Making Piecework in No Man’s Land: Frances Goodman’s “Beneath Her”
Alice Gray Stites
The whole is the sum of the innumerable parts in the works that comprise Frances Goodman’s Beneath Her: rows and rows of gleaming acrylic nails arranged and glued together in geometric patterns that resemble quilts or swell into shape-shifting floor sculptures; meters and meters of yarn crocheted into a room-size envelope, perhaps the handiwork of an invasive, material species; infinitesimal, sparkling sequins hand-sewn into the imagery of mediated female beauty in portraits that refute fixed identity. Employing meticulous practices that simultaneously interrogate obsession and honor labor, Goodman illuminates the intersection of gender politics and consumer culture under late-capitalist, patriarchal conditions; appearing amidst the current bombardment of revelations of sexual (and other) abuses of power, her enticing, articulate work is both an incisive critique of misogyny and a potent celebration of feminist artistic empowerment.
At once alluring and alarming, Goodman’s art consistently engages in a dialogue of dichotomies. The artist utilizes commercially produced, “cheap” goods to create large sculptures whose forms evoke the shapes of nature—the bodies of plants, and of course, humans. Sometimes clearly drawn as faces or lips, flowers or snakes, these bodies may curve softly but are made with hard materials; rendered in dazzling hues of vibrant red, orange, pink, and neon greens and blues, these body parts hail from within and without, the interior and exterior, the realms of the sacred and the profane.
While the materiality and metaphor of the surface dominates Beneath Her, Goodman’s practice exposes what lies below the taut and intricate exterior: flesh, fluids, emotions—the uncontrolled and uncontrollable. As curator Tami Katz-Friedman explains, this is the abject body, as described in feminist theory:
“The fluid space of collapsed systems and unraveled boundaries may be related to French theorist Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection--…the presence of the body as a metaphor of both interior and exterior, as a symbolic system ordered by a regime of prohibitions that enact a hierarchical order of binary divisions: clean and dirty, romantic and despised, legitimized and rejected, accepted and excluded. Bodily fluids, excretions, and dirt are perceived as threatening this order and dissolving the comfortable boundary between the tremulous flesh and the skin that covers it.”
Goodman’s challenge to conventional representations of the female body as objects of desire or symbols of subservience expands upon the legacy of the feminist art movement that began in the 1970s.* The artists of the Second Wave Women’s movement, such as Judy Chicago, Mira Schor, Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, Faith Wilding, and others, elevated everyday materials, methods, and experiences to narrate and affirm the complexity of female identity and the intertwining of the personal and the political; their influence on subsequent generations of artists remains unparalleled. Craft-based practices such as sewing, weaving, crochet, ceramics, and embroidery were prevalent among the feminist artists of the 1970s; Goodman’s application of related processes and materials in her “piecework” reflects that legacy, especially in the large-scale installation, Comforter. Eight meters of colorful crocheted yarn fill the central space in the gallery, surrounding the viewer; to move through, into or out of the exhibition, one must pass through what the artist describes as this “throat-like blanket.” While the material and making utilized are traditionally associated with creating domestic objects that provide warmth, Goodman’s Comforter is monumental, subverting the conventions of its craft, and is potentially menacing, as the viewer is effectively swallowed.
The landmark Womanhouse exhibition presented in 1972 in Los Angeles also featured a large-scale, crocheted installation, Faith Wilding’s Womb Room. Wilding’s work asserted the legitimacy and power of the female organ as form and subject just as the women’s movement was demanding access to birth control and abortion. Nearly a half century later, women’s reproductive rights remain under assault, and women’s bodies are still politicized: uncontrolled or exposed, female organs—especially those that make pleasure and speech possible—may threaten the established social order. Goodman’s use of materials associated with the notion of the feminine firmly grounds her work in feminist art herstory. Writing about the art of the Second Wave Movement, critic Laura Cottingham explains, “it is because women’s bodies have served as vehicles for decoration and trade that they are the bodies expected to externalize decoration through labor and craft.” The physical scale and visual power of Goodman’s works belie the femininity of the fake nails, sequins, beads, and repurposed wedding gowns she utilizes; hers may be the practice best suited to challenging the constraints of history, for as the saying goes, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Women’s voices and visions lie beneath and within all of Goodman’s oeuvre: the bright, geometric patterns in works such as Crossed Wires and Dark Heart recall the quilts made by women for centuries, while the sensual forms and saturated colors of Seething Red and other nail sculptures echo the use of flowers as a metaphor for female bodies in the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, and later, in Judy Chicago’s ceramic designs for The Dinner Party. The domestic conditions in which quilts have been made and nails applied have been dominated by women’s voices sharing their stories, secrets, and strength. As Goodman notes, “sewing circles have evolved into the nail salon as sites of female communion, communication, community, and production,” providing spaces for self-expression and connection, and yet the activity pursued there reflects limited definitions of female self-worth. Under historical patriarchy, a woman’s value was determined by her domestic role as wife and mother; under late-capitalism, patriarchal values have been both internalized (such that women often self-objectify and judge value based upon appearance) and externalized—a woman’s worth may be equal to the commercial value of what she spends to enhance or preserve her youth and beauty. The domestic space of creating functional objects has become the commercial space of self-adornment as women’s value has come to be defined by the market rather than by their mate.
The women depicted in Goodman’s hand-sewn sequin portraits initially appear as visions of idealized beauty, potentially inspired by stars of stage or screen. Titles such as Diva, Goldie, and Hopelessly Devoted further conjure the images of perfection and desire perpetuated by our consumer-driven media. But because Goodman renders them as shimmering surface, their features are in motion, sparkling and dissolving under the viewer’s gaze, rejecting the viewer’s projected fantasies. Bands of light and color pulsate off heads and shoulders like haloes and shadows; mirage-like, these unreal portraits shift and flutter, and in their refusal to stabilize suggest the complexity of real, lived identity. Some of their facial expressions are distinct, and at first indicate a particular psychic or emotional state, as in Wide Eyed, Her Ambivalence, and Maybe Not. However, the images transform as the light and the viewer’s perspective changes, so that whatever meaning the works or titles may represent is no longer fixed. Goodman’s sequin portraits refute the reduction of women’s emotions and desires to the sentimental, hysterical, or dangerous states defined by male-dominated convention. “Every desire has a relation to madness,” writes French theorist Luce Irigaray, “but it would seem that one desire has been taken as wisdom, moderation, truth, leaving to the other sex the weight of a madness that cannot be acknowledged or accommodated.” Historically, women’s desires and women’s anger have indeed been at best unacknowledged. In 19th century France, physician Jean-Martin Charcot published a diagnostic manual establishing hysteria as a female illness, using images of women’s expressions and poses, captured in photographs taken at the Salpêtrière asylum. Often relegated to the asylum for rebelling against social norms, they enacted emotion for the camera, through which their images came to represent hysteria, the madness made synonymous with women’s anger, despondency, or lust.
The art of Frances Goodman envisions the transformation of this “weight of madness” into the wisdom of passion; what lies Beneath Her is the visceral truth of what the body knows. Fluid and fierce, Goodman’s works refuse to relieve, comfort, or seduce, but rather envelop the viewer in a subversive space of transformation where our understanding of self, other, and society is changed from the inside out. During war, peace prevails in no man’s land because, temporarily, no claim is made to that territory. But on the battlefield of contemporary culture, women’s bodies and psyches remain contested, tested sites, both in reality and in representation. As Goodman asserts, “and so we must fight:” piece by piece, word by word, embodying power and speaking truths.
* “…art engaged with sexuality, conscious politics, gender roles, lesbianism, female-coded materials such as cosmetics, sexualized violence, first-person video, autobiography, and performance is directly indebted to the space opened up for new media and new content by the feminist art movement in the seventies.” Laura Cottingham, Seeing Through the Seventies: Essays on Feminism and Art. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Tami Katz-Freiman, “No Man’s Land: A Comfort Zone: Notes About a Title”
No Man’s Land: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection. Miami: Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation, 2015
Woman vs The World
“Although everyone senses that their existence has become a battlefield upon which neuroses, phobias, somatizations, depression and anxiety each sound a retreat, nobody has really grasped what is happening or what is at stake. Paradoxically, it is the total nature of this war – total in its means no less than its ends – that has allowed it to remain invisible.”
Everyday we equip ourselves with the trappings and stereotypes of femininity. Our clothing is our camouflage, our false eyelashes our visors, our makeup our war paint and our false nails our bayonets. Whilst we dress in order to protect and hide our naked essential selves, our attire gives us away in that it reveals so much about us including our tastes, belief systems and financial status.
We live in a world where we are continually reminded that we need to project a vision of the modern woman – independent and strong, yet at the same time happy, content and vulnerable. Even at home we are brainwashed by advertising and television that we are never enough: we need to be younger, thinner, prettier, happier, sexier, stronger… the list is never ending. We no longer possess attributes, they possess us. Most of us go through our lives like somnambulists, unaware that we’re foot soldiers in the raging battle for ownership, which is being fought on multiple fronts: by patriarchy, capitalism, cultural and religious frameworks and feminist factions, and ultimately with ourselves - because in this “selfie” culture who is the guiltier of objectifying us, than the one taking the photograph?
This constant onslaught makes it very difficult to differentiate the self from the image that is projected on us and which we reflect back to the world. Is it possible to establish a true identity, a true self when a constant barrage of misinformation and aphorisms are being fired at us? Is it possible to pull back the mask and reveal the face/self? Our society is obsessed with wealth, beauty, youth, sex and love. These obsessions are manufactured by the consumer capitalist infrastructures that have come to replace the religious ones we historically relied upon. Certain areas of our lives are built from a falsely constructed framework in which consumerism masquerades as emancipation and choice and personal freedoms are sold to us as empowerment and liberation. Sex and desire are mediated through the pornographic male gaze and love (especially sentimental love) is postulated to be the new Utopia and singledom is tantamount to purgatory.
All of these false truths exist because “…Capitalism realized that it could no longer maintain itself as the exploitation of human labor if it did not also colonize everything that is beyond the strict sphere of production... Capital would have to socialize. It had to create its own culture, its own leisure, medicine, urbanism, sentimental education and its own mores, as well as a disposition toward their perpetual renewal.”
Of love and sex, sociologist Eva Illouz, wrote: “Take (these) out of our culture, and the economy collapses, wiping out in a second the fashion-cosmetics industry, the leisure industry, the tourist industry, the cosmetic-surgery industry, the entertainment industry, the pornography and sex industry, the sex-marriage-intimacy advice-therapy industry ... Love is the invisible oil that endlessly fuels the engines of the consumer market."
Like fighters that have become so thoroughly entwined and entangled in the melee that its impossible to pull them apart, all these industries and obsessions have been have become one big, roiling, mess that has subsumed us. We’re constantly faced with false choices and false dilemmas, and all these things we feel are internal battles are actually external ones, orchestrated by powers that be to make us spend more, buy more, want more. It is really no surprise that the programmability of women fuels the pharmaceutical, therapeutic and surgical industries.
We are not taught to love ourselves, we are taught to love our image.
Like most wars there needs to be a resistance movement that rejects the status quo and pushes back against our enforced narcissism and belly gazing. It’s not constructive to point fingers or condemn people for buying into these systems, but it is important understand that by buying into them we are reinforcing and strengthening them. Resistance starts with personal decision and commitment to use these systems of power in order to undermine them. Battles are won on the ground and so we must fight.
Frances Goodman Nails her Colors to the Mast
Translated by Talya Halkin
The neon work Spit/Swallow (2016), which appears on the invitation to this exhibition, features the profile of a woman whose wide-open mouth seems to be alternately swallowing or spitting out an object resembling flaccid genitals, a fluidly outlined pistol, or an illegible text. This state of suspension between reception and emission, swallowing and vomiting, may serve as a point of departure for discussing Frances Goodman's work in a post-feminist context. This image seems to address, in a highly condensed manner, just about every possible theme – self-portraiture, seduction, subversion, humor, violence, nature and culture, the beauty industry, consumerism, and above all the question of what belongs to the female body and what is rejected and excluded from it, as well as the thin line between desire and disgust.
In this work, Goodman attempts to unravel the familiar ties between the terms woman-food-body-flesh-matter-sex-language, and to take control over anything that is likely to penetrate the female body. Her feminine, humor-filled version of Bruce Nauman's neon works thus represents a Sisyphean, auto-erotic act unfolding in the space between play and ritual, and simultaneously conveying experiences of restlessness, repulsion, seduction, and suppression. In her own words, “I feel the work ruminates on what kind of woman one wants to be – one that expresses herself or swallows her work.”
“Rapaciously Yours” attests to Goodman's choice to engage in self-expression, a process she undertakes while intelligently and sensitively negotiating a charged and complex field of meanings and ambivalent stances concerning the definition of female identity in the 21st century. Goodman’s oeuvre is politically poised to challenge and subvert conventional beliefs about femininity. At first glance, she seems to be celebrating the narcissistic female urge to consume products embodying a promise of eternal youth and beauty. At the same time, however, her works cast a critical and sarcastic gaze at this dimension of "empowering femininity," scoring a kind of own goal. By using attributes that are clearly identified with stereotypes of femininity, such as acrylic nails, false eyelashes, bridal gowns, pearls and jewelry, she subverts conventions of beauty and raises questions concerning the institution of marriage, while also examining the ways in which the beauty, cosmetics, and fashion industries promote obsessive and neurotic behavior among women.
In the following essay, I will attempt to anchor Goodman's works around three different axes: the affinity between market forces and romanticism, Julia Kristeva's theory of the abject, and the subversive neo-craft model of art-making.
The central piece in the show, which is located in the back room, is the immersive multimedia installation The Dream (2010–2016), which is composed of dozens of used organza, satin and tulle wedding dresses. This wealth of expensive materials in fifty shades of white, which are gathered and held together at the center, now seem to festively erupt upwards, their folds unfurling like giant sails or a gigantic wedding canopy. Transforming the entire exhibition space into a sort of sculpted temple, this work captures the fetishistic quality of the wedding ceremony as a monumental form reminiscent of a nuclear mushroom cloud.
The texts embroidered onto the dresses and the accompanying audio recordings are taken from interviews with single South African women, who divulge anxieties about the collapse of their true desires in reality and reveal how their socially and culturally constructed fantasy of a wedding celebration is transformed into a nightmare. Sentences like “I’ve been told that if you can’t live with a man you need therapy”; “If you’re not in a couple, where do you fit really?”; or “My mother thinks that if you are married you are putting yourself in a jail cell. You’re confining yourself” reveal the massive conspiracy embodied by the promise of marriage and the accompanying tangle of expectations, anticipation, social pressures, anxiety, and oppression that this promise may involve.
Much has been written about the affinity between romantic emotions, culture, and the economy. The sociologist Eva Illouz's essay on this subject (1997) centers on the appropriation of romanticism by the culture and leisure industry as a wide-ranging marketing strategy. Her study concludes that both the powerful advertising industry and the Hollywood dream industry have enabled consumer capitalism to enhance, and even reinvent, the cultural ideal of romantic love, transforming it into the central axis of consumer culture. According to this argument, the longing for utopia at the heart of romantic love has come to replace religious experience. In the postmodern age, which is characterized by the blurring of boundaries between culture and consumerism, the sad state of romantic love reflects contemporary values: “Take love and sex out of our culture, and the economy collapses, wiping out in a second the fashion-cosmetics industry, the leisure industry, the tourist industry, the cosmetic-surgery industry, the entertainment industry, the pornography and sex industry, the sex-marriage-intimacy advice-therapy industry ... Love is the invisible oil that endlessly fuels the engines of the consumer market."1
Indeed, as surprising as this may seem, the wedding ceremony is still one of the most basic and significant values in Western culture. Even in 2016, despite the farreaching changes in the conception of the nuclear family and the impact of the struggle for women's liberation, this ceremony continues to represent fantasies about the culmination of happiness among young women and girls worldwide. A wedding gown thus remains a coveted romantic image symbolizing the formalization of a love relationship. Goodman does not explore the reasons for our ardent desire to commit ourselves to another person. Instead, she elegantly employs sarcasm to represent the coveted moment as an empty vision or a shattered dream. The recorded testimonies, which reveal both the longing for a knight on a white horse and the disillusionment with this fairytale image, seem to be absorbed into the soft fabrics, suffusing their transparent layers. By underscoring the excess that characterizes the dresses, these testimonies reveal them to be nothing but an illusion of happiness, an ephemeral stage set for a production centered on cheap romanticism.
Moreover, the creation of an installation composed of fabrics creates a tangled, highly expressive and mysterious environment; fabrics are also related to the intimacy of the body, and clothes are often perceived as an intimate and socially constructed envelope designed to surround it. Here, however, the empty bridal gowns are imbued with a special significance: Each empty dress conceals the memory of the present-absent body that once occupied it – the traces of its scent, touch, and the secret passions it experienced. In this context it is impossible not to recall the dress collection created by Annette Messager (The History of Dresses, 1990–1991), who exhibited long rows of showcases containing different models of silk, cotton, gauze and muslin dresses – remnants of a lost female culture, an inventory or timeworn storehouse of fashion as it has evolved over time. Goodman's piece combines over forty wedding dresses. Yet unlike Messager, who functioned as an archivist, she destroyed her ready-mades and manipulated them by tying them together and adding the subversive texts, creating an exaggerated canopy that violates the authentic and nostalgic dimension of the dresses and renders it grotesque.
Three large, colorful sculptures emerge like aliens out of the gallery walls. The first, Medusa (2013–2014), looks like a cluster of raised animal tails. The second, Violaceous (2015), is an amorphous form reminiscent of swollen vaginal lips. The third work, Lick It (2015), resembles an outstretched pink tongue that has grown to giant proportions. These three works all relate to body parts that are considered private or inferior and their surfaces are all covered with surprising details that are revealed only when observed up close. Engaging in a laborious manual process that requires endless discipline and patience, Goodman has skillfully glued thousands of acrylic nails one beside another, creating a dense and colorful expanse whose lined depressions and curved surfaces resemble reptilian scales. This layer of nails creates a deceptive wall of beauty that is actually prickly and hard. The decorative compositions, which are patterned with designs taken from fake nail catalogues, are revealed to be a form of camouflage or hollow ornamentation: a representation of asexual femininity that is sweet, glamorous, and pleasing to the eye. Goodman conscripts the seductive power of kitsch to act as a smoke screen that positions the viewer at a removal from reality. Her concern with the superficial representation of female beauty, and with processes of reproduction and ornamentation that border on the grotesque, raises questions concerning the historical representation of women over the centuries as a form of pleasing ornamentation, while stimulating the pleasure of ownership like objects in a safe, and provoking a combination of aesthetic and erotic satisfaction.
The use of nails to cover body parts associated with sexuality may be related to Julia Kristeva's theoretical discussion of the "abject" (1980) – a key term in feminist theory. This term refers to the body as a metaphor of the liminal threshold between interior and exterior, a symbolic system governed by a regime of prohibitions that create a sort of hierarchical order: pure and impure, normal and abject, accepted and rejected, included and excluded. Bodily fluids, excretions, and dirt are perceived as a disruption of the existing order, threatening to dissolve the reassuring separation between the tremulous flesh and the surrounding skin. This process of ordering, excluding, and compartmentalization, this effort to police and preserve existing categories, is what we call "culture."2 According to Kristeva, fingernails belong to that same twilight zone between interior and exterior that also includes the hair, tongue, and teeth – whose seductive powers are conditioned by their organic connection to the body. For the moment that hair falls out and is gathered into the sink, or that fingernails are removed from the body, they are transformed from desired object into the abject.
In this case, however, the use of acrylic fingernails – a popular consumer product, a cosmetic prosthetic that blurs the boundaries of the body and presents an illusory substitute for the "natural," the seemingly innocent ornamental pattern appears as a parable for the web of affinities between flesh, body, nature, culture, ornamentation, beautification, seduction and consumerism. In this context, one may also consider the previous body of works preceding the fingernail sculptures, which was titled Vajazzling Series (2012). In this series, Goodman bound crystals to female genitals as a subversive gesture of self-objectification, a gesture that may be read as an act of containment that gathers up the abject, the rejected, the excluded, the perverse and the pornographic.
Handicrafts such as decorating and gluing on artificial fingernails, embroidering bridal gowns, using sequins and beads, and affixing pearls and rhinestones to car seats – are strongly related to obsessive, painstaking forms of manual labor characterized by an experience of visual overload or too-muchness. In this context, Goodman's work is part of a corpus of feminist art-making that builds on handicraft traditions as the basis for a critical discourse. The neo-craft trend, which has become increasingly prominent on the contemporary art scene in recent years, is a direct result of historical developments that originated in the radical feminist discourse of the 1970s, when women artists took on traditional forms of female handicrafts in an attempt to redefine "female essentialism."3 Artists such as Harmony Hammond, Faith Wilding, Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro began giving expression to skills that had thus far been considered inferior by male artists, and branded as "overly feminine."
Later on, in the 1980s and 1990s, artists such as Ann Hamilton, Rosemarie Trockel, and Annette Messager honed their feminine forms of expression and took a further step in the direction of labor-intensive, highly detailed works by using materials identified with female territories. Goodman thus joins a respectable lineage of women artists who brought elements previously relegated to the inferior margins of kitsch and decoration center stage. Her art, which is created out of a sense of empowerment, liberation, pleasure and subversion, without barricades or war banners, elevates what was once relegated to the world of women as folklore or a bourgeois pastime, and endows it with new meaning and content.
Due to the demanding, monotonous, detail-oriented, and endless repetition involved in the making of decorative handicrafts, such forms have also been related to the term "obsession," defined in the dictionary as "persistent and disturbing preoccupation,"4 a kind of closed circle. The obsessive dimension of Goodman's work involves the process of gluing, covering and filling the surfaces of the nail sculptures, so that not a single empty space remains. This phenomenon is known in art history as horror vacui (fear of empty space), and is also related to Outsider art, which is characterized by a deep affection for small details. The feminist critic Naomi Schor has written about society's negative treatment of details and embellishments as excessive, decadent and tiresome forms of expression – or, in other words, as "women's matters."5 This outlook is also given expression in art theory and practice by the (male) perception of small details as the inversion of all that is ideal, sublime, classical, or modernist.
Nevertheless, Goodman's works cannot be suspected of attempting to satisfy the eye or provide their maker with a pleasureful art-making process. The beauty of these works, their stunning ornamental qualities, and the wealth of fabrics, embroidery, pearls, and glitter are merely the hook on which the bait hangs. They mesmerize the viewer's eye, intoxicate him with feelings of pleasure, and then surprise him with subversive themes and harsh, biting messages. Her discontent with the beauty industry that objectifies women, her political view of the institution of marriage, and her sarcastic take on obeying social norms are carefully camouflaged within the rich interweaves that make up her art.
Her works thus reflect current post-feminist trends, which combine militant political radicalism with sensual pleasure, emotional expression, and humor. In this sense, they may be located on the spectrum between the combative, sarcastic approach of artists such as Natalie Djurberg, Sarah Lucas, and Tracey Emin, and the poetic, confessional, anthropological approach of artists such as Sophie Calle. Yet there is also a neo-pop quality to works such as the giant nail in Lick My Lollipop (2016), which are reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg's humor-infused sculptures. Whether she creates a monumental nail, a sculpture coated with acrylic nails, or a leather car seat, most of the sculptures focus on the surface, on the representational façade of the object, and on a dialectic language that combines baroque and pop resonances with minimalist restraint. Goodman produces objects resembling empty shells, envelopes, or peels that cover nothing. In an ironic paraphrase of Barbara Kruger's subversive statement "We decorate your life," she shines the limelight on the ornamental process itself – on the decoration of an ornamental façade as an efficient means of camouflaging subjects that are still difficult to swallow.
1 Eva Illouz, “Why We Don’t Celebrate Friendship With the Same Fervor as Love?,” Haaretz, February 13, 2016 http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/.premium-1.702731 See also: Eva Illouz, Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
2 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).
3 For an in-depth discussion of essentialism and the use of handicrafts, see also: Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, “Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts,” in Old Mistress: Women, Art and Ideology (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).
4 For further discussion of the affinities between obsession, decoration, and seductive beauty, see the text accompanying the exhibition "OverCraft," which I curated in 2003 at the University of Haifa art gallery: http://www.katzfreiman.com/exhibitions/overcraft-obsession-decoration-andbiting-beauty/
5 Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 4, 15.
confessions of a vajazzler
by Frances Goodman
I had wondered: “Who is going to agree to do this?” It’s quite a thing – to go to a stranger’s house, take your clothes off, lie still for hours whilst she works on your most intimate, private area, and then have your photograph taken, not of your face, but your naked torso. Not for the faint-hearted, the shy, embarrassed or self-conscious woman you’d think. It smacks of exhibitionism, the need to over-share, which is the stuff of reality TV, the contemporary obsession with the camera lens and the fleeting celebrity it proffers.
But the women who came to my door and told me stories and secrets about themselves, as they lay exposed on my bed were not celebrity hungry exhibitionists. Most of them had snuck away from their partners and families to come to me, they had no intention of telling people they’d participated, the anonymity of the process was the very reason they’d agreed to do it.
The first woman to respond to my invitation/appeal/ad in Grazia magazine wrote: “I'm a mom, 52 years of age with 3 grown sons and a daughter. I have always had and still do have a very poor self and body image. I think this is an amazing opportunity for women to celebrate their God given attribute under anonymity. As a Muslim it is compulsory to remove one's pubic hair and this has made me more self conscious of how I look down there as I age. It would be very liberating and empowering to have this done, albeit under anonymity!”
The mails kept coming. “I got divorced 4 years ago, today would have been my 7 year anniversary. My husband cheated and at that time made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I did not feel pretty, or confident and I felt too self-conscious about my body and I thought sexually I wasn’t good enough for him. Thankfully my best guy friend made me realize that I was beautiful, and there was nothing wrong with me and that sexually I was fine. He taught me to appreciate all parts of my body, especially there. So for me my vajayjay is my celebration of being a woman and not being scared to do anything. And I know just how powerful it can be.”
I hadn’t known what to expect, but - the reasons given by women who came forward and who they were, surprised me. “I'm a very outgoing person who loves challenges, I'm 1.7m tall and I wear a size 30 and strictly stilettos, I'm a bit light but not quite light rather choco” read a mail from a beautiful, leggy woman who towered over me in her stilettos at 9am on a Sunday morning. As she lay back and I started applying the stones I asked her what she did. “You’ll never believe me”, she said. My imagination ran wild – erotic dancer? Underwear model? “I’m a policewoman, in homicide”.
Women approached me through friends, in restaurants and at parties. Unexpected women, of all shapes, skin tones and ages. A softly spoken nursing student “with some extra weight around the edges (hips, tummy and thighs)… and some light stretch marks on my hips and thighs mostly” was introduced by one of my students. I’d never seen skin so white, so translucent, her veins and stretch marks merged to form a fine marble quality. She told me in her soothing voice of her dream to specialize in obstetrics, to become a midwife. We languidly moved to the studio to have her photograph taken. She slowly started moving, hips swaying, fingers fluttering, an hypnotic belly dance that left us mesmerized.
There was a quiet intimacy to the whole process: women shut in a room together for hours; it felt conspiratorial, confessional, cathartic. As the time passed I could feel the temperature rise in the room, the glue would dry more quickly as it touched skin, the stones would stick fast. One woman became strangely aroused by the process: as she lay sedately telling me about her job, her body betrayed her. She became more and more sensitive to the light touch of stone to skin. She found it hard to concentrate, squirmed and giggled, wriggled and writhed. I found myself in the strange position of provocateur and wondered about boundaries and how easily they can be crossed or blurred. It was unclear who felt more embarrassed.
Each visit was a different experience: many women told me their life stories, some said little. One woman slept for the two-hour session, another bubbled with enthusiasm about the project and insisted on leaving with her vajazzle intact as a gift to her fiancé. Another woman was no stranger to a merkin (a pubic wig), but had mixed feelings about revealing her exposed body to the camera. She jumped about nervously for the camera, mimicking the dance moves of R&B music videos.
I met an outspoken lesbian, vegan activist at a drinks party. “I want to do this,” she declared, “…to show other lesbians the beauty in their femininity.” She was strident and clear in her reason for participating: “In our community, lesbians are being targeted and correctively raped by men who feel threatened. The rape doesn’t end the ordeal; these lesbians are brutally beaten, scarred and often murdered after their corrective rape. This is my protest against that ritual. Just because this part of the body can be violated doesn’t mean it is also de-feminised.” She arrived with three friends as she felt it was important to get her community involved. Two were shy of the camera and the nudity; the third reveled in the attention.
Whilst the emails kept coming, I concluded the project for the time being. Vajazzling fifteen women in six weeks had left me exhausted and confused. Instead of reinforcing my critique on the media and the complicity of the women it targets, I felt the women I had met had complicated it. They’d internalized my project, appropriated it, and loaded it with their own issues and histories. Whilst their personal celebration and empowerment reinforced the problematic relationships women have with their bodies, it was still a celebration and they still felt empowered, regardless of what I had to say on the matter.
Adhering Crystal to Cunt: Becoming a Thing that Feels
To give oneself as a thing that feels and to take a thing that feels is the new experience that asserts itself today on contemporary feeling, a radical and extreme experience that has its cornerstone in the encounter between philosophy and sexuality . . . It would seem that things and the senses are no longer in conflict with one another but have struck an alliance thanks to which the most detached abstraction and the most unrestrained excitement are almost inseparable and are often indistinguishable.
The pressure of the inside of metallic tube pushed down between thumb and forefinger that feel each other like thumb in vulva perceives forefinger in anus. Propulsion through slit. The sphere of eyelash glue almost dripped on the tip of an acrylic nail of the salon attendant, who feels and also understands that there is no more nature and that nature can never be naturalised. (One corpse tells another of the eyelash found under its foreskin.) The back of a faux Swarovski crystal covered with thinning cum becoming thicker and warmer and tackier as it dries. The breath of the attendant forced out the mouth through impenetrable mucus-walled lungs. Pointed edges of tweezers feel pointed edges of plastic stone. Naked flesh that will erode eventually and die sealing the bond.
The eyelash glue performs an act of adhesion and equivalence – binding crystal to cunt and fastening mineral to animal so the constitutive parts meld into thingness. The cunt lips and the crystals are skins, clothes, waves, snakes. The lips are touching, feeling: the lips, the crystal, the adhesive, the finger that separates, the cock that dislodges, are all in a process of becoming things that feel.
It is this thingness that causes consternation amongst critics of radical beautification processes, and understandably. Much of the project of generations of Feminism has been (for good reason) in direct opposition to the objectification of women – the denial of subjecthood and agency, the viewing of Woman as object, the reduction and instrumentalisation of person to commodity, fetish, image. In her list of markers of sexual objectification Martha Nussbaum names both fungibility (the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects) and violability (the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity) as key markers of the process of objectification. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Laura Mulvey speaks at length about the manner in which women become a particular type of object - an image - produced by and for a masculine economy where: In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. 
The mechanisms of objectification thus require an autonomous subject exterior to and acting on the subject-becoming-object. The external (masculine) other produces a subject à object transfiguration (which is also analogous to the human à corpse abjection of death) so as to manufacture a passive object-commodity-corpse to be inserted into circulations of their (masculine, heterosexual) desire and pleasure.
However, the neoliberal terrain of ‘Late Capitalism’ has produced a new set of mechanisms for objectification, many of which appear to shift the abjecting agency on to the bodies of women themselves. Evidenced, by the pornification of popular culture (let’s take pole dancing lessons and dress like strippers IT WILL BE SO MUCH FUN), commodification of desire (you must have this vibrator shaped like an adorable animal to be a real woman) and apparent rise in self-harming and stress-related behaviour (anorexia, depression, cutting and anxiety disorders) in women, the contemporary terrain is one in which the relationship between woman-as-object and determining subject is distinctly muddied.
Much of the aesthetics of extreme beauty practices; labiaplasty, complete hair removal and applying crystal to cunt, are often posited as the most obscene examples of what many critics refer to as ‘self-objectification whereby the emancipated subject (who is surely also subjected to various modes of expectation, projections of desire, social requirements etc.) willfully becoming object (and apparently losing their freedom and ability to act and speak), often under the auspices of ‘empowerment’, liberation and individualism. These very same models drive the progress of the Post-Fordist free market, which welcomes women into the workforce only so long as they both continue to be paid less as workers, and spend more as consumers, than their male counterparts
Nina Power is right when she notes: “That the height of supposed female emancipation coincides so perfectly with consumerism is a miserable index of a politically desolate time.” However, Power is also correct in noting the “death of the object/subject divide” via the logic of person-as-CV. Self-objectification, then, is an impossibility since it is predicated by the assumption of some kind of authentic autonomous subject to begin with, when we are all already objects under capitalism. Power’s term “auto-objectivization” , which she uses to describe women’s disconnect from their bodies-as-selves is one that also proposes objecthood as starting point, although for Power this objecthood is in opposition to both agency and emancipation.
In Angela McRobbie’s Aftermath of Feminism, the author describes a landscape of ‘post-feminism’. ‘Post-feminism’ is defined by the author as the simultaneous incorporation of elements of Feminist struggle (emancipation, empowerment, sexual freedom) by aspirational, consumerist models of Capitalism and the subsequent revulsion of rigorous critiques of culture – the belief, in the West, that the work of Feminism is already done. In McRobbie’s acidic damning of the ‘phallic’ girl, the imagined object of Post-feminism, she writes of the ‘girl’ who apparently aspires to be like the soft porn glamour model and who is “prone to drinking to excess, getting into fights, throwing up in public places, swearing and being abusive, wearing very short skirts, high heels, and skimpy tops, having casual sex, often passing out on the street and having to be taken home by friends or by the police.” This remarkable list, which can probably be summarised as slut-who-is-definitely-asking-for-it (and by ‘it’ I mean to be raped and/or brutalized) also most definitely includes any kinds of radical beauty techniques – the waxed vagina, the shining cunt (which, god forbid might be glimpsed under the short skirt).
Central to MacRobbie’s diagnosis of the phallic girl are the twin figures of consent and participation – a collusion with Capitalism and undermining of Feminism through a participation in the to-be-looked-at-ness of the passive female image.
But what if we incorporate Power’s auto-objectivization as truth, positioning ourselves as already-object? From this node could McRobbie’s participation become a valid model for emancipation? Accepting that we are already objects within contemporary capitalist modes of exchange and that commodities, all objects, are understood as to be cohesions of affect and social forces, Hito Steyerl suggests, via Walter Benjamin, that emancipation may be found in voluntarily becoming-thing and a particular thing, an image, through participation in the material of the image. Participating in this thingness, imageness itself, makes it possible to speak meaningfully to other things and “join in this symphony of matter”, to “awaken the slumbering collective from the dream-filled sleep of capitalist production.”
“How about,” Steyerl continues, “siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing? An object without a subject?” Where, becoming sexual object, adhering crystal to cunt, is simultaneously an acknowledgement of the material of bodies and beings under capitalism and a radical and necessary shift away from anthropocentricism - an ethical imperative in the current crisis of resources, the collapse of nature.
The cunt now is thing, object, image, detached from an individualized subject. Here, the actual representation or the sign drawn on skin is irrelevant; rather it is the function of the pixels in flesh, the thingness of the thing offering itself even in its apparent rocky impenetrableness to the outside, that performs a participation in the image, a new cyborgian desire predicated on something other than subjective lack (for an object to lose an object is no great trial).
Once dried, the adhesive has no form outside of the pressures exerted on it – membrane, knife edge, cut, edit... The prehistoric, scaled crustacean surface resists a natural womanhood, forgets the pornography it references, or doesn’t, reproduces: Knows that the ideological construct of Womanness is also an object in a chain of object. The crystalcunt is an image like this construct, an object like the body, “a thing simultaneously couched in affect and availability, a fetish made of crystals and electricity, animated by our wishes and fears a perfect embodiment of its own conditions of existence.”
The crystalcunt is sealed, uninviting, solid, stuck and glittering, degrading, detaching itself from itself, desiring everything and nothing; fucking endlessly.
 Nussbaum, Martha, 1995, “Objectification”, Philosophy and Public
Affairs, 24(4): 257.
 Mulvey, Laura. 1989, 2009. Visual and Other Pleasures. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.
 Power, N. 2009. The One Dimensional Woman. London: Zero Books: 25.
 McRobbie, A. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism. London: SAGE Publications.
 McRobbie, A. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism. London: SAGE Publications: 85
 Steyerl, H. 2010. A Thing Like You and Me. e-flux journal #15.
If Frances Goodman’s solo exhibition, Morbid Appetites, were an element of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, I would imagine it as the shiny red apple in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or the house made of ginger bread and candies in Hansel and Gretel. In a spectacularly dazzling assortment of delirious eye candy, these objects seem to collectively whisper ‘Come hither and see us glimmer.’ And who wouldn’t love a little piece of this dazzlingly glittery disco action?
Initially, these immaculate objects are all about enticement and seduction. But, like the glowing red apple and the house with its sugar windows and cake roof, the shimmering allure of their surfaces masks an encounter with the dark side. A bite from the anaesthetic apple results in Snow White’s soporific confinement in a glass coffin, and the deliciously sugary exterior of the house is a ruse by a child-devouring witch.
Similarly, these visual delicacies are a conceptual mirage – the closer you get, the trippier they become in their messaging, toying around with the slippery line between want and need, peckishness and hunger.
Taking its title from an antiquated term for addictions, Morbid Appetites is an exploration of ‘contemporary society’s ability to transform harmless activities like eating, shopping and taking medicine into deadly vices’[i].
Historically, dependency might have been seen as criminal or sinful. Whereas today, addiction seems to have semi-detached itself from the moral opprobrium and blame of earlier eras. Unlike crime or sin, it assumes a place beyond and outside of our control – will having somehow slipped out of the equation. Having been re-packaged as a pathological illness, addiction has taken on a whole new currency in contemporary culture.
And this is where the fairy story analogy ends. Whereas fairy tales are tightly coded moral fables, dense with judgement and warning, Goodman’s work triggers strange internal conversations fraught with paradox. Somehow the poison and danger don’t quite cancel out the shimmer and allure. The seduction of surfaces persists, despite full troubled knowledge of the consequences. And one begins to ponder the option pointed to by Slovenian cultural critic, Slovoj Zizek, to ‘Enjoy your Symptom!’[ii]
Far from being accidental, the sense of visual overload, of too-muchness in Morbid Appetites is a deliberate ploy by the artist to manifest a tangible sensual incarnation of hyberbolic culture. Whereas the fairy story has a happy ending reinstating a safe and cosy bedtime hegemony, Goodman’s immaculate constructions are unsettling wake up calls – invitations to ponder ‘what happens to the human condition when a psychological line is crossed’.
‘The hypercontemporary individual is more autonomous but also more fragile than ever in proportion as the promises and demands that define him become ever faster and more massive. Freedom, comfort, quality of life and higher expectations do not blunt the tragedy of existence; they merely make its scandal crueller.’
Foreword by Pierre Henri Tavoillot in Gilles Lipovetsky’s Hypermodern Times[iii]
In a hypermodern culture the lines and the consequences of crossing them aren’t as clear as they might once have been. We know what cars do to the atmosphere, but we still drive them. We know in the back of our minds about the violent carnality of abattoirs, yet we still eat meat. We know about AIDS, but we have sex without condoms. We know about 24/7 sweatshops, but we still buy designer labels produced in China. Knowledge is not always an antidote in the face of want or desire. The hunger for bling encapsulated by these objects is as much about aspiration (commonly seen as a positive, healthy impulse) as it is about its flipside – addiction. ‘There’s room for perversion of every habit and every norm,’ says Goodman. ‘And that’s the area I’m interested in.’
Goodman’s work has much in common with the provocative writing of AM Homes, author of The Safety of Objects, in whose stories ‘strangeness becomes a revealing back entrance into the human condition of our day’[iv]. Like Homes’s distinctive narratives, Goodman’s sculptures illuminate our dreams and desires, our memories and losses, and demonstrate how chillingly extraordinary the ordinary can be. The story, Remedy, begins like this:
‘It is about wanting and need, wanting and need – a peculiar desperate kind of need, needing to get what you never got, wanting it still, wanting it all the more, nonetheless. It is about a profound desire for connection. It is about how much we don’t understand. It is about how unfamiliar even the familiar can become… It is about holding back, withholding. It is about being stuck. It is about panic. It is about realizing you are in over your head, something’s got to give. It is about things falling apart. It is about fracture.’ AM Homes, Remedy in Things You Should Know[v]
As any fraught citizen of the middle classes will secretly confess, upward mobility is often plagued by a host of attendant pathologies. ‘I’m interested in the state of moving into the middle class where it’s important to look good – to show people that you’ve moved out of the struggle of working class life,’ says Goodman. ‘It’s no longer all about getting food, paying the bills, survival – a shift happens where you become governed by your wants rather than your needs. And suddenly it’s all about needing to go the gym, needing to have those new shoes or that new car…
In Status Anxiety, author Alain de Botton discusses the desire of people in modern societies to ‘climb the social ladder’ and claims that chronic anxiety about status is an inevitable side effect of any democratic, ostensibly egalitarian society[vi].
‘All the addictions I’m dealing with in this show are about keeping up appearances. These objects are about how you look, how you show yourself to the world. You pop a little pill when everything is falling apart inside and suddenly you can get your work done, put on smiley face and go out into the world.’
Goodman’s sound pieces draw the viewer/listener into strange worlds where emotion and logic are woven into sublimely evocative narratives of intimate confession. They often explore experiences of inhabiting a human body, but eschew the figurative, remaining hauntingly disembodied. These objects take that disembodiment to the next level – glittery suitcases, sparkly molecules and inside-out handbags acting as vectors or props that embody complex emotive vocabularies.
‘These new works deal more with seduction than emotional engagement,’ says Goodman. Instead of being drawn into an immersive environment, the experience here is one of impenetrability as the eye is drawn towards, but bounces off these brittle, reflective sequinned surfaces. And the embroidery of the sequins onto the objects entails the constant replication of a particular action over and over again in the same way that addiction involves the ongoing repetition of a particular behaviour.
Compulsiveness has been key to Goodman’s oeuvre from the outset. Like Tracey Emin and Sophie Calle, she revels in turning revelation and difficult honesty into a kind of texture. Her interest in presenting an obsessional subjectivity can be traced back to an early sound piece, called Voice of Reason (2000). The work comprises a row of bright orange bus shelter chairs with a set of headphones positioned above each seat through which one the taps into the stream of consciousness of a character obsessed with the risks of bodily contact. At first, the thoughts of the character appear highly rational, but, as she proceeds in an exploration of her inner logic, they become progressively more disturbing and dysfunctional, until, by the end of the piece, the title has been rendered entirely ironic.
Goodman made the work while she was studying at Goldsmiths at the University of London. ‘I started thinking about metaphors for this inward-looking tendency I was encountering in London – this kind of obsession that people have with themselves,’ says Goodman. ‘What I quite like about the character is that she is obsessed with cleanliness, but in the end she turns out to be the dirtiest of everyone because she has all these perverse thoughts… At the time, I was doing my thesis on the fine line between desire and disgust, and how that line is so taut…’
Voice of Reason resonates with the same crushingly mannered formality and subtly caustic parody as maverick American director Todd Haynes’s 1995 film, Safe, starring Julianne Moore as a housewife who begins to develop unpredictable and strange bodily symptoms – allergic reactions to suburban middle class life.
The corporeality of the piece is one of its most compelling aspects – the character’s obsession with microscopic and invisible aspects of bodily function, her vigilance in relation to the almost conspiratorial nature of cellular activity. The unsettling irony of this work is that, while the character obsesses about things like about spitting and nose-picking, as a participant in the piece, you’re sitting very close to a stranger in all his/her cell-sloughing corporeal messiness.
[Goodman returned to this theme of bodily obsession in 2008, with a large-scale video/sound installation called Young Guns, investigating the burning desire for bodily perfection that drives two narcissistic young bodybuilders.]
‘I think Voice of Reason came out of the idea that, in the UK, everybody lives on top of one another – there’s no sense of space. And yet, Britain has been a leader in all these germ protocols and health warnings about things being bad for you. But then you go on the underground and you’re crammed up against all these other bodies. So there’s this weird paradox. It doesn’t add up.’
Around the same time, Goodman produced a body of work called The Threats of Everyday Living (2001), for which she took samples from public toilets all over London. She then mounted all the slides on a wall, with (fantastical) descriptions of each swab written behind the slides, so viewers had to get up really close, putting their sanitariness at risk, to read the words.
Public toilets re-entered her work in 2008 with a series in which the desperate, self-deprecating graffiti found on the walls of public lavatories is painstakingly embroidered onto cloth. These works play on another rich tension that runs through Goodman’s oeuvre – the choreographed interplay between contemporary pop references and forms, and a more mannered, restrained Victorian impulse.
On the one hand her work looks outwards at the tendencies and textures of a hypermodern culture. On the other it looks backwards towards a more controlled, cultivated era. Think of Love Smells Like Death, the series of wilted embroidered flowers in funereal glass cases that were part of her 2005 show at the Goodman Gallery, Petite Mort. Beyond their sell by date, these gorgeous exotic blooms perfectly embody the death of romantic ideals. Each etiolated flower rests on a bed of silk, with words like ‘innocence’, ‘passion’ and ‘pride’ lushly embroidered in classic cursive letters. Photographs of the flowers are framed, like glorified family portraits in golden oval frames, echoing the domesticity of the embroidery.
Works like these conjure the spirit of dark romantic authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, who explored the morbid flipsides of romanticism. The off-key emotional logic expressed by the characters in sound pieces, like David and After Dark, recalls the dark psychology of stories by Poe, whose narratives explore the perverse and self-destructive nature of the conscious and subconscious mind.
And there is something about the pristine, delicate femininity of the voice Goodman conjures for her characters that evokes the mannered restraint of Dickinson, who, despite her Massachusetts tea party upbringing, was a recluse whose poems were laced with dark humour, want and a fascination with death.
Goodman cites the female characters in books by Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and Virginia Woolf as the source of inspiration behind Table for Three, a sound installation in which a daughter confides in us about her mother’s cloying and outlandishly conservative romantic expectations of her.
Participating in Goodman’s sound installations comes uncannily close to the private and intensely imaginative act of reading. ‘All my work is about language,’ says Goodman. ‘I’m very interested in what language can do. I use words quite carefully to paint pictures… We live in a culture that is becoming quite language lazy. So many people don’t read books and don’t have that experience of losing themselves in the way that we did when we were children.’ Through her work, she seems to have found a way of navigating around books themselves to give people a parallel experience with the same sense of immersion, imaginative delight and privacy that reading entails.
Inspired by the acuteness of pop songs, Goodman’s sonic and spatial constructions are works of quite precise and immaculate emotional engineering. Their imprint can be felt most strongly in David (2003-4), a sound installation about obsession and loss set in an empty dance classroom with its mirrored walls, sprung floor and stuck mirror ball. In this creepy tale, a woman who used to be part of a regular dance class that was the centre of her turning world, now regularly visits her dance instructor, who no longer embodies the vitality and machismo that once had the whole class hooked. The moment has passed, but she can’t let go of the fantasy of him. ‘The work is on a sound loop, so as soon as she leaves him, she goes back to him,’ says Goodman wryly. It’s a sad work, in which you can’t quite help getting drawn in by the sentimentality of the music. ‘I like the idea of a work becoming magical,’ says Goodman. ‘I want people to feel something and to put people in uncomfortable spaces.’
From the inward-looking Freudian interrogations of her earlier work to the maddeningly seductive surfaces of Morbid Appetites, Goodman has turned the representation of obsessional subjectivity into a fine art.
[i] Frances Goodman, Morbid Appetites, Goodman Gallery release, October 2009
[ii] Zizek, S. 2001. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. Routledge
[iii] Lipovetsky, G. 2005. Hypermodern Times. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press
[iv] Eder, R. ‘Oddness of the Heart: Things You Should Know by AM Homes’, New York Times Book Review, 30 September 2002.
[v] Homes, AM. 2002. Things You Should Know: A Collection of Short Stories. New York: Perennial: An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
[vi] De Botton, A. 2004. Status Anxiety. London: Hamish Hamilton: An imprint of Penguin Books
Consumption and other Dead-Again Experiments.
Lacklustre, a striking word that comprises a glow and its remission, sums up the Biafran state of global capital: a thing bloated yet empty; a deathly mockery. If one addresses art as a symptom and product of this condition, it cannot be other than perverse, or better, sick, for perversity is a playback, while the sickness that defines the current moment has no recourse to irony, let alone parody. At best what we are left with is pastiche which, after Fredric Jameson, is a kind of “blank parody … amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.” The absence of the satirical and the hollowness of contemporary laughter reveal the casual fatalism of the present moment – its blank toxicity. This moment is one which Frances Goodman makes all the more intimate and all the more ghastly, for as Goodman reminds us, the cultural/fiscal/transnational-and-multinational moment which she addresses is one in which sickness emerges as the bizarrely empowered and stylised signifier for the current age. Goodman’s telling slogans – Starve Me Sane, or Nothing Tastes as Good as Being Thin, reveals the new distorted cultural paradigm in which hunger in the West emerges as a lifestyle and anorexia as a kind of luxury.
Symptomatic of a global recession, this emergent hunger artistry finds itself addressing consumerism and its ills. Goodman’s question is: “what happens to the human condition when a psychological line is crossed”? What happens when an entire economy becomes addictive; when being exists as the prosthetic extension of activities such as eating or shopping which, “once harmless,” now define the very excessive and deranging nature of being. Contra Barbara Kruger, we are no longer born but condemned to shop. That consumers continue to believe in the fullness of an exhausted possibility says little about the problem of consumption. For it is consumption, in its insatiable and relentless preparedness to assume what it is, that has produced its own insanity and inanity. Replacing production as the defining trait of human endeavour, consumption has become the new product. For consumption is no longer an activity – something we intentionally or haplessly do – consumption is that which we are.
No longer does one think of consumption as a necessary or good thing; no longer does one measure reason or the means in relation to necessity. Whether wealthy or poor or that fraught middle class gradation between, it is the drive to spite oneself which determines the will to power: the desire to purchase. There exists no true pleasure in owning anything, for the truth is that it is no longer a matter of ownership, but of being owned. Products define character. We are the sum of our belongings; we have become the abject mirrors of the things we putatively possess.
This of course does not mean that we are the hapless victims of consumption. On the contrary, in conversation we now exchange our weaknesses, affect a casual rub of the nose, as if to remind those as weak as ourselves that we can as easily trade, exchange – negate (presumably for profit) – that which we have so blithely consumed. The game is an idle and boring one, for things of value – things bequeathed (monetary) value – are assumed to be the playthings of an idle yet assured life. But what if that life is not something idle or assured? What if money is never – truly – a plaything? What if that very hapless-onanistic-being, caught up in its absorbed fascination with itself and its purchasing potential is nothing but a consumer re-fashioned, the better to reconfigure a newly variegated cultural economy? Here the repackaging-of- packaging is a case in point. For as Goodman reminds us, in a recession people don’t stop consuming, they merely adjust their pathological brand loyalties. Which is why “certain high-end outlets have actually stopped marking their carrier bags as a response to their customers reluctance to be seen consuming.” If this casual insouciance of a repressed hunger becomes a new mode of consumption, a style, the twist becomes all the more bizarre because it in no way stops the abject free-fall of consumerism. Instead it gives lack, want, or the fret of not possessing, a new volition which, for Goodman, makes the appetite all the more monstrous.
The key question, though, is where exactly Goodman positions herself in this new consumptive morph. Having located a global problem, it follows that one should reflect upon the point at which Goodman enters upon this problem. Given that her incision and engagement is transnational; comprising the boutique as well as the sweatshop, the global fiscal centre and the invisible loci of labour, the charged axis of East/ West, North/ South, Goodman cannot therefore establish a perceptual and aesthetic position that is intact. This is why her strategy deconstructs neutrality, demystifies the imperatives of the nation and promotes a suspended, abstracted, and conceptual approach to the problems which we all face.
In other words, Goodman’s art supposes not only a resistance to the national, but embraces the warp of the post-national. Her art, therefore, is global, for she seeks to account for the transnational pandemic that is consumption. Goodman is no ethnographer, preoccupied with the specific nature of greed; even though consumerism in a particular place, such as South Africa, does emerge as a specific optic. In response to my claim that no one in this neo-con universe is truly interested in an artist who belongs nowhere, who speaks abstractly, who addresses the earth and its monstrous consumerism from no definable place, Frances Goodman has this to say:
"I am South African, but I choose not to make typically “South African” work (I use this generalisation very broadly). I am acutely aware that this has placed me and my work in a difficult, slightly uncomfortable place. I elected this approach precisely because I wanted to interrogate notions of “belonging” and being “South African” that are so deep-seated in our discourse. My exploration of identity andbelonging in the past has led me to a point where I feel it is important not merely to capitulate in the public’s and the critic’s expectations of artists, and the kind ofwork we ought to be making. Simply put, I am a South African artist who chooses to make work from a broader, more abstract, nuanced critical position, which Ibelieve is relevant and important in both a local and international context."
Goodman, therefore, emphatically locates herself in a nation. This affiliation, however, does not dispel my prior assertion that nation must, in this complex transnational or globalised moment, be conceived under erasure. This erasure, which affirms nationhood in the instant that it is qualified, is evident in the way in which Goodman limns her being, so that one gets the importance of place and its insufficiency, for Goodman’s key impulse is to both fix upon and disperse her concerns; hence her tendency towards “a broader, more abstract, nuanced critical position,” which she astutely recognises as “important in both a local and international context.”
Goodman nevertheless zooms in on a specific fixation, for she adds: “I consider my interest in consumerism and the limbo of the apathetic bourgeois existence to be very pertinent to South Africa and a comment on, among other things, the mushrooming middle class (with all its discontents).” It would seem, therefore, that Goodman has a tactical focus: the relatively recent non-raced middle class. Implicitly, however, in the South African context, the focus is loaded. Who today has the money to blow? None other than those who were once in power (who remain in power) and those now inducted (who reproduce the same craven lust for power). Goodman’s focus, therefore, is upon those who always already, in Derrida’s sense, had power, and those in the new pound seats, who have taken over. The focus is-yet-is-not racial, for the primary preoccupation is class. If, therefore, the focus is claimed to be South African, the reality is global, and this, despite Goodman’s desire to locate herself here, the more affirms the critical intensity of her work. This leads me to conclude that the best art made in the world today, while it may embrace a given nation-as-pretext, inescapably addresses the monstrosity that is global consumerism.
If I insist upon the transnational at the expense of the national, this is because Goodman’s art cannot satisfactorily be framed thereby. Moreover it is this insufficiency which, paradoxically, marks its critical strength and meditative ill-health, for Goodman’s focus at its best is upon that hallucinatory moment when the consumer believes him or her self exempt, lawless, estranged from place, lost in the consumption of an abstracted product. Goodman’s job is not Naomi Klein’s, which is to remind us of the criminally alienated nature of consumption. Neither is her job that of Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer to remind us of the myopic mechanics of desire. Rather, Goodman’s agency lies in an implicit, non-didactic and non-reflexive approach to the incubus of consumptive desire that cannibalises us. In short, Goodman implicates, or better, situates us in relation to the libidinal nature of need: her subject is slavery, her object is capital. Yet neither subject nor object is foregrounded. This is not because Goodman cannot tell us what she means, but because it is the very obviousness of the drama of need – or should I say hunger – that is the content of her work. Her theme and point of concern is all too visible, indeed, after Jean Baudrillard, it is more visible than the visible; that is, it is so apparent, so ghastly, so immediate, that it defies the composure of intellection: hence the absence of a reflexivity in Goodman’s work, which one finds in Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer; hence the refusal to produce the anti-capitalist narrative of Naomi Klein.
Art in the present moment cannot resist pathology, it can only inhabit it. Art is no longer reactive, it is symptomatic. What Goodman produces, therefore, are symptoms. Goodman terms these symptoms appetites. This is a striking reconfiguration, for appetites commonly are assumed to be desires one is in control of. For Goodman, however, appetites are anything but. Rather, appetites – in her case morbid appetites – are manifestations of illness; an involuntary impulsion driven by a desire-to-desire. This impulse is void of subject and object; it carries no causal claim and harbours no point of entry and no end point. Utterly intransitive, addictive, maddening, it marks consumption as the end of history, the end of reason; it brands Capital as the ultimate madhouse.
But how does Goodman achieve this recognition given that unlike Kruger, Holzer, or Klein, she cannot, or will not, post this condition? The trick, I think, returns us to the importance of a tactical abstraction. For while Goodman may address a
particular consumer product, or its counterfeit, the manner in which she inhabits and frames that product resists easy codification. Goodman, therefore, does not explain herself. Rather, she rightly assumes that an a priori rapport exists; that the viewer-as-consumer of her work knows consciously or unconsciously the received import of that given product and will recognise the estranging-yet-familiar affect which her take on that product will produce. More generally, Goodman senses that her critical objectification of branded goods, and her conceptual experimentations thereupon, will generate an awareness of the deranging cultural DNA of Capital. This tactic is evident in Mother’s Little Helper, StealthWealth, and MINDONTHEMONEY, stark samplings indeed of this blank and toxic age.
Ashraf Jamal teaches Art History and Visual Culture at Rhodes University. He is the co-author of Art in South Africa: The Future Present and the author of Predicaments of Culture in South Africa.