How many people today live in language that is not their own? Or no longer, or not yet, even know their own and know poorly the major language that they are forced to serve?
—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Language
What happens when one’s language is not heard? Or heard, but not recognized? When one’s speech carries within it holes of silences: hesitations, pauses, caesuras, stutters, and apprehensions?
Sometimes this is the result of being an outsider. A foreigner, for example, hesitates, stutters — an immigrant, exile, or the child of an immigrant. What happens when one’s psyche is saturated in silence?
Artists and writers whose psyches are immersed in silence can find themselves unable to navigate a world where the loudest, seemingly most articulate voices are heard, comprehended, and hence, “win.” Such artists or writers, when filled with passion, revenge or anger, may develop the ability to propel themselves forward despite having been unseen or unheard or, perhaps worse, misconstrued, purposefully or not.
If one wishes to be recognized, in other words, to not be ignored, to not have one’s work ignored, then it is imperative to speak the language of the majority. If so, however much an artist rebels or refuses, she is still, if she is participating in the larger world, conforming. How much conforming, I wonder, can an artist do before her language and her work are no longer her own? What happens when she loses her own vernacular? In the end, the choice seems to be learn to speak in the majority language and, in this act, lose one’s self, or refuse, speaking in silence, in iterations of silence.
The latter choice can be interpreted, literally, as one’s voice (psyche and language), one’s body, and finally one’s work disintegrating, vanishing. And, in fact, over the past months, leading up to the writing of this essay, I had experienced episodes mis-remembering, drawing to mind the Sonic Youth song “Disappearer,” when what I really wanted to bring to mind was another track from the 1990 album Goo: “Tunic (Song for Karen)” (1990), Kim Gordon’s eulogy for Karen Carpenter. In an undated letter written to Carpenter, Gordon wrote:
Thru the years of The Carpenters TV specials I saw you change from the Innocent Oreo-cookie-and-milk-eyed girl next door to hollowed eyes and a lank body adrift on a candy-colored stage set. You and Richard, by the end, looked drugged—there’s so little energy. The words come out of yr mouth but yr eyes say other things, “Help me, please, I’m lost in my own passive resistance, something went wrong. I wanted to make myself disappear from their control. My parents, Richard, the writers who call me ‘hippie, fat.’ Since I was, like most girls, brought up to be polite and considerate, I figured no one would notice anything wrong—as long as, outwardly, I continued to do what was expected of me. Maybe they could control all the outward aspects of my life, but my body is all in my control. I can make myself smaller. I can disappear. I can starve myself to death and they won’t know it. My voice will never give me away. They’re not my words.
This doubling, of Gordon into Carpenter, is a common theme with women who disappear. In the 1982 film, The Best Little Girl in the World, based on the novel by Steven Levonkron, a prominent psychiatrist of anorexia at the time as well as Karen Carpenter’s doctor, the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the lead character, Casey Powell, an anorexic teenaged girl who wishes to become a ballerina. In the film Jason Leigh, at five foot three, dieted from 104 pounds down to 86. “I’d lie in bed and count my ribs,” she said, “I’d look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m fat. I have to slim down.’” Jason Leigh not only represents, she becomes the anorexic she is representing.
We aren’t ourselves — we are the image projected on the screen of ourselves, the image projected into the world. Karen Carpenter, a softball- and drum-playing tomboy had to subvert her self, subsume her true self into the double Karen, the one her manager and the public wanted: pretty Karen, thin and polite Karen, the girl-Karen. She left the true self, the Karen her experience and her mind had formed, and became another Karen — and in doing so, she abandoned her mother tongue, her true language. Like Kafka’s ape, she did what the handlers told her to — stepping out, for example, from behind her drum kit and standing instead at the front of the stage, in a dress, to sing. But the price she paid for this — aping — was that the original Karen was banished or vanished. What was left was mere outline.
* * *
Another means of vanishing is to vanish into the work. Or to make work that enacts this vanishment. Here, I am thinking of the ephemeral works of Eva Hesse. The German-Jewish artist, Eva Hesse, escaped, barely, Nazi Germany. When she was two, she and her sister were sent by Kindertransport to the Netherlands. Six months later, her parents reunited with Eva and her sister and brought them to the United States. Hesse attended Yale, where she focused on painting. When she returned to Germany in 1965 with her husband, something shifted in her — she abandoned painting, moving, instead, to sculpture, making ephemeral works in fiberglass, resin and other materials that were both toxic and delicate. Hesse was aware of the dangers of working with such materials but did not protect herself. She could not, she insisted, work with this distance between herself and her medium.
Losing herself in her work (vanishing into them) Hesse used materials she knew would disintegrate. Over time, her pieces have decomposed, like bodies, and in fact many of her works are no longer shown, for that would mean exposing them to the damaging effects of heat and light of the gallery space. Instead, many of her works are preserved, cocooned presumably forever away from the eyes of the audience. In an interview with Cindy Nemsner in Art Talk: Conversations with Twelve Women Artists (Scribner, 1975), when Nemsner asked her, “But you are concerned with the idea of lasting?” Hesse responded:
Well, I am confused about that as I am about life. I have a two-fold problem. I’m not working now, but I know I’m going to get to the problem once I start working with fiberglass because from what I understand it’s toxic and I’ve been too sick to really take a chance. […] And then the rubber only lasts a short while I am not sure where I stand on that. At this point I feel a little guilty when people want to buy it. I think they know but I want to write them a letter and say it’s not going to last. […] Part of me feels that it’s superfluous and if I need to use rubber that is more important. Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last.
Rather than starving herself — becoming so small, so weak, that her body begins to represent her silence — an artist can also disappear into the vanishing point, and then she’s gone. Hesse died at the age of thirty-four of a brain tumor, which, some have speculated, may have been the direct result of her unprotected use of toxic materials.
* * *
We can begin by saying that Dropout Piece, first and foremost, is a title—a concise fragment of language indicating, with the word ‘piece,’ the application of art’s frame around a certain zone of defiant, difficult, and joyously (ce)rebellious thinking represented by the ambiguous but decisive compound ‘dropout.’ Being a title, the piece functions as a verbal object to be considered in the literary context of the artist’s writings. Dropout Piece is the name Lozano gave to her wrenching transformation from insider to outsider, her declaration of willed marginality. She named her position to the world, or rather to the art world, as a designation of otherness and refusal, rejection and critical defection.
—Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece
Lee Lozano was born Lenore Kastner in 1930 in Newark, New Jersey. When Lenore was fourteen she changed her first name to “Lee.” This change, Lee noted in a semi-autobiographical piece she wrote at the age of forty, was her “second name change.” Considered overweight as a child, her doctor prescribed thyroid medicine, which she continued to take for the rest of her life. From then on, weight was a constant obsession. After completing her BA, he met Adrian Lozano, a Mexican-American artist, in Chicago, where she returned to school, this time to earn a BFA at The Art Institute.
Lozano’s earlier work is abstract. In the mid 1960’s she made drawings of tools — referencing the penis (as power) as well as the word “tool,” referencing one who sucks up to those in power in order to gain access to it. By the late 1960s Lozano had begun her notebook of instructions for such conceptual works as “Piece,” “Grass Piece,” “ Investment Piece,” and “General Strike Piece” (all 1969). Then, in 1970, Lozano made “The Dropout Piece.”
We can see that Lozano had begun, early on, a process of transformation, of becoming someone or something else: the name changes; the deliberate control of the body. With her art work, Lozano changed, too, rapidly moving through various types of making until, in the end, she entered and, I would argue, moved through, conceptual art. Her “Dropout Piece” was “about” extracting herself from the art world, which she accomplished by moving to Dallas, where her family lived, and losing contact with it. En route to her “Dropout Piece,” Lozano had already begun the process of disappearing. In 1969, she performed her “General Strike Piece,” which consisted of the following directions:
GRADUALLY BUT DETERMINEDLY AVOID BEING PRESENT AT OFFICIAL OR PUBLIC “UPTOWN” FUNCTIONS OR GATHERINGS RELATED TO THE “ART WORLD” IN ORDER TO PURSUE INVESTIGATIONS OF TOTAL PERSONAL AND PUBLIC REVOLUTION. EXHIBIT IN PUBLIC ONLY PIECES WHICH FURTHER SHARING OF IDEAS & INFORMATION RELATED TO TOTAL PERSONAL AND PUBLIC REVOLUTION.
In 1970, she performed “Decide to Boycott Women.” in which, from the moment of the project’s inception, she no longer communicated with those of the same gender.
Upon arriving in Dallas, Lozano vanished further. She told her cousin, Jerry Kramer, that she was no longer Lee, insisting, as Lehrer-Graiwer writes, “He was not to call her Lee. Her name was E now.” And though she was able to find long-distance New York representation for her artwork (she didn’t drop out entirely), she (Lenore or Lee or E), unable to remove herself any further from the world, made herself even smaller. “She ate,” Lehrer-Grainer writes, “so little that by the end she weighed almost nothing.”
Lozano’s entire life project was one of vanishing. First, by becoming someone or something else: from Lenore to Lee, then Kastner to Lozano. When she became an artists, she changed further: no longer the daughter from New Jersey, she was now a serious artist in Manhattan. As she becomes someone else, the original Lenore Kastner is subsumed. In a sense, she is swallowed, digested, by this new someone: the artist with the artist’s name, Lee Lozano. But Kastner/Lozano morphs more. An artist now, she has become her art work. As she moves rapidly through her art movements, she, the artist, changes rapidly, as well. From painter to drawer, to performance artist and conceptual artist. By the time she leaves New York, she is completely consumed. Her final act, the Dropout Piece, is both a conceptual and performance piece — life and art are one, the artists is swallowed up by the art and is gone.
* * *
The American artist Cady Noland makes work using objects: beer cans, concertina wire, American flags, among others. By positioning these objects in the pristine white space of a gallery, she offers up these pieces of our culture for examination. Her installations are a form of language, a kind of poetry made entirely of things. Nothing could be simpler and yet, each of the objects can be misunderstood depending on who is looking at them, based on her cultural background, her experiences, her class, and her race.
The art world speaks in a different language from the one Noland is using. As a result, her installations are misread. If the work is read from the point of view of art collectors and dealers, then the criticism of conformism, capitalism, and power will be lost. Eventually, Noland stopped making work. In 1989, she wrote a three-part essay titled The Metalanguage of Evil (1989) in which she wrote:
There is a meta-game available for use in the United States. The rules of the game, or even that there is a game at all, are hidden to some. The uninitiated are called naive or provincial, liars or suckers. To those unabused by an awareness of back door maneuvering, a whole world of deceit remains opaque. Those in the dark are still ripe for exploitation.
The gap between Noland’s intention, what she wanted to be considered, and what critics and viewers ascertained, was wide. To “speak” (to make work) and not be heard is one thing; to make work and be misunderstood is another. This misunderstanding or incomprehension, though frustrating, can also reveal an acute alienation: if those inside the art world cannot comprehend an artist’s language, does it signify that those who presume to share that language are in fact as far away, or even farther away, than those who exist outside the art world?
First, Noland existed in her art work. Not an art star, there is but one image of her, the one above, and even in this image, her face is not visible. Noland is subsumed into the work, into the language of the work. When this language wasn’t understood, she wrote the essay — using a simpler language (the language of text). In Part II of The Metalanguage of Evil, Noland writes:
Death by starvation, withdrawal, mass murder, appropriation, colonization, pornographic death, death by illness, death by natural disaster, any anonymous death in which one did not have, or almost have control, is the opposite, in apolar scale, of the personal or designer death. Death by choice, whether by bonafide suicide or by accident-on-purpose, is the death of choice, being the honorific death.
In this case, she vanished into the text, into this language.