Wednesday, April 2, 2008
The Lost Dress of Paradise
A Theology of Nakedness: Vanessa Beecroft’s Performance in Berlin
By Giorgio Agamben
The first impression that the performance by Vanessa Beecroft gave the audience present at the Neue Nationalgalerie was of a political nature: nothing but dressed urban people, looking at naked urban people. The extreme and at the same time hopeless situation of man in mass society shows itself yet again in its full ambiguity, in this strange form that characterises the situation of contemporary man: as non-event. Something that could have happened did not take place.
If, however, someone would reflect in retrospect on the peculiarities of this non-event, the initial, political, impression, would be pushed aside by a genuine theological consideration. For exactly what was it that had not taken place? Neither an orgy, nor torture, nor an S&M session, but the simple nakedness of man.
In our culture, nakedness is inseparably tied up to a theological meaning. And this is not only because, when looking at these one hundred random women – standing in rows, dressed only in nylon-stockings, who were lingering without moving, as if they were expecting something – you could not avoid thinking about the nakedness of the resurrected at Judgement Day. These people, exposed as naked, I thought, are the resurrected waiting for judgement. The dressed people circling around them were, without knowing it, servants in some celestial administration, who were preparing to lead them to heaven or cast them into Gehenna.
Not only this – the theological significance of exposing someone as naked goes even deeper. We all know the narrative of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve noticed their nakedness only after the original sin. According to the theologians, this was not only due to an earlier state of simple ignorance: despite the fact that Adam and Eve were not covered in human clothing before the fall, they were still not naked. They were covered in a dress of mercy, of tight-fitting glory. Sin robbed man of this supernatural dress, and, in his nakedness, he was forced to cover himself – first with fig leaves, and then with animal skin. The dress with which we now cover our body is no longer the dress of mercy and innocence, but a dress of sin and hypocrisy. This dress belongs to man as a necessity, because it is at the same time a reminiscence of the lost dress of Paradise, and a promise of the new dress that will be given to man through redemption.
There is a special Christian dignity of the dress that reaches even the last trends in fashion: “The dress worn by fallen man,” a modern theologian writes, “represents a reminiscence of the lost dress that was once worn in Paradise. Every change and innovation in fashion that we are so willing to follow, which promises us a beginning of self-understanding, is nothing but the activation of the hope for the lost dress to be recovered (…) This dress, which we have had and lost and that we are still looking for in all the garments of the world that we are wearing, is given to us as a gift in the sacrament of baptism.”
These considerations allow us now to think in a new way about the nakedness that did not take place in Vanessa Beecroft’s performance. According to the founding axiom of the Christian theology of clothing, human nakedness is only possible, if at all, as something temporary and negative. Firstly, because in Eden the creaturely body was already clothed in divine mercy; secondly, because the body after the Fall is again covered in clothes that are the consequence of baptism; and finally, because the saved ones in Paradise will be dressed in a new dress of glory that can no longer be taken off. Nakedness exists, if at all, only in Hell. When it temporarily appears in life in the moment of sinning, nakedness remains unthought and uninterpreted, because its only meaning is related to the dress of mercy.
Now it is possible to understand why in Vanessa Beecroft’s performance – that took place not in Hell but at the Neue Nationalgalerie and had absolutely nothing sinful about it – there could be no event of nakedness. As an unrestrained accomplice to Christian theology – with which it was, without knowing it, filled to the brim – this performance exhibited nothing but the impossibility of nakedness.
The last word will therefore be a political consideration. Against this complicity of commodity and theology we must try to think a possible nakedness of man – something that theology, and then reification and pornography, have made unthinkable. What we must find again is the nakedness of Adam, before God covered him in a dress of glory. This, however, should neither be understood as a natural condition, nor as a promise of something to come. This nakedness is, rather, something that we, here and now, must liberate, piece by piece, from the theological fabric that is wrapped around it.
According to a Gnostic parable, the saved ones will, in the very last day, take the dress of light that was given to them by God on the last day, and tear it off their bodies. They will show themselves to each other in a nakedness that knows neither of sin nor of glory. The human body that will be seen that day will be like the body of that girl in the Neue Nationalgalerie that I, in passing, looked at from behind, only to immediately again lose sight of her: fragile, simple, nameless, yet without doubt naked, and unproblematically thinkable.
Originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 12, 2005. Translated from the German by Christian Nilsson.