I’m taken by the haunting peculiarity built into the atmosphere in Drager’s work alongside prose that registers as so sharp and deeply felt, in this story and her most recent novel, The Lost Daughter Collective. Inviting a conversation about who gets to construct and control certain narratives, Her Exhibit is Curated allows the reader to interrogate what it means to look upon another, to have a voice, and questions the institutions that write history under the clever constraint of the curator’s guidance. -Gail Aronson, BWR 2017/18 editor
Her Exhibit is Curated
from BWR 41.1
Here we have a yawn. It is discursive and open, an unleashing. An empty mouth destroys itself not accidentally. There is no relationship that doesn’t depend on the tongue. Without it, the audience is anchored to and replicates her lack. Look at the way the lines move, the way the folds behave; the mouth is in many ways you, the audience. Though audience is not the right term because we do not experience her work through sound. Perhaps we should consider ourselves her readers.
We cannot know her work without considering her tonguelessness. A tongue is an organ that reaches down the throat—its trajectory points downward and into the body; it does not dip out or escape. Her critics have noted that access to taste is always an invisible normative; that those with taste fail to acquaint with their tongues, a direct product of the downfall of flavor therapy after the Touch Wars. Among taste scholars, tonguelessness is often equated with those who lack ears; experience shifts based on the ways we’re enabled. For those without tongues, yawning becomes dangerous. Consider a world in which to swallow means inviting risk.
The artist was born without a tongue, which is different than losing it later. There is something to be said for those involved in the art of detachment, but her case presents a rudimentary brand of gone. This raises questions of retrieval—can her lack be qualified as loss? Moreover, is art to an audience an empty chalice into which experience is inserted, or an empty wall against which event is amplified?
Here we have one of her most criticized works: The Theory of Tongue as Verb. In order to taste, she used her hands. They grew increasingly more sensitive, and she could detect minor discrepancies in texture, uncovering how that-which-was haunts and occupies the body. For example, her research revealed how scar ensues. She could feel a scar and know what form of damage happened—skin divorce or delicate abrasion—as well as discern the narrative leading up to the moment of assault. She learned the way flesh moves through the stages of bruise.
Her latest work is deemed Bruise Parameter. In order to study bruises, she and her guild engaged in physical harm. Hurt was necessary for the work and was enacted through a honed method of Wound Induction. They attended pain conferences to discuss how best to induce bruise and to investigate trajectories on heal. There is now a body of work on the best way to conceal, which is something endorsed in pain circles when Arbiters of Safety intervene. Some scar scholars suggest cut is the least invasive way to promote wound, though she always disagreed; further research is required, but there is evidence that this controversial theory fails in soundness.
Don’t you see how the frame cannot contain what isn’t there? See here, here, and here. Look closer.
We aim to establish an ethical museum, meaning the narrative we construct as you move through our space is as true and accurate as the body will allow. Of course, we are constrained by the position of the eyes in the human form—they do not allow one to see behind and so a panoramic view, necessary for a full understanding of her work, is difficult to reach. While we aim for an ethical museum, we do not aim to reinvent the way the human mind frames event. For that, you will have to travel two institutes over, to the Magistrate of Body Dismemberment.
In this wing you can see where the artist’s tonguelessness enters the work—here, here, and here. Note the absence of every negative. Note the distance she employs. Here we learn that she did not know her lover’s skin or chocolate, how song exits the mouth. Her best-known theory was that taste and speech are qualities of the body that we will lose with time. Through evolution, we will lose the tongue, she claimed—it is growing to be as useless as the tail.
She died choking on a healthy dose of loss. To fill the mouth with absence is as full of risk for those with a tongue as those without; mourning should always be done erect, such that sorrow can move through and on rather than hide in the slender fissures of the voice, or pool in the lonely cove of the jaw. That we are something the world performs rather than Autonomous Agents of Meaning suggests all our collective sorrow is miniscule, insular, incapable of change. Like the narrative of the ethical museum, our navigation through experience is always an invisible edifice channeling us toward here, the close.
This brings us to the end of the exhibit. But before we part, I invite you to press your tongue to the frame. Learn her work in ways that she could not. Remind yourself what it means to hear with your mouth. That is, after all, her thesis: the body is a document, permitted only limited experience. When it fails we deemed it concluded. Where it lacks is marginal. We hope you will consider this next time you practice taste or perform hurt, next time you endorse or proscribe. Next time you forecast. Next time you audience.
Lindsey Drager is the author of the novels The Lost Daughter Collective (Dzanc, 2017) and The Sorrow Proper (Dzanc, 2015), winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Prize, recipient of Silver in the 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award in Literary Fiction, and now available in braille. She is an assistant professor at the College of Charleston where she teaches in the MFA program in fiction.