PRINT November 1991


PORNOGRAPHY LITERALLY MEANS the description of our debauch. But what is literal in the world of symbolic forms? A letter is a litter since Joyce brought to words the same cunning ambivalence and stunning corporeality we happily associate with the sexual act. Words and sexes are no longer literal; verb and body are subjected to constant metamorphosis. Do we come out of this wiser but sadder?

Cunning stunts leaves us to re-Joyce in Sade-ness: Brian Nissen’s couplings of images are like a gigantic erotic pun, a vast web of allusions where multiple meanings of body and language, body and mind, mind and language, stasis and change, come together, tied by the knot of sexual description, only to see each knot untied the instant it is fastened. We are separated from the stunning cunts and the treacherous pricks by the cunning stunts and the lecherous tricks of the artist: we see but we cannot touch these bodies, as the fruit and the water of Tantalus are forever within his reach, forever receding from his grasp.

We touch only paper and ink. Yet we do touch the image. Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar sees mind as skin: a skin touched, seen, remembered. In Brian Nissen’s art the cunning stunt is that we may not physically touch what is pictured, but we can possess it as it too possesses our mind, touches our mind, sees it and tells our mind: you, too, are skin.

The picture comes forward to possess us. Nissen asks: are we ready for this? Must we always be the macho spectator who first sees the work of art, sets a price and then, only then, unzips his mental fly, brings out his psychic trick and says OK, I will now have her, I will now pay the price for her, I will now rape her and ape her and tape her and gape her and nape her and lape her, whether she wants to or not? The macho spectator of the cunning art will even take his bonded concubine to his iconic harem, show her off, and one day sell her at a profit. She has passed on. She has never reached out to touch her sultan. He believes he has possessed her.

Swat that fly!

From Altamira to Velázquez to Duchamp the cunning stunter asks us to enter the painting only if the painting can simultaneously enter us. This is the bargain.

The bull in Altamira can only be had if we agree to share the arena with him: act out a common scene in a common place, a meeting place of bravery and fear. With him: even be gored. Ortega y Gasset saw in Las Meninas a double dynamic of the painting coming to us as we go to it. Are we willing to be the erotic object of the infanta, and of her dwarf? Of the duena, and of the gentleman waiting on the staircase in the yellow rectangle by the door? Are we willing to see the painter’s brush spring hard and bushy between his legs, asking us to pay the price of our pleasure: possessing the painting only if we are possessed by it?

Brush your teeth with it.

Spinning, spunning, Spanish, spunish stunts: a punished trick, a tarnished prick. The best works of art, said the surrealist, are imperfect, because they leave much to be desired. Quote William Blake: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.” Brian Nissen offers us a multiple vision of desire. The perfection of its form is its imperfection: his art does not consciously aspire to permanence. It will last.

Blake once more: eternity is in love with the works of time. And Quevedo: only what is passing remains and lasts. The permanence of Nissen’s art depends on the margin left open for desire to occupy. This margin of desire, greater in some works than in others, is actively expressed by an esthetic and moral attitude: this is passing. What passes is passion. It moves. It desires. Step in.

Bury it. Save it from the animal’s hunger.

I see these figures rapidly moving away from pornography, rapidly leaving behind the descriptive (pornographic) and reproductive (sexual) and entering the erotic (supernatural). The erotic passage toward death without the renunciation of desire: Eros.

The movement in Nissen’s figures stirs the stagnant air of the pornographic; it also poisons the blessed air of the reproductive or creative or revolutionary. For Nissen celebrates desire but is not duped by it. Desire is not a song of innocence: we desire in order to suppress the difference between ourselves and the other, between the subject and the object of desire. This drive toward unity also contains the dangers of submission, enslavement; possession: we want to change the object of our desire. To make it our-self. To suppress the difference between our-self and the other.

Rollerskate toward it.

The romantic chooses: let us be whole again. The orphan accepts: let us be several again. Modern art is forever posed between the nostalgia of analogy and the temptation of diversity.

The eroticism of Brian Nissen is polycultural: an English artist in the Indo-Iberian world, dealing with desire, discovers that freedom and necessity are not at odds with one another. He carries his individualistic Anglo-Saxon freedom into a world of dark collective necessity and in the lands of necessity (Mexico, Spain) he discovers that the freedom of the subject consists in transforming him/her/self to reach an object that materially is forbidden it. This is certainly the strongest and perhaps the most positive tradition of the Indo-Iberian world: suffusing popular art, painting, and writing with an urgency that it would not otherwise have is a desire that cannot be materially accomplished. Since it cannot, we, he, the figure we now see, must leap, execute a triple somersault over the chasm separating the shore of desire from the shore of its accomplishment.

Tie a balloon to it. Tie it to a balloon.

A triple somersault, a jump over the void, the mortal danger of desire: Brian Nissen generously extends a safety net below the prancing figures of sex and death, one and other, passage and passion. This net is called fun and games, humor, the ludicrous. In sex as in carnival, time is suspended; nothing exists, nothing happens, outside the concentrated hijinx on a bed. The same bed on which one day we shall throw back our head and see no more, feel no more.

Nissen’s game saves the body thanks to ludicrous representation. Here it is, for one fulfilling instant, joyous but clownish, re-joycing at the wake, cunning stunt, penis ceiling, dire trick, spinning spunning spunished games: forbidden because, as Luis Buñuel used to say, sex without sin is like egg without salt.

See it fly away with the balloon. It has fallen up. Skryvity. Gravair. Perception tells me that the earth is flat. Humor and imagination tell me the earth is round. Who wins? The balloon.

Plotinus said that we only know what God is not, never what he is. Therefore the body is a way of knowing God because it is what he is not. The Cathari or Albigensian heretics tried to rid themselves of their bodies, which they saw as the creation not of God himself but of a second, evil God: the God who gave us what he is not. This Satanic deity charged us with the body, the negation of the soul, and dared us to exhaust, to drain, this material horror so as to become pure. Nuns in colonial Mexico bared their backs and breasts and had their servant girls whip them and call them sacks of excrements, tubes of shit, bags of corruption. Turn that page and see Brian Nissen three centuries later, replacing the ceremony of sin with the ceremony of fun. The channel of corruption has become the stream of humor, the safety net of both excessive reason and excessive faith, the Erasmian praise of folly that renders both the madness of faith and the madness of reason relative. Look at these balancing acts in the Nissean concilium, in Brian’s circus of the circuits of play saving our bodies from the extremes of cuntdemnation and cuntversion: Brian’s circunts, Nissen’s cuntcilium: tied pricks, balancing acts, floating games, Siamese sex, boxing balls, jocula, risa, laughter, rire; pranks; sex sucks!

Stop laughing. Are we ready for death? Behind every cunning stunt and lecherous lick and dreadful trick in the Nissen book of erotica lies a cadaver. The headiest motivation of the sexual conjunction (Octavio Paz) is the unsaid certainty that these bodies now entangled in joy will one day be no more; every sexual act is a reminder of death, and every death is a reminder that the body is born alone and will die alone, without its earthly companion, the Other.

Touch it. Not do not touch. It is beautiful. But it is dead.

There is no more painful fact than this: the bodies we love shall leave us before we want to leave them. We will leave the bodies that love us before they want to leave us. The extraordinary eroticism of certain couplings by Titian or Van Eyck or Manet is that Venus and Cupid, the Arnolfinis, or a naked woman out on a picnic with a company of fully clothed men are all groupings of passage. The group will never be recomposed. All of the subjects are separated, dead, unknown—radically unknown—to each other by the time that we see the painting. I touch the hand of the woman I love standing next to me, watching the work of art. Like Venus, Olympia, or Arnolfini’s wife, she too will sometime be gone without me or I without her. It is inevitable: bodies are not a synchronized reality. We see the painting. We touch. We must affirm, somehow, that our touch, our sexual act, defeats death: the picture before us says so. It also says that all sexual activity is a rehearsal of death.

Brian Nissen’s vision of erotic passion goes beyond our desire to defeat death: the sense of the erotic is to affirm life in death. This is not difficult for him, who coexists with Mexico and Spain, to understand and fulfill.

Exhume it. Are you sure it has really died?

The candy skulls of the Day of the Dead in Mexico (José Guadalupe Posada, Sergei Eisenstein), the funereal poetry of the Spanish baroque (Quevedo, Gongora) are celebrations of the wholeness of life: there is only life, and death is part of it. More than the zone (the soul) of the mystical, this is the province (the body) of the erotical. Only Eros goes beyond the sexual function in life, common to all reproductive organisms, and stakes a claim for sex in death. An ant or a panther (as far as we know) does not conceive sex beyond pleasure and reproduction. To this the child, the lover, and the artist add: yes, Death. An affirmation: to imagine the loved body beyond its corruption and disappearance? Much more: to save the body from fear of itself. This is what Brian Nissen the artist achieves. He is the Other: the Artist. Only the Other can do this for us. In life or in death.

Is there any other answer? Does the body have any other soul? Does the soul have any other body?

Carlos Fuentes most recent book is The Campaign, recently published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.