Shaking off the Obvious

Sophie Mendelsohn

  • U+1F453-005


  • BRÉTIGNY OPTIQUE 👓 Bonne et Heureuse Année 🕯️


  • w.n.

    Print, 1,3 × 3 cm

  • Brétigny Aujourd'hui, №53, p.20


What is to see only appears so long as we accept passing through what we hear, this is what the pieces shown by Núria Güell force us to know—and it is what generates the real political dimension of her work. It is a question of strategy then, not content, although what she says is always quite explicitly political, whether dealing with, as recently, sexual exploitation in Latin America, or, earlier, with sexual tourism in Cuba, the status of political refugees in Sweden, or police violence in Catalonia, etc.

In a 2018 interview she gave to the Catalan site for news and cultural agitation La Munió, Güell underscored what steers her practice and defines her stance, “What interests me in art is its capacity to open up questions.” Both (overly) simple and more appealing than first meets the eye, this approach to artmaking can be conceived as an implicit, discreet, yet quite effective way to lay claim to the conflictuality that sustains the art project she has carried out from the start. That is, paving the way for questions doesn’t mean they must give rise to answers; paving the way for questions doesn’t necessarily lead to resolving the problem they point to; paving the way for questions thus implies being able to withstand the tensions generated through the refusal to form the object of her work from the outside, in order to be, on the contrary, actively involved and therefore one with it in all respects.

There is one paradox, however, that is, to my mind asserted with notable insistence in the latest pieces on display, notably Una película de Dios and La Feria de la Flores. What interrogative space manages to take shape when we are dealing with the sexual exploitation of minors in prostitution in Mexico, or the commercial trafficking of virginity within families in Colombia, socially overdetermined subjects (these phenomena only exist in the poorest classes), emotionally overloaded, (it undermines the sacred status that childhood took on in modernity), and easily overtaken by a moralizing reading? Viewers are simply filled with horror normally and therefore swept away by the urge to condemn, a sentiment that is reinforced by empathetically identifying with these poor young girls, obvious victims of a male domination that is physically and economically exercised over them. But in fact, there’s nothing to see. Or, more precisely, it isn’t in the order of the visible that something happens for people who find themselves exposed to these pieces.

What is questioned in actual practice through means that are peculiar to the visual arts is the domination of the regime of the visible over our ways of connecting with the world and constructing there what we know. What is seen is imposed on us with the force of the obvious, thus hindering us from accessing anything that doesn’t partake of it.

Clear the way for the voice/listen to the voices

The device Güell uses in the two pieces mention above, as well as in De Putas. Un ensayo sobre la masculinidad, is mainly the filmed interview, which is quite deceptive from the point of view of visual satisfaction. The deceptive effect is even more broadly reinforced in all of her recent work, or improved, I’d be tempted to say, by a palette of visual tools that visibly undo the obviousness of the visible. For example, there are no shots alternating between the interviewer, Núria Güell herself, and the people interviewed, even though the interviews take the form of a dialogue; only the interviewee is filmed straight on in a static shot while the interviewer solely exists as a voice, and yet we don’t see the face of the person being interviewed because it is blurred, as if to abide by the rules of confidentiality and anonymization that are supposed to guarantee people’s safety. These individuals’ silhouettes, however, remain perfectly recognizable. Or, on the contrary, Güell alone remains in our field of vision, putting questions to a woman whose knees, the sole part of her that can be seen in the image, are all that we will ever know of her… Other example, De Putas, which runs for about an hour, both violently and comically features only cut-off heads, that is, we only see bodies—the heads are cut-off by the frame—which has the strange effect of making the heads exist solely through the voices issuing from them, thus creating a surprising intimacy of sound with these women, who are singled out for viewers in a much different way than if we could see them. More than a feminist argument of distancing the female image that is fetishized by male desire (it seems in any case that a headless body loses a lot of its erotic power…), I see it as a way of rendering audible what would otherwise have no, or very little value if we could see these women, identify them by their faces, and thus bring them back to their image. This device potentiates the materiality of the voice—its grain, rhythm, and tonalities—and renders accessible what is normally made invisible. The practice of prostitution produces a discourse. And here again, it is not so much the content of the discourse as its very existence that is important. What is heard in these voices is that there is a desire to talk about this practice and the many reflections that it brings forth, the production site of a knowledge from which these women recognize themselves as subjects and not only as objects of masculine lust. In this regard, the piece’s subtitle raises an expectation that is likewise frustrated. Viewers learn less about masculinity than about what is said about it by women to whom it is addressed in its rawest, most loutish form. One notices then an obvious pleasure in that an ear (that of Núria Güell, whom we no more see than hear; and that of her partners, who are made up of us in this instance) is there to hear what is said. What these voices render perceptible is the idea that there is no sexuality without discourse, and that we cannot rule out that that is what is most interesting in what sexuality produces. Sex makes us talk, that is its particular power. But a discourse only exists inasmuch as there is someone to hear it, to clear the way for the voice.

I cannot help but think that in this Núria Güell is playing with the psychoanalytic setting, or is replaying it in a different way—and I allow myself to think this all the more in that she herself lays claim to referencing psychoanalysis, although without clearly indicating its outlines; so I see there an invitation to propose a few hypotheses on the subject. Indeed I am inclined to believe that by wanting it more or less clearly, she forces psychoanalysis to submit to an “artistic treatment”—which is undoubtedly more promising than the opposite, namely that the “psychoanalytic treatment” reserved for certain artworks has rarely been anything more than a way of producing a verification of one’s own theses in a register other than that of the clinic. We should be able here to make clear that the most specific of psychoanalysis does not concern only itself. The device it came up with for listening, which is the originality of its artmaking—“Say everything that comes into your mind,” in the Freudian version; “Say anything,” in the Lacanian one—can be exported in certain conditions and thus find ways that lead to renewal from the outside, beyond transference and psychoanalytical treatment.

Beyond the private/public contrast

A century and a half later in spite of the whiff of the outdated that hovers over the scene, we can still see Freud’s bewilderment before one of the first patients, Anna O., ordering to stop looking and talking to her in order to hear what she has to tell. From his unenlightened consent to submit to this injunction Freud deduced the psychoanalyst’s place, which he began to assume. That what he then had to hear touched on real and imagined sex life is no accident for sex generates talk—indeed, it is sex that generates discourse. To have been in a position to note that, without having sought to, put Freud in an awkward position, which he worked out as a doctor using diagnostic tools by means of which the private relationship with the patient was regulated. “Hysteria” became the generic label stuck to the forehead of those women whose discourse reflected the conflict in which they were caught with their sex and their sexuality. The undeniable, stigmatizing dimension of such an approach indirectly revealed the power of announcing as a locus of the denouncing of power. That is, to hear someone speak about sex has both an effect and an affect, whatever the defenses mobilized to immunize oneself against such a change. Thus hysteria notably escaped Freudian control by becoming the vector for the transformation of psychoanalysis into something public, bringing with it an aura of scandal, which was part of its charm. And from there it acquired a status other than psychopathology, which Lacan formalized as a discourse, i.e., that which runs through and works upon culture in this point of view. As both the reverse and corollary of the “master’s discourse” in which the conditions of (male) domination are laid out while taking into account the coordinates of the unconscious, the “discourse of the hysteric” enunciates both division (which of course in no way prevents one from struggling against that division) and the necessity of knowing in/with one’s body something of that structural inadequacy with the self—and perhaps one needs to pass through radically minoritized and marginalized existences for that necessity to take shape in all its violence.

Another scandal that has nothing charming about it indeed is the situation of the sexually exploited Mexican girls or the Colombian girls whose virginity is sold to the highest bidder. As Núria Güell shows us, that reality replays, I think, though elsewhere and in a different way, the question that gave rise to psychoanalysis. To let oneself be affected by sex is not only the private matter that is dealt with in analysis. The interest in turning to situations that are so shocking and of public notoriety as the use of children to realize an economic benefit is that there is no chance of not being affected, whereas the device created here makes it impossible to give into a moralizing temptation as a go-to defense. Nothing indeed invites viewers to deplore the situation of these young girls because the work is pushed towards a point where the question of how one can get over this kind of mistreatment is turned around into the proposition of having to make for oneself a body in one’s own knowledge—and that question is cross-sectional. That is, it runs through the private space of the analysis but also runs through the public space of culture, though differently. What was experienced collectively here (and because sex was imposed as the locus of an experience of power relations laid bare) outlines the space of a knowledge to be formed from which the possibilities that are specific to this situation of enslavement, initially crushed beneath the weight of the scandal, can be redeployed. To this end the voices serve. The voices speak and what they say is not an account of organized sexual mistreatment; they speak simply, to say something, anything at all, in other words, what there is to say at the moment when the filmed discussion takes place—with what has happened and the reason for meeting with Güell, but also, or rather above all, starting from there. It is those paths, which lead nowhere in particular, that are offered up for viewers to hear.

Speaking about sex/getting sex to speak

We can always talk about sex—even ad infinitum, since it replays in a thousand variations both the encounter and the confrontation, along with their entanglement. But to get sex to speak is a different story, which implies having perceived and rendering perceptible the body as being in excess with respect to itself, endlessly going beyond the place it has been assigned to, one that is indeed first and foremost a gendered place. The gendered body does not speak, it is spoken. One is called a boy or girl and until one realizes that that doesn’t mean much (or in any case one would be hard pressed to say what that means exactly), there is nothing to be said about that. And one could stop there. Yet it is also possible that, through various paths, one comes to know that the body is not so much gendered (identified by a sexual binary) as acted on by sex, which is no longer male or female but a power of assignment first. Sex becomes the opaque name of what resists language and violently arouses it. To put it plainly, there is sex because language hasn’t taken over the body completely. There is then a remainder called jouissance in psychoanalysis, which attests to this and blocks the body from being reduced to a simple mechanism. And it is from this jouissance that sex speaks and, in a way, responds to language through and in its excess. It undoes the obvious truth that language proposes by opposing that raw presence of the body, the flesh straining towards the production of a pleasure that may take the most twisted and the least expected paths. Yet if sex does indeed undo language’s claim to render the world transparent and legible, it nonetheless finds its impetus there as well. For jouissance troubles the subjects it runs through by confronting them with their subjective depth, which may at times seem bottomless. So it is sex that speaks each time one is confronted with oneself as an enigma—each time one endures being an enigma for oneself, a question rather than an answer.

Paving the way to questions then clearly springs from a rather specific art of the interstice, or the interval, which consists in peeling away awareness—resting on access to facts—from knowledge—which lends these facts their flesh and inscribes them in a perceptible experience from which thought takes shape, assumes a body. And from which it becomes possible to shake off the obvious.


Sophie Mendelsohn (2019)

Invitation made on the occasion of Núria Guell's exhibition In the name of the Father, the Fatherland and the Patriarchy