There Is Only One Big Thing: Thoughts on Desire

A Review by Tanya Hartman

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When I was a child, my father had no consistent income, as he was a freelance writer, and his earnings came in bursts: feast or famine. However, he pulled off a magician’s trick, sending his children to the fanciest private schools in Manhattan, renting a three-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side; lavishing us with trips to Europe and to Central America. Later, I discovered that it was all smoke and mirrors, credit card debt and rent control supporting a lifestyle that I intuited we could not sustain. Thus, I was always anxious about spending, and even more anxious about coveting, and yet, I regularly yearned for items beyond our budget.

One Halloween in particular, when I was five, and we were walking along the leaf-strewn streets of our swanky neighborhood, I saw a tiger costume in the window of the French toy store. It was magnificent, a bodysuit made from lush, striped orange and black flannel constructed with a long, weighted tail and a separate hood with pointed ears. I wanted it frantically, desperately, and begged my mother to buy it. In 1970, it cost $40.00, a fortune, and I knew I should not cajole, obsess, and wheedle. And yet, I was bursting with desire, and could not keep my excitement a secret. And so, a few days later, my mother brought it home, wrapped in a white box with exciting pink tissue paper. But owning the ensemble turned out to be emotionally fraught, as I was always scared that something would damage it. I wished that the costume were still in the store window, where I could fixate over its unattainable beauty. Wearing it made me nervous, because it mattered so much to me. When a classmate stepped on my tail and ripped the costume, I cried unceasingly, shamed that what I found beautiful could so easily be torn apart, its power blunted. When I was older, I read a quotation from Nietzsche: “ultimately it is the desire, not the desired, that we love.” But is this true?

The artists in this exhibition come from across cultures. Mostly women, their work, in aggregate, questions Nietzsche’s supposition by asking, in visual form, “do we love the state of desire more than the object of desire?” Certainly, most artists are spurred to creativity by the discrepancy between the reality of their creations and the image that originally inspired them. Ideas live in magnificent certitude in the imagination. Thus, it takes courage to create, because the translation from ideal to object is fraught and filled with potential disappointment, just as the translation of attraction and desire into relationship and interchange is anxious and can lead to loss.

There is an element of chance to desire, just as there is an element of chance to working with clay. The ceramic artist uses earth to express spirit, just as the lover uses flesh to express love. The ceramic artist has no certitude that her creation will survive the temperature of the kiln, just as the lover has no assurance that a relationship will survive the heat of the affair. In the words of Ester Beck, “I approach clay with desire, as there is an intimate, bodily, even erotic contact.”

There are so many permutations of desire, and the artists in the exhibition evoke many such states, even in work created prior to the show. For instance, desire can vibrate inside of us like the droning of bees. (In fact, bees are used as a symbol of desire in Indian erotic literature.) The intense embellishment on the surfaces of ceramics made at Ardmore Ceramic Art in South Africa vibrate with a sensual hum. Desire is a process that sometimes leads from the abstract to the concrete. The anatomic evocative cup that resembles a nipple holds the form of Suzanne Wolfe’s ritualistic piece. In just one form, she moves us from longing to consummation.

The gorgeous, broken pots of Israeli artist Shlomit Bauman represent how desire can take the painful form of fervent yearning for elusive solutions such as peace on earth and respect for the planet’s limited, natural resources. Antonella Cimatti and Andrea Kotliarsky’s attractive, evocative crocheted forms are like clitoral sock monkeys; small red and white forms turgid with anatomical humor, pathos and originality. They are childish, masturbatory and daring, just as the roots of eroticism grow in our youth and blossom in time. Another way to speak of erotic roots is in Toronto-based artist Susan Collett’s root-like Gordian knot sculpture titled Racine. An agglomeration of forms meshed together, the piece seems to speak about how impenetrably complex desire can be, and how it brings in disparate elements from across our conscious and unconscious lives. Desire, and eroticism can also be the one vibrant element in an otherwise mundane or colorless routine. Janet Deboos’ beautiful black and white vase conjures this idea, by paring down color to one slim sliver, and leaving the rest of the visual activity in graphic black and white. Similarly, Hungarian artist Maria Geszler-Garzuly creates bone-like forms shrouded in sgraffi to covered cloths. The message seems to be that desire has left the body, leaving only an imprint of memory and sadness.

So, do we love the state of desire more than the object of desire? I don’t know. For ultimately, the variety and innovation of the work in this show undermines the idea that desire, and the questions that its presence in our lives poses, can have one true answer. Here, artists simply supply us with visual experiences, spun from the imagination, just as desire supplies us with life experiences infused with psyche. Artist Betül Aytepe writes in her artist statement that, “art is the emotional trace of the human.” Her words are wise, as we are both animals and angels, and the “traces” we leave behind allow others to participate in our shared humanity, which, in my opinion, is what we all desire most.