The “Celluloid Self” and Spaces of Feminine Performativity

September 26, 2013 · Print This Article

The Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, located surprisingly in a nondescript complex of galleries and antique shops in Buckhead, a north-side neighborhood of Atlanta, curated a show focusing on feminism, performativity, and photography. The works in the show by the artists Jill Frank, Mónika Sziládi, and duo Double Zero (Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought) examine how to make a photograph of someone, a person, a woman (perhaps) and what that means. One of the organizing principles of the show – performativity, a buzz word indeed especially since the 1990s with Judith Butler’s work on gender – finds itself in relation to photographs that draw attention to the process of their making. Alongside considerations of gender and femininity as performative gestures, the works in the show investigate the apparatus of photography and imagistic representation itself – Jill Frank’s work in particular. Adding to this work by Frank is the Untitled (Projection) series by Steffani Jemison presented in her solo exhibition, When I Turn My Head, in the upstairs gallery at Hagedorn.

The works in Ready for My Close-Up evoke other images of women from history: paintings, film stills. These other images, not necessarily direct references, exist in an assemblage of representation with Frank’s, Sziládi’s, and Double Zero’s. When seen in conjunction with When I Turn My Head, the sphere of the imagistic medium, photography, opens itself to critical examination and self-reflection. Ready for My Close-Up seems to ask whether the question of female or feminine representation is the question of representation itself.

Jill Frank’s Menacing Romance

Four photographs from Jill Frank’s series Romance are presented in the show: Romance / Popocatépetl and Iztacchíhuatl (2012), Romance / Secret Sniper (2012), Romance / Vertigo (2013), and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013). All images are chromogenic prints with rich colors that provoke fantasies, and with their large size (30” x 37”), the viewer feels as if she can initially step into the scene. The first two images, Romance / Popocatépetl and Iztacchíhuatl (2012) and Romance / Secret Sniper (2012), depict more unsuspecting narratives, whereas the last two images, Romance / Vertigo (2013) and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013) start to take on a more sinister e/affect.

Jill Frank. "Romance / Vertigo." 2013. Chromogenic Print. Courtesy of the artist.

Jill Frank. Romance / Vertigo. 2013. Chromogenic Print. Courtesy of the artist.

A woman lays across a kneeling man’s knee with her head invisible to the viewer – it hangs down, exposing her throat where his his hand rests. Her knee hosts a series of bandages, the slingback of her shoe has slipped from her heel.

Two men stand at the edge of a dock. Wearing matching colored shorts, one holds the other from behind, grasping at his neck and chest. The man standing in front reaches over his head to hold onto the man behind him. The man in front looks up obliquely with an indistinguishable gaze.

These two photographs: Romance / Vertigo (2013) and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013) exemplify the complications Frank creates for our traditional senses of Hollywood romance. Frank’s statement for the show describes her process and intentions behind the series:

“The photographs in this exhibition portray couples re-performing poses inspired by popular media images that were formative in constructing their own understanding of romantic interaction and presentation. The photographed performances challenge the authority and familiarity of the collective visual archive of American romance in order to engender a critical conversation about the influence of dominant representations.” [1]

The show’s title Ready for My Close-Up directly references the last lines aging Hollywood actress Norma Desmond speaks in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. The film, a story of a silent film actress gone mad yearning to occupy the space of the Hollywood picture again, ends with her face approaching the camera until it disintegrates into a haze of grey. Her closeness to the camera quite literally destroys her, but it was the years of distance which contributed to her delusions. [2] Hagedorn’s exhibition statement describes the cultural reference to the film in relation to the photographic works shown in Ready for My Close-Up:

“In the last half century, feminism and performativity have influenced contemporary photography more than any other cultural markers. The exhibition title is taken from the exit line of Sunset Boulevard, a film which questions female identity issues, the rehearsal of the self, the gaze of the viewer, and the use of the theatrical to command attention, all influenced by culture and all features of this group exhibition.” [3]

The works in the group show can all serve as critical responses to the film, whether the work is explicitly influenced by the film or not; they exist together in the sphere of representation’s history. Frank’s photographs play out the deranged romantic entanglement of the film’s Desmond and Joe Gillis. Mónika Sziládi’s photographs present the viewer with a crowded and disorienting perspective of cultures and practices of representation. Double Zero’s photographs and video portray a feminine masquerade pushed to hyperbolic extremes.

 

Mónika Sziládi. "Untitled (Ladies)." 2012. Archival inkjet print.

Mónika Sziládi. Untitled (Ladies). 2012. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Sziládi, The Montage-Paparazzi

Sziládi’s photograph Untitled (Ladies) (2012) sticks a fuzzy and blurred face into the foreground of the image. The close-up shot has gotten too close like Norma Desmond’s final close-up in Sunset Boulevard. The six photographs shown at Hagedorn are from her series Wide Receivers, possibly a play on the position in American football, the players that are able to receive passes from the quarterback and are often celebrated for those glorious catches. Her statement describes her interests in the “social sphere and its attendant behaviors” and her “aim to collapse the space between the physical and the virtual.” [4] The images, a flattening of perspectival depth, contain images of imaging or representational processes and those who are allowed representation. There is a sense that when one figure stands in front of another, there is no space between their bodies; one actually cuts through the other’s body.

Untitled (Blonde) (2011) can be read as representing representation itself. Through Sziládi’s inclusion of images of handheld cameras, subjects posing for snapshots, a woman putting on make-up reflected in a mirror, and a perhaps drag queen taking up the center space of the photograph, after whom the photograph is titled, the photograph seems to become a commentary on the practice of photography itself. Next to the blonde, a man was caught with his eyes closed. To the left of him, a man’s eye peers directly out of the frame towards the subject looking at the photograph. Michel Foucault states that the 17th century painting Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velásquez

“presents us with the entire cycle of representation: the gaze, the palette and brush, the canvas innocent of signs (these are the material tools of representation), the paintings, the reflections, the real man (the completed representation, but as it were freed from its illusory or truthful contents, which are juxtaposed to it); then the representation  dissolves again: we can see only the frames, and the light that is flooding the pictures from outside, but that they, in return, must reconstitute in their own kind, as though it were coming from elsewhere, passing through their dark wooden frames.” [5]

 

Diego Velázquez. "Las Meninas." 1656. Image found at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Las_Meninas_%281656%29%2C_by_Velazquez.jpg

Diego Velázquez. Las Meninas. 1656. Image retrieved on Wikipedia at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Las_Meninas_%281656%29%2C_by_Velazquez.jpg

 

Sziládi’s digital composites of images taken at “public relations and networking events as well as trade shows and meet-ups of social segments that have connected online to interact offline” [6] comment on the constructed nature of the way we present ourselves in public and the ways in which we image those constructions. Like Velasquez’s painting, the apparatus of representation shows itself explicitly, drawing our attention to our own practices of presentation and public performance.

 

Mónika Sziládi. "Untitled (Blonde)." 2011. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of artist.

Mónika Sziládi. Untitled (Blonde). 2011. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

Double Zero’s Revealing Masks

Double Zero’s photographs and video push these meticulous constructions of public appearance to the extreme. In their video Cha cha cha changes (2013), Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought dress each other up with unconventional objects or conventional objects in unconventional ways. Over the course of the video’s almost 23 minutes, the two women take on absurd costuming and masking. With materials that are used for make-up application and other cosmetic tools, their faces become covered in lipstick and face paint, their heads bound in bubblewrap and what appears to be foil that could be used to dye hair. Flower stems are stuck into the fabrics wrapping their heads, blooms sticking out from their faces.

 

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). "each other + self-portrait #3 'My left arm and your right arm together'." 2013 C-print. Courtesy of the artists.

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). each other + self-portrait #3 “My left arm and your right arm together”. 2013 C-print. Courtesy of the artists.

 

The two take turns transforming each other’s appearance. In what appears to be a reference to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, particularly Cremaster 3, they go through processes of bodily manipulation and adornment. [7] If Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is about the development of the male testes, what can be said about Double Zero’s feminine transformations? Their statement reads: “We have united to use our 20 year friendship as the basis for investigating the ways we affect one another, the boundaries between us, and different modes of taking up space in the world. With the complexities of friendship and the trust we’ve built over time, we pursue these themes directly in the actions and objects we make together.” [8] Their photographs and video show a relational transformation. They affect one another whether they choose it or not. The silliness of the objects and the resulting ornate masks when coupled with their facial expressions in the video, the phenomenon of feminine friendship grows into a complex situation of acceptance and denial.

 

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). "Cha cha cha changes." 2013. Video.

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). Cha cha cha changes. 2013. Video.

 

Norma Desmond, after she convinces herself that her script for her film about Salome, the ancient femme fatale, will be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, she starts a rigorous beauty routine. She claims that she needs to make herself ready to be in the pictures again and a sequence shows her being massaged, prodded, wrapped, lotioned. At one point, while wearing products on her face and with her hair wrapped, she enters Joe’s room, but tells him not to look back at her; when she is made-up in this way instead of the proper way, he is not to gaze upon her. Desmond’s excessively vain self-consciousness, is a private practice made public. At another moment in the film, after gazing at herself in the mirror, eyes wide with frenzy, she rips off the cosmetic strips on her face before walking into Joe’s room to discover he is leaving her. She chases him as he exits the house. To get his attention, she shoots him. She shoots him again. This is the moment of her breakdown. After this moment, all she can do is sit in front of the mirror and prep for the camera.

 

Caravaggio. "Salome with the Head of John the Baptist." 1607. Image retrieved on Wikipedia at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/CaravaggioSalomeLondon.jpg

Caravaggio. Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. 1607. Image retrieved on Wikipedia at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/CaravaggioSalomeLondon.jpg

 

Concluding Remarks: does Jemison’s ink adhere?

Desmond lives in a world of cameras and characters. To her, cinema ended when dialogue began. She says to Joe “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.” She then steps into the light of the film projector in her home movie theater that is showing one of the movies she had starred in. The woman actress need only have a face; she didn’t need a voice – this is the kind of cinema that Desmond supports. The voice destroys the perfect face; the face of 1932 Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily that Laura Mulvey gazes upon in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” [9] As Joe Gillis voice-over narrates, Norma is a “celluloid self.” [10] Is the celluloid flat? Does it have any depth? Is her self only surface, the merging of the surface with the underlying anatomy, her body? Or, is her self a thin veneer covering the surface of the filmic foundation?

The upstairs gallery of Hagedorn hosts Steffani Jemison’s show When I Turn My Head which “considers issues that arise when conceptual practices are inflected by black history and vernacular culture” and also “addresses the form and materiality of a photograph through the fugitivity of the image.” [11] Works from her series Untitled (Projections), photographs printed on acetate, explore the ways in which an image may separate from its support. The ink does not sink into the acetate; it rests on the surface, creating a depth of materiality. [12] Mary Ann Doane writes in her seminal essay “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator” that “The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed. The masquerade’s resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness, as presence-to-itself, as precisely, imagistic.” [13] Taken together with the works in the show on the ground level, what do we discover about photography as a tool and method for thinking through and creating structures of representation? How much does the image adhere to what it represents and the foundation which holds that very representation itself?

 

Steffani Jemison. "Untitled (Projection)." 2012. Inkjet print on acetate, gesso, hardware on panel. Image retrieve on Jemison's website at: http://www.steffanijemison.com/index.php?/untitled-projections/

Steffani Jemison. Untitled (Projection). 2012. Inkjet print on acetate, gesso, hardware on panel. Image retrieve on Jemison’s website at: http://www.steffanijemison.com/index.php?/untitled-projections/

 

Sziládi, the figure of montage-paparazzi, makes apparent the apparatus of representation while Frank’s photographs create scenes in which non-extraordinary people inhabit the characters of Hollywood in order to experience true romance. What Frank shows us, though, is that these typical narratives are not without their dangers. Norma murders the man she has come to love. Whether or not that love is true is a question we could ask. In considering Ready for My Close-Up, must this love be artificial? Double Zero’s work seen as a sort of parody of making-up for the camera, expresses the artificial nature of feminine identity construction. However, within the framework of feminine friendship, we can’t too quickly dismiss these gestures of dressing one another. The collage nature of Sziládi’s digital images is seamless. Before knowing that they were constructed, I stood in front of the photographs pondering what parties they came from: where do these people gather? Are they all in costume together, playing into some collective fantasy?

 

Jill Frank. "Romance / Un homme et une femme." 2013. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

Jill Frank. Romance / Un homme et un Femme. 2013. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Frank’s series grew from an iconic image, at least in today’s age of Hollywood: the image of Baby / Jennifer Grey crawling towards Johnny / Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing. A recognizable image. What sets Frank’s later photographs apart is their subjects’ poses are initially unrecognizable. In some way, their illegibility may gesture towards an infiltration of our cultural imaginary that we now fail to recognize. The everyday performances of relationships and romance congeal in Frank’s photographs.  Ready for My Close-Up, a show curated around the issue of feminism and performativity, finds its complexity in Frank’s strangely unsettling images of menacing romance, Sziládi’s disorienting flatness, and Double Zero’s interplay of masking and revealing.

Desmond, an embodied image of the female hysteric, is deluded. Her wide eyes stare out at the film spectator. As the character Salome, a woman who has been historically represented as a seductress, she approaches the camera, staring directly out at us, outside the frame of the film. In this moment, is she re-living/playing her past traumas? Traumas that may have led to this moment? In the film’s final moments, when Desmond declares that she is ready for her close-up, what can we say is exterior? What is interior?  Who is she? And, gazing at her, making eye contact, who are we?

 

Film still from "Sunset Boulevard." 1950. Directed by Billy Wilder. Image retrieved from blog "Cinema is my Life" at: http://www.cinemaismylife.com/2011/02/sunset-boulevard-or-how-hollywood_28.html

Film still from Sunset Boulevard. 1950. Directed by Billy Wilder. Image retrieved from blog “Cinema is my Life” at: http://www.cinemaismylife.com/2011/02/sunset-boulevard-or-how-hollywood_28.html

 

Ready for My Close-Up
September 12, 2013 – October 25, 2013
Artists’ Reception: October 4, 2013, 6:00 – 8:30 PM

Panel Discussion with the artists and Wendy Vogel, Associate Editor at Modern Painters: October 5, 2013, 12:00 – 2:00 PM

Hagedorn Foundation Gallery
425 Peachtree Hills Avenue, Number 25
Atlanta, GA 30305

 

Notes

[1] Jill Frank, Statement

[2] Sunset Boulevard. Directed by Billy Wilder. 1950.

[3] Hagedorn, Statement

[4] Mónika Sziládi, Wide Receivers statement, http://msziladi.com/index.php/image/statement/13

[5] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1994), 11.

[6] Sziládi, Wide Receivers statement

[7] I am indebted to Justin Andrews for calling this to my attention.

[8] Annie Vought, “Double Zero Videos,” http://annievought.com/category/double-zero/

[9] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.

[10] Sunset Boulevard.

[11] Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, Press Release for Steffani Jemison’s When I Turn My Head.

[12] During the panel discussion featuring Steffani Jemison, when I asked Jemison if she could describe the title choice and process of making these images, she replied that she was examining the make-up of a photograph: its support and its image. Panel discussion with Steffani Jemison, Rizvana Bradley (Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University), and Rujeko Hockley (Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum) on 9.21.2013 at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery.

[13] Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator” in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 25. Reprint of the essay’s 1982 publication in Screen: Screen, vol. 23, no. 3-4 (1982): 74-88.

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