Monika Weiss: Five Rivers Installation, drawing, performance, video and sound
September 6 December 16, 2005
Drawing on Syncope: The Performativity of Rapture in the Art of Monika Weiss
romantic and clinical scenario has usually, in our society, been allotted
to woman: it is she who sinks down, dress spreading out like a flower,
fainting, before a public that hurries forward; arms reach out, carry
the unresisting body... People slap her, make her sniff salts. When she
comes to, her first words will be, "Where am I?" And because
she has come to, "come back," no one thinks to ask where she
has been. The real question would be, rather,"Where was I?"
But no, when one returns from syncope it is the real world that suddenly
Clément, Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture (1)
New York-based artist Monika Weiss practices, in her chosen media of drawing,
performance, video, and installation, a restorative art of elision and
ecstasy central to which is her own body and by extension, the body image
of the observer. She draws on the syncope in order to ground her poetics
of rapture in the specificity of the proverbial stop-time of the body
and a corresponding lapse in ordinary consciousness. What may seem like
a careful management of temporality in her work is really an attempt to
step outside it. I mean, to step outside time. Suddenly, time falters.
work, the tremulous private body - her body and, by implication, my body
- is best understood as a space "in between," a permeable membrane
held taut between two polarities in the personae of two Muses, Mnemosyne
and Lethe. She vanishes with alacrity into dark intervals and liminal
spaces, often with witnesses present. Infinity opens up.
is with the osmosis and mirroring that result and she nurses interiority
while negotiating the myriad interstices in the porous wall that stands
between self and world. She constructs installations and enacts performances
that relate thematically to these spaces-in-between and invites us to
project ourselves into them so that we too, silently and alongside her,
can better appreciate the perilous gap between absence of self and fragile
self-presence, being straitjacketed by time and finding ourselves suddenly
on the brink of timelessness, caught between the quotidian and the ecstatic.
In all her work, she patiently draws on, draws in, draws out the syncope
- and moves forward.
discourse, 'syncope' (pronounced "sin-ko-pea") is the technical
term for fainting. But whether fainting, elision, interval or absence,
all relevant usages here, I use the term more specifically still as French
psychoanalytic and feminist philosopher Catherine Clément does
in her brilliant book Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture, as that sudden
lapse in consciousness when rapture is possible and the world becomes
strange. Monika Weiss uses it in a strikingly similar way in her longstanding
pursuit in art of elision and grace.
seeks out syncope as unlikely paradigm and poetic metaphor in music, literature,
psychoanalysis, philosophy - and, courageously, in life. She finds it
in various physical mental, musical and more far-flung places: held breath,
cold sweats, cerebral eclipse, epileptic seizure, delayed beats in a syncopated
jazz rhythm, the backward dip in the Tango, orgasm and between urine and
feces in Left-hand path Tantric ecstasy, and in a host of related phenomenon,
she tabulates the sundry time-outs, disruptions, breaks in linearity and
involuntary secessions from the space-time continua wherein syncope gains
its foothold and human beings can achieve ecstasy.
on syncope as a temporary absence of self and birthplace of rapture, as
Clément does, the phenomenon speaks eloquently to our embodiment
- and to the work of Monika Weiss. If it delineates absence, it also brackets
out and subverts the quotidian order of our lived reality, making its
own persuasive case for subversion of norms and felt transcendence. The
integers of absence, the strategic elisions and intervals into which subjectivity
can disappear at a moment's notice, constitute the underpinnings of her
project and, perhaps more importantly, its intrinsic ethics of overcoming
Clément argues that syncope has always been the enemy of Western
philosophy - arguing that philosophers despise syncope and everything
it represents - she specifies the reason for its suppression: hatred of
the uncertainty so endemic to human life. As she says, "The history
of our classical philosophy, as it is now taught, shows this: Western
thought has been busy filling this hole in life. For a long time, it has
worked desperately to include syncope in the realm of unfortunate accidents,
sources of disorder, unhealthy disturbances..." (2) It makes sense.
But syncope could not be kept in the box forever. Clément and Weiss
are more in the Lacanian tradition, they live on the edge, in the interval,
and theirs is really a strategic and reparative investigation of jouissance
- of rapture, that is - understood in terms of the feminine and the lived-body.
Weiss is a native of intervals. She identifies in her work the mostly
unthematized lapses, gaps, ruptures, cracks and holes wherein rapture
grows like a wild rose in the wasteland of the heart and pursues them
thematically and in terms of her own embodiment. By using her own body
and inserting it into syncope, employing it as primogenitary conduit between
presence and absence, as it were, and speaking directly to the body of
the observer in her performances and installations, she guarantees for
her work a rare core of authenticity.
the remarkable installation, Ennoia that was enacted at the Diapason Gallery
in New York in 2002. The word Ennoia derives from the Greek (in the writings
of Plato) and means "concept" and "a thought in mind."
Weiss, who was inspired by Gnostic texts, said "I think of Ennoia
as an edge of light, of consciousness, which collapsed into this world,
into body, into darkness." (3)
seemed to meld her own body to the contours of the water-filled sculpted
basin in which it was submersed as though it were a secondary skin; a
shell-like armature for her vulnerable body, providing protection. Like
an embryo in vitro, the font was interpretable as exoskeleton containing
a nourishing vat of amniotic fluid, replete with the waters of her life.
Throughout the six-hour duration of the installation, the artist immersed
herself in the water and periodically emerged from it. The basin resembled
an octagonal medieval baptismal font. The image of her body curled up
fetus-like within it was then projected on the proximate wall.
- as in all such works by Weiss - is really more enactment than performance
per se. There is no artifice whatsoever in the enactment. Weiss is not
a "performance artist" in the traditional sense. First of all,
her body embodies the syncope, and that body inhabits intervals that are
her own as she dramatically represents the self in action and gesture
but most importantly, she simply is. She achieves rapturous syncope in
this movement of removal, within disappearance, and voluntarily in absentia
said, "This exceptional moment makes the surrounding world and its
harsh laws disappear." (4) One such harsh and unyielding law is,
of course, that of the temporal. Weiss has said of this work: "Water
evokes in me a desire to immerse myself, to be away from the world and
to hide in (and not from) disappearance." (5) Hiding in disappearance
means inhabiting syncope, escaping from the constraints of linear time.
By entering "the blessed syncope of supreme moments," artists
and mystics escape the enervating constraints of these harsh laws and
become "free, with an unreal and extraordinary sense of emancipation."
(6) This fluid shifting of the body in and out of time - which occurs
frequently in her performances and usually at the height of syncope when
ecstasy is hatched - is one wherein Weiss temporarily loses "the
secured identity that constitutes (her) as a single member of the social
body" Weiss deliberately embraces and works with the syncope as a
way to unhinge herself from society and its timeline. She knows that,
within its ambit is a horizon of meaning for a carnal subject and the
prospect of rapture. (7) Weiss sees Ennoia as we do, as a poetic experiment
in liminality, an experience of syncope, catalepsy, and ecstasy.
is an analogy to be pursued between the structure of the ritual enactment
and the model of syncope found in music. Interestingly, Weiss was originally
trained as a musician. In conversation, Weiss said: "Syncope is to
me also an important way of breaking the melody into another realm, transgressing
the harmony and the rhythm in classical music." (8) In his Dictionary
of Music, Jean-Jacques Rousseau formulated it as: " Syncope: prolongation
on the strong (beat) of a sound begun on the weak (beat); wherefore, every
syncopated note is in counter time and every collection of syncopated
notes is a movement in counter time." (9) It is hard not to liken
this to Weiss's movements whether drawing with her body on the floor or
rising from and returning to the dark well.
queen of rhythm, syncope is also the mother of dissonance; it is the source,
in short, of a harmonious and productive discord. Attack and haven, collision;
a fragment of the beat disappears, and of this disappearance, rhythm is
of course, Rousseau's dismantling of syncope into different moments of
weak and strong beats is an unlikely forerunner of Lacan's "mirror
phase," and a telling reference where Weiss's work is concerned.
Why? Beyond the rhythms of movement, the dimension of sound in her installations
is just as significant in forcing the limits of the self. (11)
signature understanding of temporality bears a striking resemblance to
that of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty: a sense of time
as an institution, a system of equivalences with infinite interstices.
(12) Time is not an absolute series of events. Perception is itself dialogical
rather than monological. The dialogue in question is one between the seer
and the seen. The body that surrenders itself into syncope resonates not
only with the flesh of the world that still encompasses it but with the
prospect of the atemporal as well. Syncope often means acceleration, but
witnessing Weiss's enjambement - as in metrics - is to perceive time as
stalled even as we are pulled inexorably into the future. She slows time
down in her performances - and then steps outside it. As an enactor, she
constitutes time in her own way, and ecstatically so. She installs herself
in counter time, and when a fragment of the beat disappears, so to speak,
her own magnetic rhythms are born.
Visisble and Invisible, Merleau-Ponty spoke of the "strange adhesion"
of the seer and the visible. He said:
is vision, touch, when a certain visible, a certain tangible, turns back
upon the whole of the visible, the whole of the tangible, of which it
is a part, or when suddenly it finds itself surrounded by them, or when
between it and them, and through their commerce, is formed a Visibility,
a Tangible in itself, which belong properly neither to the body qua fact
nor to the world qua fact - as upon two mirrors facing one another where
two indefinite series of images set in one another arise which belong
really to neither of the two surfaces, since each is only the rejoinder
of the other, and which therefore form a couple, a couple more real then
either of them. (13)
invokes the narcissism of all vision, at least insofar as her viewers
are concerned, and in so doing, catches us up in her own network of intimate
relations, making us complicit in the making of meaning, implicating us
in a fluid, borderless, reciprocal perception of the intertwining of self
and world. In seeing into her work, we see ourselves there in her place.
We place ourselves, as it were, in her shoes. Our own bodies, caught like
flies in amber and held within the spectacle, in a reciprocal insertion
and intertwining of ourselves in the Other, always reminds us that Monika
Weiss's is a deeply empathic art.
White Chalice (Ennoia), which was installed at the Chelsea Art Museum
in New York in 2004, also shown at the artist's New York dealer Remy Toledo
Gallery in 2004 and reprised in the current exhibition at the Lehman College
Art Gallery. In this work, the image of the artist's curled-up figure
is projected into the surface of the water, now only a virtual reflection
of the presence of her body in the water. Weiss has said of this work:
"But if this earth is only the dispersion of the body, can we cross
the distance and conquer the absence? This is a separation, a sensitive
interval that brings back the presence." (14) This work also signals
the intertwining, and it is interactive, because we see ourselves mirrored
within it, and then, at a certain point, the figure seems to stare back
at us. This reversibility alerts us once again to the empathetic and truly
dialogical nature of her art.
Elytron, performed at the Chelsea Art Museum in March, 2003. For many
hours she immersed herself in an octagonal baptismal font filled with
black paint and water. She emerged from time to time and rolled or crawled
across the gallery floor that was covered with white paper. Naked throughout
this ritual, she used her own body to draw, wet with its own ink, as it
were, like a cephalod from the abyssmal depths of the ocean, and the subsequent
traceries incarnated the surface of her own soma as living voice.
Jung would have said, Weiss had stepped down to the dark well and drank
deep of its restorative waters, returning to the lifeworld with self-knowledge
and new-found powers of endurance and testimony. Her performative work
is a means of transmitting timeless truths of interiority and interval,
elision and rapturous presence to her viewers. Her respect for the bodies
of those viewers extends to embracing them within her work, whether sharing
in creative labour, party to their mirroring there or insisting they remain
silent, intent witnesses in the face of that creation.
Weiss uses the surface of her own skin as drawing brush, as living elision,
fluid boundary, rapturous syncope. We never doubt the stakes, for her,
in so doing, and her radiant courage exerts its own magnetic pull upon
us and stakes its own claim on our attention and our emotions. The body
of the artist itself is protagonist here; and syncope its living, poignant
Koiman, an ambitious mixed media site-specific video-sound-object work
that was exhibited at Space 1181 in Atlanta, Georgia in 1998. Using a
wall-sized video-projection, an 800-pound cast-concrete baptismal font,
60 gallons of used motor oil, a mound of blue-painted earth and prerecorded
ambient train sounds, Weiss constructed a moving and interrogatory installation.
The oil continuously overflowed the rim of the vessel, and the river of
oil issued forth across the slanted gallery floor and led towards the
wall where a video projection showed two androgynous figures. One was
kneeling and suckling at the breast of the other, as though licking tarry,
coagulated life's blood dribbling from the nipple of a breast. The constant
overlaid soundtrack of trains being switched and shunted at a station
lent a haunting audio complement to the eerie tableaux that reminded us
of a painting by surrealist Paul Delvaux and once again signaled the necessary
role of sound in Weiss's work. In this powerfully synaesthetic work, in
which all the senses were implicated, Weiss once again demonstrated her
desire to breach all boundaries, dislocate the time sense and invoke the
(from the Greek "to put to sleep to coffin") was inspired by
the confessions of Saint Catherine of Sienna, who claimed to have drunk
sustaining blood from the open wound in the side of Christ. This work,
concerned with the body, vampirism, memory and the self is also about
ritual - and its intention is to effect a wholesale disruption of the
condition of being here in the lifeworld. Syncope entails such a momentous
ejection from the space-time continua. The ejection entails a loss of
ordinary consciousness. Unlike most artists, who must return to the Real
to use the knowledge and insight gained from a sortie in Outer Darkness,
Weiss enacts, often with her own body as vehicle and palette, the travails
and rituals necessary for the acquisition of self-knowledge and thus she
resolutely pushes her work forwards.
work is predicated on the construction and, we might suggest, the consecration
and celebration (given her frequent use of the baptismal font as a model
for the vessels in which she seeks alchemical, crucible-like transformation)
of a wholly liminal ritual space, with the body somehow interpolated instrumentally
between biology and culture. So methodically and poetically are these
situations pieced together, as though from whole cloth, that their subtlest
adumbrations effortlessly implicate the observer, asking that we willingly
submit, and often over long periods of time, to her own idea and order
of timelessness, and, if we choose to do so, her own vision of syncope
somehow then becomes our own. Arguably, she is one of very few artists
now working who pursue syncope as an intrinsic philosophy underlying the
work: "a surprise, a delay of life, a violent anticipation, and a
slow return to what one calls the 'self'." (15)
she feels so intensely may be accessible to us as well, if and when we
give ourselves over completely to the claim the work stakes upon us. The
subsequent understanding not only of her intention but the level of our
own engagement with that work convinces us not only of the analeptic nature
of the syncope but the very real possibilities her installations offer
for extracting ourselves from the progressive order of linear time - and
immersing ourselves in the spaces in between. In placing ourselves apart,
mute but never more optically and imaginatively alive, we commune with
her in syncope.
syncopating rhythms both disrupt and, paradoxically, prolong time. In
performance, her repetition and syncopation possesses a powerful magnetism
that means not turning away but attending to it over time, with intensity
and avowal. Her work has a radical disconnect built-in that holds us in
a trancelike, hypnotic state. Syncope is also a little death, but the
self needs to die in fractional ways in order that it might live. Weiss
wants to cross boundaries and subvert from within. Death is close, she
seems to say, but the affirmation of what it is to be alive is even closer.
also lives in the artist's magnificent drawings, which are the touchstone
of her art. Speaking of the many drawings she has executed over the last
few years, the intimacy and anguished charisma of which can reduce us
to tears in a heartbeat, she speaks of the legion of traces and syncopated
gestures left behind in those works. The charcoal marks always point to
the body, her body, our body, and they are living "intervals of time".
They have no stasis in them. When Clément asks, "Where is
the lost syllable, the beat eaten away by the rhythm? Where does the subject
go who later comes to, 'comes back?' Where am I in syncope?" (16)
Weiss would probably say "Inside my work, in the drawn mark. That
is where I live and think and bleed." For it is in the trace of soma,
the memory trace and the residue of the body's arc-like trajectory across
the numinous interval, the absence, the gap, and the remnants of all manner
of possible worlds long since extinguished, that being still resides.
understands the lived-body as passage, threshold, pure liminality, and
permeable membrane when she finds herself willfully waylaid in her own
work, retracing her own perilous trajectory from birth to where she is
now. "Where am I in syncope?" is a question she has asked herself
time and time again, and if the answer still eludes her, it is because
there is always another drawing to execute, another installation to conceive,
another performance to enact. Where does the self find itself in the folklore
of the moment, rife with memory traces, in that tense and unfathomable
interval between interiority and exteriority, between living and dying,
past and present?
is segregated in its time-stream but also irremediably wed to a temporality
that is, by nature, inimical and the body is subject to its perennial
rites of attrition. Monika Weiss acts as witness to that attrition even
as she, in ritual and repetitive acts, escapes for a time the humbling
stream of real duration, and in stepping outside it, shows us all how
a self might inhabit a break in linearity and make it her own - a place
to be and think within, perhaps? Where is she in syncope? Certainly, outside
the comforting predictability of the mainstream, outside the stream of
a physical time which never stops. She is on the lip of the dark well.
On the precipice, where there is no safe harbor, and only hazard as fissures
open up all around in the fabric of certainty, and the self must bow irrevocably
earthwards to the darkness in its own nature.
has over the years executed an extensive corpus of drawings. She has said,
"I position the human body outside time or defined space." (17)
She is literally drawing a radius across the full breadth of syncope in
these works with her own aging body as sector, alembic and divining rod,
as though possessed by its own carnal geometry, tracing out the luminous
grid of the interval, the "moments in and out of time" across
the full array of the sensible of which she is so ineluctably a part.
drawing she is just as aware of the reversibility of the seeing and the
visible, of the touching and the touched, as in all of her other work.
Her large-scale drawings in a continuing series of harrowing representations
of her own body in a curled-up or standing positions, shadows on the face
of the deep, invoke and provoke the reversibility which is integral to
her manner of working, whatever the medium, and are always predicated
on the medium of her own body as best conduit of expression and shifting
shadow between the visible and the invisible, the seer and the seen.
the ecstatic Milk Series (2001), exhibited at Galerie Samuel Lallouz in
Montréal in 2005 and in this exhibition at the Lehman College Art
Gallery, a series of small-scale drawings executed with pencil, crayon,
milk, cream and hair-dye. These drawings reference the concept of fluidity
that is so central to her work. As she says, "Fluids have no boundaries
and as such they connote the lack of boundaries between the self, the
body and the world." (18)
Skulenie (2003), a particularly haunting charcoal drawing on photographic
backdrop paper. And what haunts us? What haunts us is the memory of the
artist's presence impressed on the ground, the seductive traceries of
her touch and the raw physical labor and imaginative toil in the making.
The syncope haunts us even as it instructs us in its subversive anarchy,
in its refusal to yield to the time-binding oral culture. As Clément
said: "Syncope is resistance, rebellion, rejection of the world and
the dissolution of the subject... But we must go further to understand
why no creation is possible without the syncope of the subject. From then
on signs - clearly apparent - of a remarkable return of the past in the
present begin to change meaning and appearance." (19)
Weiss's remarkable attempt to bevel the rough edges of consciousness and
to make us more supple, more receptive and more sensitive to the hermeneutics
of her open work, to win freedom from time and from the hegemony and tyranny
of the sign, is always deeply moving, has powerful authenticity and is,
above all, that rarest of things, a genuine epiphany in the ever-darkening
and restless waters of contemporary art.
Catalogue essay published in conjunction with the exhibition "Monika Weiss: Five Rivers. Installation, drawing, performance, video and sound" at Lehman College Art Gallery, New York, September 6 - December 16, 2005.