by Wayne Koestenbaum
In the world of Karen Kilimnik, the Russians never revolted. Nor did the French. She may be known for her drawings and paintings (and more recently, ballets), but simulacrum is her true medium, and possibly raison d’ être: it’s not Paris Hilton she’s after, but Paris Hilton as Marie Antoinette by way of Sir Henry Raeburn*. Old Masters burst and wash into the tidal pool of pop culture, trashy glamour into natural beauty. How better to understand Kilimnik’s work than to stage a fictional dialogue between the artist and one of her subjects, Brigitte Bardot, as Wayne Koestenbaum does on the following pages? For Kilimnik’ oeuvre is one elaborate staging, in which time and place are immaterial, rococo is punk rock, and sylphs, of both Hollywood and the winged variety, have free reign.
BRIGITTE BARDOT: Thanks for drawing me in 1974*.
KAREN KILIMNIK: A pleasure.
BB: Being harassed by the press is no picnic.
KK: It proves you’re wanted.
BB: You’d feel differently if you’d shown your breasts internationally at a too young age.
KK: Did striptease taste like cough syrup?
BB: It felt like a sticky substance dripping down my legs.
KK: You’re expert at fording your own embarrassment and turning it into art.
BB: Wait. I’m not the most important star in your oeuvre. You’ve paid attention to Elizabeth Hurley – and to Lisa Steinberg, the murdered girl. Victims attract you.
KK: I like their availability to the casual gaze, to slander.
BB: The press’s easy appropriation of my body was a form of trespass, but I’m too busy to sue.
KK: Busy with what?
BB: Animal rights. Reactionary causes.
KK: Had I predicted your descent into things reactionary, I’d not have drawn you shopping in shorts, a great photo from 1974 that I dreamily turned into art.
BB: Why didn’t you apply color?
KK: I was feeling elemental. I wanted to capture your aggressive furtiveness, your likeness to a hunted doe.
BB: Pundits disparage me.
KK: I have detractors, too.
BB: Can we band together and find shelter from slanderers?
KK: That’s impossible. We’re permanently exposed.
BB: Did you picture me in shorts, rather than long pants, to signify vulnerability?
KK: I had no metaphorical intentions. I’m a literalist.
BB: You’re crying now.
KK: Junk scattered in the periphery moves me to tears.
BB: Why did you invite me here?
KK: Admiration. Curiosity. Boredom. Your literalness diverts me.
BB: The longer I stay here, the more allegorical I become.
KK: I don’t consider you merely a media figment.
BB: Have you seen my films?
KK: Viva Maria! Contempt. You’re no longer famous in the US. You’re an outsider.
BB: A pale copy of a famous person?
KK: You’re almost a washout.
BB: My washout status is itself a warm enclosure, a place I find restful and rehabilitating.
KK: I was attracted to you because you were equally a washout and a star.
BB: In your drawing, I’m fleeing a crime scene.
KK: The crime of your splendor. The crime of your visibility.
BB: The crime of my readability.
BB: Must I explain? My body is so legible, there’s nothing left for words to expose.
KK: You’re as readable as the Ten Commandments, permanent tablets we can interpret as we choose.
BB: I’m not flexible. Unlike a law, I’m single-minded.
KK: We say monologic.
BB: Who’s we?
KK: The culture industry.
BB: You’re trying to borrow my estimableness to create your own self-portrait.
KK: We know as viewers, how you move, and how you kiss, and how you despise, but we don’t know much about your pet dog.
BB: Can we talk about gossip?
KK: It travels, it’s unreliable, it’s devalued, it hurts people, it’s fatty.
BB: It clogs consciousness?
KK: It doesn’t nourish us, BB, but we grow to love that lack of nourishment. The depiction of nonnourishing substances is itself a meager though sustaining diet.
BB: My image nourished you.
KK: I could suck on it, like a Popsicle.
BB: That’s phallic.
KK: Not really. Popsicles disappear.
BB: People treat the phallus as if it were a fixture.
KK: It’s immaterial.
BB: Like my presence in your drawing.
KK: You’re trying to exit the frame.
BB: I don’t belong in your mind. I’m running away.
KK: As if your prison sentence inside my fantasy life were ending.
BB: Notice that my limo driver is incompletely rendered. He’s not fully-figured enough to nab me.
KK: I’m curious about the difference between 1974, when you were photographed shopping in shorts, and 1985, when I made the drawing of you shopping in shorts.
BB: That 11-year lapse of time between 1974 and 1985 – it sits in the room between us like a white elephant.
KK: It sits there like a lumpy alienation factor, like rudeness or a faux pas or a bad smell.
BB: The difference between 1974 and 1985 is an iceberg that will never thaw.
KK: And so we can observe it, suck on it, like that Popsicle I mentioned earlier.
BB: It ‘s a huge, consoling presence, cold to the touch, and damaging to the nerves.
KK: It’s abstract -the difference between 1974 and 1985- but it’s also palpable and repulsive, like a wrong turn a big city’s administration takes.
BB: Like Nice, or Marseille, when their governments mismanage zoning?
KK: The schism between decades is a dreary weight.
BB: Is your drawing political?
KK: You’re trying to placate me by using the word “political.”
BB: Isn’t gossip political? Kibitzing about our lives, your drawing, my shopping, your ambivalence?
KK: We haven’t defined “gossip”.
BB: Using the word is enough. Analysis can happen silently, between the lines.
KK: You’re more famous than I.
BB: An arousing imbalance.
KK: I drew you so that I could dwell inside disparity.
BB: There you go again with your Popsicle.
BB: You’re always finding gaps and schisms, and treating them like luxury suites. You act as if a hole or an aporia were furnished, comfy, and enclosing- a veritable alcove.
KK: It’s true. I care about plushness.
BB: And ice.
KK: Yes. I like the colder regions of thought and feeling.
BB: You’re not afraid of freezing to death?
KK: I’m comfortable with long interludes of ice.
BB: And that’s why you don’t put more “feeling” into your work?
KK: The fish I bought at the market is safely on ice; I needn’t worry about spoilage.
BB: The fish, in this case, is your “feelings”?
KK: Right. We’re not afraid of rot.
BB: Now we’re talking about fish. Before we were talking about Popsicles.
KK: I must ask. What were you shopping for in that 1974 photo?
BB: The same thing I was shopping for in your 1985 drawing. The same thing I’m shopping for now.
KK: Did you find it?
BB: Not in my size.
KK: Do you plan to find it?
KK: Then why do you keep shopping for it?
BB: I need to keep alive the quest.
KK: That’s how the slain stay busy in Valhalla*.
BB: They gossip.
KK: Conversational rambles nourish.
BB: They’re erotic.
KK: A slow, teasing process.
BB: You wrote 2 PM on the drawing. Was 2 PM when you finished it?
KK: I wanted to mark the moment.
BB: Now you can’t remember what moment you were marking.
KK: What matters is that I marked it.
BB: With your individual mark.
KK: My mark is deliberately generic.
BB: As is mine. But, as you mentioned earlier with your Popsicle and your interlude of ice, we find the generic to be a cozy habitat.
KK: Duly noted.
BB: I’m pooped. Let’s shut off the tape recorder.
KK: If we don’t like this conversation, we can start all over again, and record a new conversation on top of the old one.
BB: Traces of the first conversation might be audible through the warp and woof of the second.
KK: A palimpsest. Two overlapping conversations.
BB: Like 1974 and 1985.
KK: Two different radio stations announcing the same crime.
BB: The sameness, like your Popsicle, is consoling.
KK: Confusing, too.
BB: I’m famous for breasts, you for “hand.”
KK: We live in an age that devalues the hand.
BB: Does our era devalue breasts?
KK: No. Breasts are still prized.
BB: We meant to shut off the tape recorder, but then we fell back into this trance of mutual consolation.
KK: Your presence, here, I find nebulously consoling.
BB: Roger Vadim taught me that arousal was more important than consolation.
KK: He was wrong.
BB: I’m stuck with arousal. It’s my only ploy.
KK: And I’m stuck with consolation.
BB: We’re traveling in circles again. And we haven’t defined the difference between arousal and consolation.
KK: We’re not required to figure out the nature of art.
BB: I take issue with your passivity in the face of large aesthetic questions.
KK: My sloth is a pose.
BB: Like my shopping?
KK: Tell me: in that 1974 photo, were you really shopping?
BB: ”Shopping” was your word. It was the term you applied to my situation.
KK: Indeed, it was the concept I imposed.
BB: We pretend to pursue the visual, but really we are creatures of the word.
KK: And yet it is visual beauty, not language, that brought you fame.
BB: We needn’t divide the goods of the world into two shopping carts, Language and Beauty.
KK: So you were shopping for beauty?
BB: No. I was shopping for language. My cart was already filled with beauty.
KK: And did I give you language?
BB: No. You gave me more beauty.
KK: And that’s why you came to speak to me today.
BB: To wrest some language out of you.
KK: To force me to reward you with language, after extended deprivation.
BB: Language is the Popsicle you mentioned earlier.
KK: The long interlude of ice?
BB: And beauty is the blowtorch that causes it to melt.
KK: I mispelled galerie in my drawing of you. I wrote GALERE*.
BB: Were you trying to repress the thought of art galleries?
KK: I wanted to cancel my loyalty to your image. I wanted to eviscerate commitments to art, to tasks, to language.
BB: Evisceration is what I’m against, when it applies to helpless animals.
KK: The evisceration I sought, in this drawing, was not bloody or actual. It was metaphorical.
BB: Earlier you claimed to be a literalist.
KK: Did I? I was just being figurative.
BB: I’m incredibly figurative myself.
KK: Tell me more about the blowtorch that causes language to melt.A Glimpse of’ s NOTES
- Sir Henry Raeburn: Scottish romantic painter (1756-1823).
- 1974: The year Brigitte Bardot retired from cinema.
- Valhalla: the great hall where Odin receives and feasts the souls of heroes fallen bravely in battle in Norse mythology.
- Galère: tough situation in french.
SOURCE: Modern Painters (July-August 2007)