Forever Okay: The Art of Jimmy De Sana

by Travis Jeppesen on April 14, 2013

Jimmy De Sana believed that the human body was every bit an object as, say, a toilet or a chair. Blend together, mix up the legs of a table, the legs of chairs, the bare legs of a person and see what you get. A person is no longer a whole, but known by her/his=its parts: head is a suitcase, brain a lightbulb, penis a shoe. Maybe become an entity with four legs instead of two arms and two legs. It’s all the same world, isn’t it?

There are those of us afraid of what we see. A world of interior objects we keep so that we can ignore other things – namely, the world out there. Furniture is static existence. De Sana’s work says something about domesticity. What does it mean to be a person and to disappear. There are no warnings, an announcement is never made. Objects are kept around us to avoid the sense of disappearing. To imply permanency. Railing, a railing against the sure swallow of the big fat void whose rim some of us dance around.

Jimmy De Sana’s gesture is a violence against disappearing. He committed suicide constantly in his work. He had to do that as a way of living in the world. Suicide salvation: the black-and-white photo that made him famous was him hanging from a noose naked with a hard-on. Or else he lies under a car, again naked, forever naked, wearing a mask with a tube connected directly to the exhaust pipe. Inhaling the car. Is he really killing himself there. I don’t think so. As with all of his photos, it’s more of a becoming-object than a becoming-dead. An extension of the car, that’s all. If you look at it as a body, then of course it’s going to die, but Jimmy De Sana did not want to die and his photos are not about death. Inanimate objects never die; you can’t get rid of them, no matter the state of decay. They’re never really alive, either, are they; they just are. Forever okay. A being that is a freedom in not-being.

For a gay person who has suffered violence directly, there is a fluffy comfort in becoming-object that few others may comprehend. It seems so hard. De Sana’s aesthetic looks hard, but I would say it’s just the opposite. Wooden boxes, pool chairs, torsos; the arch of a body run the length of a room, head in the toilet, an extension of the toilet; heads, faces almost never to be seen in these photos, to heighten the sense of disappearance, of desubjectivication; the light always soft; no more self to contend with, no such thing as death to confront. Jimmy De Sana is softcore, if the core we’re talking about is being, safe from the trenchant torpor of navigation.

This was among the least apparently glamorous approaches one could take in the 80s, which De Sana characterized, in an interview with Laurie Simmons, as a decade of death and money. The art market exploded, everyone dancing as dollar bill confetti floated through the air, meanwhile, guys are walking around with lesions, dropping dead all around you. It’s wrong to read these photos as documentary evidence of a gay S/M subculture that De Sana was never really a part of. Mapplethorpean scenes from a Manhattan night. Others have more aptly identified surrealism as the operative force, the fuel in De Sana’s vehicle. As an adjective, surreal is too vague and overused, and anyway, it’s the artist’s duty to carve their own reality out of this messy consensual one – that impulse comes out of a disbelief in messy consensual reality. It’s too easy to say that the world, as it is, is surreal on its own. Forty-year olds dropping dead for no real reason is surreal – becoming an object is pretty much okay, in a permanent sort of way.

There is, after all, a glamour, certainly a sexiness, in immortalizing yourself or some other selves in this manner. Don’t treat me like a sex object, screams the liberationist who, in doing so, believes they are on their way towards attaining autonomy. But for the corporealist, sex is just another utility; come here, let me touch you where it matters least. Jimmy De Sana knew things about bodies that we’re only now, in the twenty-first century, beginning to figure out. In this way, his photos can be seen less as a relic of a past moment and more as a blueprint for our present-future selves.

One comment

That’s really beautiful, Mr. Jeppesen.

Excited to read The Suiciders.


by Derek McCormack on April 14, 2013 at 9:02 pm. #

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