Siri Hustvedt’s latest work The Blazing World (2014) is a complex and multi-layered novel that deals with the notion of authorship in the art world. The novel shows an intricate play with the concept of authorship and highlights in particular a form of authorship that is rather restrictive. The fictional author/creator constructs an aesthetic experience into which she throws her art visitors who have to struggle to be let out of it, being transformed in the process. This goes against a postmodern understanding of authorship that prefers rather weak and questionable authors who are almost absent from the text. The reader has also a distinct role in postmodern novels: he/she is invited and inspired to take part in the process of making meaning out of a text. In the case of Hustvedt’s novel, however, the fictional author (here, an artist) is a prison guard—watching carefully over how the art visitors react to her art work. The art visitor—analogous to a reader in this relationship—just follows her demands, has to follow them in fact, in order to be able to conclude the experience. The artist named Harriet Burden (who calls herself Harry) does not only scam her audience by showing her work through three personas, she imprisons them into her scams by her art works. These are forceful and lock her audience into aesthetic experiences. In the following, I will explore these locked rooms that Harry creates and how they change the perception of the visitors.
Harriet Burden’s Project—Maskings
Harry’s inner life is concerned with one thing: how can she be seen and recognized as the artist she is? Frustrated by her earlier unsuccessful attempts, she sets up an elaborate conceptual piece, which she titles Maskings. She “engage[s] three men to act as fronts for her own creative work” (Hustvedt 1). These three men are very different in character and social positions, ranging from a completely unknown artist to an art superstar. The reactions that these ‘masks’ produce are different every time. It is these reactions that Harry is interested in. How does the world perceive her work when presented through three different masks? And what does this say about her work and about her audience?
“My time has come, and whatever they say […] is not the point. HOW THEY SEE is all that matters, and they will not see me. Until I step forward” (ibid., 291). Anton Tish, Harry’s first mask, is a young unknown who is catapulted into instant fame by Harry’s input, even though it seems painfully evident that he lacks the intellectual capabilities for the art installation that he presents as his own. However, the art world is infatuated by his ‘fresh’ voice, not suspecting that the sixty year old Harry has produced Tish’s art. Her first mask, thus, seems to confirm all the underlying implications of Harry’s project—it is the role and glamour of the (male) artist that is recognized first, the art piece itself is only secondary. Art becomes memorable first (and maybe only) by looking at its creator and a young man as an artist seems more adequate to the fictional art critics than the elderly Harry. However, Harry does not solely want to shame the art world about their lack of interest in women’s art, she wants to unveil more: “it was meant not only to expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art” (ibid., 1). This becomes evident as her project continues. Harry explores other conventions of perceiving, too, namely those expectations that go along with gender roles and the reactions of an audience towards ‘celebrities.’
Her second mask is a man who has become a friend to her, Phileas Q. Eldrige, an African-American homosexual man, who belongs, by his own account, to two minorities. Eldridge is probably the most collaborative and willing artist in Harry’s project, since he completely understands why he is used: “It was true they didn’t want Harry the artist. […] She was old news, if she had ever been news at all. She was Felix Lord’s widow” (ibid., 134). Even more, Eldridge clearly recognizes his own role in this game, saying that “from behind my nearsighted, mulatto, queer self she [Harry] was able to tell a truth” (ibid., 121). He is also able to grasp Harry’s fascination with masks from a personal stand-point, since he has experienced struggles with social masks and identity throughout his life, triggered by his problems with his homophobic father and the concurrent realization of his homosexuality. In contrast to Anton Tish, however, the collaboration between Harry and Eldridge is almost completely ignored by the art world. Taking on the ‘mask’ Eldridge does not help in making Harry’s art more visible to the world. Even though Eldridge is an ambitious and singular artist, his art works are in general neglected by the critics. Belonging to two minorities at once, he remains unnoticed. Excluded from the inner circle of the art world, he is too invisible himself to help Harry in being recognized. This has only little to do with the quality of the artwork itself. In fact, Harry creates a very similar art piece for her next mask, this time she uses the art superstar called ‘Rune.’ ‘His’ installation, however, is received extremely well and made into the event of the season. Thus, the celebrity trumps the unknown, even though their artworks are extremely similar (as I will discuss later on). It seems that the framing of the artist can make an audience take a closer look which has been conveyed provocatively by Marcel Duchamp almost a hundred years ago with his well-known Fountain (1917). This piece of art played with the fact that the framing of a work of art informs our view of it. It seems that Harry tries out different frames with her art project and the frame that Rune provides makes the art she produces extremely visible. Eldridge reflects on Rune’s role in Harry’s game of art and summarizes pointedly: “In many ways, Rune was a perfect third candidate for Harry. He arrived with ready-made aura, that mysterious quality that infects our eyes so we can’t tell what we’re looking at anymore. Is the emperor naked or am I a fool?” (ibid., 139).
The two art pieces that Harry creates for Rune and Eldridge—and that I haven’t yet described—are interesting to me not only because they reveal that there is a bias when it comes to established artists vs. unknown artists. What is relevant for this discussion is the way both these art pieces function, because I argue that they introduce a new way of perception that Harry puts forward. This perception accomplishes two things—it forces the audience into an uncomfortable position and it also allows the audience to connect to Harry’s own position in life (even though they are unaware of it at that point); she feels restricted, limited and even suffocated by her identity as a sixty year old woman. She has neither youth nor beauty to be considered interesting, and unfortunately her identity has already been decided upon by her environment: she is the wife of a famous man, nothing more. All her efforts have, thus, been reduced to this position, to be the partner of someone, having no value of her own. The fact that she is associated with her husband, a known art collector, only works against her, since she is not considered a ‘real’ artist, more seen as a bored, wise-cracking housewife who is trying to spend her time. All this, nullifies her value as an artist and her need to be one. She yearns for a way to be heard, but her voice is stifled by the condescending critics. Her audience will be similarly suffocated and pressured through Harry’s installations. In the following I wish to explore these two artworks, because they unveil the main idea of Harry’s understanding of art and, more importantly, what it is supposed to do with its viewer.
Eldridge’s art piece The Suffocation Rooms consists of a series of rooms:
It was her [Harry’s] idea that the viewer should shrink each time he or she opened a door and entered a new room. The rooms were nearly identical […] At the beginning of the journey, the furniture fit your median-size adult […] but with each consecutive room, the table and chairs, the cups and plates and bowls and spoons, the writing on the wall-paper grew that much larger, so that by the time you hit the seventh room, the scale of the furniture had turned you into a toddler (ibid., 130-131).
While going through the rooms the viewer is subjected to them. The rooms age, become hotter and, as the quote above describes, the rooms’ furniture grows, and to the person going through the rooms it seems as if he or she is getting smaller. Thus, when the art visitors come out of the rooms, sweaty, hot and subjectively smaller, they have experienced a transformation that they had no control over, once they had entered the installation. They have been subjected to a view Harry/Eldridge have forced on them—to see the world around them getting bigger. This experience is reminiscent of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) in which Alice enters a magic world by drinking in turns two potions that make her either smaller or bigger until she is the right size to continue her journey. Likewise, the art visitor goes through a seemingly physical transformation when he/she is spit out of the rooms, back into reality. Raoul Eshelman describes similar occurrences in his work and summarizes this as a pattern that he calls “escaping from a frame” (Eshelman 15). Eshelman writes that the frame comes across like a “task that a monotheist God places before people trapped in the world of His making” (ibid., 15). In this case it is Harry who is the god and who sets the frame, yet, she is invisible, hiding behind a human proxy. She makes her audience suffocate—they get hot and diminish—which can be seen as putting her audience into her own seat, since she describes her own position in life and in the art world as elderly female artist as a “trap” and “suffocation” (cf. Hustvedt 234). Thus, The Suffocation Rooms are not supposed to be magical in the way that Alice’s wonderland is; they are more oppressive and even creepy and horrifying.
The horrifying aspect of this experience is displayed through a box that exists in each room and which does not change its size; instead, a body slowly climbs out of it as the rooms progress, indicating a possible danger arriving in slow motion. Combined with the feeling of getting smaller this must have a disturbing effect on the visitor. Its meaning and the fact that it remains unchanged is unexplained and provides an interesting contrast to the ‘shrinking’ art visitor who is entrapped more and more in his/her surroundings while this figure slowly crawls out of hers. Yet, one art critic mentioned in the book diminishes the meaning of the figure by providing an interpretation that only works when using Eldridge’s biography—which, because it is Harry’s work of art, cannot be very convincing, but rather shows how the artist’s biography limits the interpretation of his work. The critic writes: “The box (perhaps a little to obviously) is also ‘the closet.’ Eldridge came out in 1995 and has been exploring gay and racial identities in his work ever since” (Hustvedt 210). With this statement the whole ambiguity and the feel of horror dissipates, and it also reduces the horror to a “coming out of the closet” story.
The work of art that Harry creates with Rune, titled Beneath, is similarly claustrophobic. They have built a labyrinth the visitor of the exhibition has to walk through. Eldridge who visits the exhibition shares his impressions:
The maze was claustrophobic and disorienting, as mazes should be, and after a few wrong turns I felt that dreamy, hallucinatory, life-really-is-awfully-strange atmosphere asserting itself before I knew why I was feeling it. Slowly, I understood that the corridors of the maze were not of uniform size. Their widths grew narrower and then wider. The walls lengthened and shrank, too, but always gradually, gradually, never abruptly (261).
Again, Harry creates a dreamlike atmosphere with a twist of terror. Eldridge often seems to encounter the same pictures on the wall, but realizes that every version is slightly different and might lead him to either a new passage or to a dead end. He recognizes that he has to search for the clues the maze gives to him in order to find his way out. From this moment on he is forced to observe everything more carefully and to look closely at the details so he can find out if he has passed this object once before or not. Eldridge concludes that Harry has finally found a way to make people look at her work: “Harry had cleverly designed an art object that forced people to pay attention to it because if they didn’t, they’d never get out of the blasted thing” (ibid., 262). It is pure desperation and need that makes the visitors pay attention; they simply have to if they want to exit the maze.
The figure of the labyrinth is an interesting one, since it is often associated with postmodern concerns. A labyrinth is disorienting and might be even tricky and misleading, which are characteristics that connect to postmodernism’s playfulness and its desire to baffle. Gerhard Hoffman describes how a simple traditional quest turns into a sort of labyrinth in postmodern fiction:
The quest’s directedness towards a goal, whose attainment would assure identity or at least certainty for the seeker, turns into a regressus in infinitum. All the findings of the search start new forking paths, are boxes within boxes within boxes, etc. (Hoffmann 151).
In postmodern fiction, the path to truth is constantly diverted and whoever follows it can never really arrive. Thus, the postmodern labyrinth as a concept is never-ending; even when one observes the details of the labyrinth closely it is simply not composed with an exit. (A recent example that not only uses the labyrinth conceptually but as a setting is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) whose labyrinth defies all laws of physics; the rooms/passageways are larger or smaller than they realistically can be and the natural space-time continuum is suspended.) Harry’s maze is the exact opposite, since here the clues left by Harry lead definitely to the exit. What differentiates the postmodern maze from Harry’s is the fact that Harry functions like a God who is leaving clues to find one’s way out. (One could also argue that Harry leaves traces so the viewer can find its way to her, the secret artist behind all this. There are some passages in the book that would certainly allow for this argument.) Further, she forces the visitors to look for these clues and she creates for them a path through the maze, firmly leading them.
Not only is the labyrinth post-postmodern, since it references postmodern principles and patterns but goes beyond them, Harry’s whole project—her particular usage of three artists—clearly leaves the well-trodden postmodern path. Harry, well-acquired with postmodern ideas, acknowledges that she and her art cannot be perceived without any limitations—there will always be some kind of frame that puts her art in perspective. However, she manages to determine the frames by choosing the artists (and thus the frames) that present her art. Thus, she engages with these frames in a deliberate way and tries to employ them to her advantage. She steers the reaction of her audience, calculating how they will react to the frames and what kind of art to choose for each frame. What makes this approach post-postmodern is what I have pointed out about her artworks: they are forceful and they don’t allow the viewer to go exploring on their own, instead the path of each journey is clearly set out. In this way, the creator Harry makes the viewers see what she wants them to see; she forces a perspective onto them. This is also the argument made by Eshelman who describes how contemporary post-postmodern literature (or ‘performative’ literature as he terms it) engages with readers in a new way, forcing them to react in a premeditated way, instead of consciously choosing their way. One example that Eshelman uses to make this argument is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001) in which the reader is presented with two stories, one extremely powerful but fantastic, the other realistic but banal and cruel. At the end of the novel readers have to decide between these two stories. Their decision, Eshelman argues, is informed by a strong identification with the main character that makes the belief in his outrageous story somewhat necessary. Harry’s project works in a similar way. Her works of art are finally accepted and given the attention they deserve, because she presents them through artists that the art world can accept as ‘valid’ artists.
However, in the end, it seems, Harry has locked her audience too tightly into her traps and they seem unwilling to leave them. Involving Rune is supposed to be the highlight of Harry’s art project. Presenting Beneath was meant to be the climax of Maskings, a “grand phallic finale” (260), proving to every art critic that her art is as good as Rune’s and even better. However, Harry does not account for Rune’s ego. Rune decides to give Harry only minimal credit for Beneath, assuming her work as his own. The audience, dazzled and hypnotized by the artwork, believes him. They don’t want to be let out the locked room by Harry, they want to remain inside what they think is Rune’s work of art and his aura. However, this can be seen as a success, Harry has invented a world that her audience does not want to be freed from—they desire to remain locked inside.
Eshelman, Raoul: Performatism or the End of Postmodernism. The Davies Group Publishers, Aurora, Colorado, 2008.
Hoffmann, Gerhard: “Waste and Meaning, the Labyrinth and the Void in Modern and Postmodern Fiction,” in: Hoffmann, Gerhard und Alfred Hornung (Eds.): Ethics and Aesthetics. The Moral Turn of Postmodernism, 115-193.
Hustvedt, Siri: The Blazing World, Sceptre 2014.
Image adapted from Maze by zetazone on Flickr, Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0.