On Tamar Ettun’s “The Yellow Who Wants”
Uppsala Konstmuseum, May 2016
In Philosophy, a distinction has long been observed between two forms of love: Eros, conceived as intense desire; and Agape, the Christian ideal of selfless caring. In his religious writings, Kierkegaard advocated for Agape as the only true love. Unconditional and disinterested, Agape is offered to the other not as a reward for his virtues or accomplishments, nor with an eye to receiving love in return. Eros, on the other hand, Kierkegaard condemned as selfish and unstable. It aims at pleasure and at possessing the other, and it is aroused by the other’s qualities: his beauty and coolness, perhaps his prestigious job. Yet such qualities are not intrinsic to the beloved—he stands to lose each one of them. Then his lover will also cease to love him. This erotic love, it turns out, was never really about the beloved as a person. Erotic desire is fleeting and deceptive, and sensuousness cannot guide us to the good.
Kierkegaard associated erotic love with paganism—and indeed Ancient Greek culture is full of representations of sex and celebrations of sensuous pleasure. But also in Jewish mythology, we find an attitude toward sensuality radically different from that of Kierkegaard’s Christian dogmas. Consider Isaac, one of the fathers of the Jewish people. Feeling his life nearing its end, he addresses his son Esau with one last wish: that Esau go out to the fields with his bow and arrow, bring home some game and cook his father a tasty stew. The old man has a craving for meat with its taste of wild nature, a last taste of life.
Tamar Ettun’s work on desire calls us to question the old dichotomy of Agape and Eros—specifically, the idea that desire is shallow and selfish. If it resounds with any tradition, it is the Hebrew Bible’s pathos of bodily pleasure. “Part: Yellow” presents desire as life-affirming—something Kierkegaard would agree with in his more Romantic moments. I would venture to claim that we never feel more alive than in the early days of a romantic infatuation. Nor is this feeling of life narcissistic: it is a feeling of being present to the world. The beloved—indeed the world as a whole—is thrown into relief by desire. Everything beautiful and significant stands out for the lover, glowing with its inner light. The lover’s world is a meaningful cosmos where things reveal their essences on their surface.
In its acuteness, desire resembles suffering more than any other experience. The nail that penetrates a nipple in Ettun’s cast sculpture appears at first glance as a straightforward image of pain inflicted by violence from without. Yet when we notice that the nail penetrates the skin from within, the image acquires another dimension. It evokes at once pain, arousal and pleasure, experiences in which our whole being is concentrated in a single feeling, a single point.
Like the stiletto heels stacked on one another, forcing their bearer to her knees, desire draws us out of ourselves, the finite body bursting at its seams with the soul which craves connection with something beyond it. Those high-heeled shoes picture Eros wanting not to possess but to be seen and desired by another subject. Eros wants to beget Eros: it wants the recognition inherent in reciprocated desire. The times we spend dressing up and making ourselves pretty for a date are wonderful rituals of anticipation and anxiety, all wrapped up in an affirmation of ourselves as capable of being desired, and of the other as someone worth being desired by.
On her way to meet her beloved, her soul fluttering in her stomach, the lover feels naked, even though she is dressed up—or perhaps because of it. For by wearing her prettiest gown, she has exposed her inner desire on her skin for all to see. Desire makes of her a bouquet of nerves, fragile like the fishnet a lone hand stretches out in Ettun’s sculpture. She senses that her love is as visible as that cloud of deep blood red, and that she is at this moment nothing but this hand, this offer extended to her beloved.
Ettun’s sculptures are accompanied by experimental dances, and dancing is indeed a particularly appropriate medium for the theme of love. The fear of rejection, of putting the beloved off by making too rash a move, prompts us to dance around the subject, speaking in code, attending carefully to the other in order to adjust our own moves to his. Dancing is also the most immediately sexual form of artistic expression. In the Moving Company’s performances, dance is sometimes reduced to a single experience of sensuality and touch, intensified by repetition. The oranges falling from the sky are appetizing not only to our sense of taste but also to our sense of touch. When a stretched out hand catches and squeezes them, penetrating the flesh through the peel and releasing the juice, the effect is quasi-pornographic. The viewer is afforded a strange catharsis: her tactile appetite has been gratified.
Some of Ettun’s sculptures are constructed out of found objects. Often these objects bear no obvious relation to what the sculpture as a whole represents. In this sense, they are like metaphors, which evoke an idea by means of a combination of words that do not literally express that idea. The complicated relation between parts and whole in Ettun’s sculptures is reminiscent of some of the far-fetched metaphors in the Song of Songs, where, for example, the beloved’s nose is said to be like a tower in Lebanon that looks toward Damascus. The distance between the figurative and the literal leaves ample room for the viewer’s imagination to play with different associations and interpretations.
It recently occurred to me how nice it would be to have a lover in another city, so that I would have to take a bus to go see him, savoring from my window seat the world as it looks through desire, from within its warm yellow bubble. Once lovers are together, the impressions are so strong and succeed one another so rapidly as to defy this kind of enjoyment. Through anticipation of future meetings and remembrance of past ones, we regard love with the benefit of an aesthetic distance. Pre- and reliving life through the imagination in this way enriches it: it fulfills Nietzsche’s vision of living one’s life as though it were a work of art. In Ettun’s work, desire’s ephemeral and elusive urges and gestures are embodied, allowing us to contemplate them and revel in them, holding onto them a moment longer.