Lack-less Replicas and Resistant Failures: The Queer Feminist Fabrications of Liss LaFleur

 Liss LaFleur,  Chatterbox  (2015), performance still

Liss LaFleur, Chatterbox (2015), performance still

by Tucker Neel

Liss LaFleur’s work often originates with the artist creating extensions of the body - her body or spectrally absent bodies - as props for performances exploring how history, language, and expectations work to inscribe identity into (or out of) existence. Through these prosthetics, surrogates, appendages, LaFleur endeavors to “fabricate feminism,” questioning how expressions of feminist ideals can be iterated through physical forms.[1] These fabrications as artistic propositions ask viewers to imagine how equality is tied up in and carried through objects that are consumed, navigated, worn, formed and reformed through repeated use. LaFleur activates these objects not just through their use (or their use of her as performative actor), but through the the written or implied discourses that give them contingent meaning. In situating her practice within a rich history of feminist art making, particularly art employing the artist’s body, LaFleur provides opportunities to play with and contest the histories and meanings that otherwise circumscribe queer bodies.

For example, in Chatterbox, a multi-layered work from 2015, LaFleur creates a 3D replica of her own mouth to speak (or sing) with many voices at once, both audible and implied. The work employs 3D reproductions of her own teeth, each punctured with a small hole meant to hold tiny silver kitchen utensils - a spoon, frying pan, a spatula, etc., recognizable icons of domestic production, tools used to feed the mouth and the body attached to it. LaFleur’s digitally copied teeth and paired accoutrements are put to use in three discrete yet intertwined propositions: as sculptural objects, photographs, and performance.

 Liss LaFleur,  CHATTERBOX (detail) , 2015

Liss LaFleur, CHATTERBOX (detail), 2015

Up close the teeth bear the hallmarks of today’s 3D printers, with topographic striations marking the printer's laser touch. Whiter than white, crystalline and semi translucent, their verisimilitude with real molars is uncanny, cyborg-like. This strangeness is furthered by the fact the teeth are set inside a very dark upper palate, a color chromatically opposite the typical “flesh-toned” pigment employed in oral prostheses. Instead of skin, the teeth float on a blackened void. If this weren’t alarming enough, each tooth’s punctured cavity re-iterates a kind of shock of recognition; they implore one to imagine their own teeth pierced through.[2] As an isolated object, these plastic teeth appear as perverse dentures, replacements for lost (or taken) parts of one’s self. When set alongside this disconcerting object, the kitchen utensil “charms” seem rather banal, familiar to anyone who’s seen similar trinkets adorn a bracelet. Together the charms and teeth make a striking, Surrealist opposition, like Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup, with incongruity creating a space for re-thinking the ideological solidity we bring to the everyday. Faced with such an object normalcy melts and multitudinous interpretations become possible.

One can also see in Chatterbox an articulation - at first glance at least - of Freud’s notion of the fetish made manifest, an object fixing a perceived psychic castration. This is a gendered proposal to say the least. Loss of one’s teeth is a loss of speech, a lost agency, something intimately tied to notions of heteronormative masculinity. Additionally, in The interpretation of dreams, Freud postulates that within the mind of the dreaming subject teeth are a recurring representation of the castrated penis, a way for the dreamer to symbolically work out sexual repression. In her focusing on the mouth as the locus for the work, LaFleur’s Chatterbox also continues its deadpan (and rather hilarious) critique of Freud’s castration fixation, given that the father of psychoanalysis also insisted that jewelry boxes and mouths in dream imagery operate as stand-ins for female genitalia.[3] Upon close examination, LaFleur’s charmed denture and its actualization in performance may provide a counter-narrative to Freud’s circumscribed concept of castration, re-articulating its return as a doubling that negates loss and unravels phallocentric signification. LaFleur’s work asks what the fetish really replaces and what it means to make a stand-in for something that was never lost.

In the work’s iteration as video and performance, LaFleur uses the dental prosthetic as an additive placed over her own teeth as a purposeful inhibitor, something that gets in the way of expected behavior. She furthers this imposition by humming “You Don’t Own Me,” the popular 1962 song by Leslie Gore, itself a kind of second-wave feminist anthem covered perennially in popular culture. As she hums, she threads each charm into each tooth, bejeweling her mouth with iconic trappings of culinary production. This adornment brings to mind two contrary pieces of oral architecture: braces and grills. Braces work to “tame” teeth, repositioning them into a state of “normalcy.” A grill, on the other hand, acts as an equalizing surface, employing a flash of gold as both mask and class (or class-aspirational) signifier. Here the echoing signification furthers the works’ critical edge, focusing on the class signifiers that come with concepts of “oral hygiene” and “acceptable” displays of wealth.

It’s worth noting that LaFleur doesn’t actually sing the words to “You don’t own me,” but only hums the song and in doing so she forms another absence activated through displacement. A hum removes language from a melody, leaving the absence of spoken lyrics to compel those who know the words to sing along. LaFleur compels an identification and so the viewer is therefore implicated as the necessary conduit for language. So what does it mean to vocally contest one’s ownership by another, while at the same time relying on another for language to do so?  And what does it mean to do all this while engaging in self-ornamentation, a “trying on” of the symbols of domesticity?

LaFleur’s engagement with kitchen utensils in Chatterbox recalls Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen” from 1975. In Rosler’s short video the artist stands in the manner of Julia Child behind a kitchen island, and recites the alphabet while picking up each letter’s corresponding kitchen implement. In escalating aggressive movements, Rosler pantomimes each tool’s use with a stoic look on her face. “F is for fork,” she says as she stabs at the air around her. As she moves from Apron onward, her actions allow a violence latent in the objects associated with the domestic to seep through, culminating in a Z made in a stiff Zorro motion with an outstretched knife. Whereas Rosler’s gaze and gestures are undeniably antagonistic, even violent at points, LaFleur adopts a different presence similar to an eager chanteuse, rocking her head along with the triumphant melody, at times breaking her stare to gaze upwards, in a pose both exasperated and emphatic. Operating in a self-conscious lineage, LaFleur takes the domestic objects in Rosler’s play of unconscious semiotic meaning and repositions them as trinkets, charms, bobbles - representative symbols alienated from their real-world counterparts.

As “charms,” LaFleur’s tiny kitchen tools continue to reinforce ideas of Freudian fetish; the talisman, or charm, operates as a kind of magical stand-in for the unobtainable. They are decorative obstructions, unnecessary jewelry for the mouth. Indeed, Chatterbox takes Freudian castration, and its legacy in Lacanian concepts of “lack” embedded in the transcendental signifying phallus that structures all gendered language (and consequent processes of subject formation), and repositions and reclaims the denuded feminine subject as, in fact, lack-less. LaFleur does this repeatedly in her works, sometimes directly employing a re-imagination of the body as language in opposition to the Lacanian phallic paradigm[4].

The literary theorist Susan Suleiman, in discussing the work of French writer Helen Cixous, observed something quite strikingly apropos to an understanding of something that occurs in much of LaFleur’s work. While discussing the prospects of “writing and reading otherwise,” Suleiman notes that Cixous called for, “… a kind of writing that would break open the chains of syntax, escape from the repressiveness of linear logic and teleological “storytelling,” and allow for the emergence of a language “close to the body;” this language, linked, for Cixous, to the voice and body of the mother, would allow the “wildness” of the unconscious to emerge over the tame reasoning of the superego or the Law”.[5] For Suleiman, and I would say LaFleur as well, a new language aligned with feminist resistance to hegemonic, patriarchal systems of power (psychological and physical) engages, prioritizes, and reclaims the feminist body as generative, multiple, and counter to conscripted “reason.”

 Liss LaFleur,  Spur Piece 1 (still from video performance) , 2017

Liss LaFleur, Spur Piece 1 (still from video performance), 2017

In Greener Pastures, her most recent body of work, LaFleur reconfigures herself as a queer cowboy of sorts, again using a kind of prosthetic extension of her body to tease out latent meanings behind gendered expectations. One particularly arresting component of Greener Pastures is the video Spurs. In a conversation with the artist, LaFleur mentioned that the video was inspired by the cowboy saying “Never squat with your spurs on!” It’s a pithy admonition against self-sabotage, a warning to be aware of the harm you might do yourself, a kind of cowboy mindfulness. LaFleur takes this saying and fabricates it into objects used in service of performance.

In the video (which the artist is still editing as of time of this writing), LaFleur dons aluminum cowboy “show spurs,” large, radiating, spiked disks that would otherwise be used to prod and direct a horse from a saddle. These shiny replicas (show spurs are not necessarily meant to be used out on the open range) are attached to ballet slippers the artist wears on her bare feet. As we saw in Chatterbox, LaFleur employs a quizzical juxtaposition, this time ballet slippers and cowboy spurs, as a sculptural Surrealist prop intended to upset expectations of functionality. And once again LaFleur’s object is deployed in a manner that inverts everyday use, with the object acting as an obstacle ripe with symbolic potential.

The video’s stationary camera captures LaFleur in a barn doorway, naked from the back, as she repeatedly kicks herself in her rear end again and again, as if marching in place. With each kick she deposits more and more red bruises on her bare buttocks. The gesture would seem wholly masochistic if it weren’t for a horse, whose head pops into the frame throughout the video. LaFleur contrasts her self-harm with regular caresses of the horses muzzle, as if to reassure that all is well. The entire scenario is one of futility, with the naked artist performing cowboy failure in perpetuity. But is this failure perhaps liberating?

In “The Queer Art of Failure,” Jack Halberstam attempts to delineate radical failure as challenging the various demands for successes and dominances that accompany heteronormative capitalism. Halberstam states, “Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend on 'trying and trying again.' In fact, if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.”[6] LaFleur takes the failing gesture, a literal kicking of ones own butt, and frames “trying and trying again” as a non-sensical, unproductive repetition. Talks with the artist reveal she has plans to take the bent aluminum spurs and cast them as glass objects, crystal clear copies of the decorative prop that facilitated failures of the past.

Spurs doesn't necessarily seek to conjure in the viewer an empathetic rush of pain, as one might have in front of an Abramovic or Burden endurance piece, the likes of which traffic in transcendent embodiment in a manner that often borders on religiosity. On the contrary, LaFleur doesn't foreground pain or endurance as a point of entry or attachment, but instead cultivates the repeated gesture as a failure, something patently resistant to “common sense.”

I think LaFleur’s practice, epitomized in the two bodies of work I have discussed in this essay, occupies a curiously successful position within Halberstam’s concept of failure as queer resistance. While discussing queer studies within the legacy of Gramsci’s critique of capitalism, Halberstam notes that, “Heteronormative common sense leads to the equation of success with advancement, capital accumulation, family, ethical conduct, and hope. Other subordinate, queer, or counter-hegemonic modes of common sense lead to the association of failure with nonconformity, anti capitalistic practices, nonproductive life styles, negativity, and critique.”[7] Failure, it seems, is a potent place from which to operate against a force requiring continual validated success. Given the history of the American cowboy as one tied mythologically to notions of masculinity and Manifest Destiny, triumph of man over nature, rugged individualism over collectivity, LaFleur’s self-spurring can be seen as a critical, almost sarcastic perversion of the cowboy persona. While not operating in a didactic sense, Spurs can surely read as a symbolic playing out of Western America’s continual process of self-harm masked as Manifest Destiny, the unwillingness to recognize one is constantly sitting on spurs one may not even think one is wearing.

[1] LaFleur references this term when discussing her practice, emphasizing the way ideology is a process of creation and re-articulation. Interview with the artist, Liss LaFleur, 2016.

[2] To this extent Chatterbox shares a common reverberative charge with Sarah Lucas’ disembodied wax mouths, fingers, arms, etc, specifically “Where Does It All End” from 1994/95. Both Lucas and LaFleur employ the Surrealist gesture of bodily displacement made uncannily strange, activating a space Julia Kristeva so aptly termed abject, compelling a viewer, “… toward the place where meaning collapses” (2). This slippage outside of language is actualized in LaFleur’s performance, where the abject object physically and symbolically obstructs words. Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

[3] Freud S. [The interpretation of dreams.] (Strachey J., Ed. & trans.) New York: Avon, 1965. (Originally published 1900).

[4] In this way I think LaFleur stands in line in a history of feminist critiques of Lacan’s signifying phallus, a critique proposed by Luce Irigaray, who seeks to call out Lacan structuring a system which, while de-prioritizing the Freudian penis and replacing it with the symbolic phallus, still excludes woman from the symbolic order in a way that cannot account for feminine sexuality. Against Lacan’s phallus as transcendental signifier, Irigaray proposes a female sexuality, “… far more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle, than is commonly imagined-in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness. "She" is indefinitely other in herself.” Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1985. pp. 28.

[5] Suleiman S. Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde. Harvard University Press; 1990 pp. 128.

[6] Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. pp. 3.

[7] Halberstam 89.