THE EJACULATION OF THE DEMON BY ILIANA FOKIANAKIIris Van Dongen &
The Ejaculation of the Demon
6 November -
by Iliana Fokianaki
Never bet the devil your head
When I received the press release from The Breeder, and read the title of the exhibition The Ejaculation of the Demon, I immediately thought about the distinction between a demon and the demon, that this “the” must have been put there intentionally. In his book The Body/Body problem, Arthur Danto has commented on the Freudian fixation on words. The word that might mean something in the conscious mind can actually mean something different in the unconscious. In his essay “The Language of the Unconscious” he uses an example of ‘mental causation’1 to pinpoint what in Freudian theory has been a par excellence cornerstone, ‘an unwitting play on words’. Although in this case the words are not phonetically similar, two words with the same use, that of an article, do transform the message this title wishes to transfer, and might also transform the purpose of this exhibition. And if all that is not so, then it surely proves there is indeed a demon in everyone's head building up conspiracy theories.
And that exact thought made me see this exhibition from a specific scope. And through this scope I will try to comment on it. What I concluded on a first reading of the title is that it is very artfully played and succeeds very much so, in creating a demon. And the demon in this exhibition is resting between our eyes. “The image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute and hypocritical sexuality”.2 Let's face it, we can't really face sexuality. Not even as a discourse. What Foucault has pinpointed in the mid-seventies, is still a reality. Sexuality3 was very much restrained in the home. Since Foucault's thoughts on sexuality, a good twenty years have passed, but unfortunately his analysis is as apropos as ever. Social structures and reactions on sexuality -and mostly its discourse- have become even more constrained. In the past decade, a shift to more conservative approaches in political, social and cultural aspects and thought processes of the European population is an undeniable fact. More or less a domino effect, following an American shift to conservativism that led to the Bush administration being elected twice, Germany, France and Italy are characteristic examples.4 However, whether we have actually ever been liberal with sexuality is a question that remains to be answered.
More specifically, in the art world, exhibitions with a sexual innuendo or reference have been accused of serving shock tactics and aiming to provoke5. Although it seems odd that a European population that has witnessed a sexual revolution -many decades ago- would still be shocked by sexuality. A very good example of such ‘Victorianism’ is the participation of the Chapman brothers in the 2003 Turner Prize nominees exhibition, where they where welcomed by the BBC with the title “Shocking Turner art on show”6. Their sculptures of a couple making love (sex), and a body eaten by maggots (death) were the two corps celebres of the show.
Very recently, researching on Courbet's painting The Origin of the World (1866) I found an article on his retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, in online newspaper The Huffington Post. The critic Patricia Zohn, reviewing the exhibition described her experience of the works: “I was swept away by the images, especially the glorious and erotic nudes which are all in one room except for the really graphic one which was seen even in Courbet's time behind a curtain or by special request.”7 I found her comments extremely interesting, firstly because she implies that Courbet's time could or would be less prudish (“even in Courbet's time it was seen behind a curtain”) and secondly because she denied to even mention it by name and simply referred to it as “the one”. She was very willing to confess her difficulty in viewing the “graphic” sexual image, but was not willing to name it aka to recognize its existence. To paraphrase Foucault “we other Victorians”, are very much alive and kicking. One could claim that these are possibly isolated cases or minorities, but it seems they are a stance of a -larger than we would like to think- percentage of people in Western society, and to look at our own back yard, of people involved in the art world.
Thus, we are starting off by recognizing this title leads to a prejudiced, if anything else, first impression against this exhibition. And if prejudiced is too strong a word, then suspiciousness in regards to its purpose would definitely be a reality. That of course is expected, however ungrounded. I do not aim to analyze here the structure or level of prudishness through which, even artists deal with art that has sexual discourses, themes, images or connotations. If one thing is true it is that artists have always been willing to produce outside the box, but whether that exodus is a sincere one, is again a question unresolved. However, I felt it would be pivotal to recognise or rather admit that ‘The Ejaculation of the Demon’ is viewed under a certain scope from the first second of its existence. Those who do not care to admit it are fooling no one but themselves.
Coming to the presentation of these two artists together, I will try to elaborate on their works, which work very well under the umbrella of the title. The subjects the artists choose to analyze have a lot to do with our hidden demons, our other selves. Indeed these two artists seem to complete and compete with each other in a most appropriate manner. Dionisis Kavallieratos deals with masculinity, sexuality and violence (another masculine epithet) as mentioned in the gallery's press release. Iris Van Dongen presents the temptress, the vamp, the lady, the distant, silent and fragile image of what is thought to represent femininity. However, both artists carry a paradox and antithesis in their works with the same way. They mock these representations. So subtly that it becomes an aesthetic symphony.
Kavallieratos does that through his chosen subject. Inspired by Gustav Dore's drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy, he works with these classical illustrations, but exchanges one of the main characters, “Viriglio”, with his own little protagonist, Pellelo di Kavla (a pseudonym that in the Greek language translates as Pellelo of Horny-ness). The way he approaches these classical drawings is reminiscent of the Chapman Brothers, and their MOMA Oxford show in 2003 entitled Insult to Injury. And a very appropriate title it was since what the artists did, indeed added insult to injury. Jake and Dinos Chapman exhibited a series of 80 original etchings of Goya, a most sought-after set called Disasters of War, bought by the artists and then painted over in certain areas with watercolours. The heads of Goya's characters were changed into those of clowns and other funny little creatures. Apart from snatching the work under many Goya collectors’ eyes, they primarily begun the sacrilege, by committing the ultimate sin: that of ‘destroying’ an artwork. But the Chapmans also succeeded in mocking the seriousness of the art world, and its sombre approach to the Grand Masters. They aimed at stripping that specific set of etchings of their seriousness, and of their masculine terror, since they mostly involved images of war and torture between the French and Spanish. It seems they succeeded.
The Chapmans defaced literally, a “holy” artwork, by sketching over it, or ‘destroying’ its aura. Kavallieratos defaces theoretically the colossal work of Divina Comedia, by adding a new character, and by using him in the original illustrations of the book. Dante's travels in hell are now in the company of a rather funny fellow, Pellelo that initiates and narrates anecdotes and jokes. I believe Kavallieratos manages to be as successful as the Chapmans, and possibly even more so since he carries his message clearly but more subtly. His sculptures Guilty, What do you see, and Pregnant waiting for the Firing Squad compliment the drawings and felt as part of one series of works.
The rest of the sculptures in the exhibition seem to be another group of works all together. Heil Filter, Mao Mao, Pirrot The Mighty, To beast or not to beast embed popular elements of mass culture and symbols of it such as Mao, Shakespeare, Marilyn Monroe and so on. They are not far from the thought process involving the rest of the works presented, but I figure they prove Kavallieratos's ability to apply this ‘defacement’, ‘distortion’, ‘mockery’ and symbol manipulations in a more general scope. Of course again, his sense of humor is deadly, and the works are excellent in producing the variety of feelings he aims.
Iris Van Dongen is on the same track. Her paintings present in an almost perfect balance the old with the new. We see the distant looks of these women, their stillness evident, their doll like postures all depicted in her canvases. The ‘catch’ in her work lies in the details. Her elegant almost pre-Raphaelite aesthetic contradicts her subject’s fluorescent shoes and perfectly made up red lips. These women are a comedy of the supposed feminine. They unveil what very articulately was presented in Joan Riviere's paper “Womanliness as a Masquerade” in 1929 (and briefly mentioned as masquerade by Lacan in his paper “Meaning of the Phallus”). These sirens present themselves as innocent helpless dames, weak in front of the demons that threaten to devour them (as seen in Van Dongen's painting Echo), and therefore are in a sense performing for us, the supposed female role. Or they appear as temptresses that are empowered by the male gaze to seduce and devour. The typical, well-known roles which have been represented in art for centuries. Passive, seductive, beautiful, prepped-up, dolled-up, sexually inviting, distant, shy, motherly (in the case of the painting Victoria, with her hand resting austerely by her side and her tight bun) are showing us exactly what we have known to be the classically feminine. But on a closer inspection, these women, are as strong as the demon behind them. They might as well be that demon. Through this hypothesis, one could look at these works and see powerful contemporary women, bored of posing, aware of their power over the viewer's gaze8 and exploiting it to their amusement.
Funnily enough, if these artists were to change roles, and comment on masculinity and femininity from opposite positions, I am certain they would again succeed, since they both have the same axis upon which they effortlessly move on and that is this subtle questioning of the subject they are presenting. The common ground and hypothesis both artists make through this body of work is that what is inside us might be even more diabolical than our ‘Victorianism’ would accept. The title serves only as a hint.
1 Danto, Arthur C., The Body/Body Problem, Selected Essays, University California Press, 1999, p.124-126.
2 Foucault M., The History of Sexuality, the Will to Knowledge, vol.1, p.3. Penguin, 1976 (1998).
3 And the word here refers to it as a discourse, and as it is referred through Foucault's analysis and not a state of someone's personality, of whether one has a certain sexual profile or not.
4 Eric Anderson, Europe's Right-Wing Swing, in the magazine The Trumpet, May 2002, p. 26.
5 As crudely analysed in my MA thesis: 'Sexuality in the exhibition context: Sexual Discourses and Constructions in the exhibition "Surrealism: Desire Unbound".' (2002).
8 Through the position of Laura Mulvey.