The Art of Trauma: On Chelsea Hodson

Eîlot Tuerie



For nearly two years, artist Chelsea Hodson photographed herself alongside every object she owned in her small, shared studio apartment in New York City. She called the performance Inventory.

Not long into the project, people following Hodson on Tumblr started sending her gifts, sometimes with Hodson’s encouragement, which she then photographed and posted, posing alongside them with the calm confidence of a mannequin in a window display. Inventory grew. The night Hodson concluded her performance she read the prose that captioned each object, but without the objects, in a reading that lasted over seven hours at the Marina Abramovic Institute, where Hodson was a student. It is not difficult to imagine what Hodson’s project would have become, had she professed a passion for hoarding.

pitytheanimalHodson’s third book, Pity the Animal, a short work of nonfiction, is no stranger to difficulties. If it acts as a methodological extension of, and antidote to, Inventory, it does so as a continuation of a conversation integral to the former. Both texts catalog the commodification of the artist’s life: Pity interrogates the logic of becoming a commodity; Inventory attempts to celebrate it. As acts of documentation, the two texts privilege gaps and spaces of absence, allowing mystery and tension to develop but never eschewing continuity. If writing the impossible is one of literature’s touchstones, each of Hodson’s texts appear to be more concerned with what’s possible, to a point: the writing does not avoid dangerous scenarios and the images documenting the performative work of Inventory challenge neutrality of voice, embracing a kind of lyrical apathy also found in the work of Cindy Sherman.

Pity the Animal finds Hodson struggling to make money while seeking order in her life. The writing is personal and strives to sound journalistic but is not without its fictive elements; at times, it borders on more philosophical issues related to responsibility and forgiveness. Ultimately, and throughout the book, Hodson must decide whether she will be harmed less by becoming a commodity, a type of thing made for public consumption, or benefit more by resisting commodification in ways that are compromised, partial, and sexually driven. Resistance to commodification, then, becomes a kind of game of dominance and submission.

Hodson is fascinated by the power of her attractiveness, and this fascination informs most of the writing in Pity. It also informs a concern with objectification that haunts Hodson’s efforts to see herself as an artist. And yet, Hodson hesitates, exercises a coy unwillingness to play along when invited to submit to sexual pleasure, and she postpones and puts off meeting strangers on Seeking Arrangements, where she has an account, preferring to engage potential clients via email and chat before never meeting them at all.

The book reveals a person’s rich fantasy life which is rarely fulfilled, but it also carefully and indirectly works through a problem: if Hodson can take responsibility for her decisions and actions, she will wield the kind of power that keeps promises. Pity the Animal is a mere symptom of that divine sickness: the power to keep one’s promises. In Nietzsche’s perspective, this is responsibility. But in Hodson’s unique story, it is the power to submit totally to a concept of responsibility inextricably tied to a radical notion of forgiveness, a notion so radical that it plays itself out in acts that abnegate consent in the face of force by forgiving in advance, leaving open the promise of a future to come.

But responsibility is also the thing Hodson wants “most to get rid of.” And that is not as easy as it seems. Undaunted by the prospects of underemployment in a gig economy, Hodson is indecisive. The offers for her sexual services multiply, but she refuses to go through with them. The list of low-paying jobs increases, enriched only by a fantasy life that reveals the limits she is willing to go to become an artist. Those limits become more restrictive each time fear governs her decisions, and are beautifully exemplified by her ongoing failure to confront Marina Abramovic at MoMA:

I kept going back to MoMA to look at Marina Abramovic.

When I heard Marina Abramovic had stopped sitting at MoMA, I felt relieved. I would no longer have to pretend I was planning to sit with her.

As Hodson’s fears increase so do her fantasies. She imagines a world without responsibility informed by a desire to watch events unfold, to admire them from a safe, elevated place, as a passive spectator. She sees herself as an untouchable mannequin on display, disempowered of the capacity to speak and, thus, to make promises, but wanting secretly to be touched, to take responsibility for allowing herself to be taken. It is a role with which Hodson is familiar—and one that she exploits when she poses as a real, human mannequin alongside the objects she owns during her text-based endurance performance, Inventory.

A failed model by her own admission (“My body was simple. I missed modeling when I didn’t get more jobs.”), Hodson makes use of the logic that informs Selling Service with the Goods, an obscure book about constructing window displays, to highlight the problems associated with the commodification of her body, on the one hand, in Pity, but also as blunt strategy, to push the bounds of what the commodification of her body might become if she were reduced to a prop, as she attempts to do, on the other, in Inventory. The latter, especially, sees Hodson attracting attention by the force of her attractiveness, and takes great pains to keep the gazes fixed on her by rarely using the objects she owns as they regularly would be used. Despite appearances Hodson is never very close to the background in these photos, and her desire to be reduced to an object is offset by her presence, which undermines the wish to feel fractional, to become a mere object to be handled.

Inventory gives us a hint of the cool vitality and passive authority internal to the function of the submissive in the dominant-submissive, or artist-spectator, relationship. It also not-too-subtly insinuates the subversiveness of the one who relinquishes all responsibility through the gaze of the mostly masculine other. In this way, it mirrors the cold passion and willfulness of Pity the Animal. And yet it differs from Pity in that it abrogates its power to interrogate the limits of responsibility in the face of a terrible longing for submission, a submission that forbids the making of all promises and, in so doing, guarantees a power to keep them.

Fortunately, Hodson fails to get rid of responsibility, but this doesn’t stop her from trying to push the limits of her body—or from bursting through her body’s barriers altogether—to achieve something greater and more humbling than success. “What can a body endure? Almost anything.” The rhetoric of this hope, a survivor’s hope, is matched by the rhetoric of a desperation and the real possibility that its answer belies a secret, numbing trauma that never overtly appears in Pity or Inventory. This hope for something else is best exemplified by two events that come to inform the centerpieces of Hodson’s inquiries on the limits of the body and the problems of responsibility: Marina Abramovic’s endurance performance, Rhythm 0, and Hodson’s rape scene in Pity the Animal.

The instructions were simple: “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.” The instructions stated that the artist was now an object, and that she took full responsibility for whatever happened to her during the six hours of her performance. According to one witness, Abramovic “would not have resisted rape or murder.” The audience broke up into factions, a protective group was formed, “when a loaded gun was thrust to [Abramovic]’s head and her own finger was being worked around the trigger, a fight broke out between the audience factions.” Later, Abramovic described what she learned from performing Rhythm 0: “What I learned was that . . . if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.”

Responding to Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, Hodson learns something else: forgiveness, in its most radical sense. “Taking responsibility is another way of forgiving someone else for their possible actions.” For Hodson, Abramovic had already, in advance, forgiven the audience for the unforgivable acts that it might perform upon her before they even happened.

This forgiveness that forgives the unforgivable, in advance, is a sort of power. The last person to leave a party, Hodson discovers herself alone with the host, who commands her to stay, takes her hostage, and thrusts himself into her mouth until he comes. The scene is followed by uncertainty and a confession:

Though he did force himself on me, the truth is I stayed at the party wanting something to happen.

He wasn’t a stranger—I knew he was a bad man, I’d known that for a long time. That’s why I stayed.

The scene is as paradoxical as it is problematic: to increase the possibility of making something happen at a party, Hodson stays to let a man take her by force. Her consent is partial, she agrees to stay; her knowledge is conditional, she knows that something will happen, if she doesn’t leave.

Hodson’s decision to stay fulfills that promise: something does happen. Forgiving whatever may happen to her in advance Hodson makes more than merely something happen, she makes a memory, which is, in every instance, the making of the body. The power to make memories is a kind of power exercised especially by artists and, in a sense, it is one of their first responsibilities—to remember and, more importantly, to be remembered (and to be remembered is to be unyieldingly structured, by others).

Hodson’s move to let a “bad man” use her for sexual gratification—to satisfy her desire for something to happen at a party—is bizarre. It is as if the space of everyday life itself had become a venue of unspoken and unagreed upon gestures that dispels the conventional roles and responsibilities of people aware there is a performance going on. But, was a performance going on? Was Hodson performing? Did she calculatingly use a “bad man” as the material for her artistic practice and, if so, how does her action intensify the paradox at the heart of art’s thirst for trauma, as a kind of rehearsal for death, but one that reassures the body of becoming a thing—an object equivalent to any other human or nonhuman object, but whose value confuses unexamined notions of place and status, and of who we are, in the world?

One of Inventory’s ongoing jokes is the paradoxical objectification of the artist, Chelsea Hodson, who seeks to become an object, a prop in a window display, a work of art, and instead undermines objectification’s cultural hold on her by making its status the goal. This maneuver is not a new one, but the context in which it operates is. We know that commodities are produced and marketed to seduce consumers. We know that the art world is a world of business and profit-making, and that the commodification of the artist has been the engine and equipment of much art since dada. And we know that art is all about the body, the body as commodity.

And yet, Hodson is concerned not merely with the limits of the fantasy of submission of the body, but with the reality of submission, specifically, in a capitalist culture. When she asks, “What can a body endure?” she also interrogates the surface of an ontology informed by a language as present as can be: in a capitalist culture, to what extent must a person submit to become a thing? And once thing-ness has been achieved, how much of a thing can a person be? Hodson’s flirtation with prostitution—and her longing for a kind of total submission—marks an act of desperation that conceals the greatest hope of all: transcendence. In an economy geared to taking care of those who take care of capital, where does the little-known artist find refuge? To test the limits of one’s worth one must test one’s vulnerability, that is, one’s ability to withstand as much as one can. Pity the Animal is a testament to a search for refuge and the abject ordeals one undergoes—sometimes willingly—along the way.