Rock star and role model Kim Gordon is best known for her band, Sonic Youth, but she’s also always been a visual and performance artist. For those who know Gordon primarily as a musician, “Is it My Body? Selected Texts,” a collection of her writings on art and performance published this past May by Sternberg Press, is intriguing. At the same time as Sonic Youth was reshaping the New York art scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Gordon was writing, in a refreshingly flat prose style across multiple genres, about the liminal spaces between art and music, object and performance, pop sensibility and post-medium/post-punk formations, masculine and feminine. Some of her texts are successful; others are, surprisingly, disappointing.
In her practice and in her theorizing, Gordon traces the effects of capital, technology, and sex on the production of entertainment experiences for an increasingly detached, and escapist consumer base. The artists she most often cites, including herself and her collaborator Jutta Koether, share a desire to borrow from vernacular forms and materials in the pursuit of developing an individual vocabulary, as well as a willingness to reorganize the hierarchy of these components so that a painting, or an electric guitar, is exchangeable as a familiar commodity, a weapon, a prop, a modifiable tool or sculpture, or a power symbol–depending on its relationship to the performer in any given context.
Star-power, too, in Gordon’s estimation, is produced as a commodity, where inputs like the venue (its audience, its art, its norms) and the musical technology (speakers, sounds, electricity, the singer’s body) are as important as the art itself. When considered together, her longer analyses of Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, and Laurie Anderson present an ethnography of the avant-garde rock star’s labor within this system. These and other artist/producers who achieve Gordon’s measure of accomplishment (mostly male examples) are those who operate with a calculating disregard for the autonomy of objects and residues (i.e. audio recordings, individual visual artworks) in favor of developing slippery, yet recognizably singular performative personas. David Bowie’s chameleon-like figurations, Madonna, Michael Jackson, are examples she returns to often.
The most dominant and timely subject of Gordon’s writings is recently deceased artist Mike Kelley, whose critical and commercial ascension to art-world hero status echoed Sonic Youth’s trajectory from roughly the same time that his artwork was featured on the band’s “Dirty” album. Kelley’s ultimate achievement was the creation of a central character or “man” who displays the damages and hypertrophies of a post-60s American dystopia. What is now more evident in retrospect, Gordon was trying to point out in the early days of his output: the importance of this practice is that it refuses to have a center. There is no tidy way of locating Kelley’s mark, demands, morality, or even his audience.
All of these destabilizing and performative gestures are, for Gordon, necessarily gendered. She writes extensively on the ways in which rock is “primarily male oriented.” The quintessential male rock persona, according to Gordon, blurs and plays with sexual identity. “The real sexual power of rock stars, along with their imagined power, influences how they’re perceived. They often appear much taller when performing. The body’s not theirs anymore, it’s a public domain and public perception.”
But these specific treatments of performativity and gender are oddly, for lack of a better word, man-centric. She is not unaware of the fact that the visual artists she cites––Mike Kelley, John Knight, Jeff Wall, Robert Longo, Raymond Pettibon––are mostly men, but this does not lead her to discuss (or even mention) women artists who were working at the same time through similar forms and concepts. Her essay “Unresolved Desires,” for example, explores the popularity of art whose subject matter is “masculinity and its varying shades of playful femininity.” Her argument rests on heterosexist understandings of sexuality: homosexuality is represented as a sort of “ego modeling”; trans people are presented as narcissists with low sex drives; the artist Robert Glier is named as a “hero for the feminists” because he parodies “old macho stereotypes”; women’s sexuality is declared to be “conceptual.” It is unclear whether these misguided assumptions are invoked citationally as belonging to popular culture or are Gordon’s own.
Yet despite her curious and dangerous stereotypes, Gordon’s experiences as a woman will ring true for many readers, even those who have never been a rock star. She writes of her own experience performing: “…the swirl of Sonic Youth music makes me forget about being a girl. I like being in a weak position and making it strong.” By weak position, she might be referring to the extra doses of harassment she receives as a performer, on and offstage. In the excerpts from her tour diaries, Gordon implies that she has been subjected to sexual violence, in addition to the average rowdy violence inherent to any punk scene. Though she does not explicitly name violence as such, she details the frustration and struggle that comes with dealing with small and large acts of aggression––physical harassment backstage and during shows, stalkers who obsessively write love letters––which, when accumulated at almost every stop of the tour, no doubt take a larger emotional toll. “The most heightened state of being female,” she writes in another essay, “is watching people watch you.”
Another instance of these upsetting encounters occurs within the book itself. In the reprinted Mike Kelley interview of Gordon, he only wants to make her talk about her sex appeal rather than, you know, her art. Kelley can’t get over the fact that Gordon has gone from being the “smart girl” to the “steamy front girl.” He practically begs for Gordon to explain herself, as though she is living a contradiction or her sexuality is a threat. When Gordon explains her deep love for art as a teenager and her idolization of “mostly male guitarists,” Kelley asks whether these interests were sexual. “Did you leave art to chase after rock gods?”
The interview is probably the saddest part of the book: Gordon herself is not a contradiction but the art-world patriarchy seems to treat her like one. Kelley’s fixation on locating, and through this act, attempting to control, Gordon’s sexuality is a missed opportunity for two cross-media artists to discuss their work together. Gordon’s conversation with the artist and frequent collaborator Jutta Koether at the end of the book hits the mark where Kelley misses it.
Yet some of the more recent writings published in the second half of the book, their conversation included, read as addressed to an art community that largely addresses itself. Not to worry: the collected writings are just the start of a longer legacy project. Readers disappointed with these slick, post-medium musings might be better off waiting for her memoir (working title: “Girl in A Band”) forthcoming from Harper Collins. In the meantime, Gordon defiantly poses the question––“Is It My Body?”–– to the structures of anticipation, expectation, and fantasy surrounding her as a performer and person. The question is taken from the lyrics to an Alice Cooper song: “What have I got?/ That makes you want to love me?/ Is it my body?/ Or someone I might be?/ Something inside me?/ You better tell me. Tell me./ It’s really up to you. Have you got the time to find out/ Who I really am?”
Ava Kofman likes “Bull in the Heather” best. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.