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Friday, August 24, 2012

Narcissism, Madness & Alters: Nicki Minaj and Unica Zürn (Part 1)

Kayne West's Monster video opens with this statement: The following content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any groups of people. It is an art piece and shall be taken as such. 

The contradictions in this statement are not our concern. Obviously, art can be taken however the viewer receives it. To be told that something is only art is not a waiver for offense, or is it? And why is a disclaimer needed. At some point, someone must have thought, something here is offensive. Does a disclaimer of art make it less so? 

The video depicts an array of scantily clad dead women strewn about furniture and in bed with rappers. I wonder who the "groups of people" are that would be offended? 

But that is not our concern. Our concern is how the female rapper in this video with three other male rappers, who appear to be enjoying a mansion full of dead or dying female forms, makes art in the video. 

The video in full: (Nicki Minaj begins at 3:42) 
Monster (Kayne West feat. Rick Ross, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj)

Nicki Minaj employs two alters in this video, Harajuku Barbie and Roman Zolanski. She doubles her performance removing the outside need for dead female forms and instead concentrates on the mirror play of bouncing between two versions of herself. 

In other words, her art is deadly serious about the function of narcissism and madness. One of her alters, the more submissive Barbie character is bound and initially covered in a black cloth, while the more dominant Roman character struts about brandishing a whip. When the cloth is removed from Barbie's face, she immediately becomes vocal and is physically silenced by the Roman character. Her submissive position contrasts her vocal arguments and apparent lack of fear in the situation. To further mimic the full narcissistic game, there is an erotic tension between the two characters as they struggle for control and Roman grinds against the seated figure. It's sexual, it's provocative and it's much more stimulating as far as art than a bunch of dead women lying in the background while you rap. But Minaj enters a narrative shaped by women who use their madness to make art. In fact, she enters into a realm of obsession about a woman's use of her body and her mental stability when she employs her "performative madness." 

In her groundbreaking work on Unica Zürn, Caroline Rupprecht in her book Subject to Delusions spends a great deal of time examining what narcissism is and how it relates to Modernist art. Narcissism springs from the mythological tale of Narcissus who falls in love with his reflection and perishes subject to his own unfulfillable desire. Freud discusses his take on it in On Narcissim: An Introduction. Lacan then adapts Freud's theory to forward what he terms the "mirror phase." Lacanian psychoanalyst Guy Rosalto takes it up in "The Narcissistic Axis of Depression." The idea of Narcissism in art or artist revolves around the gaze.  Rupprecht tells us in her book that Narcissism provides: "the promise of being able to return to some kind of primal unity, of mending what has been divided (and thereby doubling oneself) [it] involves a peculiar kind of pleasure: the pleasure of fantasy" (5). She says, "To me, narcissim is about the fictions we create about ourselves and others, the uncertainty about what is 'real' and what is imaginary" (7). The image or fantasy plays a primal role in narcissism, as well as the individual's complicit desire to be both aware of the fantasy and to believe in the reality of it. In Lacanian thought, the fantasy fills the void of what is lost, what is vacant or lacking in the self is restored by the self's delusional fantasy. 

Zürn, Untitled, 1961 (Ubu Gallery)

In Zürn's work, her "madness" becomes both the subject and the reason for her work. In Dark Spring, Rupprecht in her introduction states: "It depicts a flight from language into vision...Compared to these fantastic images, reality is 'pathetic'" (DS 4). Zürn's The Man of Jasmine written before Dark Spring is described as: "an imaginary god-like figure, the Man of Jasmine, compels the protagonist to write the story of her illness by sending her poetic hallucinations" (DS 16). Her partner Hans Bellmer has been often quoted as saying that Zürn had "written herself into madness." 

While Minaj's alters may be a form of "performative madness," it remains true that her career and by extension her livelihood depends upon her believing in their autonomy and their ability to express themselves through her. Zürn experiences her images as hallucinations and her "Man of Jasmine" figure is both based on a real figure (Henri Michaux) and yet also a hallucination that she believes in, which is pushing her to write her story. In the same way that Narcissus becomes addicted to his reflection, Zürn becomes addicted to her hallucinations; it's through her interactions with them that she is able to create complex images, anagrams and writings about her experience. Does her writing create her madness or her madness the writing or are they both existing in parallel states within one body? 

Minaj as well is able to express herself and create a brand based on her alters. Some have speculated that a disruptive childhood or personal problems are the source of her alters. But for the most part, these characters seem to be extensions of herself that she is able to employ mimicking madness but also creating a space through other bodies for her own body to perform and say certain things. It is not a coincidence that the alter, Roman Zolanski, is a man who performs the anger and rage that Minaj feels she cannot perform as herself. Similarly, it is the "Man of Jasmine" who demands that Zürn record her illness through her writing as though the authoritative male figure gives one the space to explore these places where female bodies cannot trespass alone. From The Man of Jasmine (trans by Malcolm Green) "Then her vision appears for the first time: The Man of Jasmine! Boundless consolation! Sighing with relief, she sits down opposite him and studies him. He is paralysed!What good fortune. He will never leave his seat in the garden where the jasmine even blooms in winter." The "Man of Jasmine" is the part of Zürn strapped down in the chair, who although physically powerless is not without power and control verbally as "he" begins to issue commands that Zürn feels compelled to meet. 

As an interesting side note, Zürn when she initially met Surrealist Hans Bellmer was often tied up and photographed by him. One could say that in their initial encounters Zürn played the role of Minaj's Harajuku Barbie while Bellmer played the role of Roman. As their relationship went on though, Zürn invested more deeply in the split self, or fantasy of the other, thereby allowing a communion where she could be both the object and the creator. The fantasy removes Bellmer as the other and allows Zürn to play at the unity of her divided self; the fantasy is still enacted by a male figure but it emerges from within Zürn providing for a sense of wholeness. Much like, Minaj's figures who allow her to retain complete autonomy over the divided portions of her art.  

Unica Zürn photographed by Hans Bellmer, 1958

This is a great site for looking at more of Unica Zürn's drawings from books that are now out of print:

In another post I will talk more about Surrealism, madness, and more of Zürn's work.

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