Mary Walling Blackburn by Natasha Marie Llorens

Sex objects, dead zones, and trace fossils.

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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From the series “David Meet Paul,” 2013. Collection of Ina Honke and Toby Kamps, Houston.

Mary, this is ostensibly an interview. I am a curator. You are an artist. We work together on many things. Sometimes we work on exhibitions or commissioned artwork, but more often (more productively?) we argue about ideas—risk, pedagogy, radicalism, what it means to be feminists working in the art world or working against the art world. I’m asking you to write with me about some of this interstitial intellectual work as it relates to four of your projects. This thinking together—about the work and about the reading that runs like a current underneath everything you do and I do—is foundational to ethical collaboration. I do not only ask questions. You do not really answer me. This is a mockery of an interview, but it is an honest attempt to make thinking with one another appear.

Mary Walling Blackburn All of our conversations are studded with interlocutors, beholders, bodies, and their emotional wakes (which are also political and formal). All of these things have their own gravitational pull, sure, but there is also the pull and anti-pull of mute things: sex objects, dead zones, trace fossils. Hecate’s Necklace, a newish animation, contains thirty-three mute sex objects … thirty-three testicles, to be exact. Making work, these things touch me. I touch back.

Natasha Marie Llorens I ask about feminism specifically because you and I just finished a project together at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts as part of an exhibition I co-curated with Kerry Downey called Failing to Levitate. The exhibition was expansive and deliciously unruly, and I wouldn’t say it was about feminism, but it did provide the ground for a series of intense conversations about humanist feminism versus poststructuralist feminism, i.e., whether our real task should be empowering women or disabling masculinism.

Recently, you shared with me this series of drawings about Hecate made for a project at Sala Diaz. Hecate was the Greek goddess of magic,1 patroness of witches and the transgendered of the ancient world, goddess of the threshold and the liminal.2 Why do you bring her into this?

MWB I brought up Hecate’s necklace because some contemporary feminisms are apologetic, nervous, or clean. Hers is not. Hecate, bathed in moonlight and belly full of black lamb and honey, wears a necklace of severed testicles; she’s the Greek goddess of deserted highways and the city poor. She’s the Mother of Ghosts.

Hecate makes no bones about her commitment to the transgressive poor—a night people who refuse to be produced by rules, by economics, and by gender binaries. Ghosts, herbs, and even dogs are her operative tools, even the Labradoodle.

You can also call her Baubo, Trivia, Heqit. She’s the bawdy joker. The visualized (sculpted or drawn) American phallus has oft-cleavered its balls because they are so vulnerable; because they are not epic. When the artist’s hand attempts to reproduce the balls there is no mutually held cultural memory of the form for the hand to crib from. Hecate’s necklace of severed testicles is apotropaic—having the power to avert evil lodged against the vulnerable, and that propensity is unexpected and energizing. However, the physical substance of the necklace discomfits and disorients me, and that is critically generative, and so I draw that.

NML I have always appreciated the complexity with which you address class in your work, and how consistently you avoid economic determinism in the way you acknowledge capitalism’s impact on form, language, and play. Another example of this commitment might be a newish video, Manchildren (she-corpses) (2013). I showed this as part of pedagogical exhibition at Eugene Lang in December, 2014, Authority Figures. The work is a video document of your hands paging meticulously through an artist book you made out of a David Hamilton monograph.

Hamilton is known for his ethereal treatment of the young girl, a figure he repeats endlessly, barely swathed in soft tulle, supine in rumbled white cotton sheets and new spring grasses, glistening with Mediterranean waters. A dreamlike figure that has been emptied of everything but the promise of virginity: a figure excised of complexity.

In 2005, a middle-aged auditor from Walton-on-Thames in England was charged with the possession of 19,000 photographs of children, which the court found indecent. Hamilton’s photographs were among those found to be illegal; when asked to comment on this fact, Glenn Holland, spokesman for the seventy-one-year-old photographer, who lives in St Tropez, said: “We are deeply saddened and disappointed by this, as David is one of the most successful art photographers the world has ever known. His books have sold millions.”3

MWB The project manchildren (she-corpses) began with a search, among these millions, for a copy of Hamilton’s Dream of a Young Girl. These books are very unstable with regard to their legal status. If I purchase a Hamilton in Germany and stay in Germany, it’s a legal purchase. The same goes for transactions within the US. But If I purchase a Hamilton monograph in Europe and have it shipped to the United States, the transatlantic ride shifts its legal status from “high art” to child pornography. I was interested in the legal instability of this object but also in its clouded distribution. When I began to ask around for a copy, everyone who had one claimed it was a gift, though the giver remained unattributed. Strangely, no one appears to have ever actually purchased one of these millions of copies. I did not buck the trend: I would not purchase. Because the search is also the project, I’ll tell you how I finally secured a Hamilton. I asked one of the Hamilton book owners if his fourteen-year-old daughter had found it amongst his books yet. The next day he delivered the book to me, as a gift—a 300-page monograph. I was not prepared.

The year before, I had read Ariana Reines’s translation of Tiqqun’s Theory of a Young Girlalongside Jalal Toufic’s Portrait of a Young Girl. I was struck by the increased circulation within public discourse of theories, portraits, and dreams where phantom4 ”young girls” leak from the bodies of symbolic “male authors.”5 Reines describes her own leakage in the process of translating Tiqqun … instrumentalizing her own vomiting as a bodily form of critique.

For three days, as I made drawings on the pages of the Hamilton, I could not eat. I kept showering. I sought an alchemy that might render these pubescents into another substance with a different economic charge, an opposing sensual dimension.

My initial swipes of grey paint turned into hairy, skinny nude dudes rendered in pastels—the kind of guys who enjoy being naked. The pedophile’s boner cannot be sustained by well-hung naturist Phish heads, so it substantively withdrew one book from a certain circulation. But are these manchildren simply a stopgap measure? They can turn the gaze, but can they revolt?

NML The book you make out of Hamilton’s book is both sex object and dead zone—a space rendered uninhabitable by some (usually chemical) form of contamination. Or at least, it is a deeply ambivalent object. Its images are born both of desire and aggression. Perhaps it is not the images that need to revolt. Perhaps it is enough that they provoke the recognition of ambivalence, the recognition that aggression and desire thoroughly saturate each other.

Jacqueline Rose argues, using Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Melanie Klein, that we can no more relegate aggression and violence to some space outside the oppressed subject than we can guarantee the autonomy of the “real” from the impurity of our own (sexual) fantasies. She writes:

For if psychic life has its own violence; if there is an aggression in the very movement of the drives; if sexual difference, because of the forcing it requires, leaves the subject divided against the sexual other as well as herself or himself; if the earliest instances of female sexuality contain difficulty not solely explicable in terms of the violent repudiation with which the little girl leaves them behind—if any of these statements have any force, then there can be no analysis for women which sees violence solely as an accident, imposition, or external event. Only a rigid dualism pits fantasy against the real.6

I read the book you alter for manchildren (she-corpses) as an object-lesson in this (Rose’s) vein. The pages that follow the book’s internal “title page” are imprinted with twin black squares and a wide swath arching into an oval/mouth/eye/wound/(vagina) (manchildren, time stamp: 2:05–2:25) that reappears in a corner of a painted-over photograph several pages later (2:45). Most of the young girls are drawn over, made strange to themselves, but sporadically you blot them out of Hamilton’s fictions entirely (5:21, 5:49). They are consumed by shadow and ballpoint pen (6:05). You run your fingers over the lines to confirm their erasure (6:12). You run your fingers along the seam between pages, tearing misplaced paper from where it has lodged and masked a page’s surface in error. Some pages are pasted over with blank paper (8:30), others firmly bolted together with metal fixtures, like swaths of memory cordoned off, the margins of which you page through carefully (1:02–1:50, 15:39–16:12); marking the existence of trauma, but only that—noting the gap in representation and then proceeding. If there is violence here, you show the empty spaces this violence has left behind, but you also enact something like violence when you produce those same spaces.

MWB A dead zone is also an oceanic phenomenon where the oxygen levels in certain waters have been dangerously reduced by human economic activity. I am troubled by the 400 dead zones in global waters, but I also borrow it as metaphor. Hamilton’s book is an anoxic site produced by economic and libidinal aggression. His former collaborator, novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, specializes in the dead girl, and more generally, in a character dissolved/quartered/ compromised by the machinations of crisis capitalism. What if we take Tiqqun up on their supposition that it is ok to substitute these young girls, maybe virgins, as the embodiment of late capitalism? Together, as creative act, Tiqqun/Robbe-Grillet/Hamilton conjure a female body that is not real, is not dead, is dead, is not dead. Is this because we cannot visualize an actual slaughtering of our economic structure? What if our most daring revolutionary critiques were not staged in the corpses of female juveniles?

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Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Lost Ivory Dildo. Courtesy of the artist.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Lost Ivory Dildo. Courtesy of the artist.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Lost Ivory Dildo. Courtesy of the artist.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Lost Ivory Dildo. Courtesy of the artist.

NML The Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Lost Ivory Dildo project offers one of your own answers to this question, I think. It is a formal critique of capitalism, an attempt to visualize a break in the extant economic structure that does not rely on the female corpse. ESVMID is a complex project with various stages but the general premise is …

MWB … that we start with our longing for an elephant-ivory dildo—we might imagine its use as an unconscionable pleasure because that thing could only be reproduced by extant colonial economies, by the erasure of a species. What is rendered by sorting out that conflict and sussing out impossible loopholes? ESVMID attempts to imagine what it would legally and illegally take to reconstitute this “artificial limb.” To begin with, First Nations carvers from Canada and Alaska would have to agree to create their own evocations from local ivories (walrus, excavated mastodon). None of my nascent research has conclusively revealed that any carvers would choose to do this. However, the speculative aspect of this project sets up a system for that impossibility. Participants, as collectors, will order these ivory sex-objects through a website portal I design. But perhaps the site will always crash before you could complete your order.

NML Ivory, like a David Hamilton book, is a legally ambiguous material, one completely bound up with the violent history of capitalist colonialism. Inuit carvers are legally within their rights to make ivory dildos for use in Canada, but only some forms of ivory can be shipped abroad. Part of the work is that the participant must assume all responsibility for transportation across international lines. Perhaps, in your fantasy for the project, the viewer travels to Canada and back with the dildo inside him/herself in order to complete the transaction. Thus, the project implicates the viewer in a negotiation that cannot be reduced either to the realm of sexual fantasy or to the realm of an empirical legal structure.

MWB Yes, that is certainly my intention—to instigate a situation where the viewer cannot land, cannot cross the threshold and cannot step back; hesitation is a politically productive state. For now, I made a spate of drawings and clay figurines based on coveted objects, anxious exchanges, and ancient gossip: after the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay died, her sister, Norma, destroyed Millay’s ivory dildo, burning it not without difficulty.

ESVMID also attempts to produce a platform that forces the collector to face a series of implications in their pursuit of beauty—from the Orientalist parsing of craft from art, to the misguided notion that the most pleasurable dildo apes the cock; from the assumption that the object is best held in isolation (museum/private collection) rather than within the body’s own muddy vitrines, to the transference of risk wherein the material is legal in the artist’s hands but perhaps not in the collector’s; whether the collector chooses to hold or store their purchase internally (while crossing the border or forever), or not.

The project intentionally reproduces an intolerable structure as a strategy—participation might lead to the collapse of some of these bad relations instigated by the art industry. There’s a slim chance and I’ll chance it.

NML At the top of this interview, you introduced three terms: sex-objects, dead zones, and trace fossils. I understood these terms as the material you use to sculpt a feminist critique in your work. We covered the first two, but I wonder about trace fossils, about how the term might relate to collapse or to corpses. Trace fossils are not the ossified remains of a body, they are an impression in mud or some other substrate made by an organism—footprints, burrows, or soil erosion caused by an animal’s pissing. Perhaps the idea also relates to failure, somehow, which was the binding term for the Elizabeth Foundation (EFA) project, WMYN 87.9.

MWB As part of that EFA project, I sing Lee Lozano’s text “Boycott Women.”

Lee Lozano’s text works could be likened to trace fossils, as those pieces leave an impression of the artist’s body at work. Similar to ancient organisms, her body has exited by her own engineering; Tiqqun or Hamilton retain the surface of a body and they candy that corpse for their own ideological aims. But with Lozano as trace fossil we can ascertain that the remaining object is Lozano in motion and you cannot buy it or stroke it or be it.

After I recorded “Boycott Women,” Gavin Kroeber directed me to Helen Molesworth’s essay on Lozano; Molesworth praises Lozano’s ability to expose capitalism and patriarchy’s co-dependent relationship. Now I know others do this as well; I’d like to refer to them as pugilists––they enter the fray. I’m thinking of entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, novelist Elfriede Jelinek, and artist Teresa Margolles, for example.

Anyway, the Lozano song was my personal contribution to a larger project. We decided to stage a fundraiser for a dying underground feminist radio station, WMYN 87.9, that we personally orchestrated, ranging from the technical aspects to the music programing and finally to our personification of the overblown fundraising DJs. That project was organized by Rafael Kelman and myself under the auspices of Anhoek School and included cover songs of feminist texts by roughly 60 contributors, broadcast on a low-frequency radio transmitter.7Participants were directed to select and sing a feminist text that is personally somewhat of an ambivalent read for them—something that is both pleasurable and embarrassing; something that they wish they liked but do not; something awkward, historic, but unshakeable.

NML My mother’s response to WMYN 87.9 was quite visceral: “There are some books Mary should read. Feminism did NOT fail,” which I took as confirmation that we all read history from the traces of our own traumatic encounters with power, as well as from the ruptures in the social we hope to have enacted by our cries of protest against such encounters. I read (with Shoshana Feldman) this project as a collection of individual cries from a common wound:

[W]e can also read the address of the voice here, not as the story of the individual in relation to events of his [her] own past, but as the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound.8

MWB WMYN performs the “final” fundraiser for the station as provocation. We fake its death in order to trigger our audience: Will you finally participate? Can you love me now? Because it fakes its failure, I am wondering what happens upon its revival. Will I hear a soft rejoinder? We’ve got feminism faking its death and we’ve got a pansexual capitalism always faking its orgasms—it’s loud, dude; difficult to concentrate.

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4. Tiqqun declares that the YG is “obviously not a gendered concept.”. 
5. However, Anne Carson’s recent ruminations on Proust’s captive lesbian is both a more recent and more uncooperative rumination on the fictive girl—this one is sometimes imagined as a plant; this one escapes; this one may also/actually be a young man. Carson resists the proliferation and instrumentalization of the she-corpse. Anne Carson,The Albertine Work Out (New York: New Directions Poetry Pamphlet Series, 2014). . 
6. Jacqueline Rose, “Introduction: Feminism and the Psychic” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision. London: Verso, 1986, 16. I am in debt to Rosalyn Deutsche for this reference. . 
7. See . 
8. Cathy Caruth, “Introduction,” Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)..

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Lost Ivory Dildo is on view at SculptureCenter, in Queens, as part of the exhibition Under Foundations on view through April 13, 2015.

Natasha Marie Llorens is an independent curator and writer based in New York. Her most recent project is “Frames of War,” at Momenta Art in Bushwick. In 2014, she curated Prove It To Me at REVERSE Gallery in Williamsburg, and co-curated Failing to Levitate with Kerry Downey at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space in Manhattan. She teaches art history and theory at The Cooper Union and curating at Eugene Lang. She is a graduate of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Columbia University. Her academic research is focused on violence and representation in the 1970s and 1980s.

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