He seems to mutter “I know you want it”.
On 11 February 1858, a sickly and undernourished child, who had contracted tuberculosis in her infancy, Bernadette Soubirous (Maria Bernada Sobeirons) had a vision whilst gathering firewood near the grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes. She claimed she saw “that” and that “that” was similar to a 12 year-old child, slightly younger than herself, slightly smaller than herself. After a long process, mediated by individual (Bernardette’s aunt) and collective agents (the Church, the local institutions), the vision was identified as the Virgin Mary. In 1864, a statue, celebrating the Marian apparition the church had in the meantime recognized, was placed in an alcove within the grotto. Created by the famed sculptor Joseph-Hugues Fabisch, the image is a fairly orthodox representation of the Virgin Mary, a mature woman with fair complexion and a pious gaze. Upon seeing it, the child felt disappointed: it looked nothing like her vision.
In Pauline Curnier Jardin’s Grotta Profunda, les humeurs du gouffre1 (Grotta Profunda, the moody chasms, 2011) Bernadette has another vision. She is no longer a girl child, now she is a young man in drag. He/she wears a headdress and white apron with block-heel sandals, and follows the vision into the grotto, touching its rocky, muddy walls. Smearing his/her face with its charcoal-coloured residue—the real Bernadette ate mud whilst digging in search of her miraculous water source—Bernadette turns into a black-Madonna (or is it a Madonna in blackface?) and falls victim to a mixture of sexual ecstasy and agonizing pain. The mud face paint announces a further transmutation. When he/she pulls her skirt up, a seedy-looking Jesus’ peeps up between his/her legs. Wearing nothing but a loincloth and a headband Jesus reclines on a chair, slightly lifting his undergarments. He seems to mutter “I know you want it”. Promptly, Bernadette turns into a limbless, barnacle-like creature, with a protruding eye shaped head and a cylindrical body.
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Grotta Profunda, les humeurs du gouffre (Grotta Profunda, the moody chasms), 2011. HD video and sound, 28 minutes. © Pauline Curnier Jardin
The question of origins is a perilous one. Origins, Terry Eagleton argues, are always criminal: “political legitimacy is founded on fading memory and blunted sensibility.”2 The truth about the original usurpation, as Blaise Pascal noted, must not be made apparent: “it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal, and its origins must be hidden if we do not want it soon to end.”3 It is not just that these are bloody and arbitrary, “it is also the sheer scandal of an origin as such, for what was born can also die.”4 The primal scene of the sources of power (the church, the state, the patriarchy), to paraphrase Eagleton, does not bear looking into, and any attempt to unveil them will be construed as a kind of sexual indecency.5
Standing at the intersection between architecture and anatomy, a grotto is an uncanny place, a form of scenic indecency, one could say, if landscape would be capable of signaling moral impropriety. A grotto is a geological vulva if you will, a concavity full of mysteries. A popular feature of garden-design in 17th century Italy, the grotto is also the origin of the word ‘grotesque’.
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Viola Melon, Baiser Melocoton, 2013. Mixed media installation, dimensions variable. © Pauline Curnier Jardin
Once inside the cave, a parade of unseemly creatures will lead the viewer to confront ‘the big questions’. Who is your mother? Is the mother female? Is it the Venus of Willendorf? The Black Madonna? St Sarah whose dark skin and Romani worship seems to point to the Hindu goddess Kali? The ancient earth-goddess converted to Christianity? Baubo, whose face-in-torso figurines, with a vulva in place of chin, look like a gender inversion of Bernadette’s Jesus genitalia? Is she made of flesh or earthly matter? Is she Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Ceres, or Demeter, Ge-meter, the Earth Mother, and protagonist of Curnier Jardin’s Viola Melon, Baiser Melocoton – a film in a goddess6 (2013-14) making a cameo appearance? Is she black like the most fertile soil or is she black because in ancient Aramaic, a language of idioms, black means sorrowful, like Isis the sorrowful, who tried to retrieve and reassemble the dismembered body of her husband Osiris—who is now her son Jesus—but could not find his phallus—as it had been eaten by a fish—hence turns into a virgin. Brimming with metis, her transmutations never stop.
Is the limbless Bernadette-barnacle-in-black-face the missing limb? Is her/his strangely shaped dildo-like body, designed for a non-human (divine) anatomy? And what are we to make of its ontological status? As a child Curnier Jardin was fascinated by the narrow and flexible telescopic cameras, used in colonoscopy tests, that enable one to see inside the body. The artist even considered a career as a surgeon, howbeit briefly. Probing the grotto’s innards, Bernadette’s head truly becomes the all-seeing eye.
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Explosion Ma Baby, 2016. HD video and sound, 7 minutes. © Pauline Curnier Jardin
In her 2016 video Explosion Ma Baby7, Curnier Jardin filmed the men-only ritual of dedicating baby boys to San Sebastian—ironically, a homoerotic icon, usually depicted languidly flaunting his arrow pierced body—amidst money garlands and fireworks, signifiers for riches and power. In another instance of a ritual which seems to at once reveal and conceal an aesthetic crisis, the potency of capital is assimilated to (male) sexual potency, as the newborns are consecrated to the apotropaic magic of wealth and affluence. In this phallocentric ceremony, the anticipation of fortunate destinies is wholly dominated by the theme of masculinity—how are we not to suffer from penis-envy?
A dildo, philosopher Paul B. Preciado argues, however phallic in its shape, is not a phallus. Rather than a symbol for patriarchy or phallocentrism, a dildo is an offering to the vulva. Hence Bernardette’s new shape: she “enters into her beloved” as the eerie song tells us, penetrating the impenetrable to consecrate her/himself to the grotto.
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Explosion Ma Baby, 2016. HD video and sound, 7 minutes (excerpt). © Pauline Curnier Jardin
...the vision turns into an ice-cream cone.
Patriarchal, land-based accumulation is typically threatened by the figure of the promiscuous or ‘cheating’ wife. Hence the all-pervasive anxiety about the vulva—which is no longer allowed to speak (vagina loquens) or bite (vagina dentata) as it did in pagan times—and the lionization of virginity. But to be a virgin can also be seen as a political statement, to remove oneself from the cycle of social reproduction, to not feed the empire with a new generation of soldiers or a renewed tax base. Bernadette, the eldest of nine children, aspired to joining a religious order, possibly in order to escape the curse of fertility. Her vision wears a blue sash tied around her waist, the habit of the sisterhood she covets for herself. Inside Curnier Jardin’s grotto, the vision turns into an ice-cream cone—a camp version of the land of Cockaigne, a world without hurt or hunger—dripping milky cream out of its heavenly vanilla bosom. Isn’t this the promise of capital? Paradise at your fingertips, in the plentiful stock of department store shelves.
But long before commodity display became the phantasmagoria of modernity, the grotto had its own shadow play, and its own drama of presence and absence, the allegory of the cave or what Plato called the “two-worlds hypotheses”, the divide between being and appearance. Things which are seen by the Mind’s Eye are of a different kind than things which are seen by the physical eyes. The philosopher sees concepts, undernourished children with uncertain prospects for the future see the Virgin or ice-cream cones.
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Grotta Profunda, les humeurs du gouffre (Grotta Profunda, the moody chasms) 2011. HD video and sound, 28 minutes. © Pauline Curnier Jardin
The two boys inside the cone could also be described as a double articulation of difference, howbeit not of a metaphysical kind: sexual difference and racial difference. They wear sheer tights—the most sought after commodity during war times, which women would obtain by offering their sexual favours to the American army—but seem to discover shame the moment they slip out of their ice-cream cone shaped value-form, as if to signal that the uncommodified is a form of social nakedness.
What about the Fiji Mermaid, a mermaid/monkey creature exhibited by P.T Barnum in his garish museum in 1842, consisting of the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a large fish, which he leased for $12.50 a week? Doesn’t she look like the Starbucks logo? She tries to sing but her vocal cords can only articulate an animalistic grunt. And what about the woman spider who crawls around the cave wearing vinyl boots on her feet-like hands? Are these archetypes or funfair freaks?
Perhaps the best way to access the representational status of Grotta Profunda, les humeurs du gouffre’s protagonists would be via the concept of the carnivalesque. Originally formulated by Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin in his work Rabelais and his World (1968) the carnivalesque is characterized by the destabilization or reversal of social structures. By mobilizing satire and all forms of visual grotesquery, the carnivalesque allows for transgressive behaviour to thrive beneath the veneer of hierarchy and order. During carnival, rank is abolished and metaphor is incarnate, hypostatizing deviancy onto the concreteness of the physical body, stretched and strained to the limits of recognition.
In The Accursed Share (1949), French author Georges Bataille notes that pre-industrial societies were characterised by the “unproductive consumption of the surplus” and the sacrificial expenditure of the superabundance of energy all organic life is based upon. Capitalism, the only economic system that redirects the surplus back into production, is in this sense an aberration, an economic anomaly. The carnival, one could say, represents the return of the repressed, of the unproductive expenditure of surpluses, howbeit in transcendental form, as aesthetic excess.
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Grotta Profunda Approfondita, 2011-2017. Mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Installation view at Arsenale, 57th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2017. © Pauline Curnier Jardin (Photo: Daniele Zoico)
For Bakhtin, the carnival creates an alternative social space, a world not of this world, populated by freedom, equality and abundance. Its grotesque transgressions unleash the mythical potential of moving between classes, genders, races or even species, as well as the promise of newness and transmutation, of a progeny that radically differs from its progenitors. Rather than a simple inversion, debasement or profanation (high and low, sacred and profane, male and female, day and night), Curnier Jardin’s carnivalesque tableaux could be described as a “portrayal of the protean body” based on a “fantasy of metamorphosis, change and mutability, unconfined by the forms of actuality”. Rather than fantastic figures, her protagonists could be described as political subjects who can carry the progressive promise of “a transformation that could be undergone by all—politically, socially.”8 The figure of the witch, recurring throughout Curnier Jardin’s oeuvre—appearing for instance as the hand-shaped entrance of the Grotta Profunda Approfondita installation, built by the artist for her presentation in the Venice Biennial 2017, which functioned as the film’s “body”—is one such political subject. Her interest in witchery, the carnival, transmogrification and the feminine are epistemic as well as political, and, one could venture, tied to her origins in southeastern France, a region which remained attached to a great many pre-modern practices, like storytelling, folk-tales and superstition. Growing up in Marseille, a city that celebrates its pagan origins stretching back to Greek and Phoenician times (Massalia), Curnier Jardin used to act-out the legends of Gyptis and Protis in her schooldays, dressed in blue and white, the same colours used to depict the Virgin’s robes. Curnier Jardin was named after her great great Romani grandmother Pauline Lombert, who used to run a travelling cinema and settled in Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer after WWII. The town is, to this day, the center of veneration to St Sarah (aka Sara the Black, or Sara e Kali in Romani) the patron of Romani people. In 2012, Curnier Jardin created her own living nativity Crèche Vivante (2012), inspired by the living nativity played each year in Les Baux de Provence. The artist’s work also tends to incorporate influences from Flamenco, horror movies and Napolitan Baroque cribs, all of which were somewhat present in her domestic environment, and which, in her practice take on a great many forms, ranging from painting to sculpture or assemblage, scenic design and manifold props. Rather than an exercise in nostalgia, the engagement with marginalized traditions is, for the artist, a form of militancy—not so much in the sense of the personal being political but in the sense of Audre Lorde’s concept of self-care as an act of advocacy (in A Burst of Light, 1988).
The witch-hunts, which befell Europe at the dawn of capitalism, targeting healers, Roma and Jewish communities and single or older women, were not the last throes of a dying dark-age, but the birth pangs of the modern era; the first in a long-lineage of modern genocidal practices. Unlike class antagonism, which results from economical inequality and exploitation, gender and racial antagonisms have no material origin or raison d’être. Instead, they require manufacturing. The witch- hunts and the antimagic polemic that ran through Western modernity were the historical precondition to the rise of an economy predicated upon the subjugation of the dispossessed to wage-discipline. As the destitute peasants were expelled from an increasingly privatized countryside, they flocked to the urban centres. Once there, women had almost no access to wages, in a society that was becoming rapidly monetarized. Away from their families and communities, they enjoyed no form of social protection, whilst authorities began to turn a blind eye on sexual assault. This de facto decriminalization of rape proved highly effective in preventing social tensions from assuming a political form, leading gangs of young men to prey on vulnerable maids and spinsters, instead of rioting, revolting against their employers or stirring up dissent. The rise of capitalism was coeval with a war against women, which comprised a sexual division of labour, subjugating women’s labour (that is: reproductive labour) to wage labour (that is: productive labour), and the resulting exclusion of women from waged work. This exclusion concurred with the instituting of the nuclear family, grounded on the economic dependence of women to men, and the subjugation of female reproductive functions to the reproduction of labour power, buttressed by a punitive approach to birth control and reproductive autonomy.
Primitive accumulation, as Silvia Federici argued in her seminal work Caliban and the Witch (1998), was not simply an accumulation of riches and labour-power, it was an accumulation of differences and divisions which would tear apart the working masses, by introducing gender and racial hierarchies amongst the exploited. From this perspective, the politicization of gender and sexuality is tied to the privatization of the commons. These twin events will set in motion an ideological machine, whose dynamics will develop a novel form of persecuting society. The othering of women is thus just an initial othering, followed by a succession of further otherings.
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Blutbad Parade, 2015. HD video and sound, 35 minutes. © Pauline Curnier Jardin
Blutbad Parade9 (2014) is, from this perspective, a paradigmatic staging of this primal scene, in which the ‘feminine’, the ‘collective’, the ‘deviant’, the ‘queer’, and the ‘monstrous’ are annihilated by a triangulation of masculinity, potency and technology, here personified by the French air force. A real event—in 1916 the city of Karlsruhe was bombed, and a circus was hit midway through the performance—becomes, in Curnier Jardin’s film, an allegory for the death of the carnival, and its unbridled appetites, replaced by the considerably more voracious appetite of capital and empire. Curnier Jardin’s characters, inspired by Harlequin and Pulcinella in the commedia dell’arte, seem stunned, unable to catch up. Body parts, like a nose or a hand, are now growing on trees. In this world of flux and turmoil dynamism does not necessarily lead to revolution—capital is already an inherently transgressive force, whose “normativity is defined by the arbitrary and aberrant” and whose “stability is no more than a ceaselessly renegotiated disorder”10. The circus and the avant-garde, the ciphers for subversion, are now themselves subverted, disrupted, destroyed. What is one to make of a life in which unreliability and the pressure exercised by uncontrollable social forces is the norm?
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Cœurs de Silex (Hearts of Flint), 2012. HD video and sound, 40 minutes. © Pauline Curnier Jardin
...the coach tells us the girl is his best killer.
Coeurs de Silex11 (Hearts of Flint, 2012) introduces us to a gang of such wretched characters: the army veteran, the single mother who doubles as suburban healer, the juvenile delinquent, the necromancer, the coach who tries to recruit the local youth into his assassin squad. The army veteran is played by Curnier Jardin’s partner—who also features in Grotta Profunda as the boy inside the ice-cream cone—and all the other actors are long-time collaborators of the artist. The project joins together several of the threads that run through the artist’s oeuvre. In the opening sequence the coach tells us the girl is his best killer, but for a caveat, she eats people. The god-fearing folk know eating people is a heinous act, a crime against nature: witches used to eat human flesh, typically killing and cooking children during the witches Sabbath, and so did Africans and the New World savages, known for their cannibalistic taste for human flesh. Jews too, were said to murder Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah (unleavened bread). Nowadays only Zombies seem to indulge this habit. The girl’s mother, though being versed in witchcraft, eats earth instead, as does the army veteran, though he prefers the crunchy bits. As for the necromancer, he seems to know the earth is made of (dead) people. In Noisy-le-Sec, a French town heavily bombed in 1944, there is no shortage of shallow buried bodies. In Coeurs de Silex even the living seem bereft of life, stumbling around aimlessly. In all cases the object of their desire (the missing father, the ancestors, the fatherland) becomes a cruel attachment, an obstacle or impediment to well-being. The structure of the characters’ antagonism mirrors the structure of social antagonisms. The necromancer is a gentle soul, prone to an animist disposition. The single mother has an entrepreneurial mindset. She set up a start-up in order to monetize the town’s soil. Curnier Jardin calls her character the “connasse contemporaine”. Her whole life is oriented upwards, to escaping the suburbs, whose horizontality and immobility contrasts the verticality and hypermobility of capital flows.
Animism, superstition and sympathetic magic, according to Ernesto de Martino, are attempts to deal with the dearth of social assistance and the precariousness of life. At a time when “the traditional infrastructures for reproducing life—at work, in intimacy, politically—are crumbling at a threatening pace,” Curnier Jardin’s characters are at pains to ritualize their existence, but not even that seems to work. Unable to figure out what it means to “have a life”, they stay attached to “lives that do not work” while striving to “maintain their footing in worlds that are not there for them”.12
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Cœurs de Silex (Hearts of Flint), 2012. HD video and sound, 40 minutes. © Pauline Curnier Jardin
Zombies—typically devoid of subjectivity and individual agency—are an allegory for the underclass, for those whose lives we deem not worthy of being lived. They are an expression of middle class anxiety about seeing their lives degraded to the status of those beneath them and of the fear of evacuated futures. But they are also a pre-emptive expression of an existential risk, the “risk that the individual presence itself (may) get lost as a centre for decision and choice, and drown in a negation that strikes the very possibility of any cultural action at all.”13
The suburb is, in this sense, the urbanistic equivalent to the zombie. The creation of vast areas of suburbanized, dormitory towns, as writer, producer and film scholar Olivier Marboeuf argues, reproduces the colonial relation, in effect removing certain demographics from the city, and by extension from public life—cultural life, social life, political life—that exists therein. The dormitory town is connected to the world of labour and the world of labour alone, via transportation channels that ensure the production/reproduction cycle remains uninterrupted. Here the question of representation is connected to the wider problem of visibility, or lack thereof, and to the question of violence, not contingent on putative transgressions, but wholly gratuitous and structural14, positioning the often non-white poor, outside of the social contract. This long tradition of defilement is also the reason why there is something sticky between racialized subjects, women, zombies and the proletarianized masses. The conflation of women and mass unrest was a common trope of conservative discourse at the turn of the century. In his book The Crowd (Psychologie des Foules, 1895) Gustave le Bon had already addressed the crowd not as a political agent but as a gendered subject: impulsive, irrational, gullible, unpredictable. Under capitalism, the collective is by definition illiberal. Popular revolt does not spell out political demands because the masses exist in the same state as the animal, outside of politics and history.
Pauline Curnier Jardin, The Resurrection Plot, 2015. Performance, 65 minutes. © Pauline Curnier Jardin (Photo: Paula Court)
In The Resurrection Plot15 (2015) Curnier Jardin stages what one could call a “carnival against capital” or a political somatics if you will, mobilizing a cast of outcasts and oddities, like the painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the ceramicist Bernard Palissy, and the writer François Rabelais, in order to undo the historical hegemony of the proprietary, patriarchal subject, who takes possession of the world around him, even when taking possession assumes a transcendental character, as object of knowledge or taxonomy. Carnival, as Terry Eagleton argues, “involves above all a pluralizing and cathecting of the body, dismantling its unity into freshly mobile parts and ceaselessly transgressing its limits. In a collectivizing moment, the individuated body is thrown wide open to its social surroundings, so that its orifices become spaces of erotic interchange with an “outside” that is somehow always an inside too. A vulgar shameless materialism of the body—belly, buttocks, anus, genitals—rides rampant over ruling class civilities.”16
By conjuring the possibility of semantics as well as material metamorphoses, Curnier Jardin’s androgynous dancers with gargantuan heads and fishnet stockings, also depart from a notion of carnival as wholly constituted via its oppositional engagement with normative culture. Rather the artist reopens the marginalized history of the non-volitional body, blurring the boundaries between the relational and the individual, the animal and the mineral, the libidinal and the liminal. The project was developed collectively with the performers Curnier Jardin has worked with for several years.17
Last but not least, Curnier Jardin opposes a Prothean energy to the Faustian spirit that came to dominate mainstream modernism, which seeks to rise above and distinguish itself from the merely human. The language of dynamism, discipline and vigor—central to the ideology of the industrial age—codified the imperatives of production visually: the movement towards abstraction is represented as an upward motion, leading to the future; whereas the transmogrified or metamorphic form is assimilated to a downward motion, towards decadence and degeneracy. At length, as Frederic Jameson notes, the shorthand of visual representation or figuration will come to mark mass culture as “degraded” by comparison with the anti-visuality, the anti-representational convictions, of the various high modernisms.18 This is perhaps the reason why the visual tropes with which the Dadaists, the Surrealists and the German Expressionists experimented found no continuity within what became known as the canon of high-modernism. The scrapheap of aesthetics is filled of harlequins and witches, discarded bestiaries and forgotten deities. Rather than simply narrating a tale about sexual deviancy and aberrant behavior, Curnier Jardin’s syncretic blend of camp and queer, grotesque and ghostly, could be construed as an inquiry into what qualifies as deviance—artistically, as well as politically.