Self portrait, 1994
"Human life entails, in fact the rage of seeing oneself as a back and forth movement from refuse to the ideal” -
Georges Bataille, 'The Big Toe' Visions of Excess
The body, for Foucault, Deleuze, Iraguray, and others is an historical, political object, through (and over) which the relations of power and resistance are played. The female body has been claimed, staked out for centuries; from the first chapter of the bible it is defined as that which is corrupted and corrupting. The profound mistrust of women was a driving force behind the genocide of hundreds of thousands of women in witch- hunts, the repression of which dominated centuries. The word “glamour” was used at this time to describe the “bewitching” of a man by a woman’s eyes. The repression of the female body (and by the same token, female sexuality) is concurrent with the repression of ideas, and the separation of sexuality into a binary system, a system of power and control. Our historical understanding of art as subject to the conditions of its production is crucial in the assessment of the position we find ourselves in today, where at last the possibility of women acting as not simply the bearer but the producer of meaning opens up debates about what that production could be.
The modern context is an ‘Image World’, where the emphasis has shifted to a mass-production of images through the means of mechanical reproduction, which has altered notions such as the “aura” of the panting; authorship, authenticity. Photography has washed the collective psyche with a flood of images of woman - bodies, faces. The female, through advertising, television, cinema has been, “conscripted to the marketing of commodities”
in which a new process of ownership takes place wherby the female is said to be divided into two “irreconcilable “bodies”; her “natural” body and her socially valued, exchangeable body, which is a particularly mimetic expression of masculine values”
In reading Feminist theory, one becomes aware of discourses surrounding the photographic image, as that which ‘takes’ the object, subjecting it to a process of immobilization and miniaturization which offers “mastery” and “possession” to the spectator. Barthes describes the photograph as a “double and a death” - freezing the image in the instant, “pointing to what was but no longer is.”
For this reason the photograph has been described as comparible to the constitution of the fetish in the unconcious - a play of desire and fear fixed by a glance; a compromise between conservation and death. The anxiety between spectator and object is played out in the act of looking. The “look”, described by Norman Bryson
as an act always repeated, an impulse to contain, to fix, to penetrate under changing appearance, to hold the ‘other’ at the “table of consummation”.
As a woman artist, the issue of creating a self-portrait is called into question by these issues of looking, and the question of how and where I may situate myself in relation to the images of other women that surround me. Says Mary Ann Caws, “(they) are not...entirely other, nor can we pretend to see (them) as such. We are folded up in and into - implicated - and even tied up by our seeing”
An artist such as Cindy Sherman could be said to have explored through her work this notion of seeing oneself as “other”. Creating a ‘presence’ through the codes and conventions of representation to a point of saturation where identity is simply a manipulation of the complex codes of appearance; a fabrication, a pure surface. If photography is described as a mirror (“more faithful than any actual mirror”says Metz, “which changes with us, so that we appear not to change”) the mirror in Sherman’s work reflects only unwritten cliches, preconditioned notions of feminity which preclude subjectivity - not “images of woman”, but as Abigail Solomon Godeau would have it, “woman as image”. For Lacan, feminity is a maquerade, an arena for the projected fantasies of the male, who, like Narcissus has fallen in love with his ideal and is therefore unable to accept any other. Woman has long been a reflection to man, his inversion, his opposite, his ‘other’, bound like Echo in the same myth, to endless repetition.
The portrait is traditionally thought of as a “duplicate of a physically stable referent”
- a faithful reproduction. With the advantages of photography to illuminate and set down, it would seem all reality may be converted into spectacle, but the consequence of this absorption is described by Norman Bryson as “secreting at its edges an atmosphere of dread - a fear for, and of the body at the moment of its sublimation, or disappearance into the representational theatre”
For me the questions are,
-where to go, from Feminist “anti-fetishism”?
-is it possible to unmask masculine ways of looking while keeping visual seduction alive?
-is it possibleto recuperate the seductive image, to arouse the viewer whilst maintaining an awareness of the brutalities of a commodifying fetishism? -
-is it possible to reciculate feminine ‘glamour’ and desirability for the female/male viewer without compromising feminine subjectivity?
The mirror implies a reversal of what is ‘given’. Using the framework of the mirror, I discovered a veil, a lamination of liquid holding the image beyond
the reach of the viewer, refering the veiwer endlessly to what is not seen - playing with that desire to hold the image. The use of candlelight, the processes involved create a safety within which I am free to perform. The colours for me imply something rich, sensuous, to be treasured. Similarly the paintings insist on the importance of the lived experience - disappearing back into the photograph should any attempt be made at reproduction. It is an attempt to defy translation. To be unique.
In Camera Lucida, Barthes defines two elements of the photograph; the ‘studium’ (the theme or subject of the picture), and a “second element” which “comes and breaks up the studium” (p.48) Beyond accepted notions of the photograph as object of the gaze being passive, while the viewer is active, aggressive (a relation which is lined up in terms of gender),Bartes describes something different - a reversal whereby the photograph penetrates the viewer. It is described by Jane Gallop as a ‘punctum’
- an otherness entering the viewer which she descrbes as somehow ecstatic ( ‘ecstasy” being derived from the Greek ‘ekstasis’; ‘ex’- “out”, and ‘histanis’- “to place”. Being placed ‘out of the body’) which recalls Cupid’s arrow - a love that comes from without, which pierces you, changes you, puts you in a state of passivity- a penetration of the self which is at once dangerous and threatening, yet pleasurable, wonderful. “Love is being open to change”, says John Leche,
an openess which acknowledges the other as different but equal
, an openess which offers the possibility of transgressing the present “bounds of sense”, in the same way as the poetic is described by Kristeva to offer an open-ended deferall of meaning - anticipating a language to come.
“Reality is the apparent absence of contradictions. The marvellous is the erruption of contradictions in the real. Love is a state of confusion between the real and the marvellous”Louis Aragon, The Paris Peasant.
an installation in two parts
(oil on canvas)
(dust on glass)
an installation in two parts by Lisa Creagh is located across the road, in M+B darkspace.
The Big Toe, Visions of Excess.
“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” , Walter Benjamin.
“The Legs of the Countess” Abigail Solomon Godeau, October 39.
“Women on the Market”, Luce Iraguray.
“Photography and the Fetish”, Christian Metz, October 34.
“the logic of the Gaze”, Vision and Painting.
“Ladies Shot and Painted”, from “The art of Interference”, Mary Ann Caws.
Christian Metz, ibid.
“House of Wax”, Norman Bryson. ibid.
“Carnal Knowledge”, from “Thinking Through the Body”, 1988.
“Abjection, Melancholia and Love”