BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 06 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116

Objects of Desire

The devotional aspects of looking at art

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 06 JUN 08

At the 5th Berlin Biennial, I could hear more than a few snickers in the audience watching Lars Laumann’s Berlinmuren (Berlin Wall, 2008), a documentary about a Swedish woman’s love affair with the Berlin Wall. It is amusing to imagine a woman falling in love with 156 kilometres of brick and reinforced concrete. She describes herself as ‘objectum-sexual’: emotionally and sexually attracted to objects. She was so infatuated, in fact, that in a semi-public ceremony in 1979 she ‘married’ the wall and became Mrs Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer, adopting the German name of her new ‘husband’; she was devastated when he was fatally assaulted in November 1989. Goethe would have sympathized. ‘To see an inanimate object being punished is in and of itself something truly terrible,’ wrote the young poet, after witnessing a public book-burning in Frankfurt.

Apart from the snickers, there were also some serious faces illuminated by the glowing screen. After all, doesn’t Mrs Berlin-Wall reflect some part of us? Aren’t we all art lovers, and thus object lovers? Don’t try to avoid the question with some argument about the ‘dematerialization of the art object’ because we are encouraged to love all art – and as much art as possible. Museums are always asking us to become ‘Friends’ with their collections; you know what comes next: adopting an art work. Beyond the institutions, there are the individual symptoms: buying a postcard of a favourite work or getting the catalogue to take home. That’s more commitment than a one-night stand! Inevitably, you can’t help but get all your friends involved: have you seen X? What do you think about X? What are other people saying about X? Next thing you know, you are flying across continents to see X again, maybe acquire X and then put X in your house forever!

Of course, that’s not love, that’s just ... object co-habitation / fixation / obsession / commodity fetishism / animism / state-sponsored polygamy? Most art lovers go further than Mrs Berlin-Wall, since she never relocated to Germany from her Swedish hometown, being content to love her husband from afar; nor did she commission architects to build a foundation, let alone appeal for money to fund it (though she does run a little private museum of miniature models of walls, fences, bridges and guillotines). Many would like to believe that they love art works because they are extensions of their human creators, as if the two were interchangeable. But that’s not true either. ‘We knew we were serious collectors’, Erika Hoffmann and her husband, the late Rolf Hoffmann, once told me, ‘when we were no longer interested in meeting artists.’

Yet devotion to art has long been purged of sexuality and religiosity, as if a passion for objects might be objective and secular. As far back as 1688, French essayist Jean de la Bruyère ridiculed curious collectors for their excessive attachments. A century later in Germany, Kunstkenner (art knowers) opposed their knowledge to the emotional swoons of Kunstliebhaber (art lovers). Yet another century later, the Stendhal syndrome effectively defined art loving as a pathology. If loving art didn’t make you sick, it would make you inept. Consider the degradation of ‘amateur’ – from the Latin verb ‘to love’ – from a compliment to a slight.

In light of such tyranny, thank goodness for Mrs Berlin-Wall. Finally, I, too, can reveal the biggest love of my life: Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca (2000). When I read about the machine that ate food and produced shit, I thought: ‘That’s extreme.’ But something more extreme happened when I came face to face with Cloaca, shortly before the opening of the group show ‘A Baroque Party’ at the Vienna Kunsthalle in 2001. Delvoye and I sauntered into the exhibition hall, which was devoid of visitors except for a bacteria expert, a computer man and a technician fussing with Cloaca. (Caretakers, followers or handlers?) Right away, I knew Cloaca was important.

Taking a closer look, I could see why. The glass jars, connected to one another like robotic intestines, made the whole process of digestion visible, from nutrition to waste. You’ve got to admire someone who lets it all hang out like that. The shit, delivered on a rotating conveyor belt, didn’t really smell, although Delvoye told me that live bacteria made Cloaca an official public health hazard. Suddenly, a guard appeared with lunch: salad and spaghetti, fresh from the museum restaurant. Climbing up Cloaca’s staircase with the food and a jug of water, we slowly fed the art work’s steely mouth: a garborator, placed on a high platform to exploit gravity, just as the mouth does to swallow. I’ve never had so much fun on a double date. Cloaca was as precise as a machine yet as unrefined as a klutz. Echoing the fragility of life, if Cloaca didn’t get fed every four hours, it would die, drowning in its own bacteria.

Today – seven years later – I recognize that gooey gaze of love on my face in the snapshots that Delvoye made of the feeding session: I look stupid and happy. I had found my object: a combination of smart shit, needy child, official culture and outsider. Indeed, I’ve been with lots of people but never with a museum piece and a health hazard rolled into one. Since then, the work and its offspring have been exhibited several times, but I could never bring myself to visit. The idea of seeing Cloaca without getting close, without eating together, was like catching a glimpse of an old lover across a dance hall without going for a spin on the floor.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.