“Doing things, similar things…”
These are the vague yet salient words extracted from Trump’s predictably maladroit national emergency address, unwittingly evoking the bracingly confrontational and unnerving self-portraiture of our inadvertent queen of self-quarantine: Finnish artist Iiu Susiraja. As we bunker down in our contaminated cities, fantasizing about remote escapes, and “cancel culture” takes on a more literalized meaning, now is the time to pursue novel ways of being idle. Your to-do list may include sleeping in (like you needed an excuse), binge-watching Michael Crichton adaptations, forgoing all social commitments (like you actually had any), stocking up on cans of garbanzo beans, and cooking up those bags of frozen peas and drizzling mayonnaise on top. Maybe read an entire article from start to finish from that pile of unread magazine subscriptions in the corner, dance in your living room because nobody is watching, take some “quarantine and chill” selfies, or maybe stick a pinwheel up your ass and see what happens. We all have our own idiosyncratic ways of being alone–now is the time to indulge your peculiar domestic proclivities.
In Susiraja’s exhibit, Dalmatian, currently on view by appointment at Ramiken Crucible, her bruised, abundant flesh beams forth amidst bright aqua blue bedding—a prophetic exemplar of the sequestered future we have come to inhabit. According to the gallery, this series came about following the artist’s severe fall down a flight of stairs. She placed her wounds and black eye on display, shooting across 10 days until the bruises faded, losing their dalmatian-like semblance. This “happy accident” of sorts enhances the sense that this is an artist wanting to be a declaration of exposure for exposure’s sake—to exploit her own misfortune as a means to bathetic ends.
Her lethargic positions, situated in what we can assume are the confines of her own living room and bedroom, suggest marginal degrees of effort, imagination and intention. She sublimates herself as an object among curated objects, reminding us with each iteration that she is an imposition on space and space an imposition upon her. She is a weight on the world and the world unto her a weight.
She is also a shape among other shapes. As Amy Sillman insists in the wall text of her current MoMA exhibition, contemporary artists are encouraged to think in terms patterns and systems rather than shape, mass, negative space. As Sillman observes, “Everyone has a personal shape: namely, a shadow, that strange, flat, constantly shifting form that goes wherever you go, attached to both body and psyche… [Is] shape too personal, too subjective, to be considered rigorously modern? Or is it just too indefinite, too big, to systematize?”
Indeed, Susiraja employs her own vocabulary of signs, sensations and oppositional forces. Her blasé, comically erotic positions incorporate household items and various foods—serving herself up as a sordid deity. Her compositions assemble shapes that are curved, dimpled, undulating, erect, forlorn. The wrinkled textures of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures and Fellini’s “gastrosexual” tendencies come to mind. Her modus operandi is a kind of stylized, deadpan-vaudeville equivalent to Richard Billingham’s family portraits of his lounging mother caught on the fly.
Though her direct gaze in the portraits is defiant in its emotional vacuity, Susiraja gives the viewer not-so-subtle erogenous hints elsewhere to work with. She leaves it up to us to determine whether this is a a blatant confrontation with the damnation of fat-shaming, an abject celebration of the fat-shamed, a matter-of-fact parody of surrender, an eternal return to narcissism, passive nihilism, useless amusement, or a dalliance with the unconscious.
The reality of her body is that she is consumed and concealed in her skin as much as she is revealed by it. There’s an overt immodesty that slyly mocks the “free the nipple” or “body positive” ethos. In Housuhenkarit, clothing hangers clamp at her mouth and nipples, causing them to sag even further: a sardonic gesture of self-censorship, self-mutilation and bondage. In Makarra, her legs are splayed to expose raw hot dog sausages, which circle her protruding crotch like giant vaginal lips.
There is so much of Susiraja imposed on the viewer through the sequential obsession with her own form and the conditions within which she situates herself. She is consistently bathed in bright natural light; her pale skin engulfed in vibrant colors. The repetitions and differences between stances and props that double as organs and body parts—sausages, breadsticks and yellow rubber gloves—and the interchangeable mattress and living room mise-en-scene, reinforce a life lived in banality and routine that is particularized through an ongoing, laborious registrar of the self. The successive scenes are portals into her private, melancholic chambers, echoing and mimicking each other. It’s just another day, pacing out the sameness, anchored in particular shapes. It’s no wonder that the artist herself describes the creative act as a militant process of being “enlisted.” I also can’t help but think of Montaigne’s paradox: “I now, and I anon, are two several persons; but whether better I cannot determine… my book is always the same.”
Only fools would condemn Susiraja for being “insufficiently empowering” in the unfolding of her unruly, reprehensible, repulsive/repulsed self. Instead of asking a question of what we want history to do to us, as Zadie Smith does in her essay on Kara Walker in The New York Review of Books, one might instead pose another question: what do we want a muse to do to us? To simultaneously beguile, deceive, provoke and devastate us? To contain our myriad fetishes and projections? To continuously change and yet always remain the same?
Susiraja has thus far made a career out of her self/same display, out of being willfully stuck in a milieu, and out of playing the recluse, as many self-mythologizing artists do. It’s not as though these portraits are laugh-out-loud funny, although I do appreciate their artificially casual, circumstantial monotony. There’s something slightly insidious and bleak at stake in these images in the way they belittle the viewer physically and psychically. We are along for the debasing ride. We are that pizza tucked into her underpants, that plastic horse emerging from her thighs, being squeezed, flattened, ridiculed, and therefore, aroused. The seductive potential of these images lies in their masochistic insistence, their acknowledgment of farce, and in the rhetorical refusal to be woke in any way.
The blunt proposition in this body of work is that the body is the work—this sumptuously upholstered body, relentlessly encountering and inserting enigmatic signifiers. Each portrait presents a convergence between the dependability of a framework she has created for herself and the vulnerability of subjectivity; between traumatic registrations of embodiment, the inscription of the other’s desire, and radical unknowability.
Is the hyperbolic presence of the artist also an inverse, Simone Weil-like commitment to absence, to the impersonal, to oblivion, through pathological relations? There can be no denying that to be idle, to be solitary, to be melancholy, to experience what Anne Carson describes as “joyless joy,” carries with it an element of privilege. After all, not everybody gets to avoid the subway, to work from home, to self-promote, to self-scrutinize, to reflect on the limitations of being.
Can we derive any respite or satisfaction from this muse-recluse when there’s a whole world out there just barely getting by and moving on without us? Not really. But we can take a page from Weil: “Perfect joy excludes even the very feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object no corner is left for saying ‘I’.”