In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson cites a letter by an “aggrieved” Brigham Young student responding to Brian Evenson’s uber-violent Altmann’s Tongue. The student dramatically exclaimed, “I feel like someone who has eaten something poisonous and is desperate to get rid of it” (94). As Nelson reflects on the unnamed student’s letter: “The imbibing of cruelty or violence thereby turns from a moral dilemma into a metabolic one.”
Even though I shudder deep into my core at the thought of praising or even, relating to someone from Brigham Young (sheesh) no matter how well put and poetic the statement, I know the feeling. In fact, I know the feeling quite well recently–a time when the daily shock and awe of some new carnival of ridiculousness from our crumbling democracy makes reading the news feel like I need to get my stomach pumped. This, on top of the general art world bs, is almost too much to bear. Oh, another Trump tweet? *barf* Oh, another article using queer as clickbait? *gag* Oh, another exhibition of an “underrecognized” artist by an institution who refuses to realize their complicity in the artist’s historical underrepresentation in the first place? *hork*
This now familiar urge to expel all the rage, horror, bile and sick could explain why the small crouched retching figures by late artist Nancy Spero in Galerie Lelong spoke so much to me. Whether squatting in a corner or at the edge of a structural column, Spero’s multicolored figures embody visceral emotional distress, angst and the physical agony of witnessing.
These vomiting figures, scattered around the large main gallery space of Galerie Lelong, are part of Spero’s 2007 Maypole: Take No Prisoners, her final major installation before her death two years later. From afar, the installation looks deceivingly cheery with red streamers hung around a traditional-looking maypole. But, this is no summertime ceremony. Rather than children skipping around ribbons, Spero attaches two hundred grotesque and gargoyle-like disembodied heads to their ends. Like a carrousel of corpses, the heads spew out gore, abjectly scream and thrust their tongues out of their mouths. It’s like something from a horror film.
But instead of responding to fictional terror, Spero’s installation was created in response to the Iraq War and its eerie and face-palm-inducing echoes of the Vietnam War. As Spero explained to Phong Bui in The Brooklyn Rail, “…especially right after the Abu Ghraib episode, I wanted to make a point that there hasn’t been that much of change from what happened in Vietnam and what we’re going through right now in Iraq.” Time, Nancy seemed to realize, is a flat circle.
The traumatic form of Maypole: Take No Prisoners derives directly from an earlier series of work by Spero entitled The War Series, which were created in response to the quagmire of the Vietnam War. A selection of The War Series is on view in another gallery in Galerie Lelong, which allows for a connection to emerge between these bodies of work made around fifty years apart. For instance, the drawing Kill Commies/Maypole, appears like a premonition or a blueprint for the larger installation.
In an interview with Art 21, Spero explains the realistic origin of the decapitated heads: “The images of severed heads in the war paintings are from my imagination. I had read about men who cut off their victims’ heads and stuck the heads onto the spikes of an iron fence. Or they cut off the ears. Terrible stuff. It was to make tangible the booty of war–what a warrior would take from a battlefield, dismembering his victims and using those parts as decorations for himself.”
Despite the swastika circled with spewing heads or the vomming two-headed woman in Female Bomb, there is, almost impossibly, an underlying sense of hope in some of the War Pieces. Take, for example, P.E.A.C.E. Helicopter, Mother + Children. While an ominous helicopter remains, referring to symbolically threatening Vietnam era military equipment, the drawing is also emblazoned twice with “PEACE,” which gives the work a, however minute, sense of optimism–an optimism that would define anti-Vietnam protests of the era (before we realized nobody’s listening). But, this potential for peace and change disappears by Maypole: Take No Prisoners in 2007.
While the War Pieces are clearly derived from an excruciating place for Spero–a gaping horror at the senseless violence and cruelty of Vietnam, I found Maypole: Take No Prisoners more relatable in 2017. And Spero didn’t even get to see the reflection of Nixon in an orange reality TV show president. Lucky her.
In her interview with Phong Bui, Spero questioned, “What can one do as an artist when you see all the violence being carried out in the world? I was never interested in making clear illustrations of all these hideous events.” At a time when many artists seem to have a drive to engage with political and institutional violence, Spero’s installation stands as a how-to guide for creating art that refuses to relish in violence against racialized bodies, while still effectively arguing against it. Since, as we know, certain white lady artists like *cough* Dana Schutz can’t seem to find ways to examine violence and subjugation without exploiting bodies of the Other, Spero presents an alternate solution. Rather than reveling in specific instances and victims of violence, Spero, instead, relies on more universal, but no less, arresting symbols. And this gives the installation a wider scope. Yes, Maypole is about the Iraq War and Vietnam, but it could really be about any ever-occurring form of violence. It’s more imbued with emotional turmoil and deep-seated existential terror than literally representing real violence–even though the violence is, as she noted, based in truth.
More than specific instances of war and cruelty, Maypole: Take No Prisoners represents the inevitable, maddening circular turning of history. Maypole: Take No Prisoners essentially transforms Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal recurrence into an art installation. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche describes the nature of the eternal recurrence, writing: “The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a speck of dust.” Basically, we’re doomed to repeat history again and again. After laying out an allegory of a demon that explains the endless damnation of the eternal recurrence, Nietzsche asks, “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” Probably. But, Nancy Spero, instead, made this eternal return form.
Because of this, Maypole: Take No Prisoners is an unsettling piece to witness. It’s deeply affecting to view ribbon after ribbon of aluminum heads bobbing in and out of your vision as you–as if enacting the typical rotation around a maypole–walk around the piece. It’s a tribute to ceaseless violence and the potential inability to stop it, as well as a monument to the anguish and revulsion we feel in its wake.
So how do we escape this cycle of violence? Spero, like Nietzsche before her, seems to leave us no answer. And maybe there isn’t one. As philosopher Rust Cohle explained in True Detective, “This is a world where nothing is solved.” What’s left but to join the ride. Wheee! After awhile though, that constant merry-go-round spinning can make you queasy, so you’re left to stop, crouch and gag.