The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately defeat him.
— Russell Baker
Nobody writes love songs anymore. Nor are great contemporary love stories the subject of films. Romantic passion seems to have lost its appeal in American life, or at least in its cultural representations. Except of course in such anomalies as The Shape of Water, an impossible fable in which love between a mute woman and a hybrid aquatic being transcends all obstacles. But then again, that was set back in the twentieth century, and the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro believes in magical possibilities.
As love in our time has become more illusive and transient, more difficult to navigate and sustain, it has been replaced by consumer culture’s promises of instant gratification, substituting our cravings for and attachment to things as a form of validation. So it is not surprising that our acquisitional quests and desires coupled with the pursuit of money and power should become a dominant cultural narrative that has infiltrated every aspect of life.
Thus it was intensely satisfying to encounter the work of Marsian DeLellis, an artist who, like the lovers in del Toros’ tale, defies categorization. Having recently changed his pronoun from he to they, it is utterly fitting that they should create Object of Her Affection, a fantastical performance work that explores love and its obstacles, including the timeless theme of unrequited love, only with an ironic twist that provides a contemporary subtext for those paying attention.
For a start all the characters are lovingly handmade dolls, puppets created and animated by DeLellis into compellingly “real” people. The narrator of this story, and its comic/tragic “heroine” is Andrea who, like the mute Sally Hawkins character Elisa, is a lonely girl longing for love, with an affliction (or in this case more like a predilection) that isolates her. The difference is that the relationships Andrea pursues and obsesses over are not with living beings. Instead she falls in love with inanimate objects — buildings, monuments and bridges. This is not the fanciful product of DeLellis’s imagination, but a recognized condition diagnosed as Objectum Sexuality (OS) or objectophilia, a term coined by Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer who married the Berlin Wall. The most famous objectophile is Erika (LaBrie )Eiffel who “married” the Eiffel Tower in 2007 and claims her relationship is “as real as that between any two consenting adults.” Andrea, like her role models, develops strong emotional fixations for each successive “love object”, even believing that her feelings are reciprocated by the objects of her desire, only to find the loved ones to be as fickle, as unreliable, even deceitful as humans. They may tire of you, and can even die on you! But what can you expect when you project human characteristics onto an object. They may toss you out, the way we so easily dispose of perfectly good things for the latest model (as if the upgrade was better, which it usually isn’t!). Love, she will tell us, is dangerous. People disappoint.
But let us return to Andrea’s life story told mostly in retrospect like a long chronological flashback. We first encounter her as a lumpen figure on the ground, a woman dying alone on the sidewalk, homeless and rejected. The orphaned child who just wanted to be loved comes to a sorrowful demise. How many forlorn figures such as hers do we pass unacknowledged on some slab of pavement?
Cut to scene two. Little orphaned Andrea is living with her grandparents in their house designed and constructed by DeLellis. Grandma works at a doll hospital for dolls beyond repair. And the house is filled with them, ragdolls of all sizes, not unlike Andrea. De Lellis who provides both her voice and her movement is a charismatic performer yet at the same time they so completely inhabit(s) her that they almost disappear(s). De Lellis brings her to life with such affection that we can empathize with this odd child with her blanket, her one safe and comforting friend.
At first there is nothing unusual about a toddler clinging to a security blanket. But rather than outgrowing the attachment Andrea names this twenty-four inch square of fabric Blankey, declares her love and gives him a personal history. Like her, he is a “hand-me-down.” She is devoted to him and he goes everywhere with her. By the time she reaches kindergarten, Blankey has aged into a stained and frayed worn-out rag whom Grandma declares to be a disgusting embarrassment and burns it in the furnace. Andrea mourns but accepts his death.
DeLellis injects an infectious sense of humor into Andrea’s monolog as she journeys toward adolescence. She is endearing in her youthful wide-eyed naivety, and her curiosity leads her to Grandpa’s off-limits garage where he had practiced his own passion for taxidermy. Grandpa has long since passed on when he fell into a cement mixer. There she meets her newest infatuation – a Smith & Wesson rifle she calls Marlin. He is dangerous and edgy and the perfect symbol for an erotically charged teenage crush. But the relationship with Marlin doesn’t last, for he is confiscated and banished by Grandma as unsuitable, just as she would have prevented Andrea from dating a young “bad boy.”
In high school Andrea writes a report on the Berlin Wall whom she sees as “smooth and strong,” but also “out of place and misunderstood like me. He didn’t ask to be born.” She admires his graffiti. But when he gets torn down, she watches in front of the TV crying as he is bulldozed and mutilated. The next day she decides to become an architect.
Now a young adult Andrea strolls the streets of New York to discover an orgy of buildings for her to fall in love with. First is the one hundred and two story Empire State Building. As grand a phallic symbol as any! Then comes Lady Liberty Ellis. Andrea is utterly enchanted. She climbs to the top and sits inside her head. But it is not to be. It seems Libby is obsessed with her appearance and the state of her skin, and her need for reassurance is draining. Plus Andrea sees her dead mother’s face in Libby’s! And besides, she can’t take her home.
Next come the glass and steel Twin Towers, Emery and Yamasaki. A glorious ménage a trois! She rides their elevators up and down in ecstasy. But they leave her a widow at twenty-six when they come tumbling down on 9/11. So it is back to Grandma. She sees a documentary on San Francisco, comes out as a lesbian, changes into dumpy gender-neutral clothes, and proposes to the Golden Gate Bridge. She plans a wedding with Strauss her beautiful orange beloved (named for her creator and designer Joseph Strauss), and shares the sadness of people jumping off her. Enter Marcy Chrysler-Hoover, a flashy self-promoting online OS celebrity who pretends to befriend Andrea, but instead steals Strauss away from her. Andrea is not willing to share or play second fiddle. Straddling Strauss’s girders they battle it out. Her wedding plans shattered, a heartbroken, defeated Andrea goes back to Grandma and Jersey City.
It is here that she meets Roy, her final love, one less grand and unattainable. He is a crumbling four-story building, an old rooming house in a changing neighborhood. She moves in, settles down and cares for him, (though she still pines for her bridge.) But the forces of “progress” prevail. Her aged lover will not survive gentrification. The building has been condemned and she is served an eviction notice. Andrea spends their last night on the rooftop. Despite her efforts to save Roy, his death is imminent, as is hers. Surrounded by police and sirens, she plunges to the ground. Whether by accident or intent, is left open to speculation.
Much of the power of this work is in the way DeLellis has masterfully created a world and invited us into it. The unconventional lives and obsessions of the characters that populate the artist’s performance works echo De Lellis’s own artfully projected persona and unique perspective. As the designer of this environment, they also play(s) all the parts with dexterity. In giving voice to Andrea’s struggles, DeLellis illuminates the humor and pathos of her predicament without mockery or sentimentality, but not without irony. Instead of presenting this performance on a theatrical stage, De Lellis brilliantly chose to stage Object of Her Affection in a modest-sized room with two rows of chairs for the audience. The action is up close and personal, and this physical proximity creates an unavoidable intimacy with Andrea and the other puppets. At the same time the fact that Andrea is a fabric “puppet” – a doll really –reinforces her “otherness” and ironically makes her easier to embrace and identify with than if she was a live performer.
If you step back from the obvious oddity and even absurdity of falling in love with a building, and see it metaphorically it is really no stranger than the difficulties of modern love. After all, Andrea’s quest for something/someone unattainable is not so different from a youthful obsession with a rock star, or an affair with a married man of status and influence. It embodies the desire for what is out of reach as if by attaining it, it will confer on us its own qualities. Even when the relationship fails there is certain degree of drama, and even celebrity attached to it. And then there is the matter of sexual attraction, one of life’s great mysteries. For a person with OS the erotic passion is real, and no less intoxicating or obsessive than between two humans.
On the other hand, the search for love, for acceptance, acknowledgement and genuine affection, also comes with the pain of rejection when it is not returned with the same commitment. In the throes of new love we may project onto the other the qualities we desire. Thus Andrea’s delusions are really not any different or less “real.” In a world where we have come to understand and begin to accept all the variants in human sexuality and gender identification, Andrea becomes less of a peculiar deviant, and more of one amongst many outside the defined median norm. Granted Andrea’s situation makes the possibility of reciprocal intimacy more challenging, but that does not make her desire less intense or her sense of isolation, longing and loss less agonizing. But then again, in the search for love in this world, we are all at one time or another “outsiders”.
On reflection, the character of Andrea bears similarities to Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her. A lonely, socially isolated man, Theodore seeks refuge and friendship in the digital realm, not with a flesh and blood woman, but with a new operating system named Samantha, a seductive caring voice who is attuned to his every need and desire. This computer-generated A.I provides the satisfaction and understanding he has been unable to find elsewhere and he falls deeply and madly in love with her. She is his constant companion until she outgrows his human limitations, and leaves him for the more stimulating company of her own kind — more advanced operating systems, or OSs. This very twenty-first century relationship with a techno proxy is not so different from the other form of OS (Objectum Sexuality) in which an intense emotional attachment to an inanimate object is involved. Of course some might argue that Samantha is not an inanimate object but an intelligent life form without the hindrance of a body.
Unlike both The Shape of Water and Her, Object of Her Affection does not have a happy resolution. De Lellis’s exploration of otherness and alienation is a darker vision reflective of our dark times. Consider how our fixation with the latest techno-objects replaces authentic human connection. So much easier to be entertained by Alexa! Or the ways in which high-priced possessions and profit margins are valued more than people. As for romance, well it is just too much work with no guarantee for a return on the investment. Hence the success of the custom-made bot doll.
Cover Photo: Kelly Stuart
Marsian De Lellis, Object of Her Affection
Los Angeles Exchange Festival @ Automata
504 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, CA
September 27 – October 13, 2018