The humanity of desire is expressed by the desire for recogni
tion (as a subject) upon which is articulated the struggle
between the master and the slave. All servile labor realizes not
the will of the Master but-unconscious at first-of the Slave,
who finally succeeds where the Master necessarily fails.
There are things that can be measured, and those that can only be approximated. It was impossible for her to make sense of the natural order of all those "things," when so clearly she was excluded from it. Silently, she had capitulated, time and again, to the tyranny of an order imposed upon her that marked her as aberrant. Rendered speechless and invisible within this Imaginary order, she knew no gratification. Her desire for recognition was a desire born of lack. It was identically with herself she sought. But instead of One, she found zero. Zero made her lack visibility. And there, at the intersection of presence and absence, her journey of abstraction would begin. At that moment, she was born into Language.
One voice speaks, albeit a synthesis of those of mother and father and church and state and all the others who taunted and trapped her. Poetry suffices for truth, its irony brewed behind defensive lines as a palliative against the sordidness heaped upon her. A spidery mantle of aggression insulates her from pain and cushions what under any other circumstances would qualify as the monotony of the peculiar busy work she performs. Methodically, she collects and inventories mundane fragments of the world, signing her existence with wigs and wishbones, masks and mouthpieces, like so many ciphers of her identity as outcast and inferior. Linking words and images and sometimes actual things in circular signifying chains that foster symptomatic rupture, she constructs artful language-objects that mirror her obsession with similitude and difference. Proof. She needs proof of her difference. Her desire and her lack must be made visible.
The topology of her work is cool but nonetheless seductive, as though symbolically it exists in order to be possessed. Her body is its index; more specifically, her black, female body. Elements given in relation to or in place of it, like momento mori, conflate desire with dissolution and death. Wishbones, to be broken apart; wigs, to fall out of fashion; shoes, to be worn out; candles, to be burned to the quick; wooden masks, to be taken off; braids, to be undone. Plotting dry dramas of estrangement with excruciating precision, she labors over descriptive coordinates of time, place, character, and circumstance as if she were writing complex math based on a series of postulates, axioms, and equations representing a socio-biological order. As if by rearranging the order of symbolic representation on paper, she could resolve her psychic dilemma. Full of comparative values-real and imaginary, rational and irrational, indeterminacy and indifference and hypothetical conversions, her stories describe a numbers game played with secret tokens between predetermined winners, and losers who try to beat the odds.
Some grand amnesia imprisoned her, made her mute and invisible, even to herself. She was in the world, that much she thought was certain. Limited to peripheral vision, however, she can never look at it directly; rather, she must settle for partial glimpses. Constrained to outermost regions, she gropes along imprecise boundaries for signs of life, prizes which are few and far between in the dead zone. Trudging back and forth in the mean margins of her existence, she does not escape her alienation, her absence. A struggle to death. What was forgotten remains so. All she possesses are the fragments, thousands of them, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle of which all the parts are white. Or black. To delay the confrontation, to discover difference, to recover the lost object. Sucking deep into her dark veins, a phantasmatic rush, a delusional return to unity.
Shapes. She could work with shapes. She could devise simple sequences and repetitions. With one or two variables, she could move from A to B, and then back to A. She could assign to A the value of B, and to B that of A. She could represent sameness and difference. Through repetition, she could practice recognition. A.A.A.A. Visual and verbal, her language-objects provided a provisional ground upon which she could build her own order of things. There was nothing natural about it. She brought together things that could be measured, and those that could not: 100 wishbones; 1575 bricks; 50 wigs; 70 braids; 9 props; 50 locks; 25 twists; 20 questions. Counting, countess, countless, counterpart, countermand, countdown, counterculture, counterproductive, counterfeit, count her out. She found cunning subterfuge in word games. Through language, she teased repressed memories and illusive meanings to the surface, making them visible by giving them material form. She could inscribe galaxies! She challenged herself on paper. "I witness," she wrote. The words spoke back, confirming the presence of an absence of reality.
Her language-objects and games became more elaborate. She would arrange a series of identical images, arbitrarily giving each one a different name. Or she would assign the same name to four different images. Instead of producing the anticipated jouissance, her preoccupation with classification, dislocation, and difference, was often shadowed by morbidity. Once, she arranged four images of a black woman photographed from behind, and juxtaposed these with a series of propositions: died last year; died a year ago; died last month; died 18 months ago; died at home; died 2 years ago-as though she were trying death on for size. (I died a month ago? Last year? Two years ago? Where am I?). In these fill-in-the-blank exercises, of course, there is no right or wrong answer, nor is there really any question, except that which concerns her problem of recognition as a subject and the uncertainty about the moment of death's arrival.
She filled the world with images of black, female bodies, much like but never exactly her own, labeling their postures and gestures and misbegotten identities with a stream of disconnected shifters and signifiers. She slaved over this activity, but was doubly alienated by it. Doubt and procrastination, rather than recognition of her own essence in her handiwork, are the by-products of her labor. It hardly escapes her, then as now, that she herself "is not in it." Rather she is in the anticipated moment of the death she describes, from which point she will begin to live. The mouthpieces and masks, the wishbones and wigs-she inscribes herself with signifiers of both passion and lack, ornaments that express her desire in the revelation of a yawning void. (Remember, you must die).
The woman who filled up the world because she didn't know how to exist in it stockpiles images of comfort, solace, and familiarity as a means to abate her psychic disarray at being perennially at odds with herself. She begins again, with smooth, black skin; with spotless white cloth; with a freshly pressed suit; with braids neat and straight; with soft, dry felt; with perfect porcelain shapes; with matched sets of things. Utter Remember Shift Forget Indulge Remedy Vary Recast Obliterate. These command options are her "transparent wishes." Braiding hair or treading water-she fails to differentiate between routine daily activities and miraculous feats. She is distracted by the superficial, by the morphological sameness of things, and feels the ground sliding from under her. Twice removed from the social landscape, she marks time with her counting and classifying and cataloging, until life begins. The woman who filled up the world because she didn't know how to exist in it discovered Otherness is the world itself.
This woman-a black, feminine presence who is otherwise anonymous and aloof-is the pivotal node in Lorna Simpson's art. As metaphor, she is both politically motivated and emotively poetic, and made partially visible in what have been called Simpson's acts of "resistance and remembrance." Her body is never fully imaged and is usually presented from behind. Her language of gestures is expressive, while her passions are very contained. When she appears in narrative vignettes, it is often in the context of attempting to construct her own psycho-sexual identity. Her struggle for self-recognition is sometimes clumsy and mechanical, and always far from complete; but she perseveres. Within the regime of the dominant cultural institutions that inscribe her, she is, indeed, a prisoner of language. That language, however, is the only one at her disposal.
The refusal of Simpson's work to produce clichés of resolution is underscored by the unfinished quality of her narratives. Neither idealizing nor moralizing the subject's struggle for recognition, Simpson's art is tinged with melancholia. Whether seen as properties of its internal dialectic or as functions of the solicitation of the viewer's subjective engagement, ambiguity and doubt contribute important emotional tonalities to the experience and interpretation of her work. The active production of subjectivity, represented by the black, feminine presence who speaks from within the conceptually cool environment of Simpson's language-objects conditionally extends to the viewer as well, who must participate in (i.e. identify with) the construction of meaning. In concert with the presence that inhabits her work and her complicity with the viewer, rather than erasing difference, she recognizes it and attempts representation. The project remains incomplete. Her work is never done.
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