When my sister died, I was holding her hand in a hospital room in Hartford. Amid the shock of it, what I felt was the inevitability of this destruction that seemed, whatever else it was (the many other things it was), to be a monument to sheer facticity: the unswerving immenseness of the thing itself. The end-ness of ending. No shower of the coins of knowledge inwardly falling. Muteness. Something staring back that wasn’t knowledge.
We metaphorize this moment: the human urge to remove one’s self from the blood-brutishness of irreversibility that fact is. But the metaphor economy is one of continual production, and its profligacy is the instrument of empathy. It attempts to braid contiguous strands of emotion from one person to another, to shift a self to another self, feeling as the material of transmission, particularly the transmission of trauma, so that we fall down and find some truth about ourselves at the moment of impact. Profligacy’s quantities and empathy’s transmission (which is an action incurring distance paradoxically meant to close it) dilute and separate. Yet fact is an essence that is finally unprocessable. It is intractable and oblivious, while metaphor is always a form of yielding to it, hunting for shelter in the language of the tribe. We need to recognize metaphor for what it is: a vulnerability to fact, an evasion.
“Vulnerable,” from a suspected Latin root in vellere, to pluck, to tear. The year is 1997. I’m standing in the cellar-like space downstairs in the main hall of the Venice Biennale. Marina Abramović is attempting to deny metaphor its ultimate evasiveness. She sits amid piles of bloody cow bones, scrubbing them. The air stinks with the smell of old blood. The triangulation of her physical labor with a spoken narrative about men as rats killing each other and two video screens showing her father with a gun and her mother covering her ears, her eyes, her mouth. The work is called “Balkan Baroque,” metaphor for war, exploding guns in ex-Yugoslavia not all that far from Venice’s Grand Canal, Abramovic present, here, cleaning the bones in a blood-stained doctor’s coat. The heaps of bones like the metaphor machine in full production; the aporia of metaphor’s inbuilt distancing and quantification attempting through empathy the feeling of fact. My wife of the time turns away from the work in a corner of the room and sobs.
A passage in Seamus Heaney’s great sequence of poems from the mid 1980s, Station Island. Section VII: “And though I was reluctant / I turned to meet his face and the shock / is still in me at what I saw. His brow / was blown open above the eye and blood / had dried on his neck and cheek. ‘Easy now,’ / he said, ‘it’s only me. You’ve seen men as raw / after a football match …”
The sequence is Heaney’s public, Dantesque retelling of the Irish Troubles. So it is, in its invocation of Dante’s own metaphoric journey through Hell, a mirroring literary allusion, metaphor riding on top of metaphor, to which he adds this third layer in the telling: the shock of death distanced in the reframing of a sports match to make the narrator and reader less vulnerable to fact, and to delight (in this particular sense of delight as the recognition of craft) in the artifice built in front of what is unspeakable. Easy now. It’s only me, metaphor’s un-Troubles. Metaphor which also attempts its opposite within itself: to use its empathic mechanism against itself to ease us not finally into intimacy with fact but into the artificial pleasures of distance; to anoint evasion the healing sovereignty of the unspeakable lifted into the spoken, the visible, and so by naming it, by showing it, relieve us without actually touching another’s facts. And when we say, “How touching that is,” we are saying in this figure of speech (which, as a figure of speech, is already a distancing) that we approach another’s facts as objects. They are already made solid and external. We touch their surfaces as surfaces, to not be torn, to metaphorize vulnerability, to save ourselves. The objects of the artist and the artist as an object are always already machines pointed toward the limit of the invulnerable.
ContributorSteven Henry Madoff
Steven Henry Madoff is Chair, MA in Curatorial Practice, the School of Visual Arts, New York. He is an award-winning writer, editor, and poet; a contributing editor to Modern Painters and ARTnews; and a former art critic at Time magazine. His most recent book is Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), published by MIT Press. His most recent exhibition as guest curator, Host & Guest, took place earlier this year at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. This November he hosts an international conference, Curating the Curatorial, at SVA.