by KARA VANDERBIJL
I have a hard time with art galleries, whether they are very small rooms on the way to work or large museums packed with artifacts. I would like to enjoy my time in them but for the most part, I do not. I have never had a satisfying experience in an art gallery and I would not say that it is the gallery’s fault or even particularly my fault. Why speak of fault at all?
Art is about embodiment, and the space between the walls where the paintings hang protected and my body is large. I cannot be what I am seeing or do anything about it. I must blindly consume, pronounce a judgment, feign a stronger emotion than I am feeling. This appreciation is dismembered; much like standing in a crowded room, when I do not have enough hands to touch every person around me in greeting, enough mouths to speak to them, I cannot give enough of myself to this experience. I am paralyzed, made unbodied.
What do I mean when I say embodiment? I mean quite simply that the objects we create are incarnational. They are ideas become flesh, dwelling among us. They are real and not deceptive, although they are incredibly disruptive. To create an art object is to endow a beloved or feared thought with arms and legs and a will of its own and watch it build and destroy worlds. This has nothing to do with whether or not it is “good” by any standard. This has something to do with an old, bearded God reaching upside-down across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and touching a human into life. “I know you, come to life,” he says, “now go do.”
Art is incarnation. The only gallery I have enjoyed visiting is the Villa Borghese outside of Rome. Many of Bernini’s sculptures live in this manor, where only small groups of people are permitted to enter at a time. Apollo and Daphne, one of Bernini’s best-loved works, stands in the center of a room. You can walk up quite closely to it and look at the folds of stone cloth and the dimples where Apollo is pressing his fingers into Daphne’s flesh.
Apollo wants to rape Daphne. He has been chasing her through the woods, and when she realizes that she will not be able to outrun him, she calls upon her father to transform her into a laurel tree. As Apollo wraps an arm around her waist, he discovers bark where there was once soft skin. Her fingers and arms turn into branches. Her hair sprouts into the very wreath of leaves that Apollo will later use to decorate the heads of victors, of men become gods...
Only what is incarnate can be violated.
Being a body narrows you. Genetics predetermine the star of your face, the hills and valleys nourished below. I cannot be all things, as a body. As a mind, I can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. But my body is a full stop, a contained space, an impermanent expression of creative energy.
Art objects, too, are narrow. “Writing is a little door,” said Susan Sontag, “Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.” An art object is a slice of the world, a representative, perhaps male or female, of one race or another, a tightly-packaged experience. I want this object to be all things but to ask it to contain more than it does is to deny its very being. As an embodiment, it is bound by its curves and contours.
When I ask, “Why doesn’t this art object embody an experience that is important to me?”, and become angry, it is a bit like shaking a child and screaming, “Why aren’t you a bird?” I may marvel at the fact that this object could have been any number of things, so long as I recognize it for what it is, give it credit for the beautiful disaster that is its embodiment.
Criticizing an art object, faulting it for its lacks and limitations, is a violation; a small one, yes, but a violation nonetheless.
“What about bad art?”
Dance, then, is absolutely pure. And isn’t it ironic that it is this form of art, this form of expression, that causes the most panic and self-consciousness? We dance in small, dim spaces, mostly hidden from view. The act has been called frivolous, childish, dangerous, yet there is no form of embodiment more intense than dancing. Here, various incarnations touch, interact, share a moment in time. If anything this is the only place where art can be panoramic: bigger than itself, more than a single voice, experience or expression.
Tastes and preferences change over time. If I am starving, I will eat what is put on the table in front of me, even if the meat is tainted or the fruit is rotten. Given the choice, though, I will eat what is satisfying, nutritious. Given a myriad of choices, I will eat what is popular, easily acquired.
Like so many people, I am secretly starving for companionship. I will listen to what voices I can get, at the press of a button, at the recommendation of a web site. I will not necessarily go looking for the relationships that truly fulfill me. Then, poorly satisfied, the words mal-absorbed into my system, I will complain that what I found was not what I was looking for.
When I learn that an object is poisonous, I know I should stay away from it. But it doesn’t take much pride for me to continue consuming it, believing as I do that my body is above corruption and violation.
I ask, “What will this do to me? What will I do with this?”
Is it important that I identify with an art object? In my view, I am simultaneously the most beautiful and the most foul being imaginable. This double vision applies, too, to art; what enamors me can in its own time become frightening. What is delicious can be too rich, too much for me to handle. I am not always ready to encounter what I observe. Like my relationships, the traumas of which mold and shape my personality, my interactions with art have taken me out of myself, made me intensely uncomfortable. The ones that have not done so, the ones that have been too cloying, too reassuring, I have not been able to trust.
This is, after all, a personality flaw.
But in the same way that I would not want a friend who would not tell me true — even if it meant that I had to see myself in a garish new light, hang in a different, less-visited corner of a gallery — I do not want to surround myself with art that does not occasionally put me on edge, or break my heart.
It takes two to create: myself, and the strain of thought inside of me that won’t be still until it has been given a body.