Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Mapping Misogyny: Monstrous Females of the Fin-de-Siècle

This post is inspired in part by Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in fin-de-siècle Culture. In this book Dijkstra approaches his topic as a feminist thinker, in order to interrogate 19th century art's misogynistic fascination with, fixation on and fetishistic presentation of “feminine evil”. I found Dijkstra's historical method of drawing on scientific and pseudo-scientific papers from the period (along with works of sociology and philosophy, magazines, lifestyle manuals and journals) productive and convincing.

It becomes apparent that the fin-de-siècle culture was caught between a progressive desire for knowledge and scientific advancement, and retrogressive and oppressive theories of race, class and gender relations. Dijkstra's exhaustive documentary research details, for example, the ways in which scientific writers used the technique of cranial measurement, supported by Darwinian theories of evolution, to justify the dominant racist and and sexist thinking of the period as “objective truth”. It was argued that as women's skulls are (apparently) generally smaller than men's, their brains must also be smaller, proving “scientifically” their intellectual inferiority. By documenting such shameful theories, Dijkstra is able to paint a picture of the world-view of the fin-de-siècle's cultural elite, and use this as a lens through which to view the art that society produced.

For example, in the chapter “The Collapsing Woman, Solitary Vice and Restful Detumescence”, Dijkstra connects the rise of a trend of paintings featuring myriad figurations of sleeping, dozing and recumbently swooning women with a new scientific study that warned of an epidemic of female masturbation. It was feared that young women and girls were all secretly masturbating whenever alone, and that this was a danger to their health, sapping their energies and leaving them pale and wan! While the linkage may appear far-fetched today, when it is less widely assumed that masturbation is damaging, I found Dijkstra's juxtaposition of paintings of pale, exhausted, collapsing women with the contemporary “scientific evidence” of dangerous self-pleasuring/self-harming compelling. For a feminist critic it is important not to take the presentation of gender and sexuality at face value, as “just the way it is”, but to interrogate assumptions and presentations of normalised behaviour as constructions of patriarchal regulation.

Dijkstra's study shows how the fin-de-siècle's treatment of women as symbols of fear and fascination reveals an inability to view women as equals, instead casting them as codified objects. Art has often taken inspiration from real life, from discoveries and inventions as well as societal problems; therefore it seems plausible that male artists who were invested in the upholding of patriarchal supremacy would be fascinated by “scientific” studies that denounced women as slaves of nature, as low and bestial creatures of excessive sexuality.

I found Dijkstra's militant thesis intriguing: the connection of the seemingly disparate realms of the scientific, the social and political with the artistic sheds light on the way oppression can function in a guise that doesn't seem to be negative but rather beautiful and erotic. How many women have prints on their walls such as Albert Moore's The Dreamers (1882) or Frederic Lord Leighton's Flaming June (1895), and think them harmless depictions of innocent female beauty in slumber? Although aesthetically they are indeed beautiful figures, they promote a type of femininity that is passive and available and valuable only as spectacle. I found I was looking at many famous and seemingly politically neutral paintings with new eyes: the system of production which propagated a desired type of feminine powerlessness became evident in what I had previously thought of as harmless.

In Dijkstra's reading, nothing in such artworks was treated as accidental or innocent, but instead related to a system of male dominance over women: the notion of feminine evil was something constructed (not reported) by sexist cultural production. Mythical female character types were among the most favoured subjects in painting of this period, the fear and desire of unknown female sexuality being personified by such “bad” women such as Medusa, Lamia, Pandora, Salome and Judith: vampiric females and femmes-fatales whose sexuality threatened to devour, consume and break apart the strongholds of male solidity and righteousness. These figures of excessive sexual threat were both attractive and repulsive to the gentle yet hypocritical bourgeois sensibilities of the time: they allowed patriarchal society to disavow its own base desires by placing the responsibility for moral degeneracy with evil temptresses. These were depictions of women that could be desired and then destroyed with a clear conscience.

Looking at these mythic and religious characters, the misogyny of the ancient world is made abundantly clear. Women are presented here as illogical, shallow creatures, full of rampant sexual jealousy and likely to act violently if their menfolk show an interest in other women. Those that are not actively violent are dangerous by virtue of their very femininity and beauty, which confuses and overwhelms men, inducing a dangerous loss of self.

The point of thinking about characters such as Medusa, Lamia, Pandora, Salome and Judith is that together they form a catalogue of dangerous female stereotypes. Each “type” contains some positive element: for example, some characters are mothers and/or protectors and creators, but because this is a role possessing power and threatening the supremacy of men, the positive must be transformed through excess into a negative: the nurturing creator becomes the deadly destroyer, the protective mother an overwhelming, all-consuming figure. Likewise, beautiful or sexually attractive characters are punished for tempting the male, who appears to be without individual willpower, letting himself be seduced or (as in Poseidon and Medusa) “provoked” into rape: always it is the woman who is blamed and punished.

The sexism of fin-de-siècle art is rooted in the ancient misogyny embodied by these mythic figures. I will now examine the ways such figures were taken up by artists of the 19th century, to see how they were inspired by the dangerous women of ancient Greek and Christian mythology. Having catalogued the mythic figures of dangerous women, I can now extract two fundamental stereotypes: The vampire, who drains men metaphysically by consuming their sexually/vitality, and the seducer/destroyer who uses her own beauty or sexuality against male power, or whose unrestrained female desire threatens the integrity of the masculine world. I'm interested in how painters of the 19th century take up these characters, how and why they use them as tropes, and how that reflects the culture the paintings were produced in.

Looking at many of these Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist paintings of dangerous, highly-eroticised women, it becomes clear that female sexuality is seen as both attractive and repulsive, feared and sought-after. Just as in Greek mythology, these figures serve as cautionary tales for the culture of the period. Patrick Bade offers another explanation of why 19th century artists choose to depict women as threatening and desirable, proposing that they were worried that women and marriage would trap them and thwart their artistic aspirations: "In the second half of the 19th century there was an extraordinary proliferation of femmes-fatales in European art and literature...This preoccupation with evil and destructive women is one of the most striking features of late 19th-century culture...A deep-rooted misogyny had been common among many artists since the beginning of the century. Some painters, among them Delacroix, Corot, Courbet, Dégas, Moreau and Munch avoided marriage, fearing that their work would suffer from female interference. The belief was widespread that women sapped creativity and that they were incapable of elevated feelings or of understanding art".

If, then, the seductress is a metaphor for the repressive institution of marriage, then how is this fear made manifest in the bodies of women? Bram Dijkstra illustrates how the very physiognomy of the women portrayed is constructed to entrap men. He makes the connection with giving the women in paintings very long hair, like ropes which he calls “clinging vines” that ensnare men to their doom: sexual intercourse/marriage. Speaking of John William Waterhouse, a prominent Pre-Raphaelite, Dijkstra describes the function of Waterhouse's long haired femme-fatale in terms that hold true for many others, including Rossetti's Pandora, Beardsley's The Climax, Klimt's Judith and the Head of Holofernes and Munch's The Vampire:

"Waterhouse depicted her as entwining her prey with the double enticements of her eyes and her hair, the latter serving as a symbolic lasso. Given the period's cliché that long hair was virtually synonymous with mental debility, poets and painters found women's tresses to be a particularly apt medium for the symbolic depiction of the clinging vine. The manner in which women's hair was fetishised in the late 19th century is a perfect example of the processes of 'cultural entrapment'" Patrick Bade continues the theme of women's hair acting as fetishistic displays in 19th century paintings that link beauty (or desire) to a compulsive fatalism, which to these painters, the femme-fatale represented, "The femme-fatale's hair was her most lethal weapon. Rossetti's passion for women's hair throughout his career was nothing short of an obsession. There are many stories of Rossetti breaking off in mid-conversation at parties, as if hypnotised, when a red-headed women entered the room, or running through the streets of London in pursuit of a fine head of hair...Rossetti's morbid fixation must have been still further heightened by the famous incident when he buried the first drafts of all his early poetry in Lizzie Siddal's coffin, wrapped in her lovely copper-coloured hair".

Looking at paintings of this period, I've also come across the persistent pairing of snakes with women (see Franz Von Stuck's Sensuality).The snake has connotations with the the garden of Eden and Eve's temptation. The snakes' serpentine form along with the flowing long locks appear to be slippery: the female bodies seem liminal. Judith is in a liquid landscape in which her hair barely covers her breast, mingling with the hair of the decapitated Holofernes. This also happens in Munch's Vampire, where the woman's red hair mimics her action of sucking his blood: she is literally devouring the man, covering his hair with her own - her image consumes his. The borrowing of Christian mythology allows a literal translation of ideas and themes to the 19th art viewer: scenes of women with snakes and women as snakes represents the untrustworthiness of women, expressing the sexist attitudes of these painters.

While I was reading Patrick Bade's book Femme Fatale, Images of Evil and Fascinating Women, I started thinking about what pleasures and attractions the femme-fatale has for feminists as an icon of powerful and/or subversive femininity. Bade's book gets closer to what it could be about the dangerous women that society finds fascinating and attractive. Like Dijkstra he also views the paintings and painters through a feminist lens to reveal the misogynistic attitudes of the time; yet unlike Dijkstra, he allows for a consideration of his own emotional and desiring response to the work. Although not acting as an apologia for the misogyny inherent in the work, it goes some way to explain why these characters/stereotypes are something attractive/interesting even today.

While writing of the Symbolists (Franz Von Stuck, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Edvard Munch, Fernand Khnopff et al), Bade brings to light the “fashionable Satanism” dabbled in by the Symbolists (albeit more in theory than in actual practice). For these artists, the dangerous and evil women was actually something strangely empowering, as they were celebrating the evil seductress, the bestial desire of the human animal (often in fact depicting women as animal and beast) and the ravaging destructive “mother nature” type etc.This is also a form of negative representation, yet some of the appeal I found personally as a child and then a young women at looking at these images of dangerous femmes-fatales was the brazen enjoyment with which they are presenting their bodies and sexualities, the strength they express. These women were not subservient and meek: they possess a threatening power over men. This view was a naive one, yet in a culture with an over-abundance of images of pretty, safe, domestic, passive femininities, the femme-fatale seemed to offer an image of a radical alternative. As much as I admire Dijkstra's militancy about exposing these negative representations and sexist constructions, he does not leave any room for these kinds of receptions.

Illustrations:

Franz Von Stuck's Sensuality, 1891
Dante Gabriel Rossetti Pandora,1869
Gustav Klimt Judith and the Head of Holofernes, 1901.
Aubrey Beardsley The Climax, from the illustrations for Oscar Wilde's Salome, 1894-3
Edvard Munch, The Vampire 1893-4

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Grotesque Femininities: Sexual Adventuresses/ Heroines of Excess

In this exploration of sexual excesses that characterises the work of George Bataille's Story of the Eye and the Marquis de Sade's mammoth-sized novel Juliette, I will examine how the books' female protagonists function as examples of a form of feminine grotesque, and whether their sexual excess and violence possess subversive potential or merely conforms to negative stereotypes of aberrant and dangerous female sexuality, such as the siren and the femme fatale.

The Story of the Eye


Simone, the teenage heroine of Bataille's Story of the Eye, is a corrupter and instigator of degradation and humiliation, a fetishist of eggs and eyeballs with a penchant for pissing on everything in sight: a grotesque of sexual excess par excellence. Her physical appearance conforms neatly with conventional standards of feminine beauty; she is "tall and lovely. She was usually very natural", so it is her sexual deviancy exclusively that makes her a grotesque. Her peculiar eroticism incites as much terror and dread as it does pleasure and arousal in the story's narrator. The story is broken up into surreal vignettes of a nightmarish hallucinatory tone (the theme of madness pervades the text): each section contains sudden frenzied violence, sexual excess and perversion summoning the threat of death, ending in fright and flight as Simone and the narrator escape the scene, ready to start over in the following passage. The pitch of frenzy increases with the extremity of each taboo being broken.

The book is not meant for titillation, despite being in the mode of pornography, There is reason, metaphor and allegory in each act of perversion: it is "about fucking as existential affirmation", as Angela Carter exclaims in her 1979 New Society review of Story of the Eye. Carter also points out the book's deliberate lewdness, as well as its subversive meanings, commenting that: "Bataille puts pornography squarely in the service of blasphemy. Transgression, outrage, sacrilege, liberation of the senses through erotic frenzy, and the symbolic murder of god".

Despite the queasy atmosphere evoked in Story of the Eye, there is the impression that Bataille is amping up the obscenity for comic effect; the incongruity of a beautiful young Catholic girl taking pleasure in pissing is comically lewd in its mixing of the sacred with the base. The emphasis on Simone's bodily functions and excretions within the sphere of sex goes back to the Bahktinian grotesque body, and the pleasures of the lower stratum: "copulation for Bakhtin is inseparable from defecation, and urination and other semicomic reminders of the body's delectable grotesquery". For Simone there is pleasure at trespassing the limits enforced by taboo: her repetition of urination before, during and after sexual activity expresses her refusal to contain herself and keep her boundaries in check.

As Kristin Mey states in her book Art and Obscenity: "Losing control over one's bodily functions and putting the body on display as incontinent, infringes one of the strictly guarded taboos in contemporary sanitised western society, particularly where it concerns women". In breaking free of her inhibitions, Simone asserts the reality of bodily functions that are viewed as filthy, the existence of which is often repressed and denied, going against the ideal image of the feminine body as a sealed unit. Mey contemplates the way that the grotesque "traditionally aimed at tearing down established boundaries and hierarchies from the perspective of the disempowered". This is evident in the sacrilege of Simone's sexually and socially abhorrent behaviours: as Bataille states of the phenomenon, "sacrilege has a social nature. It is committed at the expense of...hierarchy and the established powers".

Simone's displays of abjection (urination) also conform to Julia Kristeva's theory that fascination with the abject helps one to establish oneself in relation to what one is not, i.e. filth and waste, thus gaining a sense of boundaries that define the self against the other. So Simone's actions rejecting the sanctified version of femininity can be said to give her a truer sense of herself. There is also an impression of masochistic enjoyment in self-debasement: Simone is clearly taking pleasure in her anarchic, degrading activities. The analogy between physical and moral impurity is made explicit in this passage, which clearly links sex and filth: "Simone had found a mud puddle, and was smearing herself wildly: she was jerking off with the earth and coming violently".

Writing on the function of masochism, Theodor Reik proposes that "when the body is consciously felt as ugly, and the phantasy of the display as disgusting, this feeling itself becomes characteristic of the masochistic pleasure and contributes essentially to sexual excitement". Leo Bersani describes this joy in abasement as "the self-shattering mechanism of masochistic jouissance", which subversively shatters the disempowering conception of female sexuality as defined by passivity, purity and innocence. The often violent sexuality of the narrator and Simone is especially directed at figures of establishment and power. The orgy that ends in a scene of utter abjection, of which the narrator says that "the resulting stench of blood, sperm, urine and vomit made me almost recoil in horror", provides an opportunity to scandalise and outrage their parents, the neighbourhood and the police who are called. At the end of the story, violent sexual frenzy is directed at a priest, the ultimate object of patriarchal dominance and oppression for the narrator and Simone, as for Bataille himself. Here, grotesque sexual violence is a very deliberate act of defiance against the institutions of organised religion and against a repressive society.

Juliette and Simone: "Sexuality as Terrorism"


The work of the Marquis de Sade clearly influenced Bataille: Simone so resembles Juliette that she could be the template for the deviancy of the later Simone. Both Story of the Eye and Juliette have strong anti-establishment attitudes towards religion. Simone and Juliette use their sexuality to attack that which they feel is repressive to them as women; most staunchly, their objection is to virtue. Sade was most contemptuous of virtue, feeling that it was worn as a hypocritical mask by the sanctimonious and the holy. Sade illustrates this view in his two books about the lives of two sisters, Justine and Juliette. The sisters' characters are binary opposites (mirroring the sexual stereotypes, "virgin and whore"): Justine is virtuous, punished throughout the novel for her "goodness", while Juliette, the bad sister, is rewarded with wealth and power for her active sexual depravity. It is clear who Sade himself favoured; what is interesting is that out of both novels, it is Justine that is the more popular book. This surely reveals that the female victim is more palatable to a contemporary readership than the sexually-empowered female deviant.

Here however, I am much more interested in the deviant. Juliette is a grotesque not just because she enjoys her sexuality, but because she uses it for her own selfish ends. Juliette manipulates men and women to better herself financially, often selling her sex for money (for example, offering her anus to a bishop - doubly blasphemous), but also as a way of gaining power over those she exploits. When she has got what she needs from her latest partner, she drops them and her adventures continue. The idea of a woman in the 1700s taking charge over her own future in order to be responsible for herself is pretty radical, but for the fact that Juliette's body is her commodity of exchange: she in some ways still in servitude to men and it is predominately rich males she exploits. Juliette is a sexual careerist, whose body is her livelihood. As Angela Carter observes, Juliette: "is the woman who acts according to the precepts and also the practice of a man's world and so does not suffer. Instead, she causes suffering".

Like Simone, Juliette shows a penchant for taboo sexual activities, yet rather than the excessive lack of control Simone displays with her gushing bodily fluids, Juliette's taboo of choice – sodomy - is one that allows for an assertion of control over her body's reproductive ability. Carter notes that "anal intercourse was, at that time, a capital crime in France because it robbed sexuality of its reproductive aspect; therefore Juliette's enthusiasm for buggery is a subversive use of her own reproductive organs". Juliette's pleasure in this act is an attack on the morals of the church that banned such an activity, but it is also an act of defiance against her own fertility. In choosing non-vaginal intercourse, Juliette privileges pleasure for its own sake without the risk of pregnancy. To reject the role of motherhood is seen as grotesque: women without children are negatively described as barren, spinsters or even witches. Juliette's display of choice over her own body makes her quite a subversive figure.

Juliette and Simone both show contempt for innocence and virtue. In Story of the Eye, the character Marcelle, who for the narrator and Simone is "the purest and most affecting of our friends", is violated, humiliated and finally driven mad by the pair. The pleasure for them comes from destroying her virtue. The idealised image of the mother as 'the angel in the house' is also targeted for attack by Sade and Bataille. After Simone's mother has stumbled in on her sex games with the narrator, Simone accidentally pisses on her. Sade has one of his female libertines rape her mother, in an ultimate disavowal of the mother's powers. Bataille, like Sade, has a distrust of innocence and the virtuous holy mother figure, feeling them to be impositions constructed by the church to repress people's sexuality. This may be so, but it does not change the fact that what these characters are doing violence to is not just an idea, but another person such as themselves.

Going against the surrealist mantra "my liberation will not be your oppression", our heroines privilege their transgression over the consent and enjoyment of other women. Their Bersanian "self-shattering" pleasure also shatters others. As Carter observes of many libertine women, "their liberation from the limitations of femininity is a personal one, for themselves only...it is a liberation without enlightenment and so becomes an instrument for the oppression of others, both women and men". After transgressing all limits, Juliette and Simone also break the bonds of sisterhood, without potential for a positive subversion of their grotesque images into something utopian or sublime; what is left is quite monstrous.

Illustrations:

Max Ernst, from Une semaine de bonté, 1934
Raoul Urbac, Penthésilée,1937
Max Ernst, from: Une semaine de bonté, 1934
Philip Burne-Jones, The Vampire, 1897
Jindřich Štyrský from: Emilie comes to me in a dream, 1931

Monday, 18 June 2012

Morvern Callar's "world beneath the waves" - Film and Phenomenology

In this post, I will approach the themes in Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar (2002) through a subjective embodied experience of film viewing, in order to better understand it as a sensually interactive experience. The cinematic dimension of interactivity lies in what Vivian Sobchack describes as “a shared space of being, of seeing, hearing and bodily and reflective movement performed and experienced by the film and viewer”. The film and viewer interact on one another in this space, mingling their experiences. As Sobchack argues, “A film is an act of seeing that makes itself seen, an act of hearing that makes itself heard, an act of physical and reflective movement that makes itself reflexively felt and understood”. The experience of watching Morvern Callar is like this: the film caresses your senses, and at the same time lets you feel it to get under its surface. A performative phenomenological reading gives agency back to the film viewer, allowing responsibility for making sense of what they have thought and felt. Our embodied experience of the film gains validity and authority from the fecundity of a tactile, sensual reading of its surfaces.

In the essay Phenomenology of Eros, Emmanuel Levinas characterises “the feminine” as an intangible cipher that slips out of the grasp of understanding. From a feminist standpoint this is problematic, but it is interesting to see whether this notion applies to the predominantly mute and enigmatic Morvern Callar of the film's title, who makes sense of the world around her through her sense of touch. Morvern's character is like an avatar for the film's audience: we feel through her touch, while Morvern herself is eroticised by the caress of the camera. Her body is often seen in close-up bathed in diffuse red light, her figure soft-edged like the blurry view of a lover's body during sex. This red light recurs throughout the film, connecting Morvern's eroticised body and lit-up face to the stain of her boyfriend's blood.

Although Morvern is eroticised by this treatment, it does not objectify her: her image cannot be grasped, but only caressed as Levinas proposes: “what the caress seeks is not situated in a perspective and in the light of the graspable”. Although we receive a sense of Morvern's experiences via our immersion into the film and a sensory sympathy with her, we cannot fully grasp who she is and what she thinks: she remains out of reach of objectification, an enigma beyond our comprehension. Like the cinema itself, in a phrase of Virginia Woolf's, Morvern communicates with “some secret language which we feel and see, but never speak”.

The rich sensuality and sharp sadness of the film cling to the viewer: the memory of its music swims around us, playing in our heads long after the credits have concluded. In her review of the film, Linda Williams wonderfully illustrates her embodied reaction to it: “her amalgamations of the image and sound are quite unforgettable, in the sense that their effects won't easily fade, like a sore throat that refuses to heal...they stick inside you like shrapnel, like repressed thoughts that are never quite gone”. In the light of this experience, any reading of Morvern Callar as simply an aspirational tale of working-class-girl-made-good (going from poverty to a large cheque and book deal) seems massively misplaced.

Many film reviewers have commented on the subtext of Morvern's apparent desire for escape, most often putting her wish to “get away” down to the fact of her being poor. For example, Justine Ashbury's essay on Morvern Callar in British Women's Cinema refers to the “bleakness” of Morvern's flat with its dingy “cheap Christmas lights”. But to see her economic situation as the sole cause of Morvern's malaise seems a projection of middle-class distaste for working-class existence. The scenes in which we see Morvern sat on a furry rug, warmed by a glowing electric fire, unwrapping Christmas presents - or feet-up on the coffee table in her pants, smoking a cigarette and listening to music - express her comfort, pleasure and security, and not desperate destitution. But in order to to grasp the intentions of the film fully, without being obstructed by prejudice, the viewer must be open to the reactions of the body. As Merleau-Ponty suggests, we must “try to see how a thing or a being begins to exist for us through desire or love” in order to “understand better how things can exist in general.” it is our intentional, phenomenological experience that leads the way to critical or philosophical reflection.

At the start of the film the viewer is submerged into a warm room. Red lights pulse while the camera pulls dreamily in and out of focus, gliding and hovering over the intimate embrace of two bodies. It is acutely startling when the eye becomes aware of what has happened to the figure being caressed, but although the scene shocks and confuses it is not in itself stark or unpleasant to look at. Morvern's gentle caresses of a corpse yoke uncomfortably the taboos of intimacy and death, destabilising our visual enjoyment of this lush-textured scene. As Morvern moves her body away from her partner's, she tilts her head back so that her face and neck are lit up, bathed by the orangey glow of the fairy lights, standing out vulnerably against the hardness of the dark wooden floorboards. The gesture provokes a desire to protect this fragile person, and is perhaps our first pull of empathy towards Morvern. Her opened eyes seem to express a jolt of incomplete realisation of her situation; but like the fairy lights flashing on and off, Morvern is still half in the dark.

Virginia Woolf says of the cinema "We are beholding a world which has gone beneath the waves" and Morvern's character is like this. We do not know who she was before her boyfriend's suicide, but her detachment afterwards expresses her submersion into herself. Her reaching out and touching the world is her way of lifting herself out from under the waves, to reconnect with reality.

A basic reading gathered from the events of the film will tell you that its themes are: the death of a boyfriend, escaping the harsh realities of poverty, and the British rave scene and drug culture of the 90's and early 2000's. This however would be a limiting analysis. In her otherwise sensitive review for Sight and Sound, Linda Williams seems to revel in the film's accurate portrayals of drug use and clubbing, positing that its highest achievement is its authentic depiction of a time and place in British history that apparently excites her. What most interests Williams is Morvern's escape to Spain for sun, sex and clubbing; but for most of her time in Spain Morvern seeks separation from her fellow holidaymakers, finding solace on her hotel balcony or getting away from the resort altogether in a taxi that takes her to a remote village (much to the displeasure of her friend Lana, who is much more the working-class “party animal” stereotype both Williams and Justine Ashbury assume Morvern to be). It is these moments that Morvern relishes: looking out at the desert, holding her arms out of the car window to feel the sun warm her hands, letting hot dry soil pass through her fingers. Morvern's erotic engagement with her natural surroundings all but eclipses her engagement with the Spanish club scene.

Ashbury's reading of the film's first scene is startlingly reductive: “Morvern doesn't report his death, but instead vamps up and embarks on an alcohol and ecstasy-fuelled night of partying”. This rather insulting simplification disregards the long episode where Morvern lays caressing her boyfriend's body, while the “vamping up” begins with Morvern lying in a bath, eyes wide and blank with shock or trauma. She submerges herself into the water, and emerges rubbing her face and gasping desperately for air. The action of submersion seems to be cleansing gesture, an attempt to wash off the bad memory; finding she cannot, Morvern curls up foetus-style, letting the water envelope her.

During the rest of her supposed “vamping up”, Morvern applies make-up in a disconnected way, looking blankly at her reflection in the mirror. In the process of “putting her face on”, Morvern is disappearing and receding deeper into herself. When she holds up her freshly painted nails it is not to observe them, but to stare at her hand as it goes in and out of focus, checking she is still there. As her hand blurs, the orange-and-red light seeping in from the next room (where we realise her boyfriend is still lying) comes sharply into focus. This switch of focus demands attention: Morvern cannot ignore the existence of the body.

All of this happens before Morvern even leaves the house. It is only through denial and repression that she is able to go out and face the world, blankly, as if nothing has happened. Ashbury's reading seems more concerned with her stereotyped perception of the “ecstasy-fuelled” antics of the young working-classes: she overlooks the integrity of the film's characters, and misses the thoughtfulness and sensitivity with which the film portrays them.

As she does not articulate her thoughts and feelings verbally, we do not have easy access to Morvern's emotional state. During a period of loss and shock, one may not form coherent responses that can be formatted for cinema, expressible via the device of an interior monologue or staged dialogue. Our way of knowing Morvern, or at least getting a sense of the person she might be, is by our alignment with her sensory experiences. Our insight into her emotions comes from the sensations of the objects she touches.

In Classless: Recent-Essays British FilmCarl Neville observes that “everything [Morvern] touches in Scotland is redolent of death. She strokes the dead leaves at Lana's grandmothers house, pokes at the maggot writhing in the carrot in the supermarket where she works”. Our guts squirm during these scenes, as the stain of death hangs over these actions: we are horribly reminded of the corpse of Morvern's boyfriend lying abandoned on the kitchen floor. Neville continues: “It is only after she has buried her boyfriend that she begins to intuit a new sensual relation to the world, stroking the buds on a bush, immersing in the thaw water, touching grubs that are struggling back to life from below the surface of the ice and cold”. As the film bursts out of the close heat of the womb-like flat that has become a tomb, the change of scenery provides a sensation of release – literally, a breath of fresh air. Morvern's throwing herself into nature, up and down hills, dancing with hands outstretched, gives expression to the relief the audience feels at the film's change in mood. In touching the world around her, the icy water that chills her skin, the roughness of the bush, Morvern reaffirms that she and her body are also in the world.

For Merleau-Ponty, the affirmation of worldly embodiment is fundamental to authentic experience “We have relearned to feel our body; we have found underneath the objective and detached knowledge of the body that other knowledge which we have of it in virtue of its always being with us and of the fact that we are our body. In the same way we shall need to reawaken our experience of the world as it appears to us in so far as we are in the world through our body, and in so far as we perceive the world with our body”. It is her embodied experience that anchors Morvern to the world in the midst of her emotional detachment, and indeed it is not long after this scene that Morvern is off to Spain, ready for new perceptions and sensations.

Cinema lets us caress something we remain unable to grasp, and experience thoughts and feelings for which we do not have a ready conception: as Woolf puts it, “the likeness of the thought is for some reason more beautiful, more comprehensible, more available, than the thought itself”. Cinema's perspectives can make new and exciting what was before banal, and phenomenological reflection on those perspectives can reinvigorate the viewer to break down the thresholds that separate the film and the viewer. To borrow Laura U. Marks's book title, we get inside “the skin of the film”, so that it allows its space, experience and perceptions to be shared.The character of Morvern behaves very much like the cinema itself: the spectacle of her desire to touch and to connect herself with her surroundings allows us also to feel new connections. Through the erotics of her touch, we brush up against sensations and experiences that are not our own. When we caress the thresholds of Morvern's pleasure and her grief, blending them together in the complex whole of our cinematic experience, we experience an erotic flourishing, in Irigaray's words, “thanks to an intimacy that keeps unfolding itself more and more, opening and reopening the pathway to the mystery of the other”.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Portraiture of Disappearances and Becomings - Francesca Woodman

The photographic self-portrait often attempts to make solid the representation of the picture's subject, to show their reality as a lived experience. In previous writing on the work of Lady Hawarden and Claude Cahun, I have pointed out that the self-portrait is also a construction and therefore can only be a version of that self. The versions of selves I've looked at so far have been presentations of the idea that one authentic self is a fiction. Writing of self-portraiture, Susan Bright points out the polysemic nature of thinking about the/a self: "It can also be understood...as something more indexical, as a reflective conditional concept, which leads to the belief that there is no 'true' self...the self splits, merges, fractures and becomes so performed and so constructed that nothing authentic remains". Through playing with masquerades and enjoying a narcissistic introspection on the self, the photographs from the previous posts show images of women in transition, aesthetically transitioning from one gender to another, and from reality to fantasy. Yet even in these liminal states, the images of women looked at so far have been very present and solid in each of the pictures: as Linda Haverty Rugg describes in her book Picturing Ourselves, "Photographs as physical evidence re-anchor the subject in the physical world, insist on the variable presence of an embodied and solid individual". Photography's comforting validation affords one's reality, even if it is a shifting or split self, a visible acknowledgement that one is in the world. This effect of fixing the self through photographic reproduction is defused by Francesca Woodman's self-portraits in which her image is often in state of disappearing and dissolving into its environment.

Woodman started taking pictures of her self in her early teens at a time when changes to the body and changing ideas of one's own identity start to germinate and become concerns. Mavor, who previously had described Hawarden's pictures of her adolescent daughters as being in a state of becoming, says similarly of Woodman that "[her] photographs feature becoming women. They are 'becoming' in that they are attractive to the eye. They are 'becoming women' in that their bodies drape the threshold between girlhood and womanhood". I agree that to view the collected anthology of Woodman's photographs of herself in (or as) her oeuvre is itself "becoming" as it moves from the self-portraits of a young teenage Woodman to a young adult Woodman. Yet there is the sense in her pictures, that rather than becoming she is actually dissolving. Perhaps the teenage self does not feel itself as solid, as a definite child or adult self, but as somewhere in-between, liminal and blurry. Woodman's disappearance into her surroundings also speaks of an ambivalence towards her position inside the household. Her surroundings are in a state of decay, unlike her own body that is in the process of growth and maturation. There is a feeling of loss in these pictures, a loss of childhood and perhaps a loss of the security the childhood home represents. The walls of youth start to collapse, as do the protective spaces of childhood.

In Woodman's self-portrait from 1975, her identity is not fixed at all: she crouches above a mirror, unable to see her reflected self-image looking back at her. Self-regard does not appear to be the thing she was seeking in this picture: she has intentionally removed the mirror from the position of self surveillance from the wall, placing it instead on the floor. It is usual in portraiture for the mirror to stand in for the viewer's gaze; in this picture, however, we have no access to the reflection, which is obscured by Woodman's actual body. This gesture feels rather aggressive, as if Woodman is rejecting the mirror and its symbolic connotations in favour of thrusting herself outwards, as if she is coming out of the mirror or breaking free from it. This could be seen as a metaphor for wanting to shatter the view of women as objects of visual pleasure and vanity, the notion that the existence of a woman lies in being something visual, an image, while her essence remains elusive. The fact that Woodman's face is distorted expresses her reluctance to be a stationary image: the distortion demonstrates that she is moving, an active participant in this picture.

Although not obviously dressing up and engaging in role play, Woodman does partake in forms of masquerade, illusion and evasion. In the (above left) photograph, Woodman's face is blurry, deliberately distorted by vigorously moving her head so that the camera on a slow shutter spend captures multiples of her head and hair in the process of movement. This form of disavowal,of obscuring her face, denies our visual pleasure and our desire to know her face, which in a sense means that this obstruction acts like a mask. Lorenzo Fusi says of the wearing of masks, "The mask is, in a sense, a veil, an element of separation that sometimes, paradoxically, gets us closer to the intimate sphere of those hiding behind it, instead of creating further distance. It exposes more than it covers". What Woodman's mask exposes is an ambivalent attitude to her own selfhood. It can also express the way in which Woodman refuses to be seen, so in blurring her face whilst her body is in sharp focus Woodman performs a deliberate visual split between herself and her body that prevents her body/appearance being seen as solely "herself" that is then objectified.

Woodman's work subtly negotiates the representations of her self/image away from the possibility of an objectification of her young body, by instead veering towards the realm of radical narcissism. It is by acting out the stereotypes of feminine beauty and desirability that one learns about how the performance of womanliness is constructed - this can be seen in the everyday acts of little girls dressing up in their mother's clothes and make-up, mimicking adult poses and flirtatious behaviour – yet this is not just innocent play but in fact the rehearsal of "life lessons" on how to perfect the performance of patriarchy-inscribed femininity. Woodman's work features these trying-ons of adult womanliness, particularly the way in which images of woman are depicted in art. As Fusi points out, "The Ego-woman expressed by Woodman sometimes uses the same modalities of representation made ready and adopted by man, in order to get to know herself and define herself precisely as a woman, other-from-man....Woodman's work gives strength, autonomy and power to the female point of view according to different modalities. Only rarely are typically male visual strategies and conventions ever adopted: the body is like an exotic object on display in the cabinet of curiosities of man's world, that is to say the eye of the other".

Femininity is a game to play for the young Woodman, and by mimicking the female images present in sexist history of art she also makes fun of them. Woodman examines and tries on the patriarchy-constructed roles of "womanliness" on offer. She then looks back at her(self) through the eyes of a desiring other (that is not to say that this performance of masquerade is not also pleasurable for Woodman herself). For Woodman as for Claude Cahun and the Hawarden Daughters, playing with ideas of identity and appearance is pleasurable as well as enabling, it becomes easier to see beyond the unhelpful and limiting socially-constructed notions that dictate what women are or should be, and instead reveals that we are not all reproductions of an abstract higher form of idealised femaleness. Amelia Jones states, "In its radical narcissism, where distances between artist and art work, artist and spectator are definitively collapsed, such body art practices profoundly challenge the reigning ideology". These self-portraits of desiring glances, mimetic masquerades and playful evasions offer strategies of resistance to the repressive portrayals of women's gender identity in art: they provide an alternative image that touches something Other that is us - not others to ourselves but Other to the fictions of inscribed femininity.

Illustrations:

Francesca Woodman, Space2 Rhode Island, 1977
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Rhode Island, 1975
Francesca Woodman, On Being an Angel, Rome 1977

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Siren is Beguiled by Her Own Voice - Claude Cahun & The Masquerading Self

Following on from looking at narcissistic pleasures taken in the fantasy of appearance, involving an erotic desire for one's own female image, in this post I'll examine the female masquerade in evidence in the work of Claude Cahun. Cahun takes the themes I've been discussing further with explicit references to lesbianism and overt displays of role-playing and  cross-dressing. Again, photography is the perfect medium for the forging of ones subjective reality: Cahun's personae become her reality by means of photography's supposedly authentic capture of the real. As Whitney Chadwick says, "the idea of masquerade, of appearance as artifice, strikes at the very heart of identity inhabited as a natural skin. This is as intrinsic to photography as it is to its claim to document, to have a privileged relationship to the real". Photography enables the realisation of one's desires and fantasies to become someone else, to wear the costume of another’s reality, easily and apparently reliably. 

Thinking about multiple selves, the masquerade and photography, I of course first thought of Cindy Sherman - the master of guises. Yet I have chosen instead to look Claude Cahun to illustrate how women's construction of their own appearance works as a form of masquerade, as I found that Sherman's artifices were actually acutely separate from her reality as an artist. Sherman's masquerades were obviously stylised constructions of genre character type, whereas Cahun's many guises are all "her", or aspects of her self. Chadwick says of Cahun that "the artist and the individual are present within each disguise, as one of which represents an aspect of an extraordinarily complex self...there is no single original Claude to be found...authentic aspects of the original Claude are to be found in everyone of her multiple manifestations".

In a sense, then, all self portraits are manipulations and masquerades, with the sitter wearing a metaphysical mask that defines and dictates the way they would like to be perceived by others. Yet Cahun exposes her own Other, displaying her multiple selves in artworks that are locked into a circular system that is again mirrored and multiplied by the process of photographic reproduction. As Susan Bright says, "masquerade in self-portraiture may allow an artists to vicariously act out fantasies or to address a political point through someone else voice, which is both liberating and transgressive". What Cahun in her various costumes is transgressing is the notion that gender works as a fixed binary of male/female, a binary that dictates that women be "feminine" and beautiful to gain validation and men be strong, active and heterosexual. As Bright continues, "the mask offers a powerful disguise that gives photographers the chance to explore and redefine themselves, and to challenge the ways in which identities have commonly been represented and understood".

Long before the 1990's when Judith Butler expounded her now famous theories on the problems of gender identity and queer sexualities, the psychoanalyst Joan Rivière was writing in the 1920's on the attitudes of women on "feminine" identity and their behaviour or performance of their own "womanliness" under patriarchy. Although this is not a historically minded survey of artist, it is worth noting that Rivière was writing around the same period as when Cahun was producing her photographs, so there is a possibility that she was familiar with Rivière's concepts - it is known that she, like many other artists and Surrealists of the day had read Freud. Therefore using Rivière's concept of masquerade is more fitting here than the later queer theory of Butler.

Rivière's hypothesis in her essay Womanliness as Masquerade follows that women, consciously as well as unconsciously, use overtly standardised feminine dress and behaviour as a defensive strategy that protects against  the threat they would pose to patriarchy if they were to visibly assert their ideas, intellects, strength and sexualities. Instead these challenging attributes must be hidden under a veil of petty prettiness and passivity. In Rivière's collected papers the presentation of normative femininity is termed "defensive femininity", and "womanliness" as we know it is "assumed and worn as a mask". Considering the question of how genuine womanliness differs from the mask or masquerade of femininity, Rivière argues that they are indistinguishable: "my suggestion is not...that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing".

Cahun's 1928 self-portrait with mirror (below) destabilises the formal relationship of gazes, of the looker and looked-at: as we the audience look at Cahun, she looks directly back, disallowing an easy possessive visual pleasure taken in her appearance. Cahun's pose rejects the power relations proposed by Mulvey and Berger: in her photographs the compositions of traditional portraiture are used and then disrupted to draw attention to the way in which objectification works. As Doy points out, "Cahun's pose and demeanour do not address 'the male spectator'...she looks away and relegates the mirror reflection to the status of object, while she remains the subject". Standing the the middle of the frame in an androgynous loose checked coat with very close cropped hair, her gender is ambiguous: it is her choice of pose next to a mirror that expresses her self as being female. The collar of her coat is turned up, her hands grip the lapels protectively that cover her neck and jaw, but we see that in the image reflected in the mirror the smooth skin of her neck is exposed. This little reveal, whether intentional or not, is rather erotic, a peek-a-boo of smooth skin on a long neck; the curve  of light and shadow of her collar bone and the hint of décolletage is incongruous with the shapeless masculine coat.

Carol Mavor talks about experiencing what Barthes has termed the punctum while looking at the pictures of Lady Hawarden's daughters. Punctum is an almost indescribable feeling of being moved by something that in itself is almost unrepresentable. Barthes writes: "for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – but also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that incident that pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)". In this photograph it is the exposure of that very vulnerable area of neck and chest that is my punctum. It is the mixing of feminine and masculine costume and pose that feels poignant and intriguing to me. It is the figure of Cahun that the eye is drawn to as she assertively stands with her body turning towards the camera/eye, yet her reflection in the mirror is also on display for our visual pleasure or visual disorientation. Therese Lichtenstein comments,  "Cahun deploys her body as spectacle – but a spectacle of her own creation, a spectacle of distortion". The viewer, gay or straight, man or woman is confused by this erotic image: is it desire or identification we feel?

Cahun's use of costume and cross-dressing exposes the constructions of femininity as being something other than natural. Her androgynous appearance is polymorphously attractive and leads one to question the standardised and repressive beauty norms that dictate how each sex most look. Unlike Sherman, Cahun is in a narcissistic preoccupation with the manifestations of her own self - she enjoys playing out each role - but this concern with gender roles is not a self centred position, but rather one that opens up questions for all genders. As Lichtenstein says, "Cahun's eye/I is a questioning one. It is narcissistically turned inward, but narcissism here is put in the service of examining the artist’s own objectification as a woman". In the process of making the masquerade of femininity more explicit, Cahun's many photographed personae seem to prove it as as easy to put on femininity as to take it off and instead inhabit the socially constructed idea of what a masculine self looks like. Seen altogether Cahun's many guises leave one with the impression that Cahun's neutral state is that of the Androgyne, that her photographic self-portraits express a spitting self that is neither feminine or masculine but a desirable alternative, an Other. Lichtenstein comments, "Cahun's montages engage the viewer in an an idea of identity as liberating transformation, as constant becoming". The idea of becoming is one that runs throughout the work of Cahun, although where we'll arrive at is still not yet known.

Illustrations:

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, 1929
Claude Cahun, Don't Kiss Me, I am in Training, 1927
Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait with Mirror, 1928

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Self and Its Other: A Victorian Erotics of Looking

"But all her life the woman is to find the magic of her mirror a tremendous help in her effort to project herself and then attain self-identification...Man, feeling and wishing himself active, subjective, does not see himself in his fixed image; it has little attraction for him, since man's body does not seem to be an object of desire, while women, knowing and making herself object, believes she really sees herself in the glass."
(Simone De Beauvoir)

The photographs I'll be looking at here use the structures of sexist representations of women with mirrors in order to subvert negative assumptions about female vanity and appearance as identity. They also reset the relationship of looking, of object and subject, to debunk the circuit of 'visual pleasure' theorised in Laura Mulvey's famous 1975 essay. This essay expressed the set-up of positioned looks in classical Hollywood cinema: the viewer, assumed to be a (heterosexual) male, possesses the active gaze and therefore has power over the passivity of the female image that is fetishistically framed by the film. Mulvey's concept works within the assumption of binary genders and sexualities: much discussion since has pointed out this conception does not take into account male viewers being gay, or that women also take pleasure in cinematic scopophilia whether gay or straight. It is an ungendered erotics of visual pleasure that I will use when discussing the work of Victorian photographer Lady Hawarden.

Laura Mulvey's film theory is very much in keeping with John Berger's attitudes on power,and the economy of looking in his book Ways of Seeing from 1972. Berger details the standardised presentation of women's appearance in art as the beautiful object devoid of agency while the male subject posses the "gaze of visual pleasure" and thus in a sense owns the feminine object. In expounding the specific function of mirrors in art,  Berger reveals the hidden agendas of artists: "you painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your pleasure...The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight".

The images of women dealt with here successfully subvert the woman-as-art-object to be enjoyed exclusively by the possessor of the artwork or "the gaze". Instead, these photographs feature self-contained systems of an auto-erotics of looking and self-delight by the photographer/subject. The Victorian photographer Lady Hawarden's undated and untitled photograph (above left) of her daughter Clementina exemplifies this kind of self reflexive narcissistic looking. It is a closed system of gazes: Clementina looks at her reflection in the mirror longingly, wistfully, and this look is reciprocated and reflected back at herself. We the viewers can also experience pleasure looking at this photograph, but it is not set up for our pleasure: it is a display of someone else's pleasure in regarding their own self.   

Photography and the mirror act as twins in replicating multiples of ones self, Hawarden who was experimenting with photography in its nascent development cannily used the mirror in a great many of her portraits, Carol Mavor in her perceptively argued and sensuously written book on Hawarden, points out the connectivity of mirrors and the medium of photography, "the mirror in Hawarden's pictures serves the double function of reflecting back to us visions of feminine narcissism and showing us photography's own narcissistic trick of doubling its subjects". Therefore it can be said that photography itself its just another mirror and is a tool of narcissism by nature and anything capture by its lens acts accordingly.

Amelia Jones describes the form of  interest and visible delight in and preoccupation with ones self as subject, as a "radical narcissism". Jones' concept of radical narcissism behaves like an enabler to self discovery and analysis, she states "narcissism – the exploration of and fixation on the self – inexorably leads to an exploration of and implication in the other: the self turns inside out, as if were, projecting its internal structures of identification and desire outwards. Thus, narcissism interconnects the internal and external self as well as the self and the other". The Other in Hawarden's photograph is the adult woman that the adolescent Clementina is edging  towards, and therefore is "the self and its other" of my title – Clementina is neither a child or a woman yet contained within herself are these two states. As Gen Doy points out, "The mirror is a metaphor for, as well as a physical testament to, the process of perceiving a split between self and self-image". the flesh Clementina looks longingly at the reflected mirror image of her self as a desiring subject.

This kind of radical desiring also subverts stereotypes of female passivity by expressing an active and auto-erotic self-delight, the pose in Hawarden's photograph is not physically available to the viewer but rather opened out towards the mirror (image). Jones elaborates, "The overt expression of women’s fully embodied, desiring experience and (narcissistic) self involvement was seen as the surest way to repudiate the objectification of women and to politicise personal experience". What is most radical about Hawarden's photograph is the presence of, as well as narcissistic desire, but also a homoerotic lesbian desire for the female object by the female subject. Mavor links the display of narcissism in Hawarden's photographs  with lesbianism, "Clementina's mirror images emphasis that sapphic love is never far from Narcissus, who, in psychoanalytic theory, is a privileged sign of homosexuality".

Many of Hawarden's portraits are of her daughters in seemingly erotic or romantic poses together, acting out parts of lovers with grasping hands and close bodies. This is not necessarily evidence of lesbianism as it is an adolescent role play between sisters imaging their futures selves in the realm of love and sex as adult women, these games are also safely situated in the the privacy of their London home. And yet, the overall effect of these pictures is undeniably erotic as they exclusively feature female pairings, the aspect of homoerotic fantasy hangs over the pictures. Part of the intriguing thrill of these picture is the feeling that we the viewer are being allowed access into a very private world of these young women and their desires. 

This is the power of photography, to allow one to enter and view a time, place or person that maybe we would not normally have access to. Mavor who is moved throughout her reading of Hawarden's photographs and filled with her own recollections of adolescences, nascent sexuality and dressing up, points out, "Hawarden's stereoscopic pictures of her daughters stealing looks in the mirror emphasis not only the homoerotics of doubling woman, the queerness of the medium of photography, but also the queerness of seeing". These photographs allow for one to project their own memories and desires onto the images of a different self to your own, one that is in the process of change or as Mavor puts it Becoming. Our pleasure then in these pictures, due to our identification and sympathetic understanding of the longings of these fantasising girls is also narcissistic - we look at Clementina and enjoy our own self.

Illustrations:

Lady Clementina Hawarden, Untitled, Clementina by the Mirror, 1863-64
Lady Clementina Hawarden, Study From Life,1863-64
Lady Clementina Hawarden, Study From Life, 1863-64

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Hans Bellmer: The Formless Body and Negative Transgression

Hans Bellmer's Surrealist works from the 1930's are notorious. The doll or Poupée  series, of prepubescent girls in compromising positions and situations speak of a violent and paedophilic desire which has become highly problematic for many contemporary viewers. Analysing Bellmer's work requires a deliberate distancing from reactions of moral outrage at the display of mutilated doll parts of female children. In order to understand how Bellmer's work functions these reactions must be deciphered and interpreted. As Susan Rubin Suleiman suggests, "the contemporary feminist critic must herself participate in a 'double allegiance', be willing to say 'yes but' to earlier works, including work she finds disturbingly misogynist".The practice of the surrealists often involved taking up the familiar to destabilise, dismantle, reconstruct, fetishise and make strange; yet when this is done to the image of young girls' bodies it provokes an unnerving and ethically disturbing effect.

Bellmer's 1935 photograph La Poupée (above) is a visualisation of the methodical acting out of a pathological desires, in order to make fantasy into reality. A brooding chiaroscuro black and white photograph, painted with a sickly yellow sepia tint that gives the woodland setting a queasy atmosphere, the tone of the picture is of a shadowy, lurking illness. Bellmer himself, in long dark coat and boots, stands like a peeping tom behind a tree. The sculpture hangs from a tree, a hybrid creature fashioned from Bellmer's fantasies: like many of his sculptures, La Poupée is without a head (no head means: no mouth to refuse, no eyes to witness), just the anatomy that held some fetishised significance for Bellmer. His constructed figure of fragmented femininity becomes a phallic object, androgynous through the arrangement of female parts. As Rosalind Krauss suggests, "the dreamer produces – although transformed – the very image of what he fears...within this dream space the doll herself is phallic. Sometimes, deprived of arms, but endowed with a kind of limitless pneumatic potential to swell and bulge with smaller protuberances, she seems the very figure of tumescence”. Therefore through the eyes of the phallocentric Bellmer, this formless figure is femininity transformed into a superior phallic body that takes pleasure in its own anatomical swelling, affording Bellmer an encounter that combines menace with identification.

In her book on Bellmer, The Anatomy of Anxiety, Sue Taylor reveals the methodology of these scenarios with the doll: "Bellmer referred to the activities rehearsed in this series as 'games' implying that doll is a willing participant in its own victimisation". It is clear that Bellmer desired the power his surveillance had over the doll: the doll is passive, so who is playing “games” is ambiguous.Our position as spectators mirrors Bellmer's. He stands hidden behind a tree, but we the viewers, regarding the photograph anonymously from a safe distance, are also hidden. In a sense the body of the doll is nearer to us than it is to Bellmer: as it is in the foreground of the picture, we have greater access to it. There is something confrontational about this. It is as though Bellmer is serving up this androgynous/formless creature to us the viewer, in order to get a response. My “yes but” to Bellmer's work lies in the way that being aligned with Bellmer's scopophilia, which is acutely traumatic to the viewer, forces us to reassess our role as spectators and surveyors of bodies in art: we are made complicit in Bellmer's violence by our own exploitive gaze.

The viewer experiences convulsive, destabilising feelings, our position as viewer is comprised and challenged by being witness to Bellmer's ethically problematic sculptures. Yet perhaps Bellmer too felt a convulsive repulsion at his own work, and thus deliberately provoked masochistic "negative pleasure" as a form of catharsis. Hal Foster states that Bellmer: "(is) also devoted to compulsive beauty and convulsive identity, and the difficulties of these ideals may be most apparent in his work i.e., that the psychic shattering (the convulsive identity) of the male subject may depend upon the physical shattering (the compulsive beauty) of the female image, that the ecstasy of the one way come at the cost of the dispersal of the other".

In order then for Bellmer to safely experience a self-shattering, convulsive beauty, he must do violence to the (female) form in order to reassert his subjective mastery over the bodily limits of female-gendered objects. The dolls were small, passive, manipulatable (just like non-art toys): they enabled Bellmer to possess and punish the things he desired, his personifications of fantasies, by placing them in positions and settings that connote violation, threat and observation. Making the dolls enabled Bellmer to transgress against reality, rules of anatomy and legal prohibitions. As objects of formless femininity, the dolls are not themselves capable of transgression: they are the passive props for someone else's transgression.

The abstracted figure (left) of Bellmer's Die Puppe (Rumpf)  is so far removed from the formal characteristics of human anatomical structure that it instead becomes (initially) an object of pure aesthetic pleasure. The perfectly round globes of buttocks and bellies and the polished surface of reflective sculptured metal, invite a 'haptic vision' that caresses. The eye moves along over the sculpture's curves and searches in-between the folds and ripples of flesh, gliding along the curves and dips and swells. It cannot be denied that the phenomenological experience of looking at this sculpture is extremely sensual, yet the viewer also cannot escape what the tactile forms of this sculpture are representing.

The truncated, smoothed-off stumps of children's chubby thighs, that appear more like round buttocks, balance precariously on a wooden plinth; the round stomach is connected to another set of fleshy hips and mutilated legs. The only parts of this sculpture that are clear depictions of normative human anatomy are the belly and the two vaginas; this strikingly marks the figure sexually. Through his own fetishistic delectation Bellmer breaches the integrity of the body's whole, instead piecing a hybrid creature together from his favourite parts like a surrealist Dr Frankenstein. Yet this creature is not made to live: it it made to be an object of desire and degradation. By playing with the formless body in his work, Bellmer transgresses the ethical imperative of not doing harm to the subject depicted, a female child’s body. His construction is also a form of destruction of what is morally acceptable. For the surrealists who valued making one's dreams reality, this was a positive display of transgression against society's constraints over artistic, sexual and political expression; Bellmer's expressions of paedophilic desires and violent fantasies were thus in a sense given an alibi for their existence, as he too was tapping into his unconscious, making his dreams reality.

Today’s society (or today's art historian) tries to hold artists ethically accountable for their work, as we think more conceptually of what it is we are looking at and what meanings are available. In the case of Die Puppe we are not just looking at an art object: it is as a highly-sexualised sculpture of mutating formlessness that expresses the child's body as on display and available that is shocking, yet this fusion of the aesthetically beautiful with the morally abhorrent, makes one ask the question: does the beautiful excuse the unacceptable meanings? I believe this is very difficult to take or pardon for a contemporary audience: like the informe itself, Bellmer's work refuses moral categorisation - the best we can do is a “yes, but”.

The meaning behind Bellmer's work is highly contentious. Those critics who have read Bellmer's art alongside his biography (see Hal Foster's Compulsive Beauty: 1993) have pardoned the literal violence done to the bodies of the dolls by preferring to read it as a metaphorical violence against Nazi images of idealised femininity. But, as Rudolf Kuenzli points out in Surrealism and Misogyny, "These are not just “bodies”; these are always female figures." Kuenzli continues: "faced with the female figure, the male surrealists fears castration, fears the dissolution of his own ego. In order to overcome his fears, he fetishises the female figure, he deforms, disfigures, manipulates her; he literally manhandles her in order to reestablish his own ego, and not his own informe."

The photograph left, features Bellmer's lover, the German artist and writer Unica Zürn (1916-1970) as model/victim. Her body is distorted by wire that criss-crosses her now constricted flesh, making it ripple and bulge, so that her body appears ugly and unfamiliar. This can be seen as Bellmer asserting his dominance over the body of his lover, manipulating her flesh to prove his superiority. If though we think of this uncanny body as being a projection of Bellmer's desire, then it can be seen conceptually to follow the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik's proposition that, “when the body is consciously felt as ugly, and the phantasy of the display as disgusting, this feeling itself becomes characteristic or the masochistic pleasure and contributes essentially to sexual excitement.”. Whichever position is taken, as masochist or sadist, it is clear that violence to and the shattering of the body is something that arouses Bellmer.

The point of the formless/Informe is not to dictate how the abjection and abstraction of the body be handled. What it does is allow the artist is to give free rein to desire, to fashion images of the body that fit their fantasies of bodily alterity, and so to experience a different version of bodily existence. The formless figure makes visible the strain placed on the self by unconscious fears and desires, by projecting them outside onto the body. This inversion of the interior into the exterior can liberate us by making manifest what we fear and desire as something visible and therefore known and understood, but in violently shattering the integrity of the body's limits it also runs the risk that what is shattered is an ethical respect for humanity. To treat the body as formless, as full of the possibilities of a liminality of gender and sexuality, is liberating; but when this  formlessness is projected onto a real body, as in the case of the photograph of Unica Zürn, the depiction of the fantastical can become an exhibition of atrocity. Therefore even with the formless, some boundaries can only be breached at our own risk.

Illustrations:

Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, 1935
Hans Bellmer, Die Puppe (Rumpf), 1935
Hans Bellmer, Front cover for Surrealism, Meme 4 Spring, 1958

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Kino Dance / CinePoemes

The blog has been very text heavy so far, 
so just for the visual/sensual pleasures; here is a selection
of experimental Surrealist and Dada films using rhythm, 
movement, machines, abstraction, and dance. 

Fernand Leger - Ballet Mecanique, 1924


Maya Deren - A Study In Choreography, 1945


Hans Richter - Vormittagsspuk, (Ghosts for Breakfast),1928


Man Ray - Emak Bakia, (Leave me Alone), 1926


René Clair Francis Picabia Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray - Entr'acte, 1924

Monday, 4 June 2012

Yayoi Kusama: The Loss of Ego and Sublime Skinlessness (part:3)

(This is the final part of a three part essay series on the art of Yayoi Kusama in reference to the sublime, anxiety and sexuality)

Leo Bersani's theory of masochism suggests that, paradoxically, the effect of self-shattering may be used to reinforce a shoring-up of one's sense of self, enabling the transition from the challenges of childhood trauma into adulthood. He states: 'I wish to propose that most significantly, Masochism serves life. It is perhaps only because sexuality is ontologically grounded in masochism that the human organism survives the gap between the period of shattering stimuli and the development of resistant or defensive ego structures...Masochism would be the psychical strategy which partially defeats a biologically dysfunctional process of maturation. Masochism as the model of sexuality allows us to survive our infancy and early childhood'. This system of self-shattering alternating with a shoring-up that actually protects the self can be seen at work in the life and career of Kusama. Kusama describes her first traumatic experience of hallucinations as one of feeling annihilated by her environment.:
One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of a tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt I had begun to self-obliterate, to dissolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.
Thus, in order to cope with this fear of disappearing into 'nothingness', of being overwhelmed by one's surrounding situation, Kusama could be said to perform (in the process of creating art) the defensive strategy of allowing herself to temporally shed her protective boundaries, to become metaphorically skinless in order to allow herself an encounter with that which causes her anxiety. This experience takes place in a controlled and safe environment as part of the process of losing oneself in the creative process. The skinless touching of the unthinkable and unrepresentable allows for fear to temporarily recede – once one's terrors have been faced, they can then be held off for a time.

Although writing hundreds of years apart and from different countries and cultural backgrounds, Burke's and Bersani's ideas on sublime and masochistic pleasure are not as far apart as they may at first appear. As I have suggested, the unpleasure inherent in the aesthete's sublime experience shares much in common with the masochist's desire for a negative pleasure or delight. The feminine sublime theorised by Joanna Zylinska, that proposes the wilful transgression of boundaries and limits, approaches ever nearer to the pleasurable self-shattering of masochistic behaviours. According to Zylinska, the feminine sublime is concerned with '[e]xploring the limits of meaning and its links with excess, abjection and waste'; it can thus be seen as 'an ethical proposition for the necessarily disparate encounters of the heterogeneous world. It is not an easy ethics: it requires the self to expose its vulnerability and come to terms with the undecidability which characterises the moment of awakening the other'.

The work of Kusama is an art of skinless vulnerability: in dealing with her ambivalent attraction/repulsion to the masculinist ownership of symbols of sexuality, she exposes her own fears of losing herself during a sublime encounter with her own sexuality. So, then, it is perhaps not the sexuality of the Other that is most fearful to Kusama, but her own sexuality as a woman that most threatens. Andrea Dworkin writes that it is not just female sexuality that is threatening, but that all sex inherently carries a form of sublime risk of self-dissolution. Dworkin's point is that the sexual act requires one to shed the protective guard of the super-ego, as the realm of sexuality resides down in the dark unknown of the Freudian Id. Sex for Dworkin can be seen in the very terms Zylinska suggests for viewing the feminine sublime, of an exposure to the abject, the visceral, the unknown and the other. Writing of this sublime skinlessness, Dworkin says:
Sometimes, the skin comes off in sex. The people merge, skinless. The body loses its boundaries. We are each in these separate bodies; and then with someone and not with someone else, the skin dissolves altogether; and what touches is unspeakably, grotesquely visceral, not inside language or conceptualisation, not inside time; raw, blood and fat and muscle and bone, unmediated by form or formal limits. There is no physical distance, no self-consciousness, nothing withdrawn or private or alienated, no existence outside physical touch.
In the above photograph, Kusama is attempting such a radical, metaphysically skinless encounter with the Other.. Yet, it is open to interpretation whether in blurring the borders between her self and her phallic creations she successfully transcends her (and our) anxieties about our gendered sexualities. Is she actually complicit in reinforcing these differences, as becoming skinless loses subversive potential if gendered stereotypes of the supremacy of the phallus prevail? For example, for a female artist living and working under an oppressive patriarchal society, the ability to represent one's own sexuality may become compromised. For Kusama, it may mean an inability to present the unrepresentable, or that she is to some extent so enclosed within structures of misogynist disavowals of female sexuality that she is herself threatened by the idea of an autonomous female sexuality and thus cannot create new symbols of desire free from phallocentric influence.

Although this reading attempts to interpret the excessive use of the phallus in Kusama's work, the ambiguities of mixing desire and sexual ambivalence remain. Udo Keltermann suggests that these disparate connections aid an 'interconnecting oneness that binds Kusama's people and things' and that 'dissolves the distinction between self and other, subject and object, animate and inanimate'. This idea of a blending connectivity is illustrated in the above photograph, in which Kusama the woman positions herself within the phallic landscape to become part of it. Although her body is posed coyly, in a position redolent of a centrefold pin-up, the excessive spots painted onto her naked body remind one of disease or infection and thus divert visual pleasure away from her body as an object of titillation. The formal similarities of her elongated body posture, slightly erected at the elbow, with the sticking up and out of the phallic objects unites her body aesthetically with the environment, as she becomes the phallic-woman of her own artistic creation.

After all, the process of multiplication and creation is an act of feminine fecundity containing the pleasurable and the painful which are both involved in the process of creation. This feature makes Kusama's art a giddy mix of paradoxical emotions: the fear of risking the integrity of the self exists side by side with the delight of a sublime polymorphous sexuality that is fecund as well as self-shattering. Throughout this three part essay series, my aim has been to recast the sublime as a method for understanding the expression of a form of sexuality that in its contradictory complexity, like the sublime, is almost unpresentable. Although at first the meeting of an anxious masochistic sexuality with the sublime seems unusual, I believe it has been a fruitful way of rethinking and questioning the validity of separating categories of aesthetics, experience and desire that can actually be put to task together. As I hope this essay has shown, when we pay attention to the strong similarities in the ways in which Kantian 'negative pleasure' and masochistic unpleasure are experienced, threads appear that join up the low and libidinal with the lofty sublime.

(part one: "Yayoi Kusama: Sexuality, Anxiety and The Feminine Sublime")
(part two: "Yayoi Kusama: Self-Obliteration and The Masochistic Sublime")

Illustrations

Yayoi Kusama, instillation of Kusama with Accumulation No. 2 and Infinity nets painting (1959)
Gelatine photograph (1968)