By Katherine McBride
Everything Starts Someplace Different
Motion is the first to go.
Habitually learned: staying too long at the station, trains going
coming going with sunlight flickering, skipping
wheels and tracks. Almost night, she’s outstayed and out
run. So spend your time
translating a sun hinged on longitudes and seasons
but always resting the same misfortuning light on your pillow.
Then goes the power to speak.
Still felt: the caesura
of the there and here. Insisting to linger
she is a specter: you watch
her stir salt, as if seawater,
autumn steaming on the roof. Feel
fission. Feel chiasmus. Feel the chasm
beneath the cider sky
beneath the later rain and the granary
I have skin left. I have hands to keep you from emptying.
By Farryl Last
Lynda Benglis’s Female Sensibility
While watching Lynda Benglis’s 14-minute film Female Sensibility (1973), shown at the New Museum in New York City’s Lower East Side from February to June of this year, I was reminded of Bruce Nauman’s Lip Sync, made four years before. In Nauman’s video, the upside-down camera is tightly focused on the artist’s lips and tongue as they repeat the titular phrase over and over for nearly an hour, the audio track slipping in and out of alignment with the picture. The viewer is unsettled by the estrangement of the human body caused by the inversion and extreme close cropping of the face and especially by the subtle disjunction between the mouth’s movements and the resultant sound. Rosalind Krauss speaks of the Duchampian “pulsatile effect” at work in Lip Sync, as the futilely repetitive movement of the isolated body part subverts the notion of the stable human form[i]. Meanwhile, the fluctuating delay between the image and the sound creates the same progressive phase shifting effect as experienced in the early minimalist compositions of Steve Reich like Come Out (1966) or, indeed, the opening movement of Music for 18 Musicians (1974) entitled “Pulses.”
Benglis’s Female Sensibility shares some of Lip Sync’s tendencies towards repetition ad absurdum, the transmutation of the whole person into “part object,” the troubling discontinuity of image and sound, and even the direct implication of contemporary music[ii]. To these, though, are added the controversial attributes of the artist’s infamous November 1974 Artforum advertisement: a “heady confusion of gender, Hollywood and camp.”[iii] As in Nauman’s piece, the artist’s mouth is prominently featured in tight close-up, but here it is presented in full, saturated color, luridly made up with frosted lipstick, and engaged in caressing her female lover. After a few moments of silence as the two women’s heads move closer with a halting series of poses, some clearly acknowledging the camera, the soundtrack commences with a sudden burst of chatter from an AM radio call-in show: “You’re too Soc, you know what I mean? You got all that rich money. You don’t need us people.” Over the course of the film, the radio noise changes several times from one broadcast to another with brief spurts of static while the women cycle through various forms of intimate contact.
The audio is emphatically non-diegetic –– at the very least, there is never any indication that the subjects are influenced by the content or by the abrupt changes –– but, of course, the viewer still tries to reconcile the meaning of the audio with that of the image. In the context of an overtly erotic visual display between two women, it is striking that most of the audio consists of the voices male radio announcers and popular country singers. A number of the announcer’s comments are cringe-worthy taunts towards women (“You got brass knuckles? You’re gonna need em”; “Go ahead and cry if it’ll take any weight off ya!”) while the songs celebrate machismo and traditional heterosexual romance, as in the excerpts from Merle Haggard’s “Radiator Man from Wasco” and George Jones’s “Let’s Build A World Together” (with a chorus featuring Tammy Wynette asking Jones “Then what will you give me?”) Other snippets include an advertisement for “fine French wine” and a discussion of Genesis and the creation of Adam. Notably, intermittent dialogue between the women is seen but never heard above the radio noise; while Nauman’s speech is only subtly dissociated from his body, here the women are silenced entirely in favor of extraneous, male-dominated noise.
It is clear that the film and its intentionally disconnected soundtrack is not simply a formal experiment but a pointed inquiry into gender performativity and the male gaze. In an interview with Phong Bui, Benglis said of her Artforum ad: “I studied [pornography and pinups] for a long time…There were none with women being empowered…So after having exhausted different possibilities, I thought to myself, ‘What if I was my own subject and my own object, looking back at the men and the viewer in general?’”[iv] Female Sensibility seems to be an attempt to answer a similar question, perhaps in this case not only implying a voyeuristic male presence outside the artwork but inside it as well. The work should not be read only, or even primarily, as a feminist critique, but it is an element that cannot be ignored.
Female Sensibility has a definite affinity with earlier minimalist video works dealing with the body; formally, it relies to a great extent on unproductive repetition as opposed to a cogent narrative and on the destabilization of familiar forms. Notably, the term “pulse” comes up in Elisabeth Lebovici’s writing on Benglis’s video art at well: “…A writing made of flux and pulses…”[v] However, Female Sensibility generously overspills the constraints of minimalism with what Lebovici calls (in relation to her sculptural works) the “excessive, sexualized and ironic.”[vi] With the free incorporation of visual conventions and actual sounds derived from popular culture both in the service of making a political point and for visual interest, Benglis draws from, but is not wedded to, a number of tendencies in contemporary art. I am inclined to call Female Sensibility “extravagant minimalism.”
By Evan D. Williams
[i] Rosalind Krauss,“Moteur!” in Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone, 1997), 135.
[iii] Smith, Roberta. “Artful Commentary, Oozing From the Walls.” New York Times. 17 Feb. 2011.
[iv] Bui, Phong. “Lynda Benglis with Phong Bui.” Brooklyn Rail. Dec 2009.
[v] Elisabeth Lebovici, “Lynda Benglis: All That Matters . . .” in Lynda Benglis, edited by Franck Gautherot, Caroline Hancock and Seungduk Kim, Dijon, Les Presses du Réel, 2009
By Katherine McBride
I murdered them, these women and rolled them into peat and bog. I pushed them into iron pipes running under the skin of the earth. It was to the point, the killing. Like I’d done it a thousand times. When it was finished, yellow steamed into my eyes; queasiness set in, a chalky, foreordained remorse. Waking, I watched Jimmy sleeping soundly beside me, my eyes urging the corners of his lips to quiver, and his eyes to tremble and flutter with stirring.
There were the familiar watermarks on the ceiling of the old house, staid phosphenes floating up above me. I could barely make them out in the dusky pallor of dawn. I wondered if I’d done any of it, these killings. I didn’t know who I was. I became so unmade. When I couldn’t stand it, I woke Jimmy, and asked him. Jimmy didn’t laugh. You had often laughed blackly in the night when we were children, at nothing at all. He stroked my face instead. His touch delineated me, helped me back into my skin. Waking, I often thought it was you, not him, in the bed next to me and in the dark, for a moment, all was innocence. We were sisters, twins, both alive and fearless.
“Dreams, bad dreams,” Jimmy said, drifting back, away from me, “No, no, you’ve never done any of it.” He rested his forearm loosely across his eyes and his breath fell rhythmically. He snortled out a snore like the turning over of an engine. I couldn’t understand him, sleeping so soundly next to me. Me, who didn’t know the me of here from the she of dreams. He was our hostage I suppose, a stowaway from the time that came before. In familiarity, he must have forgotten fear.
We’d been having problems though. We’d been having problems because I’d been having problems. Jimmy was losing his patience with me, and I was losing my patience with you Angela, you still being dead and alive at once. It was ten years since the wreck, and again I was lurching through the same brutal February, disaster suspended in each taut molecule of ice. You’d been dead these ten long years, and I’d had to go on living, as this, an amended version of myself.
Without you, despite you, I was still here and I carried you with me like an explanation. The doubling photographs of us hung like two loitering ghosts in the corners of the house. How were we both still there? Still. Still. Still. Two frozen, black-banged identical girls, mirrored in Laura Ashley florals, and crazed with terrible, neurotic beauty. Over time I believed you might slowly lift and disappear from these images- that you’d reclaim the silver lighted impressions you’d left behind. I believed that you would vanish. But you didn’t. How could death be so still?
Angela, you stayed. You clung, forcing me to choose myself in every old photo. To point at two girls and say, “Me. I am the one that lives.” Mommy claimed to know exactly who was who in every photo, from a glint in the eye, an untied shoe lace, a muted giggle. She peeled us apart. Mothers had these ways of reading of their children. I think she purposely mixed us up, sometimes, just a for a second, just for a crescent of a moment, so that you were alive again. She cried at dinner now and then, thinking of you and looking at me. Her tears icing a reddened meatloaf.
And I’d made a mess of surviving. In the days, I was useless. Utterly useless. When Jimmy asked me what I did with every goddamn day, I told him I watched Maury, and went for walks, and read, the Greek tragedies especially (how I loved the Furies, he knew). I told him I drove to the mall in White Plains and watched the teenagers after school bursting with libido and violence. I told him I ate those sugary warm pretzels by the fountain. I hated to do this to him, to reduce him to a petty detective of my idleness, see him flicking his dusty hair out of his eyes and searching mine for lies. Every night, I butchered in my sleep. The shadows cast in the darkness when I woke, appeared as tides of viscous purple blood, and felt as warm and comforting as urine, as relief.
I told so many lies. These lies, they wiggled out of me like maggots. The truth was the only thing I actually managed to do in all this time was drink cappuccinos in Veronica’s sprawling castle of a house, in her vast pink marble kitchen. Veronica was the sort of soap-opera name we’d loved while playing pretend as girls. Veronica. Jezebel. Mata Hari. The lives we made up for ourselves had been so spectacular. You would have liked Veronica. She was the kind of woman you would have tried to become. Glitteringly sad and leaking glassy, quiet tears.
I imagined Veronica was following me in the beginning, since I’d seen her so many places around town. It must have been meaningful, significant, a divination. But it was just a story line of fate, a set of random happenstances we make so much of. I made so much of. I noticed her first in the parking lot of the A&P. That was months ago, before Christmas. It had just snowed, and the world was bright in that vivid, awful manner of early winter, when the world is white and waiting to be soiled. Near a bag of garbage tossed by the dumpster, I saw three frozen mice, stuck to the cement, curled like fetuses, pink, their hands curled in prayer. They upset me terribly, but also seemed cherubic, and I couldn’t move away. Then I heard her crying. It was a stifled crying, tempoed by the hefting of groceries into a trunk. I looked around to see who it could be, perhaps another mourner for these mice. The mice of fairy books. Princely mice and blind ones.
But she was only crying to herself, like a humming or whistling. Veronica, I would come to find, was a weeping woman, like Dora Maar. She drove away, her cheeks sparkling. A few days later, Veronica came into the library while I was working at the reference desk. She was looking for books full of outdated maps. I watched her leafing through the stacks, leaving fingerprints in the dust. Then on New Year’s Eve, I saw her in Grand Central station holding a bouquet of peonies and the arm of a starch-white man, who was her husband, and powerful. That evening, Veronica wore black velvet, and her face was streaked with salty tracks, her riverbeds. She became in that moment my angel of salt, my guardian. After that sighting, I daydreamed of her constantly. I imagined licking her salted cheeks and digging my hands into her forest hair. It was a communion of sorts.
A few weeks ago, Veronica’s car pulled beside mine on the Hutchinson River Parkway. Startled, I decided to follow her home, since I wasn’t going anywhere anyway. She lived in the North End, in one of those drafty, neoclassical mammoths that takes up most of the block. Veronica parked her car, an old Mercedes, in the driveway, oddly, and carried in some bags from Lord and Taylor’s. I supposed the bags were weighted with furs and jewels and loneliness. I supposed she might need to get away at any moment.
I turned the car off and sat there listening to Smokey Robinson and Etta James with the window cracked and smoked a few cigarettes. I watched the windows, like I was casing the house, with everything I’d learned from Home Alone. It was the sort of home that would have sent Dad rambling about how people used to close up half a house in the winter. It made me think of heavy burgundy drapes. When I felt I had what I’d come for, I went to pull away, but the Civic wouldn’t start. It made a hell of a racket, coughing and spitting. I started sweating horribly, my hands sliding over the steering wheel. Then, of course, she looked out the window. I got out, pulled by some greater magnetism than curiosity, and trembled up the flagstone walk.
Veronica opened the door before I knocked. She said come in and get warm. She made me a cappuccino. She said when her husband got home he would jump the car. She asked me my name, and what came out was Angela. You started talking.
Everything made sense when I was you, but beyond that house, life had unraveled into knots of days and weeks. The summer before, I’d moved into Jimmy’s dad’s collapsing old house at the top of Sycamore, past the graveyard where you lay. His dad had moved to North Carolina to start a chain of grocery stores and left Jimmy the house, to mind, to mend. I had added myself to that equation. Jimmy was the anchor that held me from floating off to you, I knew. Somehow being you seemed simpler than repairing my damage.
I’d dropped out grad school with my tens of thousands of dollars of debt intact, hovering above me like a black hole. Mrs. Garcia put me on leave from the library, after I’d let the microform spin itself to shreds again and again. She said I needed to rest. She said I needed to, “come back to life.” I said, “I’m Lenore, you know?” and for a moment surprise nimbly flickered across her eyes like birds alighting a lake. Eyes looked at me and saw you, your closed casket, the fertile dirt we placed you in. Everyone knew that you had burned like a woman on a pyre and that after the wreck it took me hours to confess my name. Everyone for miles was cutting me a break, while I was cutting myself into pieces. Small digestible bits of me to spread like birdseed across the earth and be devoured.
I didn’t sleep, but I hardly got out of bed. I dreamed nearly awake, anxiously. The violence of my dreams grew more fantastic, almost splendid. Amid a field of female limbs, I was laughing. I was happy. My doctor told me this was depression, and put me on a regimen of pills. I threw these to birds on the street and ducks in the ponds, nestled in yeasty pieces of bread. I lived spindling into my white, sticky cocoon, tucking myself away in a shroud of invisible lace. When I startled myself in the midnight hours, I listened, because listening is honest in the dark. There were mice running through the walls. Heat rattling the pipes. Water from a flushed toilet. I heard life running under everything. I felt very far away.
Angela was a beautiful name, Veronica thought. She had known a girl with long black hair named Angela when she was in high school and had wanted to be just like her. Veronica’s hair was chestnut colored, streaked with silver sparks. It was very healthy looking like she went to the salon regularly. (Remember Grandma in the beauty parlor, and we would sit flipping through beauty magazines, striking poses, as her white hair was set and curled by a sort of magic?).
I told her how your sister Lenore had died in a terrible car crash when you were 17, and how you had walked away with a few scrapes. Oh the terrible irony of that. Poor Lenore. Poe, and all. I cried for myself. I cried in her kitchen for my make believe dead self. She comforted you, or me. I wasn’t sure. Veronica told me about her marriage, her husband’s shady business practices, and her daughter who’d just gone off to college and was tramping it up with a new guy every Friday night, she’d heard. I wondered how Veronica didn’t know about you, our crash, a skittering teenage death, a lesson for all in the random cruelty of the world. She’d lived here then, after all, all these years. But she was just a Rapunzel hungry for tales of the outside world. Maybe she already knew it wasn’t true. The heart of it was honest.
And for awhile I didn’t mind being you, Angela. I was so tired. Do you know what I mean when I say that I felt the two of us were sharing the one remaining life, like we’d gone back to before we’d split into two beings, when our cells were still shared and some of your living life was mine, when our blood pooled indiscriminately. You were everywhere in me. You were pushing me out. I didn’t have the energy to fight you. I didn’t want you to go.
After work when Jimmy came home, we’d stay silent and surly over a terrible dinner. Sometimes he would pick a fight. He’d say he was done, that he didn’t care anymore since I didn’t care either. But he whimpered and whispered in his sleep, and I knew he was in pain. On Sunday, in his sleep, he said your name. Angela. A drowsy mumble, but one I knew. And Angela, I was jealous, jealous that you would haunt him too. Jealous that he thought of you. Then for the first time in ages, I remembered you, the you I hadn’t imagined, the you that was genuine and seventeen and dead, and with you rose the musty, angsty frustrations, the sororal rage.
You were forever in my closet, your nose down turned in my diary. When Jimmy left a note in my locker, you’d read it before I saw it. You listened on the second line to every breath I drew. Sometimes I wondered if Jimmy knew us apart, and I think that worry gave you pleasure. I had pitied you, because you had always fed off of my life, Angela. Because you were the reflection and not the flesh. Because sometimes in life, I really didn’t like you at all. After you’d gone, it seemed petty and juvenile to remember that, but the truth can be petty and juvenile. It often is.
Still, every afternoon Veronica asked me, “Same time tomorrow?” and I went. We’d split a bottle of wine over an episode of Real Housewives of Somewhere and then Veronica would put on some music. Every once in a while, when she was particularly plastered she’d say: Oh this is a good one, and it goes out to you. It was Angie by the Rolling Stones. Then, I take her drunken arms around me and dance, careening around the living room between the Oriental vases. That felt wonderful. I felt how much more you wanted life than I did, even though I knew I had to let you go.
Last night I came home smelling of Chianti, and Jimmy rolled away without asking where I’d been. Like every night, I felt the need to crawl back to him. Then I slept and dreamed of murders, of heaps of ravaged petals. The bodies of the women I killed were piled in fleshy mounds before me and I stood like an empress above them. Then, I turned each body over. Every face was yours. It was yours, but it wasn’t mine. This morning, I mailed Veronica some newspaper clippings about the crash. Now I am writing you this letter. I went to your grave today, Angela. The ground was frozen solid and all was still. You weren’t there. I am asking you to realize that you are just a memory.
By Kathleen Nora White