with contributions from Lianor da Cunha
“I dreamt that I opened my mouth and took out a substance incessantly. As this was happening I felt as if I was losing my own internal substance, which made me very anguished mainly because I could not stop losing it. In the work I made afterwards, which I called Cannibalistic Slobber, people had cotton reels in their mouths to expel and introject the slobber.” —Lygia Clark (Brazilian performance artist, 1920-1988)
In 1929 Oswald de Andrade published the “Anthropophagite Manifesto” in Brazil. Anthropophagy, or cannibalism, in this sense refers to “the consumption of the human being as a moral entity.” Paulo Herkenhoff, the Brazilian curator and art historian sees this use of the word as part of a “strategy of cultural emancipation”; a visceral, provocative metaphor of consumption and renewal describing relationships of power and influence. In the early 1970s, Lygia Clark proposed Anthropophagic Drool to her students at the Sorbonne in Paris. The enactment connects meaning from psychoanalytic theories of the time against a backdrop of Clark’s ties to a counter culture that opposed the oppressive regime in Brazil. In August, the piece was re-enacted at Pablo’s Birthday, a ground floor gallery in TriBeCa. What, one might ask, is the relevance of this piece in New York in 2008, 35 years after Clark first proposed it to her students in Paris? What does the work mean today?
At the time the gallery was exhibiting the work of six emerging Brazilian artists. On a bright evening, a group of about ten gathered there for the re-enactment, organized by Lianor da Cunha. Everyone was given a small spool of thread. One person lies on the floor and the others form a tight circle around her. They each place the spool of thread in their mouths and with eyes closed, each one pulls the thread from his or her mouth, unravelling the spool onto the participant below.
The falling threads gradually form a web or mesh that covers the prostrate participant. Once the spools are emptied, everyone opens their eyes and “reconnects” with the drool by pulling apart the wet threads until the mesh has been undone. The “destruction” of this mesh is done with aggression, euphoria, and even pain, because the threads are hard to break; it is followed by a discussion. The piece should be repeated several times so that it can be experienced in different ways, and not be confined to one interpretation or experience of it. The turning spool causes the mouth to produce extra saliva, which the thread catches and absorbs, so that each participant is actually drooling on the person below. The act of pulling the thread out of one’s mouth draws attention to the act of bringing something from the inside to the outside. According to Clark, participants “first feel that they are pulling the thread out. Then they begin to perceive that they are pulling their very guts out.”
Most of the participants knew at least one or two other people in the group and it was discussed that trust and familiarity with the other people in the group can be helpful in such an exercise. There is vulnerability in lying on the floor in a position of surrender as other people crowd around and “drool” on you. We also wondered if the atmosphere would have changed if the original artist, Lygia Clark, had been there as a teacher figure as with her students at the Sorbonne. We have no way of knowing this but it was suggested that perhaps it gave us participants even more freedom to bring our individuality to the piece.
The first participant that day had a back problem and felt that lying on the floor for a period of time might be good for him. Although those “drooling” are supposed to keep their eyes closed while un-spooling their thread, I couldn’t resist opening my eyes on occasion. The re-enactment was beautiful to watch. Participants looked pleasured and calm as they unravelled the spools from their mouths. It gave the act a feeling of giving rather than taking. I remember a meditation teacher once telling me to pull my tongue back during meditation because so often we are greedily chasing after something and the act of pulling the tongue back is an act of refrain from chasing after our desires. Perhaps something similar was going on here. We were reversing the process of our habitual consumption.
It was also beautiful to watch the process because the threads form a web mesh over the person on the floor. When the threads are pulled apart it is supposed to be done with aggression, but that drew giggles from the group as the participants attempted to mimic growling dogs. Many times, in the discussion following, the person on the floor commented that the destruction of the mesh was comforting because it became claustrophobic under the thread and because of the gentle scramble resulting from the others trying to find traces of the mesh with their eyes closed. At one point I couldn’t resist giving the person on the floor a head massage. Yogis often talk about the cosmic web and how we are all deeply connected. For me the mesh was symbolic of the group’s deepening connection.
The act brought up many images and issues for various people. One person said the thread reminded her of dental floss and the old-fashioned methods of tooth extraction. Another said the thread reminded him of vastra dhauti, the yogic cleansing process that involves swallowing the greater portion of a washed, disinfected piece of muslin cloth and then removing the cloth. One participant said the act brought up the idea of rejection for her because we were “rejecting” the thread. Someone else said when she was lying on the floor she felt the same way she did when she went on a date. Although the others did not mean any harm, she felt objectified.
One person who took a turn lying on the floor said she felt as though she was being birthed. The layers of thread made her feel as though she was encased in a womb: when the mesh was pulled away it was as if she were birthed into the light. Later in the evening, I noticed that the discarded string from previous performances began to look like a placenta. I was reminded that Clark wrote about the cannibalistic qualities of pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Pieces like Anthropophagic Drool occupy a unique space in contemporary artistic practice. While Clark works with the body, the body is not the subject or the artwork. As she said in 1974, “I can no longer express myself like a spectacle which people do not experience.” Her work is concerned with bringing forth creativity and self-awareness through group interactions with a minimal use of objects. Releasing the phantasmagoria of the body is, for her, a way of “attaining the singular state of art without art.” It is an exercise that engenders a new sense of self through others by creating a new, collective body. It is not enough to read about the piece, look at photographs of it, or to organize its re-enactment: one must participate in it.
When it was my turn to surrender on the floor, I felt as though I was being covered by a damp spider’s web and sinister thoughts of Rosemary’s Baby entered my head as people hovered over me, un-spooling. At first the thread tickled, but soon became oppressive and irritating to the skin. The damp smell of the yarn bothered me and I was relieved to have the mesh taken off.
Half way through the evening a passerby watching the act through the window of Pablo’s Birthday couldn’t contain his curiosity and stopped in to ask what we were doing. He ended up staying for the rest of the event and participating. Did he mind being covered in thread from the mouths of strangers? “I’m always connecting with strangers,” he said. “This is just a different way of doing it. I didn’t mind. I trusted everyone.”
The thinner threads took longer to un-spool and there was always one person or another who took a lot longer than the others. At one point I was that person. It must have taken an extra five minutes for me to un-spool my thread as everyone else waited and waited. The group was laughing but panic set into me. I felt pressure to finish but the spool kept going. I tried to speed up; I could feel my gums beginning to bleed as they were hit continuously by the spool. The sound of the spool clomping against gums and teeth was the most curious sound—like horses’ hooves clopping, but quieter and with a slight echo.
At one point, the filmmaker Babette Mangolte, who had been observing the whole event tried to advocate a “correct” way to un-spool the thread. She thought it should be done slowly and sensually so that the participants could be more in the now instead of trying to get the event over as hurriedly as possible. Another participant said she wasn’t unraveling the spool quickly so much as rhythmically. Many of us wanted to get the spool finished as fast as possible, as if trying to expunge something toxic from our bodies.
The event, which started at 7p.m., didn’t finish until midnight. At quarter to 11, a man who lived in the building upstairs asked what we were doing. “Are you a cult?” he said, half joking. “Is this an Aztec victim?” he quipped pointing to the person on the floor, but he quickly became intrigued and invited us to his rooftop garden to continue the performance where we sampled the grape tomatoes and figs he grew there.
Normally, I leave parties around 10:30. I am one of those people who can’t stand being up past 11, however that night I had a hard time leaving the party behind. I felt a strange attachment to the event and the other participants. I felt as though we’d shared something unique and unforgettable. The destruction of the webs we had made was physically, but not emotionally, complete for me.
About a year ago I had read Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone. Putnam claimed that in recent years, U.S. citizens had become increasingly isolated and less empathetic toward one another; as a nation, the United States was angrier and less willing to unite in communities than it had been in the past. The book struck a cord with me and I wondered if this strange reenactment found relevance and meaning for this group of New Yorkers in 2008. Baba Antropofágica had brought stragglers and strangers together in an intimate setting, a rare experience in this busy city of ours. I left yearning for a sense of community with a stronger mesh.
Marie Carter is the editor of Word Jig: New Fiction from Scotland and author of forthcoming creative non-fiction book, The Trapeze Diaries (Hanging Loose Press, Spring 2008).