apostrophe: Study for Three Reclining Figures

Francisco-Fernando Granados

Portraits are signs. In a portrait, the figure pushes to the foreground while the background recedes in order to make its opposite legible. There is a boundary created between positive and negative space. The up-rightness characteristic of a portrait presents the figure in way that suggests an identity. Insofar as this is the case, the purpose of a portrait is recognizabilty for its subject.

Reclining figures are traces. The iconographic convention of the reclining female nude moves along a horizontal axis perpendicular to the verticality of the portrait. Rather than aiming for recognizabilty, these figures appear to be constructed as metaphors for the landscape. Their position is suggestive, not only in an erotic sense, but also in terms of how they hint at a narrative. Their horizontal position begs the question of who or what may have toppled them. Along the history of Euro-American visual culture, the reclining female nude becomes the ground for claims of possession. In this text, I will focus on three selections from the archive of this iconographic convention that serve as metaphors for modern art-historical and national battlegrounds. They are: Paul Gauguin’s The Spirit of the Dead Watching, an oil on burlap painted in Tahiti in 1892[1]; Antonio Ruiz’s El sueño de la Malinche[2]–often translated as The Dream of Malinche, but which I will translate as Malinche’s Dream–an oil on wood painted in Mexico City in 1939; and Rebecca Belmore’s Fringe[3], a photo-performance by the Anishinaabe artist which was originally displayed as a billboard on the corner of Duke and Ottawa in Montreal in 2007, but which also exist as a limited edition of 3 gallery-size backlit transparencies.

The super-imposition of the selected images animates the figure, suggesting a movement that takes on the performativity of the apostrophe. The apostrophe finds its etymological origin in the Greek word apóstrophos, meaning eliding, or turning away. It behaves in at least three ways:
  1. As a punctuation mark, the apostrophe indicates an absence, marking the space of an omitted letter in a contraction.
  2. Appended to the end of a noun and followed by an ‘s,’ it is used to denote possession, creating a subject/object relationship between that which goes before, and that which goes after the mark[4].
  3. As a rhetorical devise, the apostrophe marks the moment when a speaker turns from the audience as a means to address an absent character in the scene or an abstraction[5].
The sequencing of these images performs an apostrophe in relationship to the historical trauma of gendered colonial violence, turning the behaviour of the image from a scene that claims the figure as an object of knowledge, to a scene where the figure diverts the gaze as a means to perform an ethical intervention in the epistemological power ascribed to the position of the viewer. The trace travels through a series of geographies where the marking of the figure becomes the ground for patriarchal colonialist and post-colonialist claims on behalf of each national territorial project that produces the context for the image.

Gauguin’s The Spirit of the Dead Watching renders the gendered and racialized reclining body as an object of knowledge through mechanisms of symbolic coding. The artist uses painting, a richly historicized means of representation, to thrust the figure of a young Tahitian female called Teha’amana into the visual economy of European colonial imagination, creating an asymmetrical dynamic between her image as the observed and the position of the viewer as the observer. Teha’amana, whose name is spelled with an apostrophe separating two ‘a’s between the second and third syllables, is casually referred to as Gauguin’s ‘adolescent Tahitian wife’[6] by art historians. Griselda Pollock calls the image an ‘“avant garde gambit” of three moves in one,’ where, according to Hal Foster, Gauguin:
Makes reference to tradition, here not only the tradition of the academic nude, but also its avant-garde subversion; he also shows deference to his masters, here not only Titian and Ingres, but also Manet; and finally, he proposes his own difference, an Oedipal challenge to all these paternal precedents, a claiming of master status alongside them.[7]
The tradition of the academic nude takes the figure, conventionally granted an identity when it is represented vertically in the format of a portrait, and collapses it 90 degrees into horizontality, making the body into a ground. In the case of The Spirit of the Dead Watching, Teha’amana’s body becomes the ground upon which the artist stakes his claim to the pantheon of European masters. His careful study of her body refers to, differs from and defers the thick discourse of European visual culture as a means to claim Teha’amana as an object of knowledge upon which his claim can be grounded. In describing his triple move, Foster interprets the image as a move in a game of Modernist one-upmanship between Gauguin and the canon of European painting, particularly in relationship to Édouard Manet’s Olympia. Foster further describes this game by arguing that Gauguin:
Averts [Teha’amana’s] gaze, [a] crucial [difference from Olympia, who] returns [the] gaze […] and rotates her body so as to expose her buttocks […] a sexual pose that Teha’amana, unlike Olympia, does not control–the implied male viewer does.[8]
Foster’s analysis of Gauguin’s move places Teha’amana in a dynamic that pivots around the apostrophic in its possessive sense. The noun that comes before the apostrophe stakes a claim over the noun that follows it. The apostrophe is thus relational, forming an asymmetrical bond that becomes an ontological fulcrum, shaping a relationship between a subject and an object. This syntax is particular because, unlike with simple sentence structure, the relationship is not mediated by a verb. The subject does not act upon the object through an action, but rather by means of belonging without correspondence. The apostrophe’s spacing of an omission in the familiar tone of colloquial speech, or in this case, the spacing produced by the inability of European languages to capture the sound of Teha’amana’s name becomes, instead, a mark of ownership, indicating the ability of the subject, simultaneously Gauguin and what Foster terms as the ‘implied male viewer,’ to make a claim over Teha’amana’s body, rendered as object. The syntax of the subject/object relationship mediated by this kind of apostrophe has an asymmetrical ontological shape insofar as it ascribes fixed active and passive roles within the frame of the sentence–or in this case the scene–creating a differential distribution of agency for the figures involved. Judith Butler uses the phrase, ‘differential distribution,’ to speak of the possibility and impossibility of recognizing a body as having a life that deserves to be protected from systematized forms of violence such as colonization.[9] The possessive apostrophe’s relationship of belonging without correspondence cannot be overcome with a simple reversal through the use of the passive voice in the way that other kinds of subject/object relationships that are not bound by the mark of possession can manage. It is here where Gauguin’s reversal of Manet’s figure in The Spirit of the Dead… amounts to an uncritical turn that cannot acknowledge the ethical demand made upon Paul Gauguin by Teha’amana’s face.

In Ruiz’s El sueño de la Malinche, the nature of the claim staked upon the figure is in the service of the construction of a patriarchal, post-colonial national imaginary. The painting’s title is commonly translated as The Dream of Malinche. Although there is no possessive use for the apostrophe in Spanish, I would like to suggest the title of the piece ought to be translated as Malinche’s Dream as a means to begin to imagine the possibility of agency for the figure. Unlike in The Spirit of the Dead Watching, where there is evidence that points to Teha’amana as the model for the figure, in Ruiz’s work the model is anonymous; although her face remains visible to the viewer. According to Jacqueline Barnitz’s description and analysis of the image, the painting:
Shows that despite her negative image as a [supposed] traitor of the Mexican race, Malinche is also considered the mother of the race[… Her] monumental sleeping figure lies on a bed under a blanket. The shape of her body beneath the cover doubles as a hill surmounted by a colonial church. A Mexican colonial town is cradled in a space on the hill’s slope. The equation of Malinche’s female form with the earth makes her both earth mother and the generatrix of the colonial town. The painting’s ambiguous relationships between interior and exterior space, in which the background functions as the sky in the landscape as well as wallpaper partially torn away to reveal a brick wall, indicate Ruiz’s familiarity with Magritte.[10]
Barnitz’s totalizing designation of ‘the Mexican race’ does not account for the vastly diverging racial constructs at play in colonized Latin American societies such as Mexico’s, which inherited practices such as the obsession with the measurement of blood quotas, the limitation of access to social mobility due to genealogy, and a taxonomical colour caste system from the internally colonized Hispanic peninsula. The figure of Malinche, which refers to a body specifically racialized as Indigenous within the Mexican imaginary, comes in to stand for the entire nation of Mexico in Barnitz’s text. Follow the trace from Gauguin: portrait as landscape, figure as ground. Trace the shift of the figure’s hipbone away from the viewer; a blanket of fertile soil, upon which nature and culture flourish, covers up the nudity of the figure. The violence of the encounter that produced the colonial settlement does not carry over to the symbolism interpreted in Barnitz’s analysis of Ruiz’s work. And yet there is a trace of this trauma hinted at in the expression on Malinche’s face. A trace is like a memory. Something of the brutality of the colonial encounter carries in the figure’s unsettled expression, and the torn away wallpaper in the background that looks like lightning about to strike Malinche’s head; but a trace is not a sign, nothing can be ascertained.[11]

Ruiz appears to allow Malinche the possibility of an imagination. Yet her imagination is only made visible to the viewer in order to be instrumentalized in the service of a modern patriarchal nationalist project with deep colonial roots. Her gaze is also averted, dreaming a landscape into being. Her figure operates not as an object of knowledge, but as an ‘earth mother’ of the nation. Malinche is caught in the double bind of reproductive heteronormativity.[12]

The turning of Malinche into a post-colonial national sign thus follows a patriarchal impulse, while something in her body continues to carry the trace of the affect of colonial violence. This is why I suggest the title of the painting should be translated into English as Malinche’s Dream. Here, mere reversal of the possessive apostrophe does not help either. Her figuration as matriarch of the Mexican national project carries the traces of colonial violence. The performance of a critical anti-patriarchal aesthetic would resist the impulse of simply reversing the binary of the masculinist logic, which entails the conversion the maternal trace into a sign. Such anti-patriarchal and de-colonial aesthetics would opt instead for retaining the character of a trace, allowing it to turn.

Belmore’s Fringe completes the turn away from the viewer in a transformative act of resistance. According to Wanda Nanibush, the Anishinaabe artist, whose multidisciplinary practice is based in performance, ‘works toward creating art that functions as a poetic political intervention for her people and all the anonymous dispossessed’ in ways that ‘adapt constrain and create beauty out of pain’[13]. Kathleen Ritter argues that Fringe ‘returns the gaze with a hostile stare,’ characterizing the ‘scar running diagonally across the length of her back’ as ‘prominent [and] unmistakably violent’[14]. For Ritter, the scar is a ‘complex sign’ that speaks of the history of violence against Indigenous women in this country as it ‘references the heroic brush stroke of abstract expressionism,’ particularly the work of Lucio Fontana.[15]  Marcia Crosby, on the other hand, makes no symbolic claim regarding Belmore’s work. For Crosby,
The unspoken, unutterable experiences and deaths of so many are impossible to represent or to bring to closure, partly because of the fact that women are still disappearing in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and across Canada. These deaths cannot be redeemed with significance through representation. Nor would placing into history their names and how each person died add up to meaning. The act of making meaning of historical and cultural trauma through representation can seem to redeem legacies of great loss with significance. The problem is that redemption brings closure, which does not allow for what Saul Friedländer describes as an “uncanny” history, the kind of history that sustains uncertainty, that allows us to live without understanding. Belmore accentuates this dilemma in her art practice by making the impossibility of such representations transparent [… the piece exists as a backlit transparency].[16]
A sign promises meaning.[17] In their reading of Belmore’s work, Ritter argues for a sign, while Crosby argues for a trace. The title of the piece does not make direct reference to the identity of the figure but rather to the cascades of red beads that embellish the mark on the figure’s back. The gaze is not returned, like in the case of Olympia, nor is it averted, like with Teha’amana and Malinche. The gaze is unavailable to the viewer. Crosby notices an accentuation. As a rhetorical devise, the apostrophe marks the moment when a speaker turns from the audience as a means to address an absent character on the scene, or an abstraction. This kind of apostrophe makes evident the impossibility of a structure of address between the observer and the observed. Instead, it presents that which resists visibility. It is an act of imagination.

The wound across the figure’s back is indeed violent, but she appears serene in her response. No distress made visible, like in Malinche’s face. Only the dignity to turn her head away from the viewer and expose a mark that can attest to the fact that something probably very painful has happened to her body, without being able to render it as either symbol or narrative. The wound and its mending are not a spectacle. The figure’s dignity does not depend on a claim to either reproductive heteronormativity or European Art History. According to an interview between Ritter and Belmore, the pearly red fringe recalls ‘the craft of beadwork in the Anishinaabe tradition’[18]. It is an allusion to a specific kind of Indigenous nationhood.

Throughout the three images, the figure and the ground are not opposites, but rather elements that collapse the distinction between body and landscape. In their shared collapse, these figures become ruinous bodies. For Ricky Varghese, ruination ‘gives rise to how we think about and understand the apparent beauty of the object undergoing decay’[19].  To see beauty in the ruination of these reclining figures it is necessary to afford them agency past their role as object: to see them beyond our ability to recognize them. To understand them as traces. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak theorizes this understanding in the following terms:
What then is a trace? always remembering that it is not an "isness." A sign system promises meaning. A trace does not promise anything. It is something that seems to suggest that there was something before […] A trace is not... a sign. In this connection one inevitably thinks of the established patriarchal convention, still honoured by most legal systems, that I, especially if I am recognizable as a man, am my father's sign and my mother's trace....[20]
Thinking of these figures as traces de-stabilizes the narrative claims that accompany them and opens the possibility of a performative reading. Thinking of the three images in a continuum draws a densely contoured line that overlays them as it spaces them out through contextual analysis. Selection and overlay are observational tasks. What should be noticed is a shift, a particular kind of rotation. Gauguin makes the figure available to us as an object, in open vulnerability. Ruiz grants the figure an imagination, but projects a patriarchal narrative of woman-as-mother-of-nation. Belmore turns the figure on her own axis, denying identification, presenting both violence as cause and healing as response, and proposing an image of nationhood beyond coloniality. The imaginative exercise of thinking of these figures as continuous through an act of tracing aims to undo the figure/ground collapse. The hope is to ‘situate aesthetics and politics alongside one another, as informing each other and as facets of the pieces that cannot be abstracted from one another’[21].

[1] http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Gauguin-_Manao_tupapau_(The_Spirit_of_the_Dead_Keep_Watch).JPG#mediaviewer/File:Paul_Gauguin-_Manao_tupapau_(The_Spirit_of_the_Dead_Keep_Watch).JPG
[2] http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/modules/lesson6/lesson6.php?s=7
[3] http://archive.artsmia.org/until-now/artworks/belmore_fringe.html
[4] ‘Apostrophe’ | Define Apostrophe at Dictionary.com, (Dictionary.com: retrieved December 7, 2011).
[5] ‘apostrophe (figure of speech)’ | Britannica Online Encyclopædia, (Britannica Online Encyclopædia: retrieved December 7, 2011).
[6] Foster, Hal et. al. Art Since 1900: modernism, antimodernism, postmodernism (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 67.
[7] Ibid., 67-8.
[8] Ibid., 68.
[9] Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London/New York: Verso, 2009), 24.
[10] Barnitz, Jacqueline. Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001).
[11] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 492.
[12] Ibid., 487.
[13] Nanibush, Wanda. Kwe: Rebecca Belmore (exhibition catalogue; Toronto: Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, 2014).
[14] Ritter, Kathleen. ‘The Reclining Figure and Other Provocations,’ in Augaitus, Daina (ed.) Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2008), 62.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Crosby, Marcia. ‘Humble Materials and Powerful Signs: Remembering the Suffering of Others,’ in Augaitus, Daina (ed.) Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2008), 81.
[17] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 492.
[18] Crosby, Marcia. ‘Humble Materials and Powerful Signs: Remembering the Suffering of Others,’ in Augaitus, Daina (ed.) Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2008), 81.
[19] Varghese, Ricky. ‘Opening the Tomb: Supernature, Beautiful Decay, and Ruination’ (Drain: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture, 7:2, 2012) 120.
[20] Spivak, 2012, 492.
[21] Varghese, 2012, 121.

Bibliography: ‘Apostrophe’ | Define Apostrophe at Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, retrieved December 7, 2011. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/apostrophe

‘apostrophe (figure of speech)’ | Britannica Online Encyclopædia, Britannica Online Encyclopædia, retrieved December 7, 2011. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/30313/apostrophe

Jacqueline Barnitz, Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001).

Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, (London/New York: Verso 2009).

Marcia Crosby, ‘Humble Materials and Powerful Signs: Remembering the Suffering of Others,’ Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion, ed. By Daina Augaitus, Vancouver Art Gallery 2008.

Hal Foster et. al., Art Since 1900: modernism, antimodernism, postmodernism, (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004).

Wanda Nanibush, Kwe: Rebecca Belmore, exhibition catalogue, Justina M. Barnicke Gallery & Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, University of Toronto: 2014.

Kathleen Ritter, ‘The Reclining Figure and Other Provocations,’ Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion, ed. By Daina Augaitus, Vancouver Art Gallery 2008.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Ricky Varghese, “Opening the Tomb: Supernature, Beautiful Decay, and Ruination,” Drain: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture, 2012. http://drainmag.com/opening-the-tomb-supernature-beautiful-decay-and-ruination/

Francisco-Fernando Granados is a Toronto–based artist focused on performance and multidisciplinary critical practices. He has performed and exhibited in galleries, museums, theatres, and artist-run centres including Vancouver Art Gallery, LIVE (Vancouver), Neutral Ground (Regina), Darling Foundry (Montreal), Harbourfront Centre, Doris McCarthy Gallery, Gallery TPW (Toronto), Defibrillator Gallery (Chicago), Ex Teresa Arte Actual (Mexico City), Kulturhuset (Stockholm) and Theatre Academy at the University of the Arts (Helsinki). His writing has been published in magazines and art journals including FUSE, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, and Canadian Theatre Review. A recipient of the Governor General’s Silver Medal for academic achievement upon graduating from Emily Carr University in 2010, he completed a Masters of Visual Studies at the University of Toronto in 2012. He has taught courses in contemporary art theory and practice at OCADU and University of Toronto Scarborough. He is a member of the 7a*11d International Performance Festival Collective.