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47 Years 1 Month 3 Days

Claire Messud – 47 Years 1 Month 3 Days, 2017

Codependent love entails a passionate devotion to the unrequited, a desire for self-abnegation. Its ironies are rife: how readily we give of ourselves, believing that eventually our sacrifices will be recognized; how thoroughly we put the needs and desires of the troubled before our own; how proud we are of our ability to stand in the heart of the flames, and burn.

Marina Sagona’s new work, in its nuanced expression of these ironies, illuminates both the danger and the allure—the beauty, even—of this state. The intense black glossiness of her sculpture of a woman’s pelvis at once evokes intense sensuality—we want to touch it, to glide our fingers over its smooth surfaces—and brutish objectification: its meaty heft, disembodied, could be mistaken for a prime cut; or for a hunk of painted metal only incidentally reminiscent of the human form. The sculpture’s vaginal opening proves a slick slit leading nowhere, the antithesis of Courbet’s famous painting The Origin of the World: Sagona’s sculpture is a play of surfaces that simultaneously promises and denies pleasure. There’s no mystery, no projection here: this cunt is what it is, the opposite of interiority, a denial of the soul.

Sagona, an artist who brilliantly deploys beauty—the uncomfortable sway of the beautiful—in service of complexity (as in her memorable 2017 show, Eden; or her 2016 portraits The Comedy of Women), here calls into question our entire pornographic age, the dehumanizing spectacle that not simply sexuality but human relationships more broadly risk becoming. The companion piece to the pelvis, as richly, shinily black, proposes, according to the artist, “a fossil-like tract of the intestines, that could also be perceived as a magnification of an umbilical chord.” This fossilization is essential: whereas the pelvis is matter, unbrokenly exterior, the missing intestines create a hollow, ribbed and ridged, an echo of the viscera, now—presumably—eviscerated. The cost of codependent love is, Sagona suggests, our guts themselves. Allusion to the umbilical chord only reinforces this implication: women, in particular, give our very bodies to those we love, we create them, and feed them, from our insides. This self-sacrifice isn’t simply a choice; it’s a biological fact. The fossil’s form suggests other possibilities, too: a truncheon, object of violence; or a dildo, object of sexual pleasure. All these overlapping possibilities are inscribed in a single sculpture.

The four related drawings that accompany these sculptures are, as Sagona says, “claustrophobic portraits”: the glancingly caught fragments of a face, the eyes, the cheekbones, a portion of the nose. The pastel lines suggest frenzy, a blurred haste and intensity; while the eyes’ dark focus, directed not towards the artist or viewer but at someone else, beyond, arrests. This, too, is a depiction of sacrifice, on the part of the viewer and the viewed alike.

What, in this series, might constitute wholeness? Each drawing is differently framed, but what they capture overlaps, repeats; there seems to be no way to grasp a complete nose, a right eye, a chin, an ear. To see a face in its entirety would require a distance and a calm that the artist – and the viewer – have no hope of attaining. For the subject herself to be seen, she, too, would need to change: would have to retreat, and stay still. But these fragments, Sagona implies, are what we have: limited they may be, but better than no glimpse at all.

Then, too, Sagona presents us with her film, in which we see the protagonist, an elegant older woman, actually deconstruct before us, dismantling her polished persona to reveal the agon beneath the surface: as she explains her life-long secret to the camera (and to us, the viewer), so too she is undone, her coiffed hair in increasing disarray, hermake up smeared and garish like the victim of an assault or a madwoman, the pearls torn from her throat and her vermilion silk blouse discarded. Naked, “the thing itself”, to cite King Lear, “poor, bare, forked animal”, this once-composed wife and mother, stripped of her secrets as of her self-control, is yet not free. Her burdens will accompany her to the grave. This, too, is what it means to love.

A 2016 article by Shawn Burn PhD in the popular magazine Psychology Today suggests six behaviors that indicate codependency. They include having an “unhealthy tendency to rescue” other people; using “extreme self-sacrifice” to “boost self-esteem”; remaining in “high-cost caretaking and rescuing relationships”; trying to “change…troubled, addicted, or under-functioning people” whose problems one is incapable of solving; repeatedly surrounded oneself with “people in perpetual crisis”; and of course, “enabling”. All six, it seems, might be summed up in a single broader pattern: the compulsion to give excessively of oneself in a doomed effort to help others whose problems—whether by circumstance or failure of will—cannot be helped. Like hurling oneself repeatedly against a wall, with no prospect of surcease.

Sagona’s artworks acknowledge the intractability, the limitation, the destructiveness of such love; and yet, as truthful art must, they grapple also with its seductiveness. Western culture is suffused with narratives of heroic self-sacrifice, Jesus Christ’s paramount among them. Our understanding of the demands parenthood—a crucial form of love—conforms, too, to the magazine’s definition of codependency. A love that asks nothing of us may seem a love not worth having, or giving. Where to draw the line between the admirable and the foolhardy? When is sacrifice a worthy gift, and when is it misdirected self-aggrandisement?

For each of us, the negotiation will be different; just as in Sagona’s drawings, the perspective alters and in each iteration we encounter a different proportion, a different version, of the subject’s face. For each of us, that negotiation is ongoing, always ripe for re-examination: even after forty-seven years, one month and three days, we may seek to draw our boundaries, the lines around the self, anew. We may reach for autonomy, attempt to break our codependency; and yet may find the breach beyond us. As Sagona knows, life’s rich tangle is at stake here: what can we see? how do we love? and how forgiving must we be—of others but also, even chiefly, of ourselves, the uneasy servants of our own urgent, imperfect hearts?