The Women. Squeezed up in a line. Numbered. Not saying anything, just gazing out, smiling. Not a sweet smile, not a shy smile. Not one of Vermeer’s smiles, or Manet’s, or Peyton’s: A maniacal one. A proper grin. Their shoulders are tense. Their bodies are knotted. They are dancing within their confines. All tits and ass and teeth.
Woman I is something like nothing else. She’s been sculpted, pulled apart and pasted over; stretched and squashed and slapped. She makes the Museum Assistant uneasy. He’s not paid enough to try and like the work. He shuffles about from leg to leg, on his phone, swiping right, not looking, or seeing, that she is making some movements of her own.
It starts with a drip. A single glob of paint falls from her chin onto the marble floor. The sound, wet and slight, is the sound you feel when you step on a slug with bare feet. One drip, two drips, three, four. The low murmurs of the passers-by, the clip clopping of their high heels, the soft mutterings of judgement and admiration, the coughs and sniffs and shuffling, are punctuated by this metronome of drips. It gets louder and louder, until it’s the only sound to be heard.
Her eyes swivel about the room, plotting it’s potential. She is leaking, spreading, glistening. It’s happening. The museum is stood still around her, aghast, frozen in time, backed up against the wall, feeling two sizes smaller than before. We are watching it unfold, watching her unfold.
She is crawling out of her frame and sliding out onto the floor. She lifts herself off of the ground, one heavy limb at a time. She is in an uneasy balancing act, top heavy and uncoordinated. Parts of her body lop off as she staggers into action. She unpeels, shedding away the two hundred previous versions of herself. They stick to her heels like cartoon shadows, a torn pair of tights.
And at once, Woman II, and III and IV, The Pink Angels, the Woman and her Bicycle, all of them, every single one of his Women are removing themselves from the canvas and into motion, overflowing, coming together. Pink trails mark their paths; the floor and the walls smeared with the mess of their flesh. Woman III coughs up a finger and a piece of newspaper and then she can’t stop, coughing, coughing, coughing, her insides heaving out of her mouth. She slumps onto the sticky pleather bench and with no edges to seal herself, glugs into her own lap with melted face and drooped lids and eyes that roll onto the floor.
The Women are clawing at each other, dissolving into each other, an orgy of paint and teeth, a splattering of limbs and pieces. One hurtles herself towards the Museum Assistant. He propels backwards into the corner, he tries to get away but it’s pointless, she straddles his face and he scrabbles for air, gulping, suffocating, his mouth and ears and nose and eyes brimming with bruised paint. He has no choice but to swallow her in.
The museum fills with a theatre of noise. The Bicycle circles the scene, ring- ding- dinging its bell and the walls resound with the chattering and the gurgling and the ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha has of the Women and their voices, those sounds that are bad to hear, harsh to the ear, the thick, impasto, beefsteak voices, the voices that grate, the too-loud voices, the screeching voices, the tralalala voices, all the voices are here, I hear, all at once, pouring out of their mouths and into the air in gulps, chattering through every orifice. They are alive.
Written for Node Center for Curatorial Studies online publication in response to The Women series by Willem de Kooning alongside Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’ from Glass, Irony and God, first published in 1995.