domingo, 1 de diciembre de 2013

Anxiety and Aggression in the work of Female Artists Janine Antoni and Pipilotti Rist

Ensayo que analiza obras de Janine Antoni y Pipilotti Rist que escribí en Julio del 2012 y reeditado en Diciembre del 2013.

Anxiety and Aggression in the work of Female Artists
Janine Antoni and Pipilotti Rist

“The struggle between love and hate, with all the conflicts to which it gives rise, sets in, as I have tried to show, in early infancy and is active all through life” [1]
Melanie Klein

“I suggest that we must expect to find playing just as evident in the analyses of adults as it is in the case of our work with children”[2]
D.W Winnicott

   Janine Antoni and Pipilotti Rist are both contemporary female artists who have demonstrated throughout their work a great interest on the subject of the female body and how women experience the world through it as well as how they express themselves with it. For my investigation I will use specific case studies; two pieces of artwork created by the named artists: “Gnaw” by Antoni, and “Ever is Over All” by Rist. As an artist myself I have taken great interest in the use of the body and our consciousness of it while making art, as well as the notion of creation through destruction. In the works presented here, these ideas are intertwined and I find this symbioses to be more than mere coincidence; for I would argue that the awareness of the body and the urge for destruction are already linked in the psyche. I will analyze the symbols presented by the artists and how the concepts of anxiety and/or aggression come through their work. I shall approach the study from a psychoanalytical point of view through the theories of Klein on anxiety and Winnicott on the process of play. Klein’s theories will be taken as a metaphorical interpretation that I will then combine with what I believe the signs and symbols in the art works to signify.

Anxiety and Aggression
   In order to proceed I feel the need to define both of these terms since they will be coming up throughout the whole of this essay. To do so I reached out to Laplanche and Pontalis book on “The Language of Psycho-Analysis”. However, I was unable to find a global definition of anxiety - as in every day life anxiety- the only terminology found related to anxiety was anxiety hysteria and anxiety neurosis[3]. Therefore I must provide my own definition of anxiety, as I understand it to be experienced in the life of every single human being:
 Anxiety is a state of fear, concern, uneasiness or worry. It is the anxiety with which all human beings are familiar. This is the anxiety to which I refer to in my essay, and not the anxiety hysteria or anxiety neurosis described by Freud.
   When it comes to aggression, Laplanche’s and Pontali’s definition suits this study well.
Aggressiveness (or aggression or aggressivity): Tendency or cluster of tendencies finding expression in real or phantasy behavior intended to harm other people, or to destroy, humiliate and constrain them, etc.

Janine Antoni – “Gnaw”
    I shall now begin with the artist Janine Antoni.  Antoni was born in Freeport, Bahamas, in 1964. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and earned her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Antoni’s work usually mixes performance art and sculpture. She uses everyday activities to create her work, such as eating, licking, bathing and sleeping. Her main tool in her art making is her body[4]. In “Gnaw” specifically she used her teeth and her jaw.
   This piece dates from 1992. It was made using 600 pounds of chocolate and 600 pounds of lard. Antoni bit repeatedly into both blocks and spit out the gnawed parts. With the chocolate residue she made 45 heart-shaped chocolate boxes, and with the lard residue she was able to make 400 lipsticks by mixing the lard with pigment and beeswax. 

   I warn beforehand that alternative interpretations have been presented for this specific piece, taking into account its issues of temporality related to the materials Antoni used and also its evocation of minimalism by the use of geometric forms and the reestablishment of mark-making[5]. Other analyses include the difference between the materials themselves and even the use of lard as a representation of female fat, making the act of biting into somewhat cannibalistic[6]. However, my interests lie more in the repeated act of gnawing and its possible nature as an innate drive related to theories of psychoanalysis. I do not reject these readings of the artwork, I simply skew my vision into another angle where I find that this piece, to me, speaks more about a sublimating act (from the sublimating definition in psychology and not in the philosophical sense) related to anxiety and of a reparation act following the aggression that has led to the destruction of the materials in their original state.
   I conjecture that in “Gnaw”, Antoni materializes a vicious circle generated by the anxiety Klein theorizes about. I shall now explain how I appropriate her theories. Anxiety - state that we come to know during our infancy - is triggered by feelings of sadism or rage towards our caretaker[7] (the mother or the breast according to Klein). This happens when we feel the caretaker is denying something we want or keeping it all for itself; be it nursing[8], or as in Klein’s example of the child in the opera, by forcing him to do his lessons. The child instead wants to “eat all the cake in the world” and in response to the denial he wants to “put mother in the corner”[9]. We all experience a similar fury when we are denied something we want in infancy and, therefore we want to attack and destroy the caretaker. While in our oral sadistic stage “the libidinal desire to suck is accompanied by the destructive aim of sucking out, scooping out, emptying, exhausting”[10]. In this oral stage - which includes sucking and biting – we have the impulse to hurt with our teeth. Our primal approach to the world is through the bodily experience, “the Kleinian subject relates to its environment as a field of objects to be fused or split, possessed or destroyed, by means of fantasies of introjection, projection, and splitting that are produced by bodily drives”. Therefore when Janine Antoni is biting into the chocolate and lard she is acting  out her oral fixation. Biting has become a way in which to release the anxiety; to sublimate it. This is a necessary process that demands internal response, every human being learns to deal with anxiety, this can be expressed in for example going for a walk, playing the piano or any form of habit. I believe that the repeated bites into the raw material by Antoni are the way in which she deals with anxiety. Her bodily drive habit to achieve sublimation is that of sadism and destruction with her teeth. Since in Kleinian theory there is no history or time, simply a shift in position[11], when threatened the artist shifts back into the position of her original anxiety where the “breast[12]” might have been taken from her and she fantasizes about revenge.
   This analysis however covers only the first half of the process of the piece. In the second stage of her piece, Antoni takes the bitten residues and makes lipsticks and heart shaped chocolate boxes. Continuing with the Kleinian theory I would hypothesize that the re-shaping of the raw materials she has destroyed is the reparation she makes to deal with the guilt she now feels for the destruction she has caused. Like Klein’s baby that fantasizes about putting it’s mother’s bits and pieces back together[13] (because he needs her and loves her). Moreover, the objects she creates are those of female masochistic desire.[14] The lipstick symbolizes the love/hate relationship Antoni might feel as a woman towards the process she must undergo to achieve the idealized body image[15]. Meanwhile the heart shaped chocolate boxes made of chocolate represent a tradition; that of men giving their loved female companions boxes of chocolate. It is interesting here how Antoni chose not to make small pieces of chocolate truffles, but the box that is supposed to contain them. This brings a new variable into play; even though chocolate itself is already a source of anxiety for Antoni - it gives her pleasure but at the same time she is conscious that it will make her fat, giving her pain by creating a conflict in her mind– but in addition, she has to deal with the old courtship tradition where she cannot reject the chocolate unless she wants to reject the wooer. In other words, these objects generate anxiety; an anxiety that affects specifically the female gender and its relationship to body image; and, just as any other anxiety, it will need sublimation. Thus we have come full circle. Antoni take’s us back to the beginning of her piece by making herself those objects that will trigger the bodily drive of gnawing. In this way “Gnaw” represents a Kleinian vicious circle where there is a constant search for sublimation and reparation for the destruction the body constantly causes.
   However there is still one question that remains in the air (even though given my analysis the answer seems quite obvious): Why did she choose to bite into lard and chocolate? My answer is simple; she was conscious about the fact that she needed to bite into something that she could then transform into objects that would represent female masochism. Even though makeup and chocolate are products consumed not only by women, they are objects associated with the gender in societies idiosyncrasy. While the associations with the gnawed cubes of raw material might be hard to digest for the spectators– no pun intended- the second part of the piece, the lipstick and chocolate boxes are relatable and easy to read objects. In this way, with the finished product, Antoni hints towards female anxiety and the observers will be more prone to make the connection between the gnawed cubes and anxiety than if there was no finished product but just the innate drive for gnawing.

Pipilotti Rist – “Ever is Over All”
   Pipilotti Rist, born Elisabeth Charlotte Rist in 1962 is a Swiss female artist focused mainly in sound and video installations. She studied at the Institute of Applied arts in Vienna, Austria, and in the School of Design in Basel, Switzerland.  Her opinion about art is the following: “Arts task is to contribute to evolution, to encourage the mind, to guarantee a detached view of social changes, to conjure up positive energies, to create sensuousness, to reconcile reason and instinct, to research possibilities and to destroy clichés and prejudices”[16] It is my believe that “Ever is Over All” is a good example of how she manages to “reconcile reason and instinct” and also “destroy clichés and prejudices”.

   For my analysis of “Ever is Over All” I have chosen to take once again some of Klein’s theories on aggression, and also take on Winnicott’s views on playing as therapy. What I take from Klein is the sadistic nature of children and therefore humans in general without any differentiation between genders. That is to say that both male and female have an innate drive for sadism and destruction when they feel threatened. Culture and society have taken people to believe that the only gender with a desire for aggression is the masculine one, pushing women towards passive aggression[17]. However we are capable of as much anger and desire for violence as any man. In her installation “Ever is Over All” Rist breaks this mistaken cliché by presenting a very feminine woman, dressed in a flowing blue dress, wearing very girly, almost child like red shoes with just a hint of a heel, carrying a flower while she walks down the street in a dance like manner. She is the embodiment of femininity. Suddenly without any previous warning she smashes the flower (actually cast out of steel) into the side windows of the cars parked along the street. She continues her stroll as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Even a policewoman salutes her with a smile as they go their separate ways. The salute from the policewoman probably steals a couple of smiles in the installation room. Going along the lines of Winnicott I would even go as far as assuming that the policewoman is a stand in for the other child and socialization is taking place in the play space. One cannot get away either from the fact that it’s a policewoman and not a policeman, reinforcing the strength of the female gender.
    On the right side of the screen fields of long stemmed orange flowers dissolve into the street scene. The video is accompanied by an audio of a woman humming playfully. Rist is very explicitly communicating that aggression is as much part, or even more, of the female gender as the flowing blue dress and the red girly shoes. This aggression released as violence towards the cars is embedded in women’s nature. It is the sadistic drive that Klein develops in “Love, Hate and Reparation”. The same sadistic drive that lead Antoni to the compulsive behavior of gnawing and destroying the cubes of chocolate and lard[18]. The difference in “Ever is Over All “ is that there is no reparation; the woman lashes out but there is no sense of guilt at all. She never shows a sign of regret therefore there is no need for the reparation vital to Antoni’s “Gnaw”.
  Here I must also mention, as in my previous analysis, that there are several other interpretations for “Ever is Over All”; that imply notions of voyeurism and that the long flower is related to the female’s envy of the penis (theory introduced by Freud[19]). Yet again they are irrelevant to my investigation. I find that the flower is not a phallic symbol; in my opinion it symbolizes the female gender, which is, in all its beauty, very capable of inflicting physical harm.
   To convey this message, Rist has chosen to put the main character in a state of play. The video takes place in a space that is not completely internal or external; a limbo where the woman is in magical control of her surroundings and plays uninterruptedly. Winnicott proposes that this play space is necessary for self-healing[20]. I interpret the woman’s play in the video with the flower and the cars as an outlet for her interior anger; an anger that we do not see in her face but that we can feel in her blow on the cars. As spectators we do not need to know where this anger comes from for we can easily relate to the need of an outlet. She is actually having fun; we can see joy in her face. There is no rage or fury because the girl is comfortable with her game; she is liberated from the restrictions of norm and society. Winnicott reminds us that in the process of playing there is everything, and therefore there is also the possibility for the game to become frightening. Rist again breaks preconceived ideas of playing - such as it being only smiles and laughter – she presents play as a state that can also be dangerous; a statement that Winnicott already expressed in his book “Play and Reality”. It provides a time and space where anything goes, and therefore anything can happen, like for example, the bodily drive of bashing car windows without a sense of regret.
   The flowers on the other side of the screen are shot in such a way that they look very tall and powerful. According to Rist, this has been done to show strength in weakness, again, a notion relatable to the female gender most commonly known as “the weaker sex”. When Anne Soll interviews Pipilotti Rist about this piece she says, “the cars are a symbol for unnecessary obstructions and fears that are more easily overcome than we suppose”[21]. Thus the bashing of something so strong and sturdy as a car, is easily destroyed by the pretty and seemingly fragile woman (the flower) but who is decided and strong to release her aggressiveness and obliterating her fears.
      Finally, in the mentioned interview, Rist explains that the installation offers an effective liberation from a feminist point of view. By the end she concludes “the figure (woman in the video) congratulates both female and male viewer on freeing themselves from a lot of different ghosts, not only, but also from sexism”. However, the learned way in which women act out their aggression is different to that of the male gender and the artist winks at us with the flower made of steel. As stated lines above, women mask their attacks and are able to induce real harm under a veil of fragility, just like the flower. Women are aggressive, but society has been telling women that it is not lady like to act out physically. Also brutal force is more often stronger in males than females, putting most women in danger if a physical confrontation arises between a man and a woman. Therefore, as evidenced by Dana Crowley in "Behind the Mask", our gender has resourced itself with wit and a sharp tongue. We popularly know this as passive aggression. It is the physical act and release through it in the video that makes the piece relatable to both male and female spectators. By no means do I imply that men do not partake in passive aggressiveness, not at all, I simply infer that stereotypes and sexism allows them to act out more in a physical manner. 

  In this way Rist not only frees viewers from the sexism attached to the notion of aggression but also frees them from the possible refrains adults have on playing as an adult. Playtime is often associated with children and therefore frowned upon since it carries the stigma of immaturity. The benefits the video suggests tend to be overlooked; the artist is basically saying “its ok to play, in fact, it’s good for you”.
   For the means of this specific thesis I shall leave my analysis here. Art is complex and I know there are still many parts of the installation that I haven’t analyzed; such as the sound that accompanies it and it’s specific projection on a corner. These are left open to the readers’ interpretation. On a personal note, it is my belief that in the end art has a level of subtext that should be left un-analyzed. It is that level where it speaks to something beyond reason in each human being that depends more on sensibilities and the baggage acquired through each specific life.

On Sublimation
  Summarized definition of “sublimation” in psychology by Laplanche and Pontalis:
Process postulated by Freud to account for human activities which have no apparent connection with sexuality but which are assumed to be motivated by the force of sexual instinct. (…)[23] The lack of coherent theory of sublimation remains one of the lacunae in psycho-analytic thought.[24]
   The fact that the term itself remains somewhat open gives room for personal interpretation; a freedom this essay has certainly taken. I personally understand sublimation as the effort we make to suppress sadistic aggression[25]. I took this idea from Mignon Nixon in “Bad Enough Mother” (when she refers to “Gnaw”) and I reshaped it with my own version of the forms this struggle might adopt. In my first analysis (Gnaw pg. 3), I point out that the biting is the sublimation for the sadistic instinct. I have done this without much explanation to keep the analysis on track, however I will now elaborate more on how I arrived to this conclusion.
   I recognize Antoni’s repeated biting as a form of sublimation for I myself am sometimes drawn towards this compulsive behavior in situations of stress or anxiety. I know that it is related in some deeper level to oral sadism. This is how I identify personally with the piece and therefore with the behavior. However I will not extend on that for it is not the goal of this essay to describe parallels between Antoni’s anxiety and my anxiety. A better approach and illustration perhaps of this redirection of anxiety towards biting is by thinking about anxious people biting on pen caps. Of course, “Gnaw” takes this behavior to an extreme, but it is possible that they share the same bodily drive to destroy with the teeth.
   Taking what I had read in Klein, in Mignon Nixon, what I had seen in Antoni’s work and what I had personally experienced I came to understand that all reparation is sublimation but not all sublimation is reparation. They are not synonyms; reparation happens only when some kind of destruction has occurred and needs to be literally repaired. Sublimation is the struggle against anxiety and therefore it may take many forms, not only creative ones but also destructive ones; it all depends on the person who is in the middle of the struggle. Destroying something with our teeth can be considered sublimation as long as there is no potential harm to another being (where there is no sadism, only aggression). The aggression is displaced towards the blocks of lard and chocolate in an effort to ease the anxiety. The destruction of such pleases in a way the desire for sadism without inflicting any real harm. She does not act her aggression towards her body, with which she has a love/hate relationship, or, against those whom she might feel envious[26] of. Nonetheless the new objects on which she has displaced her aggressive anxiety (blocks of chocolate and lard) are now destroyed and a new kind of sublimation is needed to wash away the guilt generated by the act of biting and spitting. Here is where the reparation comes in. Something needs to be fixed in order to sublimate this new remorse, which I believe to be a specific type of anxiety different to the original one. These are all raw conjectures I have made in my first approach to Klein in relationship to Antoni’s work. I do not expect these to be embraced, however I find that they are useful when it comes to the dissection of the piece “Gnaw”.
   In the case of “Ever is Over All” I cannot be as precise because the character is in a state of play while the actor in “Gnaw” (in this case the artist herself) is very conscious of what she is doing. She seems to be only acting out her aggression and not struggling with it, she simply accepts it and liberates it against inanimate objects. But where does this leave the sadistic drive and sublimation? I would hint at the idea that during the state of play the woman acts outs her sadistic drive in a different way and since everything is possible in play there is no need for sublimation. I would suggest approaching this matter from theories on therapy and therapeutic activities such as art-therapy. This uncertainty leaves space for further investigation on the subject.

   Janine Antoni and Pipilotti Rist have materialized some of the psychoanalytic theories developed by Klein and Winnicott in their pieces “Gnaw” and “Ever is Over All” respectively. They do so from a female point of view that evidence’s the feminine struggle with anxiety and aggression in relation to their bodies. I chose these pieces specifically because they show clear examples of anxiety and aggression acted out through bodily drives. Yet, they differ in medium and portray different female states of mind.
   Antoni’s piece narrates a vicious circle that involves: the struggle against anxiety, the effort the body puts on sublimating it through displacement, the new sense of guilt and the reparation she makes for it, which, generates again anxiety through objects of female masochism. This is not an artistic representation of the Kleinian theory but an extension of it that I have made, which is in no measure fabricated from an expert’s point of view. On the other hand, Rist portrays a woman in a state of play, acting out the physical aggression that is embedded in males and females equally since childhood in their fantasies of sadism. The point of repression of the sadistic drive here remains unsolved since during the video there is no need for remorse. It is more of a portrayal of the play state Winnicott describes that is necessary for both children and adults to deal with their obstacles. A play state not valued, I would say, as it should in adult life and regarded more as a sign of immaturity. However the artists coincide on the fact that through the unveiling of the broader spectrum of their own psyche -which includes the awareness of their bodily drives- they succeed in demystifying the preconceived notions associated to their own gender. It is also now evident, that both of them have been able to create through destruction.


-       Klein, Melanie and Riviere, Joan: “Love, Hate and Reparation” W.W Norton and Company – United States of America 1964
-       Klein, Melanie: “The Selected Melanie Klein Edited by Juliet Michelle” The Free Press – New York – United States of America 1986
-       Klein, Melanie: “Envy and Gratitude and other works 1946-1963” The Free Press – New York – United States of America 1984
-       Nixon, Mignon: “Bad Enough Mother” The MIT Press 1995
-       Winnicot, D. W: “Playing and Reality” Routledge Classics – London – England 2005
-       Crowley Jack, Dana: “Behind the Mask” Harvard University Press – London – England 1999
-   Laplanche, J. and Pontalis. J-B: “The Language of Psycho-Analysis” W. W Norton and Company – United States of America 1973
-     Bitterli, Bronfen, Iles, Muller, Rosenthall: “Pipilotti Rist: Eveball Massage” Hayward Publishing – London – England 2012
-       Soll, Anne: “Pipilotti Rist” Dumont – Berlin – Germany 2005
-   Buskirk, Martha: “The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art” The MIT Press – Massachusetts – United States of America – 2003 
-      Heon, Laura: “Janine Antoni’s Gnawing Idea” in “Gastronomica: The Journal of Food” Vol 1 No 2 University of California Press – United States of America 2001
-       Art 21 – “Janine Antoni”
- Luhring Augustine – “Pipilotti Rist” and “Janine Antoni”

[1] Love, Hate and Reparation Pg. 63
[2] Playing and Reality Pg. 54
[3] The Language of Psycho-Analysis Pgs. 37 – 38
1. Anxiety Hysteria: Term introduced by Feud to distinguish a neurosis whose central symptom phobia, and to emphasise its structural resemblance to conversion hysteria.
2. Anxiety Neurosis: A type of illness, which Freud isolated, distinguishing it: a. symptomatically speaking from neurasthenia, because of the predominance here of anxiety (chronic anxious expectation; attacks of anxiety or of its somatic equivalents); b. aetiologically, from hysteria: anxiety neurosis is an actual neurosis characterized more particularly by the accumulation of sexual excitation which is held to be transformed directly into symptoms without any psychical mediation.
[4] Art 21
[5] The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art Pgs 6-12
[6] Janine Antoni’s Gnawing Idea - Article
[7] The Selected Melanie Klein Pg. 87
[8] Love, Hate and Reparation Pg. 58
[9] The Selected Melanie Klein Pg. 85
[10] The language of Psychoanalysis Pg. 289
[11] Bad Enough Mother Pg. 73
[12] Envy and Gratitude Pg. 183
[13] Love, hate and reparation Pg. 61
[14] Bad enough mother Pg. 77
[15] Art 21 video – Minute 10:18
When interviewed about her other piece “Lick and Lather” where she fed herself with replica’s of herself made of chocolate and bathed herself with replica’s of herself made of soap, she expresses this love/hate relationship we with our and how even though she experiences the world through it when she looks into the mirror she wonders “Is that who I am?” This love hate relationship with the body surfaces in “Gnaw” too.
[17] Behind the Mask Pg. 188
[18] Bad enough Mother Pg. 78
[19] Pipilotti Rist: Eveball Massage Pgs. 118-120
[20] Play and Reality Pg. 6
[21] Pipilotti Rist Pg. 102
[22] Pipilotti Rist Pg. 103
[23] The main types of activity described by Freud as sublimated are artistic creation and intellectual inquiry. The instinct is said to be sublimated in so far as it is diverted towards a new non-sexual aim and in so far as its objects are socially valued ones. (…) It also evokes the sense “sublimination” has for chemistry: the procedure whereby a body is caused to pass directly from a solid to a gaseous state. (…) Melanie Klein (…) describes sublimation as a tendency to repair and restore the good object that has been shattered by the destructive instincts
[24] The language of Psycho-Analysis Pgs. 431 433
[25] Bad Enough Mother Pg. 78
[26] Notion of envy of the “bad breast” developed in “Envy and Gratitude”

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