by Hilary Schaper
I would propose that art is a continual examination of the human being’s potential to perceive, know, understand and act in the world. -Robert Irwin
I try not to find the form too soon. Instead I try to think about it as an idea without shape. – Maya Lin
Chained, wrapped, tied, swathed, muzzled, shackled. Bondage is familiar to me. Not sexually. Psychically.
I glided backwards, skimming over the broad, icy expanse, crossing one foot over the other, etching a loop around the rink. The air exhilarated–blew my hair and teased the skin of my face. My breath came quick and eager. I reached my right leg behind me, picked the ice with my blade, lifted into the air, and hugged my arms in close. I spun twice, and fell. Hard.
Brushing the frost from my skirt, I pushed up from the ice. I skated forward, turned backward, gathered speed, set up again for the double flip, and leapt. New heights. A graceful landing.
That may have been the last time that I propelled myself into the air with such abandon, such glee. Then, nothing was out of reach. I could go anywhere, and do anything–rote affirmations my father frequently repeated. I could stretch my hand into the night and pluck a star from the sky. How I ache to believe that that was true. I don’t want to look back and realize that, even then, as an adolescent awakening to the world, I pulled myself back from life, afraid of failing. But I know that I did. If I were honest, I’d tell you that, though ice-skating was my childhood passion, I shied away from pushing myself. It’s not that I wasn’t a good skater; I was very good. It’s that never let myself soar. I never even let myself take off.
Often, on Saturday afternoons when I was a child, my father and I visited the Egyptian mummies at the University Art Museum. We walked the few blocks from his office across the campus, along narrow paths in full leaf in summer, passing brick buildings–in which, years later, I would attend classes–following a heavily trafficked street, and crossing over an old railroad bridge. Usually, we were alone with the silent mummies. Though they stood upright, our eyes never met for they towered over me. Their uniform shapes and decorative hieroglyphics pleased my sense of order; their bright colors and intricate drawings fascinated me. “Look, Dad, there’s a hand, an arm. Wow! Look at that, it’s a bird, you know, the kind the Egyptians worshipped.” “A falcon, yes.” I drew closer and closer examining the small paintings of snakes, lions, baskets, and leaves. And I spied, too, another display–though I’m not sure at that museum. In a separate glass case, beneath cloth dressings, the skeletal frame of a mummified person, its bones jutting out, supported the weight of its bindings. And another–perhaps elsewhere also–a mummy sliced in two in cross-section, like a circus magic trick, allowing the viewer to observe its layers of bondage.
Trapped, motionless in a landscape of injury. Wrapped and sheathed in layers of bandages, one upon another, upon another. Bound alive, the world closed off to me. Knees stripped of cartilages, scraped clean, beneath black sutures carving deep serrated edges along the inside of the knees, beneath soggy gauze bitter with pus and iodine, beneath padded fabric braces with metal stays. The bandages buffered me from the world, and, in a sense, from myself. They swallowed me up, suffocating me beneath their shrouding, sucking the air from my lungs.
As a teenager, I was not inclined to think in symbolic terms, although I’ve always discerned connections between things, always intuited patterns. Now though, decades later, I imagine
that the knee injuries and dressings spoke of my psychic anguish, one, which continues today:
a holding back, a terror of flight. Perhaps it prefigured the stranglehold at my throat as I sit down to write this piece. Or maybe, those injuries revealed themselves first in my knees, and then moved upward along my spine to a location from which release might be possible, like the breath I exhale from the root, pelvic and abdominal chakras, the body’s energy centers in yogic philosophy.
I sit at my desk, a pad of lined white paper on my lap, a black pen in my hand. Tension spreads across my back, just below the shoulder blades. My throat constricts as if clay were settling at its base, atop my larynx and vocal chords, forcing them shut, burying them under an enormous weight. I am choking something down. For a moment, the cartoon image of a snake eating a rodent, whose round body protrudes at the middle of the snake’s slender profile, comes to mind. Bile fills my mouth. I force myself to swallow for the tightness prevents the usual automatic response. In a recent discussion of the chakras in yoga class, I learned that the fifth chakra, the throat chakra, is connected to creative expression. “I know you’re a writer,” my instructor said. “When reciting the part of the Sanskrit chant, Ohm janaha, which corresponds to that area, place your hands lightly on your neck. Focus your attention there.”
I consider this terror, and how to describe it. In the darkness, I grope for a central, unifying metaphor for this block, an image that conveys its stricture, its bondage. In another piece, I wrote of cutting into a pomegranate. Describing that process was like piercing the fruit’s skin — a discovery tense with surprises, visceral, satisfying. The language came easily.
“I inserted the knife tip into the smooth leathery skin of the pomegranate. Thin juice spilled out, staining my fingers, the white cutting board and the countertop. I cut deeper into the fruit and broke it in half–a creamy-colored honeycomb studded with translucent ruby-like tesserae, the honeycomb protecting and buffering its seeds. With my fingers, I pried the seeds from their packing, causing some to rupture and dye the honeycomb. I turned the crimson teardrops over and over in my hands.”
I search for the source of the tension in my throat, in my life. Enthralled by the literature I was reading in college–Othello, The Wasteland, The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–I yearned to write. I never dared, though, daunted by my father’s prodding to write the Great American novel before I’d written even a single story. For many years, this desire festered, just below my consciousness. Years later, after mentioning to my college roommate that I’d begun to write, her response that I had always wanted to do that, surprised me for I’d forgotten that my longing stretched back that far. I identified with the women college students Verlyn Klinkenborg described in his October 15, 2007 New York Times article, “Politeness and Authority at a Hilltop College in Minnesota.” He could hear them, he wrote, “questioning the very nature of their perceptions, doubting the evidence of their senses, distrusting the clarity of their thoughts.”
Yet, once, after being with my father-in-law, the words I wrote describing that experience arrived with little fanfare, almost unbidden, and captured its unexpected beauty and mystery.
“I think I’ll go find my dear wife. Okay, Bob,” he said to himself, “keep going. One foot in front of the other. You’ve done it before.” He chuckled.
“Yes,” I said, “you’ve done it many times before.” He followed his wife and son outside as they left and began walking down the driveway after the car.
“Are you going for a walk?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Am I?”
“Do you want to?”
“Yes, yes I do,” he answered, pausing and turning 360 degrees. Like a child showing a new discovery to his mother, he pointed to the bougainvillea bush, now mostly bare of flowers.
“A little while ago, there were red flowers. Lots of red flowers. A wall of red flowers.”
“Yes,” I replied, “I see some now.”
“Lots and lots of red flowers. Beautiful, beautiful flowers. It was marvelous.”
“Yes, I imagine it was.”
We walked down the driveway. A ghost, he followed several steps behind me. As we reached the bottom, I pointed to the tall wild grasses.
“Look,” I said, “This grass is purple. Feel how soft it is.” He touched a long blade of grass, his fingers lingering at its end.
“The sun is very hot today,” he said. “It’s very hot today. I’m standing in the sun.”
“That’s right you are. The sun feels good, doesn’t it?”
“I’m not at all daunted by what lies ahead,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to feel sad.”
At WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, a Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, exhibition, three objects of art, in particular, drew me to them, though I didn’t then know why. I have written and rewritten descriptions of the photographs of Annegret Soltau’s disturbing performance of binding herself in string, Helena Almeida’s photos of a woman painting over her image, and Kirsten Justesen’s sculpture of a woman in a box. Through these efforts, I hope that a new thought or insight will arise to clarify my own torment.
This can happen. It has happened. Often, an image lodges in my mind, at times prompted by something I’ve seen, at times not. I imagined how the ice looked to my adolescent self, as I opened the door to the skating rink in the still-dark morning. I saw again the bright glare of the lights high above the ice. I remember the smell–musty, unchanging–the overwhelming silence, the whiteness. I wrote:
“A cocoon woven of white, of hush. Serene. Like snow falling at dusk.
An expanse of ice. A tundra. Hard, flat, bare.
An expanse of ice. Silent, unmarked, welcoming.”
The description carried me along. I followed, not knowing where it would lead. Trust, I reminded myself, trust the process. Something will come, something that awaits the opportunity to reveal itself. And:
“The ice smooth, wiped clean of errors, a kind of forgiveness. A starting over, and over, and over again. There, she scribbles her frustrations, burying them as her blades carve the ice. There, she etches her dreams.”
But the more I explain my attempts to write, the harder the words come, the tighter my throat clamps shut. I’m terrified that I can’t breathe. When I open my mouth to speak, no sound emerges.
This image nudges me, and then jabs at me. I have to write about it. But how? I stand yards away, squinting to better see its contour, scale, dimensions. I examine it from this angle and that, from the right and the left. I scribble a description of how it feels to be blocked in writing–struck dumb, voiceless. I move closer and circle, sniffing. My eyes open wide. In the bright sun, the image’s texture and composition become clearer. I try to give it expression. “A silent cry. A muffled scream.” Closer, closer. “My speech aborted.” I want to capture not only my inability to speak, and my feeling of being prohibited from speaking, but also the urgent need I have to speak, to write. “My voice strangled. My voice squelched. My voice crushed. ” My circles become tighter and tighter. “A mute howl.”
A mute howl, urgent, insistent. I vomit string, strands and strands of string, stuffed down my throat, caught on my uvula, glued to my teeth, wrapped around my tongue, paralyzing it, preventing any utterance. I am the artist Soltau standing before the camera in Permanente Demonstration am 19.1.1976. Countless threads bind her face, neck and bare chest. They cross her eyes at a slight diagonal, pressing on them, clamping them shut. From her wide-open mouth, gobs of string erupt, cascade below her chin, gather at her neck in an untangle-able web, and smother her alive. She, I, alien beings.
A mute howl. My larynx crushed. One morning while meditating on my throat area, I saw myself submerged in a murky sea, confined in a compression chamber–a glass coffin-like space—hoses and wires coiled around me, immobilizing me, and obscuring my view. I tried to adjust my position to see, without success. I felt only the dizzying motion of manta rays circling my chamber, heard only the eerie sound of parrotfish gnawing on coral.
A mute howl. My vocal chords dangle in shards. Several months ago, I clutched my throat when I told my husband of my need to write about this block.
“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” I whispered, as I massaged the front of my neck.
“Take a deep breath,” he said, “Come on. You’re okay.”
“You’re okay. Take a deep breath. Come on. A deep breath.” But the fear closed in. My throat slammed shut.
For I want to write, want to admit this ambition but fear to do so.
A mute howl. I’ve silenced myself, stifled my words, refused to give voice to all that is me.
In her Pintura habitada, 1975, details, artist Almeida painted over parts of herself in black and white photographs. In the four I notice, mounted adjacent to each other in two rows, she holds
a paintbrush. In the top two, she faces her mirror image and paints an electric blue line on the photograph. In the one at the bottom left, she turns away from her image; wide blue brush-strokes, hasty and angry, obliterate it. The camera captures her profile. In the bottom right photo, a dense ball of blue obscures her face.
Powerful and frightening in their obliteration of the self, these photographs leave intact the image of the painter–or her mirror image. Perhaps they address the integration–or disintegration–of the self. Perhaps, they attest to the impossibility of annihilating a part of oneself and leaving the rest unscathed. These images wend their way into my mind.
I stand pen in hand, and peer at the mirror. My desecrated self stares back. I, too, have blotted out a part of myself. I, too, have lost my reflection, and my ability to see all that I am. And, as I write this, my throat, which had started to relax, if only a bit, tenses again. I close my eyes. A dry sob forces its way out of me. I shudder. My stomach clenches.
Such terror is familiar to me. Years ago when I wrote of another kind of fear, shame weighed heavily on me. Trying to penetrate such a primal feeling and describe it was heart-rending; as an adult, I returned to the paralyzing phobias of my youth.
“As I looked at the girl’s uncombed hair, lifeless eyes, and unkempt demeanor, the trapeze slipped from my hand. My breath quit. I reached out, frantic to grab another swing. This girl terrified me– not because I feared she’d hurt me. She neither knew me nor had reason to wish me ill. No. I feared becoming physically handicapped like her. Flaunting the stigmata of disability would brand me as abnormal and confirm my deepest fear–there was something irremediably wrong with me. I would stand alone and exposed on the other side of the fence. The isolation would force me to face my own abnormality. Though I wasn’t exactly sure of its nature, I was desperate to hide it. The isolation would reinforce my helplessness. After all, at the age of ten, I was seeing a psychiatrist, a stranger, to whom my parents, powerless to save me, had consigned me.”
And, yet, the process of putting this fear into words shined light on it, ferreting it out of its dank, dark cave, defusing it, and transforming it from a hideous secret agony to simpler, fuller life experience.
I keep going in the hope that I’ll discover the right thought, the right image, the right word or combination of words–a magical incantation–to dissolve this block. Soltau’s other work— a series of 14 black and white photographs memorializing her performance, Selbst—assists.
In the first image, she looks into the camera. A single strand of string crosses her face just
below the bridge of her nose. In the next, eyes closed, she faces the camera, three separate strands traversing her face. The third is a partial profile of the second. In the nine subsequent photographs, ever more black strands cross her face and neck. Each image builds on the previous one, each more urgent than its predecessor. The artist’s expression remains calm, her eyes shut in all but one. In the thirteenth, the artist holds a pair of scissors at the right side of her face, creating disquieting suspense. In the next one, the string has been cut from her right cheek area. Her image disappears in the final photograph. She has slithered out from under the binding, leaving a bundle of string in her place.
I could not have conceived of Soltau’s project, nor could I have imagined tying myself in string. Yet, I have done this with reams of paper of unwritten words.
On Thanksgiving, my sister, Anne, leafed through her art portfolio, and extracted an oil pastel drawing from a plastic sleeve. The colors bled together, creating sensuous, integrated images.
“Don’t you think that it’s funny we both ended up in creative fields?” I asked.
“No, not really. Art was one of the two things I liked in my childhood.”
“What was the other?”
“Dogs,” she replied.
“Really, when you think of it, art was where we found beauty.”
“Our salvation,” I said.
A square white cardboard box sits on the gallery floor at the WACK! exhibition, its four top flaps suspended out nearly parallel to the floor. In Kirsten Justesen’s Sculpture II, 1968, a woman curls up in the box. In truth, the artist has photographed her subject atop an enclosure, which replicates the inside of a box, and has positioned the photograph at the box’s opening, aligning it with the box’s top edge. In the photograph, the woman folds in on herself from the waist, her back and shoulders visible, her right thigh splaying out from under her, and her left foot peeking out from under her arms. Her head, turned to the right, rests on her forearms; her long dark mane falls over her left shoulder, cradling her face.
Though I do not resemble this woman, I know that I am the woman in the box. The top flaps hang open. I remain still, hunched and cowering. So used to the sensation of the cardboard pressing in on me, I cannot rise. Like a freed slave who remains in servitude, I know nothing else. My legs ache from my imprisonment. I want to look out, but I am warm, and safe here, and the tension in my throat has dissipated. As I consider rising, my throat begins to close again. And once more, I imagine standing, pushing up from my haunches, straightening my torso, stretching, rising, and stepping out.
Certainly, I have been the woman in the box. Folded in on myself. Stunted. Paralyzed. At the museum, this piece appears under the curatorial category “Taped and Measured.” I have taken the measure of this space I once inhabited. Its dimensions–no longer tailored to me–are off. And, as this thought washes over me, my throat loosens. Bringing my hand to my neck and touching my Adam’s apple, I breathe into my fifth chakra, Om janaha. I push up from my crouch. Stand. My legs wobble slightly. Steadying myself, I lift my right foot out of the box, and plant it firmly on the floor. Then the left one. The tape measure falls from my hand, retracting into its metal case.
Hilary Schaper is a writer living in Los Angeles, and a graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Last year, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has earned Honorable Mention in New Letters’Dorothy Churchill Cappon nonfiction contest, and has appeared in Hotel Amerika, Mad Hatters’ Review, Shadowbox, Shark Reef, and SLAB.