Kathy Acker: Bodies of Work

Kathy Acker
Bodies of Work
Serpent's Tail

KATHY ACKER IS an artist who works in the medium of language. Somehow, artist seems a better word for her than writer, although her finished product generally assumes the form of a novel or essay. Acker has dispensed with the rules of writing--and they were already pretty lax--and instead assembles a barrage of renegade pictures and ideas, in no particular order, inspired by any oddment culture might offer up. Rather than reading to understand Acker's point, her acolytes (who often tend to be highly pierced or otherwise scarified) sort of absorb her ideas, then endlessly fawn in turn. True: It is hard to respond to Acker's prose; like Karen Finley or Cindy Sherman, Acker creates art to provoke thought, even if she doesn't necessarily see it as her job to guide her audience through.

Bodies of Work is a collection of Acker's essays, many previously published, purportedly about the following subjects: William Burroughs, art, Peter Greenaway, Marquis de Sade, Russian Constructivism, gender and identity, and Colette. But that's just the starting place. While a few of these essays offer smart and illuminative looks at art (the Greenaway piece, for example), others dissolve into navel-gazing (or is that navel-piercing?). "Moving Into Wonder," for instance, begins with a retelling of Daedalus's mythological labyrinth and ends with Acker extricating herself from this maze--it isn't clear exactly what she's doing there anyway--by going to the bathroom to pop a zit. If Acker's "missile/cock" zit didn't stop you, read on. In the essay "Russian Constructivism," Acker quickly abandons her title subject and instead shares love letters to a man named Peter, then turns her pen, home-video style, upon herself having adventuresome sex with the guy.

So OK, these essays aren't going to work as research material for that term paper. But there may be redemption in the madness of Acker's method: By turning the essay on its head, she obliterates some of the mustier modes of expression. In "Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution," Acker simply describes a set of classical paintings by Francisco Goya in plain, often foul language. It's a sort of Beavis-and-Butthead-do-art-crit experience, but in the process, Acker seems to be saying good riddance to dry, uninviting curatorial tags.

In making a cry for change, Acker accomplishes the not-insignificant feat of unifying the laughably "aberrational" disaster with the ground-breaking success in the same work. But then not every stylistic innovation represents an actual advance. It's a theory Acker curiously sees fit to endorse: "Let one of art criticism's languages be silence," the author writes in the essay "Critical Languages." Let's indeed.

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