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Art, desire, and ‘I Love Dick’

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-06-2017 Anindita Ghose

Adultery is illegal, at least for men, in India. But that hasn’t stopped a dating website/app specifically geared to facilitate extramarital affairs from finding over 100,000 subscribers in the country, as Mint reported earlier this week. Gleeden—a portmanteau of the French word for “garden” and “Eden”—promises to create “a secure and anonymous space” and the website announces on its purple interface that it is the first extramarital dating site made by women.

Potential users should be forewarned by what happened a couple of years ago with Ashley Madison, another such networking service. Morally outraged hackers exposed the personal details of over 32 million users. It was a bad affair.

But while some women bite into Gleeden, Chris Kraus turns to art.

Kraus is the protagonist of a new show on Amazon titled I Love Dick. Based on a 1997 book by Chris Kraus, it has been adapted for the screen by Jill Soloway, the force behind the multiple Emmy-winning Transparent, which tackles gender, sexuality, and the trajectory of its transgender lead, with an exemplary tenderness.

A memoir thinly-veiled as fiction, the epistolary book elicited violent controversies when it was published. The story is riveting: a failed independent film-maker accompanying her husband to an artists’ residency in Texas develops a psycho-sexual obsession with the residency director, Dick Jarret (played by Kevin Bacon).

Dick is a cowboy so cool he doesn’t dive into pools, he steps into them. This is a narrative that puts the female gaze front and centre. And because we are unused to this, the lingering shots of Dick being Dick, his frequently topless breakfast eating and his slow-motion shearing of a lamb, seem exaggerated and comic.

When she fails to seduce him, Kraus channels her energy into letters that all begin with Dear Dick. The writing is electric. “Every letter is a love letter,” she launches forth in an early one. “Desire is not lack. It is excess energy. It’s claustrophobia under the skin,” she says in another. The letters become an art project, a feminist manifesto. Her newly-acquired charge resurrects her flailing marital sex life. Soon, her husband, a Holocaust expert, begins participating in her fantasy as a player. But she calls the shots. Key to the narrative, and why Gleeden users might be interested, is that once she has Dick in a hotel room, he has lost his control over her.

As an art project, Kraus’ explicit letters, and the things she does with them, are important because they give her agency. As another female artist in the residency points out: There are 500 times as many female nudes in Western art as there are female artists (Guerilla Girls, the anonymous feminist activist artist group, have a compendium of such data on Guerrillagirls.com).

Dick, whose own art practice consists of erecting oversized metallic monuments in the Texan desert, complains to Kraus’ husband: “I’m the object. It’s humiliating.” And the husband, otherwise a weak foil to Dick, suddenly wins favour when he points out that male artists have been guilty of the same for centuries.

Chris Kraus was not an adolescent in love. And it was no simple crush. “Kraus aligns herself with the cause of female irrepressibility... it is about the awakening of a woman’s consciousness through debasement, through obsession, all of it orchestrated by her, without ever really giving up agency,” says Rosalyn D’Mello, an art writer and the author of an erotic epistolary novel herself, A Handbook For My Lover (2015). D’Mello, who first told me about the book, locates it within the feminist writing of Eileen Myles, Alice Notley, Kathy Acker and Dodie Bellamy.

While I was not entirely pleased with how the eight-episode Amazon series ended, the book and the show are an essential treatise on the transformative power of desire and its potential as art, one that in this story changes not only the protagonist’s own life, career and marriage but that of others around her. It also prompts Dick, who hasn’t created an artwork in 10 years, to change course. What it says is this: Why settle for a room or a garden, when you can have the world?

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