(not) Flatland

People often write about stitching as therapeutic. The concentration it requires repels all thought but that to do with where to place the needle. Anxiety goes for a nap while we’re at it. True, but incomplete.  The movement between hand, eye, and brain has more to do with building than blunting. More to do with addition than subtraction. 

Piercing a piece of cloth is a spatial gesture. The hand guides the needle through the spaces in the weave or knit of the cloth at hand. From there the finger tips guide the slender missile up, down, across, over, and under it, creating a nest of colored threads and the most shallow of constructions. It is the sensual nature of sewing that makes it so addictive. One more stitch, like one more word, holds the potential for the state of grace that’s always out of reach.

Hausfrau

‘wild’ darning

Finally, a hausfrau. After doing respectable work, or work that I hope is respected, for all of my adult life, I am reveling in what are quaintly called the domestic arts, even those I usually avoid like cooking. (Baking is another matter altogether.) It helps that the Coronavirus has us all in self-imposed quarantines. I was already used to the silence. I need it to write. But then silence isn’t really the point: time is.

I’ve never felt it to be so accommodating. Usually the hours are an obstacle course of obligations, self-imposed for the most part. But now there is no sense of inappropriateness if, at say 10 a.m., I choose to darn a woolen scarf and keep darning until I find the peculiar pattern I wasn’t expecting to see. The knitting I’d kept on the evening margin of the day comes out whenever the stitching gets boring. In between there is the laundry to do and letters (a.k.a., emails) I want to write, like this one to myself. And eventually, the floor will get swept and the bathroom scrubbed, but when I want to, not on any schedule.

Of course, a legitimate hausfrau would be far more organized and watchful of the clock. After all, the word is German. I use it because my father used it. He said it with a measure of affection (his mother was an Austro-Hungarian hausfrau) but also with bit of caution. I was not supposed to be one, even though I was put through domestic boot camp. My sister Chris and I would help my mother dust and mop. In those years (the late 1950s) before the next three children came, cleaning was done on a schedule: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were light cleaning days; Saturday brought out the heavy artillery of vacuum cleaner and cleansers. Plus, we had to go over every surface again, but even more thoroughly. (This always puzzled me; I really resented cleaning when you couldn’t see any dirt or dust. To this day, dusting is something I only do when we have people ‘over’ and that is virtually never now that we’re in retreat from each other.)

The training of a young girl in the household arts, however, wasn’t restricted to domestic hygiene. Thankfully, it also included learning to embroider, knit, crochet, and sew. Walking into a fabric store rivaled going to the library. There was so much temptation, so much choice: printed velvets, roughly woven tweeds, fine woolen plaids. Though, often as not, sheer material attraction proved stronger than any sense of appropriateness. When I think about the dress I made out of a yard of navy and Kelly-green corduroy, I cringe. (I knew it was wrong even then. But you didn’t waste money. You wore your mistakes.)

First sweater (1963)

In any case, I was grateful to my aunt who taught me to knit the Continental way, for it put me in the company of her mother and hers before her. I couldn’t have known when I knit my first sweater at the age of 13 that I would have to put away my needles and embroidery hoops as a child puts away her toys. Coming of age in the late 1960s meant trading them in for a new consciousness. Hence, the caution in my father’s use of hausfrau, early feminist that he was. In fact, one of his much repeated refrains at the time was, “Any fool can get married.”

Only 17 when I first heard him say it – along with the caveat that if I did get married in college, any tuition support would end – I was mildly disconcerted. It contradicted everything I’d seen in movies and heard on the radio. Songs like “Cherish” by The Association had promised a future of gowns with sweetheart necklines and a man who would cherish me. I wanted to be loved. Now the only thing on offer was ‘free love’ without commitment.

The concomitant move from A-line shifts to peasant dresses signaled you were less uptight, though in fact you were probably not much more liberated than the wenches who wore them first. (Women’s liberation was actually more men’s.) Nonetheless, being a competitive sort, I was damned if I was going to be kept behind by my bourgeois hankerings for decorum. And, in fact, after weathering the years of sexual revolution, I emerged thankful to my more radical counterparts, whose insistence on women’s rights insured that I would work long and happily outside of the home while having a home. Still, I have a vestigial feeling of having missed something, which I suppose is why I take inordinate pleasure in my resumption of needle and threads. Now there’s time for that too.

Killing it.

Sandra Oh as Eve Pilastri and Jodie Comer as Villanelle in “Killing Eve”

I never truly understood fashion until I watched Killing Eve. I’d seen it, read about it, but was never really confronted with its lethal distillation of beauty, affront, and risk. The British television series written and produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge,* follows the neurotically symbiotic relationship of MI6 spy Eve Pilastri (Sandra Oh) and Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Their mutual fascination builds up around a vortex of casually grizzly murders and frenzied responses. The violence is made palatable, and more than that, seductive by the script’s wickedly black humor, the actors’ physical comedy, and a mesmerizing deployment of fashion. Killing Eve is a whole new genre of costume drama.

Eve’s sense of style—borderline grunge—is the foil to Villanelle’s haute couture. The government agent’s closet is a study in neutrals, while her counterpart’s is as highly keyed as her sociopathic personality. Villanelle fears nothing, certainly not color. Her wardrobe is as eclectic as Eve’s is predictable. But then Villanelle’s costume changes are part of her job. A succession of targets in international locales—Tuscany, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, and so on—demands a new persona and a different outfit. Every hit is designed. The Amsterdam kill is especially disturbing: Villanelle wears a pig’s head mask with a wench’s peasant dress. In other thrillers, the ensemble would be read as a disguise intended to obscure the murderer’s identity. But in Killing Eve, fashion-cum-costume is both signature and calling card. Villanelle’s games of dress-up are an extension of a cheerfully disturbed personality. However, this isn’t a case of schizophrenia. We’re watching the psychodynamics of compartmentalization. Each ensemble speaks to a different manifestation of Villanelle: Sloane Ranger, Oxford undergrad, baby doll ingénue, Russian peasant, and, of course, pig-faced wench. Even Villanelle is a cover story, as it were. Her real name is Oksana.

Villanelle in Alexander McQueen vintage mourning dress, Season 2, Episode 5

However, Villanelle’s outfits aren’t only worn in the service of a hit. They are also the objective of the hit. She works for these indulgences. How else could she afford them? Though for all her hard work Villanelle doesn’t have a style or a look. She wears fashion. That was my epiphany: The point of a Molly Goddard bubblegum-pink tulle dress or a black Alexander McQueen mourning dress is that it shatter norms and normality. This is precisely what Villanelle does to Eve. She reverses the hunt and becomes Eve’s stalker, suddenly appearing in her London home, keeping tabs on her husband, even murdering the husband’s flirtatious co-worker.  Villanelle, like fashion itself, is a dictator. She is desperate for Eve’s allegiance.

Villanelle’s sartorial intelligence is evenly matched with her murderous cunning. Together they whip up a maelstrom of psycho-sensual effects. Fashion is hyper-present, but not self-consciously serious—no more than the character herself. Consider the scene where Villanelle flees a hospital in a pair of bright blue pajamas she borrows from the boy in the next bed—just before she kills him. The snug fit and goofy pattern would smother another woman, but on Villanelle they slay, making a literal cartoon of both violence and fashion, while winking at fashion’s flirtations with camp. Villanelle subverts the status quo that Eve is supposed to defend. Not even children and their pajamas are taboo. Villanelle regularly plays on (and with) the alleged innocence of youth, not only by dressing like a child but also by deploying children as lures and fatal distractions.

Villanelle preparing her hospital escape in pajamas, Episode 1, Season 2

Jody Comer’s flamboyant portrayal of Villanelle charges every scene with Sandra Oh’s Eve, who is taunted by the Russian’s uncanny ability to insinuate herself into her life, when it should be the other way around. The reversal of roles starts early in Season 1 when Villanelle sends Eve a spaghetti-strap dark blue dress that fits her perfectly. At this point they’ve yet to meet, so it’s uncanny that Villanelle knows her size. In this power-play-by-fashion, the tacit message is ‘I know you. I know you better than yourself.’ Eve is given a sliver (the dress really is slinky) of the forbidden fruit that Villanelle offers:  absolute freedom, a state of being promised by fashion and reached by narcissism.

For all that, the show doesn’t devolve into the sinister. Villanelle wears her crimes like her dresses – lightly – leaving Eve to feel frustratingly inadequate, even though she has the higher moral ground. Sandra Oh describes the dynamic in more familiar terms, saying: “A lot of people wish they were more fearless and more confident and a lot of people wish they had a lot more style.” Though most of us don’t wrestle with our envy so literally. Not because most of us can’t afford ‘fashion,’ but because we have a harder time surrendering to its dominion. 

The remarkable thing is how Jody Comer (a.k.a., Villanelle) conquers fashion so thoroughly. I wonder whether another actor could animate the outfits so powerfully. Or am I confusing the actor with the character? Can they even be separated in the mediated moment? It takes a particular body to infuse the clothes with the risk they represent. Without Villanelle, my experience of fashion would still be confined to museums and tabloids. Clearly, I’d never seen it truly worn. It took a psychopath to make me realize that when fashion does its job, it truly kills.

Fashion’s inherently dangerous nature—think of the femme fatale—accounts for why so many of us are unable to submit to it as completely as Villanelle. Apart from going broke, there’s the fear of being erased by someone else—though usually not murdered—in the art of incorporating a designer’s ego into our own. Instead, we settle for something we like to think of as “personal style”—which is code for the mashup of knock-offs, basement bargains, and vintage finds that make up our personas. 

Villanelle is able to carry off fashion because it underscores her artifice. Jodie Comer pulls it off because, like Villanelle, her job is to be someone else. The character-actor manages to do something more extraordinary. She makes “fashion” an actor as well, yielding something exponentially more powerful—something close to the tour de force we usually associate with literature. To paraphrase Karle Ove Knausgaard, Killing Eve draws the essence of what we know, or think we know, out of the shadows. The show magnifies the inherent risk of fashion, making it synonymous with a truly hysterical personality disorder with no compunction about killing.

*Waller-Bridge also wrote and starred in Fleabag, for which she wonthree Emmys and a BAFTA Award in 2017. Season 3 starts April 26 at 10 p.m. on both BBC America and AMC. The show’s costume designers are Phoebe de Gaye (Season 1) and now Charlotte Miller.

Social Reading

Book Cell, Matej Krén

I’ve never joined a book club. Churlish as it sounds coming from someone who just published a book about literature and design, the prospect of sharing the relationships I’ve made through the intimate medium of the page seems like a violation. To be clear, I’m not opposed to talking about books and the ideas they proffer. It’s just that the book-in-my-head has no need of a public autopsy — unless it’s my public autopsy. (Yes, I’m not only churlish, I’m also a bit of a hypocrite.)

Passing judgments on characters’ choices, plot directions, and alternative scenarios strikes me as disrespectful of the author. Such speculations reject the gift of literature as it is given. They refuse “the politics of the primary” (Steiner, Real Presences, 6). In other words, the immediacy of a close reading. This is the kind of attentiveness which allows us to respond directly to an author’s words, rather than talk around them. If, instead, we ruminate about whether the plot is feasible, or what might have been written, or what’s ‘behind’ the novel or poem at hand, we turn a blind eye to what is right there on the page. This kind of domesticated reading fragments and undermines the integral nature of reading — a composite of the order and tone of words on a page, the time, spaces, and beings those words evoke, and the images that they form inside us.

The book-in-my-head is a narrative in another form. It is a disorderly composite of recollections of what I’ve read, colored and perfumed by other experiences. This internalization, this possession of the book, accounts for my urge to safeguard the integrity of what and whom I envision. I don’t even mind if my suppositions are flawed; that’s what re-reading is for.

Reading may happen in silence but it isn’t solitary. There are the women who struggle with their respective confusions in Magda Szabo’s novels set in postwar Hungary; they manifest themselves to me in very specific ways, making direct appeals to my sympathies. Likewise, the protagonists of Anna Burn’s Milkman in Ireland and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead in Poland, just two cite two new additions to the cast of characters (and places) that accompany me. They are animate enough for me to think of them as companions and co-sufferers with whom I’ve formed a kinship – even when that relationship is antagonistic, as it is with Cesar Aires’ gluttonous priest in “Acts of Charity.”  I suspect it is precisely because I recognize my own foibles and good intentions within the women-and-men-of-the-page that I am reluctant to subject them analysis by committee. Plus, I doubt any committee would want to have someone so committed to her narcissistic version of things.

Paradoxically, I still view reading as social. Not only is the experience of reading an experience of near visceral encounters with people-of-the-page, but those encounters also shape our interactions with people-off-the-page. Our conversations with the latter are enriched, even if only tacitly, by stories that have entered our consciousness – stories we have ingested, not merely digested. Only then can we share them because then they are our stories.

1957 Violet House

When my parents moved us from our apartment in Clifton to our first (and last) house in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, St. Catherine of Siena elementary school was still under construction. So this meant that I had to go to public school for second grade. It was a brief hiatus in my otherwise uniformed education; and in hindsight, it offered me an edifying taste of permissiveness that I wouldn’t re-experience until high school. Though, by then, that permissiveness was closer to anarchy.

In 1957, the year in question, I didn’t consciously register the fact that Miss Berry’s classroom was freer than Sister Mary Clare’s back at St. Andrew’s. No one spelled it out for me. The relative license of public school was subtle in the mid-50s, but it did begin to seep in, first in the person of Miss Berry, soon to be Mrs. Armstrong. She looked like the “Breck girls” in the shampoo ads that then set the standard for conventional prettiness, which I mistook for glamor. Her blond shoulder-length hair and her brightly striped dresses spoke to pleasures that I could only imagine came with being ‘engaged.’ Certainly they were nothing like the black and white habits I was used to seeing in front of the blackboard in the short two years I’d been sitting at a child’s desk.

This was the year that I was introduced into the eros of color – and not just in the form of a twenty-something second-grade teacher, who was clearly in love.  I was primed for the seduction early. My first grade pencil case was cordovan leather. Like my father’s brief briefcase, it carried the status of serious work. Its power didn’t rest in the pencils it carried, it emanated from its confident red. I had started making sense of my world by color, whether it was the dark maroon plaid dress that I thought made me studious or the green iridescence that changed Japanese beetles from creepy to collectible, albeit in jars filled with formaldehyde.

So when Miss Berry gave us the most ordinary of assignments and asked us to draw a house, I didn’t hesitate to make mine purple – violet, actually.  I still remember the rich, dense crayoned surface I laid down on the paper.  More than that, I remember being told in no uncertain terms by the boy working next to me that there was ‘no such thing as a purple house.’

He had never seen one, of course. Nor had I. But I was convinced that there could be, since I knew that houses were painted all the time and not made out of ‘color.’  I also felt that there should be such houses because I was convinced that there was (and is) no more compelling color than that which he’d disparaged as ‘purple.’ It was really the velvety aubergine of pansies, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to say so, nor did Crayola.

I realize now that we weren’t really talking about color at all but about the possibility of color, the possibility of the unseen-before.  It’s not that I was a child who was prone to fantasy or determined to be contrary. Just the opposite. I have to think that my own ordinariness was simply overpowered by the sensation of violet, which was strong enough to make an act of faith in what-could-be.

2020

Perpetual Calendar, 1594, Cooper-Hewitt Collection

The view out my window is no different than it was a few days ago in 2019.  It is a rebuke to all this fuss about the ‘new year.’  I’m not really sure why we need to break the year up into chapters. I suppose the obvious reason is death. In contrast to nature’s cyclical resurrections, human lives are understood to be linear. (Though I suspect geneticists would disagree, given that our dominant and recessive genes infuse us with the past). In any case, human lives are certainly finite. Hence, the reason for calendrical markings and the calendars we depend on to keep us honest, meet our commitments, and position ourselves in time.

But only perpetual calendars are truly honest. We are mere points within their concentric circles. Everything we do to refute the insignificant scale of our time on the calendar is a tactical defense against the inevitable. Our foretold fate explains why what we do is urgent – maybe not to anyone else but to ourselves. How else to make sense of this sentence stolen from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Inadvertent (and which he stole himself): “I write because I am going to die.”

Atmospheric faith

It’s tradition in my family (or was) to wait til Christmas Eve to decorate the tree. If my mother had had her way, I suspect she would have put off the pagan ritual til the feast of the Epiphany. That’s when the Wise Men (the first to ruin Christmas?) brought their gifts. But every year, even in her house, Christmas crept closer. Advent had its wreath. Ceramic Santas and holiday ashtrays would start showing up on end tables. Electric candles would appear on window ledges softening the edges of the living room.

I, too, have started signaling the season. As always I’ve hung three empty stockings and attached a motley assortment of bells to the inside of our door. Every time the door opens and closes, the bells will remind me that there are still cookies to bake and presents to puzzle over: what would (fill-in-the-blank) really like this year? (This is the kind of thinking I really want to do right now, not the concentrated attention that my (other) writing projects are demanding.)

This year, I had a small epiphany of my own, one that came without ‘wise men’ in sight. (This is early December and according to legend, they’ve only just set out from the East.) As I retied the bells to the door yesterday, it occurred to me that instead of serving as a daily reminder of holiday rituals yet to be observed (e.g., the aforesaid cookie baking), those globes of sound change our space in a fundamental way, changed me for a moment. The small act of putting them up is an act of faith that there can be another state of being beyond the ordinary, and in this life, not in the next. The salient word being ‘up.’

Much has been written about the temporary freedom (the shift in said state of being) allowed during festivals and carnivals. Much more has been written about the gradual degradation of their sacred natures by rampant consumption. But I have no faith in the story that the holidays were once pure, unsullied by advertising and Hollywood. The idea that that they have degenerated over time is too neat, too linear. I’m pretty sure that even the ancients had those who capitalized on every party they could, raising the price of wine when the gods demanded a toast or upping the cost of calves to be sacrificed on special occasions.

Wine glass bells that ring with each sip
Suono di Vino, Anna Barbara

I do, however, suspect that our expressions of faith in the possibility of altered (better) states have become more private. Even so I find it a minor miracle that something so seemingly trivial – affixing bells to a door – caused such a profound interruption. I realized that Christmas isn’t an atmosphere imposed but one awakened, and that the everyday can be pierced just by the sound of a bell. That said, it isn’t lost on me that atmospheres are fragile, mutable things. Just like faith.

Horoscope as ‘doppio senso’ (or, if you prefer French, double entendre)

Libra horoscope for November 10, 2019, D Magazine, La Repubblica

Flabbergasted to find a philosopher, specifically Theodor Adorno, enlisted in a magazine horoscope for Libras (a.k.a Bilancias), I asked the friend I was staying with in Milan: “How could this be?” (I’m almost certain there are no equivalent references, say, to Kant, Heidegger, or even Thoreau in an American star chart.) She rather dismissively said that the author was known for being pretentious.

Nonetheless, being a Libra, myself, with a typically bifurcated tendency to take things on faith salted with skepticism (in other words, read the occasional horoscope), I did try to translate it – first from memory, then lamely defaulting to Google. As best as I can make out (and I invite corrections), translated to English, it reads roughly as:

“Mars could reinforce the characteristic that is associated with your sign: a strong sense of ethics, accompanied by a great need for justice. [But] you do not put aside the doctrine of the right life as per T. W. Adorno, who saw “the transformation of the methods of philosophy, a field that has fallen prey to intellectual contempt, to sententious arbitrariness, and finally to oblivion.” Lines are not rigid given once and for all, but can be rectified at any time, thanks to small forms of adjustment.”

Retranslated, it could mean:

“That you have a strong sense of ethics, justice, and by implication order, doesn’t mean that you adhere to philosophical doctrine with a strictness which Adorno disparages. Rather you know that linear thought and fixed decisions can be rectified with modest adjustments.”

But while I was struggling to get the sense of the words, I almost missed their meaning. This horoscope is not a prediction, nor a diagnosis. It is a parody. It performs the Libra’s desire to have her cake and eat it too, by arguing both sides of an argument. To wit, the oroscopo‘s author credits philosophical positions (e.g., ethics) but then discredits their “sententious arbitrariness,” to arrive at a more flexible stance. I suspect this equivocation, which I often experience, comes partly from the desire to be fair and partly from a self-flagellating reflex and the fear of certain judgement.

But just as likely, and perhaps more so, the instinct to balance the scales comes from hubris – wanting to get ‘it’ right on all counts. In other words, pretentiousness, a word rooted in ‘pretend.’ Libras are fundamentally insecure and the reasons for that insecurity are appropriately bipolar.

Basta Nostalgia

Detail from Francesco Simeti’s exhibition REFUGIUM
In transforming the language of the botanical print with three-dimensional printing on canvas, Simeti eschews the blinkers of nostalgia and uses the beauty we are losing to make us see that loss.

“The 20th century began with utopia and ended up with nostalgia.” 

Stefano Mirti, September 24, 2019

Nineteen years into the 21st century, I wonder if we’ve yet to escape nostalgia. Or more properly the ersatz nostalgia for things and experiences most of us never lived through. Fashion thrives on it, reviving cigarette pants when almost no one smokes anymore, recycling midis, minis, and maxis, not as a barometer of the stock market’s ups and downs, but as a kind of generational cannibalism. 

This impulse to relive our own or someone else’s past is hardly limited to clothing trends, nor is it especially recent, as Mirti’s maxim points out. Steam punk has been around since the 1980s.  New Urbanist town planning with its faux Victorian and Tudor homes started in 1993. Meanwhile, tv shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are art directed to within an inch of their cinematic lives.

Putting aside all evidence to the contrary, nostalgia is less about retro looks and more about a feeling of lost power. It is profoundly political. I’ll wager that most of the energy that is fueling far right movements here in the US and ‘over there’ in old Europe flows from seeing the glass (or pint or stein) half full and the local (pub, supermarket, you fill in the blank) increasingly crowded with unfamiliar faces.  It’s much easier to romanticize speakeasies (they recently made a come back, too), beer halls, and blond braids than the breadlines of the Great Depression or the foreclosures of the Great Recession, both triggered by wealthy white gamblers in the stock market.

So far, so obvious. What isn’t obvious is how to manage expectations and at the same time kindle a motivation to move ahead instead of looking back. One of the most poignant motivators for many of us is embodied in the image of Greta Thunberg sitting by herself with a handmade sign in front of the Swedish Parliament. (No doubt her success is a little frustrating for those who’ve been working on alternative approaches to energy for decades.)

Consider that by playing ostrich we indulged in a perverse nostalgia, trying to convince ourselves that the world would continue to be as it was before ‘no vacancy’ signs appeared at landfills. It’s time to take the blinkers off, even if the prospect isn’t pretty.  

Spatial entangle-meants

Diana Cooper, Slide Rule, detail, 2017-19, Postmasters Gallery; photo: Susan Yelavich

“…in my work a frame can be both a way of focusing, or one of obfuscating.”

So says Diana Cooper about her work on the occasion of Sightings, her current exhibition at Postmasters Gallery. I say focusing obfuscates and therein lies the fascination. The closer you get to one of her pieces the more pieces you see.  The experience is akin to staring at a tree and trying to make out each individual leaf, or trying to trace the path of a single yarn in a complex weave – pleasurably futile and spellbinding exercises. 

This isn’t fair, I suppose.  Projection is hardly the respectful response that Cooper or any artist’s work deserves. (I can all but hear literary critic George Steiner’s strenuous objection to not “answering” the work on its own terms.1) This is not a question of ignoring the source material for the work, only to say that I think of Cooper’s surveillance cameras, LEDs, bar codes, halogen lights, electronic equipment, and construction fencing not as finite subjects, but as triggers for seeing. The exhibition is called Sightings, after all.

Cooper is testing our vision.  But instead of eye charts, she uses the analog form of digital easter eggs.  Of course, the first use of the term was analog, synonymous with candy hidden on suburban lawns. So the artist brings us full circle, back to art of looking-for. (She’s even hidden a Lilliputian security camera – faux, of course – in one of the gallery’s passages.) 

Diana Cooper, Slide Rule, 2017-19, Postmasters Gallery; photo: Susan Yelavich

But even more than looking-for, the sculpture demands to be looked-at with eyes willing to snake around corners, over protrusions, through irregular apertures, and in between the narrowest of gaps. Cooper’s tangled lines and planes would seem to be in a state of perpetual reconfiguration when, in fact, it is we who are reassembling them with the slightest shift of a gaze, or a step to the left or to the right. Since the pieces don’t allow for viewing in the round, contortions are practically requisite – especially with Slide Rule, a latter-day Broadway Boogie Woogie on steroids.

Other pieces like Scrim and Screen are more insistently frontal but no less spatial in their warpage. Their off-kilter enfilades of openwork are, however, less about optical illusions than physics. The jump cuts and overlays are not the kind that will induce a spell of vertigo, they are far too subtle for that. The force fields at work are centripetal, compelling closer and closer looking. 

Diana Cooper, Scrim, 2018-19, Postmasters Gallery; photo: Susan Yelavich

All of this isn’t to say that I’m immune to the narrative speculation the work invites about the condition of being watched and watching, of allowing surveillance to confirm our existence in the media-saturated 21st century. Those are definitely there. But more profound for this viewer was the power of the work to call attention to how spaces feel – the sensations of constrained spaces, shallow spaces, high spaces, deep spaces.

Diana Cooper, Screen, detail, 2018-19, Postmasters Gallery; photo: Susan Yelavich

We may not feel claustrophobic or agoraphobic in their presence, but they do have the power to trigger fleeting sensations of disorientation that we’ve felt before – sensations that control our actions as much as any piece of technology. Diana Cooper reveals those trepidations and tempers them with wit – materials like pom-poms and cheesy plastic take care of that quite nicely. We can then revisit the dizzying chasm or the scary bridge with no end in sight and recall it with, if not quite pleasure, then surely fascination. I, for one, was mesmerized. Isn’t that what happens when you’re spellbound and fall, however momentarily, into another space?

  1. In Steiner’s call for “a politics of the primary; of immediacies in respect of texts, works of art, and musical compositions,” he eschews “talk about the aesthetic” for direct experience. I can only defend my thoughts on Diana Cooper’s work as my experience of it, even if it doesn’t conform to hers. Not being an artist myself, I am always at a distance, a distance which I try to bridge. I own my formalism but don’t expect that others will see the work the same.  George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 6.