PseudoPod 852: Every Body Depicted Is Exploited
Every Body Depicted Is Exploited
By Elise LeSage
Everyone knew that Pamela was the only real artist there. The rest of us were just play-acting. The sensible ones, like me, figured out pretty early on that the program was a joke. Formulaic. Easy to phone in. Still, there were plenty of students who told themselves they had a shot at creating something beautiful, even as Pamela blew them out of the water again and again.
I joined art school because I thought it would be easy—or because I thought I would be good at it, I can’t remember which. I’d grown up reading comic books and, for a while, I had this dream of being a line artist. Then, I watched other illustrators finish in an hour what would take me five. I saw how many entry-level jobs asked for whole years of experience. I lurked on r/starvingartists, regularly. I managed my expectations. I began imagining a future of illustrating construction manuals, or safety pamphlets, or the fall leaves that rain down the borders of corporate e-blasts. I didn’t want these jobs, these lives, but still, they felt lofty. Maybe that’s why I started giving up.
I don’t remember meeting Pamela, but I do remember her first project: a wall-sized hole that might have been a painting, or might have been a projection; it was hard to tell. Either way, it had a flickering, 3D quality that made me afraid I would fall in.
Then, there was the greenroom vanity whose mirror made its subjects look like they were laughing. Some say it made a sophomore go insane—but that was just a rumor, probably.
The two of us might never have spoken if we hadn’t found ourselves alone in Gottlieb, the shared freshman art studio, on a Saturday night. I had taken to sleeping on the communal, resin-stained couch whenever I wanted to avoid my roommates. Pamela hung out there indefinitely. She toiled away as everyone else drew on avant-garde eyeliner and threw parties with themes like cyber apocalypse and nude beach and dungeons and drag queens.
I woke up from a bleary nap to find her kneeling on the studio’s concrete floor. She was painting something—a clock face—cadmium red. The hands of the clock squirmed, and not always in the right direction. I dug grains of sleep from my eyes. Salamanders. She had pinned them to the clock, their tails radiating from the center.
“They’re not real,” Pamela said. These were the first words she had spoken to me outside of class.
I couldn’t imagine what they could be if not live salamanders, but I went ahead and said of course anyway. I’d planned a very important conversation for a moment like this, and I didn’t want to see it derailed.
“Pamela,” I started. “I love your work.”
She thanked me without looking up.
“And you’re busy,” I went on. “I can see that. But I was wondering, maybe, if you’d want to go out with me. Not now, I mean. Just sometime.”
The hour-hand thrashed. It was big enough to hit its head against the glass, over and over. Tick, tick, tick.
Pamela shook her head. “I only get together with people to collaborate. I don’t see anyone outside of my art.” From the way she said it, I could tell she didn’t mean to be hurtful.
“Well, that’s what it would be,” I needled. “It’s like, a commentary on the classic American date night. We go out for dinner, make small talk, nothing too deep. We’re very intentional about the selves we present to each other—personas, as it were. All the while, only you and I know this is a meta-performance. Performing romantic performativity. Pretending to pretend.”
I felt proud of myself for thinking of this on the spot. I also had a brief flash of gratitude for my crit classes which, if nothing else, had trained me well in the art of bullshitting.
Only, Pamela didn’t look up from her project. She went on painting until my mouth went dry. I coughed.
“Obviously, there won’t be any romantic entailments. You and I won’t even get to know each other; we’ll be acting the whole time. Which is, again, a commentary on…”
“I get it,” she said, wiping sweat from the perfect, blonde arch of her hairline. The motion left behind a smudge of red paint. She set down her brush when she asked: “Can I bring my hidden camera?”
When I went to pick her up, Pamela was contorting her body in front of an iPhone. She said she wanted her arms to look deformed in the selfies she was taking. She pushed her shoulder back and crooked an elbow, pouting
Her apartment wasn’t how I expected. Most art school home décor springs from a common mold; you’ll find spider plants, book shelves, cat trees, and tchotchkes. Pamela’s place, meanwhile, was as bare as a showroom. She said something about not wanting “external signifiers” to corrupt her inspiration. I nodded as if I understood.
That night, she wore kitten heels and a pleated, poppy-colored dress. Her hair was poofed up and she looked like Judy Garland, or Norma Jean Baker, or some other martyr of 1950s girlhood. At the restaurant, she ordered a blackened chicken breast, which she cut into small, cubed portions and didn’t eat.
In clipped sentences, we talked about our siblings, and movies, and television, and our favorite sliced breads. All the while, I tried to figure out whether or not she was acting.
I couldn’t possibly eat another bite. Acting.
My brother Joel, he’s a lawyer. Not acting?
I’m so glad I came out tonight. Possibly acting. Cruel if acting.
I did my best to keep up. I cycled through all my best anecdotes, gesticulating often. Pamela’s laughter thrilled me. I didn’t even care if it was fake.
It was only after I dropped her off and kissed her cheek that I realized she’d never used my name. We had a few classes together but, knowing how first impressions go, I was afraid she’d missed it. Or worse, forgot. Over the next few weeks, I would try to remind her of it as often and as subtly as possible, but she never took the hint—which is just as well. After all, who was I to take offense?
Our second date felt more sincere which, I don’t know, may have been part of the bit. We went for drinks at a bar called Kismet. Photos of dead movies stars lined the walls. In a room cut off by a beaded curtain, 30-somethings wailed karaoke. Pamela wore a floor-length gown and a wilted corsage pinned to her breast. She ordered one cocktail, then another. Soon enough, she was leaning across the booth, holding my hand.
For the first time, she began to talk about her art, lamenting the fate of some project that she could never pull off. When I asked why, she bit her lip and twisted her hair behind her ear.
“No one would want to work with me,” she said. Acting?
Her fingers were cold on my knuckles. I swirled the ice in my drink. “I would,” I offered. “I like working with you.”
She threw her head back, laughing. In the other room, a shaky baritone sang about being so sexy, it hurts.
“It’s not really like that,” Pamela said. “I need a subject.”
“Like a model?”
I stared at the empty glasses tombstoning the table, numbed with that strata of drunkenness that makes everything feel far away. Pamela had ordered some grenadine-colored drinks in Collins glasses and, though she’d sipped them dry, some invisible residue had turned the melted ice pink, like a magic trick.
“Most artists, they have a really beautiful way of seeing the world,” I started. “But it ends there, you know? All they can give us are reflections of what we already have. But you, you draw from another world entirely. And anyone from the outside can see that it’s holistic, self-sustaining.” My eyes stung. I was crying, I realized. Or pretending to. It was hard to tell.
Pamela leaned over and kissed me hard. Her tongue was warm and stiff as marble. “You’re perfect,” she said once she’d pulled back.
I asked if this meant I could be part of her project.
She nodded into her drink. “I’ll explain more when we get home.”
Only she didn’t, not really. Instead, she took my measurements in her small, sterile bedroom and discussed the theory behind what she was about to do. “It’s about bodies,” she said, taking note of the length between my elbow and my thumb. “It’s about how art exploits the bodies it’s claiming to celebrate—historically, contemporarily.”
“Totally,” I said, lifting my foot so she could measure its bridge.
“And sometimes it’s obvious—like Vivian Maier and her photos of those stooped-over street kids. But sometimes it’s not. Exploitation is unavoidable, even with the best intentions.” Pamela paused to record the diameter of my toe. “Archibald Motley painted his wife in the nude to help her feel beautiful. Now, her portrait is being printed and sold on postcards in the MOMA gift shop for five bucks a piece.”
I shook my head and she drew one-inch intervals down my waist. “Capitalism,” I said, not knowing enough to elaborate.
“It’s baked into art itself. Every body depicted is exploited, even the ones rendered out of pure love. Either sexually, monetarily, didactically…”
She went on, but I couldn’t stop thinking of pure love.
When I left, Pamela kissed me on the cheek before handing me my coat from the rack. The whole sequence felt very I Love Lucy, but I felt pointing this out would be redundant.
I returned the next day to find a camera set up in the living room. Pamela had cut her hair like Edie Sedgwick. She stood contrapposto, flicking ash from a cigarette. I had never seen her smoke before.
“I need you to agree to this on video.” She waved a hand, smoke trailing the gesture. “Formality, you know. Red tape.”
Pamela gave me a clipboard. “I want you to know that I’m very good at what I do.” Her eyes were wide and heart-breakingly blue. I noticed she’d pinched her bottom lashes into neat rows of triangles, their pointed tips casting small, web-like shadows beneath her waterline. “You’ll never be in any pain.”
Before I could say anything else, she was rolling.
I read from the clipboard: I understand the risk in this procedure. I understand I am the first human trial. I understand that, once the alterations have been made, they cannot be undone.
I read every bullet-point, a list of twenty-six. Her sentences were succinct. They gave the impression of due diligence, though I came away from them knowing little more than I had before.
Her bedroom was dimly lit. There was a film playing on an old CRT. She asked me to watch. A bridge collapsed with several cars on it. An octopus gave birth. A brunette cried into the camera, rubbing her lipsticked mouth until her jaw looked blotchy and diseased. A needle pricked my wrist. At first, it only felt warm. Then, my whole arm felt full, like a bladder. By the time Pamela had it wrapped and bandaged, it didn’t feel like anything.
“You can wash your hands, but don’t get your arm wet,” she instructed. “And please, leave the gauze on. I don’t want it to get infected.”
In class, I stared at the pliable beige of my cast. Pamela was right; it didn’t hurt—not even as a bump began to sprout on my forearm. It was less like a goose-egg, more like a finger. I toyed with it, thinking of her.
Each day, I went to Pamela’s house for a new procedure. Soon enough, her casts covered my torso and both my arms. Some areas pulsed hotly. Others itched. Sometimes, my limbs would make a soft gurgling sound, as if a faucet were draining.
She saved my legs for last. It made it hard to walk to class. Pamela, angel that she was, offered to care for me in any way she could. I could sleep in her bed, she said, if I wasn’t up to walking home.
I assumed this meant we’d be sleeping together, but it didn’t. Pamela retired to the living room, shutting the door behind her. The gash of light spilling over the floorboards never dimmed, so I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping.
In my privacy, I took in the room: the nightstand, the laminate dresser, the curtained window. I fell asleep imagining I was in her body. Her eyes, my eyes, one and the same.
I slept often. The curtains were thick enough to block the sunlight, making it hard to parse night from day. I didn’t bother going home; I didn’t bother going to class. Instead, I watched videos as Pamela finished her work. Train wrecks. Tennis matches. Silent films. Home videos of a Korean child with a chronic limp. While I slept, Pamela fried rice and arranged platters of sliced fruit. She helped me to the bathroom when I needed it. The mirror was covered by a bedsheet.
We left home early on the day of final crit. Pamela had rented a platform truck from school—the kind I had used back when I still went to my sculpture classes. “You don’t have to walk across campus,” she said, lifting me onto the cart. I nodded drowsily. Outside, the air was a shock of humidity, half-lit in dawn or gloaming.
We were the first to arrive by hours. Pamela had set up a little stage. Gently, she unwrapped my bandages as voices began to fill the room. Then, when the time was right, she pulled the curtains back.
At first, the sunlight flooding the studio was blinding. I was slow to make out the faces in the room: Professor Hawke, the impressionist, Dr. Donovan, the post-colonial metalworker, and a sea of former classmates. Their mouths hung open; their eyes widened or darted away. A few of them were screaming.
But Pamela, Pamela didn’t notice them. She looked at me, her eyes so deep with tenderness and pride, they seem like a world within themselves.
Over her shoulder, I noticed the exhibit card:
Biological mixed media, 2019.
My name. She had used my name. I closed my eyes. I’d never felt so loved.
About the Author
Elise is a writer, freelance book publicist, and exhausted retail worker based in Portland, Oregon. Their fiction and poetry has appeared in several publications, including UCLA’s Westwind, Nymeria Publishing’s Descendants of Medusa Anthology, and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Pwatem Journal. You can find Elise on Instagram @e.sages.
About the Narrator
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, actor and robot girlfriend. Kitty is an alumnus of Superstars Writing Seminar , a member of the Apex Writers Group, and the Horror Writer’s Association. Several large cats allow her to live with them in Marietta GA, She enjoys tending the extensive gardens, where she hides the bodies. For a list of her publications, acting credits or to engage her services on your next project go to kittysarkozy.com.