I spent last week in silence in Sussex meditating 6 hours a day. On Friday I came back to London and sat in my flat spinning out. Saturday I went to the Ida Applebroog exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. Spinning out shifted to a whole new level.
I stood in front of Monalisa (2009) and tears poured down my face. It was overwhelming. It communicated with me on a level way beyond my conscious mind. It spoke rather to my body. Monalisa is about what it is to be human and what it is to exist as such in a woman's body.
Monalisa is a house, or what Applebroog has named a house, a would-be walk-in wooden box-like structure with membranous walls made up of scanned drawings through which the light filters.
The drawings are of what super-articulate critic, art historian, Applebroog expert and babe with a brain, Julia Bryan Wilson refers to as the artist's cunt. What Hauser's press release prefers to call her crotch. Yeah, we wouldn't want to be outré, we're art dealers for God's sake. Officially they're called the Vagina drawings, although at the symposium that followed the eighty-year-old knock-out-feisty Bronx born Applebroog said she'd prefer to have called Vulva.
Whatever we're calling them, these drawings possess a raw power the likes of which Tracey Emin can only dream about.
They were made in 1969 when Applebroog was living with her husband and four young children in Southern California. Desperate for time alone, a respite from the myth of domestic bliss, she would hole-up in the bathroom for hours at a time with her sketch pad. There she created somewhere in the region of 160 drawings of the intimate details of her own body.
Hearing Ida speak about the creation of the work it became clear that this wasn't conceived as an art project. There was no goal. She wasn't putting pen to paper with the dream locked away in the back of her mind that one day she might see them hanging in a white space in Savile Row, an internationally celebrated artist. No, she was just doing what she was doing. She was trying to find a way to exist in the world, a way to cope with life's grotesque disappointments and sometimes even harder to bear joys. She didn't even show them to anyone. No-one apparently. It was an entirely private and personal undertaking.
An erstwhile acquaintance of mine, a writer in fact, once asserted that no artist would create if they didn't have it somewhere in their consciousness that their work might one day be seen, published, exhibited or in some other way appreciated. This tragic, bourgeois nonsense is examplematic of a pernicious misunderstanding. Creativity is not driven by the ego. It is driven, if driven even be the word, by something far, far greater. Exactly such a limiting and limited notion is responsible for the desert of pointless bollocks that gets churned endlessly into the world. Applebroog's story finally allowed me to dismiss this initially unsettling but ultimately diminutive idea without even casting a swipe at it.
The Vagina drawings languished in Applebroog's apartment until 1974 when they were packed into a box, shoved in the basement and all but forgotten. In 2009 a studio assistant discovered them; waterlogged, rat-eaten, ravaged. Forty years after the work had been created Applebroog conceived of Monalisa.
It is not possible to enter the house. But one can peak into it through gaps in the papery walls. The front door leans up against the house with a space on either side too small to squeeze through but large enough to imagine one might squeeze through. Tantalisingly and frustratingly the viewer is excluded.
The monochromatic portrait that appears at eye-level on the front door punched me in the stomach with its visceral amorphous ambiguity. It reminded me of the Dead Marilyn photographs. The being seems only half alive, only half of this world. The head and neck merge with the body. The hair, or perhaps it is a lack thereof, merges with the black background. There is no pleasing clarity. No safety. No illusion of stability such as we like to gorge ourselves of. There's no sleep here. No numbness. There is only vulnerability and uncertainty.
The larger red portrait on the back wall inside the house struck another universal cord and a hammer blow to the self-exteriorising we spend so much of our time and energy in the management of. Fear in her eyes; anger in her deportment; horror in her body.
Nausea and love rose up in me simultaneously. Confusion and clarity reigned. Only paradoxes to offer. It is pain and joy and indifference all at once. But that's the way of life. We can run from it if we are so moved to try, but we won't get away. Not ever.