"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Aase Berg's With Deer and Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" Video: Fashion & Skins

by Steve Halle

Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" video shares many of the same concerns with femininity as Aase Berg’s With Deer, albeit using a much different stream of images. Lady Gaga’s video and Berg’s collection of poetry portray the feminine as spectacle that morphs. These morphs are images that get tested, tried out, put on, and taken off again. They are fashions that are shaped, woven, chosen, or imposed.

First, off to the Bath Haus of Gaga to talk about spectacle and the gaze. The opening of Lady Gaga's video, set up like a painting, like portraiture, lets me know that this video will be all about looking, being looked at, and the self's capacity to imagine all the angles of that looking. Lady Gaga will be the center of it all, the hinge for the action upon which all gazes converge. In the opening tableau, Gaga is enthroned with her entourage and her posh accoutrements (Zikmu Parrot by Starck $1600 wireless speakers product placement), revealing that fame has placed her into a rarefied position, and the spectacle of her fashion positions her as well aware (razor-blade spectacles as razor-sharp vision; outfit that looks reptilian and tough yet gilded, armor-like). This image is much like an album cover and the stasis it implies, but once the video becomes dynamic, this (self-)image starts to morph.

The first change we gaze at is Monster Gaga born from the womb of a sensory deprivation chamber, complete with monstrous vinyl innocent-white catsuit and mask alongside background dancers who participate with Gaga in awkward/awful dancing, juxtaposed with a doe-eyed, cute, baby-like Gaga resembling a child's toy and a black-clad chic Gaga, complete with crown, looking at herself in the mirror (mirror-stage?), a reflective, self-examining stance.

And who should come to yank Gaga out of her innocence? Not men as might be expected, but two women, and they appear in the video around the same time as a pristine, status-quo beautiful, Madonna-clone Gaga while almost simultaneously Monster Gaga begins dance moves that parody Britney Spears, the status quo image of feminine fame with her fist pumps. The female orderlies give Baby Gaga a martini to desensitize her, and this produces a Debutante Gaga, complete with tiara and silver lingerie, whose femininity is covered up and cloaked but not for long, as women again expose her to the gaze of the waiting throng of dark-clad men. As Debutante Gaga sexualizes herself, crawling on all fours toward the men, a new Monster Gaga appears in a separate location (later I learn it's the bedroom), complete with grotesque reptilian spine and bat-like form on her head, even as the men begin to bid on her.

Using the bullet-time shooting popularized by "The Matrix," the next Gaga is in black lingerie, jewel laden, and surrounded by men, with an S&M mask that signals her dominance, perhaps, juxtaposed with a Satellite Gaga, transmitting a version of her sexualized body in the round. Cut to a Super-Fashion Gaga in her costume, which is fashion gone bad, turning Gaga into an animal form (note the hair as an ear-like coif) in an ornate suit that looks like a costume Louis XIV might have donned at Versailles. Rarefied by the fame from her transmission into the object of desire, to the point where she can wear golden, decadent outfits, we see Gaga wearing a faux-polar bear skin wedding train and marching to the bed with the highest-bidding suitor, who we can watch Gaga gaze at as the reflection of him undressing is in her mirrored sunglasses.

Vixen Gaga clad in red lingerie emerges next, face made-up the same as the Polar-Bear Gaga, and these are juxtaposed with pristine Madonna-clone Gaga, who looks pained, screaming and is revealed to be wearing the same bat-like hat/headpiece as the reptilian second Monster Gaga. Polar-Bear Gaga does the big reveal for the suitor while the viewer gazes at the scene, Super-Fashion Gaga fires the gun, and the suitor's bed begins to burst into flames as Vixen Gaga  comes into her own and pristine Madonna-Gaga weeps over the corruption of self by lust (romance gone wrong). Polar-Bear Gaga stands in a pose resembling the opening tableau, in the bedroom but not of it. Vixen Gaga triumphs and we get a dirty-legged, smoking, Grotesque Gaga lying in bed next to the skeleton of her suitor, her tits shooting sparks through her bra, the final tableau. She is now the stereotyped sexually "hot" female, sitting and smoking after destroying the suitor with sex, but that's the cliche, isn't it, a monster's been created.

Which Gaga is the real one? All of them, of course, although the reflective, rarefied, toughened-up Gaga of the opening tableau may be the one with which she most identifies now.

The correlation between Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" video and Aase Berg's With Deer is a loose one as Berg goes about exploring skins in a much different way and without the burden of fame that is part of Gaga's spectacle of the gaze and the creation of her multiform feminine self. Jordan Davis, in his review of With Deer on Constant Critic, notes the cinematic aspects of Berg's prose poetry, comparing her moves to Bjork or Werner Herzog, while Lara Glenum sees teenage sci-fi parody in Berg's work in “‘From Cosmos to Cosmetics’: A Note on Aase Berg’s Guinea Pigs & Girly Kitsch” in Action Yes!

I agree with these readings, but I view Berg's poetry as having the ability to look at the world through not only a totalizing lens but also a microscopic or subatomic one (her later works like Dark Matter use the language of string theory and theoretical physics). Her work often appears like one of those blacklight fantasy posters with its hard neon colors when shown from afar, but her work also has the ability to zoom in, not unlike the opening juxtaposition of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," where we toggle back and forth between the idyllic Lumberton and the awful writhing beetles, from quaint meadow to trash to the ants on the decomposing ear.

Berg's work, like Lady Gaga's video, sets up a series of allegories in which Berg puts the narrator into certain animal skins, such as the fox and the deer, and compares the he of the poem with the horse in "In the Horrifying Land of Clay:"
There was an evil horse that galloped with me on its back. Beneath the hair-strap his muscles moved and chafed against the muscles of my taut inner things which clamped down around his body. I was scared and breathless and dynamic for this tall evil horse was my enemy.[...] I froze in my skin—it pined and chafed against the sharp wind that hurled its sharp drops against my egg-face. There was an evil horse that galloped through the horrifying land, an evil and dark horse with manhood and musculature, and I was thrilled to have him as my enemy.
More chafing and discomfort occurs in "Seal Mutilation" in lines like "The seal flesh loosened slowly.[...] I too waited and had sensations in my hull. [...] The armor plates began to chafe against the fur" (the seal skin echoed later in "Deep Inside the Rock") and in the subsequent poem "The Snail Ancestry" where "The girl's skin was bare and chafed-up from the friction of the limp, flailing animal. It was vaguely reminiscent of a fox, but he could not be sure—the animal's forms and shapes had long since ceased to be determinable in this evil landscape."

Later, we find her carrying "Deer Fabric:" "The deer fabric is thin. I carry it cautiously as if it were a cloud in my hands," which later gets dropped: "I release the cloud now, the bundle. And nailed to my increasingly deader body I wait for everyone to turn in my direction, to me and the glowing fabric." Even geometric forms discomfit her as "The Hypotenuse" reveals, and a galaxy is no safe haven:
Out in the Andromeda, out in the hybrid galaxy, the Hypotenuse writhed around her own shoulder. She writhed inside her horrible, backward body, she writhed so that her insides chafed against the shell, so that her muscles rubbed raw against the inside of her skin.
In the poem "Deer Quake," the speaker recounts being inside the deer, inside the cute or pretty body ("I have moved around the deer, I have fastened my fibers to the dancing, severe deer. [...] I have moved around the rare glass deer of September.")  and feeling completely uncomfortable before a change, an emergence, a distancing from the deer happens:
There is a light in the deer, there is a light in the deer, there is a light deep inside the cavity deer! Now the blood surface song surface is heaving! It quakes through me and the deer. Fibers ache in my sharp border. Now the painful deer tears now it breaks. Now the deer and I burst and are exposed—
Here the speaker is born out of or separated from the deer, exposing them both, like the illusion that one can stay within the cute, within the deer fabric that has been fashioned and the speaker has been forced to carry. She has become that thing and separated. There is no skin that does not chafe, nothing in nature has a comfortable flesh to inhabit, from the grass that gets chewed to "seed flour" in the deer mouth to the geometric forms of the galaxy. The speaker finds only chafing, cutting, fluid leakage, and open sores, but the painful discomfort comes before the "time for the cutting to slowly start to heal."

Author Bio:
Steve Halle is the author of the poetry collection Map of the Hydrogen World (Cracked Slab Books, 2008) and the chapbook cessation covers (Funtime Press, 2007).  His creative and critical work has been published in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM), Cordite, Jacket, Moria, milk magazine, and OCHO, among others.  He edits the online journal Seven Corners and is a staff reviewer for Poets & Artists (O&S).  He is a PhD candidate at Illinois State University in Normal, IL.

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