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.