In January 2010, artist Mary Walling Blackburn spent four weeks in Austin teaching a course entitled "Accidental Pornographies: The Visual Effects of the American Women's Health Movement Since 1970." Walling Blackburn, the founder of The Anhoek School, an educational experiment for women, co-wrote and taught the course with art historian and critic Katie Anania. Lessons ranged in topic from from "Vagina as Ghost" to "Vagina as Cannibal," included such diverse readings as Jean Luc Nancy's "The Stranger" and Ina May Lee's Spiritual Midwifery, and assigned projects ranging from the traditional response essay to a diagram of the bite ("Vagina as Cannibal").
Accidental Pornographies: Lesson Plans 1-9 presents nine drawings by the artist that take this course as their jumping off point. Originally composed as lesson plans for a substitute-taught workshop at the Blanton Museum of Art, these drawings re-present the course material on oversized ledger paper, as if ripped from the pages of a massive record book. Text, images and erasures (in the form of blacked out portions of the page) appear in delicate etching, smudged charcoal and dripping black paint. The drawings, like the course itself, embody the complicated territory of the vagina as subject in a post-feminist, yet enduringly gendered, world. They present the vagina somewhere between language and the body, as both theoretical and corporeal entity. Here, it is assertive, even bawdy, yet tender, despondent yet eruptive, familiar yet utterly unfamiliar.
Walling Blackburn's Lesson Plans are also in dialogue with the much touted pedagogical turn in contemporary art. Recently, in "The Classroom as Ornament," the artist posed this challenge to herself and other artists involved in school-making, course-writing and class-teaching: "Make a school that makes me sick to my stomach, radically overhauls my presumptions, or most difficult, is so lovely I can barely stand it." Lesson Plans provides one example of the artist's response to her own challenge. The drawings offer visual and textual structure for the curriculum they represent, a structure that is less practical than it is affective, more beautiful than it is directive.
Work culled from~Outtake: A Text on Double Positive
When testsite and Mary Walling Blackburn discussed which works would be exhibited at testsite this month, “Double Positive”, a sculpture of the vaginal interior cast in frozen breast milk was not selected. Blackburn discusses this ‘outtake’.
The self-portrait is, often enough, sleazy. The way it feigns a sort of naturalism but in fact possesses a specific agenda. By not so guileless proxy, the viewer of the self-portrait is often cast in the stream of another’s desire, desire for the subject’s own realization of self. Hey, Please. See me. Hey, see me… seeing myself. But what of another kind of self-portrait—unselfconscious, otherworldly, circumscribed? No longer the put upon viewer, could we then, finally, be the best of voyeurs, let in on something mysterious and untested—our subject impossibly blind to both their own presence and to our presence but never violated? But what of the self-portrait where the representation of the body itself is in the throes of disappearance—actually not there, literally in negative? It’s all her, but not her.
Beyond the limits of voyeurism but perhaps still squarely within the confines of narcissism, I devised to make a cast of the interior of the human body—I could not see that deep. But it was not the opening of the vaginal canal to be replicated, rather that within. The negative was to be cast in breast milk and placed in a freezer, until the form was, temporarily, made solid.
Here. Double Positive. A snapshot. The sculpture is introduced to itself. Held up to the mirror. Arrested in the flare of the flash. Recognition? Disavowal? The provocation of an impossible relation…that an object without a face recognizes itself or more precisely, registers its reflection? It won’t and can’t and so we are made witness to another break with narcissism's frustrated closed circuitry. The object fails to participate, to fall deliriously in love with its own image.
I have a fantasy that a certain Claude Cahun photograph is a self-portrait. In this particular photograph, she has carefully placed several objects on a large rock by the sea. There is no bather lolling in the surf and there is no floating decoupage head or heads decorating the surface, as she is sometimes wont to do. It is Cahun for sure, yet recognizable without ornamentation or female body. But titled as self-portrait? It is fantasy; mine alone.
In Disavowals or Cancelled Confessions Cahun writes, “between my mirror and my body, shorten the leash". Eighty years later, it is re-articulated by Rosalind Kraus, but in reference to video: "Mirror reflection implies the vanquishing of separateness". Double Positive is exempt from their fantasies of unity. What could be unkindly referred to as some sort of snake/banana hybrid appears to be looking at “its self” issued forth from a formlessness that has no truck with a stable sense of unity.
Here, we get one last minute to imagine self-portraits of women where the body has vanished, a portrait in Future Perfect tense. Are they like ghosts? No, like ghost objects.
One more culled object: at the death of the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, her sister incinerated Millay’s ivory dildo. Reportedly, it was difficult to burn. Let’s pretend it was hand-carved by Millay; this in order to make claim that it is another kind of self-portrait: beautiful, terrifying, goofy, half-in, half-out. Without documentation.
In the end, before the ash remains of the ivory dildo collapsed, there was one unpredictable moment where one could glimpse a center that could not hold.
The center cannot hold.