Christine D’Onofrio: “Real Tears” at Deluge Contemporary, curated by Wil Aballe
Real Tears (2018), the work that lends its title to the exhibition, consists of three stands (like music stands), each featuring a hologram projection of the image of a different crumpled tissue. Are the surfaces of the holograms themselves stained with weeping, or is that sheen just fingerprints left by touchy-feely viewers at the opening? I read that they represent tears shed by three living generations of women in the artist’s family, although this story, in tandem with the formality of the stands, could also be taken for pataphysical persona-apocrypha. The aura of subjectivity in the work’s titling-as-testimony is implicit rather than explicit, a history gesturally sketched by proxied proof. The sense is of the subjects’ being worried, pulled, plucked and balled, simultaneously present-tense and remote in rainbow air-quotes, their definition elusive in the translucent capture of the medium’s elision.
On the facing wall of the gallery are two iterations of Unfinished Jokes (Feminist, 2012/2017 & Male, 2017), in the form of openers without punchlines, printed on posters arranged in stacks, recalling the ‘endless supply’ prints of Félix González-Torres. The stack on the left reads, “A feminist, a lesbian, and a nun walk into a bar”, while the one on the right asks the question, “What did one male artist say to the other male artist?” That the jokes are posed sans answers (the reverse sides are blank), adds tart gravitas to their endless-ness. This comes to mean more as I move to consider the adjacent piece, a shelf on which sits Feminist Joke Book (Lightbulb) (2011) its accordion-fold-format presenting most all of the answers one might ever expect to encounter to the question, “How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb?”
The dialogic provocation inherent in the structure of these kinds of classic, ‘question-(repetition)-reply-reaction’ jokes has been explored before, by for instance, Richard Prince’s recycling of Borscht-belt groaners on the surfaces of expansive canvasses. Prince’s work is characteristically passive aggressive, using pictorial hauteur to leverage cliché, and in so doing revealing a pathos of defeatist tact latent in both the joke’s origin and the phenomenon of its ever-increasing fatigue. I think of the refrain in the maudlin denouement of the Smiths’ song, “That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore”:
I’ve seen this happen in other people’s
And now it’s happening in mine
Of course, the absence of answers to a question asked repeatedly might function as an answer in itself, either as a pointed demonstration to a nonresponsive audience, or, more interestingly, a theoretical echo-chamber towards posterity and possibility. Asking what one male artist said to the other (forever) might be regarded as an address to art history’s often airless (but never heirless) dialogue, while a, “feminist, a lesbian and a nun,” are the usual suspects when it comes to woman intellectuals in the history of modernity – what schemes might they come up with together in that theoretical bar? The lightbulb joke features answers both nervily absurd and bitterly clipped (“none: feminists can’t change anything”.) Actually, while trying to recall more of the answers, I ended up searching the joke online (the first hit was Reddit, which was, as they say, a huge mistake – those comment threads! I can’t help but feel that this choice, pitfalls and all, is part & parcel of the will of the piece.)
Playing D’Onofrio’s accordion of answers reminds me of all of the times I’ve heard myself add that sibilant terminal consonant to adjust my phrasing of, “feminism” to “feminisms”, the dilemma of its being subject to multiple interventions and judgements (a kind of liberation too, a freefall through interpretive hells or heavens…) That these options or alternatives appear in the format of a single text (sheet of paper) whose action (unfolding) is presumptively interactive, makes their deadpan delivery more acidly lucid. Like the light-emitting diode delivery of some of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, Feminist Joke Book is a text-as-visual-object-as-object-lesson whose dissolution into a social space of uncertain status quo as to for-or-against inclines towards some future resolution (when, for instance, the lightbulb is finally changed). As such, it becomes a critical counterbalance to the operation of the hankies with their amorphous physicality-cum-crypto-biographical currency. To bring the two together into a common subjectivity is to imagine an inquisition in the form of a pageant, something like the oratorio Anne Carson wrote for Gertrude Stein, with its sweeping gestures and halting pauses:
Your veto is unreasonable.
Your reason is a mystery.
Your mystery is way of lying.
This concept is no longer in use.
Between these works (and, indeed, between a votive evocation and theatricalized inquisition) is a video piece, Falling Woman (2008), projected onto the gallery wall opposite the entrance. It features the image of a figure in freefall through a blue sky filled with clouds. The figure wears a dress, the skirt of which is blown up over its face by the air current (only in brief glimpses to we spy fingertips or a flash of hair), exposing a naked stomach, pelvis and legs, with feet clad in streamlined flats. It’s odd how in describing this figure, I find myself avoiding gendering the (clearly female) body – why is that? It seems really strange that what amounts to legs and a vagina plummeting through space should evoke this response from me. It may be because if I write, ‘she’, I feel as if I am encroaching on some assurance of personhood ahead of gender, and to assume the agency of knowing anything for sure about this female who is falling, her face cloaked, even smothered, by the rippling fabric, I am assuming a familiarity, a confidence of outcome that I don’t possess. As if to reinforce this point, the falling narrative, with its stock audio whistling whoosh, is routinely interrupted by an almost blank, still shot, in which only a tiny cluster of specs in the center of the screen indicate some far-off action. One might suppose that this is a distant view of the descent, so remote as to promise no impending development. Perhaps this is what it is to be outside of the space of the blinded/obscured falling figure, a contemplative but wholly uninformative point of view. Between these intervals, she-just-keeps-falling, at closer or farther distances, the softly modeled relief of dress-over-the-face becoming something consolidated as a fetish, as in the non-finito narrative of Michelangelo’s Awakening Slave, or the ambiguous cruelty (either sadistic and masochistic, depending on whether you regard or relate) of Magritte’s hooded Lovers.
Some variations of the fall feel almost easeful and others very hapless-seeming, less a dread, dead drop than a soft panic of awkwardness blossoming into the headlong rush of having no tools whatsoever to address the situation; a kind of social/vestibular horror combo one would feel in media res of a falling dream combined with an at-work-with-no-pants-dream. So very odd and suspenseful and titillating and funny are these sequences, that I am loath to find evidence of a loop. But there is a moment when the pelvis twists in a baroque diagonal from vertical to near-horizontal, as if momentarily miming that familial mascot of the male gaze, Courbet’s Origin of the World, and a little passage of music appears, like a sentimental leitmotif that I am not sure one should take at its word. Is it a moment of poignant comfort or nostalgic trance? Is the body partaking of its space in a way that reorients falling through to falling into? Does the fragmented descent from from towards towards contain an attitude of plateau, whose momentary horizon orients lyrical transit within the contour of its unending conundrum?
The space of the fall is really well crafted, technically speaking. I am reminded of the way the term, “holding space” is used as a signal of non-judgmental support, here dramatized into a fiction of radical commitment: just how much space can you hold, when a true crisis arrives, or when you realize that your idea of “holding” something is, from a different perspective, the madly willful insistence on an intersubjective state of grace? This notion of falling, stripped of the sidebars of memory or taxonomy that form the video’s altarpiece wings, becomes paradoxically heavier in recollection, as if the suspense of that figure was becoming more urgent now with myself as witness partaking in its pilgrim plight, an unknown unknown.
A statement on D’Onofrio’s website concludes, “As feminism asks for a liberation of identity, liberation only exists when it does not know its end.” There is, in the moment of the loop’s catch, a question that might arise as to whether the moment of horizontal ease or invitation the body provides is a kind of narcissistic fishing or a reflection of liberation; that only in this moment of staging the end in terms of a terminal velocity, ambivalent or hysterical, self-obsessed or authentically invested, does the potential of the figure as affect become a subject and not an object. I feel that my own staging of uncertainty as a passionate brink is a bit of moral cowardice on my part, but I’m infatuated by the dilemma of the image and its drama and their seamlessness. It’s a credit to the work that this marriage, so compelling in itself, suggests at once an opaque, figural placeholder for two words I am in palpable, culpable and wholly regrettable flight from defining: art and feminism.