241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

We hadn’t even finished our desserts when he asked it. It was a question that seemed to have come out of thin air. I couldn’t believe that this sentence rolled from his lips like any other sentence. I didn’t know what to reply. Instead, I posed my date the same question. ‘What is your top three of favourite animals?’ Without hesitation, he summed up his favourite animals. For me, it was clear. There would not be a second date.

Even though the proverbial spark between the man in question and I didn’t occur, he continued to resurface in my mind now and then because of this peculiar question. I was bothered that he so readily answered this question to which I had no reply. I started to bother others with the same question. Many reacted like I did, in exactly the same order: first surprise, then disbelief, and at last frustration because of their inability to answer. Do none of us have favourite animals in life?

Even if I look at it more generally, I hardly have favourites. No favourite band, colour, food or film. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I go through a phase of immense appreciation for a dish or musician, but for a while now I have been very careful in using the word ‘favourite’ in this context. The realisation that my preferences are temporary prevails.

The whole idea of a favourite seems to have disappeared out of sight. The word ‘disappeared’ is not randomly chosen, because as a child I seemed to know exactly what I found cool and what I found dumb. Exactly.

How could it be that I was formerly so apt at listing my top faves and am now so hesitant to call something ‘my favourite’? This probably has to do with the limited information that you have at your disposal as a kid, in comparison to what you learn and know about later in life. As a child, the world seems to be encompassed within everything you know – your reality is the only reality. At a young age, you’re unaware of the limitations of your knowledge. Precisely the limited knowledge and information enable everything that you know to be simply divided into good or bad. The world is still black and white. As you get older, newer colours are added. Knowledge is accumulated and slowly you learn that there are countless elements in the world that are preferred or despised. There is so much information available that it is hard to distil favourites. Moreover, you find out that preferences also change quickly.

Maybe I should not have written my date off as a weirdo, but seen him as someone who is closer to his inner child than I am.

This morning, Marina Abramović stands at the entrance to the Serpentine Gallery to welcome the first visitors of the day to her performance piece, 512 hours. ‘Most artists do not say good morning but I do! Good morning!’ she says, and looks deeply into our eyes as we each enter. Once inside, we’re asked to leave our phones and belongings in lockers before stepping into the exhibition.

I’m handed a black strip of cloth to tie over my eyes and coaxed into the white room filled with more than a dozen other blindfolded visitors slowly shuffling around, many with their hands tracing along the side of the walls to keep themselves in check. Muffled noises reverberate through the large gallery space where the bodies of the others are the only obstacles for sound to bounce off of. Robbed of my vision, I am reminded of diving to the bottom of the ocean where the blue extends into an infinity that is endless as well as stifling and claustrophobic.

The invigilator who blindfolded me gently spins me around and I, disorientated, rely on my hearing in a bid to understand my position but can make little of the dull acoustic. My hands, too, find a wall and follow the contours of the room. Every so often I brush against another body and we both erupt in muted giggles. The touch of warmth, the physicality of life and energy within the other is a striking contrast to the cool of the wall. As I move through the space I find myself looking forward to these physical encounters, these intimate meetings that, devoid of eye contact, are based on senses that I’m usually far less aware of.

Suddenly, a soft hand reaches out to mine—it’s been a while since I’ve held a hand and this unexpected contact spreads like the warmth of an enveloping embrace. A calm, hushed voice begins to speak: ‘Walk very slowly, in slow motion. Pay attention to each of your movements’. His soothing voice echoes a semblance of love. Silently, we walk together, hand in hand.

This stranger’s words stirs a feeling deeply nestled within: I am taken care of while I am in a state of near helplessness. For an instant I am in love, that home-coming type of love, perhaps the greatest kind of love! Minutes later, he releases my hand: ‘Carry on without me’. And I continue, gliding through a sightless world and floating on the remnants of the briefest infatuation I’ve ever known.

Rolf Nowotny, Deaf Parent, 2013

Relieved of my blindfold, I walk into the next room where a kind faced girl, another invigilator, leads me to a space where row upon row of cots are laid out. Most of the cots are occupied by visitors wearing ear defenders. They seem to be asleep. She gestures to an empty bed and I lie down. She pulls a thin purple cotton sheet over me and her face floats above me as I close my eyes. Once again, I am pulled into a worriless childlike world, where the maternal figure moves me to a long forgotten state of surrender. Like the shepherd was my lover during my minutes of blindness, the girl momentarily becomes mother.

After my session, I visit the toilet. The girl whose face lingered in the darkness of my closed eyes exits a stall as I await my turn. When our eyes meet, I smile at her and she returns the gesture, although the tenderness of our previous exchange has disappeared. Strangers once again, indeed, and the gallery, too, has reverted to just that: the white cube.

And I realise that I have just fallen for the Marina method despite numberless reasons to be wary: Marina’s embrac of celebrity status and that odd goddess-like persona she strives towards, how my ‘authentic’ experience is induced by paid invigilators repeating the same gestures daily, and how the performance is basically a series of new age mindfulness exercise. And yet, despite this awareness, I’ve gladly given in.

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Charioteer of Delphi

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

A Great Love

Nobody controls the intoxication of love that catches you off-guard like a terrorist, to tie you up and take you to sweet places. In this immersion, the ache of desire and total pleasure alternate. A great love might function as a tipping point, an experience that transforms the world for good. Across me sits Femmy Otten, in a conversation that is prompted by her recent installation (New Myth for New Family, 2011) at the Rijksacademie, in which love vibrated and triumphed, and the viewer was left feeling timid by the gazes surrounding him. Between us on the table lies the book by Pierre Klossowski, which is full of erotica and voyeurism. In Klossowski’s crayon drawings the classical merges with the temporary, and also the violent side of love can be recognized in the work; sometimes even literally, as in the photos in which he ties up his wife Denise.

Otten relates the moment on which she first made, or could make, her first relief after a very intense experience of love. ‘After a stable and pleasant seven-year relationship, I got into an unprecedentedly intense romance. Something has since stuck with me and not gone away, whilst there was also something that had been destroyed. Not before did I know that one could desire so extremely. That surrender, real letting go, is what accompanied this love. To be able to free myself from it I have inscribed his story, as if he were the one writing it, I am him, and I made a sculptural relief about it. This allowed me to give the experience a place and move on. I have continued to use that switch of perspective: every time I make a work I write from the perspective of the person that the work is a reaction to. It gives me a strange kind of freedom.’

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Somewhere in the book by Klossowski I encounter the line: ‘Then I married Denise very quickly. Denise represented reality while I was metaphysical.’ The reality of the body embraced his mind and took him along. That is what love does.

In the installation, a woman in low relief on the wall wears a medallion with the portrait of her beloved close to her. It is a realistic portrait, he even wears glasses. Above her head floats a halo in various light colours. Her cheek has been slightly grazed. Her body is squashed like in some strange flowered corset and her hands dangle clumsily downwards. Opposite the relief, the two lovers stand on a peak with earthly attributes such as a bag, blue trousers and a beer bottle. Two As.

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

‘I was so obsessed by love that I couldn’t not make a work a about it. But who possesses who, does he possess her amulet or the other way around? With the arrows and the halo, it is almost a sanctification of love. I have made his portrait, but I feel it is about all loves that I had to part from. While I am in the middle of love’s ecstasy, strangely enough it foreshadows the end.’

Klossowski speaks somewhere of a faltering moment, a wavering moment in which the jolting gestures give the impression of being possessed by unknown forces. The strange hands in Otten’s installation seem to contradict the directness of the facial expression, to push something away, a helplessness. Or the facial expression confirms that which the hands reject, renounce or deny.

A former writer, Klossowksi spoke of his drawings as ‘the art of the deaf and dumb who are painters’. Standing in Otten’s installation, this silence breezes around you. It is mainly the silence of her experiences that is present in this installation, which, as a viewer, you can touch with your fingers in the air. A condensed moment that gathers everything that leads up to it and prefigures the gaze of the viewer. The viewer is caught between the gazes, locked in and locked out.

Otten tells how in summer she made a bike trip with her boyfriend across Italy, as a religious pilgrimage past the murals of the Early Renaissance. How her loved one grew in beauty with the exercise, tanner, more muscular, and how she would find herself red and sweating, trying to follow him. Love survived. The frescos of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca were a honeysweet catalyst.

Otten: ‘The Madonna del Parto of Piero della Francesca, in the church in which his mother is buried, is free of sentiment, pure painting. So moving. When I saw a fresco of Fra Angelico I was reminded of Henry Darger. I recognized that level of detail very much, he works per square millimetre; a peculiar devotion speaks from it, an almost autistic passion. I relate to that, it is what I am always searching for, short moments in which you are sure it is just right, that things will work out in your work. A destined feeling. During the realisation of the work I am very slowly looking for that precise form. Total devotion, that is what it is about too. It has to do with oblivion, that enchantment that leaves you in a sort of hypnotised state. A frenzy in utter silence and concentration.’

The same sometimes occurs to me when I am listening to a concert. Once, during a Schubert piece, my body seemed to grow, my body members felt very long with large warm feet and hands on the far ends. When your body relates to you differently, it is intoxication too. You can also get that when you receive a very pleasant massage from someone, but it is much more intense when it surges up from within yourself, much grander.’

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

At the exhibition at Art Association Diepenheim I saw her adding the final touches to a relief; she put on headphones for isolation and in uttermost concentration she finished the painting with a few strokes of the brush. ‘Working is a great ecstasy. Unfortunately I cannot reach it every time; sometimes I idle all day in my studio in order to work for a mere twenty minutes around eleven. I then need the whole day to do that. That makes it very frustrating sometimes, and it makes art a time-consuming affair. I can speed up the process just by drawing or making something, which will set things going, and yes, it then becomes meditative.’

‘Francis Alÿs finds this rush in hiking, in its repetitiveness. The rhythm of the footsteps makes you part of a larger whole. Everyone has his own rituals to reach a state of ecstasy.’

‘It is a specific beauty that has its hold on me. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it makes me very happy. It might happen just on the train, when a young girl obsesses me with her beauty; I enjoy that, it is most exciting, the adventure of looking. I want to hold onto that so badly. The feeling that something can disappear so easily is hard for me to bear.’

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

‘My work is always about the ones close to me, but also there do I have that very specific feeling of beauty. I often use the face of my youngest sister because she has that specific, magical beauty that I’m looking for. It has always been very clear what I found beautiful, the archaic, the simple, powerful shapes, free from emotion. But it is more than that, it is also something primordial, something ancient, that tells no story but is visual, a sublimation.’

As a 13-year old, Femmy and her mother walked into the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. She saw the charioteer of Delphi and started to weep. A museum guard took her by the hand and she was allowed to climb the partition and stroke his foot. ‘To touch that statue seemed an almost sexual experience, so strong and all-encompassing.’ The charioteer, originating from the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi (470 BC) is a stately bronze sculpture of 1 metre 80 tall. A tall man whose heavy tunic falls down in folds. An open glance, set in coloured eyes, a slightly open mouth. An experience that already started to tilt the world.

Charioteer of Delphi

I cross the Thames; silver under a grey sky, and watch the throngs of pedestrians pass the bridge and make their way to the museum. There’s something magical to being one of the newest additions to this city, feeling myself immersed in a great crowd with the realisation that this is home now. Here, solitude lends itself to becoming a welcome spectator seat.

The path is lined with buskers where they compete with one another for air space. A man points his camera to the Rastafarian with matted dreads reaching past his knees – No woman no cry! – he hoarsely wails, while pointing at the colourful hat splayed open, awaiting the clink of change. Further yet, two indie boys croon and strum, a bongo player meditatively strikes his drums, and all coalesce into an arrhythmic cacophony.

As Tate Modern comes into view, I’m surprised to see a group of large, furry animals standing in front of the museum. There must be at least fifteen of them, donned in intricately detailed costumes of cartoon versions of cats, bears, foxes, and wolves. These are not your run-of-the-mill dress up shop costumes, their muscles are defined, sturdy, their masks are eerily realistic, and their jaws open and close at will. I watch as they interact with the spectators, and see the timber wolf taking on his role as the alpha dog, bending his knees and flexing his arms as the tourists snap away. On the other side of the crowd, the silver fox with her big blue eyes walks demurely, somewhat timidly past, and leans her head against the onlookers, allowing them to stroke her, pet her nose, and bury their faces into her furry shoulder.

I was aware that what I was seeing was a group belonging to the Furry Fandom culture. These Furries, as they’re referred to, have an unusual interest in cartoon-like animal characters. In fact, some even believe they’re more like their specific animal of interest than human. They find each other on Internet forums and websites where they write fan fiction, and make fan art; they congregate at Furry Fandom conventions, and as it seems, in public spaces too. It’s a way of life, an identity, a subculture that creates a sense of belonging. Theirs is a tight-knit community where escapism from the every day lends itself in the form of a very expensive and very heavy fursuit, fitted with battery-powered fans to keep the user from overheating.
While watching them strut around the Tate’s bustling yard, I realise there’s no collection box. And what I’m seeing isn’t an artistic performance, either. It’s the simple act of the Furries taking on their role and engaging with the world as their alternate identities. The fur costumes disarm the plain clothed man and convince him of the wearer’s zoomorphic nature. By doing so, the Furries capitalise on our reaction to cute, cuddly animals and in a moment of instant adoration, they’re embraced, loved, and admired by complete strangers. I can’t help but wonder if these costumes are disguising the most deplorable, unattractive, acne-ridden and repulsive members of society imaginable. And, the assumption immediately arises that these people must suffer a certain social deficiency in order to resort to this inverted exhibitionism to find affection.
At the end of the day, I exit the museum. The sky has fallen dark and the masses have dissipated. My steps towards the tube station sound hollow in the absence of the buskers and I think of my new London room awaiting my return: dark and silent and empty. For a moment I think of these Furries, in this big city, and catch a glimmer of understanding.
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Since the start of the last century, the French have known a tradition of sending one another so-called ‘poisson d’Avril’ (April Fish) messages. These are richly decorated postcards depicting a fish, often surrounded by flowers and a few lines of text.

The flowers most likely allude to the changing of seasons; after all, the 1st of April is set at the very beginning of springtime. More importantly, the vernal equinox is the ultimate metaphor for the blossoming of new love and the excitement that spring brings with it. The fish represents the hope of love requited by a (secret) object of affection, captioned by texts such as ‘Quand arrive avril, tous les fleurs en France, s’ouvrent à l’amour, pêcheur d’espérance!’ (All the flowers in France open in April for love, the fisher of hope!)

The sender hopes with all his heart that the addressee will answer his love: ‘Parce message discret / je vous envoie, ma toute belle / Mon plus cher et plus doux sécret / Mais vous ne serez pas cruelle?’ (With this secret message I send to you, my beautiful, my most precious and tender of secrets/ Please, do not be cruel.)

From the beginning of 1900, tens of thousands of April fish swam their way to an equal amount of lovers, proving to be the way to declare your love, albeit anonymously, in the form of what essentially is a Valentine’s card avant la letter.

It’s not quite clear why a fish was chosen as the symbol of springtime and love. Some believe that it has to do with the mating season of the fish, which occurs around April. During this period a fishing ban is enforced in France. To mislead illegal fishing, fake fish are thrown into the water during mating season. When a fisherman catches a pseudo-fish, men cry ‘poisson d’Avril!’ The April Fish is like the French April fool’s gag.

In this sense, the tradition of the April Fish is still alive and kicking. On the 1st of April, cut out paper fish are stuck on the back of an unsuspecting passerby who, when the fish on his back is noticed, is declared the ‘poisson d’Avril!’

Besides paper fish, edible fish are also popular. Around the 1st of April, the storefronts ofFrench patisseries and chocolatiers display an unending supply of chocolate fish and all sorts of fish-shaped pastries. Still, the fish is an object of seduction, although no longer through the mailman’s delivery, being instead served on platters in shop windows. Because in the end, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

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