Lately, I have been tired, an unfurling of myself that feels as though I am sinking into a pit of heightened emotion. Tiredness causes sadness, the chest pain of wanting to cry. Sometimes I do cry, and I don’t really have a reason. It feels like a release of something that needed to get out, but which is unidentifiable. I lay on my bed and stare at nothing. I can’t concentrate on things for long periods of time. I try to read and write but I have to take a lot of breaks, and during those breaks I don’t do anything.
I keep a postcard of Dorothea Tanning’s soft sculpture Nue Couchée (1969-70) close by, repeatedly picking it up to look at it. The sculpture seems to exhibit my current sensibility, which is probably why I feel so drawn to it. The sculpture depicts a body — a woman’s almost certainly, despite there being no evidence for this — laying on its side, back to the viewer. The stumps of its legs heavy and immobile, multiple arms crawling out of the top. It somehow simultaneously exists within stillness and movement, the fleshy pink tone of the cotton textile evocative of skin.
Every time I look at it, I think of my own body. Even as I write this, I am imitating its posture. Like the sculpture, my body is both active and passive, both able to perform everyday acts of eating, washing, working, yet at the same time being filled with a heaviness and lethargy that inhibits these activities. For instance, recently, I have been eating much less, sometimes not at all, because I have forgotten, or I cannot be bothered. In the mornings, I am only able to force myself out of bed just before I have to start work. Before, I would get up early enough to do a thirty-minute morning workout. Now, that seems impossible. Everything is so weighty.
Nue Couchée seems almost like a desperation, like a surrender to doing nothing. Or perhaps it is just me. I sometimes feel desperate; the crying. I can imagine those long arms extended like spider’s legs to drag that stunted body across a floor. Jennifer Mundy (1), in her essay Quiet Mystery, writes that Tanning said upon seeing the sculpture displayed at the Zabriskie Gallery, New York on a low plinth and contained in Perspex, she was reminded of a scene in Phantastes by writer George MacDonald where the main character enters a cave to discover a block of pure alabaster containing the marble sculpture of a beautiful woman.
I wonder about the image of a woman and her body being encased and put on display. It makes me think about the long history of women’s bodies being looked at, and the difference between a man displaying a woman’s body and a woman displaying her own body. Somehow Nue Couchée is intrinsically intimate, despite being on display. It is as though the viewer is being invited to look, privileged to do so. Writer and cultural historian, Lara Feigel said Nue Couchée is like a more intimate Henry Moore sculpture (2).
I feel encased in my house, inside my bedroom. Perhaps this has something to do with my tiredness; a repetition of seeing the same things day in, day out, of stewing in the same environment, the lack of stimulation which drains my alertness, my interest in what is around me. I do not even want to go out for my allotted half an hour of exercise. I do not have the energy. I feel as though I am inhabiting a body I no longer care for. It exists, but I am not actively looking after it as I should. It is easy to think it doesn’t matter, that the absence of company excuses a neglect for physical appearance. I can not shower for days and no one would care. I feel my body as a thing to be carried around with effort. My mind is losing track of things, persistent headaches which seem to be a result of a numbing toward daily existence. I drink coffee to give me feeling, but nothing can break through the density of tiredness, a shift in mood when I can no longer bring myself to do the things I want to do.
There is something in the shape of Nue Couchée, something in its rounded and jagged form, the unfurling arms, that puts me in mind of dreaming. In dreams, opposites can be juxtaposed to form a logic. The arms of the sculpture are like the dream, pushing out of the body where the head should be, tentacles of visual thoughts.
My dreams have been inconsistently clear. The ones I remember tend to be centred around being physically close to my boyfriend, which makes sense as I haven’t been able to be physically close to him for the past seven weeks. These are dreams that visualise normalcy, a life before now. The act of falling asleep is something I feel more acutely, and also the dread of it too. There is a fear in me as I lay waiting to fall asleep, a feeling of uneasy dreams to come. I keep thinking of not being able to wake up again, my body becoming heavy, the dizzying jolt of consciousness when I realise I was just asleep. Something about being on this tipping point between awake and unconsciousness seems to keep hold of me during waking hours, my only explanation for my persistent tiredness; a lethargic body because I have not managed to fully release myself from the cloak of sleep.
The curved tennis ball spine of Nue Couchée pushes through the cotton skin of its back, a shape that echoes the curve of the bum, a steep incline. The negative space created by this incline looks to be a good place to lay. I can close my eyes and let myself disappear into the blackness of sleep, succumbing to my new perpetual state.
- Jennifer Mundy, ‘Quiet Mystery’, published in Tate Magazine, July/August 2003
- Lara Feigel, ‘Dangerous Appetites: The Weird, Wild World of Dorothea Tanning’, published on The Guardian, 8th February 2019