Who are they waiting for? The one hanging upside down in the ropes, the ones swathed in black or in white, the one curled inside her globe, the one bound and blindfolded, the one who holds the ends of her own ropes: for what arrival have they prepared themselves with so much precision? The expressions on their faces, or on the place where their faces might be, have a vivid absence; one can almost feel the force with which they have just withdrawn themselves, a gesture that is never complete. They offer up the trace as radically as they offer up their bodies. We are free to make of it what we will.
How do they bear it? Literally. Ropes burn, cloth constricts, latex suffocates. More than instruments of desire, they are technologies of expectation, or so they seem, or so they seem to me; we are invited to interpret these images with such openness that we might, ourselves, burn, gasp, suffocate, imprisoned in ourselves, radically unopposed by the consciousness of another. How do they bear the weight of our gaze? How do we bear the weight of our own gaze, a weight we are unaccustomed to feeling? It’s as if one suddenly became aware of gravity. You might say, I’m not into bondage, but the images don’t bind or ask to be bound. Instead, they reveal what binds one to oneself, what is, in other words, holding you together.
Which is what, exactly? They wear their skeletons on the outside. The sphere, the winding cloth, the rope. As if to say, It’s not this exactly, but it’s shaped like this. We don’t really believe that this was done to them, that they are not the artists of their own stringent elegance. If you stand back a few feet from the photographs you see geometric shapes: a circle, a rectangle, a triangle. But it is unclear if the photographer composed the image, or if she followed the line of the composition that the subject created with his or her body. Maybe she translated the visceral experience, the rigor, into visual terms. Maybe she was taking a picture of the picture they were taking within themselves. The decisive moment—often the subjects couldn’t hold these poses for more than a few minutes because of the pain or the lack of oxygen—when one feels oneself to be translated into another medium, into pure form. As if to say, I’m not this exactly, but I can be shaped like this for very short periods of time, an interior shutterclick. It is this hope that holds them together, or so it seems, or so it seems to me. Such a fragile, contingent hope. The instruments—the sphere, the cloth, the rope—are never, really, precise enough and the moment is always too brief, painful, administered by the hands of another. Those of us who keep our skeletons on the inside are generally spared the sight of our own fragility and contingency, our own frantic hope of assemblage, except in glimpses—the shadow on an X-ray, a number that reveals a loss of one’s materiality or the intrusion of a mass. This may be why it is surprisingly difficult to regard these images for very long. We look, look away, look back.
Why don’t they meet our gaze? Blindfolded, eyes closed, turned away, glancing at a point we can’t see: one is reminded of the violence of abjection. Their severe beauty is deceptive, a lure; they are withholding their subjectivity. This is what feels like going too far. It is going too far, and—mute, deaf, blind—they know it, and they know that we know it, too. It is terrifying.
Why is it that, in regarding these images, one feels drawn to identification (I am the hanged man), counter-identification (I am hanging the man), or disidentification (I am not the hanged man, I am not the one hanging the man)? Why is it so counterintuitive to consider these images, these people doing these things, in the same way that one might look at an image of a forest, or a flower, or a bird—in other words, as parts of nature that don’t especially require our opinion, our approval, or our identification one way or another? The hanged man, for instance. He looks as if he could be hanging there for days, or seconds, or years. His expression is so serene. We can tell that he isn’t sleeping, that his external suspension has produced an internal suspension of consciousness, that it has suspended and extended his consciousness in some manner, that we can’t go where he is. He is deep within a private dream. Wherever he is, time has stopped; wherever he is, he has gone there before. His knots are exact, as is the engineering of the ropes, so exact, and one wonders if the oblong bundle of cords between his legs is a kind of joke or if it has a purpose. Someone tied it there, presumably someone who loves him in some way, who loves the work of hanging him in exactly that way. Someone who will, at the right moment, lower him back down into ordinary time. It doesn’t matter if you or I could be him, either of them, or could never do so; the hanged man hangs like a ripe pear. Does the pear need us to want to be it? Does the pear tree?
Are these images of love? The cliches come to mind first—chains of love, bound by love, I’m like a puppet on a string for you—and then the cliches of interpersonal dynamics, what we know about the ways people hang each other up, the ropes we hand to them, tie me up, tie me down. The tenderness of the top. Okay, sure. The blonde woman in high heels whose hands and arms are tied so tightly to the board perpendicular to her body, and the hand that holds the string in the upper right hand corner of the frame, together suggest a parable about the trussing of self-presentation, the complicated gift one attempts to make of oneself for the other. Is this what you wanted? But love is also a trance state, a door that opens at the gaze of the beloved, a sensation of boundarilessness, an ecstasy that can feel, in the moment, as if one is outside of time. I am continually undone by the two images of the woman in the balloon: in one, she sits, hands on knees, looking with a certain amount of severity, or concentration, at a point we can’t see; in the other, she is curled up on the floor of the balloon, her long legs folded like wings. The balloon leans, oval-ish, marked by hazy reflections of windows and walls—she is in the Other Place. I am undone by the effort it must cost the woman to climb into the balloon, to remain in the balloon as the oxygen ebbs, to believe that the balloon will remain inflated, upright, all the while with that expression of utter rightness, the expression of one who feels she is home at last. The expression of one who is in love, of one who is surrounded by love, who sits serene in the Other Place, outside of time, in love’s bubble. Who sleeps there. I am undone by her confidence and her trust. It seems clear that she is happy in the balloon, held there as if held in the mind of the beloved—do we call this bondage? Or do we say thinking of you? How does she stand it? She is held by no more than a breath, but she gives her entire weight to that breath. The risk she takes is enormous.
Why aren’t these images especially sexy?
Why is the winding cloth so tender? They appear in pairs—the two in black, the two in white. They’ve scoonched themselves together; the two in white appear to be whispering or conferring (want to hop out of here?), presumably speaking a language of their own invention. Mummy talk. The two in black could only be a couple: the one who is oriented toward the viewer, the other who looks away. Opposites attract. One invites everyone to dinner, the other goes to bed early with a little wave. They are the most sculptural ones, and yet at the same time one has a strong sensation of skin, of muscles and ligaments, of the softness and pliancy of the body, its curls and curves. Those bumps beneath the cloth—breast, nipple, eye socket, belly, tip of the penis and the tiny ring hanging from the end, knees turning ever so slightly inward. Bas relief in white or black; who wrapped the figures so evenly? Who muted them, and why? The scent of death permeates these images more than the others. Not the threat of death from the practice, but a miming of death, an allusion to the facelessness and totality of death, how tightly it clings to the body; we remember the materiality of the body. The tenderness in covering the top of the head, the soles of the feet. The way the figures stand with their arms pressed so tightly against their sides, stating clearly that they are willing, even, that they want to help. They are not saying no. One imagines that they are very clean inside their swaddling. Maybe it is this quality that makes the winding cloth seem so tender, the last gift from someone else’s warm hands and the evident gratitude of those who receive it.
Is it an invasion to look at them in this state, a state of great privacy? They volunteered, of course; they knew what they were getting into. Also, viewed from a certain angle, these are two dozen closed doors, something going on behind each door, but we don’t know, not really, what that is. It’s possible that they don’t either. I’m not sure that part matters. These are two dozen images of almost unbearable vulnerability, a dozen that apparently adhere to strict rules and practices and codes, a dozen that appear to follow no rules at all. And yet they are equally naked, literally and figuratively. Bondage is a sonnet, a villanelle, a pantoum—form as a way of producing emotion, limiting its duration not for the speaker, but for the reader. We can stand it because it’s all tied up. It’s someone else’s scene—I’m not into bondage—someone else’s journey, it’s between the two of them. You know how they are, it never ends with them. He’s just so hung up on her. But you can’t really, can you?, avoid seeing the vulnerability in the ritual, seeing someone, presumably a stranger, deep inside an experience to which they do not have access in daily life. Or so it seems, or so it seems to me. Nothing about these images seems playful. Instead, they seem to be borne of tremendous necessity, a sense that there is no other way, no other path, to get there. It’s not the relatively known spectacle of ropes and blindfolds that makes me uneasy as a spectator, but the knowledge—there for anyone to see—that urgency drives these practices, an urgent desire to reach a highly particular spot that is otherwise elusive or impossible to find. The woman flying in her lattice of ropes, one toe pushing on the cord, has climbed into this rigging, and has been photographed in this rigging, in what must be a strong desire to achieve a radically altered state. She reveals that desire, but she also reveals its inverse, which is the fact that this state is not part of her ordinary life, her street life. Her ordinary life is sealed off, earthbound. It’s just not enough. And that is a very large secret to know about someone else, that much need, and what it takes to meet it. One feels that one has been entrusted with precious information and a certain amount of responsibility.
To whom would I give these images? They have been given to me as art, but I am haunted by the sense that each one pertains to something or someone I already know, that I am being reminded of something I’ve forgotten. I have the feeling that each one is asking me a question, each one should pass from my hand to another’s, that these are letters never sent, but now their time has come. This is, obviously, a highly personal, even idiosyncratic, response; I can’t say it makes sense. It may well be a mistake in perception, an optical illusion. One dream state calls up another until each figure seems like a dream you must have had yourself, there must have been a time when you were dreaming together like that. Was there ever a time when my sister and I were dreaming together like that? Was there ever a moment when we could have understood one another in that way, that I could have turned up an image the way you turn up a card and she would have known what I meant? No, there wasn’t. Not then, and certainly not now. That will never happen now. I can’t even imagine it.
In the Other Place, though, it happens. It takes some doing to get there, but once you’re in, it’s very easy. We have spread out the images on a table and we are looking at them, making comments from time to time about a detail or an aspect of the light, but the comments are just sticks floating on the river of everything else we both know and feel about what it’s like, what it was like, what it may be like in the not too distant future. We know one another’s histories, love lost and found, the narrow parts and the wide parts. We know that we will be the ones to bury them. That knowledge subtends everything we look at together, every conversation, every vacation and missed phone call. As the older one, I’ve known it a little bit longer than her, but as the younger one, she may end up knowing it longer than me. I like the hanged man, she likes the woman in the bubble. I’m surprised by this; why? She can’t say. I wonder if she’s pregnant.
We agree that the images are beautiful, but she passes quickly over certain ones, and I pass quickly over others. What good will it do to dwell on them? Those doors are closed. There’s one that I want to give her, and I watch to see if she chooses it, to see if I have guessed right. She does, in fact, look at it with particular interest, leaning far over the table on both hands. She says, “Whoa. How did he do that?”
She shakes her head in the way that might mean yes or no, she’s always been like that, but there’s no doubt that she sees what I see there.
And now it has begun to rain. She’s the one who always brings an umbrella, although it’s usually a little broken. She says, “It’s raining.”
That’s what happens in the Other Place, the place I have made my way through all these complicated images to reach, and in one way I have long since stopped waiting to get there, but in another way, of course, I always will be. Absence is the tightest rope