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The body reflected and diverted through 6 paintings: meanders


by Eleni Sikelianos


When we are asked to write about the artist's body, should we start with the mortal body, similar to everyone's body, skinny legs, in shorts, with its imperfections, on the beach? Do we start with what is close to the body, with what is torn from the body, with the way the body is reflected and the place where it is reflected? We will explore the artist's body and its actions through some of the artefacts that accompany it. We imagine the meandering meditations on each of these paintings as "thought installations".



The screen's telepathic eye that once captured distant images has been closed. He no longer teleports images from the outside whose moving forms pass through the lens, but can now only react to what is in the room: the body of the artist, or the body of the viewer. On the new reflective surface of the television, we see the artist standing; he seems to have a remote control in his hand. The remote control could evoke agency and mastery, but the body of the artist, in his unbuttoned shirt (those TV outfits, the intimacy of home) seems inert. We learn that the remote control is also golden, that its function, its power of selection are therefore blocked.

In the same way, we scrutinize this crystal ball to see ourselves there reflected in other bodies – a way of escaping our own – and here is the body simply reflected, although blurred. The photo of the golden television shows the artist's body, but if you or I were standing in the room, we would see ourselves. Is this TV on or off? An ordinary television, when switched on, shows actors of immortal beauty; likewise the gods sometimes mirror aspects of us, are versions of our most beautiful (and hideous) selves. Our tragedies too are exhibited here, the tragedies of human origin, the reflected mortal body.

Gold inactivates the television in its ordinary function – it is out of service. But the gold activates the screen to react to the author's body. In another image, we see someone (Darsi?) seemingly combing his hair. Or perhaps he tears them away, to express his despair. Because gold is a form of mourning, an activator of mourning. It is, in some beliefs, the color of the gods.

Gold is the most ductile and malleable of the known elements (“Au”, number 79 in the table of elements). It is one of the least reactive solid chemical elements and does not oxidize in air or water. It has been valuable to mankind since the dawn of time and the gold standard has been the most common basis for monetary policies. Physicists tell us that the gold was probably created during stellar nucleosynthesis processes, then clumped together with other metallic dust to form our earth and the stars and planets around it. The earliest map we know of depicts a gold mine in Nubia. For the Aztecs, gold (teocuitlatl) was the excrement of the gods. It is said that, during his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, the Emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa (also known as the "Lion of Mali" was accompanied by a caravan of camels loaded with 50 to 300 pounds of dust of gold and that he distributed so much gold that he ended up ruining the economy of Egypt. Because it reflects infrared light, gold has been used for the sun visors of space suits and for wiring in the atomic experiments of a certain Manhattan Project (we know what was the devastating outcome of this project on a global scale.) Most of the gold that was mined on the planet is still in circulation (in 2009, an estimated 165,000 metric tons of gold was mined from the earth during the history of mankind). One day my daughter wanted a gold front tooth. Injections of gold salts help relieve pain and are used to diminish swellings due to rheumatoid arthritis and tuberculosis, while elemental gold is resistant to all chemicals it encounters in the body. These almost magical properties and this long history of mythology, desire and destruction make gold an extraordinarily powerful symbol for the artist.

We learn, in a short interview, that Darsi designed this golden television in reaction to seeing on TV two planes hitting the twin towers of New York. The body does not understand. Or perhaps the body understands (its own mortality: it delays it cell by cell or succumbs in full screen), but not the mind. Understanding stands out from the reflective surface of buildings, from the screen.

This image of planes crashing into the towers has become the image to mask reality. I'm not sure I can see the “reality” behind the image, but as a New Yorker at the time, living a few miles from the twin towers, here are some things I remember: An inexplicable first feeling of exaltation. Controls, a few residents with gas masks, a thin layer of grayish powder on cars, railings and sidewalks; and the pungency of the air. I quickly realized that I was breathing in the dust of burnt bodies.

My husband remembers seeing, from the roof of our building, huge flocks of pigeons leaving lower Manhattan and long lines of men and women in business suits, covered in dust, crossing the bridges. I can barely remember the image of the nose of the planes entering the towers, even though it looped on the screens at the time of the events, until it became its own impenetrable screen. I remember the images of bodies throwing themselves from the top of buildings. And the appalling turn when these images were used to stir up American delirium.

We need a good reason for the corps to go to war. Gold has always been a good reason. You could say the gold was hidden behind the screen.

In Darsi's TV you will always see the body of the photographer. You will always see yourself there.



The doll represents Hassan Darsi in this scene. The blonde golden doll represents each one of us. We've all been blond, blue-eyed once. We all talked once.

The Egyptians said that the gods are unknowable and therefore we cannot represent their color. But we do know that, like this doll, their skin and bones were gold.

During the passage of mortals to the next life, the "opening of the mouth ceremony" was performed to allow the dead to breathe and speak in the afterlife. For this doll, the ritual was botched – her words come out of a hole in her chest. Does this gaping hole reflect our own struggles to preserve what the Buddha called "right speech"? “And what is a right word? “Refraining from lying, gossiping, uttering harsh words and useless chatter: this is what is called right speech. (The Eightfold Path, one of the themes of Buddha's teachings.)

Or does this hole reflect our fights for the citizen's right to free expression? By free, we also mean that the poorest citizen has the right to be heard; that it is not only corporations and kings, golden bodies, that can be heard.

If my daughter, who is blonde with blue eyes, held this doll, a viewer would think of something. If a little Somali girl held the doll, the same viewer would think of something else. What do we think when Hassan Darsi holds the doll? How does gold make this body reflective without it reflecting the one who looks at it? With or without the gilding, the doll seems clothed in false wealth. She also looks a bit like a kickboxer who knows how to take the hits.



Gold is pulled out of the earth, just as a tooth can be pulled out of the body. One can, from its size, tell the pain felt during the extraction of the tooth. One wonders: can the mouth afford so much gold? We still wonder: can the minor?

If we are asked to talk about the body of the artist, we could start with the decline, with the holes dug by time in the hard tissues compared to the holes dug by men in the earth. We could talk about what is removed from the body and what surrounds it, or how we could replace the body with other bodies. When you gild a body, is it renewed?

These are some of the things in Darsi's work that are closest to the artist's body. Then come the cultural body and the family body.



There is the oriental body, the odalisque about to fall on the bed. In the Western imagination, she collapses on the bed, swooning with sensuality, in an opulence of incense and jewels; there may be a beast lying at the foot of the bed. In Darsi's short video entitled Le Piège, two women are on a bed: one is lying down and looking at us, the other is sitting and has her back to us. The woman who is looking at us disappears and the woman who has her back to us collapses. But the silhouettes are, at the start, so immobile and the movement is so sudden that the painting has something of the static in medias res of a painting by Delacroix or Ingres. We are aware of the body as spectacle, as an object that can be visually consumed but cannot see itself (the back of the moving body is turned). The body can of course represent a culture, a culture that we will paint, that we will represent but outside of which we will remain. The first time I saw this work I was writing a book about my grandmother, who was an "oriental" dancer, which in 1950s America meant she was winning her life in the strip club circuit, dressed as a leopard and stripping naked. They are nimble little stories about how the body of a woman or a culture can be imagined and looked at. In Darsi's work, an odalisque collapses on the bed, not fainting with consent, but in total weariness – the content seems to have left the body, while the body that can see the viewer – the gifted body of agency – disappears. As Edward Said remarked, “because of Orientalism, the Orient has never been (and is not) a subject of innocent thought or action” (Orientalism, Said). The body is exhausted by this long story even if it can still accept a little joke heard.

Should we speak of the animal body in the foreground, the leopard baring its teeth but disappearing from the "real world" as surely as the odalisque disappears from the painting? You may find a skin, perhaps the skin of one of his relatives, at the Casablanca market.



What is Hassan Darsi doing in his lion costume? He carries the suffering of the animal on his body. At one point in his life, my father had been a zookeeper. Afterwards, he liked to tease the big cats by telling my little sister to run back and forth in front of their cages. Some found the idea cruel when in fact it actually gave the predator something to do that was completely natural to them: hunt. His eyes followed the small figure moving back and forth in front of the cage, and his ears quivered. A zookeeper knows well the telltale signs of the tension created by the place: repetitive comings and goings, very often along the fence or in the shape of a figure of eight. Predators and primates are most subject to the stress of confinement. Repetitive movements are said to be "stereotyped".

Six lions in the Aïn Sebâa zoo, grouped two by two in three small detention cells; they walk. These caged creatures gave Hassan Darsi the idea of assembling a collection of objects expressing our symbolic love of the lion. A jar of Le lion tomatoes, a packet of Lion Doré sewing needles, made in China, the lion head crest, the symbol of Peugeot, a lion in a children's coloring book or a plastic toy lion, which is missing an eye, these wooden toys that we make dance by pressing on the back (as if we could animate the lion ourselves), a pack of razor blades with, on the packaging, playing lions. Could this love of an emblem materialize in the way we treat living lions? In English, when we want to say that we starize celebrities, we transform them into a lion (lionize); we give the lion's share (lion's share) to those we love and we compare the arrival of something to that of a lion (come in like a lion) to evoke its strength; yet we lock our lions in cramped cages.

Since we can't find enough space for the lion's real body (not more in the wild than in our zoos), the artist chooses to wear the image of the lion on his own body. The body of which we are all captive. In the human body there is always the wild/animal body that lives close to/inside the human body. The Darsi costume does not eviscerate the inner animal, but turns it over, as if we could turn the inner animal over our outer body. The images on his lion "skin" do not represent the wild animal, but our idea of the wild animal. The costume reverses both mind and body onto the artist's canvas, which is his own body.

In his brief talk "A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites" Land Art artist Robert Smithson writes: When drawing a diagram, the ground plan of a house, a street plan to locate a site , or a topographical map, one draws a “logical two-dimensional picture. A "logical picture" differs from a figurative or realistic picture in that it rarely resembles the reality it represents. Here, Smithson elaborates his notion of Site (the actual place to which the work of art refers) and Non-Site (the artist's elaboration of this site): The Non-Site (an earthwork of inside) is a logical three-dimensional image that is abstract, although it depicts an actual site in New Jersey (the plains of Pine Barrens). It is through this dimensional metaphor that a site can represent another site that does not resemble it – the Non-Site. To understand this language of sites is to grasp the metaphor between the syntactic scheme and the complex of ideas, letting the former function as a three-dimensional image that does not look like an image... Between the real Pine Barrens site and the Non-Site itself exists a space of metaphorical language. It is possible that the "journey" in this space is a vast metaphor.

If the lion is the site, Darsi's lion costume goes from a non-site (those items that we made often for mercantile purposes and which are inspired by the shape of the lion - the lion is equated with the gold) to another non-site, in the second degree, (the images on the costume), but at the same time he reincarnates the image of the animal by bringing it closer to the skin again. But is it the animal in the cage or the original fawn?

The habitat of the Barbary, Atlas or Nubian lion (Panthera leo leo) – the only lion attested in North Africa – once extended from Morocco to Egypt. The last identified specimen was shot in the Atlas Mountains in 1922. It was probably these lions that were used to confront gladiators and Christians in the Roman Coliseum. It was the subspecies kept at the royal menagerie in the Tower of London in the Middle Ages. The King of Morocco collected Barbary lions, hoping to save them from extinction. Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, had Barbary lions tied near his throne. The Barbary lion was also believed to have died out in captivity, but recent research indicates that some lions in zoos and circuses may well be its descendants. There was a glimmer of hope around a breeding project, but that dream, like the Barbary lion, faded.



While it may seem that in these lines I have spoken too frequently of my own family, I would say that it was Darsi's series of family photos that emboldened me to do so.

If we are asked to write about the body of the artist, we could speak of the lost body, the body that escapes Earth's orbit or our comprehension. Or we could talk about familiar or foreign bodies orbiting our own body.

It's part of the human condition that no matter where we look, we see ourselves or strangers. We see a leg that looks like ours or a nose that reminds us of the father we lost. We see a face that looks nothing like us and we disfigure it.

In Darsi's series of family photos, the bodies of strangers are almost inevitably placed in the same banal setting, in the souk of Had Oulad Frej or in a Dutch town on the Schie River, in Cape Town, or in the park of a small town in Iowa, until we realize, through the force and exhaustion of repetition, that they are all part of the same family, the same environment, the same vast body of humans. Everywhere we see something or someone close to us: our image on the TV screen, the woman on the couch, my mother at the market, the lion in the cage. It is the subtle genius of Hassan Darsi to force us to look and look again. He makes the familiar strange (golden televisions and talking dolls) while making the familiar strange (the man facing the golden television with a remote control). In this shuttle between approaches to reality, we grasp the human body and all its manifestations, deliberate as well as accidental, refracted on the screen.

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