A Foot and a Sinkby Jongwoo Jeremy Kim
In Linda Nochlin’s bathroom, there is a Wesselmann depicting a single foot with all five toenails in maquillage. Resplendent in red plastic sheen and buffed to within a fraction of an inch of their lives, not one toenail shows a blemish. Together the five toes complete a foot that is singular and autonomous, extending only to a short length of the calf. The even-toned, fair, and glabrous foot, despite its lively, assertive upward-sticking, marks a site of severing. Linda’s 1994 book The Body in Pieces opens with a Fuseli showing another foot, this one colossal and sliced off at the ankle. Fuseli’s mournful, self-absorbed absurdity notwithstanding, the lopped-off marmoreal flesh, limned in red chalk and sepia wash, has a certain authority, gravitas, and even self-referentiality of the monstrous Other (“I am that I am.”): in Linda’s words, the “heroic energy of the past is evoked by the eloquent modeling of the individual toes […] the instep of the fragmented foot bulges forth like a body-builder’s pectoral,” and “[e]ven the toenails […] crackle with emphatic linear energy and the foot as a whole dominates its base with a stance of assured self-possession.”1
Wesselmann’s painting and Linda’s words played important parts in my constitution as an art historian, which began in earnest when I was her advisee in graduate school. In the manner of Freudian condensation, the 18th-century rendition of an ancient foot and its unlikely alternate of the 20th century are impossibly one in my mind, creating a linkage of artifice, desire, power, and the passage of time. As I am now writing about Robert Gober,2 I keep thinking about Linda, various lower limbs in art history, and cutting. In her 2003 essay, “The World According to Gober,” Linda notes that the “discreteness of the fragments” in Gober is what “attracts” her: “That leg. There it was, the leg-in-itself.”3 She refuses to posit a bigger, more intact whole that antedates or postdates the orphaned limb. Suspending the belief in the plenitude of the past or the future, Linda insists on reduction to the irreducible in Gober’s forever now—parts that are monstrously independent. But because these legs run from any attempt at lucidity and historical fixity, Linda also sees “ambiguous objecthood” in Gober.4 For me, this ambiguity extends to queerness. Each of Gober’s discrete objects that are epistemologically opaque is a thing that defies the bodily norms that are bound by the ordinariness of patriarchal truths governing sexual difference. That the legs are made out of a volatile (meltable) medium like beeswax makes its vulnerability that much more seductive in relation to our notions of the flesh, its ruin and loss.
Also in Linda’s bathroom there is a sink I happened to help select—a readymade found in an Upper West Side hardware store’s basement jungle. The shape of the no-nonsense spigot, separate handles for cold and hot water, and the drain set against a white basin felt just right—they still do. In my disorderly art history of the unconscious mind, this sink is connected to Gober’s mock-sinks. Gober’s “carefully constructed” sinks, Linda says, are “variations on a theme of plumbing, variations on the essence of sinkness.” In his “formal mutation” of sinks, “plaster, wood, wire, and semigloss enamel paint” anxiously exist “on the brink of turning into something else entirely.” In contrast to the sink in Linda’s bathroom with all its solid parts adding up to a self-assured sinkness, Gober’s sinks exhibit only “humble verisimilitude”: “None of them has spigots; some of them have eye-like holes where the spigots are supposed to be. […] [S]till others […] are almost devoid of details; another is bent into a corner.”5 Yet, absurdly, they seem more sink-like than actual sinks because Gober’s copies invalidate the original: they are simulacra, through which we recognize that the thing-in-itself is not just beyond our reach but irrelevant to our knowledge production, our phenomenal relation to the world.
Art history, at its most conventional, is a form of knowledge production that adjusts and affirms our relation to a truthful world that is in fact truthless. That knowledge-making, especially regarding the body, too often rehearses established power dynamics, endorsing illusions of access to das Ding an sich for an authorized few. But Linda has taught us not to envy their Ding, and rather to look, with courage, beyond what the given power forbids—especially when it concerns sex and sexuality. In the margins, repudiating the phallic “Genius” (undone by her homey debunking of this “mysterious essence, rather like the golden nugget in Mrs. Grass’s chicken soup”6) we should continue to follow Linda’s lead and do the historically difficult but irreverently pleasurable work of analyzing representations of the broken body, the leaky body, the body in pieces. In so doing, to quote Linda describing Gober, we need to “reject … the permanence of the single great meisterwerke.” The sex of mastery (knowledge and power) is cut like Gober’s legs, and always “on the brink of becoming something else entirely” like Gober’s ever-mutating sinks. The resulting truths will be strange. “With Love” (Linda’s frequent email sign-off), we need to keep seeking them.
- Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 7.
- Jongwoo Jeremy Kim and Christopher Reed, Queer Theory and Visual Culture: Rethinking Identity and the Sexed Body (Ashgate, under contract).
- Nochlin, “The World according to Gober,” in Robert Gober: Forskyvninger, Displacements (Oslo, Norway: Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst, 2003), 86.
- Nochlin, “The World according to Gober,” 87.
- Nochlin, “The World according to Gober,” 88.
- Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” in Women, Art and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 153.
ContributorJongwoo Jeremy Kim
JONGWOO JEREMY KIM is Associate Professor of Art History, Hite Art Institute, Department of Fine Arts at the University of Louisville.