We may be closer than ever to Warhol’s contention that everyone will achieve their 15 minutes of fame, but the focus of mass voyeuristic interest is still reserved for the few and the particular.
Sometimes mass voyeurism is dreaded and feared by its objects for its capacity to break down the ego’s fragile borders, as with singer and musician Amy Winehouse, made clear in the frighteningly explicit documentary, Amy.
The film has to be seen to grasp the level of sadistic media hysteria that dogged her every move. Sadistic because the mass media (those who took the photos and those who displayed them) saw a ready opportunity to exploit the very deterioration they helped to precipitate. See the film to understand why drugs were the least of her problems.
Sometimes mass fixation and voyeurism have the quality of being attached to a particular person, but in part as a displacement from a related figure, as I experienced when I went to see the Yoko Ono exhibition at MoMA and encountered the artist herself, coming out of the exhibition and being mobbed by hyper-excited fans.
Not to diminish Ono’s own accomplishments and talents, but she may be the only conceptual artist in the world who could be mobbed by museum-goers. She will eternally be the object of displaced cathected energy directed at John.
Thinking about both the Amy film and the encounter with Yoko Ono’s hyper-excited fans brought to mind the new video by Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University art student who accused a male Columbia student of raping her and held that the University did not take her accusation seriously. Sulkowicz subsequently set in motion an art work, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), which involved carrying a dorm mattress around campus, with the intention of carrying it, or having supporters carry it, until the subject of her accusation was expelled from or left the campus.
In the new work, a video called Ceci n’est pas un viol, Sulkowicz seems to literally enact what took place on the night of her alleged rape, captured in the form of a surveillance camera split-screen. In addition to what appears to be a literal enactment of sex, unforced and forced, the work’s website directs viewers as to how to perceive the video.
Why would thinking about Amy Winehouse and Yoko Ono, about the Amy film and the attention directed at Ono – or even the attention sought by mega-media-stars – make me think about this video? Because all involve being placed in the position of voyeur. There are cultural and political questions raised by all such gazing. But Ceci n’est pas un viol raises different cultural and political questions than viewing paparazzi shots or videos because it is an artwork, and not a cultural phenomenon per se. The main question raised for me by the work (and its 444 posted comments) is whether the work isn’t strongly compromised by its literal enactment by the enunciator of the accusation, the artist herself. Her own didactic interpretation aside, the work remains a literal enactment.
At the level of the law, a literal re-enactment is beside the point. On a political level, we should not need a literal enactment, a viewing of an actual sex act, to arrive at an assessment of whether we believe that someone could have conceivably been raped in a situation where the accused claims the actions were consensual. Language should suffice.
On a cultural level, shouldn’t the work contend with decades of distance from literalism, distance from verisimilutude in art? Because to make work that elides that challenge is to skirt the significance of why genealogies of aesthetic form have crucial meaning. Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Rape scene), 1973, comes to mind, though significantly it was not her own rape that Mendieta was physically enacting in her art work, and that distance is a crucial aspect of that work for the viewer. Hopefully some of these issues will be explored in a future discussion posted to the blog.