This text was commissioned on the occasion of Mary Helena Clark’s exhibition Neighboring Animals, on view at Cushion Works from February through March of 2024.

Patricia L. Boyd lives and works in London. She has had solo exhibitions at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York (2023); Secession, Vienna (2022); Kunstverein München (2021); Front Desk Apparatus, New York (2020); Christian Andersen, Copenhagen (2019); Cell Project Space (with Rosa Aiello), London (2019); 80WSE, New York (2017); and Modern Art Oxford (2014), among other venues. Recent institutional group exhibitions include the 13th Taipei Biennial; Amant, New York; Kunstverein Braunschweig; Stadtgalerie Bern; Bonner Kunstverein; CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco; Steirischer Herbst, Graz; and the 13th Lyon Biennale.

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The Mouth is the Beginning
by Patricia L. Boyd

It requires courage to open, but I stuff things inside. Sensations along the tongue and within the cavity. The strangeness of a new taste.

The two cannot be separated but it’s worth pointing out that when it comes to ingestion, there’s a fusion between body and mind: between function, feeling, and fantasy elements. The taste or temperature of something, how it’s experienced in the mouth, whether it’s available when one wants—these all come to mean something in terms of how a subject relates to the world. For example, whether I consider another person or a morsel of food to be approachable or terrifying. Because eating (whether actual or its mental equivalent) is an incorporation: it involves bringing something outside of “me” inside of me: a commingling of subject and object.

Mary Helena Clark’s new moving image work, Neighboring Animals (2024), engages with the oral zone—in some moments directly, but also indirectly through an exploration of associated topics like disgust, thresholds, and a repeated interest in eggs, organic entities with a cavity or germ of life inside. Clark’s work often gives me the impression of an artist registering her attempts to sense the world in order to make sense of it. As I write this text, the infant’s mouth keeps returning to me as a figuration of an artistic process that proceeds by grasping, in an associative and intuitive way, towards knowledge of something that can only be understood through somatic experience.

The mouth of an infant is the entrance for their first feed, their first doorway to the world. This infant mouth, this hole, is a repository of embodied fact gathered through tastebuds, muscles, tongue, nerve endings, lips, cheeks. A negative space that engenders a whole architecture of sensation that is concretely felt but not yet defined. The earliest impressions experienced in there will be stored as the roots of a system of knowledge to be elaborated over an entire lifetime; knowledge that first arrives in the form of proprioception, but will be the origin and bedrock of all future knowledge.

According to psychoanalysts such as Melanie Klein, the mouth in contact with a separate object, the maternal breast or its equivalent, initiates the structuring of the mind and forms the beginning of sexuality. A longed for warm, nurturing, tender breast. The means of survival, but also a sacrament. After infancy, a person will replace it with all the other things they put in their mouth. So, “to consecrate the whole of the minute Mamma would grant me to the sensation of her cheek against my lips” (Marcel Proust).

Klein adds, importantly for her theory, that alongside this adoration there is hatred of the breast, due to its plentifulness, which the infant feels furious not to have ab­solute access to. Here come in the biting teeth, the infant enraged at its impotence in relation to this bountiful thing that it cannot own or control. So the mouth is the beginning also in terms of aggression—and its corollary, refusal.

When a mouth bites, teeth make indentations into an object to break a piece off, making it available to the tongue and laryngeal muscles for swallowing. Biting implies ownership and control: I choose when to eat you. But it also involves vulnerability: what will you do to me once you’re inside me?

In Neighboring Animals there are many images of submission. Creatures are held down for medical treatment; monkeys in chains; a dental instrument penetrating a rodent’s mouth while gloved human hands are protected from contact with its fur. Clark’s video is concerned with how humans regulate their animality through rules or laws which act as demarcations or separations, and how disgust functions as a kind of inner policing to maintain separateness from animals.

But it is our animality that can give us a feeling of being alive, however painful. “As long as my skin screamed and my stomach and bronchial tubes shouted, I knew I was alive. And so were the others! I hadn’t killed anyone” (Joyce McDougall’s patient “Georgette”).

At the heart of Clark’s film is a story of her mother biting into a decorative egg that was on display and belonged to someone else. An object that should have remained whole, enclosed, contained, is broken. A possession that belonged to someone else is ruined and now can be enjoyed by no one.

According to a very basic logic, eating brings about an identification with the thing eaten. Communion is a religious oral incorporation that gives solace to those who believe. But in other situations, this kind of oral identification might engender anxiety in the eater because the thing they have done damage to is now inside them.

A different reading of Clark’s mother’s bite: a breaking out of her desire. Her aliveness, expressed as the craving to have something for herself, to have the egg inside her, spilling over the bounds of propriety. The mouth as the most immediate way to achieve this. Desire tends to play out on complicated terrain, and in this instance, the protagonist bites into (penetrates) another person’s property.

In a recent phone call with Clark, she mentioned a category of disgust called “envelope violation,” highlighting the terrifying and erotic tension it expresses. The underlying fear is of being invaded by the disgusting object due to association, becoming disgusting oneself.

Reading, ripping video files, and gathering artistic materials involves encountering and incorporating a potentially overwhelming excess. Clark’s video Neighboring Animals is built from her contact with many sources, from which she has removed small scraps, moving them around, testing, experimenting until there is resonance. Something is searched for among these remains, but it cannot be assimilated into a linear argument. Certain joins are misplaced while pieced together, making for strange collisions between the chewed-up parts, which act like enjambments or line spills that push one feeling or idea over into the next.

Sections of ultrasound footage show tongues moving inside their oral interiors as words are sounded. “Worm,” “prize,” “fur.” What is felt within the speaker’s mouth while language is shaped is here recorded as image-data that can be systematized or scientifically measured against other images. Words are made strange by the view of their formation. “1 has to feel it, 1 has to feel language, to lay on or take off 1 weight here and there like pharmacist scale, so it must sound, so tuned” (Friederike Mayröcker). The precision of a scale, the beginning of an inventory of just three of all the possible words. Of all the possible worlds. A flood barrier fending off an unstoppably rising tide.