The Mysterious Landscapes of Lust and Terror
“The pain was so great that I screamed aloud; but at the same time I felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last forever. It was not physical but psychic pain, although it affected the body as well to some degree. It was the sweetest caressing of the soul by God”¹. If we would understand “God” like transcendence in the broad sense of this word, the above quotation could be a description of the experience that relates to many art works made by the French artist Myriam Mechita . The statement was made however almost 400 years ago before Mechita started to work at all, it was written down by Theresa of Avila, one of the great saints of the Counter-Reformation. Her dreamlike visions inspired the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini to make his famous sculpture (1645-1652) in which the saint seems to be caught in a moment of a theatrical ecstasy.
Theresa of Avila expressed universal feelings of the moment of ecstasy in whatever form it may occur; the divine context allowed her to speak loudly and clearly about her euphoria. Mechita doesn’t need God to speak freely about her fascination for the moments of transcendence, orgasm, intoxication or overwhelming by the combination of pleasure and pain. The word ecstasy means going outside oneself according to its Greek etymology and this state of mind is a human condition, which is very important to the artist. The subjects she chooses in her work are oft related to the state of transgression: the beheading, the orgasm, and the decay, often presented in a highly elegant way.
With the help of embroidered sequins, shiny latex, colourful textiles, embroideries and sculptural objects Mechita creates her glamorous and mysterious universe. Her murals are mostly clear blue and glittering, her ceramics tactile en her objects staged carefully in the space. Strange animals run headless through the landscapes that are made out of old wooden tables and skulls, or hide themselves in dark caves, while their bodies seem to form cosmic constellations that stand in a connection with something bigger, palpable but invisible.
Mechita is in a clear dialogue with her predecessors from the history of art. Strange or not, she received the revelation of what art could mean to her in her early childhood. Her coincidental encounter with a reproduction of the painting The Beheading of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian (1438 – 1440) by Fra Angelico was the AHA-Erlebnis which possibly changed her life forever and which she still can recall in all its clarity. Although only 6 year old she decided to become an artist because she wanted to be part of this realm of new possibilities, a realm where imagination can create a new language. “I don't know if it was a matter of magic or something else. All of the sudden creating art seemed to be the possibility to give birth to images I felt I have inside, the feelings I have been carrying with me all the time and I could even see materials transforming themselves in front of me. It was a proof that there exists a world of strangeness and depth I couldn't imagine before. I wanted to speak this new language and experience the space and time in this new realm.”
It is interesting that especially the image of the decapitation made such an enormous impression on the young Mechita. This subject stayed in her memory and moreover, it seems to form a thread that can be found in her oeuvre till today. The very basic act of decapitation consists of the separation of the head from the body. This simple, primitive, cruel but visually intriguing action could be a metaphor for the final, irreparable or even fatal rupture.
The result is a fragmented body, only the head or only the torso: they no longer match together and they will always miss each other. Mechita: “I am fascinated by the beheading. For me it is comparable in a slightly allegorical manner to the way I am living my life. Going through the brutality of the touch, when the body hurts and knowing that nothing is safe. Even though I am using my eyes and my brain to see and experience the world, receiving all the information through my senses is highly important to me; as if I need to get everything clashing into my body first. Furthermore I have always found all these representations of the beheading in paintings very beautiful and exciting, even if I realize they are terrible”.
Acknowledging the beauty of the beheading could be a controversial statement but beauty and terror have been a well-known combination for ages. The looking at the decapitation could be interpreted as a kind of a sublime experience for the viewer who can be either the executioner or the victim. The terror feels real and the death seems to be nearby but the viewer is not in a dangerous position. The image overwhelms him and confronts him with something not easy graspable that goes beyond the beauty. What makes the decapitation so special is the fact that this is a death during a close encounters with the other human being, mostly the unknown Other. This personal contact in the very moment before the death comes is the moment of hope for the one and inevitability for the other, the moment of tragedy.
The artist who directly or indirectly seems to be an important artistic soul mate of Mechita is George Bataille. Acephale, the name of the review that Bataille was issuing from 1936 till 1939, and the name of a secret society set up by him around the same time, means headless. The logo for the review designed by André Masson showed a naked man in a position similar to the position of the Vitruvius Man drawn by Leonardo da Vinci (1487). Yet, instead of the genitalia the man carries a skull that could be interpreted as a direct connection between sex and death, the two sources of the taboos in our super-rational society according to Bataille. The rationality of our culture means that we are excluding the death and the dead yet the neighbourhood to the death is exactly the place where the man can celebrate his being. Bataille was in favour of transgression of social and moral borders and violation of the rules, which was according to him one of the basic ideas of art. The transgression is a celebration, the victory over fear, a temporary loss of oneself.
The headless represents hence the anti-rational, the instinctive, the uncontrolled human being. So are the headless animals in Mechita’s series Les ruines de l’eclat ou La chambre des mystères (My name is nobody) (2010); glamorous and seemingly aimless running through the space; deprived of the possibility to chose a direction they are left to the tender mercies of the viewers. The same anti-rationality could apply to Mechita’s headless human figures. The artist created a series of embroideries using sometimes industrially produced textiles and sometimes - delicate silk. Mechita combines the wallpaper–like pattern of the textile that consists of recurring figurative elements like cubes, circles or automobiles with the seemingly old, easily recognizable embroidered images of monks or dames that seem to be carefully copied from illuminated manuscripts, except that they are headless. Or more precise, the head is on fire and has been replaced by golden, yellow and red flames. Is this a warning for destruction in case rationality dominated our head and body too much? An auto da fe of our own thoughts that leads to catharsis? Mechita chooses for a personal explanation: “The fire is coming out of the head, it is the right way to show the energy. I feel that I am in a period in which the energy needs to come out”.
In the chapter, which Giorgio Vasari wrote about the Fra Angelico he praised the talent and the piety of the painter thanks to which the Fra Angelico could paint beautifully and create desirable figures. His comments however, show clearly that the beautiful and lustful have always been mistrusted. In a certain moment Vasari decided to defend Fra Angelico: “But I would not wish anyone to be mistaken and to construe that clumsy and inept works are pious, while beautiful and well-done are corrupt, as some people do when they see figures either of women and young boys that are a bit more pleasing, beautiful, and ornate than usual and who immediately seize upon them and judge them as lustful, without realizing that they are very much in the wrong to condemn the good judgement of the painter, who holds that the beauty of the saints, both male and female, who are celestial beings, surpasses that of mortal beings just as heavenly beauty surpasses our earthly beauty and our mortal works.”²
Vasari’s explanation, although observed long ago, hits the very point of critique that has been expressed till today. Artists like Mechita, who are not afraid to create images and objects that in the first moment seem to simply please the viewer, could be mistrusted. In contrast to the time of Vasari we don’t trust the lustful because of the religious constrains but because today the discourse and the anti-retinal qualities seem to be determining the artistic value of art works in the first place. The term “beauty” has become controversial and problematic in the modernism; the succession of many different movements and artistic programs which tried to determine the visual form and conceptual approaches time and again, transformed the term ‘beauty’ into an open territory without any fixed categories.
Going back to the painting Beheading of Saint Daman and Saint Cosmas that was so important for Mechita we see that the two saints are blindfolded. The deprivation of vision could be read as the first step to lose your head and subsequently to lose your life; this is why the celebration of vision could be the celebration of life, for Mechita it happens in the form of her art.
¹ Theresa of Avila in Janson H.W and Janson A.F History of Art (6th edition), Thames & Hudson, 2001: 547
² Vasari, G. The lives of the Artists, transl. Conaway Bondanella J. and Bondanella P., Oxford University Press, 1998 (1562): 174