‘‘But ballin with objects is the abyss’’ – Lee Lozano
I guess I’m one of those people who sees phallic shapes in everything. As a non-binary person who experiences themselves as masculine (even though I don’t always present that way) I spent a fair amount of time daydreaming about my dick. I somehow find it everywhere, or look for it everywhere – when you’re looking for something, is the encounter still really a find or is it a manifestation? I keep finding my dick in things that I find, or: my dick finds me.
Around 1917, the Dadaist artist and poet Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven picked up a phallic-looking, twisted pipe from the street on one of her walks around New York City and named it ‘God’. Having lost its original function, the pipe was able to transform into something else.
‘‘The Baroness’s ready made and assembled objects either self-destructed or very slowly percolated out into the world”, writes Amelia Jones in Irrational Modernism. As things slowly percolate out into the world, they change shape through the erosion of movement, like sludge in the sieve of time. Wear and tear gives form to another character, with another kind of spirit. Something tired of its old ways and driven to the point of exhaustion, no longer able to function as it should – perhaps we could locate a transformational potentiality here.
Clad in a tomato can bra (“Sarah, if you find a tin can on the street stand by it until a truck runs over it. Then bring it to me’’), with an electric battery taillight decorating the bustle of her dress (the light slyly ensuring that male New York Dadaists were not bumping her from behind with their machine objects) and an American stamp on her cheek (like the letter travelling from one place to the next), the Baroness charged her own body as kinetic artwork, making poetry, art and life indistinguishable in her exuberant presence. Attracted to failed things as by some libidinal desire, von Freytag-Loringhoven imprinted on exhausted objects and temporarily made them part of her machinic body-assemblage. Von Freytag-Loringhovens body was inherently implicated in her objet trouvé practice, both through the physical labour of dragging around found objects as via bodily adornment. She wasn’t just part of a scene; she was the embodiment of Dada, and a vital force of creative, sexual energy central to the New York avant-garde of the 1910’s and early 1920’s, though insufficiently credited as such.
The work Limbswhish from 1918 consisted of a decorative tassel dangling in a widening metal spiral, which was hung from the hip and would bounce up and down and sweep back and forth as the Baroness walked. The title of the work conjures manifold associations and meanings; that of a swishing sound, a wishing limb or perhaps even a limp and floppy dick.
The Baroness was as close to her found objects as one can be. But her closeness never became too clingy: an integral part of von Freytag-Loringhovens’ found object practice was the passing on of the things she found and had carried on her body, intimately charging them with her energy, but keeping the flow going. Her attraction to the objects was magnetic in the sense that it was forceful but without fixation: things could be let go of as easily as they were picked up. Just imagine the Baroness sitting next to a found urinal she would later gift Marcel Duchamp, on the train from Philadelphia to New York. Performing this percolation made for a dispersed and disorganised body of work, hard to trace and categorize in its radical liveness and ephemerality. The Baroness desired an extending of the corpus only to then give her newly appended organs away, undermining ideas of the body as delineated and static. Though the organs came alive and were imbued with aura, spirit and sexual power, they never became (re)productive – they never settled down and remained continually on the move, the assembled body being built down as it was built up.
Von Freytag-Loringhovens accumulative yet dispersive object-based performance wasn’t concerned with preciousness and preservation, like most practices of collection. On the contrary, it seemed to be driven by a desire to carry erosion forth and to push ruination further. Her first objet trouvé, dating from 1913, was a thoroughly rusted metal ring she found while heading to the city hall for what would be her third marriage. Perhaps a half-joke on the impurity of broken and reiterated vows, Von Freytag-Loringhoven took the ring as a totem and named it Enduring Ornament. The decaying ring is a symbol of persistence – the persistence of being, beyond original purpose.
The Baroness’s attraction to cold industrial objects was paralleled with her knack for distant and sterile men, who were too preoccupied with ocular-centric vanity and head-in-the-clouds conceptualism to engage in intimate touch and sexual play she tried to initiate with them. In the long poem ‘Mineself — Minesoul — And — Mine — Cast-Iron Lover’, which refers to her relationship with the painter Robert Fulton Logan, she laments:
‘‘He is not gold — not animal — not GOLDEN animal – he is GILDED animal only — mine soul! his vanity is without sense — it is the vanity of one who has little and who weareth a treasure meaningless! O — mine soul —THAT soulless beauty maketh me sad!’’
Wearing a treasure meaninglessly and in vain, isolating it in still and soulless beauty, would take away its liveness and thus its strength. The poem ‘Love — Chemical Relationship’ is a similar lamentation, this time on the aloofness of her romantic interest for Duchamp, who had at the time just completed his work The Large Glass:
‘‘Thou now livest motionless in a mirror!
Everything is a mirage in thee — thine world is glass — glassy!
Glassy are thine ears — thine hands — thine feet and thine face.’’
Opposite to her lovers’ glassy motionlessness, The Baroness makes her entrance in the poem stating: ‘‘BUT I LOVE THEE LIKE BEFORE. BECAUSE I AM FAT YELLOW CLAY!’’, approaching her unaffected love interest with the same sticky desire that drove her towards the cold steel surfaces of worn-out mechanical objects, propelling them back into motion. A motioning, not in the key of normative functionality, efficiency or productivity, which engaged these once useful objects into other, queer uses.
In her 2017 Kessler Lecture on ‘Queer Use’, feminist writer and independent scholar Sarah Ahmed meditates on the manifold possibilities that open up when we use things in different ways than they were intended to be used. Even though objects are often designed towards a certain use, and brought into existence for an intended purpose, this usually isn’t the end of the story, argues Ahmed: ‘‘A past use is not exhaustive of a thing, however exhausted this thing’’. Intentions do not exhaust possibilities; other, queer uses, can always be imagined and enacted. Ahmed uses the example of a bundle of keys, which are normally used to open a door, but can also become a toy: they are shiny and silvery, and they jangle, just like the tassel used in the Baroness’s Limbswish. While ignoring intention and purpose, queer use pays all the more attention to material qualities, explains Ahmed: ‘‘Queer uses might even linger on these qualities, rendering them all the more lively’’. The properties of a bundle of keys, the flickering of its surfaces and its clanging sounds, come alive in the queer use of for instance play.
Queer use, Ahmed continues, ‘‘is to recover a potential from materials that have been left behind – when you do not follow the instructions.’’ Encountering things that are left behind, like the Baroness did while roaming the streets of New York, implies alternative understandings of value. Worn-out and broken things might be no good from the perspective of usefulness, but, we might value them ‘‘for the life they lived, for how they show what they know’’, in the words of Ahmed. Use involves contact and friction; it leaves traces, which can be read like stories. From this perspective, signs of wornness, decay and exhaustion, are precisely signs of life, instead of dead-endedness. Von Freytag-Loringhoven understood this very well.
Regardless of its liveliness, queer use is thought of as improper or perverted within many registers, such as in the register of heteronormatively, on which Ahmed says jokingly: ‘‘We are allowed to play with our bits, but only in the way in which they are ‘intended’ to be used!’’ Queer use then, could be understood as the failure to use something properly, while it in fact articulates a refusal to use something properly. As in von Freytag-Loringhoven’s poetic lamentations, queer use is not concerned with the respectful handling of the pure, the venerable and the beautiful, but with putting things in motions spurred by desire.
Another example of queer use and desire-fueled motioning can be found with those who identify as ‘object-sexuals’: individuals who cherish feelings of love and sexual attraction for objects. The community of people who are in love with objects, though small and dispersed, is actually pretty well organized, through an international online network called the Objectúm-Sexuality Internationale. The network was first initiated by the Swedish Eija-Riitta Eklöf, who married the Berlin Wall in 1979, unofficially adding Berliner-Mauer to her surname, and further developed by the American Erika Eiffel, who, like her surname gives away, is in a partnership with the Eiffel Tower. Object-sexuals do not only cherish feelings of love for objects, but actually enact these feelings via affectionate touch, kissing, and sexual intimacy. While object-sexuals would describe their relations with objects not so much as relationships of use, but as actual partnerships, the orientation of object-sexuality does offer interesting perspectives on function, use and objecthood. Object-sexuality undermines the idea that we could only meaningfully relate to functional objects, as far as they are of a predetermined use to us, and places desire in the center of our material relations.
A non-functional longing for functional tools can be found in the early drawings and paintings of the American artist Lee Lozano. Throughout the first half of the 1960’s Lozano committed herself almost exclusively to paintings and drawings in bold crayons and pencil of blown-up tools, such as hammers, screws and staple guns. The depicted tool often fills up the entirety of the paper, which is otherwise left blank. Lozano sometimes zooms in on her subject, for example to show the seductive, spiralling edges of screws. In some works she adds suggestive texts (‘he gave her a good screwing he said’) or stages encounters between phallic tools and bodies (a lightbulb resting on a bare ass, staples shooting from a buttcrack, a wrench peeping out a pair of blue jeans), and in a rare depiction, tool and organ morph to become one (a socket-vagina). The act of screwing is named and invoked in these highly sexual works, but the artists’ desire seems to be centred primarily around the tool-object one uses to screw. The screws Lozano depicts thus shouldn’t be understood as mere metaphorical stand-ins: the artist actually related to their literal material presence. Lozano, like von Freytag-Loringhoven, foraged the streets of New York looking for the industrial castoffs she translated to erotic artworks. Tools of utility, production and work were aesthetically transformed into tools of pleasure, sex, and play. Curiously, the tools that are depicted by themselves and without any accompanying sexual innuendos, emit the strongest erotic power, drawing you in as through magnetic force.
Lozano’s longing for the functional-object-beyond-function finally reaches its non-metaphorical climax in MASTURBATION INVESTIGATION, one of the artist’s so-called ‘language pieces’ from the late 60’s. Language pieces consisted of handwritten concepts, notes and instructions for short- or long term performances. The three-day-long piece MASTURBATION INVESTIGATION coincided, not at all accidentally, with the durational performance GENERAL STRIKE PIECE, during which Lozano withdrew from ‘‘humans & the outside world’’ and refused to see her ‘‘partner or anyone else’’. In the ongoing absence of human bodies, Lozano’s attraction to object-bodies grew. Manual masturbation to pictures from the aptly titled erotic magazine Screw on the first day was followed on the second day with masturbation ‘‘using various objects: hard rubber motorcycle pedal, feather, carrot, phallic-shaped light bulb”. (It was a sexy carrot and being organic, worked best of all the objects used. But ballin with objects is the abyss.)
Strap-ons and dildos are often posed as mere stand-ins for an absent organ, enabling a specific sexual act that without them would be impossible. The relation towards such appendages is therefore generally assumed to be one of employment: the strap-on is only used towards a certain effect, then put back in a toolbox. But queer sex is actually full of a deeper sexual engagement with material. Lively objects come to move in extension to the body, and as such become part of the body, repeatedly and over longer periods of time. A person who uses a strap-on might not wear it at all times, but nonetheless can familiarize and understand the strap-on as a vital part of their body-assemblage. Such desire driven, motioning entanglement reaches far beyond any straight-forward function. In search of my dick I’ve fondly fumbled many things: the longing for an appendage with which to screw can also point towards an object-sexual longing for materiality itself.
Dagmar Bosma (1994) is kunstenaar, schrijver en curator. Hen rondt dit jaar de Master Fine Art aan het Piet Zwart Instituut in Rotterdam af met werk dat het transformatieve karakter van verval onderzoekt. Dagmar is redacteur bij literair tijdschrift nY en coördinator bij Page Not Found, een ruimte voor artistieke publicatie.