Michaela Meise – Imagining an alternative symbolic order

Early in 2013, Luce Irigaray responded to my request for a collaboration on a piece of art, that was later exhibited in a group show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. During the process of exchanging letters and working on the display, I developed the desire to take part in Luce Irigaray’s seminar in Bristol. She proposed that I work on the question ‘Can art be a tool of transforming society?‘ Encouraged by the utopian vision offered in her early text ‘Commodities among Themselves‘(Luce Irigaray, in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985, pp. 192-7), I want to consider whether art can provide us with alternative social structures and models of communication that might better suit our needs and passions. For this purpose, it is necessary to distinguish several art contexts, because the ambitious expectations associated with social transformation cannot be applied to every artistic activity. Therefore I will first purpose various answers:

  1. One kind of art takes place on a level of creativity that remains confined to a private context. It does not correspond to the art of canonical art history or the art of the market. It’s reasonable to assume that everyone enjoys creating a work of art from time to time and should have the opportunity to do so. These pieces are a trace of an existence, and offer the possibility to contemplate the reality of someone‘s life and perhaps establish a connection to them.
  1. Art can be a tool to heal individuals or ease their pain, as it happens in Gestalt Therapy and other therapeutic or educational practices. If and when individuals are so transformed, they likewise might become enabled to transform society.
  1. Art can be a currency for financial speculation or dirty money. This trade involves a degree of implicit acquiescence, and creates an ethical dilemma for some artists. In terms of art as a currency, feminine artists are usually not to be found in the highest prize category. The present luxury art market mirrors a social and political reality for women that has some similarity to Freud’s description of female hysteria, which Luce Irigaray analyzed in Speculum as follows: ‘Woman’s special form of neurosis would be to ‘mimic‘ a work of art, to be a bad (copy of a) work of art. Her neurosis would be recognized as a counterfeit or parody of an artistic process. It is transformed into an aesthetic object, but one without value, which has to be condemned because it is a forgery.‘ (Luce Irigaray, Speculum, Of the other woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill, New York: Cornell University Press 1985, pp. 95-6).
  1. Cultural production is in a continuous process of change and experiment. And for this reason alone, because of its privileged position in subcultures, art sometimes challenges the dominant mode of thinking within societies. Artistic work in groups is always transformative even if there is not a clearly political impact, because collaboration then has no fixed rules and implies listening to others. It is the place where Irigaray‘s notion  of ‘sharing air‘ (Luce Irigaray, Conversations, New York, Continuum: 2008, p.46) can be practised. I experienced a sense of heightened listening and speaking in performances with Sonja Cvitkovic and Birgit Megerle. We were reading out the poems of the ancient Greek poet Sappho without prearranged order or manner. We shared one ‘Sappho dress‘ with each other and our voices were unamplified. In these circumstances, I felt what Irigaray calls the ‘blossoming of sexuate identity‘ (op. cit; p. 134). We, as women, were improvising forms of connection and communication with each other. Another ‘blossoming‘ happened with the feminine and masculine performance collective ‘da group‘ from Frankfurt. We did improvised humorous radio shows, performances, and picnics, and created costumes for the annual gay pride. Our costumes, stage props and silly songs emphasized the experimental or carnivalesque aspect of a sexuate identity, and drag was a way to embrace the ‘hysterical woman.’ The inability to take part in high culture production and the obvious ‘forgery’ were celebrated. No one wanted to identify with a symbolic order that dismissed these gestures as ‘lies.‘
  2. My last example regarding the possibilities for social transformation through art is closely connected to my work with clay. For the last two years I have mainly been producing ceramic objects and reliefs. When I was an art student,  I would never have allowed myself to use this material, because it was, in my view, implicitly connected with the stereotype of a female artist working with natural material, creating fragile organic shapes, or using crafts like weaving or pottery, instead of machines, computers and cameras. But now I have an interest in clay. The material offers specific possibilities and experiences, such as the perpetuation of touch. It is not toxic for skin or lungs. Clay is easy to handle, it shows any soft trace. After the clay is fired it gets solid and lasts through time, as prehistoric findings have demonstrated. It is a material for art, for tableware, china sanitary ware, architecture and for electrical engineering components. Clay is dense, it is very much ‘matter.‘

In connection with my ceramic work I want to mention a chapter in Speculum where Irigaray alludes to Freud‘s  words about infantile wish to have a baby with one’s own mother, as a wish that he ascribes to girls as well as to boys. Faeces, as result of a successful digestion of ‘mother-material‘, would represent these babies. But for hygienic reasons these ‘children of the mother‘(Luce Irigaray, Speculum, p. 40) will always be taken away as soon as they were made. Now I am wondering whether there is a connection to ceramics. Clay mass, in colour and texture, is notably a material that is quite similar to faeces. When little children play with mud, sand and dirt, it perhaps serves a need to connect with their own production of waste matter. I am wondering if the centuries-old cultural technique of ceramics, and especially as modelling figurines, can be referred to this story of Freud. And in this regard, Speculum offers an additional perspective:

One might advance the hypothesis that the child who is desired in the relationship with the mother must be a girl if the little girl herself is in any degree valued for her femaleness. The wish for that girl child conceived with the mother would signify for the little girl a desire to repeat and represent her own birth and the separation of her ‘body‘ from the mother’s. Engendering a girl’s body, bringing a third woman’s body into play, would allow her to identify both herself and her mother as sexuate women’s bodies. As two women, defining each other as both like and unlike, thanks to a third ‘body‘ that both by common consent wish to be ‘female.‘ […] In other words, this fantasy of the woman-daughter conceived between mother and daughter would mean that the little girl, and her mother also, perhaps, want to be able to represent themselves as women’s bodies that are both desired and desiring – though not necessarily ‘phallic.‘(Luce Irigaray, Speculum, pp. 35-6)

I am wondering whether the countless figurines of prehistoric and ancient cultures, as well as the female-dominated tableware production, might be a trace of a feminine identity that is able to regard herself and other women as being unharmed by any mutilation, and to imagine a symbolic order that is based on them.