Jane and Lygia: Relational Ontologies and Liminal Identities in a Blocked World

Clarissa Diniz

In 1969, Lygia Clark wrote a letter to Brazilian art critic Mário Pedrosa confessing that, while watching a documentary on TV, she had identified herself in another animal – a scorpion:

It was my portrait. I have never seen a more solitary animal: inside its shell that falls from time to time, the process is horrifying and beautiful. An enormous crust remains still, quiet in time, and the beast comes out little by little in a slow process like birth. Thereafter the beast has such a fresh and vulnerable shell that it lies still until the sun hardens it. He lives only among stones, sand or garbage. When another scorpion appears there is a fight between the two that is horrifying […] When the female appears there is also a kind of fight, a terrible nuptial dance […] When the female spawns, she becomes lethargic and motionless and the young come out in droves, climbing up and down the mother’s body […] I became aware that to the extent that almost all artists today vomit themselves out in a process of great extroversion, I alone swallow more and more in a process of introversion to then ovulate, which is miserably dramatic, one egg at a time. Then it’s swallowing again, introverting to the point of almost madness, to lay a single egg that has nothing to do with invention but rather with generation … madness? I don’t know. I only know that it is my way of tying myself to the world, to be fertilized and ovulate. I go alone in this process and that is also why my communication cannot be done through a priori spectacles, manifestations of groups as in others, but it is such a biological, cellular experience that it is only communicable also in a cellular and organic way. From one to two, to three or more […] an extremely intimate communication from pore to pore, from fur to fur, from sweat to sweat.1

This self-identification with a scorpion reminds us that when Clark created her Bichos (Critters) sculptures from 1960 onwards, she was not only alluding to formal correspondences between her foldable, pointed and almost tentacular metal pieces and animals such as spiders, butterflies and other insects, but perhaps examining the possible ontological transpositions between object- and animal-hood, between art and non-art.2

As demonstrated by JCAF’s exhibition title, Liminal Identities in the Global South, Clark was interested in the in-between states of space, body, existence, time, as enunciated in the title and gestures of her 1954 painting, Discovery of the Organic Line, an interest that became central to her work.

Lygia Clark, Descoberta da Linha Orgânica (The Discovery of the Organic Line) (1954), Ref Nº 01114. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association

Although the painting presents black outlines, the organic line that Clark refers to has not been painted, but is constituted by the space between the central plan of the work and what might seem to be its “frame”. The organic line appears once one plan is put within another. It is not tangible or visible. It is not a self-determined line, but an associated one, demonstrating how, in Clark’s work, every ontological approach is a relational one.

Departing from a relational ontology,3 in Clark’s topology, the organic line is a transmutation of the edge: once the limits of one surface encounter another body’s boundary, their previous limits become the inside of their now linked body, making an organic line emerge. Thus, “organic” is not an adjective referring to what could be a “natural” formal aspect of the line, but rather a direct allusion to the roots of the word “organic”, affiliated to the meaning of the body’s organs, things or substances that exist only inside a body, in connection to it.

Lygia Clark, Máscaras Sensoriais (Sensorial Masks) (1967), Ref Nº 0931_1_22_1. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association. Photographer unrecorded

Fostering a poetics based on a liaison ethics, at the end of the 1960s Clark goes beyond her initially participatory sculptures to propose relational objects, dispositifs for establishing relations between people; between people and materials or particular space-times; or even in-between a person and her own self. Although they may cover the entire body, these relational objects do not behave as segregational structures: on the contrary, they are contact and even contamination devices.

Lygia Clark, Máscaras Sensoriais (Sensorial Masks) (1967), Ref Nº 20064. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association. Photographer unrecorded

Exhibited in Liminal Identities in the Global South, Lygia Clark’s Sensorial Masks (1967) were created not to isolate our body from the world, but to catalyse senses such as sight, smell and hearing, spreading the intricate connections between the self and the other to the point that – as happens with the “glasses” in Dialogue, Goggles (1968), designed to put people in straight connection through gazing – one can experience the sensation of blurring body and identity boundaries and merging into another. As Clark states when reflecting on her scorpion-hood, the Sensorial Masks and the Relational Objects act from “pore to pore, from fur to fur, from sweat to sweat”.

Lygia Clark, Diálogo de Óculos (Dialogue: Goggles) (1968), Ref Nº 21900. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association. Photographer unrecorded

Clark’s relational ontology is approximated, in Liminal Identities in the Global South, to Jane Alexander’s Harbinger in Correctional Uniform (2006), a life-size sculpture that merges aspects of an antelope’s body with characteristics of a human one, performing a “humanimal”. Within the confrontation between the works of the Brazilian and the South African artist, one can access not only the grotesque, melancholic, eschatological and traumatised dimensions of Alexander’s figuration of humans but, in the opposite direction, get a glimpse of how her work may also be inviting us to unfold and complexify our understanding of what defines humanity as a social and ontological condition.

Jane Alexander, Harbinger in correctional uniform (2006). Private Collection. © Jane Alexander and DALRO. Photo Mario Todeschini

While Clark creates relational dispositifs, Alexander presents identities that are already related, ontologically merged: one cannot separate animal-hood and humanity in the corpus of her work. Casting directly off the bodies of friends and models, Alexander also makes use of horns, bones and other elements from real animals to create her sculptures, which not only allude to humanimals, but in fact give birth to them in our imagination and, moreover, due to the naturalism of the artist’s installations, in our body memory.

The intensity of Alexander’s work can be linked to Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of allegories in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), where he defines the allegorical as an aesthetic category that differs from the theological dimension of symbolisation. Allegorisation, explains Benjamin, is not a symbolisation method, but a dialectical one.

“As Clark states when reflecting on her scorpion-hood, the Sensorial Masks and the Relational Objects act from ‘pore to pore, from fur to fur, from sweat to sweat’.”

With no perspective of redemption since The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and, therefore, in a state of immanence and present-ness, history (seen from the baroque perspective) holds only to itself and thus approaches the idea of ​​nature. The form of this history is historicity itself as a form, in a kind of metalanguage that is produced autophagically, devouring and redevouring its own symbols.

The allegory, which for this reason Benjamin would claim to be a “strange combination of history and nature,”4 is the linguistic modus operandi of this autophagy. Through allegorisation, the symbols and perspectives of a given context are rearranged, allowing new interpretations to emerge, producing historicity in the midst of the absolute immanence of history.

What Benjamin reveals in his seminal essay is that allegories arise through the fragmentation of meanings that could seem eternal and unambiguous: they are decontextualised and recontextualised to compose allegories. Once allegorists disintegrate, crop, recompose and merge meanings and images, they are able to transform them ontologically without needing to refer to God or to another suprahistorical instance. As demiurges of immanence, their gestures concentrate, in their violence, the force of death and the rebirth of the senses and, as such, of history. For this reason, while representations can replace the presence of what they aim to represent, allegories, by contrast, are the very institution of what is made present only through the allegorical procedure.

Jane Alexander, The sacrifices of God are a troubled spirit (2002–4). The installation includes Hobbled ruminant with rider (2003–4), Harbinger with protective boots (2002–4), Bird (2004), Beast (2003), Guardian (2002–4), Lamb with stolen boots (2002–4), and Bat-eared doll riding a bat-eared fox wearing black backed jackal skin (2004). Collection of the artist. © Jane Alexander and DALRO. Photo Mario Todeschini

Alexander’s presentation, at a life-size scale, of images and situations that inhabit our memories and fabulations, has the power of instituting meanings while making them public – sharing them through artworks, exhibitions, books etc. More than commenting on history, through her works she is effectively producing historicisation. Her humanimals now inhabit our world; we coexist with them. We can even be them.

Besides the allegorical approach to the anthropomorphic animals/zoomorphic humans and the social and political situations in which they are presented through her installations, Alexander’s relational ontology between humanity and animality also finds interesting and productive echoes in Amerindian perspectivism. Theoretically circumscribed by Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (who departed from work, studies and apprenticeship with Amazonian indigenous people), perspectivism highlights a “multinaturalist” understanding of the world. While Judeo-Christian cultures usually experience multiculturalism – regimes of a univocal nature, whose variations are of an interpretative, representational order (relativism) – some Amerindian cultures are based on multi-naturalism: a world of multiple natures. As Viveiros de Castro points out, in Amerindian perspectivism, in the face of natural pluralism there is, however, a single culture, that of humanity: “the common reference to all beings in nature is not man as a species, but humanity as a condition.”5

Connected by the same humanity culture, different states of being can easily keep interpenetrating one another. Because, for Amazonian peoples, “the original common condition of both humans and animals is not animality but rather humanity,” one can conclude that “animals have a human, sociocultural inner aspect that is ‘disguised’ by an ostensible bestial bodily form.”6 It is a cosmological and ontological perspective whose radical relationality engenders a deeply ethical approach to Otherness, reminding us that within difference – and even strangeness – there is a common existential background.

“Alexander’s presentation, at a life-size scale, of images and situations that inhabit our memories and fabulations, has the power of instituting meanings while making them public…”

Although, from this Amazonian perspective, humanity is a shared condition between different forms of being, what Western – and, in particular, European – agency in the world’s history shows us is that – as Alexander denounces in her work – due to racism and its socio-political violence and economic interests, millions of people had their humanity denied through slavery, Nazism, apartheid, etc.

While the animalisation and the monsterisation of humans have produced the worst, ongoing tragedies of humanity, in Clark’s identification with a scorpion and Alexander’s animalisation of humans, one catches a glimpse of the ethical urges of our time.

Jane Alexander, Serviceman (1994). © Jane Alexander and DALRO. Photo Mark Lewis

The “inhumanity of the white man” is, in turn, how Frantz Fanon7 described the way racism has dehumanised not only Black, but also white people, the ones who in fact acted without humanity while killing, enslaving, torturing, etc.

Addressing the absence of humanity in whiteness, therefore, is also a possible approach to Alexander’s work, whose poetic and political images – such as her quasi-canonical The Butcher Boys (1985), three animalised white men – convey the urgency of racialising white people in order to engender a critical perception of whiteness so that it can assume its responsibility towards the past and its commitment to an anti-racist, repaired and retaken future.

In this sense, it is important to note that both Clark and Alexander are white women (as am I) and that, therefore, their (and also my) perspectives on the organic line, on relational ontologies or human-animal interrelations can be racially scrutinised. This means that their works’ relation to difference and liminality – the right to ambiguity, to enter and leave the condition of both humanity and animality, object and nonobject etc – is based on the privilege of being able to move, to change, to choose, the privilege of being able to blur ontological and social limits while, at the same time, nurturing Otherness and strangeness in a way that perfectly serves cognitive capitalism, “devou[ring] worlds and therefore feast[ing] on difference.”8

In our blocked world of brutal boundaries, with masses of terrorised refugees wandering without homes, with wars and unprecedented violence against women, transgender, Indigenous and Black people in countries such as Brazil and South Africa, Clark and Alexander’s works represented in the JCAF exhibition demand critical reflection on who has the right to hold and to experience liminal identities without being targeted by colonial, white, state and masculine violence that recognises no limits at all.

Biography

Clarissa Diniz has an MA in Art History and is a PhD candidate in Anthropology. She currently lectures at the School of Visual Arts of Parque Lage. She was the editor of Tatuí magazine (2006–2015), researcher for Documents of 20th-Century Latin American and Latino Art (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2009) and a fellow curator at the Centre for Curatorial Leadership (MoMA, New York, 2014). Diniz has published numerous essays, catalogues and books. Her recent exhibitions include Dja Guata Porã: Rio de Janeiro Indígena (Museu de Arte do Rio, 2017); Raio-que-o-parta (SESC 24 de Maio, 2022); and Histórias Brasileiras (São Paulo Museum of Art, 2022). In 2022, she was curator-in-residence in History of Art at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg as part of the Arts Research Africa programme.


References

  1. Clark, L. Letter of 28 May 1969. Available in Portuguese at https://portal.lygiaclark.org.br/acervo/65542/carta-a-mario-pedrosa-diario-1 (author’s translation).
  2. Lygia Clark and other Brazilian artists directly or indirectly affiliated with what was acknowledged as neo-concretism were in dialogue with the concept of nonobject, conceived by the poet and art critic Ferreira Gullar in “Nonobject Theory”, a text from 1959. The negation prefix, non-, became widely used to designate inflections in canonical conceptions in artistic practice, whether in terms of the idea of ​​an object or, more broadly, the understanding of art itself.
  3. “Relational ontology is the philosophical position that what distinguishes subject from subject, subject from object, or object from object is mutual relation rather than substance.” Schaab, G.L. (2013). “Relational Ontology”, in Springer Science and Business Media (January), https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-1-4020-8265-8_847. Accessed August 2023.
  4. Benjamin, W. (1998). The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Translated by John Osborne. New York, NY: Verso, p. 167.
  5. Viveiros de Castro, E. (2011). “Perspectivismo e multinaturalismo”, in A inconstância da alma selvagem. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, p. 356 (author’s translation).
  6. Viveiros de Castro, E. (2004). “Talking Peace with Gods: Part 1, The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies”, in Common Knowledge vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 464–465.
  7. Fanon, F. (1952). Black Skin, White Masks. New York, NY: Grove Press.
  8. Mombaça, J. (2020). “The Cognitive Plantation”, https://assets.masp.org.br/uploads/temp/temp-ozOTDILJLWY5KnnUjBJO.pdf. Accessed August 2023.


How to cite this article:
Clarissa Diniz (2024), "Jane and Lygia: Relational Ontologies and Liminal Identities in a Blocked World" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/jane-and-lygia-relational-ontologies-and-liminal-identities-in-a-blocked-world/. Accessed 24 April 2024.