Tony Medina and Eliza Jennings, Entsagung, 1984
I am naked, cross-legged and hunched over, wedged inside a shallow corrugated box. At dawn, before I climb inside, I sip Turkish coffee and eat fresh apricots. I break open a pit and suck on the bitter seeds—to conjure the death-taunting aura I want—before I disappear inside this full-size replica of the installation we are introducing at MoMA. Tony is a brilliant artist who calls me his Penelope. He thinks of us as Christo and his invisible Jeanne Claude; frankly, we are more like Marina Abramović and Ulay.
Tony positions me as he wants when I can flatten myself no further. I contort like a human pretzel, attempting to move nothing besides my breath, and remain in the box until he releases me after dark. We sup on herring or mussels, turnips with spicy lemon dressing, and garlic roasted potatoes, clink glasses and say, Cin-cin, over a terribly earthy Pinot Noir. Tony believes the meals I prepare need to reflect the intensity and depth of our work. Our art is highly sought after. Before the installation opens, we are nervous, although confident of our vision.
For weeks, a chef-jumpsuited Tony brushes me with yellow mustard and sprinkled salt as we stair-climb the trajectory to our most impassioned work, a technique akin to bringing frogs to a boil by lowering them into tepid water before raising the heat so they won’t leap from the pot. We are euphoric when our exhibition run is extended.
One day, Tony spontaneously shifts our performance and shaves all the hair and stubble from my body and lines the box with the shavings, evoking Muse as Penitent. I embrace the inspiration, disappointed he didn’t consult me beforehand. This period of religious expression lasts several months. Once Tony’s devotion flattens, we move on.
As an act of rebirth, he stands over the box, appearing to pleasure himself, unzips his jumpsuit, slips a hand in his pocket to explode a packet of glitter, and his shimmery ejaculate rains down on me in a glorious cascade. I see this piece as triumphant. Inconsolable when an ARTnews review calls the work derivative of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, Tony leaves for two days.
MoMA warns us we’ll be shut down if Tony doesn’t curtail his pleasuring, igniting his desire to repeat the act. I convince him our platform is more important than any single defining act. This is the only time I use my voice while inside the box. He releases me at day’s end, doesn’t look at me as he flirts with the young gallery assistant assigned to us.
We electrify the art and feminism confluence. ArtForum, The Guardian, The New York Times, and others review our performance. I’m thrilled by the force of the political discussions on the boundaries of decency and, more particularly, our patriarchal acculturation to female nudity, passivity, and humiliation. Tony, however, is disappointed, believing this focus is irrelevant to our purpose.
This is not the first feminist commentary on our art. I’ve been called a hostage to Tony’s will—a victim of his abusive whims, whose performance fulfills his patriarchal fantasies. They don’t understand. I say to those for whose gaze I’m the object, your judgment of me as victim is a perpetuation of the imbalance of sociopolitical power you claim to reject.
I’ve been asked why I allow Tony to mold me as he wishes. For money? Love? Because I’m broken? For its violence? To underscore, women are commodities? Don’t I yearn to be seen? It is not my responsibility to provide answers.
Days later, MoMA bows to public pressure and we are shut down. I’m disappointed, but Tony is crushed and requires bolstering.
Following the resulting creative ebb, we are bursting with fresh ideas. Soon, Tony will encase the box in Lucite, and we will delve into unmapped terrain. We plan to release honeybees inside the Lucite and hope they will colonize my body. I chew a few apricot seeds and dream of suckling the queen, honey flowing from my breasts.
We begin anew with the yellow mustard and sprinkled salt at The Kitchen. I’m inspired by the venue’s congruous relationship to Pretzel; Tony bemoans its lower visibility. A sullen Tony tracks our daily visitors, obsessed with our decline. For the first time, we squabble about the future.
I want to give birth in the box. Tony thinks this is deconstructionist and will destroy us. I wait for the perfect moment to reveal my plan to eat the baby’s placenta. And what then? He says. Will our creation live solely in the box, alongside you? If he can move beyond his jealousy, I’m certain this would be our magnum opus.
What Tony wants is to export me overseas inside the box. Spectators would participate from start to finish—they’d help the export packers crate me, witness the crate being secured in the hold of the cargo ship, fly with Tony to the port of disembarkation, and help the stevedores remove me from the crate and install me in a European museum, where we’ll begin anew. To me, this feels derivative, stale.
We argue. We’re ready to stretch, to do something never done before, I say. For the first and only time, Tony says, Shut up, and leaves.
Four days in, I suck on a handful of apricot seeds and decide to yield to Tony’s plan, but with a proviso: My naked, sheared body must be wrapped head-to-toe in transparent packing tape, a sacred mummification of the female form. Once removed from the crate, the tape will be ripped from my flesh ceremonially, and I will leave. The reviews will question whether this piece represents the glorification of the female body or is treasonous—another act catering to the patriarchy. Tony will pout, be quoted saying, You misinterpret our work. He’ll hire a private detective, and journalists will dig, but I won’t be located for comment.
The importance of food to story was first underscored for me in college when I attended a film society showing of the old movie, Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney and Susannah York, which includes a ribald, primal, and comical scene in which their characters slurp, gobble, suck, and gnaw through a meal consisting of soup, turkey, oysters, pears, and wine, which the viewing audience ascertains is a prelude to sex. Food is food, but also represents status, power, wealth, pleasure, sexuality, affection, celebration, and more. In my flash story, the food the performance artists eat symbolizes their exoticism (and is juxtaposed to the pedestrian food they use in their performance) and acts as a vehicle for the woman artist’s personal daring and agency.
In the first draft of the story, the woman artist eats apricot croissant at dawn before disappearing into her performance box for the day. The idea for this arose from my unconscious while I was visiting my daughter, who’d just had a baby, and for a treat picked up her favorite apricot croissant for her at her local Brooklyn coffee shop., In conducting research on apricots (I’ll confess here that researching is my favorite part of writing), by serendipity I discovered that eating apricot seeds poses a risk of cyanide poisoning, which cause weakness, dizziness, confusion, and in severe cases, hallucinations (not to mention death). My ever more daring protagonist flirts with danger, consuming more and more of them for her art (and perhaps also to escape). In this way, the apricot seeds are a repetitive craft element and become a plot device that helps create the story’s narrative arc and might also serve as a bellwether for the story’s ending.
Jan Elman Stout’s fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans, Jellyfish Review, Midwestern Gothic, Pithead Chapel, Pidgeonholes, 100 Word Story and elsewhere. Her flash was nominated for the Best Small Fictions anthology in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 and appears in the Best Microfiction 2020 anthology. She is a Senior Editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. Jan is currently working on a story collection. She can be reached on Twitter @janelmanstout.