From Artaud to
‘Woman as Protagonist’
Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror
MoMA PS1, New York
31.03.19 – 23.06.19
Translated by Duncan Hewitt
In 1947, when Antonin Artaud was finally released from a psychiatric hospital and returned to his friends’ side, he published a proclamation that began with the words ‘Ten years since language left me…’ and in which he declared ‘Since October 1939, I can no longer write without drawing.’ And so, in the exhibition Artaud the Moma – Works on Paper, held in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1996, we saw how, in Artaud’s manuscripts, images and writings always intermingle.1
In his 1986 essay ‘To Unsense the Subjectile’, the French structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida took Artaud’s declaration as the starting point for a debate about ‘language’. He considered that when text and pictures were mixed together and impossible to separate they formed a combined, comprehensive language. Artaud was by no means the founder of this type of language, however. During the transition from the era of ‘proto-language’ to the era of language, every culture has left behind traces of imagery, and seen the gradual evolution of pictograms, sounds and movement. The meaning of ceremonies, songs and dances was gradually transformed into symbols.
This year, MoMA’s PS1 exhibition space is exhibiting works by the American feminist artist Nancy Spero ( 1926–2009 ), dating from the 1950s to her death, and including a number of videos featuring Spero’s work and interviews. Spero was an extremely prolific artist, with an interest in a wide range of subjects, and there are more than a hundred works in this exhibition, documenting the changes in each phase of her career. I wish to focus on discussing how Spero developed her creative slogan ‘woman as protagonist’ – from the series of works she made in the early 1970s, which take Artaud as their starting point, to her late works, which focus on female archetypes in myths and history.
When she was just starting to make a name for herself in an art world dominated by men, Spero had a profound sense of not being free. In early videos we can see her in meetings discussing the status of female creative artists with other women artists. When one of her colleagues asks her why she doesn’t allow men to participate in the meetings, Spero bluntly rejects the idea: ‘Some people think that my works are a kind of protest, and they’re probably right, I really am engaged in protest.’ For Spero, at this time, it seemed that only women could articulate female identity.
Artaud’s ‘removal of language’ in his own creative language ( described above ) and his experience of his concept of the Theatre of Cruelty being marginalised, struck a chord with Spero, and so the Codex Artaud series was born. There is no ‘tongue’ in Artaud’s groaning and wailing, because completely enunciated words belong to vested interests and oppressors, whereas what Spero and Artaud experienced must have been the complete opposite of this. Yet this ‘incomplete enunciation’ opened up new possibilities of ‘going home’, returning to the world of ‘proto-language’.
From the 1960s onwards, Spero used almost only paper for her works. She painted and reprinted an existing image, then cut and pasted it. But in the Codex Artaud series she used legal codes and cultural relics to symbolise Artaud, repeatedly pasting his brushstrokes, the image of his head and his proclamation on paper. From the blood and the incomplete or twisted bodies we can instantly recognise an Artaud-style attempt, an Artaud-style madness, as the artist seeks to return to the language of myths. However, this kind of ‘misreading’ was not enough, either for Spero or for Artaud – she needed to find a separation and an integration in her work that belonged to women alone.
Looking back, Derrida’s contribution to MoMA’s Artaud exhibition in 1996 challenged the – perhaps concealed – authority of the exhibition space in contemporary art to categorise artworks. Artaud’s art refuses to be ‘read’, to be understood; yet, as Derrida puts it, his works welcome being ‘misread’ – indeed only misreading them, only ‘not enunciating them in Artaud’s style’, could bring you closer to the meaning of his work.
Judging from her later works, Spero actually parted ways with Artaud – or it would be more accurate to say that she returned to her original path, having temporarily diverged from it. In her 1981 work The First Language, she no longer used her previous approach of interweaving text and images, but simply made a collage out of images of prehistoric cave paintings from Arnhem Land in Australia; in subsequent works she used images of Egyptian female deities in a similar way. In interviews, she spoke frankly of how, in the process of doing this, she had discovered a new kind of requirement in terms of her own expression: thanks to her misreading, she had adopted Artaud’s language, and had cut, copied and reprinted images depicting female archetypes and their role. This had clearly revealed the fact that the language of myths did not need to be clearly enunciated – ceremonies and dance were actually a kind of language.
Commenting on Spero’s The First Language in 1995, the scholar Peter Schjeldahl described how, as he stood in front of the work, his aesthetic experience shifted from the visual to the auditory: when the video moved on to singing and dance, the non-linguistic understanding and contemplation stimulated by the work at this moment was like a kind of kinetic energy, a kind of imagination. In her later years Spero never ceased working; she cooperated with young artists, allowing them to use and copy her paper cut-outs of archetypes of goddesses to produce new works: ‘I don’t know how to make art on my own any more.’ This was because the ‘woman as protagonist’ rallying cry could not be turned into reality by one person alone, but was an ongoing process.
We cannot forget that Artaud’s ‘graffiti’ work began in around 1939, some of it emerging from the art therapy provided by Gaston Ferdière, his principal doctor in the psychiatric hospital at the time. Artaud had a very complicated, and not entirely friendly, relationship with Dr Ferdière. ( Ferdière gave Artaud electroshock therapy, which was very popular at the time, with the aim of getting Artaud to abandon his interest in astrology and alchemy, believing that this was a symptom of mental illness. ) Yet it seems we can look at this process of dissecting his works, and dissecting his own body and existence, from the perspective of healing and consolidation.
Spero’s creative approach of reproducing existing historical archetypes of women led some art critics to question the originality of her work, but to Spero these materials and actions were necessary. When Artaud discussed his own works and their ‘subjectiles’, which could not be translated or decoded, he said: ‘The figures on the inert page said nothing under my hand. They offered themselves to me like millstones which would not inspire the drawing and which I could probe, cut, scrape, file, sew, unsew, shred, slash, and stitch without the subjectile ever complaining through father or through mother.’2 These piled-up verbs are not intended to describe meaning accurately, but rather to awaken or trigger a feeling that belongs to the body – and so it is no surprise when we hear a young artist who worked with Spero describing her works as ‘like images you find below the surface after scratching constantly at the wall’.
The title of this exhibition is Paper Mirror, and Spero’s art on paper really is a kind of mirror image. But it is an image that has been shattered and then pieced back together, containing women’s shame and glory, defeats and victories. If you could touch it, this would not be a glossy mirror reflecting a complete image – it requires the viewer to scratch, to probe the uncertainty, to continue, in the midst of destruction and reorganisation, to sculpt their own image.
1. The punning exhibition title Artaud the Moma reflects the fact that Arnaud called himself Mômo, Marseilles slang for ‘fool’, after having spent several years in various asylums. The exhibition’s official title was Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper. ‘Artaud the Moma’ was Jacques Derrida’s title for a lecture ( published 2017 ) that he gave about Artaud during the MoMA exhibition.
2. Paule Thevenin records the source as ‘Text of February 1947, written by Artaud at Ville-Évrard’. See Paule Thevenin and Jacques Derrida, Antonin Artaud: Dessins et portraits ( Paris: Gallimard ), 1986, p. 25.
1947年，当亚陶（Antonin Artaud）终于从精神病院被送回朋友身边时，他以“在语言离开我十年以后”为开头发表一篇宣言，里头宣称“自从1939年10月后，我就再也不能只写不画了”。于是在1996年纽约现代艺术馆的展览“Artaud the Moma-Works on Paper”1我们看见亚陶手稿中图画如何总是与文字掺杂在一起。
法国解构主义哲学家德里达（Jacques Derrida）于1986年的文章《To Unsense the Subjectile》中以亚陶的宣言展开对“语言”的讨论。当文字和图画混杂在一起、且绝不能分开时，它们形成一种综合语言，这种语言也并非亚陶所创。从“前语言”到语言时期之间的过渡期中，各文化都曾留下图像痕迹，并逐渐形成象形文字、声音、动作；仪式、歌唱与舞蹈中的意义逐渐转化为象征。
今年纽约 MoMA 当代美术馆PS1部分展间正展出美国女性主义艺术家南希客斯佩罗（Nancy Spero,1926-2009）从1950年代到2009年去世之前的作品，也包括数个斯佩罗的创作与访问录像。斯佩罗是位非常多产的艺术家，关注的主题也十分多元，本次展出的作品超过百件，标记着她每一个时期的转变。本文想专注讨论的是斯佩罗从20世纪70年代早期一系列从亚陶出发的作品，到最终以神话、历史中的女性原型为主的作品，看她如何形成“女性作为主角”（women as protagonist）的创作标语。
从晚期作品来看，斯佩罗的确从亚陶那里改道，或更好地说法是：偏离后重新回流了。她在1981年名为《The First language》的作品中不再使用以往文字和图像缠绕的模式，仅以澳洲阿那姆地区的史前壁画来做拼贴，其之后的作品也以埃及众女神形象做类似创作。受访时，她坦言在过程中发现一种新的表达需求，她以误读的方式捡起亚陶的语言，将女性原型与角色切割、印制、重复，揭露一个明显的事实：神话语言不需被清楚发音，仪式与舞蹈即是一种语言。
学者施杰尔达（Peter Schjeldahl）1995年评论斯佩罗《The First language》这幅作品时曾描述，面对此作他的美感经验如何从视觉转为听觉，当影像转为歌声和舞蹈，此时作品引起的非语言式的理解与思索，而是一种动能或想象。晚年斯佩罗仍创作不辍，并与年轻艺术家合作，让他们使用、复制她的女神原型剪纸产生新作品：“现在我已不知道要如何独立创作。”（斯佩罗，2006）因为“女性作为主角”的标语非由一人完成，而是持续过程。
2. The figures on the inert page said nothing under my hand. They offered themselves to me like millstones which would not inspire the drawing, and which I could probe, cut, scrape, file, sew, unsew, shred, slash, and stitch without the subjectile ever complaining through father or through mother ( 1947 ).