I am not content
Kara Walker/Lawrence Weiner: Identity as Language/Language as Identity
Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994; cut paper on wall; 15 x 50 feet; installation view, Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2007; courtesy Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, New York; photo by Gene Pittman
In Latin, monstrare means “to show.” Through fortune’s curatorial grace, the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 2007, provided overlapping retrospectives of Kara Walker and Lawrence Weiner. This spatial/temporal concurrence made it clear that the two artists were working on the same project, using language to push their particular race/gender configuration to the point of collapse. The linguistic facet of this is obvious in Weiner’s work, overlooked in Walker’s; the race/gender aspect obvious in Walker and overlooked in Weiner. Through their alternative emphases on image as language and language as image, Walker and Weiner separately enact the symbolic order of the monster, for the monster is the articulated embodiment of that which is not, and that-which-is-not proves, by negation, that-which-is. Demons demonstrate divinities just as difference inverts identity. Together, Walker and Weiner show that the truly monstrous is us—the ongoing threat of a singular subject and divisible object—a threat that is necessarily linguistic.
By “us,” I mean the first-person plural. The first-person plural is the sole pronoun that fuses pure subject and pure object: I + [¬ I]. It is perhaps a theoretical cliché to note that “I” is a speech act, i.e., non-declarative, and in this case, performative—enunciation that effectuates what it communicates. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval reformist monk, wrote that the best way to understand black and white is to put them together.2 In order to understand what kind of enunciation “I” is, “I” likewise needs its generic “not.” And while we could extend this notion to argue that the best way to understand language is to pair it with non-language—silence or screams, mass or movement or any one of a number of things that cannot be said or are said via another medium—we could also simply lean on Lacan for the thesis that language itself is a primal speech act of “not I.” Language is a default. By saying something to someone, including ourselves, we admit our separateness, including to ourselves. To triangulate all these referents, then, the best way to understand any “I” is to put it beside its complementary and articulated negative.
Walker employs the affirming beside, most precisely and directly via the silhouette, a medium that straightforwardly reiterates that the cultural fact of black, as a color, only exists as against a field of white. Many have rightly stated that Black had to become so that White could be.3 Too, black is the fact of ink, the color of written enunciations. Laws are set in black, as is textbook history. The speech acts “I am black”/“I am not black” are equally subsumptive, as both constitute and are constituted by the category they instantiate. Walker literally renders the fact of Black abject and archetypal, White cottony and equally malformed. By cutting in and between these one-and-two and two-as-one, as if slicing meat from skin and muscle from bone, Walker famously engages in narrative alongside anti-narrative,4 ante- and anti-bellum, emphasis on the bellum. Like a Civil War reenactor, the fight’s not over—not by a long shot—but bloated bodies on the landscape have become more decorative than declaratory. This is the language point many have missed, because bubbling beneath Walker’s overt engagement with narrativity and its perversions lies the pure fact of pure language.
Walker’s cuts reenact the cut of language itself as the thing that demonstrates the separation between me and you, just as it attempts to address that separation via the speech act of “us.” There is no healing meeting between black and white, both color and content, in Walker’s work, save for the possible salvation of mutual and constant obliteration; in their contortions, distortions, evasions and confrontations, Walker’s figures become a-figural. The black boy gently lifted aloft by his ballooned penis is no longer set against a constituting white space but is the cut into the white—the place where white fails to suture self to self. White and black women fondling each other do not exist apart from their interstitial existence: they are the cut of one to one, each to each, in her own reach.
In this way, Walker’s work makes abject object, and vice versa. It’s not dialectical, for there’s no synthesis possible or, for that matter, desirable. It’s sculptural, the contoured containment of movement and non-movement, agoniste and antagonist, its material and immaterial properties captured within thin-layered planes of dark and light, and now and then. It’s a textural enunciation to be read optically and, more profoundly, myopically.5 There’s too much to see, too much to read and to be read into. Walker seduces her viewer-readers with the baroqueness of her images and texts. This is itself a linguistic act that allegorizes the allegorical form. As Walter Benjamin argued in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, the baroque is a ruin—a testament to a historical moment of loss of comprehension and the possibility of completion. Just as monsters mourn the loss of a unified humanity—the sacrosanct Self, the one true Church, the efficacy of Science and the consolidated State6—Walker’s figures allegorize the loss of gender and race as significant content. The external narrative or language of Self is too large, too contradictory, to be fully absorbed by or contained in any one self. Providing so many points of subjective immersion, so many signifiers and so very many potential punctums, sinks the subjective ship. The deeply self-regarding subject, as Narcissus found out, becomes just another flowery object. It can be plucked, but otherwise doesn’t hold up.
Lawrence Weiner, Untitled (Henry the Navigator in a Sea of Sand/Enrique el Navegante en un Mar de Arena) 2006; installation view, Lawrence Weiner at Lawrence Markey Gallery, San Antonio, October–December, 2006, courtesy Lawrence Markey, Inc., San Antonio; photo by Todd Johnson
Lawrence Weiner said in an interview that “what you see, you translate into language,” and “literature is about what human beings feel about human beings in the real world. Art is what human beings feel about relationship to objects.”7 Just as Walker’s pictures are language, Weiner’s language is a picture, purportedly about art, purportedly about objects. The point of now near-patented obviousness in Weiner’s typographic texts is that “language is material,” and, as material, sculptural.8 Weiner’s embodiments of language also famously eschew the subject and the conjugation, which is another means of injecting particularized perspective.9 In short, just as Walker performs (ontological) being as Black Woman, Weiner plays the quintessential abstracted White Man, capable of transparency and its best friend, universality. Weiner’s works are no less corporeal than Walker’s, no less raced and gendered and, arguably, more so.
In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze wrote that there are two aspects of indifference: “the undifferenciated abyss, the black nothingness, the indeterminate animal in which everything is dissolved […] the white nothingness, the once more calm surface upon which float unconnected determinations like scattered members….”10 It’s too easy to characterize Walker’s work as the black undifferentiated abyss and Weiner’s as the white disconnected determinateness, but there it is.11 Although Weiner insists on the materiality of his linguistic structures—and they are material, insofar as they refer to material things and are themselves material compositions—they are also deeply immaterial.
Every writer, like every scientist, knows there is no such thing as an objective point of view. Still, Weiner believes in the ability of art to render objects qua objects, just as he believes in the translatability of his work, just as he believes in a universal grammar and the existential impulse to name.12 Every translator knows that translation is interpretation: it is never each to each. Words are not objects but constellations. Weiner knows this, too, but puts the onus on the undifferentiated subject-viewer to figure this out. (Pris) Depuis Un Point Fixe [(Taken) From a Fixed Point] (Lighthouse, Calais, France, 1992) is a case in point, for point is spatial and teleological in English (on point, what’s the point), but is also grammatical in French (period). Where the English reader/viewer of the Calais lighthouse is oriented according to a constellation (mirroring, in part, the sway and scope of the lighthouse), the French reader/viewer is reminded of the terminus of a sentence. By definition, a sentence contains a subject and a predicate.
If art is what humans feel about themselves relative to objects, then the objective is what art feels about humans. Walker’s objects are abject because they force their subjectivities upon us: art dislikes the mewling, vomitous sticky self. Weiner’s objects are object because they erase the signs of us: art enjoys the airy impersonal fact of material and its movement. Brecht asked, “Es ist das größere Verbrechen, eine Bank zu gründen, als eine Bank auszurauben?” (What is the crime of robbing a bank compared to the crime of founding one?) I also saw the Lawrence Weiner exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and Kara Walker at the Hammer Museum. Set apart, the works became sentence fragments, too self-contained to provoke more than an appreciation for their individual statements. But to see Walker and Weiner side by side is to converse with history, to ask what is abjection compared to objectification? What is the crime of destroying the self by compounding its demands compared to the crime of destroying the self by feigning indifference? What, in sum, is the predicate crime of language?
TAKEN FROM HERE TO WHERE IT CAME FROM
AND TAKEN TO A PLACE AND USED IN SUCH A MANNER
THAT IT CAN ONLY REMAIN AS A REPRESENTATION
OF WHAT IT WAS WHERE IT CAME FROM 13
Aristotle identified four kinds of causes: material, formal, efficient and final. We understand language as material and formal cause: language comes to us as signs and made of signs. In both the success of rhetoric and the failure of communication, we understand language as efficient cause. The cause we must forgo is the final. At a recent gallery conversation on art and writing in Los Angeles, Simon Leung remarked that the problem of language should not be viewed as a temporal but, rather, a spatial problem. By putting the issue spatially, Leung was positing it as a situation. Situations are not to be transcended or resolved but, rather, engaged with and in. Walker and Weiner situationalize linguistic image, and this is the happy and efficient fact of their particular deformities—what we find out is not what we are, but where.
Kara Walker, Letter from a Black Girl, 1998; transfer text on wall; dimensions variable; installation view, Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2007; courtesy Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, New York; photo by Dave Sweeney
1 From “I am Not Content: Interview by David Batchelor” (1989), cited in Gregor Stemmrich, “Lawrence Weiner: Material, Language, Tic-Tac-Toe,” Lawrence Weiner: As Far As the Eye Can See, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (New Haven: Yale Universty Press, 2007), 212.
2 Complaining of sculptural excess in the cloisters, Bernard wrote in 1127: “What are the filthy apes doing in there? The fierce lions? The monstrous centaurs? The creatures, part man and part beast? …. You may see many bodies under one head, and conversely many heads on one body. On one side the tail of a serpent is seen on a quadraped, on the other side the head of a quadraped is on the body of a fish. Over there an animal has a horse for the front half and a goat for the back….Everywhere so plentiful and astonishing a variety of contradictory forms is seen that one would rather read in the marble than in books, and spend a whole day wondering at every single one of them than in meditating on the law of God. Good God! If one is not ashamed of the absurdity, why is one not at least troubled by the expense?” [Apologia 12.28–29. Trans. by Conrad Rudolph, The “Things of Greater Importance”: Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apologia and the Medieval Attitude toward Art (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 279, 283.]
3 This sentence should more properly be written in the imparfait, the ongoing past tense.
4 In his essay “The Black Saint is the Sinner Lady,” included in the Walker catalogue, Philippe Vergne argues that Walker “neutralizes” the narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in her The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven by producing “a fragmentation of characters and anecdotal episodes that untie the knot of a storyline….” [Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007), 17.]
5 For further consideration of image (and image-making) as language (and language-making), see, “Ventouses,” Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), 59–69.
6 “Like language, the monster is a sign of unity now lost….” [David Williams Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature (McGill Queens University Press, 1999), 62.]
7 From “I am Not Content,” cited by Stemmrich, supra, 212, fn. 5.
8 I am focusing on Weiner’s wall pieces: text set in custom font, stenciled in situ. By hanging words on walls, Weiner emphasizes his fundamental claim for language as material/art as material. Weiner also reasserts his authorial/artistic hold on language by setting it in “Margaret Seaworthy Gothic,” a self-designed typeface, which replaced the more anonymous Franklin Gothic Extra Condensed typeface used in earlier works.
9 Dieter Schwarz, “Public Freehold,” Parkett no. 42 (1994): 49, quoted in Donna De Salvo, “As Far As the Eye Can See,” 70.
10 Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 28.
11 This schema also invokes Benjamin’s famous description of Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, the white angel of history turned backwards, facing the single catastrophe that is history, the black storm of progress propelling him forwards, towards some unsure future even as he yearns to return, to “make whole what has been smashed.” [Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), 257.]
12 Stemmrich, 210, 222–223.
13 “Heart of Darkness,” Holstebro Kunstmuseum, Denmark, 1995, Lawrence Weiner, supra, 143.
14 Texts, 2001, Kara Walker, supra, 36.