Maria Walsh / Visual Culture

Cindy Sherman’s Theatres of Perversity

Maria Walsh on how Cindy Sherman’s ‘Doll’ sculptures of the 1990s reveal a dynamic relationship between art and psychoanalysis.

Cindy Sherman's Theatres of Perversity

In my recent book Art and Psychoanalysis, I questioned French psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel’s insistence on separating ‘the pervert’s obvious affinities for art and beauty’, which she connects to mendacity and false idealisation, from the diversion of pre-genital energy into the pursuit of cultural achievements. [1] In my view, not only does pre-genital energy circulate between the parameters of artifice and truth, it may also generate art which is not an idealisation of any type, but which is fragmented, partial and heterogeneous.

Let me briefly summarise the psychoanalytic structure of perversion being alluded to here, noting that I am referring to a psychic structure and not an identity as such. It is a position which refuses the law of the father characterized by the Oedipal scenario. The ‘pervert’, so to speak, recognises the law of castration, but refuses to adapt him or herself to it, instead finding objects that allow him or her to maintain belief in what psychoanalysis refers to as the phallic mother, i.e. the fantasy that the mother has a penis. From this perspective, perversion is bound up with lying and falsehood. However, if one also has the view that creativity stems from pre-genital energy, as Chasseuguet-Smirgel suggests, then it is hard to keep the pathways of that energy separate from the pathways of perversion in its regression to the pre-genital. In a sense, all pre-genital energy is perverse in its refusal of loss, (heterosexual) difference, and its desire to return to the fragmentary wholeness – a paradox I know – of what Freud called the polymorphously perverse auto-eroticism of infantile sexuality.

Personally, I align myself with the artist Mike Kelley, who, while interested in Chasseguet-Smirgel’s evocation of the universe of the fetishist – fetishism being a classic perversion – takes issue with her superiority over this world and her denigration of its mendaciousness. Kelley claims, by contrast, that in postmodernity once pejorative terms such as ‘sham’ and ‘falseness’ have ‘become appropriate to our notion of what the function of art is’, especially in relation to dealing with the repressed anxiety of the body as an entity made up of parts. Art, he says, now allows the fragment to exist as fragments rather than creating idealisations of the body as a unified whole. [2]

Cindy Sherman’s photographs are a case in point. ‘They are not photographic odes to pop culture; they are self-portraits of a psychology that cannot disentangle itself from the kaleidoscope of cliches of identity that surrounds it’. [3] Mike Kelley is here referring to Sherman’s photographs of medical demonstration models which were included in his exhibition ‘The Uncanny’. Often referred to as the ‘Sex Pictures’, the photographs stage scenarios of desire using prosthetic body parts that interact by means of mechanical dysfunction rather than by nature. I have always thought that Sherman’s deconstruction of the human form in these photographs was liberating in that it distributed sexuality across part objects that were neither male nor female. This corresponds to the partial drives of pre-genital energy.

Earlier this year, I saw this series again at an exhibition called ‘The Vivisector’ at Spruth Magers Gallery in London. Four photographs from 1992 were displayed side by side in a row along with 3 others from 1994, 1995, and 1996, respectively. The exhibition pertains to contextualise Sherman’s series in relation to other artists and artefacts, for example, a Hans Bellmer 1937 portrait of a bust of a woman from which multiple breast-like forms protrudes, a much gentler image than the more transgressive dismantling of form in his Poupée series. Sherman’s 1992 photographs are both funny and hard to look at in that these prosthetic body parts evoke both the mechanics of desire and the anxieties of awkward and botched interrelations, something we rarely see on screen or in pornography which, in supposedly showing all, keeps us transfixed in a state that psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek refers to as a stupid gaze, i.e. one that is satisfied by mechanical consummation without the troubling framework of fantasy. [4] The latter is what makes things go wrong in reality which never lives up to our desires. Sherman’s achievement in the ‘Sex Pictures’ is that, while she deploys a literal use of prosthetic body parts, she incorporates a fantasy frame which borders on the pornographic but does not succumb to its impetus to empty the body of all mystery. As Jan Avgikos says: ‘An eroticism ridden with menace is her lure, and artifice her entrapment and dis-ease. In the register of nightmare, the impulse to debase and violate parallels the impulse to worship and adore’. [5]

So far so good, but when I walked into the second room of this exhibition I was shocked by my response to the other series on display, Sherman’s, Broken Dolls, 1999, 12 black and white photographs depicting dismembered and recombined dolls. I found these simply disgusting in a dismissive way, which surprised me given my adherence to the notion that desire and disgust coalesce in one and the same object. An idea elaborated by Georges Bataille in the review journal Acéphale, two editions (1937) of which were being exhibited in the first room of the exhibition. By contrast to the transformative nature of perverse desire in Bataille and in psychoanalysis, I found these images to be gratuitous and wearing their anal-sadistic cruelty on their sleeve. In Untitled #343 a baby doll is split open, her belly containing a gaping vaginal wound. In Untitled #333 a male doll holds a wheelchair to which the flayed legs and pus oozing groin of a female doll are attached, the doll’s head on the ground. Here a sadistic theatricality is deployed without any of the poignancy of the 1992 ‘Sex Pictures’.

I read online that Sherman did the 1999 series during her painful divorce. Again, something I avoid in my approach to art in general is to psychoanalyse the artist, seeing their work instead as working through of ideas that are transposed into form by processes of displacement and condensation. [6] Instead of the ambiguities generated by these processes, Broken Dolls’ literalism, enhanced by the black and white documentary quality of the images, implies that these dolls are abject stand-ins for a set of very conscious fantasies to damage and debase, a therapeutic working through of private anger only of interest to a puerile gaze. I found myself agreeing with Chasseguet–Smirgel’s pathologisation of the fetishist’s vision as regressive and infantile and that the anal-sadistic cruelty it wreaks on the law of the father, rather than being celebrated, is something we need to be disenchanted of. By contrast, the ‘Sex Pictures’ staged scenarios give us hope that our bodies are not the docile obedient ones of Oedipal subjection, but have the capacity for desires not circumscribed by the status quo of family, church and state. ■

Top image shows a detail from Untitled #257, 1992.

The Vivisector, curated by Todd Levin, was at Spruth Magers London from 22 Nov to 26 Jan 2013.

Art & PsychoanalysisMaria Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Theory at University of the Arts, London, and the author of Art & Psychoanalysis, the latest book in our Art & … series.

[1] Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine, Creativity and Perversion, (London: Free Association Books, 1985), p. 89 & p. 92.

[2] Kelley, Mike, ‘Playing With Dead Things’, The Uncanny, ex. cat. (Arnhem: Sonsbeek, 1993), pp. 4-27, p. 15.

[3] Ibid, p. 24.

[4] Žižek, Slavoj, ‘Looking Awry’, October, Vol. 50, (Autumn, 1989), pp. 30-55, p.9.

[5] Avgikos, Jan, ‘Cindy Sherman: Burning Down the House’, Artforum International, v 31, n 5, (January 1993), pp, 74-79, p. 79.

[6] See Chapter 1 ‘Distortion and Disguise: the Dream-Work’ of my book Art and Psychoanalysis.

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