Chloe Piene: Drawings

"Every man is an organ put forth by the divinity in order to perceive the world."

           Jorge Luis Borges. (1)

What is it about kissing? Or moving your hands over someone's face and back? What is it about touching another person's body that is so magnetic and compelling? I don't just mean sex; I mean leaning your full weight on your partner between kisses, I mean rubbing your Grandmother's hands to get them warm. Being allowed into that privacy. When we press ourselves against the bodies of the people we love or desire, it's a penetrative activity. A communion. Where we touch them, our bodies are struggling to perform an ultrasound, to get under the skin and into the flesh, the warmth, the interior; endeavoring to know these through the minute inflections of the surface: the hard and the soft of it; all it's dips and hollows, ridges and declivities. The modifying tensions, the shifting temperatures. Doesn't feeling the configuration of your Grandmother's tiny metacarpal bones pressing into your palm make your heart crack in two? Isn't it wonderful to feel the pulse of a boyfriend?¥ús artery against your lips?

Most figurative drawing shows you the usual surfaces. But the real experience of a body's your own, a lover's, your newborn child's is layered, complex and multi-focal, a deep-tissue experience. What Piene's drawings show are the complexities of our stratified insides, the places where you really feel sex, really feel penetration, really feel love, fear, compassion, defeat? All perception is gathered and mediated through the body, and the physical engagement required by any act of perception is itself an integral part of all experience and all memory. Post Descartes, post virtual reality, it's not hard for us to imagine that while our bodies are in the world, we ourselves are, perhaps, somehow not. By partially dematerializing the bodies of her subjects, Piene allows them to hover in a sort of netherworld between the physical and the non-physical, the world we think we know and the world we think we don't. They seem out of phase, and emphasize the body as a point of passage, manifestation and exchange, as a pathway or portal. It's a bit like staring into the pupil of your own eye in a mirror and seeing something else, something more, looking back. The body here is a junction - and perhaps a tenuous one - between us (wherever and whatever we are) and the physical world. You could think of our bodies in much the same way you would a medium in the throes of spirit possession a lump of matter animated by some unseen outside agency.

After all, if ghosts are souls without bodies, and zombies are bodies without souls, doesn't that make us a pretty creepy hybrid of the two? Piene's figures certainly exhibit both spectral and cadaverous elements: there is transparent flesh and drifting hair; death's-head grins and clutching, withered hands abound; you can see bones and viscera: but there are also parts of the body which are immaculate, perfectly uncorrupted. And while the references to perishability are an important part of the work (the corpse obviously lurks inside all bodies, like an organ awaiting a function), the marriage of "flayed" or ectoplasmic anatomy with the utterly inviolate surfaces of taut, living tissue complicates things. For Piene, the drawings are formally alluring precisely because they leave areas of the body untouched: "There's a play between what's covered and what's uncovered. Every layer that is revealed refers to a deeper point, a greater darkness, a new unknown. It's like a veil which, as I covers, suggests something deeper, which you neither saw nor understood beforehand. A sort of skin, made from the grain of penetration. It points to and is a part of a place you can strive towards but never really get to." (2)

Decomposition is not what you are witness to here; or if it is, then it's a peculiar, selective, and who's-to-say-permanent decomposition not of the kind usually visited on the human corpse (the incorruptibility of certain saintly relics is brought to mind, as are the liquefying effects of really good sex, or certain neurological disorders affecting the perception of one's physical self.) These are not bodies in fixed states. They are bodies in flux, manifesting and unraveling on the page in much the same way that whatever it is that we ourselves consist of projects forth from, and disappears into the bodies that we inhabit.

The subjects in Piene's images of masturbating figures, for example, fulminate in orgasm; orgasm as a slo-mo lightning-strike of auto-perceptual reconfiguration, a ghostly Ebola virus unfurling through the body like ink in water, obliterating and stripping certain tissue away, while other parts flare up out of their sheaths of skin, outrageous, sensuous jungles of bone and gut. Orgasm both consumes and transforms the body as experienced by the subject. "These figures possess an awareness of their own complexity, and this self awareness is physically manifest in the strangeness of their form. What you see in these images is the subject's inward self-penetration through the vehicle of the body, exploring the mystery of what it is - i.e. a non-corporeal being manifest through a corporeal vehicle. If we go with Borges for a second and assume that all bodies are organs put forth by the divinity, then these figures are using that vehicle backwards: switching the polarity and swimming against the current, through the channel of it's physical matrix, towards it's point of origin: a point which of necessity must lay outside the physical world. This is masturbation as a kind of spiritual back-masking. Looked at from this angle, it's little wonder Christianity has been so relentlessly opposed to Onanism - what you see in these drawings is less an attempt to know the mind of God than to become it.

This is why the idea of penetration is so involving for Piene. As Jung commented, we will never fully understand the universe because, no matter how much we discover, the ultimate nature of matter itself will always elude us. Piene agrees: "The deeper you go, the deeper in you get: you never arrive, you just get greater depth. You don't get ultimate knowledge or anything, the mystery just expands. That's why the body is such a great springboard for fantasy. Intermittent states of strangeness, darkness and blindness bind us to what we "know."

Through hybrid figures whose interiors ghost up through the waxing and waning opacity of their skins, Piene both draws attention to the interconnectedness of the skin, bone, muscle, guts and nerves in who's mysterious complexity we macerate for as long as we are alive, and prioritizes the permeability of the body as an open channel. We are used to thinking of bodies as opaque and intact, as discreet, uncompromised wholes, and any challenge to this is likely to engage our instinctive fear of having the integrity of those physical parameters jeopardized (which we associate with injury, disfigurement and death.)* But sex too is penetrative; fear, love, joy and sadness pulse in the nerves and belly, not the epidermis. There is no fear of vulnerability in this work. There is defiance and confrontation. There is tenderness and openness. There is a demand for the viewer to yield received ideas of what it is to be a sexual, emotional, human subject; to allow that conceptual box to dissolve and release it's contents so they can sprawl messily across the floor according to their own nature, instead of according to the nature we would like to assign them. Nothing here deviates from nature, only from limited, conventional ideas of what nature is.

(1) From "The Theologians", a short story in "Labyrinths", Jorge Luis Borges, Penguin Classics, London, 2000. (p.155) This quotation from Borges reflects a preoccupation with, and interpretation of, the relationship of the human and the divine found in much of his work. Interestingly, in this particular case it is voiced as the opinion of a character belonging to an heretical religious cult who believe in a perversion of the idea that what is on high is equal to what is down below, holding that "all men are two men and that the real one is the other, the one in heaven. When we die, we shall join this other and be him."
(2) Conversation with the artist, 18/11/03.
(3) Conversation with the artist, 18/11/03.
(4) Conversation with the artist, 18/11/03.