I got some St Tropez gradual tan moisturiser for free in a magazine; I bought the magazine for the moisturiser. I’ve used it twice so far on my legs, trying to be careful and even, but already today I noticed a blobby stain of tan has appeared on my ankle. I must be doing something wrong. It’s like some kind of sick joke. The palms of my hands are looking good though; I sit in a café reading and every now and again catch myself looking into my open palms, gradually tanned and sparkly. I also look out the window. If someone were watching they would think I was waiting for someone. I am waiting for inspiration to strike.
‘You ask me if I have an idea for you’ begins Robert Walser in his short story Response to a Request (1907). He then proceeds to describe to a performer how they might enact a near perfect performance on stage. From employing a painter to sew some costumes, to mastering the art of making one’s own hair stand on end—the suggestions become increasingly challenging. At one point the performer should pull out a tuft of hair, then lay it on the ground to be embraced by a snake that should fall from his/her mouth a moment later. This piece of hair will inspire horror in the spectator, suggests Walser, if removed gracefully. According to Morgan Quaintance in Imagination as Participation, an essay re-examining the position of the audience in relation to performance art, the artwork ‘has to remove or conceal part of itself so that the absent feature can be constructed’ (by the viewer). With this in mind, Walser’s sketch takes on an element of the striptease or magic show: taking something off, making something appear out of nothing.
If removed gracefully I imagine this tuft of hair might inspire a distinctly unempathetic reaction in the viewer. It reminds me of art historian Briony Fer’s description of the kind of detachment prompted by the work of artists Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois in the 1960s, a detachment, experienced by the audience in front of the artwork, that Fer describes as ‘anything but neutral’. In Walser’s Response to a Request the bodily nature of the lifeless tuft seems also to invite detachment of a ‘more or less violent’ kind, heightening for the onlooker ‘a sense of losing a portion of oneself’. The audience gasps.
The performance goes on, with the performer sticking a knife through his/her eyeball and out their neck, then lighting a cigarette ‘in a curiously cosy way’. Another word for cosy is intimate; the spectator is imaginatively involved in the act.
Since the short story uses second person narration, the ‘you’ form, as I read I too am involved, too involved, drawn in as pseudo-participant and forced to face the daunting prospect of fulfilling Walser’s proposition or—even worse—that perhaps I am being made to look the fool. I am this fool. The set comes crashing down. Complicit, I read on to the absurd crescendo:
Only one of your hands is to be seen, reaching up from the smoking ruins. The hand is still moving a little, then the curtain descends.
We have just had a sauna and my brain is a little foggy. Eating some gherkins I start making a pizza and reach for the iron handle of the pre-heated pan, grabbing it confidently with my left hand. Two seconds later I realise what I’ve done.
My heart beats faster pumping blood through my healthy-sauna-veins to my hand. You back away. I put my hand in a plastic bag. This doesn’t help but it was recommended online so I persevere, making a mini plastic bag oven, screaming, then putting my hand under water three times until I realise bandages are a better option. I want to go to sleep but all I can think about is detaching my hand and how good I would look with a hook, or perhaps some interchangeable paintbrushes. I take four painkillers and am out like a light.
…light and heavy/ light like a feather/ you get light enough and you levitate… (Agnes Martin)
I dream about abstract painter Agnes Martin’s grid paintings, grids that are never square but use rectangles to make a ‘contradiction, a dissonance’ with the square canvas. Martin discovered that by covering ‘the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power’. I think about getting light enough to levitate. Magicians do this using mirrors…
The next day, reading Ali Smith’s novel Artful (2013), I notice the narrator addresses me as ‘you’. Who me? Yes, you. Couldn’t be. Then who?
Well, the narrator’s dead lover for one.
‘What’s two, again?’ asks the narrator’s lover, recently returned from the grave and temporarily lost for words. I also wonder what two is and go and look up second-person narration. Brian Richardson describes the ‘you’ form of narration as ‘particularly devious’ and ‘unnerving’ and Smith uses this to full advantage. The narrator begins Artful by saying she ‘went and stood in our study and looked at your desk’, addressing her lover even before he/she comes back to the land of the living a few pages later and there is a ghost in the living room covered in dust and dropping rubble. It is quickly acknowledged that the creature must be her own creation: ‘And obviously, it wasn’t you; this was my imagination.’ Despite this warning I continue the suspension of disbelief along with the narrator who proceeds to offer the spectre tea even though one is not supposed to feed the dead (justifying, ‘I could offer a figment of my imagination tea if I wanted’). The figment of her imagination pours it onto the carpet. It is clear that the ‘you’ is both the narrator’s dead lover returned home, the narrator’s imaginary dead lover, and, well, me, as the last line of the book makes most explicit: ‘(Who did I think I was talking to? You.)’
This ‘you’ is hard to escape. It locates me as a reader on the ‘other side’: I am not in the land of the fictional living, or if I am, I am, like the ghost, just visiting. But even though I am told I am dead (what a drag) I am also forced to play the role of the narrator’s lover and thus am addressed intimately: ‘Ah, I’d let a hand like yours take me anywhere.’
Looking at the photo of my bandaged hand I am reminded of the monument to Álvaro Obregón in San Angel, Mexico City. I see the bronze statue of the president and something is missing. It’s his right arm. We found it in a cage underneath the monument and the surreal dislocation of bronze man and bronze arm was amusing. Later, I discovered what we saw was a replacement arm, for the actual right hand of the president, which had rotted for years beneath the monument in a jar of formaldehyde. The symbolic power of such an object is hard to miss, and in my mind the story becomes one of fascination and horror.
An imaginative leap
As Janet walks hand in hand with soon-to-be-lover Bernard in Janet Frame’s autobiography The Envoy from Mirror City (1985), Bernard draws her attention to tumbleweed: ‘Do you know tumbleweed?’ Janet has a decidedly anthropomorphic reaction, she says:
Although I did not want to indulge in anthropomorphism or pathetic fallacy I did invest in the tumbleweed a power of detachment, of protective isolation: I looked sympathetically on it.
Janet’s reluctance to ‘indulge’ in anthropomorphism stems from the questionable idea that we can know something (Bernard: do you know tumbleweed?) by giving it human form or qualities. But later, when Bernard laughs, a subtle exchange takes place: we hear Janet feels ‘as if [she] were a vast empty place awaiting the guests and the feast’; the tumbleweed roams freely whilst Janet sacrifices her human form, becoming an ‘empty place’. This form of reverse anthropomorphism reminds me of artist Marcus Coates’ endeavour to become animal: making the journey of a stoat in homemade stoat-like footwear, or being strapped to a tree to see the world as a bird. He takes a risk.
In The Envoy from Mirror City we learn that instead of ‘staying safe in this world’ a writer must travel to the world of the imagination to transform their material. This world, a ‘harsh’ and ‘lonely’ place called Mirror City, is visited by the envoy of the title who communicates with Janet, but also by Janet herself, who is eventually granted citizenship. At the end of the novel/autobiography there is a sleight of hand: as Janet looks across the water at her hometown, Dunedin, she is surprised to see it has become Mirror City. She has missed the swap, and so have we. In the moment of transformation the elusive writer, Janet Frame, slips through the gap between autobiography and fiction.
(What am I left with? Gaps. Reflections. Envoys and mediums. Performers left right and centre. Is there room for me here?)
Frame tells us there is only one cemetery in Mirror City and this is a graveyard of memories. Oddly these memories are ‘resurrected, reclothed with reflection and change’ but their ‘essence untouched’, which makes me wonder if the graves are empty.
In Artful the essence of the lover is maintained (‘the cough was you in a way that couldn’t not be you’) but he/she is missing a nose. The narrator, faced with the hole, laments her imagination’s inadequacy and tries to fashion a nose out of paper. She also fills in her lover’s unfinished lectures, starting with the heading ‘Cezanne’: ‘I tried to remember what you’d ever said about him or his work’. Instead of writing up these memories, she recalls her own response to Cezanne’s paintings, how she was struck by their greenness, and picking up the pen she writes about the book she has started reading, Oliver Twist, and every reference in it to the colour green. Memory fills in the gaps, but ‘remembering don’t come to a man face forward—it corners around sideways’. (Carson McCullers)
In Mirror City Janet finds herself ‘observing (not always consciously), listening, remembering and forgetting’ as she ponders the questions that any ‘who stand and stare’ have time for. I am reminded that the word spectator is linked to spectre: they share the same Latin root. So too does perspective. Needing to get some perspective I move to the bar. Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror plays in the background and I smile as the world around me starts to match the one in my mind. I think back to Walser’s performer, going to absurd lengths to create a mirror world, offering up a piece of him/herself for the audience to recognise as their own. Watching the light bounce off my tanned hand, I mull over Agnes Martin’s poem The Thinking Reed, which concludes with two cryptic phrases: ‘Anything can be a Mirror’ and ‘There are two endless directions/ In and Out’. I think about how anything can be a mirror and try to picture the place where these two endless directions meet.
The next song comes on…‘Thriller’.
Milli Jannides is a New Zealand painter currently living and working in Berlin.