On Desire and Disgust

Still from  NoNoseKnows  (2015)

Still from NoNoseKnows (2015)

New Museum Curator Margot Norton sat down recently with video artist Mika Rottenberg to discuss her work on the occasion of Rottenberg’s solo exhibition “Easypieces.” The two discussed Rottenberg’s body of work, which consistently features joyful, absurdist visuals that depict fictionalized systems of labor and production interwoven with documentary footage. In one of the works in the exhibition, NoNoseKnows (2015), a 6’4” protagonist (played by fetish performer Bunny Glamazon) sits down in her office lined with shelves of flowers and forces herself to sneeze out plates of spaghetti. To the left of her desk is a neat stack of the spoils of her labor; to the right, two feet stick out of a bowl of pearls. The video then switches to footage of a woman shucking pearls from oysters in China. If you don’t get it, don’t worry; contemporary art is fucking weird. Nevertheless, I had my first snot fetish session scheduled for the following Sunday and considered my attendance “research”.

I was sitting at the end of the front row that evening, so I was close enough to see Rottenberg’s wild curly hair and bright eyes light up as she spoke excitedly about her fascination with the sneeze, describing it as the moment the internal becomes external. How similar it is to art, she said, in that it is an irritant that forces a release, and in the case of art, produces something beautiful.

Empress Wu spraying it and not saying it in lace and latex Photo by Louis Seigal

Empress Wu spraying it and not saying it in lace and latex
Photo by Louis Seigal

I realized: Isn’t there something so undeniably erotic about that kind of visceral release? Desire and revulsion are two sides of the same dirty coin that BDSM shamelessly spends. Whoever said that cleanliness is close to Godliness was wrong. How could God be pristine? Have you ever watched someone’s face contort as they lost control, making a mess of themselves, twisting themselves inside out? Someone’s willingness to debase themselves for the sake of another is nothing short of sublime. 

In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Three Versions of Judas,” a fictional writer named Nils Runeberg argues for a heretical reading of the Bible in which the true essence of God is not in Jesus, who martyrs his body for all of Man, but Judas, whose name goes down in history as a synonym for treacherous. “The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, degrades and mortifies the flesh; Judas did the same with the spirit.” Later, Runeberg goes on to posit something even more blasphemous: that God lowered himself to the sin of Man for the redemption of the human race.

I love this story. When I read it aloud to the love of my life, she demanded I send her photos of Borges’s anthology so that she could read along. She has never been afraid to demand things of me. She has never been afraid to be ugly in front of me. She is the love of my life because she ruins herself before me, degrades her name again and again, and rebirths herself in the pool of possibilities she can become after the death of her identity. “All I want is to be undignified, to trash myself…”

Revulsion and desire are so intertwined because they both rely on an acknowledgement of an Other, completely separate from the Self. Desire is wanting to assimilate Other into Self, while disgust is the urge to keep Other far, far away. Erotic debasement then becomes a breeding ground of transformation, where one has the opportunity to propel their internalized Selves into the territory of (fearsome, disgusting) Other. A transgression against a carefully constructed identity, and the realization that the greatest freedom in the world is the freedom to be wrong.

That evening ended up being quite a worthy investment. I walked out of the New Museum with my mind ablaze, not to mention thoroughly prepared for my Sunday session. I felt like the inside of my body was larger than my 5’2” frame, like I had stretched and expanded into a space entirely new and totally beyond myself.

Empress Wu