Tame/Wild

April 15, 2008

Tame/Wild was an altered book project that ended up having many conceptual layers. The book that I chose to alter was a rather bizarre volume on the subject of feral children that I found at a used bookstore. Specifically, the author had researched accounts of real feral children throughout history being initiated into civilized society by the people who had found them.

To begin with, I found the sexualized image of the little girl on the front cover of the book to be… unsettling. Before even delving into the text, I suspected that the concept of being feral, or wild or untamed, as a metaphor for a kind of raw, female sexual expression (and it’s deeply problematic and patriarchal representation on the front cover of the book) would be central to the project.

I chose a chapter that dealt with a feral young woman found in the forests of France during the Enlightenment era, and removed it from the book. This had the effect of making the overall size of the altered work more intimate. I then went through the text and blacked out the names of specific people, places, and dates—the concept being that if someone were to read it, they could more easily see themselves within the context of the narrative, empathetically undergoing the experience of being “tamed.”
 

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To the reassembled manuscript, I added excerpts from the work of Gertrude Stein and Anais Nin, whose writings deal with subjects tangential or directly applicable to the metaphor I was exploring.

In Gertrude Stein’s 1915 book, Tender Buttons, she writes in a language that is recognizable as English but uses seemingly nonsensical word combinations to describe objects, vignettes, and spaces that would be a part of everyday life for a woman of her day.

Stein attempted to uncover a voice specifically descriptive of a female experience of the world by rearranging individual pieces within a system of meaning (language) that had evolved over the centuries to describe and validate a male experience. By throwing away the patriarchal “rules” of language, she forged new relationships between words that would have been impossible to create otherwise, giving a form to thoughts, perspectives, and experiences that had been marginalized or were otherwise unable to be expressed.

The other writer whose work I excerpted was Anais Nin, a notable 20th century writer of erotic literature. The passage that I included is from her book, Delta of Venus, which describes a young man who frequently visits the whore houses of Paris with with his friends, presumably under peer pressure. What he really desires is a girl who is everything a lady should be, according to the standards of polite society in the 1920s—a decidedly non-sexual being. In the passage the young man is described as “frightened” by the unquenchable, animal desires of the whores down by the river.

Yes. The salmon-pink paper I used for the Stein and Nin excerpts are indeed a vaginal reference.

 

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I also decided to paste magazine images of fashion models on the spreads before and after each Stein and Nin excerpt. Fashion models are a modern day ideal of womanhood against which women are implicitly judged, and they embody a number of interesting contradictions.

Fashion models are sexually valued for their rail thin frames, yet most seem (or are portrayed as) too delicate to engage sexually, never mind undergoing the drama of childbirth. They often appear, through Nature or Photoshop, to be starving, which is a concept antithetical to that of fullness and pleasure.

But the most fascinating duality by far is that while women in magazine ads are portrayed as this ideal of womanhood or embody a certain ideal of sexual expression, they are also merely photographs. They’re not really even photographs of people, but the result of the machinations of an army of stylists, lighting technicians, and digital artists tweaking, poking, and cajoling a human prop into one perfectly put-together split-second. They’re sexual ideals with no personhood, no histories or futures, and no voice.

 

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Similar to Gertrude Stein’s revisionary syntax, I attempted to suggest a voice for these women through placement and juxtaposition. I separated the figures from the original context of the advertisement and exclusively used images where the fashion models were making “eye contact” with the viewer. Placed next to the historically controversial textual voices of notable female writers, the fashion models’ passively confrontational facial expressions seem to take on new meaning—more like a photographic Greek Chorus, poised to comment on the narrative of womanhood and sexuality that is unfolding.

 
 

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