Paradise Now: Sappho in the Age of the Suicide Bomber (& 72 Virgins)
A Description of my Art
The common theory of Egyptian art is that it only begins to represent ordinary life rather than gods, pharaohs and queens when a sandstone sculpture places one foot in front of the other. Motion signifies human existence. Humans move, therefore there is history. In a similar sense, the frescoes on the walls of Minoan palaces in 1700 BC show figures, full breasts popping out of cinched, tight-waisted, flouncy dresses, bending to smell flowers or leaping over racing, raging bulls or elegantly leading religious processions. The sculpture of 4th century BCE Greece embodies human sexual nature when, borrowing from the posture of male warriors and athletes, a female nude leans on one hip, extending the curve of the hip upward to meet the curve of a breast while an opposite curve indicates the ribcage between them. She invents the S. The body is undulating stillness, desirability frozen in space, enhanced by a gentle tease when suddenly for the first time statues of Aphrodite are holding their draperies away from their bodies for the viewer to admire. In the previous century, male statues were unclothed in a celebration of athletic or soldierly health, a male union with the community at large — the Olympic athletes, after all, wrestled, ran, spear-chucked in the nude. Women, more often than not goddesses, were fully clothed, with perhaps a single breast tentatively visible behind a bit of dressage slipping from a shoulder. One hundred years later, the traditional art history narrative tells us, the female nude is born as a representative of the union of sex and geometry.
In Kenneth Clark’s standard analytic narrative, once mathematical precision measured the relative distance of body parts into harmonies derived from Pythagoras and Vetruvius, the female nude could link “our most elementary notions of order and design.” As he writes: the female nude predominates in art, and will become the dominate form of art for all time when “the intellectual analysis of parts dissolves before a sensuous perception of totalities.” (p. 457) The classical nude, which establishes the western world’s understanding of beauty, balances body parts according to mathematical proportions, and, in so doing, establishes the erotic identity of the desirable woman. The conformity of proportions makes the nude woman literally “presentable,” at once admirable as a geometric figure removed from quotidian life because no single model was used for a sculpture, and sensuous, desirable and admirable as a geometric figure removed from ordinary life because no single female ever modeled for a sculpture; instead parts from various models became a whole — perfect fingers met perfect hands that were later joined to the perfect forearm, and so on until a sensuous and curvaceous artificially construed female could represent womanhood and remain, of course, literally unavailable. It isn’t dissimilar from advertising models today — hand models, ankle models, eyes, cheeks, etc, though the ancient Greeks had a higher calling. As Allen White and Peter Stallybrass say: “…the classical statue is the radiant centre of a transcendent individualism, put on a pedestal, raised above the viewer and the commonality and anticipating passive admiration from below. We gaze up at the figure and wonder… The classical statue has no openings or orifices.” In other words, the beautiful nude female retains her interior mystery — perfectly proportioned, anatomically inaccessible, embodying the presentably unattainable. As a result of her creation, the ancient Greeks used to say that the Trojan War must have been fought over a statue of Helen, because only a statue, a composite of parts, could have been perfect enough, long enough, to send armies across the oceans and to keep them there for a decade, to say nothing of the Trojans not tossing her into the sea.
Of course, the “universal” beauty understood by the female nude is redefined constantly by changing historical circumstances: for example, proportions of the bourgeois nude expand to suggest the fleshiness of wealth, so that the nudes whose proportions most remind us of classical beauty are the commodified women — prostitutes, courtesans, dancers, paid models who litter the economic landscapes throughout Europe for several centuries. In effect, because they are nude rather than clothed, the nude women art depicts can only be read by their surroundings and their physical conditions — where they are, the furnishings, the company they keep. The discourse on beauty from culture to culture and age to age reiterates the quirky position of Kenneth Clark: that the history of art is the history of the female nude. The nude persists in our discourse because when we are not idealizing it, we are sublimating it, and in both instances we are marginalizing it because even to celebrate it we are objectifying it.
For instance, is Courbet’s infamous “Origin of the World” a celebration of realized womanhood in a world of salon nudes stared at by young men who wouldn’t dream of depicting genitalia? Or is it a headless torso gratuitously mutilated to remind women of their place, especially moneyed women? Is the painting a gynecological tool the way Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson” was justified as by those who admired the painter but loathed the painting? Or is Courbet’s elegantly crafted revolution in realism (pornography, according to the French Government for 150 years) a commentary on the history of the female nude’s missing genitalia? No one hid Michelangelo’s “David” in spite of a relatively oversized penis, and Italy is no less Catholic than France. Courbet’s nude is not on a pedestal but laid nearly flat at a vantage reserved for doctors and for lovers. In her book on pornography, Linda Williams writes: “The history of hard-core pornography is the history of visual strategies to overcome the anatomical invisibility of the female orgasm.” So Courbet’s painting addresses the unattainable interior that nudity represents, as if to say even completely accessible to our visual perception, the female body is to men a mystery.
The confident nudity of classical Greece that idealizes and perfects through the simplicity of proportions not only does so by lifting the cool figure above our gaze but by fixing for eternal contemplation the absence of physical decay and death, in a sense preserving the concept of beauty that youth alone understands in its limited life experience. That is why as soon as the nude becomes exaggerated or “deformed” in the history of art, we refer to the grotesque or even to Michelangelo’s Mannerism, his super muscular female nudes that are about as classical in their idealization as his statue of the uncircumsized David is Jewish. It may be that our eyes prefer circles to straight lines, that fecundity is by nature curvaceous, that both are biologically determined but culturally defined. If the classical female nude is by definition an unattainable female to the one who gazes at it, it is partly because of its material permanence, embodying in thought and sensuality the tension between desire and the end of desire, which is death. The gaze that wants to freeze and frame a moment of erotic recognition is already acknowledging the inherent loss of the object, so that even the female viewer recognizes what the female nude represents without necessarily sharing the male gaze that has honed this particular depiction of a mass delusion that decay and death can be defeated — in art.
Having summarized thousands of years of human artistic endeavor in four paragraphs of well-intended self-serving thought, I’m going to press on to one of the main issues the history of the nude has engaged, in part because it has engaged my work, and often influenced conversations about the large piece I’m exhibiting here. The history of the nude that I’ve truncated here is the most elaborate and overwhelming master narrative in art because it is almost exclusively the province of what we have come to call the male gaze. It is an overwhelming history because of the longevity of the form, which we owe to both the male artists who drew, sculpted and painted female nudes, and to the men who wrote the history of their attempts to do so for several hundred years. The gaze per se is a psychoanalytic construct most famously posited by Jacques Lacan. As a formulation regarding child development into its Oedipal stage, the gaze symbolizes the child’s narcissistic need for others in order to unify itself as a being in the world. By seeing itself in a mirror, the child sees itself as something other than a subject, and in fact delights in seeing itself as an object for others to admire. The gaze unconsciously organizes framing devices, delimiting mechanisms and interpretive techniques to create a narrative of development for the child. The understanding of oneself as an image in the world, derived from Sartre’s famous moment of feeling looked at because we are looking at someone else, enables us to fulfill narcissistic needs as we overcome them, integrating them into our wider understanding of the need for others to know us, others who make us feel good about ourselves and who one day summarize our lives after we are dead.
Based on that concept of the gaze, in 1975 Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the male gaze in her article “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” She argued that a film audience can only read a film by identifying with a heterosexual male protagonist as he comes to desire a leading female figure, by that generalization simply reiterating that an overwhelming number of films are made by men with men’s money for the pleasure of men, who earn the income to form the audience. A director directs our vision to the protagonist’s, as he scrutinizes, evaluates and judges a woman in the film to be an object of his desire. If he falls in love with her, so do we — or we have misread the movie, or the director is incompetent, or the director is out of the mainstream. Mulvey’s point was that the audience must identify with the male gaze to work its way through the film. In reply to the numerous articles taking exception to her theory, in 1981 Mulvey revised her piece to suggest that the only way a female audience member could read the male gaze was either by “a masochistic identification of the female object” or by an act of aesthetic transsexualism, in effect becoming a faux purveyor and adopter of the male gaze herself, watching through the eyes of the patriarchy.
Relating this argument to visual art in general, and leaving behind the complexity of film visuals unfolding in time, Griselda Pollock has written that “the sign of masculine sexuality is the bodies of women.” A male gaze is always present when a nude female in a work of art is objectified. The narcissism of the male gaze narrates the psychosexual longings of the male artist and his male viewers. The artist is always telling the story of the female’s mystery, even as he places her in surroundings that frame her — brothels, dance halls, boudoirs, bathtubs, woodlands, artist’s studios, and often in front of mirrors — so she can display the vanity that makes her mysterious to the artists who want to paint her vanity. Most female nudes have no surroundings, and often defy gravity, or as in the case of Philip Pearlstein, are exhibited in notoriously uncomfortable positions. Manet’s “Olympia,” depicting a self-satisfied courtesan, treats the female nude as a commodity but within the sexist social conundrum that she is in charge of her nudity because she successfully sells it. At a different register, the milieu depicted in Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’ herbe” enables the same model, Berthe Morisot, to stare back at the (male) gaze of the viewer because she is “comfortably” nude in the company of the dressed men beside her, including Manet himself, her brother-in-law. Each of these nudes addresses the male gaze directly, but differently, and yet, as Griselda Pollock notes in an essay on women painters of early modernism, we do not find art by women artists like Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt that depicts male nudes gazing back at the male gaze. As a result of the history of the nude in art, the theme of that history is foremost the viewer’s response to nudity, itself a changing subject from culture to culture and era to era, so that the viewer is never the same, and is subject to cultural perceptions of nudity as well as the male gaze, and of the master narrative’s traditional gaze.
Recently, feminist art has replied to the male gaze the female nude evokes by demythifying the female body, often showing it in aging, damaged, mutilated states. Obese, pimply, warty, plastic, artificial, inside out, female body representations have defied becoming objects of desire for the male gaze. Alice Neel painted herself as she aged — as did Rembrandt, and Avigdor Arikha — by revealing in her changing naked body to confront the tradition of male artist nude self-portraits (which may be the best evidence that the male gaze is a palpable category of visualization). When Lucian Freud first painted his immense impastoed obese nudes, they were considered acts of misogyny. What if they had been immense impastoed supermodel nudes? Would they too have been creative acts of misogyny? Wouldn’t they have had a wider audience? Twenty years later, when Jenny Saville painted immense impastoed obese nudes, she was praised for liberating the female body from the male gaze. Similarly, Marlene Dumas paints immense watercolors of erotically charged semi-abstracted female nudes, and openly confesses that they are her sexual fantasies writ large, so her (female) gaze at the female nude legitimates the gaze of ‘pure’ sexual longing, even though nobody is free of the collective cultural gaze and beauty is mostly culturally construed.
In short, no matter what position or ideology one adopts, the viewer cannot help but confront female nudity in art history as simply another, elaborate, example of Hegel’s remark: “Everything after the Greeks is romanticism.”
I am interested in the topic of the female gaze with respect to the female nude because of my personal aesthetic quest during which I have not found any artist who has resolved female nudity as something beyond looking at female otherness, or at marginalized females, or women as male hieroglyphs or the objects of ideological autopsies from the left and the right. I see, as one central problem in thinking this through, that the discourse has been constrained by the binary vocabulary of subject/object relations, including self and other, inside and outside, mind and body, ways of seeing that are male and female rather than predualistic. I refuse to limit the thinking of my art to binary terms. Sexual difference in art and the reading of art does not mean to me an either/or proposition, nor do we get very far in creation or understanding by perceiving one set of examples or one glossary as fitting all history or all discussion. I hope to create a space between desire and danger regarding myself and all others, regarding the concept of the Other. If the viewer is by turns uncomfortable in and attracted to the active presence of my life-size nudes, it is my way of tweaking cultural assumptions, trying to destabilize the conversation about identity and its visual representation by valuing, in a visual sense, the high and the low equally, and on a grand scale. My take on the nude is firmly antidualistic. I eschew the GrecoRoman/JudaeoChristian, Hindo/Chinese link of archetypes to tables of opposites (such as male-female, eros-logos, yin-yang, dark-light, odd-even, internal-external, east-west, right-left, straight-gay, good-bad) because I can see the oneness of the female form which happens to be the form I live in and know well.
So what do women see when they see female nudes in art? People look at the page, look at the camera, look at the painting, look at the screen, but look in the mirror. Because mirrors objectify us to ourselves, we see ourselves as others see us, but in doing so we bring our personal history to bear on the reflection. My nude reflection is part of a narrative, by which I mean that I see myself seeing myself, I see myself self-consciously. I am consciously nude when I see myself reflected in a mirror, which is to say I may scrutinize and judge my nudity, but seeing myself cannot make me embarrassed, as I might be if I were nude in front of an audience. It cannot make me confident in the way Manet’s courtesan is confident, or in the way a statue of Aphrodite is a confident nude, because I have no audience. The nude in art does not convey the self-consciousness of nudity except as a violation of privacy — it’s how late Renaissance painters justified female nudes: their ample bodies illustrated tales from the Bible.
In my work I invoke classical tradition because I self-consciously work from it, not only in posed figures that may remind us of ancient stillness, in the calm of ancient Greek art, but in bound tortured figures whom I depict in repose. I was raised in a culture steeped and stuck and trapped in that past glory so I can hardly escape and deny it. I consciously revisit female archetypes that connect my work to the unbroken arc of culture. In the history of art, female archetypes have been the first and, for a long time, most important subject. They were carved into cave walls and megaliths, they were the first (Neolithic) sculptures and paintings. Their images, representations of matriarchal deities, had the metonymic power of amulets. They embodied the divine force of nature, which is primarily the power of fertility. Fertility, of course, is creativity, which is what artists throughout the ages depend on, which is why female archetypal imagery has thrived to our day. Typically, female archetypes are representations of mothers, whores, warriors, priestesses — big-hipped big-breasted goddesses of justice, love and destruction, Christian or pagan holy females (ranging from the Cycladic ‘steatopygic’ women and the Minoan Snake Goddess, to Mary Magdalene and Brigitte Bardot.)
The self-conscious male gaze may or may not define the female gaze, but the male gaze that my provocatively posed females address becomes voyeurism instead of viewerism. It is my effort to destabilize the conversation about identity and its visual representations, and at thirty feet long this piece reinforces its epic origins and the immensity of its theme. Even if the male gaze won’t blink, it will, on occasion, avert itself.
What my epic tapestry tries to do in relation to the nude as I’ve conceived it in this occasion, is to lower the viewer’s gaze so that the figures in the canvas, deliberately provocative in one way or another, can get a better look at who is looking at them. The history of writing about the nude, which may be the fundamental theme in art history, is a story of how we situate ourselves in relation to the nude figure. Our individual subjectivities use the nude in art and culture to search for an adequate representation of a collective sense of self. Who are we when we represent ourselves to each other? This is why we argue about it as vehemently as we do.
The other way in which I engage classical tradition is by hand-stitching on vintage textiles, hand-weavings of silk and cotton, including ribbons from traditional priestly vestments, against high-art canvas. By hand-stitching with hand-dyed thread on rough canvas, I am invoking the work and work methods the unfaithful Helen and the faithful Penelope would have engaged while Odysseus was building the Trojan horse on the beach of Troy. Larger than life, the foreground icons gaze unabashedly, even radically, at the viewer, confronting the dominant gaze born out of millennia of male supremacy, lifting the veils that the more traditional figures in the background could not. They evoke the adorants and houris that were frescoed on the wet walls of sacred sites thousands of years ago. Whether draped or undressed, coy or brazen, pacific or violent, these nudes express the nomadic consciousness of women over the same millennia in which women have embroidered and woven for domestic use and private aesthetic pleasure. The background figures are their ghosts haunting the provocative present, echoing repressed living women in much of the world. The background addresses my ancestors from Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece — -murdered, exploited, exiled women — and speaks equally to cultures east and west. This canvas forms in my imagination a timeless tent where the pop star, the pin up, the lover, the killer, the rebel, the suicide bomber, the stripper and the hopeless mother meet, even if they collide. I want a collision between ecstasy, stasis, powerlessness, and the unbounded in human essence.
This artwork comments on my heritage in more ways. I was born on the Greek island of Lesbos, burdened by the weighted cultural inheritance of being a Lesbian, which to the world outside the island has a more potent meaning of the woman who loves and desires women, since the 6cen. BC poet Sappho is my most famous ancestor. I was raised under a military junta and was educated to the fanaticism of a nationalist cult, until as a teenager I joined illegal underground leftist political groups, illegally spray-painted graffiti on public walls at night, passed out pamphlets advocating resistance, recruited other youths willing to die for the cause of freedom (the motto in every situation like that is always Freedom or Death). I demonstrated daily against American imperialism, since the Junta was supported by American interests. And I became an American citizen after 9/11 in support of my adopted country, only to find myself living again in conditions akin to those of my childhood and to discover, slowly and uncannily, that the Middle-Eastern part of my heritage understood suicide bombers who, as I had once, hoped to die in a burst of flames for a noble and heroic cause. For my first two decades Motherland, not individuality, was my idealized connection to life and its reason. So I can see both sides of the long conflict between old world and new. Both my grandmothers always dressed in black, in perennial mourning for their dead kids lost to the evil eye, and covered up their head to go outside the house. My mother and father never spoke before they were married and my father was stoned at the courtyard of a chapel for sneaking there to meet a young female neighbor. So I am not unfamiliar with the excessive reverence that proposes to adore and admire women and associates women with modesty and “respect” in contrast to the excessive liberation and self-objectification of Western women. Greece is the cradle of Western culture but also stands at the crossroads between East and West and, after 500 years of Turkish occupation, its culture resembles the secular Muslim cultures of the Middle East as much as it resembles that of its fellow West European powers. I rebelled against what I saw as female repression and became committed to “coming out”, “lifting the lid”, to performing exposure of every sort.
I remain deeply interested in the conflation of art and religion, so potent in earlier times, and so important to artists in all ages. This tapestry is a visual spiritual pilgrimage. My original plan was to hang it on a plywood construction that was an exact replica of the holy Ka’bah in Mecca, which every Muslim aspires to visit in a hajj (pilgrimage) and circle around it 7 times. The Ka’bah is worshipped with such reverence that hundreds die each year during high holy times, crushed by the stampeding crowds trying to get close to the monument. The Ka’bah is covered with a finely textured cloth, which is how I envisioned draping my replica with this tapestry. My nudes evoke worshippers-guardians along the path to many a temple that have been found in ancient sites in Greece, Egypt, Summeria, Mesopotamia (Iraq, Iran), the Hindu valley and China. The Karyatids, for example, the women-shaped columns that support the temple of the Parthenon, are called Kouroi and kore, and from that name derives the name Houri, which is the Muslim name for the beautiful women waiting to reward the faithful in Paradise (the word sounds ominously close to “whore”). According to sacred texts, carnal adventures in Paradise take place under a tree (of life) by a river (of life), where the martyrs feast on grapes and diverse sexual acts with the wives of friends they may have coveted or with movie stars (for example, Bin Laden is known to have been in love with Whitney Houston). My installation was predicated on the religious concept that a man is rewarded for dying a gruesome suicide bomber’s death with free sex with 72 virgins. The obvious contradiction (in Western eyes) between earthly piousness and afterlife lasciviousness stems from the West’s opposite experience of life and afterlife: we see Paradise as the absence of the bodily pleasure which we are allowed to experience, in varying degrees, in life; Muslims see in Paradise the fulfillment of the sexual urges and pleasures they are forbidden in life. No wonder so many young Muslims are eager to give their lives for entry to heaven. So this tapestry is also my fantasy of Paradise.
It is ironic in the rich history of the nude in art that no less than Francis Bacon wrote: “There is no beauty that has not some strangeness in its proportions.” Notably, that was the 16th century Bacon, the modern painter’s famous ancestor. Francis Bacon heeded the philosopher’s comment on our fall out of classical tradition, and more than any late 20th century painter struggled to find a nexus with the human nude without dismembering it, as had Picasso, or drawing it in paint, as had Matisse, or making it into a cartoon, in the manner of pop and neo-pop art. Kenneth Clark loathed Bacon’s paintings: they did not fit the history. But Bacon’s model was Michelangelo, looking for a way through contortion, distortion, and anguish for an active beauty that nonetheless evoked stillness. That is my model as well, underscored by my lifelong commitment to the theme of Apocalypse, Revelation, the lifting of the veil, which, veil after veil, longing after longing, page after page, layer past layer, never ends.
Thinking, as I often do, of Bacon, and others as committed to the female body as the subject of the whole history of art as I am, I wonder if a male artist can hand-stitch nude women in bondage with the impunity of a female artist. Actually, can a female artist do it with impunity when all gaze is a male gaze, which is a buyer’s gaze? Can the threaded stitch replace the stroke of the painter’s brush in the high esteem and deference of the art viewer? Can the ritually repetitive unspooling stitch of mother weave replace the ever tightening ticktocking of father time?
I’m here to find out.