Bérénice Reynaud

Wrestling with Angels and Demons—A Passion in Three Acts


Before this sweltering month of July in Los Angeles, I wrote three texts about Stuart Sherman. The first was originated in 1979 on a small, blue electric typewriter, that had been given to me by a classmate in Noel Carroll’s film theory class at NYU, Deborah Young, and that looked very much like the one that appears in Typewriting (Pertaining to Stefan Brecht) (1982). I was poor, and Deborah was emptying her small apartment in New York’s Little Italy, before moving to Rome, where she has lived ever since as a critic specialized in Russian and Middle Eastern cinema. The text was written in French, and translated into English for publication into the journal October.1

The same typewriter was used to write the second text for Cahiers du cinéma.2 It was included in a two-part article, published in the September and October 1982 issues, and titled “New York independent cinema: a short dictionary for those who want to know more.” The entry on Stuart was called “The Magnificent Obsession.”

Shortly afterwards, the blue typewriter expired, and I upgraded my tools by acquiring a desk-top computer, a mix-and-match of various parts put together for cheap by a friend of a friend. This computer appears in Libération (Portrait of Bérénice Reynaud) (1993), which Stuart shot in my East Village apartment about a year before I left for Los Angeles in September 1992. I had organized a set-up with the keyboard and the screen at an angle of 90 degrees, so I could type while looking into space rather than at the screen. When I moved, I had to streamline my possessions, so I acquired my first laptop, and it was my turn to give the desk-top computer to Stuart—and, as one can imagine, he started playing with it with delight, saying it was opening a world of new possibilities.

This was the second time I had given Stuart an object he could use. At the beginning of our friendship, for his birthday, on November 77, I went to 42nd Street to pick up some little plastic toy he may like. I gave it to him, well-wrapped. “What is it?,” he asked. “It moves,” I replied. “Oh gosh,” he said, with mock horror, “I hope it’s not an animal.” It was a pair of mechanical dentures. It was to reappear in The Eleventh Spectacle, and then Stuart found more of them to buy and incorporate in his performances. This anecdote casts some light on Stuart’s relationship to objects. They were not only “found” or bought—he was willing to accept a gift, and to incorporate it into his abstract vocabulary. This implicit generosity—for accepting a gift is as generous as giving one, and Stuart was capable of both—explains why he was able to secure performers for his spectacles and films, and why he was such a delight to work with. You’d be given a set of extremely precise instructions—in the Spectacle in which I participated, I had to knock off a pile of paper plates put in front of me. The position of my hand was subjected to a painstaking choreography, and we needed quite a few rehearsals to get it right. My fingers had to be kept together, not spread out. I had to hold my head in a certain way, tilting it backward at a specific moment. Yet, within these constraints, there was freedom and respect. You were not asked to act, to plunge into hidden psychological depths and create a character from what you may have found. You were a body in space—but you were chosen for what you were, how your history had written itself on your features, how you moved, how you spoke.3

This is why Scotty Snyder may have been the quintessential Sherman performer. A former housewife living in Summit, New Jersey, Snyder had taken classes at the Summit Art Center where she had met Bob Wilson, who eventually cast her in Deafman Glance (1971). She became a fixture of the downtown art scene, having moved into a small studio apartment in Greenwich Village (sometimes expressing a humorous appreciation for her husband’s mixture of open-mindedness and complete disinterest in the new life she had carved herself in her senior years). The wrinkles on her face and her graying hair (worn in a conservative chignon) showed her age, and her bulk was dressed in ample, comfortable clothing. Yet she became an icon of Stuart’s work, appearing in many of his films and performances, a substitute “life-and-art partner”—a fact Stuart wittily acknowledged by calling one of his videos Son of Scotty and Stuart (1994)—a spin-off from one of his most famous short films, Scotty and Stuart (1977).

The willful elimination of subjectivity and psychology from film and performance art is still an act of defiance. It was key in Stuart’s creative process—and the reason why some commentators bemoan that it is next to impossible, for example, to find information about his childhood. Intimate confessions wasn’t his style—and, in turn, he didn’t expect anything of the sort from his friends, colleagues or performers. Friendship and collaboration followed another route—you were more than your biography, your emotional problems, your physical existence. Looking at the images of the now-long-dead Scotty as Stuart captured them in his films, at the pictures documenting the performances in which she appeared, you realize that something essential pertaining to Scotty was expressed in Stuart’s mise en scène: her quiet, unruffled strength and generosity; the non-conformism that had made her break away from the strictures of suburban middle class; a secret hurt that she was smiling at.

One finds similar insights in two of Stuart’s most enigmatic film portraits. Edwin Denby (1978)4 was shot five years before the poet and dance critic killed himself; official obituaries say he had been in poor health for years, and was afraid that his intellectual capabilities might decline. The silent, black-and-white film that lasts but 1:13 minute starts with a tilting shot descending from the cast-iron tiles of a while ceiling (as you could find them in so many artist living/working lofts in Manhattan those days), passing in front of a large window and eventually framing a frail old gentleman, with white hair and beard, entirely dressed in black, sitting at an empty table in an empty space. The camera keeps a constant distance from its subject, capturing Denby in profile, as he is looking in direction of the left of the screen. He lifts a white cup, then turns it upside down: it’s empty. Slowly, he puts it back on the table. An (almost) invisible cut/homemade special effect intervenes: now there are five sheets of blank paper under the cup. With his right hand, Denby brings the cup to his lips, and pretends to drink from it, while pushing the sheets of paper away with his left hand; they fall; he puts his hand on his left thigh and puts the cup back on the table. Jump cut. The cup is gone and Denby is now bending over the table and starts “writing” on it with the index of his right hand. The camera follows what he does and then starts moving around the space in a way the mimics the movements of handwriting; it eventually tilts back up into the ceiling, while keeping the same motion, then stops on the same view of the ceiling that the film had started. When I first saw the film, I knew nothing about Edwin Denby, but I was struck by the melancholy it exuded, and for many years it was my favorite one, with Scotty and Stuart. Here was a man at the end of his life, dissatisfied with “the nothing” that writing produces, yet obsessed with it.

With Typewriting (Pertaining to Stefan Brecht) (1982), Stuart paid homage to the complex life and psyche of another writer. The executor of his famous father’s estate, Brecht lived a divided life—sharing a luxurious house in the West Village with his wife, costume designer Mary Brecht, from whom he gradually grew estranged, while renting a room (his “writing studio”) at the legendary Chelsea Hotel. He became deeply involved with the bohemian theatrical avant-garde from Charles Ludlam to Richard Foreman, and wrote a series of essays about it, as well as poetry inspired by his New York surroundings. The film is built around the complete absence of its referent. It was shot in a non-descript suite, and starts on a typewriter and a desk lamp. The camera pans to the right, through a dark corridor; cut to the view to a Manhattan landscape with water tower on rooftops, then back to the room. Cut to a close-up of men’s soles, then the camera tilts up along the body of a young bearded man lying on a bed, smoking a big cigar (like the ones Brecht was fond of) and follows up the smoke as it goes up. We remain with the smoke, as it moves and gets distorted, dimly aware that this image is a composite of several shots, at least two. When the camera tilts down, it is now on the face of a young woman with thick eyebrows and burning eyes, who is smoking a similar cigar and looks straight into the camera. At this point, we hear the noise of a typewriter. The previous camera movements are reversed; we continue tilting down on the body of the young woman till we reach her soles, then pan left into the room, get into the window, this time with a variation (a zooming in and out into the urban landscape.) Cut to the black corridor and then panning to the left. By then the noise has stopped. We end up on the original shot of the typewriter, forlorn and idle, on the desk. Both the writer and the act of typewriting are invisible, but a mysterious transformational alchemy has taken place, that evokes the uncanny, unexplainable mystery of writing.

When looking again at the portrait Stuart made of me, Libération (Portrait of Bérénice Reynaud), I am struck by its dead-on accuracy. My life, my hairstyle, my physical appearance, my surroundings have changed a lot, I no longer write for the French daily paper Libération, I have a grey cat now and I live in another city but the essential is here: the obsessive writing on the computer, the telephone calls, petting a beloved cat, the desire to intervene on the cultural scene, the hours spent in the dark watching the silver screen—and Stuart rendered it with uncanny precision.

I have segued from the modes of writing about Stuart’s work to his relationship to objects and performers to his portraits of writers. A red thread runs through all of this. Stuart used objects, performers and shots as signs to be manipulated and organized into some form of writing. Instead of using words or notes he was collecting mass-produced artifacts, the bodies of friends and acquaintance, and the elements of film vocabulary. He was dealing with the physical existence of these signs and images to avoid the terrifying abstraction of writing—one expressed so well in Denby’s empty cup and blank pages, or Brecht’s absence from his typewriter. It is to be noted that the three writers whose cinematic portraits he drew were people who experienced some form of dissatisfaction, who lived in the shadow of the writing they did not/could not produce. Denby was ambivalent about publishing his poetry, and sought refuge in being the best dance critic in New York. Brecht had to contend with the overwhelming Name of the Father, and only published a small portion of what he wrote; he left behind him unfinished manuscripts. As for me (more modestly), my writing has been plagued with huge anxiety attacks, and I always feel that “real writing” (like Rimbaud’s “real life”) is elsewhere. We have all been haunted by another kind of writing—the Platonic idea of a text that may exist somewhere—the one that, in a better world, we would be capable of but could not attain here and now. I believe this is a well-spread predicament, because writing is one of the most terrifying acts a human being can get involved in. In most civilizations, writing competes with the authority of The Book (The Bible, the Gospel, the Koran, Confucius’s Analects, the Bhagavat Gita, The Book of Dead…); wanting to write puts you in the position of Jacob wrestling with the Angel all night as described in the Genesis or shown in Delacroix’s painting. There is something in you that wants to let the Angel win. Because it’s easier; because you don’t want to be God. (I’m talking about the average neurotic person, not the paranoid schizophrenic who thinks s/he is God, not the surrealist poet who believes that God is gloriously dead…). And so you have the feeling that you didn’t really write what you wanted to, what you dreamt of writing, that there is, somewhere, behind these words you put on paper (on a computer screen) a better text waiting to be unveiled.

As most secular American Jews, Stuart was under the pervasive influence of two sets of books, two religious traditions—Judaism and Christianity—and it is quite telling that his last spectacle, performed in Fribourg (Switzerland) and then at the Pompidou Center (Paris, France) less than a year before his death was titled The Stations of the Cross, or the Passion of Stuart (2000).5 I have not seen the spectacle and knows little about it, save for a laconic description that involves trains and hats and a picture showing Stuart’s head hidden by a huge egg surrounded by a crown of thorns. While he was borrowing from Christian kitsch and mythology, I also assume that the passion was a hidden allusion to the virus that was killing his body, and the station(s) of the cross to the series of humiliations and financial setbacks that had forced him to give up his base in New York and made him an artist more respected in Europe than in the US. Stuart was indeed fighting his own demons, but his idiosyncratic genius had found a way to avoid a wrestling match with the Angel.

Once I interviewed David Behrman, one of the main exponents of the improvisational electronic music in New York. His work involves the fabrication of small electronic devices that can react to live performance. He told me that, when inspiration was lacking, he found solace by suturing a couple of circuits. His own father, a writer, could spend days in agony, thinking of nothing to write, He didn’t have this problem. A suture was done, existed in the physical world and was something to be happy about.

Stuart’s powerful insight was to have shifted his original impulse (writing) toward the creative, systematic (re)organization of physical objects and projected images. There was an added benefit to this—as the discourse thus produced was a complete externalization, there was no danger of unduly psychologizing, no fear of exhuming some dark secret by accident—a risk one always incurs while writing. Denby’s uneasiness at publishing his poems may have been linked to the fear that they would reveal homosexual overtones, albeit cryptic ones. Both he and Stuart had grown up in times permeated with sexual guilt and sexual secrets. Stuart had collaborated with Charles Ludlam and his Theater of the Ridiculous, but the company’s flamboyance, camp and bawdy humor may not have been his cup of tea. (The Eleven Spectacle expresses “the erotic” in very different—although probably no less “perverse”—ways!) Stuart was a very private person, and, except for his intimate friends, closeted. Gradually, he became more outspoken about his sexuality. He joined the New York-based Gay and Lesbian Reading Group and published a text on Carson McCullers for them. The last spectacle he did in New York was called Queer Spectacle (1994).

Unlike those of us who live in the shadow of the writing we were dreaming of but have not done6—Stuart was delightfully happy about his work. He had limited means, both on stage and in his filmwork, but there was no sense of “if I had had more money, I would have done it differently.” There was a luminous equation between what he was planning to do and what he was doing. The pieces fitted together, the signifying chain was working, giving away enough, but not too much, opening doors to an alternate universe whose rules he had coined. In its own logic, the work was perfect. It still is.


I had to write a third text about Stuart for the Memorial that took place in New York on June 7, 2002. For reasons that are still unclear to me, this text was entirely hand-written. My old anxieties came back, and I found myself unable to write, to I decided to translate into English the short article written for Cahiers du cinéma. Then the text became something else. Here it is, revised and adapted.

In 1982, Stuart Sherman was a rather short young man, with a charming smile and amicable manners, who could usually be found in front of a small folding table covered with everyday objects: plastic toys, nails, springs, combs, cutout pieces of cardboard, paper plates. The intensity of the gaze of his green eyes betrayed the fact that we were not attending an ordinary mise en scène, but instead were dealing with the most rigorous, more creative, more obsessive performance artist of his generation…

From 1977 to 1994, Stuart Sherman completed 29 films and 19 videos—lasting from a few seconds to a dozen of minutes. Originally, the films were silent, and critics liked to compare them to early Chaplin or Keaton. The similarity works, especially if one takes into account that he was often (but not always) inhabiting his films with a clown-like, impassive and metaphysical presence. Yet the site marked by his body was never ridiculous nor sublime—not even borderline heroic. Ridicule, sublimity or heroism demand, to be projected on screen, some narrative, at least a teleology. Unlike Chaplin and Keaton—always ready to fight the windmills—Sherman projected the filmic presence of a philosopher who desired nothing, who fought for nothing nor against anything, and whose eroticism was sublimated in the highly controlled construction of a language designed to express his vision of the nature of things. As an artist he did not share Chaplin’s and Keaton implicit belief in the possible betterment of man.

Stuart’s second film, the eponymous Scotty and Stuart (1977) is also the most vibrant, as it rests on a silent, yet warm interaction between the two performers and includes a series of witty visual puns and manipulations: Stuart all dressed up soaking in his own bathtub, then getting up and passing in front of Scotty who is holding a glass of water she has previously drunk from; a pile of white bath towels being unfolded and thrown by Scotty into the sea and reappearing, all wet, in the apartment, at various places pre-indicated by the direction of Stuart’s gaze in a previous shot; the light going off when a water faucet in turned off, leaving Scotty holding a lit candle, which Stuart extinguishes by pouring his glass of water over it; and then the luminous coda—switching from black and white to color, a static shot shows Scotty, dressed in blue, and Stuart, bringing wooden chairs onto the beach, sitting and watching the deep blue sea that gently laps their feet. Through the years, Stuart developed a more complex and highly sophisticated approach to film—manipulating the medium itself rather than merely permuting objects within the frame or from image to image. Some of these manipulations involve optical printing and the freezing of a moving image into a still, two dimensional picture, to poetic and comical effects in Flying (1979) for example. He pushes this figure into surrealist absurdity, by courting the boundaries between cinematic and theatrical space, between the moving image and sculpture. In Theater Piece (1980), he creates an atmosphere of melancholy magic by playing with violent lighting contrasts, while diffracting the space of the theater through ingenious “special effects” and exploring the different positions that a body can assume in it: standing in front of the entrance, sitting in a row, sitting on an armchair on stage, standing, bowing. Except for the bowing, each of these positions are shot from the back (a familiar representational device in Stuart’s work), sometimes with the perspective distorted (the size of the patron sitting one row behind Stuart is exaggerated)—then the frame is frozen and the image of the body is replaced by a cardboard silhouette. Another shift involves Stuart turning around from his seat, standing, and then bowing, while, behind him, another Stuart, illuminated by floodlights, bows on stage.

In Fish Story (1983), he expands these different strategies and offers a series of permutations (naked/clothed; jumping into the pool/jumping off the pool) as well as a multilayered space created through juxtaposition. Five colored fish are seen swimming upward against a dark staircase (shot in black and white). Then the entire film reverses itself, and the film ends where it had started, on the image of a naked Stuart on a round pedestal, seen from the back; the shot is a freeze-frame, giving his body the spectacular unreality of one of these faux-Greek statues that you see on public squares (and, yes, it was a nice body…). The “statue,” however, seems submerged under water, as schools of fish are swimming around it. Elevator/Dance (1980) involves a romantic application of optical printing, as the faces of a young man and his girlfriend are seen going up and down through the round opening in the elevator door, out of reach for each other. The film ends ambiguously on the dark shots of two empty, motionless escalators, and then on two couples, seen from the back, waiting for the elevators. Baseball/TV (1979) offers an imaginative use of found footage, and multiple modes of framing a screen-within-a-screen to create a complex and humorous visual texture. For Chess (1982), he had a set built, and plays with the opposition between depth of field and flatness, real space and trompe l’oeil, magnified by optical printing effects that allowed him to divide the image in half—the left of the screen having a black backdrop, the right a white backdrop. A chess table stands in the center. Two versions of Stuart sit alternatively on each side of the table; the table disappears, and Stuart, dressed in a black and white costume, walks away from the camera in a straight line in the center of the screen, while both the backdrop and the floor gradually fill up with chess cases on each the imprint of a foot (black for the white cases, white for the black ones) has been painted etc.

Stuart gradually included sound in his films, imaginatively alternating sound and silence at first. Racing (1981) is structured around the opposition between fake/inanimate and real/moving and the contrapuntal use of silence and sound against the image. The poignancy of Typewriting lies on its discrete use of off-screen sound. Golf Film (1982), a sassy “musical,” includes the rendering of My Blue Heaven by a couple of untrained singers (a man and a woman). In the early 1980s, Stuart was a guest of The Atelier de Création Radiophonique at the French Public Radio in Paris, and his access to sophisticated sound equipment allowed him to produce alluring sound collages and soundscapes—all very short, as to be expected.

One of his favorite manipulations consisted in passing from one cinematic field to another from one shot to the next, deceiving the spectator about the actual location of some objects; another involved the movement and placement of the camera. A static shot could morph into a sweeping panning, and then into a series of dizzying movements—as seen in Edwin Denby. Camera/Cage (1978) takes the idea of framing to an extreme extent. It starts on a wide shot of a busy Manhattan intersection (it may have been somewhere on 8th Avenue), then the camera moves around, circumscribing a very large frame, as if trying to define and capture the space. We move to a patch of grass, the camera hopping up and down until it arrives to Stuart crouching down, a still camera in his mouth. He drops the camera and we are now treated to an extreme close up of the darkness of his gaping mouth.7 There is a cut to the simple, minimalist drawing of a cage in black at the center of a white screen. Then the hopping movements resume and this time bring us to a real cage—behind whose bars a solemn and reproachful owl gazes at us. The next cut takes us to a park; Stuart arrives on a bicycle, picks up the still camera left on the grass and starts circling around the space. The film camera follows him; at some point he breaks the circle and rides away; the camera continues its circular motion, faster and faster. Roller Coaster/Reading (1979) exploits the tension between motion within a frame (the roller coaster following its tracks; Stuart walking in direction of the amusement park, away from the camera, an open book in front of his face) and the movement of the camera (a series of tilting and panning shots over a bookcase—sometimes montaged in order to make the number of books look almost infinite, like in Borges’s The Library of Babel—as well as two inverted tracking shots, one in direction of the bookcase, one away from it, the latter revealing the largest view on record of Stuart’s Manhattan apartment on West 22 Street).8 In Typewriting, the camera adopts a false neutral position which will allow for a surprise substitution between the man and the woman on the bed. These four films are all “about” intellectual operations—writing, photographing, reading—and the camera movements become the instruments of a cognitive/poetic process. This “solipsistic” stance explodes when Stuart visits Paris. In Bridge Film (1981)—which has now turned into a historical document of what the streets of the city looked like in the 1980s—the camera climbs over various bridges, before eventually “jumping” into the Seine river. Stuart’s camera never did what it is usually required to do—nor was it found where it was expected. From these absurd or poetic juxtapositions, these visual puns, that must be “caught” within a fraction of second, laughter is born—something that the 17th century French critic Boileau would have called the “laughter of the soul,” or “Reason hidden behind a mask.”

As stated earlier, I couldn’t get started on a text for the Memorial—and deciding to write it by hand made me think of Stuart even more. Not only because of the chain of exchange described above between typewriter and computer—but mostly because my friendship with him had made me appreciate the physicality of the act of writing, a physicality I used to resent. I had wanted writing to be pure thought, pure light, and was confronted with a less pleasant reality. At first, I would hand-write the first draft, in black ink—a chaos of scratched words and reorganized sentences—and then type the final version. I experienced switching to a computer as pure liberation—no more mess, gone the unholy alliance between the threatening blank page and the dubious liquid coming from me via the fountain pen. Stuart had switched from writing to the manipulation of objects and cinematic forms—from one physical act to another. Yet the physicality of his manipulations led to an abstract plane. While the world he created was obsessive, the objects were not the vectors of the obsession. They were instrumental—in themselves they didn’t matter. Stuart never confused signs and their referents, the signifier and the signified. He knew, however, that writing and thinking are difficult. Our bodies are heavy, clumsy and cumbersome; they betray us, get sick and die. So, instead of being pure light, our thought processes, tied to our bodies, have to go through the three-dimensional world of objects. Some experience this with horror; others get lost in the process of acquiring as many material possessions, from junk to real estate, as possible. For Stuart objects, props, lighting devices, film stock, cameras were the phonemes of a wonderful, multi-faceted, always varied vocabulary he could combine at will according to the rules of his secret grammar.

Stuart’s untimely death means that another figure of the “avant-garde” of the 1970s and 1980s is gone. In Africa they say that, when an elder dies, it is as if a whole library had burnt… As an educator involved in issues of cultural transmission, I often wonder—what will we be able to transmit to future generations of artists?—what kind of enthusiasm for beloved art works can we pass on?—what will remain of the work of an idiosyncratic artist like Stuart Sherman? Maybe Stuart didn’t leave “disciples” stricto sensu. But the memorials organized in New York, San Francisco and Paris after his death—the exhibitions in New York, this publication, the desire of young artists to reconstruct his performances—all of this proves that he had, and still has, a strong following. For the people who were lucky enough to have known him, worked with him, been friends with him—we all loved him and we all learnt something from him. We are like the little plastic mice, the mechanical toys, the paper plates, the painted backdrops—elements of a vocabulary arranged and recombined by his gaze, made meaningful by his manipulations. In a way—we have become him. Yet—unlike the little plastic mice, the mechanical toys, the paper plates, the painted backdrops—he loved us—and we loved him back. And we could never be thankful enough for this.


Upon looking at the essay written thirty years ago (gosh!) for October, I was struck by two things. Yes, the text is imperfect and needs to be tightened, but I had managed—maybe because I had spent a lot of time with Stuart, and we both took each other seriously—to identify what I still think was an essential element in his creative process: the notion of detour. It is clear that this text also contains a lot of my own issues with writing—but this may not have been so outlandish after all. When I left New York, Stuart made me a beautiful gift, his portrait of me, in which his face and my face become one. A certain process of mutual identification had taken place—and I believe it is the mark of every great artist: their work speaks to you, expresses you in an uncanny, intimate way. The second thing I notice is that, due to my own ignorance as a young writer, but also to the spirit of the time (when “queer theory” was not an academic discipline), I (unconsciously?) beat around the bush, and my comments about “detour” and “perversion” could have been contextualized in terms of gender analysis. Stuart had told me about his homosexuality, but since he was not publicly open about it, I never broached the subject, never discussed with anybody else and would never have put anything in print. Due to circumstances, some of my own making, I lost touch with Stuart in the last six years of his life, so I never knew him when he was “out.” Thirty years have passed, Stuart is dead and I have changed. I no longer believe that the main obstacle a human being faces when writing is the fear of wrestling with the Angel. The fear is that the inner demon may come out—that a secret invisible even to yourself may inadvertently be revealed. This was a fear that many queer subjects have had—and such repression and displacement have produced great art. From this point of view, Stuart’s performances, films and videos are a fine example of successful Queer Art—if one considers queerness to re side in the obliquity of the gaze, in taking a stance against heteronormalcy. As for me, let’s say that I am starting to have a better knowledge of the demon in me—and that having had to deal with it all these years gave me a better understanding of what Queer Art can be. Here is a streamlined version of this 1979 text. I have shortened but not thoroughly revised it for, even in its flaws, it is a testimony of its time—a moment in our lives.

Most of Stuart Sherman’s performances, executed in silence with an almost religious concentration, consist of the manipulation, often on a fragile little folding table, of different kinds of objects—plastic toys, but also bars of soap, kitchen utensils and other assembly-line produced objects.9 Sherman’s manipulations makes his performances resemble a magic show, but magic without tricks, suggesting that the point of his activity is something other than what it seems to be, that it is not the transformation of objects that is important, but, as Noel Carroll observed, the order that is imposed on them.10

Some of the “spectacles” have titles, but this should not mislead us. Sherman’s performance do not depict anything. In the Tenth Spectacle, for example, the sequence of manipulations called “Paris” is not a signifying chain whose referent in Paris; neither is it a “painting”—expressionist or representational—of Paris as seen by Stuart Sherman. Yet it is possible to think of this sequence of manipulations as a signifying chain, and to determine how it functions will be the task of this analysis. Which is to say, how does one make an art that is entirely constituted of objects such that the objects themselves are denatured, and, to what ends does one do this? Or to ask the question in yet another way, what is the meaning of an art which is populated with objects but is, simultaneously and above all, abstract?

One can turn to the history of modern painting for examples of the formalist denaturing of objects. Cubism exploits a limited repertory of mundane objects—guitars, bottles, pipes, bowls of fruit—for expressly pictorial ends, as aspects of things become the signifiers for elements of spatial syntax: overlap, contiguity, recession, diminution. Yet, this cubist absorption of the depicted object into the abstract, formal codes of representational space may denote a more traditional attitude than the one enunciated by Apollinaire, who asserted (along with the futurists) that one could paint as well with feces and blood, with oil cloth, or with detachable collars.

Whatever lineage we might trace from the formalist sublimation of the object, the one that leads from Apollinaire's eruptive conception moves in another direction—from Duchamp to Rauschenberg to Warhol to today—creating a filiation in which it is possible to insert Sherman’s work. As such, it depends not on the already constituted space of Western painting or sculpture or theater, but springs out of the inchoate space of postindustrial consumer capitalism itself, the space of the cheap, disposable simulacrum of the real.

Without resorting to the semiological analyses that were the fad in the 1970s, one can note that the multiplication of consumer objects, their mass production, their interchangeability, their temporary use value, and their mass consumption have created between objects and the signifying chains into which they are inserted a different relationship than would exist if one were dealing with a uniquely fashioned object whose perfection lies its durability. The society labeled “consumer” and so easily accused of materialism is the very one which exhibits the strongest contempt for objects. This is not only because exchange value has replaced use value, giving rise to the new fetishism of money, but because the signifying value, far from being lost in an overabundance of manufactured products, has been transferred from the object or from a collection of objects to the manipulation of those objects.

This displacement of value from the object to its relation to gesture can be found in certain preindustrial cultures—for example in the potlatch ceremony practiced by the Northwest Coast American Indians, in which goods acquired through conquest or work signify the wealth of their possessor only when given away as a gift to an enemy. With this gift the owner denies practical and even symbolic (ostentatious) value to the vehicle, transferring signification from the object to an action applied to that object. The potlatch provides a useful model of the process of denaturing an object. Yet between the potlatch and the manipulation of objects in advanced industrial societies there is an essential difference, for in making a gift its basis, the potlatch sets up a relationship between two subjectivities, even if that relationship is one of defiance and hostility (although one is also aware of the underlying eroticism in such an encounter). The consumption of industrial products, on the other hand, creates no such link, the discarded object becoming the empty signifier of an absent subject; for in the essentially solitary act of consumption there is no one to identify the subject as subject.

Sherman's work exists within this context. It is an art of chains of manipulation performed on a group of objects. Insofar as his work is conceived from within the productive domain of a consumer culture, it addresses the problem generated by this mode of production: the nightmarish possibility of an aesthetic medium based on a theoretically limitless group of objects and therefore a potentially infinite number of signifying elements. But insofar as Sherman is an artist he is equally concerned with the problem of limiting this exponential burgeoning of signifiers, and of determining criteria for delimiting them. Thus it is necessary to establish, within the theoretically limitless group of objects that are likely to be used, floating sub-groups which will constitute for each work, or each performance, the lexicon of terms available. Such is the function of the little suitcase lugged about by Sherman from performance to performance: to create an enclosure in the visible world that separates the objects that will be used during the performance (to be gradually revealed to the audience) from all others; in other words, to establish a collection.

In a collection it is neither the objects themselves nor their symbolic value that matters, but something that is made precisely to negate it all, as well as the reality of castration in the subject itself, which is the systematization of the collective cycle in which the continual movement from one element to another enables the subject to construct a closed, invulnerable world, without any obstacle to the fulfillment of a, needless to add, perverse desire.11

In the collection, objects are negated in the name of their principle of organization. What matters is no single object but the beauty of their collective encounter, as in a jumble of surrealist odds and ends—Lautréamont's umbrella and sewing machine collected on the dissecting table of a modern imagination—or the accumulations of a 42nd Street storefront, where you find displayed together electric vibrators, languid Christ statues, Star Wars toys, horror-film masks, and mechanical dentures similar to those used by Sherman. If such an assortment is possible in the same store window, it means that neither the vibrator nor the plastic Christ is blessed with an independent symbolic value.

In both collection and performance Sherman attempts to substitute for a theoretically infinite world of signifiers—a world overflowing with identically manufactured elements—a closed and autonomous one (every collection, while theoretically open, selects new elements according to an organizing principle, elements, therefore, which belong to the collection by definition, even though they are still a part of the outside world). This autonomous world of the collection is thus one whose signification depends wholly on itself and carries unmistakably the mark of subjectivity which is its source (although this is not to imply that the subjectivity constitutes its signification), a world where, as Sherman describes the mental space created by his performances, this subjectivity finally feels “at home.”

The pure gesture we see at work in Sherman's manipulations establishes similarities and differences between apparently random objects, transforming them into the elements of a discourse. This discourse contains some characteristics not unrelated to the choreography of modern dance (or the performances John Zorn was doing in the 1970s), for it sets out to exhaust the formal possibilities inherent in a closed permutational set. I will include here two examples, the first from Portraits of Places:

When X is dropping the second and fourth stick, he is looking in the direction of the mirror, and when he is dropping the first, third, and fifth stick, he is looking in the direction of the sticks; the second from The Erotic: In the lower left-hand corner with the other half eyeglass frame, the performer repeats all the actions previously performed in the upper right-hand corner.

If Sherman had only looked toward the mirror and not toward the sticks, if a sequence of actions had been performed with only half of the eyeglasses, if an object placed in a box had been left there instead of being taken out a moment later, the manipulations would represent a linear development comparable to the traditional stream of writing in which a sentence can only be written by eliminating all the others that could have been written in its place. The absurdity of Sherman's manipulations, which consists, roughly speaking, of undoing what he has just done, results from the desire to explore the system of combinations which a series of two or more objects can produce. A linear combination would not make us laugh; what does is the fact that these actions, some of which are extremely complicated and require a high degree of concentration, say nothing and go nowhere. In the industrial world there are productive chains of action which are similarly absurd for the author-subject: the repetitive actions of the assembly line, the very ones that produce the objects Sherman uses. Yet, as shown by the example of the five sticks, his manipulations are never simply repetitive. Along a chain of similar actions, variations are introduced precisely in order to explore the possible combinations within that chain. It is through the mechanism explored by Chaplin in the sequence of the breakdown of the assembly line in Modern Times that these variations make us laugh.

If the structure of Sherman's work can be described as a system formed by the permutation of two sub-systems—objects and actions—one of the effects produced by that system is pleasure. In analyzing the function and appearance of pleasure within Sherman's medium, it is perhaps helpful to equate the distinction between a wholly subjective experience and the objective, spatialized aesthetic experience of the performance, with the opposition established by Lacan between jouissance and pleasure.12 The spatialization of pleasure is what turns Sherman’s performances and films into spectacles—offering the spectator “something to see.” The pleasure and laughter, however, are entirely on the side of the spectator, as Sherman's manner evokes none of the delight one might see in an actor or musician experiencing pleasure in the interpretation of his/her role or musical score; what we are witnessing, instead, is the slow, difficult progress of jouissance, reflected in the splendid solitude of his concentration.

The word “ritual” seems particularly useful to describe Sherman’s work—as it accounts for this hidden sense of pleasure and the seemingly obsessive character of his actions.13 In the 1907 essay “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices,” Freud compares the private rituals of the obsessional neurotic with the public ones of religion, noting the following similarities: they can both be described (at least, from the point of view of the unbeliever) as a series of apparently futile, useless, or ridiculous actions which are obligatory and which serve to repress sexual drives in the case of neurotics, and antisocial ones in the case of religion.

Ceremonial and obsessive actions arise partly as a defense against the temptation and partly as a protection against the ill which is expected… Again, a ceremonial represents the sum of the conditions subject to which something that is not yet absolutely forbidden is permitted, just as the Church's marriage ceremony signifies for the believer a sanctioning of sexual enjoyment which would otherwise be sinful. A further characteristic of obsessional neurosis… is that its manifestations… fulfill the condition of being a compromise between the warring forces of the mind. They thus always reproduce something of the pleasure which they are designed to prevent14

In Sherman's work, the object of repression, that which is continuously revealed as the central obsession of all his manipulations is writing,15 writing as forbidden jouissance.16 Sherman's manipulations can be viewed as a way of rerouting the prohibition against writing in order to achieve a certain kind of profane pleasure, which explains his use of mundane objects. When this pleasure occurs in a performance, it is the result of intersubjectivity. It nevertheless retains certain characteristics of the solitary, unattainable, sacred jouissance for which it is a substitute. Witness, for example, Sherman's manner during a performance: withdrawn in his concentration, his fleeting eye-contact negates the existence of his own audience. (I have noticed the same intense concentration and the same absent/present look in the eyes of Catholic priests during those parts of the mass that call for the most active manipulation of an object-the host, whose material nature is also sacrificed to an ideal object: the offertory, consecration, and communion.)

All ritual involves the simultaneous summoning and warding off of something absent. Sherman's performance is obsessed with the absence of the Word—the source of the silence that presides over the greater part of his presentation—the Word blocked and returned to a state of nonexistence by the profane barrier of objects, of the mute sensible world deployed in space. But this barrier has its openings and from time to time a word appears, and, proof of both its foreignness and value, it is at the same time redundant (hence absurd) and emphatic (hence ritualistic). These words may take different forms: they might be printed on something they designate (a piece of cardboard marked hat coming out of a hat or the word eye written on a pair of glasses that he puts on); or on something they do not designate (a piece of cardboard marked hat attached to a glass ball); they might be a series of words that could serve as a signifying sequence uttered in a loud voice by Sherman as he manipulates his objects (pillow, wig, serene, concert, hook),17 which is finally designated by another word “: word” (after an imaginary colon perceptible in speech), introducing the interesting problem of the ultimate signifier.18 Or, finally, it might take the form of a text distributed to the public before the performance, a parallel discourse which never equals what we see on the stage, usually someone else's words, Richard Foreman's or Stefan Brecht's.19

These words, either written or spoken, are handled in the same way as the objects and sounds used by Sherman in his performance. They lose their privileged signification to become the objects of a collection, which, by the gesture that constitutes and animates it, in turn becomes a discourse. But inasmuch as our culture makes it impossible for us to treat these linguistic objects with the same neutrality that we do a piece of soap or a plastic coffee pot, their use takes on the ironic value of a quotation, like that of a passage of classical harmony in a piece of post-Cagian music.

So the repressed writing has nevertheless continued to assert itself, masked though triumphant, yet without its usual means of expression: letters, words, phonemes, a piece of paper; these things remain only as isolated symptoms. Then, passing from neurotic repression to perversion, this writing appropriates “unnatural” objects, the theoretically infinite collection of cheap artifacts whose constitution and use are unlimited, unlike the grammatical and linguistic laws which determine the juggling of words.20

What is the value of the object in this nonverbal detour? Since we are in the realm of perversity, it would seem to be a fetishistic one, as long as it is not taken to be a flight from the expressive, emotional, or ontological value of absent words, but the very constitution of signs. Sherman's objects are valueless in themselves, or perhaps their real value is derived from their place within two networks of association: the one weaving the reality of the visible world of the performance, the other the unreality of the invisible world (“There is an idea for every object,” Sherman has said).

To clarify the way in which these two networks overlap in every combination of objects, transforming objects into actual linguistic signs,21 let us take as example the manipulation of a small plastic scale and a pair of plastic dentures.

First system
(a) a scale is used to weigh objects lighter than itself; the dentures are placed on the scale;
(b) the scale performs its function by being articulated at its center; now, the dentures are also hinged at their center; therefore one can conceive of placing the scale on the dentures (manipulation as Aristotelian syllogism);

Second system
(a) according to Sherman, the scale evokes the idea of justice, and the dentures speech (putting them together in different ways produces different statements);
(b) To go one step further one could explore the idea of articulation: both institutions and language are articulated around an absence.22

(It should be noted that laughter is associated with the first system, that is, taking the most absurd “here and now” consequences inherent in a physical object, which is not unrelated to the fetishistic pleasure that may be derived from the foot, for example. To return to the two systems of association: the foot as a source of fetishistic pleasure is not the foot we walk on (1a), neither is it foot as it exists in a system of symbolic associations (2a, b, c, etc.) but the physical member taken in its most absurd literal sense (1b); which does not prevent us from seeing it as a metaphor for another object, la chose, the phallus, so completely unrelated in its physical nature as to be beyond the second system of signifiers.)

The strength and originality of Sherman's work lies in what can be called his passion for the code and which enables him to set this perfect machinery in operation: that ruling order established by the manipulation of objects. This is an order in which the subject finds its own space, “an imaginary breast of repose.” The manipulated objects are imaginary; they are neither the little colored plastic things seen in Sherman's hands, nor ideal objects (as in a Platonic conception of the world in which the ideal Scale would be the archetype of the little plastic scale he toys with). One could expand Sherman's statement that “there is an idea for every object,” and claim that the idea, far from being “the idea of an object,” is a mental operation. The object is not to be taken as the materialization of an abstract idea, but rather as the “word matter,” the sequence of phonemes in its relation to the concept. But if a relationship of signifier/signified is established between the object and the concept, one must not replace a mysticism of symbol by a mysticism of signification: the signifier represents nothing but the subject (metaphor), and that only in relation to the other signifiers in the same chain (metonymy).

One of the best examples of how little Sherman values the symbolic nature of his objects I can think of occurred in the Eleventh Spectacle: one sees a little plastic mouse placed on a little plastic chair facing a little plastic television set. One might imagine that the television is going to be taken as a symbol of all the televisions in the world, thereby signifying cinema, image, vision, and other even more sublime concepts. But Sherman bluntly destroys any attempt at symbolic association on this level by revealing the television here for what it is: a toy pencil sharpener which he uses to sharpen his own pencil with which he then traces on a piece of paper the geometric displacements he performs with all the objects on the table, including the television. The pencil shavings could become a metaphor for the conditions necessary for a topology, and we would have a geometer's pencil sharpened by a television set, that is, a drawing formed by vision. Again, Sherman destroys these ponderous lucubrations (which, as he says, he tries to avoid through the speed of his manipulations) by misusing these pencil shavings as tobacco (a misuse that nonetheless admits their flammability) in a little toy pipe. The laugh that inevitably occurs at these two moments (the first taking an object in its most literal sense: a pencil sharpener is a pencil sharpener is a pencil sharpener; the second substituting an unexpected object for an expected one), comes from our deep satisfaction in seeing these objects negated in so radical a manner.23

This negation is also clearly expressed in Sherman's short films, whose subject is the camera-imposed distortions of space and time. So it is that the audience laughs when Scotty Snyder throws carefully folded white towels one by one into the sea (Scotty and Stuart), or when, in a reversal typical of Sherman, he walks up to a tree carrying a hat and a ladder, puts the ladder on his head, and the hat on the ladder; or when his perilous attempt to push his hat against the ceiling is followed by his lying on the ground next to the tree of the preceding shot, with his hat and ladder alongside him (Tree Film, 1978).

Perhaps we have by now arrived at a position from which is it possible to see that the purpose of Sherman's ritual is the constitution of an idiosyncratic metalanguage that enables the subject to speak, and within which the articulated word serves the function of a quotation: a piece broken off from an earlier language which establishes the truth of the new order. It is easier to appreciate the music of Cage knowing how it is related to the development of classical music; it would likewise be difficult to understand Sherman's work not knowing the immeasurable detour he takes which enables him to make his way through writing, all the while remaining on its periphery—that obsession with writing which he contains in his ritual manipulation of objects, burying unbearable desire under a heap of artifacts whose negation is their very use (like women's makeup, that masquerade with which, as Lacan has observed, women make themselves desirable for what they are not), but which results at least in holding back the desire (to write) and its affect.

These objects [the objects of desire] have one common feature in my elaboration of them—they have no specular image, or, in other words, alterity. It is what enables them to be the “stuff” or ather the lining, though not in any sense the reverse, of the very subject that one takes to be the subject of consciousness. For this subject, who thinks he can accede to himself by designating himself in the statement, is no more than such an object. Ask the writer about the anxiety that he experiences when faced by the blank sheet of paper, and he will tell you who is the turd of his fantasy.24

One problem still remains. Is the manipulation of plastic objects as if they were linguistic integers any less painful than writing? Is the space of Sherman's little table or the screen on which he projects his films capable of containing more pleasure than a sheet of paper?

The only possible answer is that neither endeavor is preferable to the other, and that all that matters is the work which, takes place to effect the substitutions. If Sherman's work is a detour around writing, then it is the relationship established between performance (or film) and writing that is crucial; in other words, what is important is the detour itself. For, during this detour there occurs—as in dreams—the substitution of one language for another, or more precisely, the perversion of one language by and in another. If it is true that in every intellectual activity (especially systematic intellectual activities, such as philosophy or poetry, that involve closed systems) perversion plays an important part, then Sherman's detour is the perversion of that perversion, elevating the detour to the level of aesthetic activity, to become a work of art instead of a psychological symptom.

There is special significance in the direction of this detour: a swerve through the realm of objects taken in order to bypass writing. A certain number of important events occur along the detour, transfer phenomena, in which a kind of psychological material is expressed through tangible objects. In fact, the use of purchased objects preexisting in space enables Sherman to avoid the unbearable gesture of subjectivity inherent in writing, in which to all appearances one's words are drawn from oneself, from one's most intimate recesses (even though these words only pass through us, they have nonetheless penetrated us, and undergone the action of our own chemistry in an almost physical sense), which makes the emission of bodily excreta (come or shit) a natural metaphor for writing. The manipulation of objects exterior to the subject obviates the necessity of discharge, and therefore, at least outwardly, the psychic material associated with it. If manipulation is a substitute for writing, the manipulated objects are the visible symptoms of the anguish and pleasure of writing. We are dealing here with an operation accomplished without pain or obscenity. It is the “ob-scene” that transports us into the “other scene” of the unconscious, and it is that other scene that constitutes the invisible subject of Sherman's work—a Pandora's box of great value whose content remains unavailable to us, as it is both signified and negated by another box—the suitcase opened at the beginning of the performance.

Thus the problem has been relocated, thereby asserting the distance between an aesthetic and a psychoanalytic enterprise. It has been relocated to a table where there is not enough room to lie down, where the subject is articulated in his signifiers; and if he has found his space here, it means he must forever refuse the satisfaction of being at its center.

To understand the work, one should not… ask what it “means” but only what need does it answer. In my case the most consistent, passionate need… is the need to fill a space in which I find myself (mentally). That is, I suppose, a kind of erotics of thought… using thought to manipulate imagination, which is a body. Fill that space… not by being at the center… but rather by a twist administered to the imagination-body: an unnatural extension of some sort, generating a new periphery, a difference.25

  1. Bérénice Reynaud, “Stuart Sherman: Object Ritual,” trans. Tom Repensek, October, vol.8 (Spring 1979): 58-74. 

  2. Bérénice Reynaud, “Petit dictionnaire du cinéma indépendant new-yorkais—À l’usage de ceux qui veulent en savoir plus long,” Cahiers du Cinéma 339 (September 1982): 35-50; and 340 (October 1982): 35-47. I gave my agreement to reproduce the article in L’État du monde du cinéma, the volume IX of the Anthology of 50 years of Cahiers du cinéma (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2001), Antoine de Baecque (ed.)—without being informed that the text was going to be cut and that the entry on Stuart Sherman was going to be deleted. 

  3. Stuart always came with a script and a precise idea of what you were supposed to do. He was patient with you, but never gave up. For Libération (Portrait of Bérénice Reynaud), he wanted me to close one eye while keeping the other one open—something I was totally unable to do! Undaunted, Stuart shot a close-up of my face with both eyes open—and then another one with both eyes closed. Later, through optical printing (and the post-production skills of Dieter Froese) he put the two half of the screen together, so one of my eyes is closed and the other is open. I don’t know if this is what gave him the idea to then put half of his face against half of mine at the end of the film. Anyhow, in that time in Manhattan there were a few independent filmmakers who would perform optical printing services at a reasonable cost for their fellow artists—but it still cost money. In the early 1990s Stuart experienced a major financial crisis—that eventually resulted in his leaving New York. So he was broke—and I believe this is why it took so long for the film to be completed. But Stuart bypassed my shortcomings and got what he wanted. 

  4. Every time I saw the film, when I was living in New York between 1977 and 1992, the film was titled Edwin—which seems to imply a familiarity and friendship between the two men. Only in recent documents compiled after Stuart’s death have I seen the film titled Edwin Denby. I will, however, retain the newest title in this paper. 

  5. In the list of Stuart’s works compiled by Mark Stanford, Stuart’s executor, the performance is titled The Stations of the Cross, or the passion of Stuart (2000). The site of the Centre Pompidou (where the piece was performed October 13-15, 2000, along with works by Jérôme Bel and Grand Magasin) give the title The Stations of the Cross, or, The Passion of Stuart. On the other hand, the site of Belluard Bollwerk International, that offers a description (in French) and a picture of the performance lists the title as The Station of the Cross, or the Passion of Stuart. The piece was showcased at the Festival—ocated in Fribourg, Switzerland, on July 5, 2000. This may have been its first public performance. Stuart is listed as being a San Francisco artist. The performance is described as follows: “The Station [sic] of the Cross (1-14, or, in Roman numerals I-XIV) or the Passion of Stuart (Station 15, or, in Roman numerals, XV). Trains arrive and leave, every second, minute, hour, day, week, year, centenary, millennium. So pack up your suitcase and bring with you a sufficient and appropriate number of hats et board at your own risk and at your own speed. (Try also to take advantage of the landscape flashing by). Stuart Sherman has started working in theater in 1965. Since then he has created dozens of solo and group performances and films that have been shown worldwide. A Performing Art icon, he has received many awards for his work.” (translation mine) 

  6. Stuart himself experienced this “temptation” as revealed in the text he wrote for Bomb Magazine in 1990 and then edited for the GLBT website in 2000 about his friendship with Carson McCullers when he was in his early 1920s: “I try to blow my nose like Carson, sing the Greyhound jingle like Carson, sit on the screened-in back porch like Carson, but it's no use. Despite diligent and prolonged effort, I do not become a great writer. Finally, I convince myself that these attempts are futile and I abandon them. But even now—even today, at this very moment—I nervously wonder: Did I give up too soon? If I'd kept on practicing, would I have become a great writer? Who knows? Who knows?” See: http://jclarkmedia.com/gaybooks/mccullers.html

  7. There could be an allusion here to the final and terrifying shot of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). Stuart was an avid filmgoer and saw a lot of narrative/commercial movies, even though he was quite critical of them most of the time. 

  8. Here there could also be an allusion to Michael Snow’s seminal Wavelength (1967)—in which a zoom progression (made of several shots edited together) explores the space of a loft. However, it is very clear that Stuart resorts to a tracking shot, not a zoom in this film. 

  9. During a conversation with Sherman I used the term junk; he strongly disapproved and we finally settled on the term cheap artifacts

  10. Noël Carroll, Soho Weekly News (September 28, 1978): 81. 

  11. Jean Baudrillard, Pour une critique de l'Économie Politique du Signe (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 103. 

  12. “It is not the Law itself that bars the subject's access to jouissance—rather it creates out of an almost natural barrier a barred subject. For it is pleasure that sets limits on jouissance, pleasure as that which binds incoherent life together, until another, unchallengeable prohibition arises from the regulation that Freud discovered as the primary process and appropriate law of pleasure.” (Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan [New York: Norton], 319).  

  13. I am referring here not only to Sherman's attempt to exhaust the formal possibilities of a space, but to his own insistence upon justifying his activity: “For instance, I had a hammer and a keyboard. Maybe I had the idea that I wanted a keyboard and then the next idea was that I wanted to play it. But I didn't want to play with my fingers. What else could I play with? Then the idea came of playing with the hammer, and then I thought: ‘let's just go like that.’ Then… well, if I have a hammer… a hammer is something which is made to hammer nails… so if I put the nails between the keyboard and the hammer, I have something else which is created. So I played with that in my mind and I said: ‘Can I decide for myself what the idea is about all of that? What it means to do that?’ I never just simply allow myself to see things and to like them. I have to justify them at every level-intellectually, spiritually, psychologically […] and in this case erotically. Everything in that show had to have an erotic value.” (From a transcript of a conversation held after the performance of the Eleventh Spectacle (The Erotic) on November 10, 1978). 

  14. Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition, vol.IX, 124-5. 

  15. Hence the symbolic value of the little folding table. It is the “original void,” the “tabula rasa,” but also, finally, the blank sheet of paper. This interpretation can also be applied to the 1978 film Edwin Denby.  

  16. I believe this to be a collective obsession. The society in which we live is undoubtedly the most prolific producer of the printed word in the world yet it has the least writing. Walter Benjamin wrote, “For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed towards the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional and local organs before the reader, an increasing number of readers became writers—at first occasional ones… And today there is hardly a gainfully employed [person] who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing.” (Illuminations [New York: Schocken Books, 1969], 231-2). The written word loses its sacred character as it is multiplied. But we can hardly forget that we are the products of a civilization which believes the book is One and that Writing is a religious activity, whose profane expression carries with it that frightening, curious sense of transgression—sin if you will—particularly well expressed in the myth of the poet—divinely inspired yet damned—of which the 19th century furnishes abundant examples. [Comment added in 2009: If I had written the text now, I would have developed the concept of “forbidden jouissance” in two different directions—one pertaining to writing (and I still stand by this analysis), the other to queer sexuality. It should be noted that there are points in which the two lines intersect—in the literary persona and the mythology of Rimbaud, for example, as a queer poète maudit. Note 20 could also be rewritten in a way informed by queer theory.] 

  17. In an interview Sherman specified that both the choice of words, and the order in which they are uttered, were done randomly. 

  18. The problem can summarized as such: “If a catalogue is made of all the books in a library, should it be included as one of the books?”  

  19. At the first performance of Three Equals One, Sherman expressly requested the audience to read the text either before or after but not during the performance. 

  20. If I may continue the metaphor and compare writing and its laws as “normal” sexual practice with Sherman's manipulations as its “perversion,” it would be difficult to imagine a more fertile field of perversion than one in which the erotic object is an unlimited class of objects, unlimited as well in the functions which those objects may be made to serve. This limitless aspect is tempered, however, by what I would call the return of obsessional neurosis which makes possible the structuring of the performance as a clearly defined ritual.  

  21. The value of a linguistic sign exists only in relation to other signs within the same system: at least two signs, therefore, plus an articulatory connection (or, in the case of objects, an operative connection) are needed for a signifier to exist. Moreover, a linguistic sign is generally ambiguous because it is overdetermined (denotation and connotation). 

  22. In both the first and second system, (a) and (b) are not mutually exclusive. The scale and the dentures can be combined in more than two ways, and if Sherman is reluctant to supply his audience with interpretations, it is, he says, in order to free them to make their own. 

  23. The object is negated in other ways. By manipulating layers of cardboard or newsprint cut in the form of the object, Sherman makes it appear to be less important than its trace. By placing one object in another only to immediately remove it, by performing an action and then performing it in reverse, he inflicts on the object a purposeless repetitive cycle. He also frequently drops his objects on the floor. 

  24. Lacan, Écrits, 315. 

  25. Richard Foreman, “The Carrot and the Stick,” October 1 (Spring 1976), 25. 

Published on <o> future <o>, April 13, 2016.

© Bérénice Reynaud 2009

This text is part of The Protagonists a series of new contributions and translations edited by François Aubart, to accompany two recent projects: a series of talks entitled Laissez-vous séduire par le Sex Appeal de l’inorganique (September 26, 2015—February 25, 2016) at centre d'art Passerelle, in Brest, and the exhibition Surfaces of You (January 21—April 10, 2016) at Le Plateau—Frac Île-de-France in Paris. First published in: Nothing Up My Sleeve—An exhibition based on the work of Stuart Sherman, New York: Participant Inc & Regency Arts Press Ltd, 2009, pp.22-34