Usually you come out with stuff on you when you’ve been in their thoughts or bodies. – Jenny Holzer
More than just an erotic surrealist fable, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour is a story about a breakdown in identity that finds expression in the realm of sexuality. Séverine (played by Catherine Deneuve) is a frigid young bourgeois housewife who is unable to make love to her husband. At the same time, she finds herself tormented by powerful sadomasochistic fantasies and flashbacks of a childhood sexual trauma, whether real or imagined. After hearing a rumour about a friend who secretly works as a prostitute, she chooses to act on her blocked impulses and takes the afternoon shift at a house of pleasure under the name Belle de Jour.
As Séverine gives herself more fully to her desires, the distinction between inner and outer space is ruptured, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell erotic reverie from objective event. Buñuel’s cool directorial style presents the narrative as it appears to Séverine. The visual devices of condensation, displacement, and symbolization are deployed to create an accurate representation of her psychic landscape. When Séverine accidentally breaks a perfume bottle, it is a symbolic correlative of the breakdown in resistance to her erotic impulses. With her extravagant fantasy life and compulsion to act out, Séverine could be seen as an archetype of the artist who “allows his erotic and ambitious wishes full play in the life of phantasy.”1 The different types of sexual fetishists she encounters in the brothel, along with the clothes and accoutrements with which they enact their perversions, parallel her own creative daydreaming about being whipped, raped, shot, and covered with mud.
It is only when Séverine starts servicing the handsome young criminal Marcel that fantasy and reality finally merge. Marcel’s sociopathic brutality keys into the baroque violence of her desires, which both excites and frightens her. Séverine attempts to leave Belle de Jour behind, but the possessive and vicious Marcel threatens to expose her double life. He ambushes her husband, whom he cripples before himself being shot and killed. Séverine finds herself condemned to nurse a paralyzed husband, and her guilt pushes her back once again into the realm of fantasy. This too places her in the position of the artist, whose entire activity is aimed at reconciling the pleasure principle with the reality principle. As Freud wrote, “[the artist] finds his way back to reality...from [the] world of phantasy by making use of his special gifts to mould his phantasies into truths of a new kind” which become “reflections of reality.”2
Helmut Lang’s recent sculpture feels grounded in intensely personal experience and, despite its reticent and enigmatic appearance, seems to point back to a precipitating traumatic event. His columns are composed in part of the flotsam and jetsam of a past identity. Lang has fed his entire séance de travail archive through a shredder and mixed with it resin and pigment in long casting tubes, where it is left to bake in the sun for twenty-four hours. The resulting forms have an
intense bodily presence, burst viscera exposing a mélange of buttons, zippers, rubber, and scraps of fabric embedded in resin, like teeth or bits of bone. It is as if the débris of clothes Lang designed for the exterior of others’ bodies has been introjected into his own body and regurgitated. The tremendous heat generated by the cooking process has caused sections of some casts to split open, creating bulges and protuberances that resemble wounds or orifices. The columns themselves, both hard and fragile, may be seen as defense mechanisms and phallic substitutes, the multiplication of which serves to stave off the fear of incompleteness and the loss of power. Lang’s decision to incorporate this material into his art may be understood psychoanalytically as a symbolic action aimed at reclaiming and mastering the past. Like husks of discharged impulses, these columns bear witness to their own explosive yet obscure origins.
Séverine transgresses the codes of her haute bourgeois existence to explore the terrain of private fantasy and discover who she really is. Like a snake shedding its skin, she assumes another identity precisely in order to become more fully herself. Lang’s sculpture is also a kind of molting directed at self-preservation and the construction of a new identity. He too has moved from the external social world to the internal realm of imagination in his art. The transformation of waste is a mirror of his own self-transformation. Death and rebirth, healing and regeneration, trauma and catharsis: sculpture as a form of scar tissue.
1 Nicky Glover, Psychoanalytic Aesthetics (London: Karnac Books, 2009), 9.