239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

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

The hunt is a symbol of the desire for the One. The hunter appropriates the power to love, to experience total bliss in the ritual. But no matter how beautiful and seductive the game is, the hunt is tragic. Sandor Marai sees his wife as prey, Petrarca regards love as a tasty poison and also for Leonardo da Vinci pleasure and grief are intertwined. Whatever is hunted or seduced, ambivalence always reigns.

A real hunter has a gun. Not a pistol, but a big, long object that kills: a rabbit, a deer, a hare. A hunter is a murderer. The hunt evokes images of a kennel of dogs, hunter’s garments, the scent of forests and wet leaves. A drop hanging from his nose.

This came to mind when I looked at a white dildo-like thing, with a cute pair of antlers at the top that resembles twigs. The white, elongated sculpture has a seam that runs crosswise, which makes it resemble a toy: I was once in the possession of a plastic doll with a crosswise seam. The white renders the sculpture innocent, the shape reminds of a female body with a Bambi-like head. The art work is called Deer Squirrel and is made by New York artist Robert Beck (1959). On the internet one can find a picture of another of Beck’s works, material: gunpowder on paper. A white sheet with gunpowder, black powder in a circle as if a shot has been fired. Bambi, the hunted deer, shot by the hunter.

The book Portraits of a Marriage by the Hungarian author Sandor Marai contains a wonderful scene in which the narrator and protagonist sneaks up to the woman he desires. He approaches her as if she were a prey and, later, reminisces the scene to explore his motifs: ‘It is very possible that at that point I still had the hope, deep, very deep inside my heart, that somewhere in the world there would be a body that could harmonise completely with mine, and with the help of which, I could transform the thirst of desire and the saturation of satisfaction into a mild quiet – corresponding to the dream people call ‘happiness.’ The mistake of this thought was that happiness as such does not exist, but I did not know that by then.’

It basically comes down to the protagonist’s pursuit of ‘happiness’ and whether it exists or not, it is clear that it is a temporary state and not a remaining constant. Happiness is like life, it passes. Love, in all its shapes, demands exactly the opposite: something infinite, forever, like the soft murmur of a PC when we write something. In other words: as long as we live, we have the duty to love. It is because of this that love, seduction, is always paired with desire for death, the fixed stasis of a moment with the wish to efface oneself and to coalesce. The hunt – evidently linked to murder – is a symbol of this desire for the One. The hunted object is, in a sense, always innocent and the hunter appropriates the power to love, to experience total bliss in the ritual: aiming the gun, the silence in the forest, slinking past crackling leaves, a beautiful hit. Finally, a corpse always remains, until the next hunt. Seduction, true seduction, is surely accompanied with play and flirtation, in which all innocence has been put aside and one is no longer a deer, but perhaps a squirrel, cheerfully jumping up and down, ostentatiously, from branch to branch. Or like in New York, the city that Beck comes from, a rat who scrounges around waste bins to find a meal – ‘tailed rats’ is the nickname for rats over there.

Ah, that sweet seduction, the lovely game of flirting. The French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) painted many pictures of women in lace dresses making advances on men in wigs. One of them depicts a woman on a swing, below whom is a reclining young gent who can see under her skirts as she lifts her leg and lobs her left shoe to him. The images of this French Rococo Painter who lived at the time of Louis XIV, the Sun King, now seem gaudy to us. The French Revolution forced him to give up his career in painting; he spent his last years doing administrative jobs and finally died in obscurity. His love life I have not studied, but his paintings show the appeal of forbidden, secret pleasures. The ritual of the hunt is also marked by the forbidden, because it is in silence –in secret- that the hunter approaches the prey to avoid being discovered and the bounty escaping. No matter how beautiful or seductive the game might be, the hunt remains a tragic affair. The killing is cold, sometimes repulsive, sometimes necessary. It is always the shot that matters. A hit or not?

Fragonard's The Swing

The famous philosopher Petrarch (1303-1374) wrote the following on love: ‘Despite myself I love, forced by faith to sadness and tears.’ He adds that love is ‘a hell that fools make into their paradise’, a ‘tasty poison’, ‘an attractive torment’, and ‘a death that has the look of life.’ Put differently, pleasure and grief are inextricably interwoven, like Siamese twins.

Petrarch (1304-1374)

Leonardo da Vinci made an allegorical drawing that shows two men who share torso and legs. They represent Grief and Pleasure. The one man is old and wears a twig from an oak tree, the other is young and has reed in his hand, carelessly dropping some golden coins. Da Vinci provided the following commentary: ‘They are depicted with their backs to each other for they are each other’s opposite, but sprout from the same trunk for they share the same origin. (...) Pleasure has been depicted with some reed in his right hand, insignificant and weak, that can cause nasty wounds.’

Da Vinci's drawing

The pursuit of pleasure or the sublimation of love in the mind by chasing dreams, that is what matters to Da Vinci. The latter is bigger, more intense that physical lust: the dream of the One is linked to wishes and fantasies that always end in grief. Whatever is hunted (a girl, a young boy, an older one) ambivalence always reigns here, as a swing that arouses in us an alternation of fear (this is too high, I might fall) and joy (I’m flying). Up and down, from heaven onto earth – ouch, what a desire.

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postcard 1

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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In a garage sale, a briefcase filled with photos and typed papers is found. All of them document a passionate affair, which took place between May 1969 and December 1970 in Germany. An affair. What a delicious word. With a strip of birth control tucked in the handbag and a new moral in mind, the sexual revolution was ready for take off. Premarital sex became more common and one might say that marriage even got abolished. Freedom lured all.

Chronik einer affare

The book Open Marriage opened all doors en described how to respectfully let each other be. Married couples often organised swinging and key parties. When entering the party, the men threw their car keys in a big jar. After enjoying each others company and a glass of wine or sherry, all women took a pair of car keys and left with the man whom they belonged for a passionate night together. Of course, some cheating occurred (my key is the one with the peace mark).

An affair fascinates more than planned adultery, because it is about passion for the one man or women and filled with secrets. Because, revolution or not, the married did find it difficult to share their partner. With every infatuation, the choice of being straight forward occurs. And then there's the practical side… How do you organise an affair? How often can you get away with 'working late'? Always being cautious that not the slightest stain of pancake is still on the collar of your shirt. Covering tracks is necessary in an affair.

Chronik einer affäre. This archive of a secret affair goes against all code. Instead of covering his tracks, main character Günther documents his affair like a compulsive accountant, collecting evidence with photos and descriptions.

Günther is 39 years old, owner of a construction company and his mistress Marget is his 24 year old secretary. On the first black and white photographs of 11 May 1969, we see Margret at work on her typewriter. She looks into the camera, a little shy, wearing a light sweater with two pockets on her small breasts. Her eyebrows are straight lines, which bend up to her temples. Her hair is dark. Another picture showed her posing at the table with her skirt pulled up high.

chronik einer affare, into the woods

galerie Susan Zander, Köln

The first note of Günther is written on Friday, the 9th of January 1970: ‘Fr. 9.1.1970: haren getont ’ (hair dyed), and in the next series of portrets we see Margret with a modern, red haircut with bangs. Günther transforms his secretary into a sophisticated woman. He dresses her, buys her stockings and jewellery and takes a lot of pictures. This affair follows a few clichés. As seen on the photos, Margret actually wears glasses, but prefers not to in her role as a seductive lady. Günther takes her to a modern world of spas, casinos and castle dinners. The love is allowed to be celebrated. Margret poses in an orange bathroom, next to flowers in a vase, against the decor of the park-like gardens that surround the hotels. She smokes often and with pleasure, because nothing is better than a cigarette after love making.

He takes pictures of his love during the rendez-vous, before and after sex. While time passes by, the notes get longer and the details get both dry and juicy.

In the first lang note, typed on a page from a calendar with a big eight on it, ‘dienstag, Maria Geburt’, Günther describes the next scene:

Monday 7.9.1970: At lunch Leni (Günthers wife) says to Margret: Madame, you are of lowly character, you're disrupting a good marriage.
Dinsdag 8.9.1970: Around 10 a clock Margret says to me: You let this insult from your wife against me pass? No more sex, you can jump on your own wife. Whatever you do, don't think you can jump on me anymore!
Later, my wife has to apologize to her at lunch on 8.9.1970

That afternoon they go upstairs again to make love and the note ends with:

Teufelsalat gegessen.
Alles in Ordnung wiederum.

The sexual revolution is happening right now and yet old conventions and principles of power determine the position of the man and women. The boss and his young secretary. Günther’s Leni knows about the affair, she endures it and humiliates herself. Marget is his lover, overflows with confidence and plays it high. Her husband knows nothing about the affair en when the boss takes his secretary home after a business trip or meeting, they even drink together. He calls her Zini and she calls him Schnaggel. In January 1970, she takes her birth control and Günther saves the empty strip. He also saves hairs, pieces of fingernails, a towel with a stain of blood, bills and receipts of bought clothes. They seem to have an obsessive relationship.

chronik einer affare, in the bathroom

galerie Susan Zander, Köln

In 1970, they go on a trip twice together. The looks are typical of the 70’s, with high hairstyles, miniskirts and innocent poses. The most revealing photo is a naked Margret who dries herself with a towel in the bathroom, which can’t be more like home. Or a photo from her dress, lying on the bed. Each photo is perfect, love makes good photographers and there is nothing better than a lovers gaze.

Only in words, their affair could be more explicit. During one of the trips, Günther makes a list of all the times they made love.

Wednesday 12 Aug. 1970: 17 18.15 1x
Beginning of her period (tampon) Initiation party anyways
Tuesday 18 Aug. 1970: 15.15 -15. 20
Yellow chair in front of the aquarium (sitting) 1x
Wednesday 2 Sept. 1970: 17. 05-18.00 1x
With beautiful music, resting afterwards
And so forward..

In timed, his descriptions get longer rand more explicit. While the love gets more complicated, there are less photos and more words.

Monday 2 Nov. 1970
At 1 am I played with her pussy and clitoris until she came. At 5 pm we went upstairs again. White-blue dress and white boots. After a drink, she had taken of her dress and put on the brown with the messing buttons I gave her. It fit perfectly. Took photos of the front of the dress and then of her in the brown dress at the bar. Then to bed. Both naked. Licked her two breasts, caressed her bushy cunthairs and her clitoris until she came on top of me. First a normal position, then a special one. It was amazing.
Chronik einer affare

When the couple is staying in Bad Eims, Margret's husband, Lothar, causes a deadly accident with a 70 year old bicyclist, as we can read in the typed notes, but the trip doesn't end there and no further information is typed.

And then, suddenly, there is Giesela, and Ursula. Because Margret wants to prevent any suspicion, she requests that Günther goes on dates with the women. And with the same pleasure, Günther describes the love making with Giesela. After their diner in Grill-restaurant Goldener Pflug (receipt saved), he takes her with him, fucks her and calls her sexually starving. He describes Margret as extremely jealous:

Fraulein Ursula, 21th birthday in Nov. 1970, big and skinny, she looks really good. White boots, green dress, black hair.

Margret starts to panic.

In a note from Günther we read: Margret immediately said, whether she had not seen her: You are in love, don’t go through with her, Günther, please don’t go through with her, not with her. I was unmoved and Margret stepped out of the car in de Subbelratherstrasse.

Günther drives on and returns to Ursula. The last line in this long note: In that same night Margret fights with her husband and asks for a divorce.

In the next note he picks up Margret at her house and they make love: Sie war wirklich so wie ich mir eine verliebte Frau wünsche.

His last note is a long description of their love making.

It is an unfinished report, fragmented, by which you have to read between the lines and fill up the empty spaces. What makes this man write notes and report his affair so precisely? Perhaps he wanted to contain the love and relive the sensation. He wanted to give his love a platform. He wants to confirm his control over the situation, to master the affair. Does he type his reports in the living room, accompanied by his wife? At work? And where does he keep the suitcase with the evidence? The suitcase was found at home. In the attic? And his wife did not once throw away the whole love account. She swallows it, again and again. He must be the kind of man that has that much power over his wife that she just lets it happen. After all, the feminist revolution had only just begun.

Love and power share an inner bond, even in the times of the sexual revolution.

Margret, Chronik einer affäre, Mai 1969 bis Dezember 1970. Uitgever Walther Köning, Keulen, 2012.