The work of Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen speaks of violence and abjection through the trauma of abandonment. Using photographic collage, she creates claustrophobic spaces to intensify painful experiences. Memory blends with filmic reference, blurring reality so the viewer temporarily loses their footing within the works, leaving them floating briefly like the figures collaged in the print. Focusing primarily on She’s Not a Eunuch! (Re-Birth of Venus) and Postpartum depression – I don’t want to do the nurturing anymore, one can see several correlations in the works, with an overall sense that what protects us most from pain and suffering may be the walls we put up.
Regarding the images at face value, we are presented with collaged compositions of the female body in actual, idealized and costumed states. The figures are denied a concrete spatial relationship, existing in expansive close ups of skin and hair. These images are further flattened through the lack of strong shadows, the abundance bright lighting and a minimalist color pallette. Impossible to ignore above all else is the repeated use of a plastic mask found at an arts and craft store that has been painted to match the model’s skin tone. This mask, in conjunction with two different wigs, disturb the scenes. While somewhat humorously, they are overall menacing, evoking terror in the domestic space. In Postpartum depression, the cheap wig spills all over the image, its wild yet fragile acrylic locks evoke Bridget Bardot or Jane Fonda after a restless night’s sleep, as shimmering cornsilk flows everywhere. She’s Not a Eunuch! features a shorter wig, which combined with the mask, immediately calls to mind Christine (played by Edith Scob), from the classic Georges Franju thriller Eyes Without a Face.
The title reference to eunuchs is not just of physical castration, but of a lower social status. As the Re-Birth of Venus, the role as goddess of divine beauty, responsible for both sexual and spiritual awakening, the denial of castration is met with a new order in sexual and spiritual awakening, one that may ultimately challenge a traditional viewpoint, yet may be more inclusive. A contrapposto stance with cream sneakers as a clamshell, floating over a sea of skin, caught by the current — the trail of stocking — adds visual correlation. All eight of the four figure’s feet float in space in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, denying their grounding as in Chanel’s photographs. Likewise, a significant flattening of the work is evident: from Venus overtop the clamshell, the other figures appear right next to her in a line, the water extending upwards behind them instead of extending back, and the unreal meeting of the land to water, where the land attempts to recede awkwardly in two directions. This nod is not merely to one painting, but to an awkward and slow move towards full spatial perspective, one that acknowledges a transition in understanding as well as tastes, that insists on a certain adolescent stage that is crucial to development that should not be ignored.
The flatness of the image, coupled with the extreme close ups, are confrontational, brightly lit and without strong shadows to help distinguish contour, space or form. In this we are unable to look away or deny the abuses on the child by the parent, or ignore that baby does see, that the future self sees, recognizes and is still shocked. In this tightening of space there is little room for anyone, and so the child gets pushed out; they hide behind a mask to create a private space for themselves that aims to protect them and hide their pain, as pain is often punished with more pain.
Trauma is often revisited by the victim through some sort of reenactment. Often in photographs and film, we view restaging of events both real and fictional. Our ability to imagine an event that we have no knowledge of can be shaped through filmic events. As I correlated one filmic character to Chanel’s figures, another can be drawn from Lee Geum-ja (also a victim) in Park Chan Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), and again, Scob can be seen in Chanel’s photo Postpartum depression, as the limo driver inLeos Carax’sHoly Motors (2012), where Scob briefly reprised her famous role in Eyes Without a Face by donning a similar mask. A reenactment from a scene from a film could allow one to try to live out a situation, making it real, though it remains an encapsulated fiction within reality. If one cannot relate to the trauma depicted through events in their own life, the filmic knowledge of it may step in. It may be that the events we live sometimes seem so surreal that we correlate them to a film, possible to remove ourselves from them. Perhaps also are the ways we remember events, taking on nuances from various filmic scenes collaged together. This is one example of universal trauma, though it is imagined through the viewing of film. In this way, Chanel allows another entry point into her work, while at the same time calling to mind elements of art history. Which is why the relation to Eyes Without a Face is not just perfunctory: Christine was a victim of her father’s abuse, repeatedly inflicted on her physically and mentally, all the while claiming he was helping her, and that the abuse was love. She was a monster, but only through the eyes and actions of those who claimed to love her.
A second universal trauma, one that is directly experienced, is the abjection of the body. As the body excretes, exudes and decays, it fails our perception of the perfect human, one that is young, beautiful and immortal. Abjection is inherent in trauma, as the traumatic deteriorates and degrades its victim, lowering their understanding of themselves within the world. Trauma can displace the victim as to radically change the perception of the self, especially due to the severity. The lack of ground in the photos is a displacement through trauma and abandonment. Abjection in the photos also takes place in the skin, not merely through the nude body, but also through its whiteness. The mask, the baby, the stockings, cream shoes and blonde wigs are signifiers of whiteness: blending in, the status quo, innate privilege and authority; but whiteness is also demented, sinister and anxiety-ridden. Coupled with nudity, it seethes into a sticky underbelly, one guilty by association. It suggests a malevolence in how it swallows the space of both photographs, consuming the figures.
The Gaze is represented fairly straight forward in She’s Not a Eunuch! — she gives it right back to the viewer knowing she is being watched, coyly playing the part in a humorous way. In Postpartum depression, abuse is acted out for the viewer, but as the abused is the abuser, the gaze is also directed inward towards the self. The cycle of violence spins around forever within the claustrophobic picture plane, to be revisited again and again. The gaze stays within the image, and travels around it in a triangle, from the large close up in the background, down to the self with child, they shoot their eyes to the larger baby whose hair has been cut, whose eyes we can’t see, but its positioned towards the background close up. The format recalls countless horror movie posters from the 1960’s, both classic and cult, foreign and domestic. It is a language of conflict within the individual; the individual made outcast by the family or society. Beyond a lack of understanding, we create monsters through unconsolable differences.
To live new and become another is one possibility within the mask. Sometimes it merely hides one from themselves. In Chanel’s work, the most space offered in the images is between the mask and the wearer’s face. If there is any breathing room, it is here, in the gasping humidity of hurried breath where the world is contained, as everything outside of this is an ever tightening space of abject horrors replayed.
Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen is a recent recipient of the Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship. Her work described above was featured in “Tools of the Trade: Cranbrook Academy of Art 2014 Graduate Degree Exhibition”. She received an MFA in Photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art in May 2014.
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