Thursday, June 7, 2012

Madness and Yearning in Cindy Sherman and Pina Bausch

© Shamoni Sarkar
All you can do is hint at things 
Pina Bausch

           If an artist’s “hint” is powerful enough, the audience, the art and the artist herself are embraced in a common relationship of madness. Speaking of photography in his book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes this maddening process: “it bears the effigy to that crazy point where affect (love, compassion, grief, enthusiasm, desire) is a guarantee of Being. It then approaches, to all intents, madness” (Barthes, 1981). Barthes says that photography is “mad” because it shows more than it tells. It traps a real moment in time, so in a way it captures a truth, but we can know nothing more of this truth except for the fact that it happened. So if we happened to see, for example, a photograph of a young girl holding an ice cream, but with tears running down her face, we would not be completely satisfied simply by seeing a touching photograph. We would want more to complete our story and answer questions such as “Why is the girl crying when she has what any child would want?” or “Who is this child?” We would want to have a concrete detail to hold on to, to pin down our brief relationship with the picture. Barthes seems to be saying that we want to experience our own “affect” instead of looking from a distance at another’s. So in a way the photograph cheats us by not giving us everything. It is a work of art in limbo, and this is why it is “mad”.   
        The art of Pina Bausch and Cindy Sherman is mad in a Barthesian way because it feeds on affects, especially desire and yearning, to bring out its reality. It is the madness of Bausch’s work that Wim Wenders pays tribute to in his documentary Pina. In an interview, he says that the only way he thought he could do justice to her was by making the film in 3D. He does not explicitly say why, but perhaps he saw the importance of making the audience feel the madness of her choreographies at more than just the visual level. In fact, the effect of madness in both Sherman and Bausch’s works is doubled because not only are the works themselves “mad”, but the subjects represented in the works too seem mad. Madness is a more exclusive state of being than the state of feeling desire or longing. So viewers may feel that they are denied any understanding of what the subjects themselves are going through. They are denied, as Barthes calls it, the guarantee of the subject’s Being. Angered, a viewer may even question Sherman and Bausch’s motives. Do Bausch and Sherman even know what madness is? If not, how can they attempt to depict it to ignorant viewers? Are they taking advantage of their mad mediums?
        But are they consciously depicting madness, or are they just hinting at unnameable things? In Cafe Müller, the madness is all in Pina’s body: her skeletal figure enters wearing a white nightgown, arms stiff and outstretched with palms facing outward, and eyes closed. For the next forty-nine minutes, she flails purposelessly, despairs silently and gets trapped in the circular motion of the revolving door. She strays away, but always comes back to the same position, and always uses the same wall as support. The initial hint is the entry. It is strong enough, and is used repeatedly throughout the piece to tell us that this woman is lost to herself, sad, desperate, and perhaps blind. She should feel lost to us as well, but yet she does not.  
       Igor Stravinsky composed the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps inspired by the story of the Russian pagan ritual of the self-sacrifice of a young girl to the God of Spring. Bausch’s choreography of it takes it beyond the simple plot and fills it with innumerable possibilities of meaning. One may think of coffee plantations, a violent rape or the loss of protection. Again, all that we have are hints: the bare setting strewn with something that resembles mud, the red dress that replaces the white after the girl has been “chosen” by the man, and the desperate, throbbing circle of bodies that the women form when they are threatened. The bodies of both the men and the women convey anger, power, necessity and desire in every collective gesture, whether they lunge forward at each other or contract their arms and fists, resisting. As they dance and move, their faces always look mad, but it is an internal, undirected madness. We do not know where so much feeling comes from, but we can still see it unfolding before us. “Where does all the yearning come from?” Bausch is quoted as having asked one of her dancers. Perhaps she worked only to answer this question, and found that she could only hint at the answer.


         In Sherman’s Untitled 122 (1983), the body of the woman photographed also hints at her madness in very similar ways: stiff, straight arms, a thin body wearing clothing that is more protective than attractive or comfortable, and clenched fists. Her eyes are open, but mostly covered by her unruly hair— another hint. 
        Bausch and Sherman hint at things we have already learned to associate with madness: desperation, loneliness, gestures, and challenged femininity. But once we separate these qualities from the idea of madness, we realize that we have seen or known them in our own lives. We have known desperation and loneliness, and perhaps sometimes we have even felt as if our identities have disintegrated and we have been left with nothing. We have all been mad before, and we are able to see hints of our own madness in dance or in pictures. Madness is grief and desire, and understanding this much is enough, for the artist as well as the beholder.


           In Untitled 92 (1981), desire and madness are entwined to the extent that they seem perverse. The information on the wall tells us that the series of photographs in that particular room were modeled on pictures in men’s erotic magazines. Our eyes are drawn to the checked skirt resembling a school uniform, the way the girl poses on her hands and knees, and the ambiguous blue eyes. But her eyes do not look submissive, nor do they have the devouring stare of invitation that one normally sees in models in erotic magazines. In their unknowable blueness there is a hint of fear but an even larger hint of madness. The blueness of the eyes captures the blue lighting of the photograph and the blueness of the skirt, as if the madness of the entire photograph converges in them. The madness is adult and a startling contrast to the girl’s schoolgirl demeanor. Desire is engineered in this photograph: We imagine a man watching and wanting the girl, and the girl looking back at us and at him, conscious of being looked at. But unlike in Bausch’s work, there are no real feelings conjured by the photograph for us to identify with, so we can only be perplexed, and perhaps discomforted, by its madness. What draws us to the kind of madness in this photograph? What guarantees its Being?
         Barthes likens photography to a “science of desirable and detestable bodies” (in reference to the entire body of the photograph and not just the individual bodies portrayed in them). Cafe Müller is filled with darkness but we feel the warmth, or rather the consolation of it because we can somehow identify with what is being hinted at. We desire the body in Cafe Müller more. Sherman’s Untitled 92 is cold but we do not turn away from it. But do we detest it? Perhaps some would object to the suggestion of a child in the photograph, or to the uncomfortable position Sherman puts them in as viewers. But the most detestable thing about the picture is probably that we do not understand the truth contained in the blue eyes. We go back to madness— a madness that we cannot feel. But whether comprehensible or not, Barthes appeals to us to protect Madness and to save Desire to truly experience what a photograph can give us. “You just have to get crazier,” Bausch tells one of her disillusioned dancers. Both she and Sherman invite us to fall deeper into madness and desire instead of distancing ourselves from them. It is an invitation to go beyond incomplete understanding and lose oneself in one’s own mad feelings.                                          

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