I Heart You – Artforum International
I SIT IN THE COFFEE HOUSE AREA of The Market, a giant food court on the ground floor of the building where Twitter Headquarters lives, eating two types of hot bar curry from a paper box that reads “DISCOVERY. COMMUNITY. REAL FOOD.” I’m also sipping a rather caustic canned pinot gris, which I poured into the thermal bottle I carried my tea to work in. They have a nice wine bar in The Market where I could get something much better, in a stemmed glass, but that would destroy the feral essence of the moment, the way I’m wolfing down my food with a compostable plastic fork. Valentine’s Day—my birthday—is impending, and I need to be vigilant against girly impulses. Seasonal displays are everywhere—even beside The Market’s checkout line. All the cheesy reds and pinks, hearts, chocolates, flowers point directly at me. It’s more than that—they reach out and poke me with perfumed, manicured fingers until I’m bruised.
When I was a child I loved being a “Valentine’s baby.” They even made special birthday cards that read Happy Valentine’s Day Birthday. It wasn’t until later in life the full horror hit me of sharing such schmaltz with billions of romance-hungry women. One year, Kevin didn’t include flowers among his presents. Even though I was happily married, this tragic lack of roses and baby’s breath meant I was all alone and nobody loved me. Every woman in the world was receiving flowers—on my day—except me. I knew this was a ridiculous First World reaction and I hated myself for it, but I burst out crying anyway.
My attraction to hearts is the worst. Stick a heart on it and girls will buy it. Pajamas, handbags, undies, jewelry, sweatshirts, catch-all dishes, candy. Stick a heart on it and boys will buy it for girls. Hearts are the tackiest symbol of Western capitalism.
Where did this heart symbol come from? All the information I have is gleaned from the internet, so believe at your own risk. I read that the earliest heart graphic appeared in a Paleolithic cave painting of a mammoth, in the form of a reddish smudge on the mammoth’s shoulder. Then we arrive in ancient Greece, where the first “hearts” decorate pottery, usually wine jugs. But some historians propose that those hearts are actually stylized leaves, related to Dionysus, the god of wine. The heart supposedly then appeared as a symbol of human love in the 1250s, in an illustration from Thibaut’s illuminated manuscript Roman de la Poire (Romance of the Pear). Medieval hearts were pinecone-shaped, and held upside down, point facing upward.
I’m reminded of the pinecone necklace Jaycee Dugard—the woman who in 1991 was kidnapped at age eleven and held as a sex slave for eighteen years—wears around her neck. A pinecone is the last normal life object Dugard touched before she was zapped with a stun gun and loaded into a car. It’s like she caressed the heart of natural order before being swept away to hell. After her release, Dugard started a foundation to help other traumatized children. On its website the foundation raises money by selling silver pinecone necklaces. I retrieved mine from a box of old jewelry on my dresser and I wear it as I write this article. It does kind of look like a heart, more like an anatomical heart—like a Frida Kahlo ripped-out heart—than a Pop Art Andy Warhol or fluttering Marcel Duchamp or Banksy or (god forbid) Jim Dine heart.
In the ’80s I made a yearly valentine. I freelanced as a board artist at slide production houses, where I made maps and bar charts, and I pasted speaker support text on animation cells. People who had art degrees were dying in this job, but I had little training (I took one class in grad school called “Cut and Paste”) or talent, so it was perfect for me. I’d write a poem for the inside and typeset it at work. The cover was usually based on found art I Photostatted at work. I’d make one hundred copies on white cardstock at an instaprint place, which I’d then fold in quarters and crease neatly with a burnisher stolen from work. I’d use a fine-tipped marker to add some red to the covers. I’d insert the valentines in envelopes, seal them with metallic heart stickers, and distributed them to everybody I knew. The only time I drew the cover image was when it was a heart with a bull’s eye. With a straight edge, circle template, and Rapidograph, even I could draw a heart. It is the simplest of forms. To make a heart-shaped birthday cake, you don’t need a mold. A round cake and a square cake will do. You cut the round cake in half, you turn the square cake so it’s a diamond, slather the top two sides of the diamond with frosting, and attach the round halves. The heart’s utter simplicity says love isn’t dangerous or complicated; love is easy-peasy.
Today’s scalloped-topped heart didn’t become a thing until the fourteenth century. It resembles a reptile heart more closely than a human heart. According to the internet, that’s because Rome prohibited the dissection of human cadavers. The physician Galen (129-c.–210 AD) examined animal cadavers instead, and it was he who suggested the heart looks like an ivy leaf, similar to those adorning Greek pottery. In the early sixteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci drew perhaps the first anatomically correct human heart, but his drawings were kept hidden until the eighteenth century, for such knowledge could only have been attained through illegal means.
From leaf to pinecone to lizard heart, the symbols keep morphing and linking and twisting. Because the universe is alive with resonance for a woman born on Valentine’s Day, anything can connect to anything else. I find this history to be rich, but none of it erases the present heart symbol’s—my symbol’s—vapidity. Fast-forward to 1995, when the heart symbol became the first emoji. It was used on a pager, and the producer of that pager made a killing. Earlier this month I stayed up until four in the morning looking at heart necklaces on Etsy, trying to find someone doing something interesting with the form. I have a soft spot for the Victorian lockets, 10-karat gold etched with forget-me-nots and studded with seed pearls and teeny rounds of turquoise or ruby. But the contemporary stuff was an embarrassment of crap. Etsy is so vast, I thought that maybe the problem was the keywords I’d entered in the search bar, so I’d switch them up—Art Deco hearts, modern hearts, puffy hearts, ruby hearts—or I’d choose to look at pieces that cost over $100, only to find the same old shit. I felt futile as a non-protagonist searching the Oasis for Halliday’s hidden keys in Ready Player One.
When I scrolled through “heart cages,” I finally found “Sterling Silver Heart Cage Necklace,” which is comprised of a series of intersecting silver rods or bars that form an open, rigid 3-D heart. If a heart could build a prison, this is what it would look like. The cage pendant reminds me of the slanted lines in facial recognition software, and reminds me of Zach Blas’s series “Face Cages,” 2013-16, about which I have written before. According to Blas, the diagrams created by facial recognitions software, “are a kind of abstraction gone bad, a visualization of the reduction of the human to a standardized, ideological diagram.” For “Face Cages,” Blas fabricated metal masks from the biometric diagrams of four queer artists’ faces. Even though the biometric measurements are supposed to be perfect, the masks don’t fit and they’re quite painful. Blas videoed the artists wearing them as an endurance piece. The Etsy heart cage speaks to how these feminine symbols entice and contort, how the romance of femininity fits like a bad suit. Over lunch recently I complained about all of this to a friend, and she agreed: Valentine’s Day is sappy and offensive. Then she added, “But the thing is, I love chocolate.” And I love this heart cage pendant. I selected a twenty-inch chain and clicked BUY NOW.
— Dodie Bellamy