Sex Offenders, Christ, and Conceptual Art
The Disruptive Silence of Vanessa Place's Poetry
When you talk to Vanessa Place, you talk about Facebook ("My life is an open Facebook!" she laughs), Chinese temples, the genitals of Christ in Renaissance art, why we've been interpreting Duchamp's readymades the wrong way for a hundred years, beautiful pictures of Satan, the fact that postmodernism is over and is followed by conceptualism, how we've overlooked Leni Riefenstahl's influence on contemporary art, and Dada ("If Dada was a disruptive scream, [conceptualism] is a disruptive silence"). Place is a fierce poet. She's coming to the Frye Art Museum on January 5 for a talk called "Con Art or Con Job? A Conversation on Conceptual Writing" with Seattle conceptual writer Doug Nufer. I'll be interviewing them about what they mean by "conceptualism."
The real reason LA-based Place will be in Seattle (and in a story about this writer, you have to point out a phrase like "LA-based Place"—is sprawly LA even an LA-based place? The brain churns) is the Modern Language Association's annual conference. She's on two panels: "Provocative Feminisms" and "Self-Narrating Lives."
A recent phone conversation with Place began with the fourth Council of Constantinople, in the year 869. This was when images of Christ and saints were decreed to be as sacred and as "infused with divinity" as the Bible. "This is the birth of allegory," she said, with the enthusiasm of someone who has found a sympathetic moment in history. "The image becomes the word, the word becomes the image—and this is a huge advantage to visuality, to visual arts, and to vision itself. And textuality doesn't have to depend on—oh, I'm blanking on the word, that's crazy—oh, literacy."
Yeah, that's a crazy word to blank on.
Place's concepts are hellaciously complex but not far-fetched. The medieval decree that word and image were equal—an event that did not have a corollary in, say, Islam, where representational imagery is forbidden—has had a lasting effect on the entwined aesthetics and ethics of Western image-making.
To look at an example of Place's conceptualism, you should know that Place is not only an artist; she is also a defense attorney for indigent sex offenders on appeal. Her cases fall into the realm of the unspeakable, yet her job is to steward them through their spoken life. In 2010, as a poet (not an attorney), she published a book of these appellate briefs, the words unchanged except for the names of the victims and the accused. It's called Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts.
Some people criticized her for putting it out there without adding her authorial voice—without packaging poverty, racism, and child molestation under a subjectivity that says those things are bad. That was missing the point. In Statement of Facts, Place put you as close to the crimes as you could get. But you got so close that it turned out to be monstrously far.
"What is art but the failure of representation?" Place wrote in an essay earlier this year. "And the greatest failure of representation is the thing that is the closest thing to the thing it is not." That sweet "spot of failure," she writes, is the "spot of poetry... the spot of art." The brain churns.
This article has been updated since its original publication.