Below is an analysis of a drawing made on a lamp post. I will argue that this drawing externalizes and articulates psycho-sexual anxieties, and will approach this image as psychoanalyst might approach a patient’s narrative: by looking for inconsistencies. I’d like to focus on one inconsistency in particular: the anus. Specifically, the drawing’s missing anus. I will argue that we may understand this image through related images, which together recognize the larger archetypal sexual anxieties present in this drawing. These related images hinge similarly on the rotating absences or representations of body parts. We may treat these discrepancies as potential outcomes of symptomatic displacement.
This lamp post is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It is set in a cuboid concrete block which has been mostly painted white. The paint is patchy and incomplete. On the painted cuboid is a simple drawing of a woman whose legs are open, with a physical hole in the concrete where her vagina would be. The entire composition is in forced perspective, with artist choosing to represent the body from the sternum to the toes. The overall drawing is crude. The feet are simplified, four toes each. Small marks suggesting hair have been placed on either side of the concrete hole. Surrounding the body are a box and ovals containing text, reading from left to right:
PUT IN UR FEARS
SHE SO NASTY
All of the writing is presented in upper case, with stylistic choices made in the letter forms. The “E” is most notably made by three horizontal marks, and is never connected to any vertical bar.
Put in ur fears is bounded by a box; a drawn arrow meanders from beneath the fears, crosses over the woman’s left shin, and points to the hole in the concrete. Each letter has been capitalized as though to suggest a title. Lube has a small arrow leading from it to a drawing of a twist-off container just beneath it. That’s likely lube. In the top right, she so nasty was placed in an oval with a pointed form leading off the edge of the physical concrete cube. Its presentation suggests a dialogue bubble found in cartoons and comic books. #Please Me is in an oval with no other marks. It is placed at ninety degrees, with the bottoms of the letters oriented toward the drawn body.
Put in ur fears, is the most legible, the largest, the most active with the arrow, set in a box at the top left corner. Often the gesture of a box beside an image suggests a key or text which speaks to or about the image. At first this box provides safety by suggesting the text is above the image. This text therefore describes the image, so the viewer’s primary responsibility is not contending with the image, but rather the text about the image. This moment of safety is quickly taken by the content of the text: Put in ur fears directly acknowledges the viewer, who then becomes implicated in this scene. The artist superseded the planes on which the image and text operate by placing the arrow between the box and on top of the shin. This gesture drives the text plane and the image plane closer. Now the text speaks to, and within the image. The arrow means we are confronted by an image and text which recognizes the us from within the image plane.
It’s striking how improvised this image is. The whole body is made of simple shapes. The marks and type are made with urgency, a disregard for perspective or proportion, or simple anatomical accuracy (see: four toes), and with shortcuts the letters make. Illegal, opportunist, impulsive, compulsive, or improvised, this image was created quickly. Yet as evidenced by the toenails, the artist made sure to include key details.
Because the nature of this piece is rushed, the artist needed to work intuitively to distinguish each voice for each set of text; practically, him treating each with specific bounding boxes. These intuitive gestures of the box and speech bubbles, whether the artist knew it or not, tap into a larger and legible history of determining subject and object within images. These bounding boxes are also essentializations of how the text operates within the image.
Lube reads most simply as a label for the drawing. There is nothing distinguishing the space of the type and the image plane itself. It seems the artist here had little faith the public could interpret their representation of lube, even when contextualized to this sexual scene. #Please Me as a discrete bubble feels more like a sticker. Something imposed over the image. This removed yet embodied voice complicates the work in a way which we will revisit later.
She so nasty is in a speech bubble form that extends off the side of the image plane. This is the artist’s representation of another voice. This is a tertiary party placed off-stage, out of our site. I find it interesting that the artist gave speech, but not space to an audience other than the drawn body. This speech bubble also shows he considered of a fourth party: us. Can we have become the invisible, tertiary audience off stage? The ambiguity in speakers here allow us simultaneously to read the text bubble as belonging to an audience, and as speech which we might speak as an audience off-stage from the drawing.
She so nasty is the artists prediction of our reaction, which is one of repulsion and intrigue. This is the artist’s projection of the crowd who would witness their art outside of the world that the artist has constructed. And yet, by incorporating it the artist has constructed their own world where we the viewers may or may not live. This is a mediation of the public nature of their art. More so, it’s the mediation between what is internal, and what is presented to the public and external. Tension results from the multistable speakers giving the image this speech bubble. This text is speaking about and not to. None of the speech bubbles are addressed to the drawn woman. It’s the spectacularization of this site as demonstrated the exhibitionist nature of her presence (#Please Me show’s she’s aware of us, but her audience is not specific) .
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”
My understanding and read of the work would change by knowing the gender of the artist, though the deeper anxieties and their archetypes invoked by this image do not change with the artist’s gender. However, gender may affect one’s relation to those archetypes.
Strangely, this kind of image has ancient precedence. Ahmed Achrati writes about them in his essay Hand and Foot Symbolisms: From Rock Art to the Qur’an. Achrati used the term ‘ovaloide,’ writing to describe some of these phenomenon: “These ovaloides are also found associated with what has been referred to as the ‘genealogical woman,’ ‘open woman,’ femme ouverte, or Venus accueillante. It is an engraving of a woman with open and flexed legs, and a cupule or a natural fissure in the supporting rock representing her sex.” Millenia before Islam in the Middle East, people were inscribing images of open women into rocks just as our artist here has done.
The Near and Middle East weren’t the only site for these carvings, nor were their associations to fertility isolated: “Perhaps among the most ancient carved symbols, going back 30,000 years and still reverenced in India’s goddess religion, the vulva, yoni honors the sacred power of birthing.” - Book of Symbols. Achrati continues by drawing a relationship between ovaloids, sandals, and umbilical cords, by remarking on the formal ambiguity and linguistic relationships between arabic sexual words and sandals. “Like the ovaloide, the foot and sandal also assume a sexual role, one that has been sufficiently documented in rock art.” pg 482
Both as a site of sex and a horizon for reproduction, Achrati describes an ovaloide carving: “To her left, there is a sheep with a double line extending from its sex area to an ovaloide (an inverse, U-shaped form). At the end of this line, which is thought to represent an umbilical cord, inside the ovaloide, is a small, two-lobed form, deemed a placental object. Farther to the left, a cattle is encircled within a triple line that is attached to another placental object, inside of which there is, delicately carved, an outline of a homunculus, or a small man.”
As Achrati excavated, ovaloides and the “open woman” have been linked formally by the umbilical cord.
There is another image which complicates our relationship to the umbilical cord: Masaccio's Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. In a seemingly innocuous choice, Masaccio painted a belly button. This gesture was not neutral, especially at the time. For centuries, the Church has been debating the duo’s belly buttons, as the two never had umbilical cords. William Crawley remarked for his BBC article Theological Navel Gazing:
“Did Adam have a belly-button? After all, according to literalist readings of Genesis, Adam was the first human being who ever lived. In which case, he wouldn't have had any biological parents, right? And since Eve is said to have been created from one of Adam's ribs, surely she would lack a belly-button too?”
The (absent) belly-button debate has somehow lasted centuries. This lamp post image which has unexpected links to the belly-button has an equally bold, but new omission: the anus.
Let’s take a moment to bring Freud in, whose opinions until this point have been unacknowledged. Freud definitely missed the mark on elements of homosexuality and anal sex, but his words bear weight here. In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he writes:
“Certain regions of the body, such as the mucous membrane of the mouth and anus, which are constantly appearing in these [homosexual] practices, seem, as it were, to be claiming that they should themselves be regarded and treated as genitals. We shall learn later that this claim is justified by the history of the development of the sexual instinct and that it is fulfilled in the symptomatology of certain pathological states.”
And we are talking about homosexuality. When it comes to the anus as the unthinkable, omitting a gesture as simple as the one which made the belly button (which the artist included,) speaks directly to castration, emasculation, and anal sex. The vagina here is an insightful distraction. Where does the artist invite us to put in ur fears? Whether or not this anal omission is a form of symptomatic displacement, we can learn from the artist’s invitation to locate these fears in the vagina.
Fearfulness surrounding the two were discussed most concisely during the AIDs crisis. Bersani remarks:
“ ...and we must of course take into account the widespread confusion in heterosexual and homosexual men between fantasies of anal and vaginal sex. The realities of syphilis in the nineteenth century and of AIDS today "legitimate" a fantasy of female sexuality as intrinsically diseased; and promiscuity in this fantasy, far from merely increasing the risk of infection, is the sign of infection. Women and gay men spread their legs with an unquenchable appetite for destruction” (Bersani, 211)
The fears we are talking about play out between the spaces of #Please Me and She So Nasty. It is when the feminized body expresses its own sexuality that it becomes punishable. The tension between sex and reproduction, albeit, sex drive and maternity, is what constitutes a paradoxical relation between object and subjectivity. Achrati invoked the ironic terms femme ouverte, and Venus accueillante (the french term for “welcoming”). It’s this welcoming which is exactly rejected and embraced, something Julia Kristeva may deem a ‘frontier.’
Within the space of sex, shame, destruction and reproduction, Masaccio’s Adam and Eve has made omission of its own. e-Flux commented in a recent publication: “In Masaccio’s rendering, the expelled pair walk together from the green valley crying with open-mouthed agony. Caught in this moment during their walk of shame, their lips, especially Eve’s, surround gaping dark ovals: Where are their teeth?” We might continue on to ask of Eve, ‘if there are no teeth where there should be, are there teeth where there shouldn’t be?’
Surrounding the hole in our femme ouverte are drawn hairs showing the drawn body as a post-adolescent one. This body menstruates, and carries her own active sexual desires. This is a problem for the artist, and one with roots similarly ancient to Achrati’s open woman carvings. Though many of the marks beside the hole in this lamp post present as stray hairs, several take a triangular form. In spite of what the artist intended, we can read these as sharp objects attached to the labia. It’s exactly this ambiguity in mark-making which allows the image to operate both as a sexually mature woman, and one who possesses vagina dentata. The vagina dentata is a central tenant to emasculation and castration anxieties, and Mulvey remarks:
“The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.”
It’s the ‘making good’ which is arguably inescapable for the vagina. When we introduce overt sexuality, the guilt shame, and fear worsten. In this framework, introducing overt sexuality equates to a desire to castrate. This desire for sex, which lays a threat to a phallus, cast as criminal:
“The power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned on to the woman as the object of both. Power is backed by a certainty of legal right and the established guilt of the woman (evoking castration, psychoanalytically speaking). True perversion is barely concealed under a shallow mask of ideological correctness--the man is on the right side of the law, the woman on the wrong.” (Mulvey, 6)
Castigating women for their sexuality is bolstered by the tenderest byproduct of sex: reproduction and maternity. Linneman continues:
“The perversity of vampirism lay in its inversion of gender roles, the awakened sexuality (including the ability to perform male and female sex roles), and the female rejection of feminine behavior, most shockingly anti-maternal actions…” Linneman continues “This suspicion towards nonmaternal women stems from a wider mythology directly related to the vagina dentata motifs. As Otero purports, “the ‘terrible mother’ is an image that represents the fear of ambivalence and androgyny in female sexuality” (273) and, like the vagina dentata motif, is prominent in folklore. The “terrible mother” motif features a sexualized female, one that is capable of nourishing a child, but chooses instead to devour children.” (8)
Where does that leave us? Adam and Eve. What is there to be said about the biblical mother of all humankind, “crying with open-mouthed agony.” expelled in shame for the original sin? “...however, in order for these women to be deemed socially acceptable and restored to purity, it is necessary, as in all vagina dentata tales, for the teeth to be removed.” (Linneman) Reclaiming purity by pulling out the teeth therefore reduces the vagina back to its reproductive, non-threatening state. After all, it was only after “... the famous biblical duo both cut and lost their teeth biting into the profane fruit.” (e-Flux) that they were able to bear children. But what happens if we remove the teeth, and the “hole” is still non-reproductive?
Barbara Creed expands on notions of guilt and law in Kristeva’s works, writing:
“She [Kristeva] argues that the period of the ‘mapping of the self’s clean and proper body’ is characterised by the exercise of ‘authority without guilt’... However, the symbolic ushers in a ‘totally different universe of socially signifying performances where embarrassment, shame, guilt, desire etc. come into play – the order of the phallus’... Kristeva argues that this split between the world of the mother (a universe without shame) and the world of the father (a universe of shame), would in other social contexts produce psychosis;” (73)
In learning how to map and maintain a “clean and proper body,” one must abject “Both categories of polluting objects [which] relate to the mother; the relation of menstrual blood is self-evident, the association of excremental objects with the maternal figure is brought about because of the mother’s role in sphincteral training.” (Creed, 73)
And so fear, shame, abjection is introduced through the site of castration, and the site of excremental release. Not only does Freud insist that the anus-mouth-vagina link is “justified” and should be “regarded and treated as genitals.” but that it is “justified by the history of the development of the sexual instinct and that it is fulfilled in the symptomatology of certain pathological states.”
The Artist’s omission of the anus is not conclusive evidence of some repressed homosexuality; Freud himself wrote that “The playing of a sexual part by the mucous membrane of the anus is by no means limited to intercourse between men: preference for it is in no way characteristic of inverted feeling.” Inverted here meaning homosexual.
Yet, the corollary between the mucous membranes of the mouth-anus-vagina and their relation to castration can still be drawn. “The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the reenactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir).” (Mulvey, 6) In this drawing are both reenactment (through the drawing’s content), and devaluation (She So Nasty). It is the exact diesire to dirty oneself (excrement being the pinnacle of filth,) so that one can clean oneself which is exemplified by #Please Me and She So Nasty.
Achrati, Ahmed. Hand and Foot Symbolisms: From Rock Art to the Qur’an. 2003. Arabica, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Brill Publishers.
Bersani, Leo, Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays. 2009. University of Chicago Press (Print)
Book of Symbols, Taschen, 2010, various authors. (Print)
Creed, Barbara, Horror and the monstrous-feminine: An imaginary abjection, Routledge, first published 1993
Julieta Aranda, Kaye Cain-Nielsen, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle
Freud, Sigmund, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905, Trans. James Strachey, (online) Pepweb
Masaccio, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carminein Florence, IT, c. 1425, Wikipedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden
Mulvey, Laura, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Originally Published - Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18
“Will & Testament: Theological Navel-Gazing.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ni/2008/11/theological_navelgazing.html.