Vulnerability – this word has followed me recently, triggered by several events and five women. I’ve been trying to write about this in a clear way for a while, and I suspect that my difficulty has to do with my own relationship to this charged word. I’ll try once again to retrace the path.
The first instance was during a talk by Yoko Ono as she recounted various performances of “CUT” where Ono offers herself up, seated and passive, to an audience that cuts off bits of her clothes. Ono says the work is about love. In the black and white documentation of the performances is the wrenching memory of Vietnamese monks immolating themselves, here less violent, it is the audience that sets the blaze.
A performance in London is polite, another in Paris is a male feeding frenzy. For a more recent performance Ono goes against the tenor of our times, declining the presence of guards or metal detector. In an act of irrational protectiveness her son, who never attends her performances or exhibitions flies in to be there. This famous family has known physical violence at close range. The distance between Ono’s performance as a woman in her 20′s and as a woman in her 70′s, both visually and in terms of her own changed position and experience, is vast. The earlier iterations of this performance are powerful, the later even more so.
At the talk, an astute member of the audience asks (unanswered) “Do you see vulnerability as a structuring principle?” (Do I see vulnerability as a structuring principle?) This surprise question leads me to think about the ‘use value’ (particularly for women) of putting ourselves into a fragile/dangerous situation. Ono’s precarious arrangement, bringing together a woman and a sharp object, is not an uncommon one. What is uncommon is that a woman puts herself into this situation freely and in public, and makes the audience/us complicit in testing the limits. How far will we go in this situation, how far will we allow others to go w/out interceding.
Yes, the performance is about vulnerability, and yes she offers herself up, but not only – it’s also a dare – a very free fuck-you in a nonviolent-resistance kind of way. This brings to mind Kimsooja‘s powerful “Needle Woman” performances where she locates herself unmoving in the street– a woman making her meditation a still point that everyone else has to negotiate.
All of us are in some way responsible for and benefit from the vulnerability of others – our society feeds off of this vulnerablity. And like it or not, choosing or not, we all currently share a high level of vulnerability ourselves – economically, physically, environmentally. After September 11th, the American response to vulnerability was both obvious – the initiation of several wars, the buying of Humvees, and counter intuitive – people flocking to live in New York City. In the art world we have seen a proliferation of monumental, extravagantly expensive projects, both permanent as in Serra’s proliferation of arcs, Koon’s entombing of ribbons, balloons and other fleeting objects in stainless steel, and ephemeral, Eliasson’s waterfalls on the East River, his sun at the Tate. Does this art which is magical in its spectacle and mastery speak to this vulnerability, or is it a symptom? (I think of my own choice to work in video, the most immaterial of materials.)
The next encounter – the naked people taking part in the MoMA Marina Abramovic exhibition. Warm and well-guarded, they are vulnerable above all to the looks of others. Still their young perfect bodies offer a protection absent from the constant presence/exposure of Abramovic’s exhausted face.
Next comes the scene from Avatar where Sigourney Weaver, pale, curled, naked, is surrounded by oddly colored avatars with the flesh of inflated Lycra. [[I couldn't find the film still, I add below as a placeholder]] This image and the relationship between live action and character generated characters in this film, go far in summing up the dreams, nightmares and zeitgeist of our times.
The most recent moment this word arrived unbidden in my brain (for the sake of blog brevity anyway) was during the Nancy Spero memorial, held in the Great Hall of Cooper Union.
Death, by definition, brings up thoughts of vulnerability but this was not the trigger for me. It was a particular image that brought this word back into my mind.
The image – a close-up of a figure from Spero’s clothesline. This clothesline is a true anti-monument in which, amidst a small red bra, a large black bra, a variety of different underwear, are strung a repeating figure, printed on thin paper which moves with the wind. The material is fragile. The figure is female, she has her eyes open wide. And she is gleefully, knowingly spreading apart her vaginal lips.
This repeating female figure has incredible power. She is open; she is in no way vulnerable.
Spero’s take on vulnerability is a good one I think, an honest, actual one that moves us forward. Made of flimsy material, as we all are, this repeating figure, occupies and gives power, takes place in our quotidian. Through this character’s repeated, gesture, Spero achieves a direct, celebratory and matter of fact (not flirtatious, with no hint of victimhood) exposing/revealing of, what our (male) society refuses to look at (because it makes us/them feel vulnerable?
I write this from a sunny place where ‘the dark times’ are spoken about often. Last week in Buenos Aires I watched as the cats recuperated their space after closing time at the botanical gardens. Tonight I spent time watching the dogs sleeping in front of my hotel in Mar del Plata. It is easier to look at and photograph vulnerability in animals.