The World Inside Out Pauline Curnier Jardin according to Ana Teixeira Pinto
On 11 February 1858, a sickly and undernourished child, Bernadette Soubirous (Maria Bernada Sobeirons) had a vision whilst gathering firewood near the grotto of Massabielle. She claimed she saw “that” and that “that” was a 12 year-old child, slightly younger than herself, slightly smaller than herself.
In 1964, a statue, celebrating the Marian apparition the church had in the meantime recognized, was placed in an alcove within the grotto. Created by the famed sculptor Joseph-Hugues Fabisch, the image is a fairly ortodox representation of the Virgin Mary, a mature woman with fair completion and a pious gaze. Upon seeing it, the child felt disappointed: it looked nothing like her vision.
In Pauline Cunier Jardin’s Grotta Profunda les humeurs du gouffre (Grotta Profunda the moody chasms, 2011-17) Bernadette has another vision. She is no longer a girl child she is a young man in drag. He/she wears an headress and white apron with block-healed sandals, and follows the vision into the grotto, touching its rocky, muddy walls. Smearing his/her face with its charcoal-coloured residue ––the real Bernadette ate mud whilst digging for her miraculous water source–– Bernadette turns into a black- Madonna-in-blackface and falls victim to a mixture of sexual ecstasy and agonizing pain. When he/she pulls her skirt up, a seedy-looking Jesus’ peeps up between his/her legs. Wearing nothing but a loincloth and a headband he reclines on a chair, slightly lifting his undergarments. He seems to mutter “I know you want it”. Bernadette is now a limbless, barnacle-like creature, with a protruding flat head and a cylinder shaped body.
The question of origins is a perilous one. Origins, Terry Eagleton argues, are always criminal, and “political legitimacy is founded on fading memory and blunted sensibility.” The truth about the original usurpation, as Blaise Pascal noted, must not be made apparent: “it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal, and its origins must be hidden if we do not want it soon to end.” It is not just that these are bloody and arbitrary, “it is also the sheer scandal of an origin as such, for what was born can also die.”1 The primal scene of the sources of power (the church, the state, the patriarchy), to paraphrase Eagleton, does not bear looking into, and any attempt to unveil them will be construed as a kind of sexual indecency.2
Standing at the intersection between architecture and anatomy, a grotto is an uncanny place, one could say a form of scenic indecency, if landscape would be capable of signifying moral impropriety. A popular feature of garden-design in 17th century Italy, the grotto is also the origin of the word “grotesque”.
Once inside, a parade of unseemly creatures will lead the viewer to confront “the big questions”. Who is your mother? Is it female? Is it the Venus of Willendorf? The Black Madonna? The ancient earth-goddess converted to Christianity? Is she made of flesh or earthly matter? Is she Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Ceres, or Demeter, Ge-meter, the Earth Mother, and protagonist of Cunier Jardin’s Viola Melon, Baiser Melocoton a film in a goddess (2013-14) making a cameo appearence? Is she black like the most fertile soil or is she black because in ancient Aramaic, a language of idioms, black means sorrowful, like Isis the sorrowful, who tried to retrieve and reassemble the dismembered body of her husband Osiris ––who is now her son Jesus–– but could not find his phallus ––as it had been eaten by a fish–– hence turns into a virgin.
Is the limbless Bernadette-barnacle-in-black-face the missing limb? Is it’s a strangely shaped dildo, designed for a non-human (devine) anatomy? And what are we to make of its status? In her 2016 video Explosion My Baby, Cunier Jardin filmed the men-only ritual of dedicating baby boys to San Sebastian ––ironically, a homoerotic icon, languidly flaunting his arrow pierced body–– amidst money garlands and fireworks, in another instance of a ritual which seems to at once reveal and conceal and aesthetic crisis.
A dildo, Paul B. Preciado argues, is not a phallus, in so far as the dildo is not a symbol for patriarchy or phallocentrism. Patriarchal, land-based accumulation is typically threatened by the figure of the “cheating” wife. Hence the all-pervasive anxiety about virginity. But to be a virgin can also be seen as a political statement, to remove oneself from the cycle of social reproduction, to not feed the empire with a new generation of soldiers or a renewed tax base. Bernadette, the eldest of nine children, aspired to joining a religious order to escape the curse of fertility. Her vision wears a blue sash tied around her waist, the habit she herself covets. Inside Cunier Jardin’s grotto, the vision turns into an ice cream cone ––a camp version of the land of Cockaigne, a world without hurt or hunger, dripping milky cream out of its heavenly vanilla bosom. Isn’t this the promise of capital? Paradise at your fingertips, in the plentiful stock of department store shelves.
But long before commodity display became the phantasmagoria of modernity, the grotto had its own shadow play, and its own drama of presence and absence: what Plato called the “two-worlds hypotheses” or the divide between being and appearance. Truth, unlike representation, can be grasped by the Mind alone, for things which are seen by the Mind’s Eye are of a different kind than things which are seen by the physical eyes.
The two boys inside an ice-cream cone could also be described as a double articulation of difference, howbeit not of a metaphysical kind: sexual difference and racial difference. They wear sheer tights ––the most sought after commodity during war times, which women would obtain by offering their sexual favours to the American army–– but seem to discover shame the moment they slip out of their ice-cone shaped value-form, as if to signal that the uncommodified is a form of social nakedness.
What about the mermaid/monkey, a creature exhibited by P.T Barnum in his garish museum, consisting of the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a large fish, which he leased for $12.50 a week? Doesn’t she look like the Starbucks logo? She tries to sing but her vocals cords can only articulate an animalistic grunt. And what about the woman spider who crawls about wearing vinyl boots in her feet-like hands? Are these archetypes or funfair freaks?
Perhaps the best way to access the status of Grotta Profunda les humeurs du gouffre’s protagonists would be via the concept of the carnivalesque. Originally formulated by Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin in his work Rabelais and his World (1968) the carnivalesque is characterized by the de-stabilization or reversal of social structures. By mobilizing satire and all forms of visual grotesquery the carnivalesque allows for transgressive behaviour to thrive beneath the veneer of hierarchy and order. During carnival, rank is abolished and metaphor is incarnate, hypostatizing deviancy onto the concreteness of the physical body, stretched and strained to the limits of recognition.
In The Accursed Share (1949), French author Georges Bataille notes that preindustrial societies were characterised by the “unproductive consumption of the surplus” that the sacrificial expenditure of the superabundance of energy all organic life is based upon. Capitalism, the only economic system that redirects the surplus back into production, is in this sense an aberration, an economic anomaly. The carnival, one could say, represents the return of the repressed, of the unproductive consumption of surpluses, howbeit in transcendental form, as aesthetic excess. For Bakhtin, the carnival creates an alternative social space, populated by freedom, equality and abundance.
Carnival’s grotesque transgressions unleash “the mythical potential of moving between species”3 and the promise of a progeny that radically differs from its progenitors. Rather than a simple inversion, debasement or profanation (high and low, sacred and profane, male and female, day and night), Cunier Jardin’s carnivalesque tableaux could be described as a “portrayal of the protean body” based on a “fantasy of metamorphosis, change and mutability, unconfined by the forms of actuality”. Rather than fantastic figures her protagonists could be described as political subjects, who can carry the progressive promise of “a transformation that could be undergone by all – politically, socially.”4
The figure of the witch, recurring throughout Cunier Jardin’s oeuvre, is one such political subject. The witch-hunts, which befell Europe at the dawn of capitalism, were not the last throes of a dying dark-age, but the birth pangs of the modern era; the first in a long- lineage of modern genocidal practices. Unlike class antagonism, which results from economical inequality and exploitation, gender and racial antagonisms have no material origin or raison d’être. Instead, they require manufacturing. The witch hunts were the historical precondition to the rise of an economy predicated upon the subjugation of the dispossessed to wage-discipline. As the destitute peasants were expelled from an increasingly privatized countryside, they flocked to the urban centres; once there, women had almost no access to wages, in a society that was becoming rapidly monetarized. Away from their families and communities, they enjoyed no form of social protection, whilst authorities began to turn a blind eye on sexual assault. This de facto decriminalization of rape proved highly effective in preventing social tensions from assuming a political form, leading gangs of young men to prey on vulnerable maids and spinsters, instead of rioting, revolting against their employers or stirring up dissent. The rise of capitalism was coeval with a war against women, which comprised a sexual division of labour subjugating women’s labour (that is: reproductive labour) to wage labour (that is: productive labour), and the resulting exclusion of women from waged work. This exclusion concurred with the instituting of the nuclear family, grounded on the economic dependence of women to men, and the subjugation of female reproductive functions to the reproduction of labour power, buttressed by a punitive approach to birth control and reproductive autonomy.
Primitive accumulation, as Silvia Federici argued in her seminal work Caliban and the Witch, was not simply an accumulation of riches and labour-power, it was an accumulation of differences and divisions, which would tear apart the working masses, by introducing gender and racial hierarchies amongst the exploited. From this perspective, the politicization of gender and sexuality is tied to the privatization of the commons, and these twin events will set in motion an ideological machine, whose motions will develop a novel form of persecuting society. The othering of women is thus just an initial othering, followed by a succession of further otherings.
Blutbad Parade (2015) is, from this perspective a, paradigmatic staging of this primal scene, in which the “feminine”, the “collective”, the “deviant”, the “queer”, and the “monstrous” are annihilated by a triangulation of masculinity, potency and technology, personified by the French air force. A real event ––in 1916 the city of Karlsruhe was bombed, and a circus was hit midway through the performance–– becomes an allegory for the death of the carnival, and its unbridled appetites and transgressions, replaced by the considerably more voracious appetite of capital and empire. In a world of flux and turmoil dynamism does not necessarily lead to revolution ––capital is already an inherently transgressive force, whose “normativity is defined by the arbitrary and aberrant” and whose “stability is no more than a ceaselessly renegotiated disorder”.5 The circus and the avant-garde, the ciphers for subversion, are now themselves subverted, disrupted, destroyed. What is one to make of a life in which unreliability is the norm?
Coeurs de silex (Hearts of Flint, 2012) introduces us to a gang of such wretched characters: the army veteran, the single mother, the juvenile delinquent, the necromancer, a coach who tries to recruit the local youth into his assassin squad. In the opening sequence the coach tells us the girl is his best killer, but for a caveat, she eats people. As the god-fearing folk knows eating people is a heinous act, a crime against nature. Witches used to eat people, typically children, during the witches Sabbath, and so did Africans and the New World savages, known for their cannibalistic taste for human flesh. Jews too, were said to murder Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah (unleavened bread). Nowadays only Zombies seem to indulge this habit. The girl’s mother eats earth instead, as does the army veteran, though he prefers the crunchy bits. As for the necromancer, he seems to know the earth is made of (dead) people. In Noisy-le-Sec, heavily bombed in 1944, there is no shortage of bodies. Even the living are bereft of live, stumbling around aimlessly. In all cases the object of their desire (the missing father, the ancestors, the fatherland) becomes a cruel attachment, an obstacle or impediment to well- being. Their horizontally and immobility contrasts the verticality and hypermobility of capital flows.
At a time when “the traditional infrastructures for reproducing life—at work, in intimacy, politically—are crumbling at a threatening pace,” what does it mean to “have a life”? Why do people stay attached to “lives that do not work” or strive to “maintain their footing in worlds that are not there for them”?6
Zombies ––typically devoid of subjectivity and individual agency–– are an allegory for the underclass, for those whose lives we deem not worthy of being lived. They are an expression of middleclass anxiety about seeing their lives degraded to the status of those beneath them and for the fear of evacuated futures.
The suburb is, in this sense, the urbanistic equivalent to the zombie. The creation of vast areas of suburbanized, dormitory towns, as writer and film scholar Olivier Marbeouf argues, reproduces the colonial relation, in effect removing certain demographics from the city, and by extension from public life ––cultural life, social life, political life–– that exists therein. The dormitory town is connected to the world of labour and the world of labour alone, via transportation channels that ensure the production/reproduction cycle remains uninterrupted. Here the question of representation is connected to the wider problem of visibility, or lack thereof, and to the question of violence, not contingent on putative transgressions, but wholly gratuitous and structural, positioning the, often non- white, poor outside of the social contract.
This long tradition of defilement is also the reason why there is something sticky between racialized subjects, women, zombies and the proletarianized masses. The conflation of women and mass unrest was a common trope of conservative discourse at the turn of the century. In his book The Crowd (Psychologie des Foules, 1895) Gustave le Bon had already addressed the crowd not as a political agent but as a gendered subject: impulsive, irrational, gullible, unpredictable. The collective is by definition illiberal. Popular revolt does not spell out political demands because the masses exist in the same state as the animal, outside of politics and history.
In The Resurrection Plot (2015) Cunier Jardin stages what one could call a “carnival against capital” or a political somatics if you will, mobilizing a cast of outcasts and oddities, like the painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the ceramicist Bernard Palissy, and the writer François Rabelais, in order to undo the historical hegemony of the proprietary, patriarchal subject, who takes possession of the world around him, even when taking possession assumes a transcendental sense, as object of knowledge or taxonomy. Carnival, as Terry Eagleton argues, “involves above all a pluralizing and cathecting of the body, dismantling its unity into freshly mobile parts and ceaselessly transgressing its limits. In a collectivizing moment, the individuated body is thrown wide open to its social surroundings, so that its orifices become spaces of erotic interchange with an “outside” that is somehow always an inside too. A vulgar shameless materialism of the body ––belly, buttocks, anus, genitals–– rides rampant over ruling class civilities.”7
By conjuring the possibility of semantic as well as material metamorphoses, Cunier Jardin’s androgynous dancers with gargantuan heads and fishnet stockings, depart from a notion of carnival as wholly constituted via its oppositional engagement with normative culture. Rather the artist reopens the marginalized history of the non- volitional body, blurring the boundaries between the relational and the individual, the animal and the mineral, the libidinal and the liminal.
Last but not least, Cunier Jardin opposes a Prothean energy to the Faustian spirit that came to dominate mainstream modernism, which seeks to rise above and distinguish itself from the merely human, and an alternative genealogy to the one that came to dominate official accounts. The language of dynamism, discipline and vigor is central to the ideology of the industrial age, and the imperative of production is codified visually: the movement towards abstraction is represented as an upward motion, leading to the future; whereas the transmogrified or metamorphic form is assimilated to a downward motion, towards decadence and degeneracy. At length, an identity is forged between the flatness of the abstract picture plane and the dream of an immanent totality. As Frederic Jameson notes, the shorthand of visual representation or figuration will come to mark mass culture as “degraded” by comparison with the anti-visuality, the anti- representational convictions, of the various high modernisms.8 This is perhaps the reason why the visual tropes with which the Dadaists, the Surrealists and the German Expressionists experimented found no continuity within what became known as the canon of high-modernism. The scrapheap of aesthetics is fill of harlequins and witches, discarded bestiaries and forgotten deities. Rather than simply narrating a tale about sexual deviancy and aberrant behavior, Cunier Jardin’s syncretic blend of camp and queer, grotesque and ghostly could be construed as an inquiry into what qualifies as deviance—artistically, as well as politically.
1 Eagleton, Terry, Capitalism as Form, New Left Review #14, March-April 2002, p.119
3 Gunning, Tom, The Transforming Image: the Roots of Animation in Metamorphosis and Motion, in Pervasive Animation, ed. by Suzanne Buchan, Routledge, 2013, p. 66
4 Gunning, op. cit., p. 55
5 Eagleton, Terry, Capitalism as Form, New Left Review #14, March-April 2002, p. 121
6 Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 5
7 Eagleton, Terry Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, Verso 2009
8 Fredric Jameson, The Aesthetics of Singularity, New Left Review 92, March–April 2015