There was a table set out … and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it. – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
In 88 Pearls, Lady Gaga and Terence Koh sit at a table, laughing, playing, dressed up in costume. Indeed, dressed up in pearls. There is an empty wine glass and an empty tumbler, but these glasses are ignored. Gaga and Koh care only for the teacup. “Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked. “There isn’t any,” said the March Hare. It seems, from the viewer’s perspective, that we, just as Alice has done before us, are crashing the party – a party we have not necessarily been invited to, and one in which we are left to interpret what we see and hear, to attempt to make some sense of the whole mad affair (if we wish to make sense of the whole mad affair). We are spectators of (not participants of) the spectacle.
|Illustration by Sir John Tenniel|
Games/Performances of Madness
I’m afraid Alice is a bit of a killjoy. “It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life” She doesn’t know how, exactly, to respond to Wonderland. (Perhaps this is because she “grows” so much when she gets there? She drinks the wrong potion? There is nothing left in her of the Peter Pan?) She certainly doesn’t know how to respond to the mad Hatter and the mad March Hare at their mad tea party. Alice never actually becomes a part of the party. Yes, from a technical standpoint, there is dialogue between Alice and the party, but there is a persistent separateness, a failure of language, that prevents the occurrence of genuine communication. This same separateness exists for the viewer of the spectacle, the spectacle here being Gaga and Koh counting pearls. As Guy Debord comments in his The Society of the Spectacle, “The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule” (17). Even the absence of rule – zero rule – is itself a rule, and we are not privy to the rules of the game Gaga and Koh play. Not only do we, as spectator, lack agency in regard to the spectacle, we cannot even inquire, in the absence of understanding, explanations from the spectacle. This information, the logical answer, is cut off from the audience.
|Mad Tea Party (1969), illustration for Alice in Wonderland by Salvador Dali|
This is, perhaps, a trouble with madness, in dealing with one who is mad: there is often an assumption on behalf of the other (the viewer) that there is an absence of logic with the mad person and that this absence is a totality. That the one who is insane, the fool, is incapable of uttering a truth. (Let alone the chaotic horror, the apocalypse that might develop if we were to entertain the notion that perhaps the madness is the truth). “Why not?” said the March Hare. Alice was silent. I remember, as a theology student, one of my professors saying, “You have two options: you can either believe that Jesus is the Son of God or that he is insane – there is no in-between.” This bi-versification is one that never sat well with me. Wasn’t Galileo’s sanity questioned when he posited that the sun was the center of the universe? Wasn’t Shakespeare constantly placing his truest lines in the mouth of the fool? The scientist who studies (for example) Water Crystal Theory is ostracized from the scientific community and defends her scientific beliefs from the outside, much in the way Wordsworth defends his poetic beliefs in Preface to Lyric Ballads. There is ridicule, disapproval, banishment. This or that person is (literally) out of line, an outlier, out of his mind, mad. From the perspective of many, the mere idea of Gaga’s “Holy Fool” is one that is not possible. It is not possible to blend madness and divinity, madness and truth. It is a blending, a bleeding, a conflation of two incompatible and unrelated attributes.
As I have stated before, if Gaga is consistently anything at all, she is a paradox. In 88 Pearls, she is both a girl at play and a woman (an artist) at work (performing). She is a figure rendered in both black and white. She is playing/performing a game with Koh that both makes sense (the simple task of counting to 88) and does not make sense (numbers and pearls are skipped, and why are Gaga and Koh counting them in the first place?).
|Dali, The Pearl (1981)|
Lady Gaga and Terence Koh are clearly not fans of following rules. Rules, in fact, are facts or constraints that artists have become expected to break. “Is that the way you manage?” asked Alice. Alexander McQueen stated: “You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.” Koh playfully skips ahead while counting to the number 69, expecting that we will accept the fact that he has cheated a rule of mathematics and altered it to his own whim. Yes, Gaga and Koh count 88 pearls into the teacup in the reality of the film, but in our reality (our numeric reality) there are not 88 pearls in the teacup. There both are and are not 88 pearls here, a pearled paradox we can choose (or choose not to) swallow.
Pop artists, however, are not expected to break the rules. Pop artists are considered the hacks of the music world. There are many pop artists who are, perhaps, only called artists by default. They cannot be called musicians because, in many cases, there is no instrument in their hands. In fact, for many a pop artist, the pop artist is the instrument, at times even a corporate instrument, and certainly not the creator. And if the pop artist is a corporate instrument, then the corporation is running the show. Corporations that run on business models. Corporations that are accustomed to formula and replicating that formula over and over again until something isn’t working properly and then the formula (the pop artist) is scrapped. ‘N Sync is, perhaps, the most obvious example of this – the boy band that felt so tightly controlled by the corporation’s formula that they needed to cede, to cut all ties, and to produce No Strings Attached. But what happened once those strings were cut? The group soon dissolved. Even the group’s pro-pop anthem, “Pop,” frames pop music not as art, but as something contagious and fun, something that will endure the inevitable and never-ending criticism of the genre as garbage.
(Infinitely) Shucking the Pop Bivalve
The oyster, the bivalve, begets the pearl. Not every species of oyster is capable of producing a pearl. Not all bivalves are created equal. But there is a species of oyster, just as there is a species of pop star (of monster?), capable of producing a luminous object: the pearl. There is a species of pop star that can produce an object of (artistic) value.
Society establishes splits, artificial divisions, rules that exist only as we allow and invent them. Society has classified music into genres (species), divided music into the valuable and the worthless, the intellectual and the vapid, the good and the bad. In the face of this division, Lady Gaga must tell us – and tell us directly – “Pop music will never be lowbrow.” That pop music is not disposable trash. That pop music (as a genre, as a species) is something to pay attention to, something that could produce (and actually does, at times, produce) art. Lady Gaga takes a knife to the throat of pop music, shucks it in two, and shows us the effervesce of the nacre inside.
And when a bivalve is split, a mirror image is created. A bivalve is, in a way, a living paradox of form: two inverse shapes positioned on top of one another, joined into one being. Francis Ponge, in his meditation on the oyster, tells us, “Inside one finds a whole world, to eat and drink; under a firmament (properly speaking) of nacre, the skies above collapse on the skies below” (37). When the bivalve is closed, its figure resembles that of a zero (0). When a bivalve is opened by its hinge, a new figure is formed, is birthed: a figure eight (8), which, viewed askance, is also the figure of infinity (∞). When closed, the world of the oyster is shut off from us completely, its luminous quality out of view, nullified. The open oyster, however, is an open world, a world, as Ponge tells us, that is two parts wide-open sky, two parts heavenly vault, two views of eternity. Whereas the closed(-minded) view of the oyster (of pop music) yields a zero, the open(-minded) view of the oyster (of pop music) yields an infinity.
And so Gaga and Koh count to 88. The pair counts – or, more accurately, creates – 88 pearls in a teacup. The pair creates not one infinity (∞), but two (88). A double-infinity, a concept that is itself a paradox, as infinity is already infinite in both directions and there is no need (and no mathematical reason) to double it. When Koh playfully skips ahead to the number 69, he skips ahead to a number that (if its two inverted figures were fused into one) very much resembles the figure eight, the figure of the bivalve, the figure of infinity.
This creation is play; this creation is work. This creation is game; this creation is performance. This creation is a world of dress-up/adornment/births/infinite births. The world, the play, the rule of play, is born this way, over and over again. The pearl from the oyster, the head from the vagina, the spectacle from the performer. “For the spectacle, as the perfect image of the ruling economic order, ends are nothing and development is all – although the only thing into which the spectacle plans to develop is itself” (Debord 15-16).
In 88 Pearls, Gaga, adorned in the very pearls she plays with, conjures once again her trope of continual birth. the rattling teacups would change to tinkling sheep-bells. But she also, by her very adornment, conjures the infinite death that must accompany that birth. “Once in a rare while a globule pearls in [the oyster’s] nacre throat, with which one instantly seeks to adorn oneself” (Ponge 37). And to shuck an oyster and retrieve the pearl (for adornment or the creation of a self) is to kill the oyster. When Lady Gaga wears these pearls, these pearls are not in the form of pretty necklaces, but affixed to her skin, to her jaw, to her cheeks. It appears as if the bone is being exposed, that we are viewing a glimpse of a skull. (Shaun Leane produced a similar effect for Alexander McQueen with his “Jaw Bone” Mouthpiece.) Gaga is both a woman in her pearls and a monster with a skeletal-pearled countenance. Gaga is (and has been) a series (a string) of selves through adornment, the new birthed through the death of the old, life and death piled on top of each other. “When a newly independent art paints its world … then a moment of life has grown old … The greatness of art makes its appearance only as dusk begins to fall over life” (Debord 133). Lady Gaga is continually paradox at work/play.
At the close of the film, as Gaga and Koh place the final pearl in the teacup, Gaga says, “Let’s do the last one together.” Gaga and Koh, together, each take hold of the pearl, each one’s thumb and finger carefully joining to pinch a side, their pair of hands forming two rings, two circles, which, when joined (jointed) at the point (joint) of the pearl, form the figure eight, form yet another figure of infinity.
Gaga as Gyre
Yeats had his own notions on infinity and birthing, notions that he forged in his poems and writings on gyres. In his poem, The Second Coming, he writes, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre” (line 1), the gyre a type of geometric cone, a cyclone really, one that spirals wider and wider in time until the apocalypse arrives. The moment when the gyre is at its widest, the moment when the end of the world has arrived, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (2-3). This moment is chaos at its height, the world at its most advanced and complicated state, and Time at its lowest ebb. But this moment for Yeats is not entirely catastrophic, despite the fact that “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (4). There is anarchy, yes, but “mere” anarchy, anarchy that can be treated just a bit flippantly because, though the end of the world (death) is at hand, there is a new beginning (life) that will happen at the exact moment the end occurs. “But what happens when you come to the beginning again?” Alice ventured to ask.
|Diagram of opposing gyres, from W.B. Yeats’ A Vision|
Here, there is a hinge, a joint, so that at the moment when the cyclone/world/game is at its wildest, widest end, that very same moment a new pinpoint begins. A new spiral is birthed. There is a second coming, a second birthing. The end of the world is not the end of the world. Or, rather, if it is the end of one world, then it is the beginning of a new one. “Surely some revelation is at hand” (9). And though Yeats’s vision in The Second Coming is not a cheerful one, it is one of birth nonetheless. “That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, / And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (19-22). So yes, there is a Second Coming after the birth and death of Christ. There is the cradle. There is the birth of the beast, a birth the majority of us might not expect to follow the last birth. Gaga does not give us what we expect either (just look at “The Edge of Glory” video and our spectator’s response to it). But Gaga is not only okay with the idea of the monstrous, of the beast – she has, as Mother Monster, embraced the notion, embraced the title of birthing what might typically cause fear, repulsion, distain.
These gyres, the overlapping, inverted cones of Time’s diminishment and history’s expansion, create the shape of an hourglass, the shape of the figure eight, the figure of infinity. The inverted gyres represent the interdependence of two forces that we do not expect to be linked. Yeats writes, in A Vision, “As man’s intellect, say, expands, the emotional nature contracts in equal degree and vice versa ... one always narrowing, one always expanding, and yet bound for ever to one another.” And, according to Yeats, these gyres continue on, linked in a never-ending chain, an infinite process of rebirthing, a never-ending string (of pearls). And she could hear the rattle of the teacups as the March Hare and his friends shared their never-ending meal.
So what is Lady Gaga doing with Terence Koh, playing with pearls and a teacup? She is making a short film. She is making a short film that we can either view as a piece of art or a piece of madness or both. She is, perhaps, making a short film that is part art and part madness, showing us, as many artists have done before her, that the two are not always separate entities. That one can stylize madness, that one can glue pearls to one’s body to create sequined fashion.
Debord discusses the spectacle in terms of style and fashion when he writes, “In contrast to the passing fashions that clash and fuse on the frivolous surface of a contemplated pseudo-cyclical time, the grand style of our era can ever be recognized in whatever is governed by the obvious yet carefully concealed necessity for revolution” (116). Debord discusses the spectacle in much the same way Yeats conceives of his gyres and Gaga conceives of her project: an evolution of revolution that is not cyclical in its infiniteness, but linear. Though there will be another Gaga video, another Gaga song, another Gaga performance, there will not be another Gaga video, another Gaga song, and another Gaga performance. There will not be another, not more of the same, but an other, an addition that differs from the previous edition. Lady Gaga and her work has (and presumably will) evolve not revolve, cycle not recycle. This infinite birthing of selves is why she has become the spectacle she has become. This infinite birthing of selves is why we find ourselves continually watching.
Note: The italicized lines of the text are taken from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
88 Pearls. “Terence Koh Show”. Dir Terence Koh. Perf. Lady Gaga and Terence Koh. 2010. Film.
“Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 21 July 2011.
Born This Way. Dir. Nick Knight and Lady Gaga. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2011. Film.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. Ed. Donald J. Gray. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1971. Print.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1994. Print.
Lady Gaga. “Born This Way.” Born This Way. Interscope Records, 2011. CD.
Lady Gaga. “Judas.” Born This Way. Interscope Records, 2011. CD.
‘N Sync. “Pop.” Celebrity. Jive Records, 2001. CD.
Poker Face. Dir. Ray Kay. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2008. Film.
Ponge, Francis. The Voice of Things. Trans. Beth Archer Brombert. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972. Print.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. F. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. Print.
Yeats, William Butler. “A Vision.” The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats Volume XIII. Ed. Catherine E. Paul. New York: Scribner, 2008. Print.
Laurence Ross holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. He lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, AL. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Mason’s Road, Bluestem, and elsewhere. He has recently completed a novel, Also, I’m Dying, in which characters deliver performances of crisis, education, anarchy, vanity, husband, wife, child, and alcoholism, among other things.