In late 2019, nearly a dozen writers participated in an intensive ACCA/RMIT partnership program in which they were encouraged to respond to the ACCA exhibition On Vulnerability and Doubt in unconventional ways. As convenor and editor Lucinda Strahan explains, both the first Writing in the Expanded Field program and this second iteration were driven by two key questions: “what does the writer in the gallery do if released from the obligation to explain and assess the work of art? What might they do if permitted to respond from poetic, conceptual and imaginative writing positions?” The latest workshop resulted in an online collection of essays, Doubting Writing/Writing Doubt. In her contribution to this publication, reproduced below, Zara Sigglekow ponders the intimate conundrum that is writing about art.
On desire, writing and thwarted
by Zara Sigglekow
To dissolve is to become infinite, and to desire offers a possibility of this dissipation. In desiring, there is an ever-present conflict between maintaining integrity and falling into the thing – of subjective projection onto the thing, and letting it hold its own. More generally, this might be described as feeling complete and in control, versus getting lost in something (people, bodies, art works).
Writing about art is an act of desire that flits between wholeness and dissolution. It is in the latent potential of this space that writing rests, a symbiosis of author and artwork.
Maggie Nelson looks to Joseph Cornell, who conceives of desire as a ‘sharpness’, ‘a tear in the static of everyday life’. (1) Someone else I read, I forget who, wrote that falling in love and intellectual revelation create the same burst of energy. It’s this jolt of desire that compels us. This is why we might write.
The Greek word eros, another name for desire, denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack’ or ‘desire for that which is missing’. (2) Lauren Berlant writes
desire describes a state of attachment to something or someone, and the cloud of possibility that is generated by the gap between an object’s specificity and the needs and promises projected onto it. (3)
The artwork exists as an entity of ideas, aesthetics and positions. To write about it is to seek to understand these specificities, to get to know it with freshly scrubbed eyes. I want to see the work anew through language when I write. But desire only holds in the gap: the space between the self and the object. In this void writing rests, hovering in a bundle of syntax.
Brent Harris’s paintings of a Mary Magdalene figure standing on a hill, her back to us, her hand reaches out to touch a bull’s eye hole. In this case a void, an absence – a metaphor for the body’s inevitable mortality. It’s lifted from a biblical scene, Noli Me Tangere, which Harris says is allegorical of a life situation – “on the death of a friend, you can no longer touch them in the flesh, you touch them in spirit. It’s a question of testing belief,” he says. They are about – existential questioning, touch, the finitude of life and the infinity of death.
Before we get lost in something we come to something. One objective of writing about art is to describe, to record, which involves repeating the work back to the reader in a failed facsimile: the words never quite match. But the build-up of description is an act of desire, as I try to find the correct language, getting close and casting a net that draws in an intimate haul. Adopting language to match the thing tightens the net of intimacy in an attempt that is both mimetic, and a desire to merge. In this, the surface of writing is desire-in-action as words jangle together, moving forward – sometimes luminescent, and sometimes flat – toward an intimate knowing of the art work. An attempt at dissolution, a melting with words.
Ambera Wellman makes small scale, intimate oil paintings, loose brushstrokes of erotic happenings. They are – desire, lust, perhaps love. In Wellman’s works this ‘desire’ is in dissolution of the figure in swishing paint. In these paintings, brushwork is energy. It is jouissance and pleasure.
Yet another purpose of writing about art is meaning-making and this involves projection such as veiling the work with art historical context or the lens of theory. Something like Berlant’s ‘needs and promises’ that we project onto the thing. This part of desire, of hauling ourselves around and onto what we encounter, thwarts dissolution. The net we cast with our language is laced with our own meaning in a bid to make the artworks work for us.
These paintings by Harris and Wellman have points of dissolution or skirt around its borders. In Harris’s painting, Mary Magdalene reaches out to touch the abyss where infinity might reside. Writing almost accesses this void but, ultimately, it lies beyond the edges of language. And Wellman’s lovers falling into each other in lust – their bodies physically dissolving – perform what cannot be achieved in reality but what I might try to do in writing.
Anne Carson writes that ‘eros is an issue of boundaries’. Gaps are where desire is manifested and fostered, and the ultimate edge is the edge of the body – ‘the boundary of flesh between you and me’, she says: ‘And it is only, suddenly, at the moment when I would dissolve that boundary, I realise I never can.’ (4)
I write and I cannot dissolve, so I move on to the next piece. The next object, the next person, the next thing.
1. Maggie Nelson, Bluets, Penguin Random House, London, 2009, p. 71.
2. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986, p. 1.
3. Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love, punctum books, Brooklyn, 2012, p. 6.
4. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986, p. 30.