Reviewed by Zach Kleyn
In the World But Not Of the World
You can and you can’t – You shall and you shan’t – You will and you won’t – And you will be damned if you do – And you will be damned if you don’t.
—Lorenzo Dow, from History of a Cosmopolite, 1814
The recently published artist book Another Self, written by Akina Cox and Ariane Vielmetter, begins with an epigraph by Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Building a new model is just what Another Self does. A neatly bound artist book focusing on injustice and possibilities for change, it outlines the perspectives of two articulate female artist-writers who are struggling with their own understanding of the ethics of individual responsibility to a culture that keeps these same individuals (women, for instance) in an inferior position. Akina Cox writes, “… I think about Groucho Marx and ask if America is a club that wants us as members […] While it is important to speak up when you see injustice, I think there is a point when you realize that our voice won’t be taken into consideration, as you are not a valued member of society.”
Cox approaches this problem by examining the elusive female tribe of the Amazons. Many scholars believe that this nation of women warriors existed only within Greek mythology. Cox, however, points to recent research that makes it more probable that the myth of the Amazons was based on actual female fighters. This vague space occupied by a fascinating tribe of fierce femininity becomes a way for Cox to play with the collapse of fact and fiction. Whether in myth or reality, this group of women chose to live apart from mainstream society. They were nomadic and did not have a written language – conscious choices to give up the stability of a settled life, the benefits of a written history and tradition, and what Cox calls the human need for community. The Amazons, Cox argues, took care of their own individual desires by choosing to remove themselves from the needs of the larger and more established Greek society – but this came at a price. “We are such social creatures,” Cox writes, “that the pain of being rejected by society, of being an invisible member, pushes some in the direction of making their point [through] self-sacrifice.” Clearly there are differences, during the time of the Amazons and today, between the desires of individuals and the demands of society. Cox’s solution, which also teeters between fact and fiction, is to learn from the disengagement of the Amazons: “… I have had enough of this shit. […] Let’s pull out. I don’t know if we’ll end up creating a militia in the desert, or stealing horses, but let’s camp out in the land of tiny backyard gardens and shady pools.”
Ariane Vielmetter offers up a different strategy to the problem of an individual’s responsibility to a culture of inequality, one that is decidedly less aggressive and extricating. Vielmetter sees particular forms of representation, such as realism in art and literature, as being capable of “address[ing] these cracks between the needs of society and the desire of the individual.” In an essay that follows Cox’s exposition on the Amazons, Vielmetter lays out a meandering argument that demonstrates the ways in which acts of realism can disrupt a culture dominated by patriarchy. Vielmetter claims that certain mundane undertakings, such as painting still lifes, carries a sensibility that contrasts sharply with actions of “greatness, heroism, [and] achievement.” These modest and subversive actions perform a kind of sabotage within a patriarchal culture because of the fact that they are overlooked and understated within the language of control, domination and victory.
Another Self, at first glance, appears to be presenting two paradoxical views as to whether an oppressed individual should participate in the transformation of culture. Which is best served first: individual desires or the needs of society? Is a strategy of disengagement or mundane disruption more effective? The two essays in Another Self give us the paradoxical answer: one must participate and not participate simultaneously.
When one seeks to build a new model, one must pay close attention to that which came before. And one method of paying close attention is to consciously choose to not fully immerse oneself within the enchantment of old rhetoric. While explaining her religious past during studio visits, Akina Cox describes the experience of “grasping at English as though I am not familiar with it.” Her own “sense of frustration with language” allows her to “feel a kind of poetic kinship with the Amazons, because they did not express themselves in a way their neighbors valued.” Over time, systems of culture and forms of representation (including all modes of language) build up an inflexible rigidity, what Ariane Vielmetter describes as being “brittle and porous.” This archaic and outmoded structure, stanch and oppressive, requires the breath of a new life – a resuscitation, a revival. A new model, a new language, cannot be built from scratch; it must be articulated from the leftovers and detritus of previous paradigms. Vielmetter articulates this opportunity when she says, “Here, language literally becomes a sculptural material, one that is pliable in some ways and hardened in others.”
Contemporary artists, writers and thinkers are the ones designated to move, however slowly, the models of culture and language forward. We do this by literally wrestling with language – gathering up the tough clay of signifiers that have become stale and unyielding, slamming it to the table, and pushing with all our might. We are the nomadic Amazons, the makers of the mundane, the saboteurs of society, standing on the gates of hell. With a persistent pushing of the boundaries, our current culture and the language that describes it, riddled with injustice and inequalities, moves into the realm of the new – imperfect and bursting with potential.
The beauty of Another Self is how it shows Cox and Vielmetter as two subjects who are struggling with the question of how to critique an oppressive culture in which they are participants. These women, locked within a set of cultural and personal limitations, wrestle with language in order to propel culture, and themselves, out of the present stasis of injustice and inequality. It is from this unending grappling that another self is created – a fierce and curious being who sees herself as both the product and the producer of a ravenous culture that becomes obsolete by eternally eating its own tail.
Akina Cox and Ariane Vielmetter, Another Self, (artist book, 2012)
Images: Cover and image from Another Self
Reviewed by Zach Kleyn