Iris is glossy black. Belying her name, there is no hint of rainbow on her bronze belly, even in reflection. Golden wings have been lopped from her scapulae; no head sits on her shoulders, and an arm has been removed. Iris is all belly and breast, thigh and fold, with legs splayed shamelessly. She is declaratively woman, audaciously female.
And I want to be her.
I first saw her in Paris. My friend Joel and I were the epitome of American students abroad: young and over prepared and trying so desperately--despite our penchant for flipflops and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches--not to seem too American. I spent days in an overstimulated daze, gluttonously devouring art and Nutella crepes. I thought, "Life should be full of beautiful, delicious things."
I remember walking back to the hostel the first night, down Boulevard de Clichy. Joel kept a steady pace, turning his chest protectively toward my shoulder when waves of bodies washed past. I drifted along with a desire to inhale the photos of naked women, thighs spread, and the bouncers forcing eye contact, courting me in English: "Ladies go in free tonight." I remember neon branding the wet sky, the bodiless men whose eyes snatched at mine, Joel grabbing at my forearm as if his damp palm against my skin might equal protection. I was offended and enchanted and sure that I was at the center of life on a precipice.
Standing in the Musee Rodin, Rodin's one-time home, were bodies in various delightful contortions and dimensions. There were sculptures I knew like Le Penseur and Le Baiser, but more that I'd never seen. Those still, stone bodies seemed to want something very badly.
Iris fell somewhere in the succession of the falling and writhing and impossibly intertwining bodies. "Iris Messenger of the Gods," her placard read. She was bronze black, with a compact body slightly smaller than my own. With no head and no right arm to impede her movement, Iris balanced on a pedestal--her legs spread wide, her crotch at eye level. Her left arm and leg stretched together into the open air like a single limb, like a dancer in mid-leap, moments from a gesture of kinetic perfection. Her right leg bent below her, as if to spring her toward the ceiling. And in an impossible feat of grace, she balanced perfectly on the tips of her toes. There was a roughness to the sculpture, unfinished areas that suggested not voluptuous smoothness, but aggressive vitality. One nipple was distinct, while the other blurred into the hand-molded curve of her breast. It was as if Rodin had begun a sculpture of painstaking detail, but before completion she'd taken matters into her own hands and contorted herself into a final form of impossibility.
I remember staring quietly, as if my gaze could ingest that unfinished form. I could stretch an arm and a leg, balance on only a toe and become a figure worthy of sculpture--or become sculpture. I would forsake my head to inhabit that blackness.
I spent the next three years without Iris. I finished school, moved to Florida, and moved again to Washington, D.C. I rode the Metro everywhere, thrilled by a new life in a new city. I found myself staring hungrily at everyone around me. I took notes: A man with knob knees sits across from me. The hairs on his head are wisps of smoke; his skin is withered, hanging from his bones like wet gauze. A woman stands in the isle. Inked on the plump dark flesh just below her earlobe are the words RIP Greg. An Asian woman with a floppy belly and orange, crimpy hair is whispering to her cornrow-ed boyfriend. Both are wearing overalls.
I sat cross-legged in my orange vinyl seat, headphones in, journal open, staring shamelessly.
I was 23 when I became a voyeur--not voyeur in the I-watched-my-neighbors-undress sense of the word, but more in the everything-is-oddly-arresting-and fascinating-so-I-stare-shamelessly sense. And nothing was exempt from my staring. I thought I was looking for something beautiful. I thought I could find it in the wilt of the rain-flooded daffodils outside of my house, or the people I passed on the sidewalks.
My mother taught me that it was impolite to stare, but upon questioning such conventional wisdom, I found no reason in it. I rationalized that I would not mind were someone to examine me similarly. I convinced myself that I would meet that gaze with my own. I found a deep pleasure in the act of looking, in the thrill that came with the risk of eye contact. Staring was my addiction, and perhaps if I'd stopped long enough to consider it, I'd realize it was Iris I was seeking.
One night, I found myself on a concrete bench, waiting for the next train. I'd been writing in my journal and missed my stop. It was late, but the platform was well lit and the air thick with the residue of September. The next train was fifteen minutes away--it'd be an hour before I was home. There, I had friends and a bottle of wine, but not the solitude of a fluorescent light in a black night. I inspected my reflection in the Plexiglas of the phone booth in front of me.
In my high school Biology class, I was taught, like every publicly educated child, that the eye works like a camera. Though I recognize the effective comparison, I hate how that metaphor robs the organ of the beauty of its own language. Though I could not feel it, as I survey the vacant platform, I imagined my iris contracting, permitting just the right amount of light to enter my pupil. The image in front of me--my pale hair and pink cheeks--was being focused by my lens and cornea, then inverted and projected onto my retina. Layers upon layers of photoreceptive cells miraculously convert the likeness of my narrow blue eyes into an electric signal that my brain understands. But more specifically, it is the fovea, the tiny dent in the center of the retina, that hosts this upside down image.
In the average retina, there are some 120 million rods, their population dwarfing a measly seven million cones. But in the fovea, everything, even the dense web of blood vessels, is redirected so the cones have free reign to absorb and process color, shape, and line. The rest of the retina processes all that is peripheral, night vision, and motion detection, but it is the fovea that does the real work of seeing. And my foveae are weak, easily lured into submission by a Kandinsky red, or the paper curve cut of Matisse's knife.
Justin and I slept in a bed that stretched out below my naked window. Across the narrow alley was a house with two windows in view of my own. Both windows framed air conditioning units and ceramic animal sculptures, so I could not see in. Access to the goings on of my bedroom, however, was unrestrained. In the mornings, standing by my dresser, I felt framed by my wide window. In the evenings, with my lamp on, I was ever aware of existing inside a movie screen.
"Why do you care what the owners of a stone menagerie think of you?" Justin asked as we walked past one day, observing cherubs and sheep and other cement creatures, most of whom were cracked and overgrown with vines.
'Good point," I laughed, as if this voided any judgments they could place on me. But I couldn't help wondering how I would react were my neighbors to step out of the front door in that moment, if I were forced to confront them outside of the safety of my room.
My roommate's mother, a talented seamstress, offered to make us all curtains. I promised Erin I would call her mom with dimensions of my windows. But I never managed to find time. It seemed like a lot of work to measure the frame, have curtains made and sent, buy rods and rings and wall mounts. Surely after two months in my new home, the neighbors had already seen me sleep and dress and check my e-mail and sink my teeth into my boyfriend's shoulder. Ultimately, curtains were frivolous, weren't they?
I was wandering through the Hirshhorn Museum of contemporary art when I ran into her again. I turned the corner and there she sat, the only sculpture in the room, as if she had been there waiting for me, as if she'd always been there, though I knew she had not. I went to the Hirshhorn often, whenever I wanted to draw or walk silently, or ride my bike somewhere and simply look at something.
At first, when I saw her, I wasn't sure what to do. She was the same, still graceful, still lovely. I felt at once intimately connected and uncomfortably distant. I walked into the other room, where Justin and I had spent hours sitting on the black leather couches. I sat down and looked out the window at the patches of dismal gray grass on the National Mall. I felt compelled to tell someone I'd found her, but who would I tell? I went back to her. I stood back several feet and stared at her, ingesting each part of her incomplete form individually: sloping shoulders; domed breasts; one arm; two feet; dimpled abdomen; open thighs.
People walked in front of and behind me, wandered around the room, and I felt that I should stop looking, that my gaze might appear too strong. But I did not. I walked up closer, examined her oversized toes, look at her back, which faced the wall. It seemed that I should not look at anyone like this, not in public, not so closely and for so long, not someone so blatantly scandalous. But I stayed and fed the voracious appetite of my foveae.
After I found her, I wanted to know all about her. Her first appearance is in The Iliad. Iris is uniquely skilled as a messenger because of her ability to imitate the form of mortals. Homer quotes Zeus imparting a message to Iris, after which he often explains that Iris "harkened and obeyed." She is loyal and compliant, to Zeus above all others. As only a messenger, she is not allowed to comfort those upon whom she bestows bad news. After the burning of Troy, her services are inexplicably abandoned for those of Hermes in The Odyssey.
Like Homer, Auguste Rodin had in mind a very specific occupation for his Iris. By imparting Iris with an imposing sexuality, Rodin rethought the responsibility of the messenger. She was to sit above a sculpture of his friend Victor Hugo in a national monument to Hugo, commissioned by the French government. There she would serve as his muse, a liaison between Hugo and the divine, a link between sexuality and creativity. In her first conception, Iris had a head and wings, and was to rest on a cloud as divine messenger. But before the monument was completed and installed, interest and financial support waned. However, Rodin salvaged Iris, reducing her to what he believed were her essential parts. She abandoned the role of voiceless observer and was reborn as the muse, the exhibit itself. Though she never realized her intended potential, she existed as an emblem of obscenity for the next fifty years, her sexuality more potent than even her creator imagined.
"Let me look at you," he said. The lights were out in my room, but lamplight from the alley flooded into my window. I'd been kneeling on the bed, reaching over to adjust the window screen. I froze in that position for a moment before balancing myself on the bed. I stayed still, knees bent below me, suddenly aware of wearing only panties and a bra--my stomach, thighs, chest, hips, all showing.
"Turn a little," he said, nudging my hips. I turned, unsure where to look, unable to make eye contact, grateful for the low light. No one had ever just asked to look at me. At first, my body seemed entirely separate from me, as if it was this thing I hauled around, like a backpack, and then I thought of how I'd always wanted someone to look at me, to just look and not speak and not judge, or to judge just a little, but favorably. More than that, what I'd really wanted, always wanted for as long as I could remember, was for someone to find me beautiful--not pretty or interesting or gorgeous even--but completely aesthetic. Beautiful.
This is how, for a moment, I became Iris. For a moment, I loved being looked at, but I could not sustain it. I couldn't have imagined the horror and delight of looking at someone and seeing, without him saying, that he liked looking at me, that he could continue looking, indefinitely. "You're embarrassed," he teased. I said nothing in response. Though I could feel red blotches blooming across my chest. He grabbed me, and I laughed loudly and got under the duvet.
We are not allowed to like the way we look. We are encouraged to be confident, comfortable with our appearance, but not proud, not vain. We are not supposed to judge others by their appearance, but are implicitly expected to judge ourselves, to name and number our flaws, to be able to answer when asked, what parts of our bodies we would change, were we granted access to plastic surgery or three magic wishes.
Admitting to myself that perhaps I am looking at others because I want to be looked at is difficult. But to deny it would be false. Some nave hope must lie in the belief that if I am looking for the beautiful parts in other people, someone is looking for them in me.
Freud said that voyeurism created tension through dichotomy. The voyeur finds pleasure in both the object itself and in self-identification with the object. The delight of looking comes both in the sheer beauty of Iris, and the pleasure in finding parts of myself in her.
It is within this tension that Rodin lived, that anyone who creates must live. Isn't all art, at least in part, the product of vanity? We observe our world, admiring form or movement, but isn't it our own vanity that inspires interpretation and recreation: choosing a color, drawing a line, sculpting a form, wording a sentence, and piecing a story. In this, we exhibit ourselves for the gawking eyes of the world.
Iris is a woman who can change her form at will, the rebellious sister of the ugly and vindictive Harpies. Though it is reported that she was beautiful, named for the rainbow and endowed with golden wings, I imagine Iris differently. My Iris eats overripe blueberries by the mouthful and though she is aware of the power in the curve of her hips, she thinks little of it. She picks indigo flowers from graves and escorts women's souls to the underworld. She told Zeus that even Hermes could do her job, then got the hell out of Greece.
Justin and I ride our bikes to the Mall and lock them up beside the sculpture garden. We ride the narrow escalators to the third floor of the perfectly circular building, as we have countless times. We enter the gallery voicelessly. I know where she is, tucked just inside a doorframe, hiding in the corner. I lead him to her.
Standing before her, Justin exhales. "She's hot," he says softly. We have come here because I want to see her again. I nod and step forward to examine Iris's disproportionately large feet. They are exquisitely arched and toed, and possess a quiet grace that is nearly swallowed by her labia. One leg is bent below her, the other stretched to the side. She sits on a pedestal so her torso is level with my eye. I outline the slope of her shoulder in the air with my fingertip.
"Yeah," he says--always one to appreciate the curve of a good line--but he looks away. "I cannot stop staring at it." His eyes are trained on the space between her thighs. I smile. It is good to see her again.