An Encounter with Eirini Kartsaki

The reason I write about art is desire: desire to articulate, to investigate, to understand. More than anything, it’s the desire to translate experience from one register to another. Moment to memory. Feeling to words. Experience to language.

Experience. Language. But desire is only made possible by its own frustration. There is no desire without first anticipation, later disappointment; in between, longing and loss. If translation is a matter of desire, then these emotions are the milestones of all my journeys with words. Emotions are (what) matter, and words are the frustrators of desire.

Emotions are matter. Let me tell you two things: firstly, I have admired the artist Eirini Kartsaki for many years. Secondly, I recently met her. In between first seeing her work and first meeting her, I spent years thinking about her, intermittently. This thinking was something like desire. Not sexual desire, but intellectual desire; textual desire; aesthetic desire. Overwhelmingly, it was a desire for language that carries meaning as exquisitely as hers.

Language that carries meaning, exquisitely. The first time I saw Kartsaki perform, she walked into the centre of a room, holding some papers, clutching a music stand and letting a smile play across her lips. She told a story about standing on the street. I don’t remember much about the story, but I remember a lot about the surprise.

Surprise. As sounds resound inside Kartsaki’s mouth. As tones gather half familiar notes. As notes float between words and meaning. As words and meaning dance, like two lovers slipping out of each other’s grasp, like language feeling the sense slip from its fingers.

Language, feeling, sense. Kartsaki’s work is intensely sensual. When people say ‘text as material’ I think this is what they mean: a woman in the centre of the room, in front of a music stand, opening her mouth and making sounds that don’t just tell a story but that ease it into life. Noise emerges from her body like emotions that matter. She does not speak so much as she brings forth words, thick and soft and full of folds. She does not speak so much as she invents language.

She invents language. It’s not exactly like that, but like something else. It’s like something that exceeds what I can describe. It’s something like all the things I can’t describe. Like the feeling of standing inside a body, using words, even though words are the frustrators of desire.

Inside a body. When I last saw her perform, Kartsaki walked onstage in a lace negligée and false nails that curled like talons from her fingers. Here she stood, in this exaggerated place, in this thing that is desired: this woman’s body. She spoke of ‘the mothers.’

Real mothers — the mothers who wander down the street in slow motion, trailing children and buggies and baggage. And Kartsaki also means unreal mothers — the generalised mothers, the cultural class of mothers. The idealised (m)other against whom all women over the age of thirty are placed in silent competition, against our wills, as if our age has suddenly rendered our reproductive capacities everyone else’s business.

Image Credit: Clarisse D’Arcimoles

Our reproductive capacities, business. There’s no suddenly about it, of course. Our bodies have always been business for other people. It’s just that a woman’s youth is like a veil: a tool used by the world to pretend to care for her appearance, when it only cares for her function. The outcome is the same either way — our bodies do not belong to us, but to the people who would use them.

Who would use them? ‘The mothers.’ And Kartsaki also means her mother. Her mother who wants Kartsaki to have children. Her mother who reminds Kartsaki of her age. Her mother who was once not a mother, and then became a mother, and then had to take up her place on the (m)other side. This is how Kartsaki invents language. Each sound resounding with more sounds. Each word carrying a thousand echoes.

A thousand echoes. ‘I, H’ she says, during the show. ‘I, H.’ She is mimicking the voices of other people’s children, taught to reel off the alphabet, display how they learn to frustrate desire. ‘I’, H!’ Kartsaki repeats, her tone lowering, her knees bending, her back arching. ‘I, H!’ As if she is summoning energy from the ground beneath her feet.

‘I AGE!’ she screams eventually, having transformed the sounds of childish compliance into a defiant, womanly yell. ‘I AGE! I AGE! I AGE!’

I AGE I AGE I AGE!

This is what people should mean when they say, ‘text as material’. Text as the material that smothers us and that cloaks us when we set ourselves free. Words as the conditions of our lives and the tools we use to change them. Language as the system that locks us up, and the battering ram that breaks down the walls.

Break down the walls. An aging woman is a woman who is not in service to youthful looks, and she is not in service to reproduction, either. She is not in service to some (m)other at all. Not the object of desire, then, but the originator of it. Not the thing that would be described, but the thing that summons meaning from within.

Summon meaning from within. There is no desire without first anticipation, later disappointment; in between, longing and loss. Desire resides in the in between. Here it lives, in the just before. Just before a sound turns into a word, turns into a meaning.

Turns into meaning. She moves between two spots onstage. The left and the right. In one spot she talks of the mothers. In the other she talks of her body. She journeys between the two. Turns left. Turns right. In between: Kartsaki. She lives between two poles of this impossible place, this (m)othered thing, this woman’s body. She marks out the milestones in her own words.

Own words. To be a woman who creates meaning is to be a person who is free.

Who is free? I watch Eirini Kartsaki and I think about desire: desire to speak, to change, to be full of desire. More than anything, I have the desire to take possession of words as if they’re emotions, to invent what matters and then to make it sound. Memory to moment. Words to feeling. Language to experience.

Language to experience.

I want to make a sound.