How to Say No and What Art Has to Do with It
You Have a Week Left to Figure Out What Makes You Uncomfortable in Elles at SAM
It's getting dark out, and I'm the last reporter left at Seattle Art Museum. I've been on my feet for hours, because this is the day when the throng of the press first marches through Elles, the big special exhibition of art made by women going back to the start of the 20th century: photographs, paintings, videos, sculptures, and installations that are basically you-name-it—light, dark, soft, hard, crowded together. There are attractions and repulsions in Elles. It's scattered and impossible to follow; there's nothing to follow. Quiet rooms of colored rectangles that would seem to have nothing to do with existing inside the body of a woman are overwhelmed by displays of women angrily or cunningly shoving their vulvas and breasts at audiences or pictures of women already on horrifying display. One skinny naked woman on a beach in a video hulas with a barbed-wire hoop. Two simply drawn acrobats crossing in mid-flight are a graceful study for a Russian theater production that may or may not have been realized a hundred years ago. Raising the unhelpful and even uninteresting question: Is being a woman about being inside the body of a woman, or "about" anything at all?
As it's getting dark, two things happen. One is that I notice I'm now in the galleries with an entirely new group of people. They're older, and they wear smart suits and controlled hair. This must be the donors' preview, scheduled to follow the press preview. I've overstayed and ended up overlapping. At the time when I glimpse my new company, I happen to be standing inside a sculpture, a room in the shape of a cylinder, like a silo with shiny white outer walls. Inside, it's dark, and a video is projected onto the floor. The video footage is wet flesh, glistening. It's being burrowed into by the camera.
It was with the help of a surgeon that the Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum made this piece in 1994. It's a self-portrait. I suddenly think, ha, the entire inner body is vaginal: Everyone is all vagina on the inside. It's a ridiculous thought. Or maybe it's a nice idea, that we're all in these bodies together—hey, even the donors and me—and that all of us are never only one fixed, expected thing. I wonder what they think. Why did they pay for this? Do they like it? And then maybe I would take my interviews in another direction: "So, do you think we are all vagina on the inside?"
When you're inside the sculpture, you either stand awkwardly against the walls looking down at the video, or step on top of her slippery lungs or cervix or intestines. I walk out so the donors can take my place. The next thing that happens is that I hear chanting, and I immediately feel pre-embarrassed.
Even after years of watching performance art, I apparently still find the prospect of it nerve-racking, particularly when the performers are women in the first women-only exhibition ever mounted at the largest art museum in the city where I live. I feel protective of my people. But I also fear they will represent me badly, that they won't do what I'd do. (Should I even take the art personally? It's a question brought on by an identity-based exhibition.) What they are doing is saying "No," over and over. While the donors up above are considering straddling vaginal flesh, two dozen women down below in the lobby are chanting "no." No to what? To Elles? To the whole museum? They're clumped near the pathway to an opening-night lecture. No to the lecture? I'm reminded of Canadian artist Kelly Mark's enigmatic protest—"What do we want? Nothing! When do we want it? Whenever!"—but this is earnest, not comic; warm, not cool. I am uncomfortable for personal reasons, and I kind of know why.
The "nos" go on for 45 minutes. They're not saying "no" to anything, or maybe they're each saying "no" to their own thing—each of them exercising some private right of refusal. The next day, I get an e-mail from artist Mylinda Sneed, who was part of the chorus—a group formed for the occasion by Seattle artist Mimi Allin and called the No-No Girls. I want to know what it felt like. Sneed writes back:
For days I practiced "no" happy sad funny loud quite mean scolding singing cuckooing... "no" would strike me on the bus, in the car, in the shower, at the grocery store, when watching my 4-yr-old-niece acting badly... "no" is everywhere and at the same time, I rarely hear people utter it out loud. I mostly wasn't uttering out loud unless it was very appropriate or I wasn't within earshot of someone.
None of that prepared me for 45 minutes of it, surrounded by 21 other women.
I sang: like a Laurie Anderson song
Yelled it: this was the most cathartic, not a scream, but a deep from my belly head leaned back yell
Held the N – shorted the O
Shortened the N – held the O
Repeated: loudly, quietly, emphatically, sloooooowwwwlllly
I held myself while I said it
I held others while I said it
I had whole conversations where we ended up laughing our "no" at each other
& once a tear came to my eye from the look on a No-No Girl's face as I told it to her more sternly than felt necessary
And I felt a sense of release, & fear all at the same time
She recommends I go to the No-No Girls blog, where I find a piece of writing about different types of no. I especially like this part and agree with it:
I don't like obsessive, neurotic noes; they belong to the Goethe sprits who "steadily negate," who play devils in run-of-the-mill Faust performances. I prefer the little, calm, nondevilish no in a concrete situation, provided one is reasonably sure about its unacceptability. With such a small, concrete no, one gets out of the collective of all-yes or all-no, one gets off alone. This is an important aspect of dignity, of sanity and maturity and freedom. ...The small no is self-defense of the human mind.
"Self-defense of the human mind" takes me back, to a karate studio in Texas where I once took my first and only self-defense class. We had to shout "no" as part of our response to an attacker. The "no" was going to be as important as stomping on the correct bone (when he's behind you, stomp on the top of his foot at the ankle and you'll break things, they said).
I did not find it hard to stomp on the bones. I gave my instructor a nosebleed when I punched him in the face. Every time I had the chance to fight, I went full-force. My mother used to repeat news stories to me about girls abducted and raped and left in ditches by the side of the road, because she thought it would make me act safer. She still reminds me that I am "a single female," and regularly asks me where I am walking—she raised me to respond with rage. But I found it really, really hard to yell "no." It was the hardest part for me. I felt horribly vulnerable all over again. I'm a writer, and I choke on the most important word? Is that some weird personal version of believing I'm asking for it?
In telling a story about feminist dance, Seattle dancer (and Velocity director) Tonya Lockyer wrote that "women dance artists... embodied the feminist project to emancipate women by subverting... ideals of 'appropriate' behavior for both sexes." Back in the years when my mother and I rode in the car together down highways next to ditches just waiting for our bodies, I'd tell anyone who would listen that the word I most hated my mother using was "appropriate." It was a standard: I should be "appropriate" in how I acted and looked. The reason I hated it was I figured I could do better. When she said it to me, I felt like she was saying it to herself. I knew she was just reading the script.
Art, on the other hand, seems to be on a search in the other direction from how to be appropriate. Not that there's any particular way, or thing, or answer to be provided, or that any artist sets out to do anything as prosaic as that. Still the search is there, to figure out what to say no to, and what kind of no to say. I still struggle with this every day. This is something to love about art.
This article has been updated since its original publication.