At a recent panel on “the poetics of kitsch” at the Poet’s House in NYC with Sianne Ngai, Daniel Tiffany and Joyelle, I talked, among other things, about this video by Laura Mullen.
I talked about Timothy Morton’s idea of a “Dark Ecology”:
“… a sugary sentimentality whose gaze is down, as opposed to the sublime upward gaze of the masculine mountain-climber…. The Ancient Mariner and Frankenstein are gothic and tacky. The tacky is the anaesthetic (unaesthetic) property of kitsch: glistening, plasticized, inert, tactile, sticky… […] Beyond its cutenesss (a reified version of Kantian beauty), an element in kitsch ecological imagery maintains this abejction, a formless, abject element, Bataille’s informe… The bourgeois subject would rule forever if fascination and horror always resulted in spitting out the disgusting object. Ecological art is duty bound to hold the slimy in view.” (Ecology Without Nature, 158-159)
I talked about the way that “surrealism” is used as a stand in for kitsch in a lot of discussions (“soft surrealism,” “candy surrealism,” glittering surrealism, sticky surrealism, cute surrealism…). Now obviously I use “surrealism” in a very loose way to represent this kind of sugariness that is so reviled by so many in contemporary poetry.
So I discussed “The Veil” as “surrealist,” not in any traditional sense. Though the question-and-answer rhetoric of the piece obviously invokes all those Exquisite Corpse games of Surrealism (Maybe “Exquisite Bride”). The video asks us to imagine all of the rubble as possible “veils,” that most precious and virginal of objects, and as a result, to see the catastrophic landscape as a kind of bride. The speaker denies that it’s the veil, but implicitly we’re asked to imagine this debris as the veil, to at least entertain the possibility. The veil generates monstrous brides in our heads.
In this video I love the way the veil, that occluding, feminine object par excellence here does not hide but moves out into the urban rubble of Louisiana; it show the political dynamic of artifice and kitsch, decoration to move into the disaster spheres. Artifice – symbolized by the “bride”, that pure figure that is supposed to be locked away in the attic a la Rose for Emily or Emily Dickinson herself – is moved out into the urban catastrophe space in a work of gothic, kitsch environmentalism, revealing the two spaces (bridal, catastrophic) to have always been in contact – through their kitschiness.
The veil is of course the most gothic of clothing material: its meshiness creates an interesting inside-outside dynamic: we can see the bride but only through artifice. It creates a kind of atmosphere: the world pours through the veil. It show the political dynamic of artifice and kitsch, decoration to move into spheres. Here artifice pushes outwards into the catastrophe.
One result could be seen as a deflowering or corruption of the bride, but I think something more interesting happens: instead of the either/or of corruption, the bride becomes part of the landscape, and the landscape part of the bride in a dynamic and relationship. The result is more like Carl-Michael Edenborg’s Parapornographic, and the undulation of the pornographic bodies: the veil and the landscape forms a kind of odd dynamic; the trashy landscape does not deflower or “strip bare” the bride (as one might expect in porn), but rather forms an undulating where the landscape becomes potentially part of the bride as much as the bride becomes part of the landscape. There is no ultimate deflowering. You can’t get rid of all the lace. Even if you cut off the lace (as one of Mullen’s performances invited a la Yoko Ono), you won’t get to the pure nudity.
This is different view from the one presented in say Billy Collins’ poem about seducing Emily Dickinson (which I wrote about here). There artifice is something to get through, to penetrate. Or not to penetrate. To penetrate or not to penetrate is no longer the question.
In Without Nature, Morton argues that in this age of virtual reality and ecological disaster: “We are now compelled to achieve ways of sorting things out without the safety net of distance” (27). In effect, we are drowning in kitsch, in a world where it’s impossible to know “the new thing” from the “gaudy and inane.” This poem moves through this hallucinatory “candy” landscape without trying to clean up “nature” from all the trinketry and bad dreams. It doesn’t provide the reader with a nice “critical distance,” instead plunging us into the gaudy and inane rubble.
Incidentally I just came across Kristin Sanders’s discussion of Mullen’s Brides here: http://htmlgiant.com/reviews/enduring-freedom/