Why Marriage? arts festival

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The Rose Garden, February, 20, 1985, Thatcher, oil on canvas
Anna Elise Johnson, The Rose Garden, February, 20, 1985, Thatcher, oil on canvas, 28" x 40"   

Break up with Margaret Thatcher

By Anna Elise Johnson

For so long it felt true, “there is no alternative.” No alternative to free markets, free trade, and privatization. No alternative to my loving her.

Find the neoliberal in myself.

What did I get out of holding my inner dialogue with Margaret, with myself playing Margaret? Crafting my thoughts into dialogue with the iron lady.

“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”

What I couldn’t share with her, I shared with her within myself, and that delusional intimacy was harder to pull away than from her. I thought that I was protected in a way by her needing me, by being there for her, by not allowing myself to need her because I doubted that she would have the capacity to be there for me if I did.

Margaret, you are not the person I address in my head anymore.

Margaret is not the person I address in my head anymore.

She brought the same level of intensity to conversations over dinner or walks - to the minute we woke up in the morning - as she did to the floor of parliament. I had to be on all the time or conversation would spiral me under a whirlwind of judgment propelled by her unquestioning self-assuredness – the same force that buried the labor party for eleven years.

“We'll beat them into the ground on argument.”

She was backed by charisma and by impenetrable conviction, conviction that would leave me silent and nodding, even though the substance of what she said was driven by an ideology that did not just ignore me but pushed further towards my disappearance.

“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

Her stance on issues and her iron will did not just spring out of herself or out of her Lincolnshire up-bringing. It was smelt by men in secret meetings, smoking cigars, by men who created institutions and think tanks to take a marginal ideology – the idea that freedom comes from small government and free markets,  – and with Margaret’s help, make it mainstream.

“Economics are a method. The goal is to change the heart and soul.”

They created an ideological blast furnace that solidified Margaret and the institutional infrastructure that would counter all the ideals that allowed for the possibility of Margaret’s political existence in the first place.

“I owe nothing to women’s lib.”

And I supported her every vote, holding on to my love so tightly, I coached her through her speeches, consoled her on the phone when she was abroad and worrying if Reagan really liked her. Her issues were so much bigger. I listened, supported her, took personal responsibility for my own feelings.

“There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women, and there are families.”

I felt a certain pride that I was the one who could momentarily melt the iron lady, that by searching my fingers up from her knee or my lips up the side of her neck I could still that incessant fury. Transform it into a moment of joyous exaltation until she nestled her head into the crook of my arm, letting me surround her as she slept.

Why did I want to please someone who is generally considered to be so terrible -and I generally agreed? How could I have been so attracted, attached to something so hurtful to me? I loathed the way she looked – or loathed everything that the way she looked stood for. The regally colored suit jacket and skirt, manicured helmet of hair, those pearls - a woman’s version of the uniform of normative, heterosexual power. But when I was near her, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Even photographs of her would inspire in me such intensity of feeling. The subtle angle of her crossed nylon sheathed legs, pumps, purse. Maybe the intensity I felt was partially stirred by the calculated intention of all the men crafting her image. Later, maybe because she was so often sitting next to Reagan.

I didn’t expect to enter into history. Maybe a news of the world headline – “Lady’s Lesbian Lover Leaves her at Last!” but she had the media held too firmly in her pocket even for that. I didn’t expect though, that all the book dedications would to go to Reagan, and a ten-foot tall monument in London!

What defense is left in correcting the story, when what one would hope to be parody becomes reality, tribute. With Reagan suffering from Alzheimer’s and Margaret from dementia, any jokes about things being different than their official story seem in bad taste. While her dementia erased me completely – like Trotsky out of pictures of him with Stalin, – the writers of history have tried to erase Margaret’s and Reagan’s collusion in the crimes of privatization and market relaxation. The widening wealth gap. The financialization of everything. The dismantling of our social and environmental infrastructure.

The histories have been recorded with such absolutism. Everything Margaret did, seen as necessary, irreversible. Her dictum that “There is no alternative,” taken as matter of fact. I’m getting over her.

Anna Elise Johnson is an artist currently living in Houston, TX. She is a fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She received her MFA from the University of Chicago in 2012 and her BFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 2005.

Mia Ruyter

Artwork by
Sara Black  •  Virgil Marti  •  Mia Ruyter

Carceral Reflections

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Locked in. Trapped. In a relationship. In a job, a dorm room, a degree program. In a marriage. In a penitentiary. In bed.

Welcome to the space zoned carceral.

Jean-Paul Sartre once recounted this haunting parable from Kafka: “A merchant goes to plead his case at the castle. A terrible guard blocks his entry. The merchant does not dare go past him, he waits, and dies waiting. At the hour of his death, he asks the guard: ‘How come I was the only one waiting?’ And the guard responds: ‘This door was only made for you.’”

What does that door look like? Cell 43? A wedding gown? Black leather? And when exactly was it built? Michel Foucault, in the final chapter of Discipline and Punish, the one titled Le carcéral, locates the date of completion of the carceral: January 22, 1840. The official opening of Mettray, a juvenile prison qua home, school, military compound, courthouse, and factory—what Foucault brilliantly referred to as “the first training college in pure discipline” or “the carceral archipelago.” Why Mettray? Because it combined a range of disciplinary clusters, replicating authority, the big brother, inspection, the military, supervision, the factory foreman, examination, the school teacher, punishment, the judge. Because it deployed all the coercive technologies on behavior.

The modern carceral system is premised on the idea that subjects need to be trained in order to be improved. That they need to be “normalized”—to be made more like the norm society aspires to. Volume 1 of the Carceral Notebooks explores this space zoned carceral—this extended sphere of normalization, these tentacles of social control, this ideal of discipline. It explores our strong desire—and our uncanny abilityùto shape the other, to normalize her, to exploit her, but also our powerful resistance to that very exploitation.

The artwork that accompanies Volume 1 is both ode and eulogy to the carceral and our resistance to it.

Virgil Marti, in his installation, creates a sanctuary for Oscar Wilde in the Eastern State Penitentiary. Wilde, an intensely aesthetically sensitive person, was imprisoned for his sexual preference and forced to live the most abject of existences. The contrast between pleasure and degradation heightens sensitivity and increased his punishment to torture. Silk lilies and transcendental light prove the impossibility of extinguishing the instinct for pleasure. The decay of the walls and the luxury of the flowers—the flowers should smell exquisite, but they were silk, not real. Sexuality is both corporal and virtual – sex is never free from power, from psychic forces. It is also where we struggle in our psyche between human enlightenment and the meanest level of instinct. Silk flowers and decaying walls. Wilde was locked for and in desire.

Virgil Marti
"For Oscar Wilde."
Live sunflowers, ceramic plaque, silk lilies, handprinted wallpapers
(pigment on paper-backed cotton sateen), cotton velveteen, iron bed.
Documentation of an installation at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia.
Overall dimensions: variable.
Cell dimensions: 106" H x 96" W x 216" D

Mia Ruyter, in her photographs and wedding-dress installation, offers another glimpse of the carceral. Notice how the pieces of the dress themselves, the separate structures, do not do any work, alone. The suit case contains all the parts. Undone, undressed, they go together neatly in little piles. Here the laces. There the pearls. The swaths of fabric. When organized in these proper categories, they are powerless. Just a bunch of thingsùlace, pearls. Strips of fabric. But when we reshuffle the elementary structures, they become so powerful, so loaded with meaning. A fetish. Where do the symbolic dimensions come from? Why do we create this control over ourselves?

How do we maintain control over our lives? Why do we lock ourselves in? Why do we seek so desperately to control the future?

Mia Ruyter
Wedding Dress #1
Color photo, 18x12 inch print on 16x20 inch paper

Sara Black, in her performance, hauntingly reproduces the feel of being locked in. Is there more desire, more tension, because of the enforced separation? The tension between the lovers, the space between them, the moment when the two are about to embrace, may be the most passionate of all. Before the power struggle is truly engaged, before the two bodies confront the realities of giving and taking pleasure.

Sara Black Untitled", 2001
Mixed Media
Documentation of a performance at Foster Gallery-
The University of Wisconsin
Dimensions: 9x4x25'

More happy love! More happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyeÆd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyÆd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
— John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Are they suspended in time? Are they in pain? Are they longing? Or trapped in a relationship? Locked in? Powerful – or powerless?

Slavoj Zizek suggests that if we define the rules of ‘proper’ sexual rapport in which partners should indulge in sex only on account of their mutual, purely sexual, attraction—excluding any ‘pathological’ factors (power, financial coercion, etc.)—we may lose the sexual attraction itself. If we subtract from sexual rapport the element of ‘asexual’ coercion—financial? physical?—which only distorts ‘pure’ sexual attraction, we may lose the charge. “The very element which seems to bias and corrupt pure sexual rapport,” Zizec suggests, “may function as the very phantasmic support of sexual attraction—in a way, sex as such is pathological.”

The lovers performing this about-to-happen moment are experiencing bliss and anguish. Or pain. We, the spectators, have a different experience. Our pleasure comes from watching, from thinking. From the empathetic experience. We experience the bliss or anguish or pain vicariously, an experience that is dull in comparison to theirs. The representation depends on this remove from actual experience.

In Shaudy Danaye-Elmi’s provocative article, Pornography as Action, Pornography as Interaction, she emphasizes “how central sexuality is to human flourishing.” She writes: “If there is any subject that should be interacted with, affected, changed, made, re-made, and re-invented, it is sex.” The artworks of Sara Black, Virgil Marti, and Mia Ruyter do just that. They provoke us to rethink sexuality and its regulation.

“What does it mean,” Virgil Marti asks, “to have an intense aesthetic experience in such an awful place?”

— Bernard E. Harcourt
    Chicago, Illinois

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