“O Dear What Can the Matter Be”

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Stephanie Burt’s first solo outing, at Yeo Workshop, is , well, showstopping. The site looks literally transformed – a white cube morphed into an enchanted chamber of gold and amber and saffron and tangerine, a spectacle out of some fairy tale that is at once mesmerizing, uncanny, deeply ambivalent. The conceptual premise of the installation – it is simultaneously an exhibition and a single work – is informed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s nineteenth-century feminist psycho-horror fable, The Yellow Wall-Paper. The narrative is a portrayal of derangement, which Wikipedia sums up as such:

Presented in the first person, the story is a collection of journal entries written by a woman whose physician husband (John) has rented an old mansion for the summer. Forgoing other rooms in the house, the couple moves into the upstairs nursery. As a form of treatment, the unnamed woman is forbidden from working, and is encouraged to eat well and get plenty of exercise and air …… The story depicts the effect of understimulation on the narrator’s mental health and her descent into psychosis. With nothing to stimulate her, she becomes obsessed by the pattern and color of the wallpaper …… In the end, she imagines there are women creeping around behind the patterns of the wallpaper and comes to believe she is one of them.

Burt has brought the space to effulgent, eerie life. There is the luscious shade of concentrated corn-gold that veils the gallery in a gorgeous, lambent glow; there is the titular wall-paper, here reminiscent of abstract arabesques of Morrisesque pomegranates, evoking of course the yellow prison of Gilman’s story. Most vitally, there is, occupying (left of) centre stage, an alien-looking assemblage, built up of a quasi-closed-in chain link cage wrapped around pink pillars, enveloping a congregation of fabric (a pistachio-hued expanse, and a blush-pink slip of lace), various pieces of plastic tubing and metal casings orchestrated into acts of aerial acrobatics and suspended animation, set off by lengths of ribbon and string. And, finally, a customized volume of excerpts and bits of writing – a thick tome of yellow leaves – sits apart, at a slight distance, connected to the main body of the installation by one of the aforementioned tubes …

… “body” being the operative word here. I suppose the allusions are clear, or easy, enough. One can read into the otherwise mute materiality of Burt’s work an anthropomorphism drawn from its literary origins: the swathes of fabric are laid out in telling postures, with the green cloth propped up against the fencing like a human body slumped over, presiding (lording?) over its pink, lacy companion, lying prostrate, inert, on the ground; a length of metal casing, held up by ribbons and twine, seems positioned in a such manner as to suggest the masculine appendage (see image below), and to foreground the gendered distinction between the two types of textiles. The symbolic possibilities of the fencing – closed to the outside, open on the inner perimeter – again seems obvious, the analogies to the domestic, erotic sphere, or perhaps certain mental and emotional frameworks, being rather unmistakeable.

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The write-up for the exhibition makes clear the psychosomatic dimension of the installation:

In this unexpected encounter, between the harshness and softness of materials, a play of attraction and rejection, stability and vulnerability emerges …… Frictions and tensions in Burt’s works derive not only from the juxtaposition of different, contrasting materials, but also from the choreography of gestures to which they are subjected. Gestures of pulling, stretching, and pressure exerted on the materials test not only their physical properties, but also their psychological state.

If indeed we’re encouraged to discern an allusion to the human corpus here, and its various functions, what, then, about the book, the large-ish tome out of which viewers are told they may rip pages at will ? Is the violence thus enacted – the tearing, severing, amputating – a form of interactive staging of the outrages that women have historically been subject to?

I’m wondering if it might not prove more productive – interesting – to read the book as a male body. If the artist is at least suggesting that the entire tableau is a reference to Gilman’s tale, then may we consider its rather startling conclusion? The sole male character to make an appearance in the narrative, the protagonist’s doctor husband, swoons like some weak-constitutioned female in a Gothic novel upon encountering the evidence of his wife’s now rampant mania:

He stopped short by the door. “What is the matter?” he cried. “For God’s sake, what are you doing!” I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane? And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

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That The Yellow Wall-Paper ends on the image of the man’s unconscious figure, incapacitated on the floor, is striking. It also leads one, temptingly, to draw parallels between the husband’s prostrate body and the supine, isolated body of the book. What becomes even more interesting is that the stand-in here is a book – an object that traffics in the written word. It almost seems as if the artist is setting up more than just dichotomies between states like harshness and softness, stability and vulnerability, but is embodying gendered difference in the distinction between the material character of the installation as a whole, and its sole aspect to incorporate the element of language. In a space that is informed by the feminine/material, the masculine/linguistic stands apart. Literally. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their feminist classic, The Madwoman in the Attic, pointedly called out the overwhelmingly male nature of the logos: “… a literary text is … also power mysteriously made manifest, made flesh. In patriarchal Western culture, therefore, the text’s author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power like his penis.” Is it possible, then, to extend the series of binaries, in the work, to language and matter? In other words, may we think about embodied difference here in terms of the verbal, and the material? If the sphere of the linguistic, of the written text, is masculine, then the concrete – the “metal, iron, wood and wire meet(ing) ribbon, wool, thread and lace” – might well be construed as gynocentric, an observation that seems to agree with Burt’s feminist point of departure. And if language assumes the privilege of speech, of expression, of ideation, what is left to its other half?

Silence, perhaps.

Which brings me back to my earlier observation about the muteness of materiality. Within the context of the present work, might we not make the equation between the silences demanded by a patriarchal system, and the silence of matter, in the face of language?

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