in Features | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

Mata Hari takes a Picture

Bruce Hainley writes on Louise Lawler and her documentation of the life and power of images

in Features | 10 SEP 04

I made my first mistake being born in this century. Not that any other would have made it easier. Certainly marriage didn’t make it better, or moving to Java. I liked finery, silk’s cream against what most considered to be a pretty body, but really, in that heat, with my hair frizzing and domesticity’s demands … I am a thinking woman, and soon confinement confined. The children I loved, but that went to hell. One poisoned to death, the boy, little Norman. I had my suspicions, but nothing was ever proved, and the loss darkness swallowed me, at the bottom of the ocean, gulping, no gills, no protection against the pressure, my ears; any sound hurt, bird calls even. I swam, gropingly, swam up and up, gulping brine, and soon left. I left, left my dear daughter, who survived poison, left the brutal inadequacy called husband, and tried Paris. I wasn’t the first. New name, Mata Hari, another language, eye of dawn. Who I was before never really mattered. Fictions matter. Fictions are theoretical and have consequences. I danced the dance of the World War, stripping away everything until there was only conjecture and bodies, maimed, reeking, their stink apparent as soon as I stopped moving. Scandalous, some called it. I may have danced my way to Antwerp, to a spy school, where the various choreographies may have included, according to someone named Ostrovsky, a man I never knew and who never knew me, ‘codes, ciphers, communicative dodges, the study of chemicals (their use and manufacture), memorization of maps, charts and photographs, as well as models of enemy arms (always in the process of revision and elaboration)’.1 I may have stripped off even more to become an alphanumerical cipher, code name H21. Many things remain unknown. I recall clearly only that when I was 40 I danced my way into the arms of a young Russian, almost 20 years my junior, and we fucked away many of the bad memories. Others replaced them.

Understand that I never meant to do anything wrong. I was close to homeless, and my body could still seduce information, meanings, from others. I may have milked them dry – they certainly milked me – but in order to save Vlad and to put a roof over my head I’d have become a desert. It all came to nought. Vlad was stopped by a border patrol. I was arrested, accused of espionage. Counter-espionage. Tried. Convicted. Having stripped everything away, I was as dispensable as many women have found themselves to be, despite having spent a life only trying to earn a life of my own. My lawyer tried to show what no one would listen to, what no one would say. Failed. Double agent, I was my own other.

Before her first solo show, for which she arranged to screen, at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica for a single night, a movie (The Misfits, 1961) without the picture, Louise Lawler arranged to publish a screenplay without a movie. Usually referred to as Untitled, Black/White (1978), the small book in two versions – the only difference between them the price, circled, $4.95 or $100 – captures on its cover a close-up of a woman pretending to be Mata Hari, sleeping. Pictures of the back and front of a playing card (the seven of diamonds) make up the only other illustrations, even though on the blank page before the picture of the card’s front there appears, running along centre bottom, a text stating ‘seven of spades’.2 Communicative dodge? A screenplay about the death of Mata Hari is split into two parts, separated by a contemporary account by Henry G. Wales, appearing on 18 October 1917 in the International News Service, of her execution by firing squad: along the bottom of the screenplay runs the date ‘1917’; of the account, ‘1978’. This contemporary account ‘is to be read as a voice-over for the film during the driving sequence’: ‘clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes’, the execution site. Double agent Mata Hari dies twice in the film (although never shown, death without the picture): in a voice-over, as Wales reported it, and a second time enacted, but to be filmed only until the trigger is pulled. The screenplay ends with the words ‘A BLACK SCREEN; THE SOUND OF A GUNSHOT’. Although the book is copyrighted ‘1978, Louise Lawler’, the text was written by Janelle Reiring, and not specifically for Lawler’s book; it wasn’t meant to be filmed and never was. Lawler informed me by e-mail in June this year that ‘an additional part of the work was that it was available at different locations, including from the guy who cuts my hair and a diamond dealer’. Lawler: ‘At about the same time I printed photos of the cards, from the same deck, again life-size, keeping track of which they were and put[ting] the information of what they were on the print with press type. They were shown in a group show at the 100 Dollar Gallery, interspersed with other people’s work.’

I’ve told the court stenographer to be careful with narratives that derive only from one source, as if I’m the name to unlock Lawler’s, well, something like her roman à clef. I’m not. I’m an interesting allegory to be invoked, perhaps, to throw a certain slant of light on ‘an aspect of the reception of the work’. Lawler communicated that her ‘pictures present information about the reception of artworks’.3 What is that information? What is reception? Luck of the draw? Fortune in the hand that’s dealt? I would suggest you consider espionage, counter-espionage, my so-called life as a double agent. Crossing borders, revealing state or institutional or intimate secrets; my dependence on or transactions with others. Collaboration. Relations. Double agent, I played both sides. I was my own other the way Lawler’s photographic sensibility may be art’s other (not that it can’t pass as art). For a while I moved between the borders. Beauty, the aesthetic, was my passport. These are all ways of understanding my glow. Of course, I may only be a way of negotiating darkness, the black screen. Perhaps I’m what you should have thought of when Lawler showed a movie without the picture. Absence reeling out. No credits, no names: no Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe or Montgomery Clift; no Thelma Ritter or Eli Wallach; no ‘music by Alex North’; no ‘Miss Monroe’s wardrobe by Jean Louis’; no John Huston. No top billing. No black and white, no colour, only a projection like night. Gender still existed. The first voice you heard was a woman’s voice, questioning time: ‘Young man, do you have the time? I have six clocks in the house and none of them work.’ 1917 or 1978? The last words a woman (Monroe) says – pay attention to last words – are about darkness also: ‘How do you find your way back in the dark?’ There you are, sitting in Lawler’s dark, her movie without the picture. A man’s voice answers and the movie ends: ‘Just head for that lone star straight on. The highway’s under it. It’ll take you right home.’ That lone star could be Thelma Ritter or Marilyn Monroe or Clark Gable or me. It’s a brutal film, strewn with so much damage, seen on people’s faces, Monroe’s or Clift’s, especially. ‘… the exhibition floats in my mind like a star …’4 When Greta Garbo played me, she got the sound and the glamour right but never my black screen silence, my between.

A hauntingly lovely picture, mostly of Marilyn Monroe’s face on a book’s dust jacket, not sleeping, out of focus, hard to focus on, appears in Corner (1980). Marilyn knew, and The Misfits thematizes, the bodily burdens of being looked at, and how it relates its public and private histories, whether or not they’re understood, noticed. Her body’s white glow is an avalanche of having been looked at. You can even hear it in her voice, no picture. Corner situates relations between reading, looking, being looked at, and the photographic (both with and without pictures). Regardless of what form it takes – invitations, actions, matchbooks, slides, books – Lawler’s sensibility is photographic. (Hollis Frampton discussed photographic sensibility with Carl Andre years before Craig Owens re-emphasized it.) Here she places a lone star as a way of negotiating the territories (reading, looking, etc.), but it is the corner, an intersection between and relating all these things, that’s clearly in focus.

Photographic reception cornered: I am trying to work against the mores of the reception area – criticism sometimes – where the ‘repetitive, purposeful and intentional behaviours that are designed to neutralize or prevent discomfort’ somehow divert reception. These are mores with which Lawler’s photographic sensibility has no truck. I should probably inform you that I am myself a double agent, not just a court stenographer: I have corresponded with the artist on more than one occasion. Prominence given, authority taken, and then some. Her work shows more than can ever be said, more than even she or certainly I could say. I will repeat this later. I am interested in the connection between what is not said about Lawler’s work and the unspeakable, unknowable, of the aesthetic. Lawler’s pictures, whatever else they may be or do, are also often beautiful, deliriously and wittily so. What kind of transaction is that, private or public? Duchamp postulated ‘the shop window as proof of the existence of the outside world’. Looking at Lawler’s pictures, I think the gallery, auction house and framing glass prove the existence of an inside world – windows on an inside with its own outside and inside, seen behind the scene, its own private and public, its own politesse and unspoken rules, which are sometimes the rules of what will not be spoken. Her work makes this nude, which is not to say transparent. (See Nude, 2002–3.) For the catalogue of her recent survey at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, ‘Louise Lawler and Others’, George Baker talked with Andrea Fraser, emphasizing about Lawler’s practice that: ‘It has to do with creating relations – as you [Fraser] have been mentioning throughout this conversation – but relations that we haven’t really recognized as legitimate up until this point. Relations perhaps so radical that we still have a hard time admitting in fact that they are relations […] Louise does not just represent relationships in her work, she produces them through her work.’5

Rather than ‘relations’, Lawler has noted the ‘fact of making meaning by juxtaposition and alignment’.6 The discourse around and about Lawler’s work speaks of her documentation of the ‘life’ of art, its movement from gallery to bedroom and boardroom to auction house and elsewhere; of her questioning and appropriating the categories of arrangers, professional (gallerists, auctioneers, curators) and amateur (private collectors); of her questioning the power of the name of the artist, collector or board of directors in relation to the anonymous. But Lawler’s photographic work, and Lawler herself, acknowledges – literally and allegorically – even more than what the discourse about the work reveals. As Jack Bankowsky points out: ‘Suffice it to say that it is Lawler’s manifest sensitivity to her own (necessary) complicity in the regimes she scrutinizes that accounts for a certain “truth quotient” that does seem these days to set her apart from a number of her peers.’7

There is, of course, another reason to consider what kind of information is being conveyed through my early appearance. I may have sold someone out. Lawler’s description of her own work (‘my pictures present information about the “reception” of artworks’) should be seen in the light of 1917, my slant of light. The person – auteur–editeur, moving around Paris like a criminal or a spy, studying shop windows like a witness, who knows whether for prosecution or defence, producing documents (‘that no-man’s-land of knowledge, an emptiness between a phantom savoir and a gaggle of connaissances, an intemperate zone’8 ) – who would have taken the most fitting portrait of me was Eugène Atget. Perhaps Lawler would take that dash between auteur and editeur as the place to begin, moving as I did, between. No-man’s-land is a place some women find themselves working from. Perhaps one should see her pictures in relation to his documents. It would insist on the difficulty of reading them since ‘the savoir remain[s] in the shadows … grow[ing] stronger in eclipse’.9 It would show how certain manoeuvres and procedures identified with Lawler are structured by the medium and its zones of radiation, developed out of the negative through the photographic. For example: as part of Atget’s 1912 Métiers, boutiques et étalages de Paris (Trades, Shops and Stalls of Paris), among the vegetable shops, butchers, magazine kiosks, fishmongers, ice cream stands and wine merchants, the photographer placed documents of brocanteurs with leaning stacks of framed pictures and empty frames; as part of Intérieurs Parisiens (Parisian Interiors, 1910), rooms decorated by people usually identified only by their occupation (‘actor’, ‘person of independent means’, ‘amateur sculptor’, ‘worker at the Louvre’), he included the interiors of a photographer’s and a ceramicist’s studios, and, even more interestingly, the ‘intérieur de Mr B, collectionneur, Rue de Vaugirard and the exterior of a ‘Boutique Art Nouveau’. He was documenting the rubbing up of the populaire and what was seen to be art, nouveau or otherwise, private and public; he was putting pictures and their making in relation to labour and alienation. The photographic sensibility, its traffic in different kinds of knowledge, its critique, he developed through the medium itself. A medium is more powerful than any single artist and has its laws, which require interpretation and argument. He knew that the photograph was never simply neutral. Nor would it be, for him, simply aesthetic. Lawler seems to have learned much from him. She is not Swiss or neutral either, nor simply aesthetic. Consider Atget’s Belleville, Emplacement du massacres des Otage 85 rue Haxo (20e) (Belleville, Site of the Massacre of Hostages, 85 Rue Haxo, 20th arrondissement, 1901), ‘the place where the Communards were executed en masse, a place with a commemorative plaque, a place shown by Atget as a brute and now bloodless wall on a cheerless winter day’,10 and then Drop Bush Not Bombs (2001–3), which features a mural-like Sol LeWitt painting in Yvon Lambert’s collection abutting blank grey carpeting. Or the matchbook she distributed when she showed Four Nudes at Metro Pictures upstairs on 15 February 2003, which announced ‘NO DRINKS for those who do not support the anti-war demonstration’. A politic can haunt the aesthetic by appearing as brute blankness, abstraction or even nakedness.

What passes for common knowledge in the art world and what enters the public discourse of art history, theory, criticism or journalism? For example, it’s not as if the location and owner of the rooms and paintings in What Goes on Here (1990) and Four Between Two Doors (1993–8) are simply public knowledge; nor has Lawler revealed this information (‘arranged by …’), as she is sometimes wont to do. And yet there’s not a hiccup or pause when Bankowsky announces that part of what’s on view in Leo Castelli’s apartment are paintings the dealer arranged. When Bankowsky names the details of most of the luxe specifics on display in It Could Be Elvis (1994), but nothing else about the ‘opulently appointed digs of a Geneva collecting couple’, shouldn’t someone pause to ask why Castelli is named but not the Swiss collectors? I doubt it’s because Bankowsky doesn’t know. When is it a sign of power to remain anonymous, to have facts not related? How is such (private?) information learned, knowledge acquired? How and when and in what manner do we recognize any of the art that appears in Lawler’s work, those ‘others’? Who is privileged enough to be privy to the different kinds of knowledge her pictures picture? What is the economy of such knowledge? Mata Hari-like, the revealing of some secrets can occlude others. In the blah-blah about relations, some relations are discussed, others not. Given that the examination of the juxtaposition of art’s public and private space, its information systems, its tracing of different economies, constitutes no small part of Lawler’s work; given that a collaborative relationship between artists can be studied; given that her photographic sensibility authorizes taking thought through such relationships, doesn’t the often more oblique or unspoken of relations, juxtapositions, collaborations, between collectors and curators, gallerists and magazine editors, writers and artists, produce something? Lawler and her work have repeatedly acknowledged such relations, depicted them through their transactions with aesthetic objects, despite her most trenchant critics remaining somewhat silent about such affairs.

One of those critics is Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. In the second of his key early 1980s essays in Artforum analysing appropriation, Buchloh discusses the work of Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers and others in order to relate them to younger artists (Martha Rosler, Sherrie Levine, Dara Birnbaum and Lawler) engaged in continuing such critical concerns: ‘The precision with which these artists analyzed the place and function of aesthetic practice within the institutions of Modernism had to be inverted and attention paid to the ideological discourses outside the framework, which conditioned daily reality’.11 Can such deconstructive analysis simply ignore the daily reality of, say, the institution of marriage or family or other kinds of intimate relations? A key early work of Lawler’s is illustrated within Buchloh’s article; more interestingly, juxtaposed with his essay’s final page is a reproduction of Lawler’s stationery letterhead made in response to Rudi Fuchs’ Documenta 7, serving, ostensibly, as the first illustration for a group of articles on Fuchs’ show. It’s hard not to read it somehow in relation to Buchloh’s article as well. In her foreword to Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation (1984) Marcia Tucker thanks Lawler for ‘editing and arranging the photographs’.12 In the book, Buchloh’s essay on the rise of representation in European painting closes across from a page with an illustration of Hans Haacke’s contribution to Documenta 7 – turning the page one finds Lawler’s Paintings by Francesco Clemente and Keith Haring in the Home of Dr Donald and Mira Rubell, New York City (1983), which would seem to provide its own critical gloss on a recent rise in representation. What meaning is produced by such juxtaposition, by such relations? What meanings are institutionalized by not acknowledging such relations? I doubt it’s because someone doesn’t know. On the last page of An Arrangement of Pictures at the close of the acknowledgements, Lawler’s last words (pay attention to last words) are: ‘Thanks Felix Nicholas Lawler Buchloh’.

I repeat. Lawler’s work shows more than can ever be said, more than perhaps she could say, certainly more than her critics or I state – or than can be ever stated by any one person (which is why we keep looking, how her work works): ‘The work can never be determined just by what I do or say. Its comprehension is facilitated by the work of other artists and critics and just by “what’s going on at the time”.’13 Lawler’s photographic sensibility is concerned with kinds of knowledge, explicitly and implicitly with how the visual and the verbal convey meaning differently. The unspeakable girds what is spoken, the way the invisible structures the visible and stupidity situates both the beyond and the fundament of the intelligible. What is not spoken becomes an allegory for everything under the sign of the aesthetic (the ineffable). Lawler’s work is one of the most daunting dossiers of the knowledge of art, but her pictures deny stabilization of either the political or the aesthetic, using both as passports. Its aesthetic properties and only their speakable operations become an allegory for any politic; much remains beyond knowledge, misfitting. Double agent border crossing.

When the time had come, I was ready.
I refused the blindfold and had it removed from the scene.