the plainly visible narrative.
The social complexity of pornographic imagery is picked up, from a different perspective, in Polina Shtemler's article "Love Hurts: The Masochistic Carnival in Medieval Courtly Art" that focuses on images depicting domineering, violently abusive women, who control men through 'anguishing love'; and in Ilan Abecassis' article "Erotic Plates from the Ancient Babylonian Period Manipur". While basing herself on contemporary discourses concerning the BDSM culture, Shtemler argues that these images are not expressions of misogyny, as they appear at first sight, but are rather expressions of a subconscious transfer of control, which serves as an outlet, and thus in effect upholds the accepted gender norms. Abecassis, in turn, questions the academic conventions regarding ritual prostitution, by arguing that several famous plates were in fact intended as a means to protect women's orifices, through which demons may enter the body.
Concluding this issue are two theoretical articles that discuss the issues of sensuality and sensuousness relative to the experience of art. In her article "Beyond Uncanny Anxiety: Uncanny Compassion, Uncanny Awe and Matrixial Border-Linking in Experiencing Beauty and the Sublime", Bracha L. Ettinger discusses the unconscious aesthetic result of the uncanny that manifest in awe and compassion, when these are seen as primal emotional affects that relate to gender differentiation. By expending the Freudian notion of the uncanny anxiety, Ettinger illustrates new connections between uncanny compassion and the beautiful, and between uncanny awe and the sublime, while discussing the beguiling capacity of art, which expends the capacity of the human spirit to carry the sorrows and joys of the world while discovering-creating-knowing itself. The power of art also serves as a central theme in the article that closes this issue – Yael Ben-Simon's "The State of Installation: A Critical Reading in the History of Installation Art Following Heidegger and Benjamin". In this article Ben-Simon discusses two seminal themes by Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin: the anesthetization of the political and the politization of the aesthetic, through which she analyzes the field of installation art, and the ethical-aesthetical relations it embodies.
Closing the issue are two virtual exhibitions, which, like Marclay's Clock, testify to the complex connections between the spiritual, sensual, sensuous and death. Tamir Lahav-Radlmesser's works focus on the male body by situating it as naked, vulnerable and stripped of passionate anesthetization in front of the viewer's sight. Stripped of its power, the naked body amplifies the connections between sensuous being and death; between passion and a horror that arises from the painful non-being that accompanies man like a shadow. This dealing with pain is also present in Tamar Nissim's works, which focus on the female form through the artist's own figure, as it appears in multiple performances that focus on compulsion, obsession and abjection.