La Petite Mort
On Art, Ecstasy, and Death
In the colonial imagination, art and death have been bedfellows since the inception of slaughter as sport for the intellectual and spiritual elite. Beheadings, crucifixions, executions, rapes—these are the scenes of subjection to which art history’s early canonical pride is moored. If not for the artist’s hand, the acts themselves might’ve remained too wanton to fathom. That’s to say, without the roles of artist-as-witness and art-as-evidence, how were we to collectively imagine death, as both carnal practice and mortal eventuality?
In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, ecstasy typically entered an artwork on the countenance of the onlooker—the cherub, harpist, slave, or post-coital woman who, if not for their deference to the spectacle of man, would recede from the scene altogether. However, in rare acts—such as Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–52), a sculpture depicting the mystic in the throes of spiritual rapture induced by an angel rhythmically penetrating her heart with an arrow—these oft-peripheral characters are seemingly recast as complex protagonists. Teresa recounted the experience,
In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease.
Teresa’s vision was brutal yet tender, and as much about locating pleasure on her own body as it was about surrendering to pain as a dutiful servant of God. While her individual, corporeal experience was central to her diary investigation, her findings about spiritual transcendence were cast as universal—“one cannot possibly wish it to cease.” In the eyes of Teresa, God’s love was not a lust-riddled object to be coveted, but rather a state of (un)consciousness, a collective faith, to be surrendered to.
Preceding Bernini’s masterpiece by a few years was the emergence of la petite mort, or “the little death,” a term coined by that same intellectual and spiritual elite to describe the weakening of consciousness that transpires after consuming great art, literature, and music—or being consumed by great sex. Teresa was Bernini’s case study in materializing la petite mort within art itself and—by colonizing her pleasure and objectifying her ecstasy—Bernini shifted Teresa out of the wings and into the spotlight for all to consume. A magician at bending stone to his will, Bernini rendered her little death in white marble, a strong yet deceivably soft metamorphic rock, that embodies the precarity of human life.
It is through this nearly 400 year old artwork that I find my way into a conversation on mortality and death in contemporary art, as it is my struggle with Bernini’s treatment of Teresa’s ecstasy that reveals the importance of ecstasy itself as a tool of survival for those artfully navigating a marginalized existence. Let’s now turn to the work of artist and filmmaker Ja’Tovia M. Gary who is celebrated for pioneering an experimental visual language that, “charts the ways structures of power shape our perceptions around representation, race, gender, sexuality, and violence.”
In her highly acclaimed 2015 film, An Ecstatic Experience, Gary repurposes Black archival media and remixes it with news footage from the Baltimore and Ferguson uprisings—alongside overlays of an original hand-drawn animation—to meditate on, “transcendence as a means of restoration.” Here, the existence being transcended is the condition of being Black and utterly disposable in America, and the justice being restored is found through both individual acts of resistance and collective, spiritual strength.
The film begins with footage of churchgoers fanning themselves amidst the barrage of summer heat, rendered palpable by Gary’s vibrant, celluloid abstractions. Alice Coltrane’s 1971 track “Journey in Satchidananda,” undulates in and out, on which Coltrane performs as both harpist and pianist, bending high notes to her will and gifting Gary aural peaks around which to frame her visual and temporal experimentations. The video cuts to a closeup of the late, great Ruby Dee performing a dramatic monologue in which she conjures Fannie Moore, a woman born into plantation slavery in South Carolina in 1849. Dee movingly summons Moore’s memory of an encounter between her mother and their master in the field. Dee says,
She’d pray every night for the Lord to get her and her children off that place. One day she was plowing in the field and all of the sudden she let out a big yell. My momma, she just smiled all over her face. And she say, ‘The Lord has showed me the way! I ain’t gonna grieve no more, no matter how y’all going to treat me and my children. The Lord has showed me the way! And some day we ain't never gonna be slaves no more!’
The moment is simultaneously life affirming and heartbreaking; the backdrop to Moore’s mother’s spiritual epiphany—her unapologetic, Black joy—is still the plantation field and her outburst results in a horrific lashing. But here is where ecstasy becomes the transcendental tool of Black resistance Gary imagines it to be. Despite the tether of pain for the physical body, the spirt was able to transcend the moment as Moore’s mother exalts, “I’m free! I’m free! I’m free! I’m free!” In that moment, she rejected the plantation owner’s objectification of her body and reclaimed her subjecthood in the story of her own mortality. And, as expert witness, Gary was there to heighten the moment by bending pixels and decibels to her will, unleashing a fury of rays, stars, and halos which emanate from Dee’s head—an angel on fire.
The video then pans out to picture the full choir singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Their voices carry the reverberation of Moore’s memory and Dee’s powerful performance, and they stand as an underlayer to superimposed images of protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore. Art Historian Kanitra Fletcher expounds on Gary’s approach, stating,
The layered, open-ended nature of the imagery draws connections from seemingly disparate moments of reality and performance, the past and the present. In particular, Gary suggests these different episodes convey a sense of the ecstatic. As a response to state sanctioned violence, she began ‘to think on the notion of ecstasy and what it means to search for 'an ecstatic experience' during this contemporary political moment.’ The video thus conveys how, in the face of oppression, black Americans have found this overwhelming feeling in various forms of resistance via religion, freedom, escape, and even rebellion.”1
In An Ecstatic Experience, we bear witness to the importance of Black people telling our own stories. We learn that, for us, ecstasy does not descend from the heavens on the wings of an angel, entering our bodies by immaculate conception—rather, as Fletcher suggests, it is something we must be willing to search, fight, and die for. We witness the immortal strength and spiritual fortitude of the social institutions we have built—there is no white marble under the feet of the Black church. We celebrate women and people of color as protagonists in the art that we create to survive, and envy not as Dee steps forward into the spotlight to serve as key witness to what transpired on the plantation field that day. Because her version of events is our version of events, just like the protestors’ rage is our rage. We jive as Gary cuts to a rhythm that people of color know in our bones, infusing her work with an urgency and pulsating quality characteristic of blood and life. I’m glad that Bernini made Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, but I’m fucking ECSTATIC that Ja’Tovia M. Gary is making work like this, and that I am alive to experience it!
1. Kanitra Fletcher, N.d. Accessed January 14, 2020. http://landmarks.utexas.edu/video-art/jatovia-gary.