On Vulnerability and Generosity
when I leave I will be measured by what I gave and not what I’ve taken
A conversation between Manuel Mathieu and Denise Helene Sumi
From July 2022 until March 2023, interdisciplinary artist Wilder Alison was a resident at Akademie Schloss Solitude. Engaging in both textual and textile materials, Alison’s work elaborates upon how the interplay of visual art and language might subtly subvert the production of discrete identifications and narrative coherence. During their stay at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Alison continued working on a series of dyed-wool paintings that draw on the innovative literary experiments of Monique Wittig, translating her splitting of the French first-person pronoun »j/e« into a complex visual methodology. In this post, writer and critic Sophia Roxane Rohwetter discusses Alison’s visual engagement with Wittig’s writing, arguing that through its inaccurate replication into pictorial space, the split acts as a linguistic, material, and formal device.
by Sophia Roxane Rohwetter — Mai 25, 2023
Wilder Alison, »ochre—buoyed—gaze— a v/olet assurance«, Dyed wool and thread, 117cm x136cm, 2023. Photo: Pierre LeHors
Wilder Alison, »/cter/c knot. or clasp«, 46cm x 56cm, Dyed wool and thread, 2021. Photo: Pierre LeHors
»For me, Wittig opened up a sense of the world that had been, quite literally, unimaginable. She tore us apart.«
– Judith Butler, 2007
I recently took part in a workshop on queer translation that attended to both the difficulty and the pleasure involved in translating the works of French writer and early queer theorist Monique Wittig (1935–2003). With performance artist Antonia Baehr; cultural theorist Nanna Heidenreich; and Daniel Hendrickson, translator, musician, and member of the legendary artist group CHEAP, we engaged with Wittig’s writings through collective annotations, polyphonic readings, influential misreadings,1 and performative translations. Wittig’s experimental use of language, specifically the »impossible grammar«2 of her ever-changing experiments with pronouns – from the universal, impersonal »on« in her first novel L’opoponax (1964) (translatable as »we,« »you,« and »one,« while the French incorporates all three) to the use of the collective feminine subject »elles« in Les Guérillères (1969) (as a way to universalize the lesbian subject and severely mistranslated as »the women«) to the split subject »j/e« in Le corps lesbienne (1973) – challenges practices of reading and translating, insisting that readers and translators renegotiate the signs and signifiers. Specifically, the translation of the latter – the splitting of the French first-person pronoun »j/e« – demands careful consideration. How can this split be translated into English, a language in which the subject »I« appears as a monosyllabic letter? How to divide one into two? In the first translation from 1975, David Le Vay, an eminent practicing anatomist and surgeon turned feminist translator, did not dare to dissect language in the same way he might have dissected the real human body, and instead italicized the literary subject »I,« turning I into I (the slash appears only in »m/e« and »m/y«). But doesn’t the italicized »I« produce an emphasis rather than an expression of its alienation, a strengthening of the ego rather than a wrestling with the subject’s constitutive alienating identifications?
For Wittig, the split »j/e« is a sign of the alienating division the lesbian subject experiences in language – a straight and patriarchal language that fails to accommodate invisible modes of disidentification, multiplicities, and forms of female collectivity. In the foreword to The Lesbian Body, Wittig writes: »›I‹ [Je] obliterates the fact that elle or elles are submerged in il or ils, i.e., that all the feminine persons are complementary to the masculine persons … The ›I‹ [Je] who writes is alien to her own writing at every word because this ›I‹ [Je] uses a language alien to her; this ›I‹ [Je] experiences what is alien to her since this ›I‹ [Je] cannot be ›un ecrivain‹… J/e is the symbol of the lived, rending experience which is m/y writing, of this cutting in two which throughout literature is the exercise of a language which does not constitute m/e as subject.«3
If the English language lacks a symbol for this cutting into two, what other, perhaps non-linguistic techniques of splitting could one, elles, I imagine? The visual artist Wilder Alison took up that question a while ago and has since been developing a visual vocabulary that draws on Wittig’s »new grammar of difference,«4 while composing their own artistic interpretations and material translations of Wittig’s writings.
Wilder Alison, »afface & f/lm a l/ve ch/ll «, 2022 (left), »lapped. tease a shallow ch/ll« (right wall, left), »lapped. taste a sheer gape« (right wall, right), 2022, installation view, Gaa Gallery, Cologne 2022. Photo: Mareike Tocha
Wilder Alison, »coral arcs an apexed pane«, 2022 (left), »v/sage— a vo/d«, 2022 (right), installation view, Gaa Gallery, Cologne 2022. Photo: Mareike Tocha
Alison’s work is rooted in textiles, but has moved through different media and materials such as painting, installation, screen-printing, ceramics, zines, and music (Alison performs in collaboration with psychoanalyst and musician Monroe Street as N0 ST0NES) to find a form in dyed-wool paintings, a practice they first started engaging with in 2014 and returned to in 2018. The wool paintings that Alison literally refers to as »slit subjects« use the impossibility of translating Wittig’s split subject as their guiding conceptual and compositional structure. Instead of italizing the I, a graphic technique through which the subject bends only slightly, Alison reinforces the subject’s division and renders it the slash itself, turning I into /. The split, then, does not appear between two letters, as something experienced within the subject, but the subject becomes this very split.5 As a slash, that is, a diagonal line, rather than an alphabetic letter, the / not only acts as a reference to Wittig’s split subject, but also as an abstract formal element that structures the wool paintings’ compositions. These arise from a complex process, in which artistic agency and contingency of color collide. This process begins with off-white wool fabric that resembles raw canvas, which Alison soaks in water, folds, and then dips and dyes in color baths. The colors only reveal themselves when saturating and staining the fabric and often take shape in concentrated areas of dye or with gentle waves that reflect the dye pot’s curvature. The dyed-wool fabric is then cut, reconfigured, and sewn into new compositions whose seams evoke the slashed /. Thus, the slash is a constructive device that holds the fabric fragments together, thereby countering »the long history of male artists’ enactment of destructive slashes, such as Lucio Fontana’s famous slits, made by the artist literally cutting into the canvas.«6 However, like Wittig’s slashed »j/e,« the / stitches also act as visual interruptions that question the idea of a composition as a complete and commensurable whole. The impossibility of wholeness is also suggested by the serial structure of the paintings, through which the »body of work« is cut into individual fragments of an unknown, perhaps unattainable whole. Since the slash always cuts and composes in different ways, the paintings seem to repeat in infinite variations and call into question the autonomy of the different parts and their relation to the determining structure.
Alison uses the / in some of the paintings’ titles as well, as for example in b/ink a rapid s/it – wa/shed darts – (2020), in which the slash splits a word to give it multiple meanings – b/ink becomes readable as both blink and ink, and as one blinks at the dark blue spots in the painting, the turn into ink and painting becomes writing – and s/it quite literally slitsthe subject (s) from the object (it).
In an artist statement on the wool paintings, Alison writes: »I’m interested in the split subjectivity that Wittig proposes, not only vis à vis the confusion of self and other, or interior and exterior selves, but the possibility that by inevitably failing to elucidate selfhood and identity, language itself engenders a split between the mind and the subject’s context in the world.«7 Because language is separated from reality and tied to the symbolic, there is always something about the subject which cannot be represented in language, and thus, signification divides the subject. Alison translates this function of language as both a constitutive and an alienating structure by turning the slashed subject into a formal element that is both composing and decomposing the image. Multiple splits cross the paintings as vertical lines, connecting and disconnecting, organizing and disorganizing patterns and compositions, often stretching over diptychs and triptychs. If the multipanel structure and expressive use of color is reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist paintings by Joan Mitchell or Helen Frankenthaler, the slash produces abstract forms and color fields that diverge into geometric abstractions, sometimes evoking the paintings and fabric designs of Sonia Delauney, while also alluding to the abstractions of digital imagery.
Wilder Alison in their studio at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart 2023. Photo: Jana Hochdorfer
Alison has spoken of the dyed-wool paintings as »secret abstractions.« Their enigmatic secret may lie in their complex compositional structure, a structure disrupted by stitches that remain invisible and only appear through the symbol of the slash. But even the slash is not always immediately visible; it often hides in plain sight or appears in multiples, or, perhaps in an attempt to form a word or sound, it transforms into an S or Z. But the subject, split by language, is there, somewhere in pictorial space, eluding our gaze, forcing us to keep looking, allowing us to see its multitudes that are often obscured within representations that aim for wholeness or unification.
Alison’s practice is rooted, as they state, in »a defiance of coherence that is motivated by the failure of language and culture to accommodate invisible modes of (dis-)identification with gender binaries and the neurotypical.«8 Thus, it is a form of repetition that is not aiming at mimesis or sameness, but one that engenders disidentifications, loops of apprehension, dis- and mis-registrations, and is akin to what the late queer theorist Leo Bersani,9 in his engagement with questions of identity, difference, and repetition, has called »inaccurate replication.« The term describes a peculiar notion of nonidentitarian sameness – a kind of sameness that’s not identity – that he relates to the structure of homosexual sex. He writes: »Each man fucking the other replicated himself in the other, and they both replicate themselves outside, but there’s no identity here. […] Inaccurate replication, nonidentarian sameness: it corresponds to homosexual sex – not necessarily as practiced (very often the difference between the sexes is reconstituted and played out between two men or two women), but the homosexual as category, as sameness in which the relation to difference would be a non-threatening supplement to sameness. At his or her best, the homosexual is a failed subject, one that needs its identity to be cloned, or inaccurately replicated, outside of it. This is the strength, not the weakness, of homosexuality, for a nihilistic civilization has been built on the foundation of a (factitious) inviolable subject. This is so important because I think the only way we can love the other or the external world is to find ourselves somehow in it. Only then can there be a nonviolent relation to the external world that doesn’t seek to exterminate difference. In this sense, ›the homosexual‹ might be a model of this kind of communication of forms.«10
Unstretched dyed-wool paintings created during the residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude, studio of Wilder Alison at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart 2023. Photo: Gabriela Kühnhardt Alvarez
A pile of unstretched dyed-wool paintings created during the residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude, studio of Wilder Alison at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart 2023. Photo: Gabriela Kühnhardt Alvarez
In Alison’s work, there is a similar nonidentical sameness, a »communication of forms« that is replicatory rather than identificatory: fragmented patterns, crossing lines and geometrical forms are doubled or mirrored and seem to have been replicated, but in in a way that will always remain inaccurate.
It is interesting to see how Bersani develops a formal concept through the structure of homosexual sex. Something similar happens in Wittig’s writings: through a materialist practice of writing, Wittig not only dissects and reworks the structure of language, but also, and perhaps above all, reworks the anatomy of the female body, dissecting it into discrete pieces by and through lesbian sexuality. Her writing is thus not only a symbolic act, but a material action: »Whereas one might say that Wittig is but a textualist, believing in the avant-garde presumption that rearranging language rearranges reality, it is important to remember that she is also a materialist and that she does not accept a distinction between the textual and the material in the last instance.«11 This concurrency of text and material is perhaps most evident in The Lesbian Body,which subsumes all the words of the female body and seeks to find and form a language that can articulate a body that is yet to be attained: »The fascination for writing the never previously written and the fascination for the unattained body proceed from the same desire.«12 If the writing of the never previously written proceeds from the dismemberment and reorganizing of language, so too is the anatomy of the lesbian body disarticulated and lies there in parts, or as Butler recounts: »For me, Wittig opened up a sense of the world that had been, quite literally, unimaginable. She tore us apart.«13
If Wittig is a materialist textualist, Alison might be a textualist materialist. The series of dyed-wool paintings not only tear language and the material body apart, but also leave us, the viewer, torn apart. If the »I« is split, the eye is also alienated by the visual incoherence it encounters, the gaze ruptured between the stitches, looking for something hidden between the cuts. One might think that through their serial repetition, the paintings might reveal their »hidden secret,« something like a formal principle or a mathematical formula, but it is as if something escapes rational logic or conscious artistic choice, as if the compositional potential of the painting system had developed its own structure, which remains obscured and inaccessible, perhaps unconscious.
It is here, at the level of the unconscious, that I’d like to refer to another and earlier work by Alison – Are You The Goods? (»Les Biennes«) (2018) – that turns to dream life. The interpretation of dreams works, essentially, through the inaccurate replication between the dream-thoughts and the dream-content which are presented to us, as Freud writes in The Interpretation of Dreams, like two versions of the same subject-matter in two different languages. Are You The Goods? (»Les Biennes«) follows a dream Alison once had about a store called »Les Biennes« and consists of an installation of thirty silkscreened paper bags that are hung on the wall and display Alison’s recount of the dream: »I am with Maggie. We are walking in a city. A man on the street asks me, tu es les biennes? I reply, non. Later, we emerge from a bodega called ›Les Biennes‹, and he shoots me from under my car. I live. How’s it going? Do you work here? Did you steal? Are you good? Are you the goods?«
Wilder Alison, »Are You the Goods? (»Les Biennes« mural)«, 2018, installation view CUE Art Foundation, New York 2021. Photo: Kris Graves
Following Freud, the dream work is structured by condensation and displacement, two linguistic processes that Lacan will later refer to as metaphor and metonymy. While condensation names the compression of multiple dream thoughts into one element of a dream-content, through displacement, the dream thought is divorced from its context and consequently transformed into something extraneous. Often, condensation and displacement produce and form around absurd signifiers (I recently read about an anal sex dream Adorno had, in which the nonsensical signifier »Babamüll« relates to an unfulfilled promise of erotic satisfaction). In Alison’s dream, the erroneously feminized version of »les biens« (the goods) turns into a question: tu es les biennes? A question that, by and through mistranslation and misunderstanding, entails multiple, perhaps related questions: Are you a lesbian? Are you the goods, that is, are you for sale? Are you good, or are you dead? In an interview, Alison explained: »The fulcrum of the piece is the (also grammatically incorrect) question asked of the narrator and ›Maggie‹ by a man on the street, Tu es les biennes? I take the question as part greeting, part cat-call. Ça va bien? or How’s it going? Maggie and I may be lovers. Are you lesbians? He addresses us with the singular you. This error, in fact, extends the possible interpretations of our exchange. […] ›Les Biens‹ means ›The Goods.‹ Les Biennes, the feminized version, does not, in fact, exist. Are you good? Are you the goods? In any case, violence attends our refusal to identify. But, I live. In dreaming, to live is to wake up, or to wake up again.«14
Alison’s dream reveals that language, even in the dream, is an action on the body, a question relating to life and death, an exposure that shows that the theories of sexuality that act upon us were never merely formal. The question in question – tu es les biennes?– asks us to get lost in translation and to realize something about the failing structure of language itself.
Inside the studio of Wilder Alison at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart 2023. Photo: Gabriela Kühnhardt Alvarez
Wilder Alison is an American interdisciplinary artist and a 2016 graduate of the Bard MFA Painting program. In recent years, Alison has exhibited work with Gordon-Robichaux, Gaa Gallery, Rachel Uffner, CUE Foundation, and 247365, among others. Recent solo shows include Lacunary Seeming at Lateral Roma (Rome), mirror air error hunger at Gaa Projects (Cologne), A Ripe Blackberry Murmurs to the Wall at FIERMAN (New York), the faucethe drain breach\ a new /ife at Gaa Gallery (Provincetown), and Slit Subjects at White Columns (New York). Alison was a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2022–23 and the Fine Arts Work Center in 2016–17 and 2018–19. Alison has also participated in residencies at Triangle France-Astérides, Lighthouse Works, Fire Island Artist Residency, and Lower East Side Printshop, among others. In late 2023, Alison will present a solo project at KAJE (Brooklyn).
Sophia Roxane Rohwetter works as a writer, critic and translator. She studied cultural theory, philosophy, and art and is currently completing a Master in Critical Studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Her research is invested in the paradoxes of desire and critique and located at the intersection of art theory and psychoanalysis. She regularly writes for Texte zur Kunst and Spike, and has presented her text-based work at Kevin Space Vienna, ICI Berlin, Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin, Galerie für zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, and other places.
A number of scholars have called attention to Judith Butler’s misreading of Wittig in her influential 1990 book Gender Trouble, arguing that Butler »domesticated« Wittig’s radical materialist perspective and misunderstood her ontological disfiguration of the lesbian subject – »the lesbian is not a woman« – as a proclamation of a coherent, unified lesbian identity. However, in a later text, Butler offered a different reading of Wittig in which she foregrounded Wittig’s materialist approach to language, cf. Judith Butler, »Wittig’s Material Practice: Universalizing a Minority Point of View,« GLQ (2007) 13 (4), pp. 519–33.
Ibid., p. 532.
Cf. Monique Wittig: The Lesbian Body, trans. David Le Vay, New York 1975, p. 10f.
Cf. Linda M. G. Zerilli: »A New Grammar of Difference: Monique Wittig’s Poetic Revolution,« in: Namascar Shaktini, On Monique Wittig. Theoretical, Political, and Literary Essays, Urbana/Chicago 2005, pp. 87–115.
Here one might think of Lacan’s barred subject, even though I recently heard someone say that »Lacan has nothing to say about lesbian desire.« While this is a fair point, I think that a comparison between Wittig’s split »j/e« and Lacan’s barred subject could be insightful. These are two, albeit different, sexed subjects divided and alienated by an irreducible split in and through language. For Lacan, the subject is nothing but this very split.
Cf. Ksenia M. Soboleva: »The Queer Feminist Agenda of Wilder Alison’s Abstract Wool Paintings,« in: Hyperallergic, November 21, 2021. Status 25/05/2023, https://hyperallergic.com/695053/the-queer-feminist-agenda-of-wilder-alisons-abstract-wool-paintings/
Cf. Wilder Alison: »I/ statement,« Status 25/05/2023, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1pnoRDrFhYFnOqSNi61D1PD2x3K9lhLfH/view.
Leo Bersani’s notion of »self-shattering« might also be a helpful concept to think through Alison’s and Wittig’s practices of splitting and dissecting the body. In The Freudian Body, Bersani speaks of »self-shattering« – a term he borrows from Jean Laplanche – to describe how all of Sigmund Freud’s influential texts eventually go to pieces, collapse, and shatter.
Leo Bersani: »A Conversation with Leo Bersan,« with Tim Dean, Hal Foster, Kaja Silverman, in: October Vol. 82 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 3–16, here pp. 13f.
Judith Butler: »Wittig’s Material Practice,« in: GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4, Chapel Hill 2007, p. 521.
Wittig: see note 3, p. 10.
Butler: see note 11, p. 531.
Wilder Alison: Original Language. Exh. cat, curated by Natasha Marie Loorens, New York 2018.
© 2023 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author
A conversation between Manuel Mathieu and Denise Helene Sumi
Text by Leonor Carrilho, followed by an interview with Cammisa Buerhaus
Christ Mukenge and Lydia Schellhammer