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The secret life of  belly and bone

Stuart Morgan

In: Ansuya Blom, 1990, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

'The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious.'
Mary Douglas

One small, early painting by Ansuya Blom consists of a white ground inscribed in black and red. While the long, red striations resemble an electric charge, flick­ering around the centre, even over the edges of the stretcher, the black strokes form a complex figure, fixed at the top, dwindling to a set of verticals below, which converge as if gripped and wrenched. The sense of crisis is heightened by paint handling which lacks anything fluid or felicitous. The result carries suggestions of violence - bars ripped apart, teeth bared in a snarl - while its title, ATTICA BLUES recalls the riots at Attica State Prison, where guards 'virtually assassinated' Sam Melville, leader of a prisoners' revolt and the only white man to take part.1 In 1972 Archie Shepp wrote a suite with the same title, a col­lection of avant-garde jazz pieces each in a different style, punctuated by 'invocations' on the rights of man. Shepp's intricate orchestrations and hybrid rhythms may seem light years away from the hollers of early blues. But since the term never lent itself to convenient explanation - 'Lady, if you have to ask what it is, you'll never know,' Louis Armstrong told a woman who asked for a definition - Shepp leaves his listeners to interpret his use of the term 'blues' for themselves. Recalling Mondrian, who used the term 'boogie-woogie' to describe a visual equivalent of running bass in his later, New York paintings, Blom reaches for a convenient interart analogy. Yet hers is not based on any formal correspondence. Instead, it denotes a mood and, indeed, an entire genre.


    By the end of the 1970s, the time of the KWANZA series, Blom had grown dissatisfied with the conven­tions that governed Dutch abstraction. Gradually she began to break free. Partly in response to develop­ments in European painting, more particularly to feel­ings of herself as an outsider, she abandoned ideals of 'progress', that avant-garde byword that had served women badly for a century, and of 'purity' of media. Turning her attention to film, collage and sculpture and using titles which also referred to music and lit­erature, she began giving way to her compulsions. An early example, the book WAR SONGS, provides hints of the shape her career was taking.
Beginning with the picture of a lifesize Mayan clay sculpture with a mouth that opens onto a vast hollow darkness inside, she printed key images - an Indian tribe photographed on the eve of battle; a photograph of a white guard glancing in fascination at his bare­ chested, muscular, unrepentant black prisoner - together with texts, sometimes handwritten by the artist, alongside or superimposed on the photographs. The principle is not montage but palimpsest: instead of experiencing jarring contrasts between fragments, as so many Modernist texts demand, the reader is free to make connections or appreciate tensions between images, voices and images which blur in the mind. Time no longer flows from point to point. Similarly, from this time on, Blom's working process involved doubling back constantly, allowing her preoccupa­tions free play. Then they are repeated, altered and related. So the Mayan statue proclaiming war, crops up later in a drawing, with greater emphasis on the face and mouth, for example. There are Modernist precedents for this approach, but troublesome, dis­cordant ones. 'No matter how many times you tell the same story if there is anything alive in the telling the emphasis is different,' wrote Gertrude Stein in her Lectures in America of 1934. It is interesting to compare Blom's response to the call for a post-con­ceptual painting. Before long, Kiefer, Baselitz, Penck, Immendorff and others abandoned their urge for deconstruction of traditional painterly rhetoric in favour of signature style, grandiose scale, over-pro­duction and the market demand for old-fashioned masterpieces. While their break from the past and subsequent reconciliation with it have their place in recent art history, Blom's intimacy, limited output, abandonment of logic and scorn for neat development point in another direction entirely.

Mayan sculpture

Rejecting myths of Expressionist markmaking as a token of speed and emotional authenticity, using allusive titles that com­bine to form an image-bank or commonplace-book, she even hints at relinquishment of ownership of the means she employs. Julia Kristeva stressed intuition and the idea of eternity as aspects of 'woman's time', a perception different from men's and potentially des­tructive of it.
Above all, Blom's habits of retracing her steps but overlaying previous moves with current ones corre­sponds to Kristeva's definition.2 It is not a question of repetition; the issue is how thoughts shift and realign as time passes, art's power to change meaning while apparently staying the same, 'The real blues is played and sung the way you feel,' said one country blues singer, ‘And no man or woman feels the same every day.'3 Perhaps blues is inexhaustible because it addresses important issues - work, money, pleasure, sex and freedom. And, like 'woman's time' as Kristeva regards it, it speaks of and from the body.
    In a poem called 'The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me' one of Blom's favourite poets, Delmore Schwartz, described his own body, 'that inescapable animal'.
Having a body and what this means, the conse­quences of what Schwartz called 'the secret life of belly and bone', offers one approach to Blom's art. Like a statement of intent, the chicken-bones which appear in her first film LADY LAZARUS (1984) recur in her second, BORDERLINE (1985), dancing like mario­nettes in front of an abstract painting. Two photo­ graphs from the book WAR SONGS (1984) also show chicken bones, in one case strewn across the floor in the other attached to one of Blom's own paintings.
Opposite two-line fragments from a Langston Hughes poem, they recall the desolation of a post-apocalyptic landscape ('Until time is lost/ And there is no air') as well as their use as drumsticks ('Death is a drum').
Another important motif occurs in the film YSABEL'S TABLE DANCE (1987), the drawing MINOR INTRUSIONS (1988) and the collages MAN OF FLOWERS (1988), named after a film by Paul Cox, and THE OTHER WOMAN (1987), after a song by Nina Simone. The idea of wearing vital organs - brain, heart, liver and kid­neys - above, not below, the skin provides a theatrical demonstration of a main theme in Blom's art: human outsides and insides and their relationship, or, differ­ently stated, the line between Self and Other and its constant renegotiation. 'I used to wonder/ About there and there' - wrote Langston Hughes in 'Borderline', the poem which Blom quotes in her film of the same name, 'I think the difference/ is nowhere.' Blom echoes the line in YSABEL'S TABLE DANCE.  'So here I am,' says the narrator, whom we take to be Ysabel herself, 'So there you are.' She seems to want to make certain that there are two people. Yet she seems unconvinced.
     The climax of the film occurs when characters begin to blur. A lonely woman in a closed room is holding her annual celebration in honour of an absent friend whom she, infatuated, has tried to become. As their identities merge, time stops in a never-never land of her own creation. There is a sinister, saccharine tone about the preparations that take place. Her unpart­nered flamenco, eyes closed, bags of offal tied around her head and body, represents an attempt to pretend that nothing separates them. The film ends at the height of her magnificent delusion, at the very moment when, for an onlooker, the scenario she has fabricated for herself becomes implausible.
At this point it becomes obvious that Ysabel has invented a ritual, which it is tempting to compare with the final scenes of AMAZING GRACE, when the girl, seeing that her life lies beyond her bedroom, takes her possessions and sets fire to them. In each case the heroine chooses to escape the situation in which she is trapped. But while both are lonely and spend their time with playmates, more imagined than real, one inches toward deliberate loss of selfhood, while the other decides to put away childish things and face the world outside. How difficult it is to distinguish private ritual from a lapse into insanity, and how easy to see that the plots each invents for herself involve reassessing the body. Whether it can be reduced to infatuation or mystical experience, Ysabel's emotional state eradicates distinctions between self and other, while the young protagonist of AMAZING GRACE, having realised the choices that will face her and having gauged her position in the universe, has no further need for 'transitional objects'. According to D.W. Winnicott's definition, these are 'objects that are not part of the infant's body yet are not fully recognised as belonging to external reality'.Later theorists have extended the term to denote objects chosen to occupy our 'transitional space', a safe area around the body, which is both 'me' and 'not-me'. Blom's sensitivity to this area is continued in more recent work such as her series THE HOUSE OF SLEEP­ ING BEAUTIES (1989). The abandonment of the dolls' house in AMAZING GRACE followed an instruction from a disembodied voice. Its command 'The Queen must die' is followed to the letter. After hacking her doll to pieces with one of the knives, displayed earlier like an endless row of teeth, the limbs come to rest in rooms too small to contain them. THE HOUSE OF SLEEPING BEAUTIES takes this grotesque wrongness a stage further. The title is that of a short novel by Yasunari Kawabata, in which, against his better judge­ment, the main character Eguchi takes a friend's advice and visits a brothel with only one bedroom where men warned not to interfere with them can spend the night with young village girls, drugged for the occasion. Despite the danger and the threat of humiliation if his secret were discovered, Eguchi con­tinues his visits. The novel consists of his thoughts and feelings as he lies awake with one girl at a time.
A precarious balance governs the rules of the house: though girls know what is expected, they never meet clients, who have promised not to take advantage of them, though whether this is polite hypocrisy or not remains a mystery to Eguchi. In the House emotional and mental permissions are reshuffled. And in her series Blom's use of toys, the ultimate transitional objects, is revised to include men's use of women. (Or near-women; Eguchi has a daughter older than the village girls.) The result is a disturbing game in which the child-like elements of sexual desire are acknowledged, with the release of unsocietized vio­lence that children's play involves. To summarise, three basic plots are examined; the first a marriage of self and other, or a greater absorption in self, with transitional objects used to support that sense of self­hood while, visually at least, incorporating parts of another person; the second an act of willing renuncia­tion based on an acceptance of a new relation to the 'outside' world and determined by the place of the individual body in that world; the third a temporary release from time, the lapse into a state like reliving one's life before sudden death. (Appropriately, Blom recycles her own previous imagery in order to under­ score a view of time ratified by the procedure of her own career.) All three involve freedom achieved through pain, physical or emotional, and could there­fore qualify as rites of passage, in which the initiate moves through symbolic death to a new life or rebirth. This alone should stimulate critics to search for a master plot.
    It would be easy to mount an exhibition of Ansuya Blom's work, in which the route taken by spectators would parallel a journey through the body. From the image of the open-mounted Mayan statue visitors would proceed to the drawing BORDERLINE (1984), a hearth or threshold formation perceptible in VREEMD LAND (1985), and on to works with patterns of teeth, such as UNTITLED (1983) in oil, MINOR INTRUSIONS II (1988) or even the bedframe of HUSH NOW (1988) with its decorative arching pattern. The digestive tract appears frequently, often doubling as the tunnel of a termitary. When collaged organs appear in the tunnels, as they do in HOME OF THE WHITE ANT (1987/88), for example, anatomical rightness seems to have been flouted. Yet the journey the visitor is taking, of course, is the same as that which food takes through the body, and since carnivores eat vital organs, this should come as no surprise. A title such as WE ALL LIVE HERE (1988) leaves no doubt that humans are animals too. And there are enough darkened, closed rooms in Blom's work to hint at the end of the digestive process, an act which takes place in secret with a hint of shame. Elias Canetti's book Crowds and Power includes lengthy disquisitions on the significance of eating. Eating, he argues, is the literal incorporation of prey; a ruler's ultimate aim is to suck the substance out of his subjects and then dispose of them like excrement. Archaic man felt that his weakness was smallness of number. As a beast of prey he never wanted to be solitary. 'In the enormously long period of time in which he lived in small groups he, as it were, incorporated into himself, by transformations, all the animals he knew. It was through the development of transformation that he really became man; it was his specific gift and pleasure.'And since transformation and increase are connected, ancestors good at dancing (say) the kangaroo for their tribal rites were revered and initiated, because their existence, as men and kangaroo equally, ensured good hunting and the increase of men to the numbers of kangaroos. In myth and legend, transformation became a form of flight, of not being eaten, and heroes could become one thing after another. Sometimes, however, even a hero feels trapped and will not eat because he feels that he is being eaten and does not wish to be reminded of this: since 'everything he has attempted has been in vain, he is resigned to his fate and sees himself first as prey, then as food, and finally as carrion or excrement.'This state of mind is the one later known as melan­cholia.

Film-still AMAZING GRACE, 1989

    Yet melancholia, we know, was also felt to be fruit­ful for artists. Influenced by Sylvia Plath and also, per­haps, Frida Kahlo, both of whom took the modernist metaphor of 'decreation' (as Simone Weil called it) or 'the destructive element' (as Joseph Conrad described it) and both exaggerated and dramatised it, taking it over into their own lives as a form of twentieth-century melancholy, perhaps genuine, perhaps feigned, but certainly a spur to creativity. Yet here the parallels cease. While both Plath and Kahlo adopted the stance of avant-garde artists, to the extent of over­dramatising their own positions, Blom has always allowed the work itself to generate thoughts about how the problem of Self and Other could be solved, if 'Self' continues to be conceived simply as the margin­ alised, revolutionary individual of Modernist culture and 'Other' as an uncaring bourgeois multitude. Her art contains hints of an aesthetic which will move beyond this position.
    Termites first appeared in Blom 's drawings in 1984. Shown in cross-section, as it is in AMAZINGRACE, the termitary resembles a factory. Yet a large body of theory, extrapolating from ancient political compari­sons between body and state compares ant colonies with the gastrovascular system, for example, or the hormonal organism or germ cells. Such descriptions can be traced back to Eugène Marais' The Soul of the White Ant (1911) in which he proposed that instead of a separate psyche ants possess a 'group soul' like the organs of a human body, and compared the way ants co-operate with the creation, of the siphonophora, a 'fish' formed when different fish swim close together, each relinquishing all physical attributes but one, in order to become the new fish's eye or stomach or mouth. How they decidto do this, or how ants communicate, was a problem not even Marais could solve.
As Julian Huxley wrote thirty years later, 'There is no real sense in which ants have leaders.'It is a problem which has occupied Blom for over a decade. If ants can manage without being told what to do, can humans survive without leadership? References to such alternatives exist where least expected. In one sequence of AMAZING GRACE, for example, water flows with almost imperceptible slowness to the accompaniment of a gamelan orchestra.
Gamelan ensembles are directed by a single musician, a drummer who determines tempi and gives cues. Apart from that, no orders are given. Gamelan music is polyphonic, with about twenty parts, and no two performances are ever the same. Above all, there are no soloists.(Indeed, good manners compels an orchestra member to change instrument at least once during the evening.) Gamelan is a social event conducted purely for the sake of the players, it seems, as a way of teaching restraint and refinement and as one step towards achieving klas, a state beyond emotion. Western commentators agree on one point, that 'Java­nese music is what it is, can only be what it is, because Javanese society is what it is.'No Western equivalent to such peaceful co-operation seems pos­ sible, though one unsuccessful attempt never seems far from Blom's mind. Titles are one way for the artist to contextualise her work and without question more titles refer to the music of Charles Mingus than to any other source. HALFMAST INHIBITION, FARWELLS MILL VALLEY, MINOR INTRUSIONS, YSABEL' S TABLE DANCE and others were all Mingus pieces. Critics are still far from reaching a consensus on Mingus, yet this is hardly surprising. Drawn back repeatedly to the music of contemporaries he revered, notably Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, he strove for two ideals: firstly, a polyphonic music with complex structures and secondly improvisation, which he pushed to its extremes. (He is reported to have given Yusef Lateef a picture of a coffin, telling him to improvise on it.)
Mingus is probably misrepresented by records, on which he can be heard shouting cues to his musicians. He demanded a fresh response to every occasion, and would sometimes leave the stage to break the tape­ recorders of audience members. He never stopped tin­kering with his compositions, changing their titles as current events changed. So Fables of Faubus, named after Governor Orville Faubus, a racist politician, was changed to Fables of Nixon, when Richard Nixon, not yet president, altered his stance on black rights.
How far from the Javanese gamelan orchestra it all seems. Yet, in its essentials, perhaps, their ideal is the same: the meshing of social and artistic conventions and the fusion of audience and players in an ensemble which changes constantly, like a living organism. Jacques Attali's ideal of 'composition', ana­lysed at length in the last chapter of his prophetic book Noise (1977) was anticipated by Mingus, whose advantage, like Shepp's, was an ability to draw on blues, a tradition in which musicians and listeners were seldom distinct categories.


    Blom's experiments have been as complex as they are wide-ranging. Exploring situations which range from considering co-operation in insect society to home-made initiation rituals, she has turned her art into a sensitive register of forces acting on the self. And in her work self is seen in terms of body, remem­bering Mary Douglas’s statement that the body can stand for ‘any bounded system’.10 If Douglas is correct, then Blom's work constitutes a thoroughgoing politi­cal statement, though never an explicit one.
She makes it in a surprising way. Beginning with the pose of underdog - Mingus called his autobiography Beneath the Underdog - the blues singer, a figure with no very high ideal of him- or herself, it seems, tries to reintegrate. That, at least, is how it appears, and what convention demands. It could be that, as the novelist Ralph Ellison suggested, blues offers ‘no scapegoat but the self’, that melancholy self seen as existing only to be devoured.11 Yet by some miracle the fictional and the real coalesce, and by a form of catharsis the process of coming to grips with trouble unites performer and audience, whose troubles are the same. Robbed of the power of transformation, unable to flee the aggressor, the performer has brought about its rediscovery and has set the cycle in motion again.
In terms of Blom's master plot, the digestive process is functioning normally and the hunted has become the hunter in an unceasing cycle not of aggression but of aggression expended. Blues, insisted the German critic Janheinz Jahn, was not about happy or sad moods but preservation of autonomy and consolida­tion of power, and he suggested the introduction of the term magara which in less than a sentence sum­ marises the theme of Blom's art: 'the life force which one possesses, which one wants to increase, and which can be diminished by the influence of others.'12


‘virtually assassinated’ / One thesis which remains unsubstantia­ted’ according to Lawrence Lader Power on the Left New York 1979, 277. Cf. John Cohen ‘It is not hard to believe that Sam was executed’ in Samuel MelvilleLetters from Attica New York 1972, 74.
‘woman’s time’ / See T. Moi ed. The Kristeva Reader New York 1986, 187-213. The essay, ‘Woman’s Time’ was published in French in 1979.
country blues singer / Big Bill Broonzy, quoted in Harry Oster Liv­ing Country Blues Detroit 1969, 20.
‘transitional objects’ / D.W. Winnicott ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’ in Playing and Reality New York, 1971, 1-25. See also Morris Berman Coming to Our Senses New York, 1989, 19-103.
5 ‘by transformations’ / Elias Canetti Crowds and Power (tr. C. Stewart), Harmondsworth 1984, 126.
6 ‘everything he has attempted …’ / ibid., 401.
7 ‘no real sense in which ants have leaders’ / Julian Huxley Ants Lon­don 1930, 167.
8 ‘no soloists’ / Cf. Leroi Jones Blues People New York 1963, 66. (‘The whole concept of the solo … was relatively unknown in west Afri­can music’). ‘How deeply Mingus’s music is centred in the traditional blues’ (Wilfred Mellers Music in a New Found Land London 1964, 349) is a common critical reaction to Mingus’s music.
9 ‘Javanese music is what it is’ Mantle Hood The Evolution of the Javanese Gamelan Javanese Gamelan vol. 1, New York 1980, 14. Cf. Jennifer Lindsay Javanese Gamelan Singapore 1979, 39: the ‘structuring of layers of sound … reflects the ordered structuring of Javanese society’.
10 ‘any bounded system’ / Mary Douglas Purity and Danger London­ New York 1984, 115.
11 ‘no scapegoat’ / Richard Wright Shadow and Act New York, 1973, 94.
12 Jahn / J. Jahn A History of Neo-African Literature New York 1968, 172.
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