24 March 2016
Emma Elliott’s Triptych, The Sacred and the Profane immediately caught my eye.
It was a piece of work I wanted to write about. It is part immaculate conception, part tantric transcendence, part post-feminist gender politics. It is both eye-catchingly modest and quietly flamboyant. It combines Baroque lavishness of a Rubens with the ironic sheen of a postmodern Jeff Koons. Firstly, it¹s worth having a look at the work itself and noting down its salient features.
We have 3 upright, curved and domed objects of the same size each 20 cm tall each produced in different materials. One is cast in bronze, one in rubber and the other one is plaster covered in gold leaf. As soon as we see the work, immediately we hit an ambiguity.
We have an ambiguous object that bears a faint resemblance to the human head but at the same time we have a cleft at the bottom of the sculpture that suggests two human hands clasping something inside. And inside of that in the concave recesses of the object we have what look like a series of mysterious concentric folds that mirror the protective halo of the outside dome itself.
When I first saw it, two interpretations were foremost in my mind, that of the religious object and that of the sex toy. The anchoring title The Sacred and The Profane tipped me off to making that interpretation and confirmed it as a correct one. But what is correct in art? Further perusal of the piece revealed what looked like a stylised vulva as well something redolent of the wimple of Virgin Mary ¬ a surprising juxtaposition! The charm of the piece is partly in its boldness, but also in the delicate tension maintained, that keeps us poised between interpretations.
I¹ve split my semiotic analysis into main four areas which I set out below:
1. THE UNCANNY
2. THE SEXUAL
3. THE SPIRITUAL
4. THE OPEN WORK
This picture (above) shows the triptych in all its glory
1. THE UNCANNY
The first thing to comment on is the Uncanniness of the piece. The Uncanny deals with the unclassifiable, the ambiguous, the Gothic and something that is suspended on a spectrum between the normal, abnormal, human, alien. The work is Uncanny both because it is difficult to define visually, and because it conceals something that Western Art has traditionally shied away from, female genitalia. The German word Unheimlich, meaning Uncanny, became part of Freudian terminology to describe something fearful, defective or deformed that horrifies but arouses fascination. It is a tactic used by British artist Antony Gormley in his eerily humanoid figures and by the late designer Alexander McQueen in his savagely beautiful avian creatures where fur and foliage merge. Our fascination with the tattooed, dwarfed, the maimed, the cyborg, androgynous and the exotically, wonderfully disfigured all indulge the Uncanny.
Using the Uncanny in art is not new. René Magritte was a master at unsettling the viewer with human like trees, or bottles of wine that look like carrots or carbines. In fact the Uncanny is closely associated with the Surrealist movement. This is particularly expressed in the trope of the mannequin. The V&A¹s Ghislaine Wood writes: ³For Surrealists, the mannequin embodied the dialectics of modern life. It confused the boundaries between animate and inanimate, human and machine, male and female, the sexualised and sexless; it was simultaneously a commodity, a simulacra, erotic object, and the embodiment of the uncanny² (p. 10). For example, on a superficial level, there are some strong resonances with works like La Poupeé, Hans Bellmer’s series of sculptures of disturbing, headless dolls made up of bulbous protuberances, that look like contorted Michelin women. His work now recalls the extremities of modern day pornography which also uses the Uncanny as a way to attract ¬ through objectifying female body parts ¬ often by exaggerating them ¬ in order to attract attention.
The difference with this piece of course is that the artist is a woman. As Wood explains: for many male artists, women became the vessel through which to explore a variety of psychological and emotive states; many artists explored a darker seam, objectifying, dismembering and fetishising the female body.² (ibid; 42). Artists such as Man Ray, de Chirico and Andre Breton created images where the woman was subject to the male gaze.
The response of female artists of the time was to produce more oppositional playful works: they literally made objects of their bodies and manipulated traditional visions of the female body. Works such as Nue Couchee by the American surrealist Dorothea Tanning and Meret Oppenheim¹s furry cup and saucer seem tonally much closer to Elliott’s work. But whereas Oppenheim eroticised the everyday, Elliott seems to be aestheticising the sexual and kitsch within her artistry.
2. THE SEXUAL
Emma Elliott’s work seems to be at the epicentre of modern debates about sex. My reading of it is that it provokes us to question our social norms and how we negotiate this world as sexual beings. The Sacred and the Profane is not suggestive, but is overtly sexual. The statues resemble both exaggeratedly fat dildos and the female genitalia. They are a sculptural echo of the Vagina Monologues. The boldness conveys both a boldness and freshness to the work. In an often mysogynistic media, the statues seem to stand as devotional idols as well as sexual objects. This ambiguity is indeed reinforced by the use of bronze (more devotional) and rubber (more utilitarian) as a witty commentary on how we can fetishise both religion and sex. The apparently raised arms and halo motif creates a recurring arch of worship and a cherishing tenderness connoting sexual intimacy and self-love. And the shroud here has been subverted. It is not the sexist shroud of modesty in the face of a male gaze, but one that venerates female sexuality on its own terms whilst keeping the mood light.
It’s both peep show and chapel alcove; both fetish object and pagan symbol.
One way of looking at it is that The Sacred and The Profane represent sex toys that contains their own pleasure apparatuses. As David Levy writes in Sex and Love with Robots, the vibrator, in the 19th/20th century was originally used as a cure for female hysteria, and has now become a lifestyle accessory for hedonism and relief. This shows us how quickly sexual mores change with social norms. This makes the resemblance of these sculptures to dildos ironic. The ambiguous rendering of female genitalia framed within male is indeed paradoxical. But surely that is the point.
It is surely designed to tantalise us. This takes us back to the idea of the Uncanny and the classic symbolic hermaphrodite of Hermeticism. Maybe her work also prefigures the future of recreational sex with haptic technology and virtual reality applications allowing us to swap genders in order to increase the possibilities for pleasure?
I came across a great quote recently. It reads: What are we faced with in the nineteenth century? An age where Woman was sacred and where you could buy a thirteen-year old girl for a few pounds. The hypocrisy of the Victorians around sex still casts a shadow today. In 2015 we are as schizoid about sex as ever. Our media lurch inconsistently from permissiveness to prurience and prudishness. We have double standards about promiscuity amongst men and women. We variously ignore and decry Rape culture but give tacit approval to the comedians who make capital out of female misery. We celebrate strong women, but poke fun at a fissiparous feminist movement. We accept female empowerment, but are most uncomfortable with its raunchy female expression. We use sex to sell products and see pornography as ‘a bit of fun’ and decry proper sex education while ignoring an epidemic of teenage internet porn addiction. Madness.
In Elliott’s Triptych, there is the obvious riposte to the Holy Trinity, traditionally assumed to be a male triumvirate. Are these three vaginas at worship venerating the promise of female pleasure, or scurrilously positing three sexualities? Heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. It is that rare art work that is quietly and insistently polemical without being inflammatory. Could the Sacred and the Profane be a symbol of a more progressive attitude to sexual identity, embracing trans sexuality ¬as a step in our ongoing re-definition of sexual identity.
The work disquiets settled views on sexuality and gender as well as the links between sexuality and spirituality.
3. THE SPIRITUAL
Very close to the idea of sexuality is that of spirituality. Of course the statues refer to depictions of the Virgin Mary. The size and stance of the pieces (and of course the title) make them a subtle reference to reliquaries. Reliquaries are shrines for relics such as vestiges of holy objects or the remains of the venerated, like Saints.
Symbols for androgyny abound in spiritual traditions. Androgyny is a concept inherent in the alchemist tradition. The elements for Sulphur and for Mercury are depicted representing yearning for the twin souls to unite, fused in a divine wholeness. This idea is present in many other cultural traditions. The Buddhist Mahayana tradition that took root in East Asia posited Bodhisattvas with both female and male avatars such as Avilokateshra. And of course the Indian practice of Tantra is one in which sexual desire and yearning for spiritual connection unite the genders in a sacred sexual union. Tantra, in Sanskrit meaning ‘weaving’, effectively ‘sacrilises’ sex, using intimate exercises as engines for spiritual growth. In spite of the contemporary side to Elliott’s work, this idea lurks within it too.
This runs counter to the rigid and sometimes oppressive patriarchy operating in many organised monotheistic religions: banning of women from the episcopate, the demonisation of female pagan spiritual practice as occultism or witchcraft and demonisation of female sexuality as expressed in the notion of unchaste female, as defiling and the barbarism of female circumcision. In this context, Elliott¹s work is gloriously positive. It is a reclaiming of the essential innocence, beauty and purity of female sexuality from mysogenistic fears and male paranoias of the vagina dentata.
Looking back to the topic of sexuality, there is another question posed by the work when we consider the idea of the sanctified object. This is the notion of the fetish. Commodity fetishism has elevated consumer objects to be objects of worship. As Nina Power writes, in her book One Dimensional Woman, on the perils and perplexities of Fourth Wave feminism, consumerist capitalism can often pervert or hijack real political agenda. The Sex and the City Vajazzling, Brazilian waxing, young girls too early sexualised and intoxicated with a craving for male desire, misuse of erotic capital.
This work seems a Vagina Monologue scuplted in rubber and metal but at the same time is alive to the contradictions. It acts also as immanent critique of the vexed promises of ‘female empowerment’ by exploring its subtle contradictions.
At a deeper level, might Elliott’s work also references Spiritual Materialism also called Spiritual Narcissism. This is a term taken from an influential book written by Tibetan Buddhist monk Chogyam Trungha. His main point is that spirituality in and of itself can delude people into ego building exercises where genuine spiritual pursuit becomes subordinate to showing off, signalling to others your training development, for example fixating on quantifying one’s time spent practicing Mindfulness without really dealing with difficult thoughts coming up or when inauthentic spiritual ‘packaging’ gives an alibi to otherwise hedonistic urges (e.g. a ‘Tantric’ sex party).
4. THE OPEN WORK
Ambiguity is a very important device because it functions as a sort of introduction to the aesthetic experience; when, instead of producing pure disorder, it urges me to an interpretive effort (while at the same time suggesting how to set about decoding). The Italian semiotician Umberto Eco wrote an influential tract called the Open Work. In it he describes two types of work: Open and Closed Works.
Closed works are used in practical communication (like traffic signs).
Open works, Eco was thinking of primarily as the gestural marks of abstract expressionism, action paintings or even the sculptural mobiles of Alexander Calder. These all leave the reader with a great deal of interpretive freedom. As David Crow writes, in Visible Signs paraphrasing Eco, in allowing the reader to freely associate the signs, they can enjoy the experience of doing this whilst simultaneously enjoying the aesthetics. The reader searches for as many possible associations as they can in a game of pleasure and surprise; trying to interpret the intentions of the author as they do so. Emma Elliott’s Sacred and Profane comes into this category deliciously suggestive of multiple potential meanings, particularly on topics of the uncanny, sex and spirituality.
Marquis de Sade, who knew a thing or two about pleasure and pain wrote:
Nature, who for the perfect maintenance of the laws of her general equilibrium, has sometimes need of vices and sometimes of virtues, inspires now this impulse, now that one, in accordance with what she requires’. Emma Elliott’s The Sacred and The Profane Triptych is full of dichotomies and paradoxes that make it hard to pin down. Of course we shuttle back and forth between ideas of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ as suggested by the title, but, as I hope I have shown in this piece by tracing the embedded interpretive possibilities, her work goes much deeper than that.
The Sacred and The Profane is a carnivalesque object. As Marcel Danesi says of the carnivalesque in X-Rated: ‘The expression of the profane instinct in the form of the carnival is especially relevant to understanding the inbuilt opposition within the human psyche. It can be defined as a spectacle through which the sacred is profaned for the fun of it. Everything that is perceived as authoritative, rigid or serious is derided and mocked cavorting obscenely with phalluses in hand. So this sort of explains my immediate reaction; funnily enough it ended up evoking less sexual squeamishness and more a positive affirmation of how mischievous, intelligent art with philosophical depth and allusion can question our assumptions about our world.
Crow, David Visible Signs: Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts (Bloomsbury, 2010)
Danesi, Marcel X-Rated: The Power of Mythic Symbolism in Popular Culture (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009)
Eco, Umberto The Open Text (Indiana, 1981)
Levy, David Love and Sex With Robots (Goodreads, 2007)
Lidwell, Holden, Butler Universal Principles of Design (Rockport: 2010)
Power, Nina One Dimensional Woman (O Books, 2009)
Trungpa, Chogyam Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala Classic, 2002)
Wood, Ghislaine The Surreal Body: Fetish and Fashion (V&A, 2012)