Sex and Sequence: Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1965)
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Sex and Sequence: Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1965)

Image: Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 1965 (film still)

Alongside our current exhibition Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s: Works From the Verbund Collection, this essay considers the representation of the female body in Carolee Schneemann’s notable film workFuses (1965).

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In Fuses, Carolee Schneemann documents herself and her boyfriend of the time, James Tenney, sleeping together in a number of situations within the couple’s home, observed by their cat, Kitch. The Gaze is posited in the female eye. Fuses hence demonstrates an attempt to debunk traditional modes of representation regarding the framing of female sexuality on camera.

Schneemann’s textured and subtle filming methods run through her work. The artist originally trained in painting, and has continued to identify herself as a “ painter” despite the interdisciplinary nature of her projects and their convergence with film and performance. In the opening sequence of Fuses – as the camera is directed across the body of Tenney under a hue of red light – Schneemann effectively draws the eye of the spectator across a richly textured painting. Her visuals are not explicit in this regard; rather, one must uncover, and feel their way through, the ambiguous physical forms exposed by the focus of her camera.

In the film Schneemann’s body becomes an instrument by which the artist, operating the camera, invites reflection upon the politics surrounding female sexuality. As discussed in her essay The Obscene Body/Politic, Schnemann uses the “ battleground” of the female body to address the notion of female ownership with regard to the representation of bodies. Through the reclaiming of her own body in Fuses, Schneemann protests against the exclusion of female perspectives in film: her body – the object of contestation – becomes her chosen medium to interrogate this conflict.

In The Obscene Body/Politic,Schneemann imagines female performance as the physical enactment of the female nude stepping out of the canvas and forcefully removing the paintbrush from a suggested, male painter. For Schneemann therefore, using one’s own body becomes a form of protest against the conventions of representation: the body transfigures into the canvas, asserting autonomy and directing its own visuality.

In Feminist Avant-Garde, this notion of female performance is reiterated throughout the exhibition. It is made clear that this form of bodily protest was not exclusively utilised by Schneemann, but was embraced and adopted by a community of women artists making work at the same time. The show explicitly recalls a movement that sought to re-imagine the female body through the artist’s physical “ reclaiming” of their own bodies. Like Schneemann in Fuses, Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman, and Hannah Wilke similarly frame their bodies as the object of subjection within their work. Through the utilisation of their physical selves, the artists within the exhibition bring focus back to the body through explicit images. This decision to use one’s own body does not identify as an act of vanity, but rather conveys a direct expression of the important struggle undertaken by women artists over the visual representation of their own bodies.

Schneemann’s work somberly harks back to the persisting conflict regarding the aesthetic of the female body and its relationship to female sexuality. Fusesstill feels revolutionary in terms of current lived female sexual experience: it can be seen as a violent attack on a societal force that continues to censor female sexuality today.

In Schneemann’s work and the exhibition, the concept of authority over one’s own body is framed as an essential liberator with regards to female representation. The relevance of both Schneeman’s Fuses and Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s remains, suggesting that this “ battleground” which Schneemann and her contemporaries visualise through their respective art practices, is in actuality, very much still being fought over.

Katrina Millar

Katrina Millar is an Art History postgraduate student, with a BA in Classics, both from UCL. Her line of research follows the relationship between sex and violence in American art post 1960. Recent research has led Katrina to interrogate the politics surrounding Yvonne Rainer’s performance artwork. After completing her MA, Katrina hopes to pursue further academic research and art criticism on the subject of the body politic in feminist art. 

References

Schneemann, Carolee. ‘The obscene body/politic’. Art Journal 50.4, 1991, pp 28-35.

Papenburg, Bettina and Marta Zarzycka. Carnal Aesthetics: Transgressive Imagery and Feminist Politics. IB Tauris, 2012.

Tracing the Absent Body: Jolana Havelkova’s “First Time Skating”
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Tracing the Absent Body: Jolana Havelkova’s “First Time Skating”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Spring 2016 programme, we have invited students from the Department of English at the University of Westminster, London. Here, Isabelle Coy-Dibley selects an image by Jolana Havelkova, which features in our current exhibition Double Take: Drawing and Photography.

Like a fingerprint trapped in ice, the unique contours of a body inscribed in a transitory moment, imprinting what will be lost once the ice thaws, fleetingly capturing a temporal and spatial pattern drawn by an absent body refusing to be forgotten.

The motif of fragmentation, shattering the coherency of a unified body, became the visual rhetoric of modernist art, rupturing the sense of totality within the individual subject. Havelkova’s First Time Skating extends and surpasses this rupture through the disembodiment of the body in its entirety. This displacement leads to a complete absence of the human subject that arguably literalises how Western society ‘is typified by a certain “ disembodied” style of life,’[1] where the onset of machines and technology transcends the need to feel as connected and embodied within the material body. The traces left by the ice-skater’s blades, with the skater nowhere to be found, exemplifies the state of our current culture, calling attention to our “ decorporealised” existence; to how we have lost our sense of the body.

Someone has felt the making of these markings. Markings that signify a process of becoming-a-body, cutting a body out of movement, feeling the wind flit across the skin, breath visible as it escapes the lips, muscles contracting, possibly unsure, unsteady, unbalanced; threatening to fall as the body gathers grace and learns to glide, never staying static.  

Yet strangely, the absent body, through this very corporeal absence, becomes a defining subject of the work, materializing as the photograph’s frame. Reference to the human subject is constructed through the absence of the body. The spectator grapples to find meaning through questioning the existence of the absent skater – what type of lived experience leaves such traces? How did they move, perceive this world, “ be” within this scene? Their essence, whoever the skater may be, is encapsulated within the traces, whilst their absence heavily borders the photograph, creating an enigmatic absent-present body that cannot be forgotten at the same time as it cannot be remembered. Similarly, the elusive subject questionably articulates a dual position of inhabiting both past and present within the photographic medium, whereby photography always operates within the past tense by capturing a moment for future observation, whilst simultaneously being discussed within present terms when the captured moment is exhibited. The absent body, similarly ever-present as the unforgettable bordering of the gestural marks, highlights the temporal displacement of all photographic subjects; the simultaneous presence and absence of the subject matter in which the static subject is at once frozen in time, always in a present moment that happened in the past. And what of the cuts and gashes, the beautifully violent marks left behind to signify the absent body, which are similarly caught before their approaching death as they face the melting away of their traces?

The image of two dancers etched in ice, brutally carved and split in two by the slash of the ice-skater’s blades. The spectator, drawn to their inscription, their meaning; their embodiments, creates the traces of subjectivities in their own rights, in the absence of a body. Even now the eye desires a form, to make bodies out of lines – the traces materialising like the outline of a ballerina, stretching for the other’s touch.

Since there are no visual cues to hint at the ice-skater’s identity, preventing the spectator from constructing a specific subject, the weight of subjectivity falls upon their residual markings. The gaze has been subverted from the body and its preferred objectification by the spectator, and yet, by displacing the body’s position in front of the lens, the gestural marks become the epitome of the absent subject – the remaining meaningful essence of the absent body.

Cuts, gashes, lacerations that literalise the split in self through the fragmentation of traces never entirely connected to one another, but violently sliced into imperfect contours, refuting the circular, never-ending connectivity of subjectivity.

Denied access to the body, the traces take on the body’s subjectivity, usurping and relegating it to the sidelines. Yet, through this displacement, the absent body exceeds the confines of the grid, the rigid placement of the photograph’s frame, since it cannot be restricted or forced to adhere to the photograph’s aesthetics. The body is no longer constricted but present in its absence, surrounding the photograph and exuding meaning through the breaks in the traces; the gaps in signification. The body becomes excess, exceeding the borders, exceeding the boundaries, exceeding the gaze.

The body cuts itself into the ice, etching the lines of its existence. In its absence, you will remember its being – the remaining marks will always lead you to the body’s disappearance and the fissure this creates. Until the ice thaws, the elusive presence of the absent body is omnipresent.

– Isabelle Coy-Dibley

[1] Leder, D (1990) The Absent Body. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, p. 3.

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster. In 2012, she gained a First class honours in her BA English Literature degree from the University of Westminster. Following this, she completed an MA in English: 1850-Present at King’s College London in 2013 and an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London in 2014. Her research interests are predominantly within contemporary women’s experimental literature with an interdisciplinary theoretical approach, presently exploring concepts of female corporeal memory and bodily semantics and methods of inscription upon the female body. She has presented at multiple conferences both in the UK and internationally.

The Image and the Letter: Nancy Hellebrand’s “Y”
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The Image and the Letter: Nancy Hellebrand’s “Y”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Spring 2016 programme, we have invited students from the Department of English at the University of Westminster, London. Here, Sally Willow selects an image by Nancy Hellebrand, which features in our current exhibition Double Take: Drawing and Photography.

Take One: Writing by Nancy Hellebrand

The line has been traced: starting top-left, looping down into a heavy curve that rises, doubling-up lightly on the right to begin a swift and certain downward stroke with slight faltering hesitation at its stem. It is underlined for clarity at the base.

Yes, it is the base. The base of a handwritten letter Y – the underscore confirms it. But without it, without that delineation, might I be looking at an “ h” if I turned the image the other way up? A letter out of the context of a word, a sentence, is nothing more than an inscribed shape. A pattern of lines and spaces that I’ve been taught to understand as Y. Or “ h”, from a different perspective.

Presented in portrait, the camera marks it as Y. A lone and single Y. Is this a question:  “ Why”? The blank and empty space around it suggests the weight of that question and the innumerable events, objects, ideas to which it could be applied – the unspeakable silence that both echoes within the question and haunts its lack of answers. Although it looks more like a Y of certainty and hope with its bold strokes and positive positioning in the space.  A “ Yes” then, perhaps.

Take Two: Nancy Hellebrand, 4

I double back. In my certainty that I am being presented with the letter Y – oriented by the underscore; defined by the collection’s title: Writing – I have overlooked the title of the photograph, 4. Are these lines, marks, strokes intended to signify a number not a letter?  It doesn’t look like a 4. Not in the typographical sense that I’ve come to recognise instinctively and unconsciously: the sharp angles and enclosed triangular shape. Yet I’ve caught myself, in my own handwriting on several occasions since my first encounter with this image, drawing out a curved and open number 4, just like this one.

Double Take: ‘She continues to be driven to see beyond that which is seen’ (Nancy Hellebrand)

The letter is double: it is the visual representation of a sound that we interpret within a series of images and sounds to signify as language. In ancient alphabets across the world letters, or their pictorial representations, carried symbolic meanings alongside and prior to their identification with particular sounds. One such alphabetic system is the Celtic Ogham: its symbol Ioho has been identified with the letters I, J and Y.  Ioho is the final letter/symbol in the ancient Ogham alphabet and is named after the Yew tree, with which it shares symbolic resonances. Both Ioho and Yew occupy the position between the beginning and the end in their respective sequences, Ioho in the cycle of the Ogham and Yew in the cycle of the seasons – symbolising death and rebirth within the cycle of life. Again we are doubling, slipping, generating an excess of meaning and signification. Ioho, the Y and the Yew: aurally, the “ I” and the “ you”; death in life and life in death endlessly entwined.

Doubling: the image and the letter. The image of the letter – its isolation giving rise not to a dearth of meaning and significance, but engendering an abundance, a proliferation and multiplication of meanings and possibilities. Its isolation requires the viewer to shift the focus from a visual representation of a sound designed to be read as part of a signifying sequence, to a pictorial image with multiple layers of meaning and significance of its own.

The camera lens removes the image from its context, reducing it to a series of lines, a dark shape on a lighter space with nothing but silence all around.  Taken out of sequence its meaning is redoubled, made mysterious and uncertain. A polyvalence is suggested which requires double-looking to interpret, yet it can never be brought fully into the sharpness of focus that would determine a singularity of meaning. It remains open to ambiguity and an excess that cannot be resolved or reduced.

you are

writereader

i am

writereader

Who writes? Who is the reader? Who makes the meaning, on [off] the page?

I catch you. Your eye and your attention with a word written: in your voice. Who is speaking.  It is your voice. The words transformed in your mouth in your memory. From what they were. You speak the sound.  You speak the silence. From what they were you transform: them.  Make new.  Begin again from here.  Hear.  You see

Nancy Hellebrand’s Writing series, particularly this image 4, asks us to look again at the symbols and structures we encounter every day and perhaps fail to really see. By isolating the component parts of language and placing them in the position of an image for the camera she foregrounds the pictorial qualities of the hand-drawn letter.  By removing the letter from a sequence she encourages us to see it anew and explore unexpected layers of meaning to produce alternative readings: to “ see beyond that which is seen”.

– Sally Willow