Domination Meets Inspiration in a Consuming Affair Between Artists

EXHIBIT, by R.O. Kwon

“Everything was beautiful at the ballet,” goes the famous song from “A Chorus Line,” but of course backstage there are blisters, anorexia and worse, like the feathers popping out of Natalie Portman’s back in “Black Swan.”

Hypnotic and sometimes perplexing, R.O. Kwon’s second novel, “Exhibit,” literalizes the twinning of pain and art with a ballerina character who is an actual sadomasochist.

Kwon’s protagonist, Jin, is a photographer who becomes interested in portraiture after drifting away from God. “People, not relics, I thought, at which point the images began rioting to life.” At a party thrown by a guy named Irving in the rarefied quarter of Marin County, Calif., she encounters the ballerina, Lidija: a principal, known for her floating jump, who bypassed the slog of the corps. She’s tattooed and unfazed by an injured leg.

“It was a lifelong allure, the gloss of a bold, strong girl,”Jin thinks.

Inconveniently, she has come to the party with her husband, Philip, a film producer, whom she met at a college called Edwards that readers of Kwon’s widely heralded and more plot-packed first novel, “The Incendiaries,” will recognize. Indeed one of Jin’s photography projects — in a sort of “Black Swan”-like authorial doubling — is to reimagine an alternate ending for that book’s protagonist, Phoebe, who rather than rejecting religion was sucked into a cult. Jin swaps out pictures of Phoebe for historical images before showing her piece publicly so as not to offend one of their mutual acquaintances.

Part of Lidija’s appeal is that she argues for aesthetic integrity over tact or propriety. Their sex, described discreetly, is a kind of performance art. The two women rendezvous in Irving’s turret, both menstruating. The ballerina smears blood on her own hip as Jin, an old burn wounded and then soothed, snaps away. “You’re like a wild thing at a kill,” Lidija tells her. “Stained in triumph.”

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