BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 JUN 18
Featured in
Issue 196

How Can Art Disrupt Our Treasured Notions of Self?

From Kader Attia's couscous sculptures and Isa Genzken's 'towers', to Rorschach tests and Tony Kushner's Angels in America

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 JUN 18

‘You have to live with your injuries,’ said the artist Kader Attia in reference to one of his signature sculptures, built of cooked couscous, which hadn’t set or fixed correctly. But his words also spoke to the wounds inflicted on people by the consequences of their own actions, and from conditions, events beyond their control.

The 20th century didn’t invent suffering but focused on it as perhaps no other century – beginning with World War I’s massive death toll. Humanity’s inhumanity, inventive tortures and monstrous genocides, technology and science allowed brainy humans to punish and kill more, faster. Not the progress modernism advanced but a progress in war and terror that coincided with it.

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, 1993/2018. Courtesy: DKC/O&M; photograph: Brinkhoff and Mögenburg

Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) schooled many in the uses of punishment. I don’t know if Foucault, who died of AIDS, foresaw competitive suffering: who has more right to express it; who is allowed to represent it – a question flaming in the 21st-century art world.

‘When a pickpocket sees a man, he sees only his pockets.’

I look at art for all kinds of reasons: often, to think something else. Art can be a disruptive entity at odds with treasured notions of self, if that ‘self’ is willing. You can escape from the cage of being, or be confronted in it. This is not to say that the subject ‘you’ disappears, but there is a ‘not-you’, when work proposes an outside, or a challenge, to an inner life, illusory as it is. (Some believe in it completely, the way they do a god.) Sometimes watching a film or looking at a photograph, people feel disturbed; through their reactions, they might discover unwonted parts of themselves. When we talk about art being too safe, it means those disturbances won’t occur.

Consider Isa Genzken’s ‘tower’ sculptures, shown in February as part of her exhibition, ‘Sky Energy’, at David Zwirner in New York. This group of works, taller than Alberto Giacometti’s statues, stood in a spacious gallery. Impertinently made of cardboard with openings or holes, depending upon your point of view, the towers struck me as objections. Or, projections. I moved around and among these geometric configurations and considered the constructed environment of a city or a mind. The mind is constructed, not concrete like a sculpture; rather, it and the brain sculpt perception.

In college, I took a Rorschach test with a psychologist friend, so it was a kind of joke to me. I didn’t want to reveal anything, but that wish is in itself revealing. My friend saw me being cavalier, but I learned from her that, when handed a test card, I always took it as it was handed to me. She told me that I could have turned them upside down or sideways. If I had shuffled the cards, I might have seen them differently. My friend made me conscious of that. Ever since, I try not to accept a given, how something is presented. I write against complacency, also in myself, and always view conventions suspiciously.

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, 1993/2018. Courtesy: DKC/O&M; photograph: Brinkhoff and Mögenburg

Consider Ricky Gervais’s Netflix special, Humanity (2018): Gervais is bitterly funny; he’s an abrasive commentator. In Humanity, he riffs on why his offensive-to-some jokes are not – in effect, doing a serious-funny meta stand-up routine. Going meta is a vital approach, especially when in comedy used to divide what is bigoted from critiques of it. Employing subtle reversals and turns against, say, stereotypical thinking, Gervais sucker punches noble conceits that ‘humanity’ holds of itself which don’t align with its behaviours. Nastiness that resides in the unconscious.

A reaction is a response before thought, without consideration, when preconceived attitudes show their ugly heads.

Think about Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (first staged in 1991): in a current New York production, history is, notably, a form of representation. Seeing Angels in America, I felt the uncanniness of time, of Now looking at Then – 25 years ago, before protease inhibitors made AIDS a chronic disease, not a certain death.

In Angels in America, a male character with progressive politics learns his lover is infected and flees. A Mormon man, married and gay, is tormented by his desire for other men. The two meet and find in the other an opportunity for love or escape, but no peace comes to either. Kushner’s work, then and now, figuratively sets his characters – and his audiences – in a courtroom, and everyone’s on trial. Onlookers are complicit, too. Often people fool themselves, looking back: they would have been better, they wouldn’t have done that. (But what would Foucault have thought?)

With the passage of time, in changed circumstances, judgements shift. Time is curious, the way it separates, and doesn’t, the present from the past. Time makes fools of us all.

This article appears in the print edition of the June - August 2018 issue, with the headline 'Rorschach Tests'.

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.