Friday, February 14, 2020

A 'Crip Art Review' of Veronique d'Entremont art

Video still from ‘Church of Art’ with Kim Ye and Laub at Human Resources

Veronique d’Entremont strikes me as determinedly self-assured, generous and potentially goofy at the drop of a hat.

We probably both gush over Jodorowsky’s Psychomagic curriculum, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and a slew of bell hooks books.

She’s a trauma worker/educator, a phoenix and a poet. I feel like she has really done her pedagogical homework, so I’m keen to talk with her more about my Intention Deficit Disorder because it sounds like she may understand it from both sides.

She is currently on an artist-in-residency in Cleveland where she will once again grapple with the presence of fire and how radical care may be necessary in order to re-frame ecological devastation from being past the point of no return, into an accessible process of healing.

She’s part of a powerful contingency of proud queer sculptors taking LA by storm via artist-run spaces.

Hopefully I didn’t overdo it with the pleasantries, that may be what I think I’m supposed to do before launching into a world of my own. I’d like to call this feeling of faking an authority to write about anything Crip Art Criticism, where I’m allowed to say whatever, and take however long as I need to flesh something out, as long as I pepper in some quotable nuggets. Four stars says the review, best show so far this year, no one does it better...  

Behind Nikita Gale’s show at Coaxial we chatted about the notion of getting back into one’s art making practice. She previously fabricated artworks for a famous artist and enjoyed seeing how the output really had her hand in it, but that it was a reminder to turn that energy back towards her own work. I was explaining that I felt born again now having given myself permission to make 50 bad artworks in three months, to throw myself at the whims of useless and probably embarrassing fun. I made a mental note to get to know her better, as I know that the more I get insight into someone’s process the more I come to understand my own questions about myself.

An important diagram from ‘Church of Art’, watch it if you want to know what it all means.

So I need to get something out of the way...

In this LA art scene where once you find your microclimate everyone becomes friends and the world thankfully gets smaller and more manageable... 

am I the last one to have just learned that Veronique’s work may be largely informed by having a suicidal mother? That she’s the kin of a person committed to suicide? 

I thought I had a lot of questions already, but this kind of made my head explode because I already want to ask ‘How’ questions and far too personal questions.  But no one owes me any answers, especially not to the same level as my intense curiosity. I always feel like I want to know so badly, because to me, answers are things that can come easily to others, and not so much to me. In my process of inquiry with others, entire worlds, possibilities and potential new ways of being unfold in an instant in front of me. (Footnote/Tangent 1) 

Here is what my first most immediate questions looked like as a stream of consciousness:

I’ve been trying to grapple with a pre-verbal understanding of why I lack a certain level of self worth that most likely comes from my interactions with my parents. Having a mother that was so sick that she openly discussed suicide with you, how did you keep your self-worth intact? Did you become a caregiver? A hostage? Besides having your grandmother to commiserate with, what was helping you to come to terms with all of this? Have you always used art to cope or did it start with friends?  If anyone read you as Goth, were you like, ‘Dude, you have no idea’? What’s your relationship with your dad like? Was your mother only suicidal for 6 years? How soon do you bring this up when you are teaching about mental health? You were in an accident and you mentioned needing more processing time. Did you first have a relationship to mental health as an advocate when coming to terms with your mother, and then after your accident and your rehabilitation feel more part of ‘the club?’ Joanna Hedva talks about not taking her chronic illness personally because it doesn’t make sense for her to really be embarrassed about anything she has no agency over, and moreover it reveals more about what a larger culture exhibits as it’s worth through how it supports care/disability. Is there something that you feel separate from that you don’t take personally? Have you seen Russian Doll on Netflix? What question are you tired of hearing the most? 

And then I had this question that wasn’t directed towards Veronique:

Why do I have the sinking feeling that I’m the first to put your mother’s illness out there in an art review? 

So, I get it, this isn’t something you’d put in a bio or anything, but I swear, I didn’t stumble upon that information ANYWHERE.  AndI’m pretty sure it must come up allll the time. But I don’t know, maybe Veronique is open to opening up about it, but not putting it out on blast. I’m pretty sure that Veronique made this recent video piece about it maybe because she was a little bit over having to explain certain things over and over to people just learning about her work, while simultaneously knowing that to bring it up casually in conversation would irreversibly pivot whatever conversation about her work into one-track mind questions, “How did she kill herself?” “How old were you?” Sure, no one wants to be pigeon holed as the’artist-who-has-a-lot-to-say-about-mental-health-because-mom-totally-killed-herself’ but how do we know we’re not adding to some kind of stigma that suicide is unspeakable/unknowable/unacceptable? (Footnote/Tangent 2)

Also, I’ll admit that part of my shock of feeling like I was the last person to find out that this may be a big part of her identity or art practice or something, is connected to me having one of those embarrassing judgy moments that does a 180. 

So I saw the advertisement for her show with the head made out of beeswax and honeycomb and I thought to myself, that self-portrait is kind of… meh, maybe that’s why she had to add the bees… (It’s unfortunate that I’m a judgemental prick, but I try to make up for it with having a lot of heart and am committed to the joy of being wrong.) 

At some point, Veronique personally invited me to come see her latest exhibition and explains that it’s another cast she’s made of this self-portrait that her mother made... (Egg on my face, she’s not the artist, her mom is!) and she’s been dead for years now... (Oh geez, I’m an asshole). But unlike most people in her situation, her mother had been talking with her and her grandmother about planning the suicide for years… (Wait what?) So my mind pretends to pay attention as Veronique is telling me about an upcoming performance, that it’ll be at xx pm and I should RSVP on the Eventbrite page (You had me at ‘potentially traumatic childhood’ can we be friends? Also, I was actually already planning on it, seeing as how all I want to do is to support other artist-educator-former-fabricators ramping back up one’s art practice, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I feel very personally invested in learning much much more.) 

So yeah, getting to hear Veronique in person talk about her work is kind of where it’s at.

I thought that I could only write about something well if I knew at least the basics about X, Y and Z.
In this case X Y Z would be:
X: Psychology (and where is it nowadays between “Eastern” and “Western medicine”)
Y: Mysticism (and where is it nowadays somewhere between a history of radical thinking and communal self-care) 
Z: Generational Trauma (and where is it located somewhere between DNA and sectarianism)

Danny Mekonnen’s altar in “Her Body Became an Antenna, Transmitting the Message of God”

All of these topics seem imperative right now even for my own work, but I haven’t put any of that work out into the world, only the symptoms that have come out in the form of anxiety-based artwork. Veronique seems to want the opposite of that sentiment of having ones definitions and theory in order to join a conversation, and even sidesteps these topics entirely in a practice of empathy for other ways of knowing. The first thing I thought about was if there was another culture/time/space in which her mother survives due to the sheer will of the community that she is within. Or is it the other way around, where we could exist in a culture that doesn’t stigmatize suicide, but rather see it as an option that exists for a reason, where it’s not contagious, and we celebrate the miracle of death just as we celebrate the miracle of being born. I think that for as messy as it is, Veronique maybe learned what it means to share from her mother. Once one gets past the idea that a mother that talks about her suicide to her family is no mother at all, maybe it’s worth thinking about how this compares to those that hide their symptoms and qualities of disability for the comfort of others and to their own detriment. 

Veronique shares long conversations with people where there are moments to get to know each other’s quirks, moments of humor, and moments for comparing notes and sharing information. When talking about crip and disability studies, she gave me her teaching syllabi. She tells me that maybe people with disabilities have important perspectives, a kind of usefulness. This is kind of alien to me because I’ve adopted the mantra that I have been able to pull off great things despite ADHD, not because of it. Christopher Cole also recently sent me an excerpt titled ‘Crip Emotional Intelligence’ where in one part it says, 
“The deficiency model by which most people view disability only sees disabled people as a lack, a defect, damaged good, in need of a cure. The idea that we have cultures, skills, science, and technology runs counter to all that…” 

“… Crip emotional intelligence means not taking it personally sometimes, when another disabled person is short with you, is fumbling for words, is frustrated. Instead, you must assume that they just threw up for eight hours, have been fighting suicide for a week, have cellulitis in one of their legs again… …I’m not talking about excusing verbal abuse; I’m talking about the ways we cut each other slack. I’m talking about the ways we start from the assumption that someone might be dealing with a lot of pain… 

…Is understanding that beds are worlds. Houses are worlds. Cars are worlds... 

…Is understanding that everything will break, everything will take longer than you think, the elevator will be broken at the BART station and Paratransit will be three hours late. And that these are not surprises. These are deliberate acts in a world that doesn’t value or fund access."

She sent me a link to her video for “If Every Mother Were A Saint, Heaven Would Be Full By Now. Part I”. Her voiceover had a more serious tone to it, but serious in the way that a tarot reader lays out and flips cards over one by one, seeing information rather than abstractions. I’m glad it’s a video that I can pause rewind and re-watch. There is a feel to it as if she wants to tell you that her mother died, and she wants to have the conversation that she’s interested in, not the one that ends in the same… “I’m sorry for your loss”…
Penny Arcade says in ‘The Art of Living’ “I do not share things in order to process them. By the time I reveal something on stage I have found a way to transform the experience into something else.” 

This video has ‘processing’, thinking moments. When she stops speaking sometimes there is a river of movement from the camera fixed on a wall that a train is passing by.  Other times you’re admiring the landscape in a downward view, reminiscent of being lost in thought and remembering to look someone in the eye because you’re in a conversation with them. Veronique has piercing eyes.
So I kept pulling stills from ‘Church of Art’, because at one point I was going to break down her charming and performative affect. This one illustrates the “Piercing eyes” look.

It’s hard for me to describe what’s so captivating about the performative aspects of her divulging her research. I think some part of it has to do with how she switches between different points of view, and how there are times you think you can tell when she’s incredulous of someone’s beliefs, or if she’s making fun of someone’s crazy ideas, or if she too has consumed some of the toxic honey she mentions and has entered a totally new level of research consciousness, one quite removed from reality. 

In one text, she's speaking to someone that’s only referred to as something like “The Bee Man says...” which I took as highlighting the ridiculousness of the self-mythologizing tone that many older white men covet. The title itself is a skeptical argument: “If every mother were a saint, then heaven would be full [of it]” (that addition of heaven as bullshit is my emphasis, not hers). And then she references how the shape of the fracture in her skull from her accident was EXACTLY the same size and location as a fracture in her mothers skull, and how it took place exactly 5 years and 5 days after her mother left the corporeal world, an exact amount of time dictated by bureaucratic rules in which a saints miracle must occur. And she just kind of leaves it at that. She sounds like she's applying for her mother’s sainthood in the way that someone applies for a VISA. Then in another moment, she’s making fun of her teacherly tone that pauses in all the right places for effect, self deprecating. At the same time, it could go the other way too, where we realize we are simply gullible people eating up this fiction that she’s masterfully served up.

There’s a lot to talk about in the work, even though I think that she wants the physical artwork to be 'beyond words' and be somewhat self-evident. You are meant to trace the effort in the making of the thing, the decisions she's made where an original is in relation to a mother mold, and taking in the resulting work as installed to properly relay its omnipresent kind of presence. (Footnote/Tangent 3)

What I enjoyed about trying to see more of her work was that I had to go to multiple places to get the bigger picture, and that she didn’t feel compelled to put everything into a single all encompassing show even though her research is kind of an all encompassing thing. Her video that gave clear context to the work was screened separately at someone’s personal home where the format is a potluck and conversation. The exhibition, in a space that’s part of an artist-run studio holds space for her and another artist on her invitation. I really appreciate that she tucks her work into spaces of mutual support (Footnote/Tangent 4) and that she’s always down to facilitate something meditative, reflective, possibly vulnerable. I’m assuming she’s doing really well after I read this in Francis Weller’s the Wild Edge of Sorrow:

“Through meaningful rituals, a community of friends, some time in benevolent solitude, and effective practices that help us stretch into our bigger selves, we are offered the opportunity to develop a living relationship with loss. We can recover faith and grief that recognizes that grief is not here to take us hostage, but instead to reshape us in some fundamental way, to help us become our mature selves, capable of living in the creative tension between grief and gratitude.”

Her film has some editing moments that gently disturb me, and I’m convinced it’s all very intentional. There are always subtitles which I appreciate, but at one point she says “mother” and the word fails to  appear on the screen. I hope this doesn’t eventually get edit corrected, because there’s something about when words fail that also may be something difficult to say outright, which is to say, when her mother failed her, and yet,  maybe, it is not personal… 

Near the end of the film she’s filming her grandmother. Someone once said to me that parenthood is misunderstood, that we’re not meant to fuss over the success of ones sons or daughters, but further down, your children’s children, thinking in skipped generations, and I wonder about if that bond creates an unintended middle child syndrome that is the parent… The most ominous moment in the film is when Veronique begins, "my grandmother asks me to turn off the camera so she can show me how she speaks in tongues..." “...i tell her that i have...”. She’s about to play the video recording of her grandmother speaking in tongues, so I’m bracing myself to be judgy again. This time, I'm jumping to conclusions thinking about how self-centered it is for her to use her grandmother’s sincere beliefs as a curious moment of entertainment in the piece, but instead, only a blank black screen appears for a few seconds. And it is at this moment that I realize that I’m a hypocrite, I was actually hoping to get a voyeuristic look at this older woman’s faith, while then still feeling free to chastise Veronique for doing so.

So now here are my questions. I’ll pretend that this is a genie scenario where I only get to ask three in total:

  1. Where do life-affirming beliefs (of the fictional, story-telling variety) meet a… disconnection from reality?

One recent therapist said to me that they have such disdain for “life coach” types of therapists, saying “and that’s allllright”, where getting better is synonymous with being happy, and to stop feeling so self-conscious. He’d say that we’re supposed to be self-conscious and grounded in reality! He only says about 5 things on repeat, one of which is that “he helps people feel feelings that are too painful to feel on their own.” So I think my question is kindof about the long, wordless, invisible process that is about having faith in healing, and wondering what are the stories that make up Veronique.

  1. Do you believe in spirits/ghosts/an afterlife, or do you think, like I do, that it’s a misnomer and that it doesn't exist without us projecting? 
That ghosts (or rather poltergeists) if they exist, are our inner projections out into the world, and all ‘strange activity’ is simply a result of ’stress’. Stress has always been a remarkably mysterious process, especially in the forms that it takes, and the indirect ways it seems like it must be handled, which is why I don’t think it would be a far cry that stress has magical abilities, one of which is to burrow deep into parts of the body, (The Body Keeps the Score), that yoga etc. has to work back out. Ghosts on the other hand are pretty dependent on architecture, but at some point when the sun envelops the earth, there won’t even be any ground to walk on to haunt. I can’t not see it as an anthropomorphizing of the interconnected energy that is the universe and beyond.

  1. What is it about ‘institutional spaces’? 

You mentioned briefly that western diagnosis was a fucked up way to control  people and animals , but it sounded like you knew that western diagnosis still has a place. I mentioned my appreciation of Anthropology for how it provides a set of tools for critical thinking, but it is also one of the more self-reflective disciplines today. What I couldn’t explain in that moment after your show, Rach was able to lay out for me: Sure, anthro often has a colonial context, but there was also a huge restructuring of the field in the 80s and 90s in a really deep introspective way that opened and created space for diverse perspectives and decolonized research. It was called ‘the self reflexive turn’. And this is something Anthropologists have been developing for decades. Anthropology is practiced worldwide by every nation and color, even though it was started in the West, (as were most of the research tools that have become global due to colonization) people around the world find it a useful way to understand injustice and to use its power to create a critical discourse even in their own country. Furthermore, Anthropology is about understanding how the capitalist system around us impacts the ways in which we’re asked to identify. In an act of healing, people are questioning underlying questions in society that used to be given.

In Veronique’s work, it is all about healing, and she’s not going to be anyone's martyr. (There’s a great description of Trickster energy vs the Martyr in a book called Big Magic) She works towards creating a thoroughly enjoyable process and as this long meandering writing might prove, she gives the impression that entire psychological and other worlds exist. She doesn’t just have to live in the world where bewildering coping strategies state a fact: “your mother died, so that you could live”, but instead, that sentence among others, is simply material for whatever is useful for her, and that’s a crip happy ending.

Veronique d’Entremont in the background and a detail from 'Her Body Became an Antenna, Transmitting the Message of God'. (2019). Self-portrait sculpted by the artist’s mother and re-cast in beeswax, honeycomb, steel frame, gold leaf

-- -- --

*(Footnote / Tangent 1)
The most poignant version of this is when something that I grapple with, something attached to shame, is simply cut like a red ribbon and the weight drops to the floor. Looking down on it, it doesn’t look like it was that heavy, but I know that what was so intense was the connection it had to me, this toxic slow drip, and I may look above me and see many ribbons that dictate my movements, like a puppet, but having it cut did not drop me, but if I were to cut all ribbons, I’d just crumple on the floor.

*(Footnote / Tangent 2)
If I was a totalitarian ruler, everyone would have to go to talk therapy so that there wasn’t any stigma around it, that one wouldn’t simply need to be sick to do it, and eventually it would just be that annoying thing that everyone has to routinely do, like brushing your teeth. Although there may be evidence that suicide can be a contagious idea, rather than earnestly talk about disability and illness on an everyday level, it becomes a kind of sensation on a hyper-media level, and studies have correlated that the way major media sources report on school shooting results in a ripple of copycat murder-suicides. In some countries, suicide is legal, and even there, the whole experience still pretty much sucks, but I’ve always found something unfortunate about the way we consider suicide in the U.S. as a moral failing rather than as simply sickness, pain, suffering or a representation of how well we take care of those who are disabled. Unfortunately the pro-suicide side of the US has been largely represented by a creepy Kevorkian who was probably only just as ethically flexible as those doctors who write exemption letters for religious parents. What I wish was better understood is that a lot of doctors themselves believe less in the death penalty and more on the right to commit suicide, especially for themselves. What they don’t tell patients is that at the end of THEIR lives, the last place they’d want to be is at the hospital. They wouldn’t want the experience their patients go through, instead they’d want more control, to not be in a coma while aware of being in a coma, to spend their last moments in the comforts of their own home rather than being kept alive in a sterile hospital environment. I’m sure the personal pro-life beliefs are part of a big fun bundle that definitely has an opinion about a woman’s right to choose, how people choose to be gay, how medications couldn’t possibly be necessary with so many natural remedies, and how wealth inequality is just part of God’s will.

*(Footnote / Tangent 3)
Things that are omnipresent: Memory, textures, your body in relation to things around you, your struggles, ghosts (the ones we make), the tension when trying to figure out what to do next, poetry, other people’s heavy beliefs. The reason I wanted to write out that list was because I wanted to exercise some other ways of speaking about her work that doesn’t just re-use how she already speaks about her own work. I just realized how hard it is to write a review of her work that doesn’t feel like I’m just lazily taking her turns of phrase, her content, and pretending that I came up with those revelations... I’d be surprised if no one has written about her work yet, because well… she kind of just hands you some brilliant things to put on paper which will undoubtedly appear as a super intriguing and very intimate understanding of her work: “Mysticism and Mental Health” <— that’s the title of your review right there! “Veronique says that ‘she’s learning from the bees… that the swarm has to choose you…” “… not only is the ‘mother’ mold an apt phrase here, but also in this process of casting, the original must be destroyed, reproduced in an alchemic process in which a new object is born.” “she connected the way that her father kept the skull fragment in a safe, to the altars in these small Italian towns, which supposedly containing the body of their patron saint.” “a focal point in their celebration is the re-representation and consumption of a part of the woman’s body, (grisly removed in the act of torture) amidst being martyred. Breasts that were sliced off or the way xx saint had their eyes plucked out, they become this curious thing made in their likeness, and served on a platter.“ I apologize to Veronique if I’m not doing any of her work any favors at this point, my intention is not to flaunt a kind of jokey ‘being-in-the-know’, but I’m hoping I’m getting across just how many layers there are to access and how fun it is to get into the work, and in the way that she talks about it.

*(Footnote / Tangent 4)
I’ve been wondering if there is a way to speak to how I feel like in some ways the idea of constantly needing to present a career chock full of ‘solo shows’ feels morally bankrupt? Is it unprofessional of me to say that the main reason I got into art was to make good friends, but the way we do things now makes things feel unnecessarily competitive? And why play into a system that requires a lot of labor of many hands, many minds, but instead props up the myth of the ‘individual genius’?

Here's links again to the people/spaces I touched on, but didn't name explicitly: Her video that gave clear context to the work was screened separately at someone’s personal home (Marathon Screenings) where the format is a potluck and conversation. The exhibition, in a space that’s part of an artist-run studio (Nothing Special) holds space for her and another artist (Danny Mekonnen) on her invitation.

She is always quick to point out that in the exhibition 'Her Body Became an Antenna, Transmitting the Message of God' is "a joint effort with a boston-based collaborator, Danny Mekonnen, who created the altar, the photographs, and composed the score that we all sat and listened to during the Transmission Session".