Alice Smits begins an essay she wrote to accompany an art show called Avoiding Objects with the following classification of animals, read by Borges in a Chinese encyclopaedia and later quoted by Michel Foucault in 'The Order of Things':
Animals are divided into:
a) belonging to the emperor
d) sucking pigs
g) stray dogs
h) included in the present classification
k) drawn with a very fine camel hair
m) having just broken the water pitcher
n) that from a long way off look like flies.
Smits tells us Foucault roared with laughter on first reading these words: 'It is a laugh that has shaken the foundations of our knowledge since. This is because Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia, while striking us as absurd, only is so if we judge it according to the rules we have drawn up for arranging the things that surround us.
'The poet Lautremont, pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse, gave us the image of “the fortuitous encounter on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”. It prompted Man Ray to make a sculpture he called the “Enigma of
Isidore Ducasse”. It consists of a sewing machine wrapped in a piece of cloth tied with a string.'
This sewing machine marches, with its cousins, through 20th century art, appearing in Oscar Dominguez's painting Electrosexual Sewing Machine, described by the Guardian's review of Desire Caught By The Tail, the Tate Modern surrealism show in which it appeared in 2001, as 'bare buttocks, vulviform blossoms and phallic funnel, ejaculating blood through the nozzle.' (See another of Dominguez' sewing machine paintings here.)
This month that sewing machine returns, popping up (or rather, wrapped up and quoted) in the new exhibition at White Cube by Gavin Turk.
The art was kept under wraps right up to the opening... and when removed the wraps revelealed more wraps: a bunch of bronze casts of black rubbish bags stuffed with who-knows-what. Someone called Stephen Rowley tells me that White Cube is playing my album Oskar Tennis Champion on a loop over the gallery speakers. I imagine that Turk finds the song Electrosexual Sewing Machine appropriate. The show is called The Golden Thread, and the Guardian tells us that 'Turk has a precise art-historical model: Man Ray's 1920 object called The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, a sewing machine wrapped inside a tightly bound package.'
Here's Alice Smits again on Man Ray's enigmatic object:
'On it is a card on which is written in three languages “Do not disturb”. But what is it we are not supposed to disturb? What is the secret that lurks beneath this cloth? ...To escape our clutches, these objects cloak themselves in new guises that we might call their poetic power. Man Ray... could only reveal the mystery hidden in an object by concealing it.'
I leave you with the words of Ducasse himself, better known as Lautreamont, as he gives us one possible account of what might be inside Turk's garbage bags:
'Lice of remarkable beauty that crawl like aspiring philosophers from cherished eggs; pubic hairs conversing in a brothel; sharks preparing duck-liver paté and cold soup from victims of drowning; a human-faced toad, as sad as the universe and as beautiful as suicide; covetous fingers prodding the lobes of innocent brains in order to smilingly prepare an effective unguent for the eyes; how Man. applauded by the crablouse and the adder, shits on the Creator's uplifted face for three days; devouring your mother's arms with gusto while she is still alive by tearing them off and cutting them into snippets...!'