Oedipus Rex: The Drowned Man

Hamza Walker, 1997

One is not born, but rather becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.
—Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

To be literal with respect to De Beauvoir’s quote, where in modern civilization was the feminine subject produced? While one might argue that this site of production consists of not one but many points of socialization, the process of socialization involves the transmission and reinforcing of values, attitudes, modes of behavior that are derived largely from representations. The many paintings, books, movies, and advertisements where a female subject is reproduced are simultaneously the sites where she is in fact produced. Using this circular logic, one could surmise that the modern feminine subject was forged between the late 18th and late 19th century in early novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, in the gaze of pre-Raphaelite painters, in the inquiries of Freud and Darwin, in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot, in short, forged in the blaze of Romanticism’s glory. Needless to say, Romanticism’s fixation with the feminine subject has been and continues to be challenged through to the present. The substantial volume of representations of “the feminine” by both men and women, makes clear that no one picture, book or art historical movement could ever complete our knowledge. This history of representations from 18th century Romanticism to 1970s’ feminism amounts to what can only be called a discourse. With so many representations however, are further additions to this discourse necessary? In so far as we will ever be able to know the feminine, are past representational strategies sufficient or are further challenges required?

Katy Schimert does not want to challenge representation. She only wants to use it. The work of this New York-based sculptor and filmmaker is riddled with a quirky narrative sensibility that at its most sticky sweet has the tenor of repressed Victorian sentiment, recalling a period not only responsible for the production of the modern female subject but along with it, female emotional subjectivity. Whether it is a symbolically charged cinematic short, a shiny ceramic object, a mythic map of the world, or simply a love letter, Schimert’s work revels in the representational conventions used to both illustrate and produce feminine desire. The range of materials Schimert employs, from text, to foil, to film, are proof that her artistic compatriots includes quite a range from the likes of the Brontë sisters, to Linda Benglis, to Jane Campion.

For her exhibition at The Society, Schimert has chosen to focus upon the figure of Oedipus, the king of Thebes who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Schimert’s work is deceptively simple and appears even more so in relation to a topic as daunting as Greek Tragedy, let alone one synonymous with Freudian analysis. However, it is not until one realizes the astounding degree of cross referentiality within a single work and from work to work, particularly in the use of symbols and metaphor, that the exhibition’s complexity becomes apparent. The exhibition consists of a short film transferred to video, ten ceramic works, a series of mixed media works on paper, and two large wall reliefs, one using string and aluminum foil, and the other, aluminum foil and masking tape. Instead of conveying the story of Oedipus through a dramatic sequence of narrative events, Schimert has developed an iconography that illustrates the tales symbolic significance.

How do we know what we know? This question drives Schimert’s interest in Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, which consists of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Conveyed through a plot that involves the inevitability of fulfilling a prophecy through murder and incest, Oedipus Rex is already rich with metaphors about fate, free will and their relationship to knowledge. In fact, it is precisely because of its wealth of symbolism that Freud used it as a map of the unconscious and a means to explain the mechanics of desire. Freud’s Oedipal complex is a catalyst for unfulfilled primal desires that become displaced reenacted longings which remain with us throughout our entire lives. Schimert is well aware of the significance Freud attached to this tale and does not at all disagree with Freud’s use of it to illustrate the nature of a child’s hostility and libidinal impulses towards its parents.

For Schimert, however, Oedipus Rex is principally a tale of not knowing that points to the limits and the futility of representation in the face of desire. As such, it cannot explain desire; it can only describe the profundity of not knowing. Furthermore, Freud’s attempt to fill the unconscious with myth only reiterates the fact that we are doomed to an analysis of ourselves through a good story. But instead of resisting these findings, Schimert prefers to use these limits to produce an elegant poetry that derives its strength through simple but direct and provocative associations. As the large schematic wall relief, which uses aluminum foil and string, makes clear, Schimert likes to mix her metaphors. Mountains and orifices, breasts and eyes, tragic blind spots and critical reflection. According to the logic Schimert employs in this piece, this list could have been paired mountains and reflection, breasts and orifices, eyes and tragic blind spots. The settings for the Oedipus’ trilogy, Thebes, Athens and Corinth, are overlaid with bodily references particularly those that allude to Oedipus’ relation to his mother/wife Jacosta and the blinding of himself. In fact, the string and the aluminum foil mounds recall two of the eye’s main components, cones and rods. Not only does the aluminum foil mountain act as a focal point for the piece, a geographic landmark separating Thebes, Athens and Corinth, it also doubles as a diagram for our true blindspots, the area on the back of the retina where the optic nerve is attached. Since this spot is not light sensitive it is an area in the eye that is literally blind. Given that our eyes are focused outward, it is something we will never know. Yet Schimert, as was Freud, is forced to depict such a subject using the terrain of myth. Again, this underscores her belief that such representational strategies can only depict the blindspot rather than fill it with an explanation.

When viewed in relationship to the film, this wall relief illustrates how Schimert translates her layering of references into cinema. While the confusion of symbolic relationship in the wall relief was between the body and the landscape, in Oedipus Rex; The Drowned Man, it takes place between the light and landscape. Arms outstretched, descending toward the ocean floor, Oedipus looks as though he may have died for our sins. With the hero dappled in shafts of sunshine, Schimert’s play between refraction and reflection becomes a conceptual play on our ability to perceive the subject through light provided by the sun and the introspection of the hero who has deprived himself of sight. At other moments, however, the symbolism relies less on hints from the wall relief and is more direct, for example, Schimert’s use of water. Given that all life sprang from the sea, Schimert’s tag line, “The Drowned Man,” refers to Oedipus’ return to the womb, which in turn refers to his having committed incest.

Although the four and a half minute film is entitled Oedipus Rex: The Drowned Man, Schimert developed this visual sequence based on Oedipus’ death which occurs at the close of Oedipus at Colonus. Despite his shameful deeds, Oedipus’ death is made noble after he has achieved full self-knowledge. Although the references to his passing are in terms of descent into the netherworld where he is to take his place amongst the goddesses of Earth and Darkness, the tale as described by a messenger from the gods, is one of ascension. It is this dual reading of Oedipus’ death that Schimert captures in her film. Like the archetypal Romantic hero, Oedipus is made remote through the use of either long shots or a gaze that is conspicuously close. Weighted down by red metallic hearts, Oedipus’ descent is languorous. Were it to be narrated Schimert’s short would perhaps have been accompanied by the following passage spoken by Oedipus and retold to the chorus by the messenger:

My Children this is the day when you become fatherless. All that was me has perished; now no more for you the heavy task of tending me. It was a cruel task, children, that I know, but there’s a single word that overthrows all tasks of work. My Love you had; no one could love you more. That is the love you lose now and must pass through the rest of life without it.

It was the god who called him, over and over, “You Oedipus, Oedipus, why are you hesitating to go your way? You have been too slow, too long.”

Schimert’s ten ceramic sculptures warrant a return to the initial question, How do we know what we know? According to De Beauvoir, “the body is first of all the radiation of a subjectivity, the instrument that makes possible the comprehension of the world: it is through the eyes, the hands, that children apprehend the universe, and not through the sexual parts.” For Freud, however, the distinction between what is and what is not a sexual part is very vague. In his three essays on sexuality, Freud cites those areas of the body which are potentially sexual as those having tender membranes. This included the eye, through which we receive information that solicits sexual stimulation. Schimert’s ceramic objects tend to favor Freud’s ambiguity as to what constitutes a sexual organ. She has divided her ceramic sculptures into two categories, the five senses and the five objects of desire. The five senses are represented by an eye, the mouth, the pores, the nose, and an ear, while the five objects of desire are breasts, belly button, heart, buttocks and legs. As a series of openings through which the outside world enters the body and a series of volumes in which to store these experiences, the body, according to these pieces, is one large apparatus for desire, a series of holes for having, holding, and knowing.

Hero Worship. That is perhaps the most succinct expression one could apply to Schimert’s work, particularly her films and letters. Featuring the likes of Sir Lancelot, Ophelia, Dracula, and Neil Armstrong, Schimert’s short films which range in length from six to ten minutes, are an unabashed exercise in hero worship. Under no obligation to reiterate the full blown narrative surrounding characters whose vices and virtues, trials and tribulations, have come to form part of our stock cultural memory, Schimert distills them to simply a referent that in many ways is more potent than the source. Shot in grainy black and white or saturated color, Schimert’s films are composed of subtle symbolic moments similar to the economy of images employed in a dream. In an earlier work entitled, The Astronaut, Schimert uses the ambivalence of a bleak frozen lake front landscape to suggest not only the haunting isolation of the moon but also the barren netherworld inhabited by a soulless vampire. Toward the end of the film, a birthday cake with lit candles provides a color and temperature contrast that seem antithetical to the icy surroundings. The effect is a series of schizophrenic associations not violently but gently juxtaposed. It is as if the warm radiant nucleus of childhood nostalgia were introduced into a chilly cinematic context reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The most striking characteristic of all of Schimert’s films, however, is the lack of distinction between viewing the film and memories of viewing the film. The cadence of the imagery, the striking tonal contrasts between sharp reflective glints and an infinitely graded depth of field give the impression that the film itself were an unmediated memory.

Schimert is linked to Romanticism on any number of levels, yet it is in her tragic, sentiment laden poetic verse where her affinity with this 18th century artistic and literary movement is most apparent. In the films, Schimert’s heroes are made ideal subjects by virtue of a gaze they are under no obligation to acknowledge let alone return. Schimert exploits the tension surrounding desire by subjecting her heroes to the elegant love lorn verse of hysterics whose words are destined to fail in arousing the passion of such a remote love object. But Schimert’s appropriation of a literary genre that would define and later rein-force the stereotype that women’s writing was best reserved for expressing “matters of the heart,” runs counter to a course established by women artists throughout the twentieth century as exemplified in the following quote from Virginia Woolf:

In the past, the virtue of women’s writing often lay in its divine spontaneity, like that of the blackbird’s song or the thrush’s. It was untaught; it was from the heart. But it was also, and much more often, chattering and garrulous - mere talk spilt over paper and left to dry in pools and blots. In future, granted time and books and a little space for herself, literature will become for women, as it is for men, an art to be studied. Women’s gift will be trained and strengthened. The novel will cease to be the dumping-ground for the personal emotions.

Schimert has clearly diverged from the trajectory Woolf established for female artists of the future. Were Woolf and Schimert to meet, however, they would not disagree about the women artists of the future as much as they would disagree about women artists of the past. While Woolf often praises her literary predecessors, Schimert would criticize Woolf in this instance for selling short the power of emotions. Although women were not allowed access to the commercial and political affairs of a rapidly emerging bourgeois public sphere, for Schimert, this does not mean that the authority they exercised elsewhere was without value. In an insightful account of the manner in which domestic fiction operated in relation to the public sphere, scholar Nancy Armstrong in her book Desire and Domestic Fiction; A political history of the novel, argues that the domestic sphere was established under the Sexual Contract. Under this arrangement women surrendered “political control to the male in order to acquire exclusive authority over domestic life, emotions, taste, and morality.” Schimert’s work not only argues for finding value in female authority exercised under the terms of the sexual contract, she would also argue that the sexual contract is capable of rivaling if not nullifying the social contract. Unlike the social contract, which in theory regulated sovereignty between individuals and government, the sexual contract regulates feminine desire for fear of its power to consume insatiably. Schimert indulges this fear in her moonrocks whose beckoning glimmer represents the threat of unrestrained sexuality that lurks behind all shiny commodities.

Woolf’s praise of women’s writing for being spontaneous, untaught, and from the heart, could also describe many of Schimert’s works. The naive look of Schimert’s drawings and ceramics, not to mention her use of such simple domestic materials as masking tape, stick pins, aluminum foil, and string, give her work the feel of an art class taught by a home economics teacher. But for all their homespun elegance, Schimert’s humble works always allude to grander narratives and more importantly the grander workings of narratives. Despite their humility, Schimert’s works’ pointed and poignant use of myths, maps and metaphor, is a radical reclamation of modern femininity’s birthplace. At a moment when Hollywood has shamelessly pillaged the 19th century in search of new scripts, Schimert’s thoughtful supersaturation of themes, styles and genres associated with a bygone era could not be more welcome. Even though it is difficult to argue with the production values achieved by Merchant and Ivory for example, it is through the work of an artist such as Schimert, an artist who is more interested in making the period more relevant than representing it faithfully, that we are able to look back and say with certainty, you’ve come a long way baby.