This interview was inspired by a long walk in a remote Adirondack swamp. I vividly recall watching Maureen Connor, a modern urban woman, schloshing through the ruins of a former beaver colony. The juxtaposition mirrored the layers of meanings and material in her work. This was the beginning of a dialogue.
Amanda Means Until several years ago, your work had a very cool, detached quality of reserve. Very elegant and very inward: turning inward. Then a vivid shift occurred. You had done some work using a figure as a mold and covered it with wax. From it’s back side, one could see the interior of the mold, and the impression the figure had left. There was a dramatic increase in intensity—emotionally and intellectually. It was as if your work was turning inside out. The reserve was gone.
Maureen Connor I don’t know if I’d call it reserve. Sad, elegiac, maybe a little despairing, although some people have called it polite, too polite. The wax figure was more confrontational, angry rather than sad. I hadn’t intended that anger, originally. It was partly a response to the form I used to make the figure.
AM What did you use?
MC An inflatable sex doll. I actually kind of stumbled upon it. I had been looking around for inflatable forms, not particularly for a figure, as armatures to pour wax around with the idea of making pieces that would evoke a feeling of floating, or, at least, of the hollow spaces inside the body—the lungs, the stomach, the intestines, etc. So I went to a novelty shop on the Upper West Side where they had a large selection of inflatable toys. When I asked the attendant if they had any others not on display he very reluctantly told me about “Jill” as he called her which he warned me was “very naughty.” I was glad he was embarrassed because it was really pretty horrifying to look at, the female body was reduced to breasts and orifices and the rest of it was virtually unformed. I think some of my horror—that in some minds this was all that was really necessary for sex—comes across in the pieces.
AM Was this shift in your work caused by a desire to increase its political content?
MC Not consciously. I had used materials that were considered feminine like fabric, in investigating clothing forms and how they give meaning to the body, but I hadn’t explored the body directly. Even with the sex doll forms, I was still, at least ostensibly, interested in making a form that the viewer could identify with, so that they would feel their bodies in relation to the hollow of the form the sex doll made. But when I poured the wax, the outer surface of the piece ended up looking like flayed skin, as if the insides of the body had seeped through and were on the outside. Initially, my intention had been to experience the physical in a more intellectual way. This was clearly visceral, almost a disgusting feeling of negating your body. When you really start to think about what your organs look like and what would happen if your skin were ripped off or your chest were opened up and you looked inside, it’s not something you want to identify with, but something you want to distance yourself from. That’s what started interesting me. Why, when we really start to look at what’s under ours skins, do we not want to know what’s there?
Looking back, I was trying to insist upon the reality of the female body, not allowing it to be thought of a just breast and orifice. But, I recognized my own impulse to remove myself from this reality, not just the female body but all bodies. This need for distance seemed to represent something very basic. That’s when I really started studying internal organs.
AM You started casting internal organs in glass.
MC I had been making drawings of internal anatomy—human organs, muscle structures—examining them. Glass seemed to be the perfect material; removing their visceral quality and, at the same time, evoking their slimy transparency.
AM The quality of shock is gone. They’re very beautiful.
MC They’re certainly very transformed. I wanted to remove the pieces from their shock value. Otherwise, you just stay in the area of disgust and never get beyond it. It’s easy to get a reaction, but then where do you take it? I want to draw the viewer, and myself, as well, into these objects, to make them accessible as things worthy of examination and consideration rather than to present them as forms which simply evoke a sensational response. I’m still exploring ways to present this material that allow all of us to examine our own resistance and squeamishness—our own fears of death, or of breaking the deepest taboos.
AM You explored this idea of taboo further in your essay on disgust.
MC Yes, I was trying to figure out where this response of disgust comes from—how certain objects or substances become taboo. It is a very complicated question because we’re talking about how repression occurs. How controls are placed on a group so that they learn what is and is not allowed—this is clean, this is dirty, this is good, this is bad. Does that information get imposed primarily through threat of punishment? Certainly Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus would say that. And I pretty much agree with the theory that some of the earliest forms of repression happened through the actual witnessing of painful punishment. That is how people learned to internalize certain fears. Responses which are then passed along from adult to child in a much less direct way. It’s no longer necessary to punish or even threaten once certain information becomes internalized: toilet training being the perfect example. We’ve learned not to shit in public and we train our children accordingly. This seems to represent one of the earliest lessons in right and wrong in our culture. Somehow, good and evil, at that point, get connected to substances in the world.
AM You mentioned your involvement with clothing and I know you have been teaching courses in the history of clothing for a number of years. How does this connect with your investigation of taboo and internal organs?
MC I guess you could say I’ve been trying to develop a psychoanalysis of clothing. Clothing is connected to some of our earliest taboos toward the body. I’m writing a piece about the show of aprons at the Met. Aprons, in the form of a loincloth, become one of the earliest articles of clothing and, as such, might be the first expression of modesty or of sexual difference in the covering of the body. This idea has continued to be part of the meaning and function of aprons. In European folk cultures for example, the apron represents the woman’s marital status. Aprons cover the genitals even if they don’t actually hide them, but, at the same time, point out the area where they’re located. Webster’s Dictionary defines an apron as a garment that’s worn to keep the clothes clean and protect the garments that are worn underneath it. It’s a funny paradox there, that they protect your clothes from dirt and at the same time hide what has been considered the dirty place—in both the unclean and the immoral senses of the word—underneath.
AM You have chosen a structure that also has strong clothing references as integral to your pieces that incorporate glass organs.
MC That was not intentional. I originally chose the bottle rack which is based on Duchamp’s Bottle Rack because it looks like a skeleton. Duchamp’s original was about 30 inches tall. When I blew it up to about 60 inches so it would have a human scale it looked like a hoop skirt and a corset. It’s funny how these things recur in one’s work. The organs, in this case human and sheep lungs, become the bottles on the rack and the ornaments on the clothing as well as being themselves.
AM There is a quality of alarm or danger in this work, a menacing aspect.
MC Do you feel it is aggressive toward the viewer? In some way threatening?
AM Not threatening, but intense. Like watching a fire from a safe distance.
MC They are almost counter-phobic, in the sense that I have saturated myself with the physical presence of these forms that represent everything we find disgusting and horrifying. The more I get some distance from the pieces, the more I feel they are an exploration of my own limitations, my own repressions.
AM And perhaps what you consider to be some of the limitations of the art world as well?
MC Yes, that’s true. A lot of appropriated work functions in a very way implying that there’s no place else to go. By using the bottle rack in this other way, I’m trying to open things up. Duchamp has been interpreted as being opposed to self-expression because of his choosing the ready-made, a machine-made object which does not show the human hand, made for functional purposes and therefore neutral. He called it visual indifference. I didn’t see his bottle rack and certainly not his urinal as being neutral. In fact, they both seem extremely sexual. By opposing this reductiveness, I’m re-charging these forms. The bottle racks and the lungs they hold become both aggressor and receptor, phallic and vaginal. You can’t tell which is which or define them in any absolute way. You can’t really distance yourself from them by establishing their identity as something other than yours.
—Amanda Means is a photographer and a Contributing Editor to BOMB.