“Hunger” is part of Embedded, a series of writings on the moving image. Artists, musicians, and writers choose a piece of media—embeddable on a web page—and elaborate on why it has lodged itself in their psyche.
In the 2002 film Red Dragon, a serial killer named Francis Dolarhyde, played by Ralph Fiennes, leans over a table in a private viewing room at the Brooklyn Museum. An older woman in reading glasses looks over his shoulder. In close-up we see a drawing of a broad-winged creature—it’s William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, one in a series of watercolors Blake made from 1805 to 1810 based on the Book of Revelation. Dolarhyde inches closer to it, his eyes widening.
“He almost looks alive, doesn’t he?” the woman whispers. Dolarhyde twitches slightly, removes a blunt object from his jacket, and strikes her over the head, knocking her unconscious.
He then caresses the painting with both hands, tears it into large sections, and frantically crams the pieces into his widening jaws, gnashing his teeth. He chews and swallows each fragment like a hyena with a stolen carcass. When another woman opens the door, Dolarhyde lunges for her—she screams—and the camera cuts to him exiting the museum lobby, as anonymously as any regular visitor.
All my life I’ve wanted to physically consume art. Since age six I have daydreamed about placing Georgia O’Keeffe’s poppies on my tongue and swallowing them whole. As a preteen I wanted to absorb Michael Stipe’s propulsive arm movements into my own awkward body. Currently, I would chew on Missy Elliott’s cadence, Rosemarie Trockel’s ceramic thumbprints, and Donika Kelly’s bestiary lines. Each encounter with these works ignites in me a covetous feeling: I want to devour them and hoard their unique powers like a maniacal villain. Yet admitting—on paper and in public—my extreme desire for these works feels as mortifying as divulging a sexual fantasy.
Mortification once described the suppression of bodily desires. In the late fourteenth century, mortificacioun meant an “act of subduing the passions and appetites” in Middle English; it later evolved into a kind of death, a killing “of one part of the body while the rest is still alive.” Our current use of mortify, as a verb signaling abject feelings of humiliation, arrived in the seventeenth century and stuck around like the paralysis it implies. Mortification is now synonymous with shame: an embarrassment that freezes you beyond speech, as though your body, and maybe your entire being, has become stuck in your throat.
I want to know more about our human impulse to hide what we most desire, but I don’t want to ask my friends about their sexual fantasies. So, I’ve been prompting them on whether they long to eat an artwork. And by art I mean almost anything: music, sculpture, literature, graffiti, graphic novels—anything anywhere that makes your bones sing. Have you ever longed to swallow a song or an image?
“Yes. Yes, absolutely,” my friends say to me. But most can’t—or won’t—tell me which specific works have aroused such yearnings. And then there are the few who, glancing away, shake their heads and declare, “No. No, I have never felt that way about anything,” so emphatically that I know at once they are lying. I was grateful for my friend, writer Nate Lippens, who was the first to answer my question honestly:
“I had that experience when I read Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys,” Nate told me. “I read it twice in a row and it sat beside my bed for months, as a kind of touchstone. I had to merge with the book’s voice; it had to become part of me. I wouldn't be complete until it did. And I feel it with live performance. Karen Finley’s trance-rants, Ron Athey’s blood rites, and Penny Arcade’s characters and monologues put me in a heightened state, outside myself. These are primal experiences. They are rituals. I know those voices have imprinted on me. They’ve expanded my idea of what’s possible. I'm always searching for the feeling of being in those rooms.”
To those of us who are consciously secular, ritual is mainly confined to the passages of marriage, birth, and death. But existing outside the rites of organized religion does not lessen our human need for ceremony and fellowship. An encounter with art that moves us may be like a brush with nature, or god, or anything that brings us out of ourselves and into existential awe. When I asked the artist Nyeema Morgan about this feeling, she immediately recalled the rites she witnessed as a child:
“When I was a kid, we went to a Lutheran church for a very short time, and I was fascinated by the Eucharist, the consumption of the flesh and blood of Christ through transubstantiation. I thought it was absolutely horrifying—participating in this symbolic cannibalism where I would absorb Christ’s powers by consuming his flesh! But with art, it’s like being wholly porous, of losing oneself within an experience.”
Art intended for literal consumption often leans on metaphors of bodily exchange. Felix Gonzalez-Torres blanketed floors with thousands of wrapped candies—enough to represent the physical weight of someone who had died from AIDS-related illness—for viewers to take away and consume. Sissel Tolaas cultivated bacteria from viewers’ toes to produce farmhouse cheddar, while Toi Sennhauser took yeast from her own vagina and baked bread for viewers to eat. Rirkrit Tiravanija regularly cooks Thai meals to consume in his recreated domestic spaces. But wanting to eat a work not specifically meant for consumption—to transform it—carries with it a violent impulse. A kind of destruction is necessary to take anything and make it your own.
This ability to unabashedly pick something up and change it is a skill I have envied in my musician friends. They can transmute qualities from other performers and are often far more willing to reveal their influences, because their craft is rooted in an oral tradition of give and take. “This is how I learn songs,” Rob Millis told me. “I am driven to it. Like scratching a maddening itch. I have to figure the song out, play it over and over again, make it a part of me. Often I stop listening to the original, and a different process begins. A chord might be forgotten or substituted, the melody might change, lyrics get misheard, tempos vary. This is how folk music—really, all music—develops. New songs emerge that owe everything to that original—but now, nearly forgotten—unscratchable itch.”
I long for the directness of this exchange, to sing for an audience the words of others, to expose this secret part of myself and not feel mortified. I am no performer. But before I experienced a desire for art, I had intense cravings for certain film characters. They consumed all my fantasies. I did not want to become them; I wanted to absorb them until they became part of myself, until they so strongly influenced the way I moved and spoke that my friends and classmates could think I was just like the character.
I called my brother, Dale Simpson, who is not an artist, though he is a maker of things—a survey engineer who used to map unbuilt roads in Alaska and now does the same for elevated train lines in the Pacific Northwest. I asked if he remembered the untold hours of our childhood spent playing Star Wars in the Alaska woods, and whether it was like swallowing those characters until they merged with us. “If we could’ve eaten Princess Leia and Han Solo to take on their powers, yeah, of course we would have,” he said. “I had a very active imagination as a kid, like a constant dopamine drip. I could eat breakfast and go to school, but another part of my brain was tracking what this other character was doing, how they would react to all the scenarios I encountered throughout my day.”
Being as open as a child to fantasy is something my adult brain must work hard to do. The language of capitalism makes me flinch from words like consume and produce. But I do not think we can be artists—or humans with open and creative minds—without consuming and producing. Creativity relies more on practice than talent. And my practice is bereft without an almost carnal exchange. Not that I want to fuck every painting that moves me. Rather, carnal implies a broader desire to take in the peculiar quality of an object I’m obsessed with in a fleshly, open, meaty way. It is of the body.
Carnal implies a broader desire to take in the peculiar quality of an object I’m obsessed with in a fleshly, open, meaty way.
I want to draw a map now of a raging river and stupidly name it Pleasure, then branch three little tributaries feeding into it: Art, Desire, God. Pleasure is what we are talking about here, the rushing heart of all three forces, the driving momentum buoying us along. Are we reduced to pleasure? If you want to reduce it, then, yes, an animal lust is where we settle. We want things. We crave those abstract encounters that bring us more, that expand our understanding and our ability to make things by literally bringing the outside in.
When I asked the novelist Emily Hall if she ever felt a desire to eat the images she’d tacked up on her mood board, she corrected me and called it her “serial killer wall.” Our compulsion to consume could really be like that scene in Red Dragon, propelling us toward a future version of ourselves, one who embodies all the qualities of the things that we crave.
I want to swallow an artwork so that I can feel a radical shift. Maybe you’ve felt this impulse too. Maybe it’s similar to other transcendental experiences you’ve had: orgasms, drugs, moments with your god. I want that from art. To be penetrated so completely that the work radiates back out of me like swallowed sunlight.
If poet Fanny Howe is correct when she writes, “You are not made by yourself, but by the thing that you want,” then there’s no point in keeping these desires hidden. What we want is already who we are. ♦
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