La chambre des mystères
— Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.
André Breton, Nadja, 1928
Encountering an artwork can be a defining moment. Myriam Mechita had such an experience whilst still a little girl upon seeing a reproduction of Fra Angelico’s The Beheading of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian (1438). The painting depicts the two saints kneeling, head down, calmly awaiting their fate, while the decapitated bodies of their three brothers, Anthimus, Leontius and Euprepius, spurt streams of carmine blood onto a strictly composed Renaissance landscape. Not yet fully understanding what she was being exposed to, the young Mechita nonetheless felt immediately that, if this was what artists did, then she too was to be an artist. ‘It was the beginning of my life’, she has said. ‘There was so much beauty.’ Beauty, pleasure and death have been intimately linked in Mechita’s work ever since – and not only in the luxurious, sequin-adorned embroideries of Saint-Cosmas-in-martyrdom that have become the artist’s leitmotif.
Commissioned especially for COMMA at Bloomberg SPACE, Mechita has created a mythical mindscape weaving through the rear gallery. In Mechita’s sculptures, animals are beheaded, their necks discharging flows of sparkling pearls; her skulls are transparent like crystal or shaped in delicate biscuit porcelain; her large wall-based landscapes are drawn with an electric drill. During our conversation, the artist talked about the birth of Venus, the goddess of love and pulchritude, who appeared on a seashell when Uranus’ severed genitals were thrown into the sea by Saturn. In her own take on the myth, Mechita has avoided any direct representation of this gruesome episode. La naissance de Venus (1997) is a small carpet of seed pearls, borrowing its motif from a NASA photograph of the eponymous planet. Uranus’ mutilation is invisible, but embedded in the piece’s every pearl. Creation and violence are for her two sides of the same coin.
Hung against a slick of glitter and latex at the exhibition’s entrance, the series of graphite and aquarelles on paper Beautiful Agony (2010) further investigates the pleasure-pain correlation. Each piece pictures the face of a girl wrapped in ecstasy. The mouths are open as if in a cry, the eyes half-closed, heads slightly tilted backwards in a movement of rapturous abandon. These images capture one of orgasm’s great paradoxes: the total fusion with an other, coexisting with a total withdrawal within oneself – Mechita talks of a ‘white moment’ – impossible to share or to fully verbalise. A second look at the works suggests another interpretation. These might not be cries of joy, but cries of agony, the last breath of the dying. That link between eroticism and death is explored at length in Georges Bataille’s The Tears of Eros: ‘How could I experience “little death”’, he writes, ‘other than as the foretaste of the final death?’¹ Mechita’s faces encapsulate this duality, combining, like Bataille’s theory, Eros and Thanatos.
It is important to understand eroticism here not simply as a sexual impulse, but also as a yearning for an unattainable sense of completion. Mechita’s practice might be said to articulate itself around this sense of a fundamental lack. A few years ago, when asked by a journalist to talk about an unrealised piece, Mechita evoked a symmetrical drawing tattooed on the skin of two lovers – one that would only exist if the two people were standing side by side. In her ongoing series of Saint Cosmas beheadings Mechita never includes Saint Damian, Cosmas’ brother. Yet Damian was executed at the same time as Cosmas, and the two saints are celebrated together in the Christian liturgy. In Mechita’s work, Damian is rendered all the more significant by this absence. He crystallises the missing other, the impossible wholeness at the core of the artist’s production.
‘We are discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity’, writes Bataille in the introduction to Eroticism, Death & Sensuality². Mechita identifies a similar sense of discontinuity in her practice – what she calls a fissure – and a similar yearning. This is clearly manifested in her work by the headless bodies and bodiless heads that have almost become her signature. Not only does their fragmented nature call for and invoke the missing part, but it also highlights another dichotomy in Mechita’s work: namely, the reoccurring separation between the sensorial body and the thinking body. Deprived of head and therefore thought, one is in a much more direct and brutal relationship to the world. The body becomes pure sensation and reflex, primal. The title of Mechita’s 2008 exhibition at the Centre d’art de Vélizy in France, I’m an animal too, brings to the fore this sense of a self existing beyond or despite its thinking capacities. The artist also describes the missing head as ‘an other’, linking her pieces’ systematic beheading to the fundamental lack discussed above. ‘For me’, she says, ‘there’s no separation between creation, eroticism and existence.’ Bringing something into the world, the artistic act can be seen in itself as response to this original void.
Fra Angelico’s Beheading of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian may be at the crux of Mechita’s practice (in iconography as much as in concept), but it’s far from the only art historical reference present her work. La naissance de Venus, mentioned above, displaces a classical subject into the realm of abstraction, bypassing the exposing of the female body that has always been the main raison d’être of Venus representations. It sketches an artistic lineage, linking the Greeks’ early Aphrodite sculptures to Mechita’s pearl carpet via Botticelli’s famous painting. Self-portraiture is also a crucial part of the Western canon, and Mechita has tried her hand at the exercise making a self-portrait entirely composed, like La naissance de Venus, of seed pearls Autoportrait aux dents (2002). This image is revisited at Bloomberg SPACE in the newly commissioned work Nobody, My name is Nobody (2010), another version of the self-image made of cut-out leather. The artist’s open mouth has something of the girls’ expression in the Beautiful Agony series, the identity of pain and pleasure reinforced in this piece by the fact that the image can be seen from both sides. Mechita presents herself as Janus, at once one and double.
As well as constantly plundering and replenishing her own imagery, the artist also uses images created by others. The eye pieces scattered on the structure of Les ruines de l’éclats, for instance, are borrowed from famous self-portraits by Frida Kahlo, Botticelli and Gustave Courbet. Mechita isolates one of their eyes and recreates it by stacking up coloured pencils, the end of each one functioning like a pixel. When the piece is seen face on, the pupil and eyelid are clearly discernable, but when it is approached from the side those features give way to the brightly coloured beams of a small wooden assemblage. The pencil here ceases to be a tool, a means to an end, becoming instead a constitutive material. ‘In my work’, says Mechita, ‘each material is really taken for what it is, for its thickness, for its texture and its density’. This might sound surprising coming from an artist who has consistently used glitter and reflective surfaces – materials associated with an idea of beauty and luxury as much as of illusion and superficiality. But Mechita doesn’t shy away from these connotations; instead she brings them out by using pearls and sequins to depict barbarous or morbid scenes. The materials' apparent frivolity and the subjects’ intrinsic violence are exacerbated by this confrontation. In her work, they become more fully themselves.
I’m not far from the chamber of mysteries
Close to all the absolutes
Birds asleep, lambs afar, deer
I hold on to a branch and get closer ³
In this paragraph, part of a text written by the artist as preparation for the exhibition, Mechita narrates her journey towards the absolute other and the unattainable feeling of wholeness safely locked in ‘the chamber of mysteries’. The Bloomberg SPACE exhibition maps her progression. The works, often isolated on islets of shiny latex, are unknown lands to explore and conquer. Like the Carte du Tendre – a fictional country of love dreamt up by the 18th century Précieuse Madeleine de Scudéry – the territories Mechita invents materialise a quest. Her glitter and mirrors lure the viewers in, inviting them to start their own journey to the unreachable.
Coline Milliard is an art writer based in London. She is UK Editor for Modern Painters and ARTINFO and London correspondent for art press, as well as a regular contributor to Art Review and Art Monthly. She is founding co-editor of Catalogue contemporary art magazine.
¹ Bataille, Georges, Les Larmes d’Éros (Paris: 10/18, 1971) p.51 (author’s translation).
² Bataille, Georges, Eroticism, Death & Sensuality (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1986) p.14
³ Author’s translation