I am not simply using fragments of my body as containers for memory but these fragments transform in my imagination to become parts of structures, buildings, landscapes, enclosures and caves. They hide but also protect my past but because they are parts of my body, that past is seamlessly connected to my future.
— Liliane Lijn (1)
Liliane Lijn’s series of installations Early Events is composed of five narrative sculptures: a bust, an elbow, a shoulder, a thigh and a back, cast in bronze from her own body. They seem uncanny; like le corps morcelé (2) (“the fragmented body”) viewed through Lacan’s mirror(-phase), they are reminiscent of the dismembered bodies depicted in the work of Hieronymus Bosch. Embedding monitors from which videos act as storytellers, the five narrative sculptures ventriloquize five significant events from Lijn’s early childhood and form part of a larger series, entitled A Dialogue with The Self, in which she examines the strata of her psyche. According to Freud, “fragments of memories” from earlier childhood years have left indelible traces on our inner selves and they surface as isolated recollections.(3) Resembling archaeological finds (4), Lijn’s bronze casts embody Freud’s “fragments of memories” and seem to have previously been buried, bearing the metaphor for psychoanalysis’ act of excavating one’s repressed past, whilst also projecting to the future. “My work with the female body, with my own body, is an attempt to remember. To connect fragments of my Self. […] I decided that a small part of my body could represent the whole and a single memory a fragment of my life.”(5) It seems as though, unearthing missing fragments from her early childhood, “of which only the torso has remained in the memory,”(6) she restored them: by using a cut-up-body and employing the cut-up technique but in reverse. But can these (body) fragments (of memories) be at once heimlich (familiar) and unheimlich (unfamiliar)?
Several incidents occurred from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, which were to play an integral part in Lijn’s life and consequently, art. Lijn undertook psychoanalysis from 1988-2000 (with a short break around 1996). At the end of the 1980s, she began working with bronze for the first time to achieve transparency: “Bronze usually represents permanence but I saw the possibility of seeing the body as shell, hollow, open.”(7) She then damaged her back and the meridian nerve in her right arm, so severely that she was unable to work for a long period of time. “In a way, this physical dislocation was entirely connected to the psychic fragmentation I experienced within the on-going analysis. That was one of the events that made me think that memories could be stored in distinct parts of one’s body and transform from psychic into physical trauma.”(8)
Around that time, Lijn paid a visit to Rome and saw an exhibition of Roman bronzes, which had been rescued from the Tiber River. “Only fragments remained of these naked male figures. The broken parts had been carefully juxtaposed by being fixed to metal uprights. The incomplete body looked like a shell of bronze, which gave it a sense of unusual fragility. I was fascinated by the fact that these bronzes had been at the bottom of the river, sunk in mud and slime for hundreds of years. What I was looking at, I thought, were no longer male portraits but more like memories of men now coalesced with the earth.”(9) More recently the artist recalled: “I was moved by the openness of these bronzes, the incompleteness and the feeling that the inside was as important as the outside. I had also a serious back problem and felt a deep sense of fragmentation, both physical and psychological.”(10)
The body here persists in being a source of artistic interest, as it becomes a point of intersection for the artist’s childhood memories and adulthood trauma. By the late nineties, and through the early years of the millennia, Lijn made an autobiographical turn, using her own (adult) body and (childhood) memories as material. “I feel that having decided to use myself as material for art, honesty is of great importance. Not only because I am offering this to others but also because this is my own excavation, my research and the material that I discover/uncover is material I use in much the same way as clay or wax. I become detached from it. It is me but not me. It is me only in the same way that my Koans are some part of me.”(11) And so, the five narrative sculptures came to life from 1996 through 2000.
In It’s a Girl (1996-98), a bronze cast of the artist’s bust consist of a fragment of her neck and upper chest with the left breast missing, and a second fragment of her right breast and shoulder, which connect by what seems to be a web of tree branches, possibly imagined for veins, arteries or ribs; memories of her birth are buried beneath them and at the same time stripped bare. Certain elements in It’s a Girl may bear comparison with Bosch’s Man Tree (c.1470s), a drawing of a grotesque, later adapted in Hell of The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500): notably, the cavernous torso, which also serves as a unit of dwelling, and the decayed, thorn-like branches piercing through it. As we take a closer look on the video screen inside of Lijn’s bust, white-horses beat the seashore, Lijn’s mother fades in and out to recall Lijn’s birth: a moment of joy mingled with guilt, since her first child had died as an infant a year earlier. “I did not ask her whether she felt guilty about the death of her son or her inability to mourn him or her pleasure and joy at my birth.”(12) The narrative concludes with a Russian popular song from the 1920s, that Lijn’s grandmother used to sing, hinting at the maternal breast (which is the first thing we possess and lose): “Drink my child, drink my milk, drink this bitter wine…” Why just a single breast? “[…] one was enough and simply stood for that part of the body. The breast, mother’s milk, nourishment, comfort.”(13)
In Seagate: the sea in my elbow (1996-98), memories from the first year of Lijn’s life—spent with her mother and grandmother at Seagate, a gated community near Coney Island—are drawn from the borders of a wound: upheaved from an English garden is a rock shaped as a female delta, Yoni-like and with an opening, with Lijn’s elbow, cast in bronze, resting above it. Here, Lijn creates a landscape, a sacred place, that “houses the voices of memory: the sea, her breath and her mother’s voice.”(14) Like a womb fantasy, Lijn appears as infant sitting on the seashore besides a cavernous canoe—compared to the mother’s womb, this seems to be a place as much familiar as unfamiliar. The artist re-experiences a kind of baptismal rebirth by reimagining the mother–daughter bond, which is rendered explicit not only visually but also audibly as the maternal breathing mixes with the sound of the sea waves.
In Great Neck: shouldering the burden of childhood (1996-98) the bronze cast of Lijn’s shoulder “becomes the roof of a mini temple or is it a mausoleum?”(15) In 16mm film footage, taken in 1941 by a friend of her parents, we see Lijn, aged two, playing with her pregnant mother in the garden of their home at Great Neck Long Island. Her mother’s voice-over, recorded in 1995, recollects her concern about the relationship between Lijn and her soon-to-be-born brother, and certain emotional imbalances caused by their birth order.
In Lavender Queen (2000) Lijn’s thigh, cast in bronze, rises from a bed of dry lavender. The installation reconstructs her bittersweet memories from when, at the age of 6, she encountered nature for the first time at the Rudolf Steiner camp in New Hampshire, and as she states, “it was love at first sight.”(16) A closer look inside the thigh amplifies the landscape: the image of Lijn’s granddaughter, who bears her likeness, blends with a lavender field as she sings the 17th c. English folk song “Lavender’s Blue.” The film ends with an orange butterfly that flutters and flirts with a lavender stem and birds singing in the background.
“Inside the dark cave of Lijn’s back, a long-buried memory still lurks: the irretrievable loss of innocence.”(17) A traumatic rite of passage in Paradise Lost (2000) is viewed through the sub-screen of a lens that either magnifies or distorts depending on the viewing angle. In the video, a magnolia bud, close-ups of a male nude, including his erection, and a group of ants marching along a stalk of a plant, form an anthropomorphoerotic(18) landscape. This set of symbols encrypts elements of a distant event that the artist, her mother and brother recall together during a spontaneous conversational narrative—a staging of collective memory. “[We] each remember […] in our own way, differently and not as it happened.” An older man molested Lijn when she was nine years old. “This is the most powerful of all five works for me. I think that in this work I turn a corner, move up one frequency to a complex drama. The bronze is a fragment of my back. That part of me that has given me so much physical pain, the bent over curved and protecting part of the body, my body. It becomes a large shadowy cave containing and framing one of my most disturbing memories. […] The setting is a kind of desert or a ruin of some kind in a desert with this brown eroded mound in which the past unfolds.”(19)
Relevant to my reading of Paradise Lost is Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946-66) in which, as Hal Foster points out, the “dioramic landscape, with its spread-eagled mannequin, […] suggests a relation not only between perspective and castration but between pictorial landscape and sexual violation”(20). Paradise Lost embodies the female gaze, as opposed to the male, by portraying the (youthful) female genitals as innocent as a magnolia bud juxtaposed with an erect penis and its frightening double: a stem serving as a passageway for a group of ants. Lest we not forget that this gaze is one that belongs to a traumatized subject, hence, to paraphrase Foster, the violated subject, violates in turn, and the traumatized turns hostile(21). Paradise Lost encapsulates Lijn’s feeling of castration (“loss of innocence”) as well as, her deformed, and first ever, impression of the male sex of which she recalls in the video: “He made me feel his penis, that’s what he did. He said, ‘this is my tumour.’” More recently the artist explained: “What I realized many years later was that the worst about this traumatic experience was that he connected tumour and male sex in my young mind.”(22)
Given that trauma (τραύμα) is the Greek for ‘wound,’ at first sight, viewing the sculptures externally we may perceive their openings as localised wounds produced by external actions, which invite a closer inspection of their internal, psychic trauma. The interface between internal and external, vis-à-vis both the modelling of the structures and their content, invite equally both, an internal and an external examination as a metaphor for the psychic turned physical trauma, which was apparently what inspired the artist to create this series of works in the first place. Due to their perspectival landscape, the five narrative sculptures evoke the viewing intimacy of dioramas. Addressing body memory as both labyrinthine and fragmented, they are modelled with Freud’s spatial metaphors to describe the structures and sedimentary layers of the psyche. “Layers and stacking as a way of creating form have been very much a part of my works. The layers of the psyche, the unconscious, material, product, affect laid down in multiple layers over time. Memories.”(23) The transparency that the artist was aiming for, when she began working with bronze, is achieved with rigour, for it is by looking through these perspectival constructions that we look directly into her psyche. To borrow from Foster, viewing point and vanishing point coincide.(24)
All the five narrative sculptures corroborate the ambivalence of the un/heimlich; they hide memories as much as they reveal them yet at the same time distort them—like a nude clad in a transparent veil—placing us in an ambiguous position. Freud describes the combination of the word heimlich with the verb denoting concealment by using the example of the secret places on the human body which we feel ashamed of revealing, i.e. the pudenda. He then states that, “the term ‘uncanny’ (unheimlich) applies to everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come into the open.” He continues, “[…] for this uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed,” and concludes by saying that, “[t]he negative prefix un- is the indicator of repression.”(25)
With the five narrative sculptures, Lijn explores the relationship of the body and memory to discourse by finding ways to fill the gaps in her memory and “to overcome the resistances brought about by repression.”(26) It is however impossible to employ the metaphor of oral narrative in these works without reference to its source, the voice, especially since it seems to be coming out from a different body than the one that is on view—at least for most, if not all, of the works. It is Lijn’s body that speaks, but it speaks with her mother’s voice—by means of ventriloquism. Lijn recently said that, “[…] in them I read in my mother’s memories (I have none at such an early age) unconscious feelings I experienced as an adult or even as a child. I do believe that we carry unconscious memories of the most intense moments of our life in our body. Intense pleasure but often it is trauma and pain.”(27) In Early Events, we eyewitness events that are recalled, reimagined, re-experienced, recollected, reconstructed; events that are filtered through time, collective memory and the artist’s body and psyche; events that are now something in-between dream and reality and oscillate between the conscious and the unconscious. The deterioration of memory may result in some information being lost, buried forever, and at times, may spring out memories never recalled before, unconsciously. Oral traditions, although they preserve knowledge, also distort it, like Chinese whispers.
During the period that Lijn produced Early Events, she also wrote the book, Her Mother’s Voice (1994-99), and made the film, Look A Doll! My Mother’s Story (1997). “I interviewed my mother over four years for the book and then again for the film in which I explored her early life and mine through her memories. I realized in the first interviews that her recalling was also made up of set stories that had been told many times. Conscious memories. But when I interviewed her for the film, four years later, she was already in the early stages of dementia. I persisted and there were moments when I felt unconscious memories came through the haze of forgetfulness.”(28)
In Greek mythology, Daedalus was an artist known to have bestowed voice, and movement to his sculptures with the use of quicksilver. Similarly, Lijn demonstrates a shift from the use of the cut-up technique and written text incorporated in the series, Poem Machines and Poemcons (1962-1968); to orally transmitted text and storytelling in the series, Cosmic Dramas (1983-1990); and finally, to the deployment of analysis and the utilisation of oral tradition and traumatic discourse, transmitted and transmuted through the embodied media of a body-in-pieces, in the series, Early Events (1996-2000). The embodied media were employed as another form of light: “[…] it was obvious and exciting that video was light, but it was also memory held in light.”(29)
The embodied media in the five narrative sculptures point to the evolving digital technologies as these continue to transform how knowledge is embodied and preserved today. The embodied media, however, act neither as extension nor as prosthetic but as metaphor for bodily-trapped memories previously hidden, lost, repressed. In conclusion, the five inanimate objects may hide the familiar image of a living person, but they animate as they engage in their own narrativization whose syntax is responsible for their uncanny effect. The five narrative sculptures form a fragmented body that houses the past: a haunted house, an uncanny house.
The five narrative sculptures illuminate like a constellation or a skyscape. Seeing them from afar, in middle distance, or close up, changes our experience completely. The closer you get, the more they reveal, and from this skyscape they turn into landscapes, bodyscapes and memoryscapes.
Words by Gabriella Daris
Curator of the exhibition Liliane Lijn, Early Events: Five Narrative Sculptures at Summerhall, Edinburgh until 24th September 2017
Note: This essay has been published in the exhibition’s catalogue, pages 1-12, available to purchase from Summerhall’s bookshop.
1. Liliane Lijn, interview by Gabriella Daris, 4 February 2017. Email.
2. Unlike Freud, who assumed that human infants perceive the body as a whole, for Jacques Lacan the infant experiences the body as an assemblage of parts (i. e. legs, arms, etc.). He called this, le corps morcelé that could be translated in English as ‘the cut-up-body,’ ‘the body-in-pieces’ and more commonly, “the fragmented body.” For more on this see, his Écrits (1966).
3. Sigmund Freud, ‘Screen Memories’ in The Uncanny (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 3.
4. It is worth noting that Lijn studied archeology at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1958, and although this was brief, it influenced her work to a great degree.
5. Linda Saunders (ed.), ‘Lijn-Brett: An E-mail Dialogue’ in ex. cat. Liliane Lijn, Light and Memory, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002) pp. 79-80.
6. Freud, op. cit., p. 6.
7. Liliane Lijn, interview by Gabriella Daris, 4 February 2017. Email.
9. Liliane Lijn, ‘She: Reclaiming the Female Form’ n.paradoxa, vol. 4 (1999), p. 86.
10. Liliane Lijn, interview by Gabriella Daris, 4 February 2017. Email.
14. http://www.lilianelijn.com/portfolio-item/seagate-1999 [Accessed 3 June 2017].
15. Liliane Lijn, interview by Gabriella Daris, 4 February 2017. Email.
16. http://www.lilianelijn.com/portfolio-item/lavender-queen-1999 [Accessed 3 June 2017].
17. http://www.lilianelijn.com/portfolio-item/paradise-lost-1999 [Accessed 3 June 2017].
18. My neologism, anthropomorphoerotic, consists of the word “anthropomorphic” and “erotic.” This is a term I coined in 2011 and appeared in my essay published in 2016 by Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
19. Lijn, op. cit.
20. Hal Foster, ‘A Missing Part’ in Prosthetic Gods (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 330-2.
21. Foster, ‘Notes to pages 166-172’ in The Return of the Real: the Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), p. 274.
22. Lijn, op. cit.
24. Foster, ‘A Missing Part’ in Prosthetic Gods (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 328.
25. Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ in The Uncanny (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 132-151.
26. Freud, ‘Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 34.
27. Lijn, op. cit.
29. Saunders, op. cit., p. 81.