“I believe in the power of love,” croons Lady Miss Kier in Deee-lite’s infectiously joyful song “Power of Love.” And in our dark times, when waking up with near crippling existential dread and terror is apparently the new normal, a musing on artistic representations of love seems like a welcome form of escapism and a soothing emotional salve.
So, what is love, as Deee-lite asks in yet another of their campy club classics? Various cultural creators have been trying to grabble with an exact expression of love for years. “The love song must be born into the realm of the irrational, absurd, the distracted, the melancholic, the obsessive, the insane for the love song is the noise of love itself and love is, of course, a form of madness. Whether it be the love of God, or romantic, erotic love–these are manifestations of our need to be torn away from the rational, to take leave of our senses, so to speak,” said Nick Cave, delivering his lecture “The Secret Life of a Love Song” at the Vienna Poetry Festival in the late 1990s.
Like Cave’s description of the love song, a medium he’s been perfecting for decades, any representation of love has to be, basically, completely bonkers. It has to do the impossible: reflect the seemingly indescribable, indefinable contradictions of love, longing, lust, sensuality and desire. Why it’s enough to drive someone mad!
And certainly it has, namely French theorist Roland Barthes whose loony A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments attempts to win this losing game. It attempts to define love through structuralist theory. Unsurprisingly, it’s a frantic, manic and panic-stricken text, clearly written in the throws of a roller coaster love affair. If Barthes had a Facebook page, he’d be your messy friend with an “it’s complicated” relationship status.
This is personal for Barthes, who frequently references his lover X in hand-wringing, flop sweat-drenched passages. For example, he writes, “X, who left for his vacation without me, has shown no signs of life since his departure: accident? Post office strike? Indifference? Distancing maneuver? Exercise of a passing impulse of autonomy…? Or simple innocence?” (41). Calm down, Roland.
In order to put words to this heady “love” thing, Barthes’ haphazard yet engrossing book acts as an archive of feelings–a pseudo-dictionary of love-related words and phrases such as “absence” and “engulfment.” The theorist wraps himself in language, in a futile attempt to grasp, grab hold of and eventually, have power over love. “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tips of my words. My language trembles with desire,” Barthes describes (73).
For Barthes, though, love is not only mediated by language, but also by cultural objects, as well as personal and collective experiences. He references numerous sources ranging from Proust to Nietzsche in a style that would later be coopted by Maggie Nelson in her widely popular The Argonauts (I see you Maggie). But, even though he seems to pull out all the stops to achieve his goal, Barthes still comes up short–poetically so.
This inevitable yet thoroughly romantic failure to fully capture love is taken up by art in Team Gallery’s current exhibition The Love Object. Curated by Tom Brewer, The Love Object takes Barthes harried search for love as its conceptual inspiration, showcasing a multidisciplinary selection of work that similarly explores love.
That doesn’t mean The Love Object is all heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and Hallmark greeting cards. Instead, the artists in the exhibition grapple with love’s most complex issues–objectification of the loved one, the impossibility of love’s depiction and love’s mediated nature.
The works in the show range from the gruesome as in Heji Shin’s photograph of the bloody reality of birth, which looks like an outtake of a horror movie, to the sweet like the friendship depicted in Alissa McKendrick’s painting Lila & The Blue Faerie to the campy and absurd in Brice Dellsperger’s Body Double 34, which filters the dialogue from queer classic My Private Idaho through trans magazine covers. Some of the works even represent love through inanimate objects including Hanna Liden’s TBT. In Liden’s photograph, two branches stick out from a wine bottle and a beer bottle held in a tennis shoe. Intertwining at the top, the branches somehow effectively convey an unexpected, awkward eroticism. It’s actually quite sweet.
Like Barthes’ filtering of love through the language of others, much of the art in The Love Object translates love through other sources. Take, for example, Zoe Barcza’s Fidelio, which features a lamprey-like kiss between Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill Hartford and Alice, played by Nicole Kidman, from Stanley Kubrick’s magnum erotic opus Eyes Wide Shut. It looks like Bill and Alice are trying to digest each other, showcasing the destruction of each partner’s individual agency.
In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes would call this “engulfment.” He observes, “The crisis of engulfment can come from a wound, but also from a fusion: we die together from loving each other: an open death, by dilution into the ether, a closed death of the shared grave” (10-11). Barcza’s painting reveals an underlying sense of mortality that is only bolstered by the word “Fidelio” emblazoned below the painting’s kiss that refers to the password needed to enter Eyes Wide Shut’s mansion of old, masked and potentially homicidal perverts.
In fact, Eyes Wide Shut documentation of Dr. Halford’s ambitious trek to find answers about love and sex in the empty streets of New York and a decadent sex party mirrors Barthes own failed amorous odyssey. As Marion wrote in his essay “Spinning in a Flat Circle: Visions of Queerness and Filthy Dreams,” “Perhaps Kubrick nailed something primal about the human experience: we hardly know ourselves, lest each other. The joke was on Tom (and the audience) when, at the end of its long road, his character found a mask.”
For Barthes, not only is love itself impossible to figure out, but the loved one themselves is an intangible figure of mystery. Barthes writes, “I am caught in this contradiction: on the one hand, I believe I know the other better than anyone and triumphantly assert my knowledge to the other (“I know you–I’m the only one who really knows you!”); and on the other hand, I am often struck by the obvious fact that the other is impenetrable, intractable, not to be found; I cannot open up the other, trace back the other’s origins, solve the riddle. Where does the other come from? Who is the other? I wear myself out. I shall never know” (134).
For Barthes, love means objectifying the other–rendering them not only an object, but also completely impenetrable. While Sam Samore’s fly-on-the-wall photographs of Thai ladyboys depict a form of unknowable “love object”–albeit through the problematic lens of the exotic Other, the most compelling work that engages with the mystery of the desired object is Georgia Wall‘s video Barthes and The Cranberries.
Wall’s video presents Wall dancing sensually in a bedroom, which looks like a homemade YouTube video. As Wall gyrates, twists and teases in slow motion to The Cranberries “When You’re Gone,” text from A Lover’s Discourse on absence, as well as lyrics from the song, scrolls across the screen in bold yellow type, partially covering Wall’s seduction. The grainy, gritty video slightly obscures and distorts Wall’s figure as the camera shifts its gaze to her body rather than her face, which is barely perceptible. Through these cinematic choices, she thwarts both the objectifying and loving gaze, rendering herself, like Barthes lover, unknowable.
Wall’s selection of Barthes quotes further enhances her engagement with the impenetrable desired other. The text reads, “It is Woman who gives shape to absence, elaborates its fiction,” “I have no sense of proportions,” and “But isn’t desire always the same, whether the object is present or absent?” Like the quotes, Wall’s figure seems to embody both presence and absence. She is almost a ghost, eluding the viewer’s–and thus, the lover’s–grasp.
After leaving the exhibition, I considered that perhaps any representation of love is also a representation of this failure of definition. That is the beauty–and tragedy–of love. It is a search with no answers or maybe just, like in Eyes Wide Shut, a mask on a pillow. As Barthes writes, “Flouted in my enterprise (as it happens), I emerge from it neither victor nor vanquished: I am tragic” (23).