Published in Tamar Ettun: Alula in Blue (Fridman Gallery, 2015) October 2015.


For Love of the Triangle

Tamar Ettun’s Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly is a tetralogy. The video entitled Part 1: BLUE was produced at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center in the Hamptons and will premiere in the fall of 2015 at Fridman Gallery in New York City. A new video installment will follow yearly until 2018 and each part will be based on a color and a season: Blue for winter, Red in spring, Yellow for summer, and Orange in the fall. Blue is the first installment of the work and is itself part of a larger constellation of projects that also encompassed a performance, Open Rehearsal, at the Watermill Center on March 22, 2015. For Ettun, the performances and the videos in each installment are related the way parts of the body are connected; a hand and a knee, a lung and femur bone.

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All the faces belong to people sitting around a large wooden table. Behind them is a cinderblock wall. On the table in front of them is a pile of tomatoes. Each person is also holding the large bloom of a chrysanthemum flower between his or her lips. The flowers obscure the lower half of each person’s face, replacing the mouth with an explosion of very faint pink tendrils anchored to a dark-green center. They picture speech as something fragile, organic, and polymorphous.

I am reminded of the iconic photograph by Bernie Boston from October 21, 1967 of a young man protesting the Vietnam War by delicately placing carnations into the rifle barrels of the National Guard soldiers. His gesture seems to break the objective discourse of the gun, silencing it, making it mute and ridiculous by stuffing its mouth with flowers. By the same token, an ordinary chrysanthemum in Ettun’s work imposes silence. The flower comes to signify the story these people might have told. In the absence of adequate human testimony speech falls to the objects themselves.

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The destruction of the tomatoes takes place in two phases. First they are withdrawn from the pile on the table and lodged in the spaces between the performers whose legs line up imperfectly with their neighbors’ or at the place where the thighs of a body begin to run together. Then the press begins: body against body, limb against limb. Some of the tomatoes are only slightly damaged, leaking down a leg in an exploratory dripping line. Most fall to the ground, lightly bouncing. As much as such a thing is possible for a tomato, they appear unaware of their intense vulnerability to the shuffling feet, the jostling limbs.

In the second phase, a pair of legs appears holding a line of tomatoes between them. Powerful thighs and calves between to squeeze and a tomato bursts toward the top of the knees, explode outwards under the pressure. Again, the emphasis is not exactly on the death of the object. Blue marks an interest in what an object communicates about its experience of movement and pressure.

This time, when the tomatoes fall they fall under the feet of a performer who destroys them. Muscular toes and strong ankles pulverize until the viewer loses sight of the bright red tone of the fruit’s outer skin as it is torn apart and mashed into its seeds. This moment is graphic but very brief, signaling the end of one kind of relationship between the performers and the objects they use.

The tomato’s death is followed by another scene that signals the end of something: a woman eating the flower bloom that has been obstructing her face. She chews just enough to bring the flower deeper and deeper into her mouth until it is gone. The disappearance of the object obviates the need for symbolic silence. Now the work of forgetting can begin in earnest.

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In the foreground, a body on a stretcher is dragged through the snow, leaving a trace of tomatoes on the dirty white ground. If not for this body, the other thing might look less like a beating. It might look more like someone cleaning a rug, vey thoroughly. The triangular shape is made of parachute silk colored a playful spring green. It dances and jerks as the performer beats it with what appears to be a broom, while holding onto it with another hand so that it can not escape.

Sheathed in iridescent blue fabric, the body beating the triangle of synthetic silk is far from impassive. There is some force that moves the performer, some meaning for this person in the violence. The destruction of the tomatoes could have been play aimed at discovering the limits of the object—how does a tomato feel under my toes?—but the beating of the triangle takes place in the gray light of late winter, with an eerie reflection of its agony mirrored in a metal railing. The broom rises and falls, aiming at the center of the triangle’s form. Unhesitating, methodical.

The blows reach a crescendo as the body becomes exasperated. It gathers up the fabric, almost furiously, and throws it over the railing. As the triangle arches into the air we see the body watch it hit the ground below and slump into inexpressiveness, finally. We see the body withdraw from the railing slowly, arms hanging limply, breathing in the winter air. Yet this body’s attention (and therefore the viewer’s attention) is watching a void, an emptiness where the triangle used to be. It is the object we are meant to find beautiful, to find mysterious in its pain, to empathize with. The triangle fills the screen, even in its absence.

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In her introduction to Unclaimed Experience, Cathy Caruth argues that literature is especially important to those working with trauma in some capacity because of its “interest in the complex relationship between knowing and not knowing.” [1] She suggests that trauma produces not only the inability to control one’s actions but also the inability to recognize one’s actions as one’s own. It becomes possible to do without knowing or to act out the compulsion to repeat without awareness. Trauma, argues Caruth, “is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in an attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise accessible. This truth,” Caruth continues, “in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language.” [2] The wound that cries out is that which we do not know—do not master with knowledge—in the gestures we make and the stories we tell.

If there are wounds out there in the world crying out a truth they know and we cannot see, then there can be no totally objective notion of “real life” in which “factual things” happen, or factual in the sense that they are “true.” And if there are wounds out there, and they themselves are crying, then the task of empathy must grow to accommodate them as wounds and not simply as people. This, in part, is what Ettun is doing with the Moving Company in the work associated with Blue. She is producing a world of objects and action that is governed by a complex system of knowing and not knowing, of truth and fiction. She is creating an ecosystem of objects that are crying, like externalized and reified wounds. She is asking the viewer to empathize with the object.

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Open Rehearsal used up all the unused space in rooms usually meant exclusively for looking at objects. Viewers had to back into corners as the piece spread out across floor and the ceiling alike. Silk balloons getting caught in the hanging lights and performers spilling sand all over the floor. The performance was impolite in its expansiveness, like a beautiful, oblivious houseguest unaware both of its transgressions and its seductiveness.

The crisis involved the woman in the bubble and the totem poles. The woman was zipped into a large, body-sized plastic sphere that had been filled with air using a handheld leaf blower. The sequence of her gestures inside the bubble—not exactly dancing—had phases. She would begin a movement and then continue it with more and more energy until its momentum was exhausted. She began to throw herself against the walls of the bubble, rushing across the room. Then, just as forcefully, she threw herself back against the opposite side of the sphere. The bubble would leap out and then snap back, stung by the recoil of her body.

I watched the bubble, with its angry gestural movement, approach a cluster of totem poles standing demurely against the back wall of the central exhibition space. These were weathered, slim and elegantly carved. I watched the woman and the bubble stagger together toward an actual collision with these objects, that had so obligingly made space for the performance in their museum, their neocolonial domestic space. Each time she withdrew from the confrontation, I felt justified in my belief that the performer was in control and that the necessary boundaries between objects would remain intact. But the woman betrayed me, she crashed the bubble into one of the wooden sculptures, then retreated to a shocked silence from the audience. And then she did it again, making the ancient wood totter in its metal holder. The curator hurried forward to stand between the woman in the bubble and the historical objects. The bubble and its woman retreated to the center of the room without acknowledging the transgression.

There is a simple thrill in the watching objects attack each other inside the confines of a museum, where things are supposed to be still, dead, drained of their own desire to act. There is a simple thrill in watching a woman act out her entrapment so explicitly, and in watching her resist that entrapment so relentlessly, sweat pouring off of her and clouding the interior walls of the bubble with condensation. Was it an accident? I thought so for a moment, but I am not sure—this moment of crisis was not unlike the final destruction of the tomatoes, the consumption of the flowers, or the death of the triangle at the hands of the blue person. All of these erupted from an otherwise languid, almost accidentally curious relation between objects and performers. I chose to read this moment, whether or not it was planned, as a moment when the performer succumbed to aggressive impulses.

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Pioneer child-psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s work on the formation of the drives in infancy suggests a deep relationship between the drive to destroy the other and the drive to love, or to mend what aggression has broken. In fact, Klein argues that aggression is the primary drive and that love develops in some sense as a response to it.

Very schematically, she claims the following: the baby is gratified by his mother’s breast, sexually and it terms of the nourishment it gives him. When the breast is withheld for whatever reason, the baby becomes enraged. He experiences both hatred and the desire to destroy the provocative object. He is enraged because the absence of the breast makes clear his own powerlessness, his attachment to the breast and by extension to the mother. But because he is dependent on both object and person, he also experiences loss when it is withdrawn from him, and guilt that his fantasies may have been the cause of the mother and her breast’s (apparent) destruction or disappearance. Thus the baby’s love for the mother develops out of a sense of relief that he has not, in fact, destroyed the thing/person that he needs more than any other. This relief produces the will to reparation, which will become the basis for an adult understanding of love as the willingness to accept difference and to compromise in order to stay in relation to others. [3]

Aggression is therefore not some drive exterior to love, since it constitutes the conditions for love’s development. This dialectic is perhaps most violent in infancy, but Klein maintains that it is also at the center of subject formation more generally. An awareness of one conditions the capacity for the other in the child and the adult alike. It is not, in other words, psychologically sound to imagine one’s self as all sweetness and light.

The thrill in Ettun’s work with the Moving Company is that she both admits and allows the audience to identify with aggression inflicted upon objects. Like children acting out fantasies of retribution against the things we need and desire that refuse us, we watch, and perhaps we (I) delight.

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There is also the question of desire, which remains unanswered in both aspects of Blue: traditionally beautiful bodies wrapped in shiny, sparkly, bright blue spandex laying about on smooth wooden floors slowly tugging on, and folding themselves into giant, silken balloons. This aspect of the work is more pronounced in the performance than the video, but even in the video there is no way to miss the fact that these performers are lithe and strong inside their attractive sheathes. The sexual nature of their costume is of a piece with their aggression, I think. Seduction is essential to the viewer’s consent to watch the violence done to object.

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[1] Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt, and Reparation & Other Works, 1921-1945 (New York: Delacorte Press/S. Lawrence, 1975).