Thursday, 15 November 2012

Abject Art and the Aged Body: Learning Self-Delight in the Photography of Melanie Manchot (part 3)

The image of the abundant body can be a site of subversion rather than anxiety, when the subject is displayed as being in possession of lived experience and corporeal substance. My project is interested in reversing the binaries that suggest that women who are not young or slim are missing something. Joanna Frueh comments of Western visual culture that, “The runway model and the porn icon symbolise youth itself and create longing. In addition, for the older woman, they represent loss”, but this does not have to be so; what is being proposed here is that the older and corpulent body is not something that lacks but something that is plentiful, a body of abundance. Francette Pacteau comments on the weight of expectation and regulation the body is put under, noting that the body itself is a shifting, growing and ageing thing, yet is expected to forge itself into a semblance of social stability, "The social body seems to burst at the seems under the pressure of a recalcitrant physicality, which breaks out, out of place, as dirt, as disease. Coming into being at the edges of our existence, straddling the dividing line of formative binary oppositions, threatening to infect, pollute, the sanitised zones of our subjectivities, the grotesque body partakes of the abject".

The abundant body is a body that baulks at these pressures and rebels against the constructions of norms that dictate that displays of age and flesh on women's bodies are to be treated as marks of excess, which through airbrushing, face creams, surgery and diets can be reduced and disappeared. This supposed excess comes to be seen as bodily abjection: the excess flesh is felt not to belong to the body, but to be its “weight” and therefore its waste. The same can be said for age: in its proximity to decay and death, it also has been saddled with abjection. What will be discussed here is how the “abject body” can be seen as subversive, a body that transgresses its own limits to flaunt its own abundance.

In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva advances a theory to account for the fear and fascination, horror and sometimes excitement we experience when encountering or thinking about our bodily fluids, viscera and waste. According to Kristeva, “It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”. What is perhaps most revealing about Kristeva's theories of abjection is the way in which it describes the oppression of women through the disavowal of the very fact and function of their bodies. It is the very fecundity of the female body that is treated as horrifyingly abject: menstrual blood, breast milk, the moistness of the vagina and the dark unknown of the womb.

In the work of Melanie Manchot, the display of an ageing body provokes a renegotiation of the visibility of bodily abjection in art. It is evidence of a subversive artistic gesture that turns the ugly and horrifying into its negation, a self-delighting positive representation of alternative femininity. In Obscene Abject Traumatic Hal Foster comments, “For the most part...abject art has tended in two other directions. The first to identify with the abject, to approach it somehow – to probe the wound of trauma, to touch the obscene object-gaze of the real”. In the case of Manchot's portraits, the trauma of the abject lays in the suppression of images of women in later life. He continues, “To be sure, the violated body is often the evidentiary basis of important witnessings to truth, of necessary testimonials against power”.

Exploring the effects of power on older women's sense of self, Chris Phillipson makes the point in Capitalism and the Construction of Old Age that, “Many of the problems women face are not in fact, due to the effects of physical ageing or to the shock of losing a partner, but to the restrictive opportunities available to them after they have performed productive/reproductive roles. These restrictions are compounded via the low income and sex role conditioning which women bring into old age”. This suggests that is not ageing itself that has stripped women of their own sense of self-delight, but the trauma of their treatment by society that strips them of status. After an interview with the subject/senior, Chris Townsend explained how Mrs Manchot developed her own sense of self-delight through exhibiting her body. At first she was apparently ashamed of her body, not wanting her face to be used in the pictures, wanting to distinguish her self from the effects of time and change upon her body. Townsend comments, "but after a year Mrs Manchot felt that she belonged in a new body, one in which she could take satisfaction. It wasn't that the body had changed, wasn't that through massive surgery or miracle cure that she was suddenly more youthful, thinner, more 'beautiful'. What had changed, because of the work, was the relationship between mind and body – instead of shame, there was dignity. What was ugly and asexual was recognised as having always been beautiful and erotic".

In Sitting and Posing,1997 (left) the expression on Mrs Manchot's face is one of real self-delight; the lighting shines brightly on her face as her eyes cast upwards in a gesture of pride and dignity, a strong feeling of pleasure shines out of her face. Her breasts and torso are visible but they are not the focus of the picture, it is her/our “face-to-face” we are drawn to, she is a subject we are encountering, and we share her delight.Val Williams says of Manchot that “her photographs are about portraiture, about relationships not only with the subject but with the medium of photography, about space and form, light, shade and surface. Through her use of an ageing woman as her principle subject has been controversial we should not mistake sitter for a symbol or the fantastical for the real”. However, I would suggest that William's formalist reading totally misses the phenomenological embodied experience the work is about, as apart from what they are about formally, they are also experientially about overcoming objectification and social and personal fears of uncontained boundaries of the abject aged body. This work is also about the subject's desire and our visual pleasure as well as a tactile appreciation and haptic sympathy with the works' subject. Our embodied reception of Manchot's photograph is close to the realm of the sublime, as they are not classically beautiful yet possess qualities that evoke awe, attraction and disquiet from its a close encounter with abjection: as Hal Foster hypothesises with respect to abject art in general, “it is as if this art wanted the gaze to shine, the object to stand, the real to exist, in all the glory (or the horror) of its pulsating desire, or at least to evoke the sublime condition.”

Part One: Art History and Ugliness: Bodily Abundance as Subversion
Part Two: Powers of Pleasure and Disgust, Jenny Saville

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Powers of Pleasure and Disgust: Jenny Saville (part 2)

My ongoing project has been interested in drawing parallels between images of the old and the corpulent female body, in making connections with the way they are received and experienced culturally, socially and phenomenologically. Although there are many such connections, there are also differences between age and corpulence. One of the major differences concerns control. Ageing is ultimately out of our control: we may use cosmetics or surgery to lessen the appearance of age, to put it on hold temporarily, but it remains an inevitability. Corpulence, on the other hand, is a relatively controllable bodily reality that can be repressed, prevented or avoided by asserting strict control over mind/body/lifestyle and diet.

As we see in the research of Susie-Orbach and Susan Bordo, gaining weight is one of the major fears among young women. Out of the two states of ageing and corpulence, it is corpulence that provokes the strongest reaction of repulsion and fear - while the display of the aged female body may be shocking and unnerving to some viewers, it does not provoke the same level of disgust as the presentation of corpulent nakedness. Joyce L. Huff's essay A “Horror of Corpulence” goes some way to explain the reasons for this: “the corpulent body was seen as particularly resistant to normalisation, because it was visibly individuated; it would not resolve itself into the supposedly universal body defined as average”. It is with this idea of rejecting the normalisation, in favour of radically different and challenging bodies in mind that a discussion of disgust can take place.

In her essay Jenny Saville and A Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust, Michelle Meager makes a connection between disgust and an ethical encounter with the image of the other, arguing that Saville's art of unknown bodies provokes knowledge of others' realities. Her argument is that disgust acts as a form of knowledge-gathering, in that it prompts the viewer to make thought-inquiries about the state of bodies' representations in art history as well as in culture and society. Meager suggests that “Saville presents bodies rarely appreciated in contemporary Western culture. In a cultural climate that encourages women to conceal, if not exercise, those parts of their bodies considered fat, jiggly, out of control, and excessive, Saville insists upon revealing precisely these features.” Continuing the theme of physical disgust as visual and moral injury, she writes: “The fat female body, laid bare on Saville's canvas, provides an opportunity to find out what disgusts, and what disgusted and disgusting bodies can do, and in short it offers the opportunity to pay attention to the visceral reminders of how we embody social contexts and cultural expectations”.

In Propped, 1992, (left) Saville presents the viewer with an image of the female form on a pedestal; the woman looks down at us as the great mass of her body towers precariously above us. This body does not fit the pedestal that women have been placed upon in the history of art and Western culture: she runs the risk of any moment falling/failing, the uncontrolled abundance of her body knocking her off its pedestal. Yet this image is actually still, she does not fall. It is an image full of paradoxes and contradictions, for despite the precariousness of this large body on a tiny stool, the composition is balanced and pleasingly symmetrical. All the full rounded parts of her body are displayed to full advantage, her breasts squashed together, her hands and fingers grasping at the generous flesh of her thighs and calves, yet this is combined with rather slender ankles with the thin traces of tendons running down from ankle to foot; this is then met by the hint of pointy white strappy shoes wrapped around the stool. This mixing of the excessive body out of bounds with the conventional beauty of dainty ankles in feminine shoes causes a stir: it is shocking as well as familiar. It also breaks with the conventions of the nude by showing a nude wearing outdoor shoes; this trope in fact has more in common with the styling of pornography in which women are often only wearing high-heeled shoes. This choice of keeping the shoes on does not however act like a pornographic fetish, but rather through this reference to sex inscribes the body as a sexual subject. But because this body on display is so unusual for both contemporary pornographic and art historical nudes, having the shoes kept on gives the body back a personality: it is the body of someone who walks about, wears and chooses shoes etc. Therefore she is not just a nude, not just a body on a pedestal, but a subject with agency.

Speaking of her choice to use usual corpulent bodies in her work, Saville comments: “We live in a time where that type of body is abhorrent. A body this size represents excess, lack of control, going beyond the boundary of what's socially acceptable. I wanted the paint itself to be kind of obese, to have a diseased quality to the the paint – a overabundance of paint on the surface”. Saville achieves quite a feat by both managing to give agency back to the owners of these corpulent bodies, and presenting them as aggressively challenging to look at. This yoking together of tenderness with disgust is a powerful mixture which makes her work difficult and confrontational.

It is by making the abundant flesh that is so taboo the main focus of her work that Saville makes her paintings so viscerally disquieting. They are also portraits of flesh itself, presenting the excessive and culturally undesirable as worthy of regard, pleasure and appreciation. It is also this very aspect which many viewers find disgusting. Mark Cousins explains our visceral relationship to the ugly as follows: “the case of the obsessional shows that the ugly object, in its relation to the subject, is not static but is always eating up the space between it and the subject". Applying this to the experience of a Saville painting, our spectatorial position can be seen as one of invasion: we have a sense of our personal space being intruded upon. Chris Townsend explains the phenomenological threat with which Saville's work confronts art viewers, noting that there is “in Saville's even larger paintings, an overwhelming figure of domination and threat. What was, what is, classified as abject, and perhaps pathetic returns as an object of horror and aggression that is barely limited by the glass. The sensation that these pictures give is that the screen is more there to protect the viewer, than imprison the subject-victim”. The glass here is that of the painting's frame; it is this that holds this body of abundance at a safe distance from the spectator. The horror of disgust is approached but we are protected from being overwhelmed by the corporeality of the real boundless body. This is an example of the sublime: we come close to being overwhelmed by something but are at a distance that allows for pleasure to arise from an encounter with the disgusting, free from real pollution.

In Savouring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, Carolyn Korsmeyer uses Kantian theories of the sublime to link the arousal of the feeling of disgust with that of the overwhelming negative pleasure of the sublime, both of which possess attributes of fear, fascination attraction and repulsion. But she then backtracks, unsure of her conjecture: “There is a reward for encountering terror if it results in the sublime, which is a transcendent experience well worth the pain of its achievement. But encounters with disgust do not seem to pay this kind of dividend, as its objects are base and foul – unworthy of our regard”. Yet, as suggested here, this is not always the case: the bodies considered in this project can be, and have been, described in terms of disgust, and yet also are very much “worthy of our regard”. As we have seen, feelings of disgust, appreciation and pleasure can be experienced simultaneously; indeed, such feelings are closer together than is often thought.

George Bataille suggests that transgressing the rules of Western morality and art history - rules that posit that bodies categorised as disgusting, abject or obscene can only be experienced negatively as morally or physically unpleasant – can provide a source of subversive pleasure; for Bataille, indeed, this transgression is the definition of Eros. In Eroticism he asserts: “Because beauty counts insofar as ugliness cannot be further sullied, and the essence of eroticism is filth itself...Beauty is desired in order that it may be fouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it”. Bataille's assertion then is that there is a strong element of pleasure and delight in the experience of the “disgusting” body. Korsmeyer's writing confirms this notion, “[D]isgust becomes part of deep aesthetic apprehension of difficult experiences, including some that might even qualify as beautiful – and even more surprisingly as delicious”. This also demonstrates the way a body that is thought of as ugly, or disgusting - not a body that is surface perfection and beauty, but a body that is a product and producer of abjection - shares an affinity with the murkiness of sexuality. This approach to the disgusting recasts the abundant body as an agent provocateur of visual pleasure and feminist desire.

Part One: Art History and Ugliness: Bodily Abundance as Subversion

Part Three: Abject Art and the Aged Body: Learning Self-Delight in the Photography of Melanie Manchot

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Art History and Ugliness: Bodily Abundance as Subversion (part 1)

One of the questions my research seeks to explore is how the supposedly ugly body can in fact produce delight, how “disgusting” and “repulsive” images of abjection can also be received with pleasure, and how the transgressive body can be subversive. I have proposed elsewhere that the viewing of the abundant body could effect an embodied sublime experience, combining uneasiness, disorientation and repulsion with aesthetic pleasure, with a sympathetic visual caress. What it is about the abundant body, what fears and horrors it stirs up, that produces such a transgressive sublime experience?

The abundant body is not classically beautiful; it has been more readily described in terms of the ugly. The quality of ugliness that images of such bodies possess comes from their transgression of boundaries, rules and norms. In their presentation of really lived and functioning bodies, that age, decay, seep, expand and swell, they positively subvert the notion of the body as a fixed stable and socially controlled entity - a notion that denies the reality of human existence as perpetual flux.

Beauty has held the same privileged position in art as it has in society, yet there have been instances where the trend for the beautiful has waned and artists as well as writers have turned their attention to depictions of the negation of beauty. During the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th century, there was a shift towards what Umberto Eco has termed “the redemption of ugliness”. Writers such as Victor Hugo, Matthew G. Lewis, and J.-K. Huysmans etc expressed fascination with, pleasure in and excitement about the repulsive and ugly. At this time, art was also taking up these themes; the Symbolists in particular were interested in the macabre, gruesome, grotesque and abject. Yet when women were depicted, it was in the guise of the hag, the wanton, the diseased prostitute and the femme-fatale of monstrous sexuality. Thus this turn towards the undesirable, this rejection of the beautiful, did not provide alternative ways of representing being for women, but rather revealed an inherent misogyny in the “redeemers” of the ugly.

My research is concerned with art works which attempt the negation of the negation of the Western beauty standard; with images that transcend the often misogynistic presentation of the ugly woman, through a subversive, transgressive representation of bodily abundance that could provoke delight and visual pleasure for all. First of all, however, we need to understand the negation itself: what is the ugly, what does it stand for, how do we receive it, and what does the avoidance of ugly images in art and visual culture ward against?

Contemporary art historians and aestheticians have attempted various theorisations of ugliness, linking it to the appearance of dirt, and abjection: the ugly is often described as being in the wrong place, an unwelcome presence that must be disavowed; as something to protected ourselves against, as if an encounter with the ugly could corrupt and infect. For example, Mark Cousins's essay The Ugly describes the ugly as, “an excess which comes to threaten the subject”. Similarly, in a catalogue essay on ugly art Nausea: Encounters with Ugliness, Mark Hutchinson hypothesises that, "Ugliness is close, threatening and exciting. Both obscene and fascinating, the ugly is a trope of contradiction and excess: it is too much...Ugliness is relentless. It threatens to dissolve distance. It is apocalyptic. In ugliness the subject sees the end of distinctions; the end of difference; the end of space; the end of time; the end of everything. As such, the ugly both threatens death and promises to fulfil utopian longing".

In these terms the ugly is framed in much the same way as the sublime, as an encounter with the horrifying-yet-fascinating that threatens as strongly as it attracts. As this is an ethical approach to how the ugly functions, it is worth thinking not just about how we may take pleasure from the encounter, but also about the wider issues of ways in which the ugly may possess subversive potential. As Cousins points out, “if ugliness is to become an object of inquiry, this inquiry will have to be conducted outside of the scope of aesthetics”. Therefore, theories of the ugly body also have to be thought about in reference to the context of cultural conditioning and the regulating powers of society.

Representations that show the workings of the body as viscerally abundant, that physically and metaphysically spill out of the confines of the ideal, neatly sealed, controlled body that visual culture asserts as the norm. As argued in the first chapter, the ideological norm of beauty holds that the beautiful is smooth, sealed and tight, such that any body falling short of these requirements is treated as ugly and in need of correction. In Vile Bodies, a study of photography and bodies received as ugly, freakish or grotesque, Chris Townsend proposes that the uncontrolled body holds great fascination for audiences, as it represents an aspect of the socially invisible, and the therefore unknown bodily realities of ageing and corpulence. He comments, “What a fascination the interior of the body holds for us! What a fear too. The human being is a paradox, simultaneously container and contained, a vessel that unless brim-full is meaningless. We are recognised, we derive our identity, from our surfaces”. The ugly body is not a sealed unit but rather a body of “seepage” (as described by Elizabeth Grosz): as the unknown insides of this body are not contained, its breaching of borders threatens our own. Townsend elaborates on this: “The threat that the ugly, abject condition poses to the maintenance of the category of the body means that it is always made the object of confinement and containment”.

The idea here is that images of the ugly or uncontrolled body tap into a human need to come to terms with our bodies as vulnerable constructions of flesh, blood, skin and organs, and that viewing this aspect of being is both frightful and fascinating. The display of bodies out of bounds firstly creates through vicarious voyeurism a visual pleasure in experiencing the novel, then secondly allows for knowledge-gathering by giving access through art to a bodily reality that the smooth, airbrushed bodies in the media deny. The ugly image forces the viewer to acknowledge issues surrounding the body that western culture in general is frightened by: to confront the fears of losing control of one's own bodily integrity, of ageing and finally of death itself.

Images of the “ugly” aged and corpulent body that deviates from idealised beauty, are confrontational: the viewer's reaction of fear and disgust reveals the way such bodies have been as socialised as “other”. In Ageing and Agency, Mike Hepworth states that, “The decaying body is one where the contained or 'boundedness' of the body breaks down and internal bodily secretions can no longer be contained within but leak out and contaminate the self of the sufferer and those around”. This expresses the way that Western culture is afraid of others' realities that are found to be undesirable: the fear of those viewing depictions of ageing bodies is that the decay of the old body will invade the viewer. Yet such images are important for this very reason: they force the viewer to take note, and give visibility back to older people.

As Celia Hartley states in Letting ourselves Go: Making Room for the Fat Body in Feminist Scholarship, in terms which apply equally to age and corpulence, “women who do not maintain rigid control over the boundaries of their bodies, allowing them to grow, to become large and 'unfeminine', are treated with derision in our society, that derision is tied inextricably to the personal freedom of women”. One would hope that when the old and young are treated with equal affection, desire and respect in art as in life, that the images of ageing female bodies would cease to be shocking, frightening or repellent and instead be seen as a different kind of beautiful.

Images: Jacqueline Hayden, Figure Model Series, 1991-1996.

Part Two: Powers of Pleasure and Disgust, Jenny Saville
Part Three: Abject Art and the Aged Body: Learning Self-Delight in the Photography of Melanie Manchot

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Woodland Romps in FORESTS by Calixto Bieito at the Barbican London

Calixto Bieto's Forest tonight at the Barbican was a wonderful production. "Composed from original verse from Shakespeare’s woodland and heath scenes, the play takes audiences from As You Like It's forest of Arden through the moving trees of Macbeth’s Birnam Wood, ending in the bare wilderness of King Lear’s cliffs of Dover: a vivid theatrical journey from the calmness of paradise to the uncertainties of purgatory and finally into the flames of hell". So, lots of saucy and sometimes violent romps around a wood, with plenty of undressing, putting on the clothes of the nearest person then swapping genders, rolling around in dirt, sons mistakenly killing fathers, fathers mistakenly killing their only sons, soliloquies on love, death, sex, greed, monstrosity...the usual fare. But what was really spectacular about this play was the set designs - enjoy the stills:

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Figuring The Ageing "Second Woman" in John Cassavetes' Opening Night (1977)

Gena Rowlands' character in Opening Night, Myrtle Gordon, is playing "Virginia" the lead role in a play about women and age called "The Second Woman". The secondness here is very much is the way of Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex", where woman is the second, the lesser, the other to man's Firstness. Cassavetes provides here another othering distinction within the category of "women" and that is the older women as second to the more culturally and visibly valued younger women.

The film problematises the socially compulsory shifting of being seen as woman to the experience of not-being-seen as an older woman. The crisis of the film is Myrtle's inability and refusal to see herself as the other or second woman, her extravagant, aggressive and witty displays of her own sense of selfhood demand attention, reclaiming her slipping visibility. The character "Virginia" is a woman in the process of disappearing. Throughout fragments shown of the play, we see her revisiting memories, sites of love affairs and a marriage, relationships that have moved on without her. Dropping in unannounced on an ex-husband who is now remarried with three children, Virginia is confused, disorientated by the visible passing of time. The new wife confirms Virginia's status again as the "second woman" questioning her "what kind of woman does that?", this is the point, Virginia has found herself in the "no man's land" of middle-age and does not know what and who she is and where she fits. Her sense of self is so dependant on the way she is seen by the men in her life that when their view of her changes, her self perception is called into question and she begins to unravel.

This simultaneously is also happening to Myrtle, throughout the fiilm she leans on her colleagues, who during the film it becomes apparent are also her ex-lovers, questioning if they still love her, want her, think highly of her, she needs their validation. She is often met with such telling replies as "you're not a woman, you're a professional" as if these were opposing states. The producer, writer and her fellow actors see her fitting the role of Virginia, a woman in her late forties, unmarried and without children, but Myrtle cannot identify with a character she feels is "without hope", past the point of being able to make it work. The phrase "too late for love" is spoken by Joan Blondell's character "Sarah" who is the playwright of The Second Woman. Feeling that Sarah wrote this play about herself, who is sixty five, Myrtle argues that "But I'm not your age" while refusing to divulge her own.

Myrtle is in-between feminine roles, an identity neverplace of being neither an old woman nor a young woman. She cannot situate herself in the hopeless realm of being "too late for love" that Sarah finds herself to be quietly fading into. It is then that the third part of the female triad appears. Eighteen year old Nancy, a fan who during a desperate clinging attempt to get close to her idol Myrtle, is hit by a car and killed. The trauma and guilt of the accident along with an implicit identification with this emotionally raw vulnerable young woman causes Myrtle to refigure her image as a phantom of desiring youth. This however is not quite a return of the repressed, of being haunted by the fantasy of her own youth. The phantom Nancy appears so as to enable Myrtle to work through her conflict between the notion of her self as a women with also being middle-aged, Nancy as rival, or enemy allows Myrtle to separate herself from the memory of what she once was - she is no longer a young women and in performing both roles, and finally killing Nancy is she able to distance herself from that which she is not.

Myrtle's immersive performance of combative role-play between younger and older, interferes with her ability to perform as "Virginia". Struggling with this crisis of identity and refusal to perform the older second woman, Myrtle almost deliberately chooses to come undone. Summoning the emotional vulnerability of her youth when "everything was so close to the surface" Myrtle knocks back glass after glass of Scotch, chain smokes, and stays up all night, leaving herself raw, spiky and brilliantly cantankerous! During one performance, she stops the play halfway through, breaking the third wall she tells John Cassavetes' character "Maurice" that he's "really a great actor" and that it is "not a great play". The audience laughs, assuming it's an intended part of the play and the curtain comes down to raucous applause. This is one of the ways that Myrtle can rebel against feminine inscribed roles of behaviour and existence that priveledge youth: she refuses to "perform" as the second woman, her defiance denies her fellow actors, writers and the producer control over her, making them hostages to her choice as to whether she will 'tow the line' or not. Her wilfully destructive behaviour is perhaps paradoxically, a form of defensive strategy; her breakdown stops action, intervenes and freezes the inevitable acceptance of her being sidelined as an actress and as a woman, permanently into a state of enforced obscurity.

In the essay "Performing Age/ Performing Crisis" Jodi Brooks comments on Myrtle's situation: "Her dilemma, then, is to find a way of producing an image of women and ageing in which she can locate herself - and which doesn't send the middle-aged woman to the wings. She is, in short, in an impossible place. On the one hand she is being incorporated into a narrative of women's ageing in which she is marked as fading. On the other hand, she is experiencing her life as a collection of random, fragmentary, shock-like events. Both experiences of time threaten to annihilate her. It is by bringing the force of shock of the rupturing instant up against this narrative of ageing that she can both rupture and produce an image of gendered experience of growing older."

The last section of the film, coming after over two hours of running time culminates in a spectacular scene of disobedience, defiance, and revolt. It provides a massive and messy "fuck you" to the patronising epithet of growing old gracefully, that dictates that women who no longer fit the oppressive beauty ideals, who can no longer pass as possessing the mad idealisations of youth, must go quietly and not make a scene: you're too old, kindly leave. Myrtle does not go quietly, slope off into middle-aged obscurity: no, instead she arrives at the theatre for the opening night of the New York show extremely late and steaming drunk. She is helped into the dressing room, propped up, dressed and fed hot black coffee. She is then helped onto the set, the door opens and she just about manages to stand up for her first scene - one of the stage hands tells her "I've seen people on drugs, I've seen people on drink, but I've never seen anyone as drunk as you are and still able to stand!"

In a strange way this is Myrtle's greatest moment: even when she is bad and dead drunk, she is terrific. The crew rally around her as each time she comes off stage she collapses, being propped up to stop her sliding down the walls. But she gets into her stride, and by the end the film slows down, allowing us to see the last scene of the play acted out in full: Myrtle and Maurice on stage, wittily fast-talking banter, play-fighting, clearly enjoying performing together. In this scene Myrtle's previous question to the producer about her character Virginia, asking "does she win or does she lose?", is in part answered for the character as well as for Myrtle herself. One of her major conflicts with the play had been her refusal to let her character get slapped: the producer tells her, "actresses get slapped", but she refuses - in all the rehearsals Myrtle violently baulks at the moment of the slap. Then we notice in this last performance that Myrtle has erased the moment when she is meant to be hit, the violence of the scene has been dissolved by her skilful subversion of playing a shadow boxer to deflect Maurice's attack. By making visible the battles faced by her character, she also succeeds in deflecting the blow away from herself.

(Opening Night finishes its short run at The ICA tonight)

Monday, 3 September 2012

Passing in and out of the Closet: Paris is Burning, Dir Jennie Livingston (1990)

A tension exists in this film between the pleasure of the spectacle of the balls, of viewing on screen and off, and the thematic content of the reality of poverty and oppression. The mimesis of drag offers us a knowing pleasure, for we have the privilege of knowing that what we are seeing is the performance of ‘being a woman’: we are in on the joke, but who therefore is the joke on? The trouble with this film is it puts into focus, perhaps intentionally by Livingston, the inescapability of capitalism’s saturation into culture - even the underground subculture of drag ballrooms. It is here that queer becomes a product of postmodernism. It is with this in mind that I will interrogate the film's meanings.

Drag, as an activity and performance, is rich in postmodern connotations, a performance that encompasses the nostalgia of the past, the faded glamour of old film stars with something new, television stars and supermodels, all with an added camp edge. The masquerade is not only the poor emulating the rich and glamorous but enacts a visual blurring of clear gender roles and defined categorical sexualities. This forms a new modern or postmodern being. What blurs these roles even greater is not that these performers are not really women, (that we know) but that some of the performers in Paris is Burning are not in fact really men; Venus Extravaganza for example, has never been ‘really real’ (as Plato might say about mimesis) as a man. In her subjective reality she is or should be ‘really’ a woman and not a man. A sex change operation is stated to be her goal in the film, as being a “real woman” is her true identity. Therefore, can Venus still be compartmentalised into the understood category of gay man? This breaking of sexual and gendered binaries is what makes the performance of drag here so interesting, as it draws attention to the possibilities for all our sexual identities, that they may not in fact be fixed, that if all gender is constructed as a form of masquerade, aren’t we are all to some extent in drag? In his book on Exploring Masculinities, Steve Cohan emphasises that, like putting on the trappings of femininity (i.e. with lipstick or a dress), what we think of as “masculinity” is not natural but another construction; “Masculinity is an effect of culture-a construction, a performance, a masquerade- rather than a universal and unchanging essence”. What Paris is Burning does so well is to highlight the construction of gender norms, which are oppressive and limiting.

But herein lies the problem, in flagging up these oppressive gender norms, proving by way of drag, that yes, a gay man can pass easily as an elegant bourgeois lady or equally pull off the appearance of an ultra straight military man, our attention is drawn to whether these images are actually being subverted or if in fact they are being coveted? Dorian Corey, one of the oldest queens who acts as a philosophical sage, providing narration for much of the film explains; “If you can pass the untrained eye or even the trained eye and not give away that you're gay- that is realness”. The term “realness” is peppered throughout the film, it becomes clear ‘to be real’ is the holy grail of drag, but the only reality that is shown to be sought after is the white middle class reality of “white picket fences, fisherprice toys and pools in the backyard” dreamt of by Octavia. Mark Fisher uses the term “capitalist realism” in favour of postmodernism, it is also the title of his book, in which he details how culturally the end of the world has already happened, that to borrow Friedrich Jameson's phrase ‘its easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’. Fisher states; “Now, the fact that capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment” (Fisher 2009: 8, 9). This point, indeed worthy of comment here, expresses why a form of over-identification is evident in the drag balls. Instead of what Pamela Robertson believes here that: “Realness”…is a subversive category meant to dissolve difference and any notion of authenticity”. I would ague rather, that capitalism’s powerfully seductive hold is so culturally entrenched that this appropriation of imagery ends up merely acting out a faithful imitation of ‘capitalist realism’ in the form of becoming commodity objects signifying wealth and misogyny rather than subverting and nullifying the very oppressive patriarchal hetronormative behaviours they purport to “dissolve”. This idea is compounded by the film's section with the header; ‘Military Realness’. Men in varied military or naval uniforms march down the ballrooms, we hear the thoughts of one of these men, he states: “Black people have been a repressed minority in the United States for four hundred years…it’s the greatest example of behaviour modification there is”. So to hear this opinion whilst simultaneously watching perfect militaristic mimicry, the ballrooms usually joyously camp spectacle is replaced by an ill feeling that what we are witnessing is a form of performative passing . As Dorian Corey points out “It’s really a case of going back into the closet”.

Despite this uncomfortable instance of patriarchal conformity, the varied examples of positive subversion contained in the balls cannot be negated. The film uncovers the ‘houses’ that developed through attendance and participation in the balls. As Dorian Corey rightly points out these collectives, function as family units. The houses are where young marginalised gay men, often who’ve been kicked out of their family homes, are accepted and supported into a new family-like-sphere- that contain none of the hierarchal structures that often force women and children into a subservient role. Most of the people interviewed reveal they were forced to hide their homosexuality from family members out of fear of rejection. The ironies in the decision to call these collectives “houses” contain dual meanings. One is a reference to high-fashion designer houses, for example ‘The house of Dior’ or “The house of Yves Saint Laurent” the latter being also the name of the drag house Octavia is part of, explicating the link between high and low culture. The second and strongest meaning of ‘house’ reflects there opposition to traditional ideas of what makes a home- i.e. a man, wife and child. This is countered in favour of ‘the home’ simply being a place of collective understanding and love, (not bonds of laws of marriage) a notion both antiestablishment and revolutionary. Most of the scenes of great pleasure and humour in Paris is Burning are in the group scenes at the ball or on the streets of New York, where the possibility of an alternative group identity is foregrounded. These scenes set up the underground gay community as utopian, where everyone is welcome, gay teenage boys and old queens alike. Where they are free to dance in the street and exhibit new breasts etc free of judgement, where the outside world of prejudice cannot touch their lives.

Where the cracks begin to show are in the scenes of the queens alone in their apartments, in which they express their dreams and hopes for the future. These interviews are inter-cut with segments showing the white bourgeois shopping in the city, television stars and the rich in magazines. The editing highlights the discrepancies between the queens’ realities, shot with the camera in a fixed position while they sit and talk in small, dark, bare apartments (in Octavia’s case plastered with posters of supermodels), in contrast with the bright colours and fast editing that express how out of reach their dreams of wealth really are. This seems a rather cruel joke to play, to place visually the fantasy and the reality side by side. We know that even if they are able “to make your illusion perfect” as Dorian Corey says, it will never be ‘really real’. Judith Butler when talking about ‘being’ a lesbian as if it were a role or type ,with definable characteristics, expresses the futility of trying to conform to paradigmatic sexuality: “Compulsory heterosexuality sets itself up as the original, the true, the authentic, the norm that determines the real implies that “being” lesbian is always a kind of miming, a vain effort to participate in the phantasmatic plenitude of naturalised heterosexuality which will always and only fail”.

Drag seems to posit the idea that through the manipulation of appearances one can attain one's desired reality. This is not such impossibility: the capitalist dream of fame and fortune is filtered down through television and media, it does not matter if it’s an illusion to make us buy into a product or lifestyle- if we can see it, therefore it is real, visible and thus attainable, or at least imitateable. Another category in the ballroom is “Executive Realness” or more accurately: “capitalist realist”, Dorian Corey narrates this section as beautiful, slim young men in immaculately tailored suits and briefcases walk the ballroom:
in real life you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity, now the fact you are not an executive is merely because the social standing in life…black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and those that do, are usually straight…in a ballroom you can be anything you want, you're not really an executive, but your looking like an executive and therefore you're showing the straight world that I can be an executive, if I had the opportunity I could be one, because I can look like one, and that is a fulfilment

This unfortunately is a crucial part of the performance of drag “realness”: that it wants to transgress the masquerade and become that which it imitates, rather than interrogate that which it impersonates. Early on in the film a group of young men are sat together in a park, the camera pans across them as they each give accounts to what participation in balls mean for the gay community. One man says “Balls are as close to reality as we are going to get…to all of that fame and fortune and stardom” I don’t believe the phrasing here is a mistake: as close to reality we are going to get suggests that the fantasy world of television, and media is somehow more ‘real’ than their own lives, that this ideal hyper-reality is more valid as it is more visible. But this is a total disavowal of the lives of the poor and the homosexual, visibility being a key part in the assertion of a queer aesthetic and presence marked out from that of the dominant mainstream. Drag then, in its desire for realness and the appropriation of dominant mass culture over subversive satirical play, becomes superficial and devoid of the capability to challenge heterosexual and capitalist hegemony. The ballroom therefore can be seen to conform to Susan Sontag’s statement from Notes on Camp that camp is a “victory of style over content, aesthetics over morality, irony over tragedy”.

The postmodern culture of endless permutations of commodity objects suggests anything is possible; one can simply buy or become the object of ones desire. The queens in Paris is Burning are dirt poor, often having to hustle (prostitute themselves) to survive. The lie that if you work hard and can pay for it, “the world's your oyster” is a myth. As Dorian Corey points out about executive realness- there are opportunities that are just not available to black working-class gay men. Daniel Contreras states; “What is at stake in Paris is Burning is the question of the value of sheer fantasy and of wish fulfilment on the part of queers of colour. Here Venus says she wants to be a ‘rich spoiled white girl’, her wish is compounded not only by her economic and racial subjugation, but also by her gender: she knows she needs her sex change to be a ‘total woman’’. In Venus’ list of bourgeois status symbols she would like in order to be really happy, the last on the list, and the presumably hardest to come by, is the sex change: the rest can be bought and possessed with fewer consequences. Placing the obtaining of objects alongside the process of owning one's true identity to provide fulfilment leads to what Fredric Jameson describes as “false happiness”: the objects Venus desires “are now themselves secretly a misery, an unhappiness that doesn’t know its name, that has no way of telling itself apart from genuine satisfaction and fulfilment since it has presumably never encountered this last”. It is impossible to keep up with the demands of capitalism, which is what keeps it going: the illusionary need for more dreams to fuel it.

Capitalism rides of the back of promoting the unobtainable. The case of Octavia stresses this point, her high cheek boned, long legged thin hipped physiognomy is the paradigmatic look of the ideal androgynous fashion model, she typifies this look more than the unsustainable thinness of models born female; she therefore possesses something these young models will often lose as their bodies mature with developed hips etc. It is therefore paradoxical that the life of supermodel, remains out of her reach - as she is fashionable androgyny par excellence! But as a transsexual she is not a sell-able object of aspiration to help sell designer clothing, as the beauty of transsexuals in our repressive society cannot be presented as something to celebrate. Yet we now have almost come full circle in the last thirty years or so since Paris is Burning was made. Queer culture has been expropriated from the underground, from the margins as a fashionable presence in the mainstream culture. But this is just how capitalism operates, says Fisher: “The new defines itself in response to what is already established; at the same time, the established has to reconfigure itself in response to the new”. Madonna’s video and song Vogue was possibility the first example of the image of the Balls being approated by the mainstream. Currently the television programme America’s Next Top Model features Benny Ninja from the drag House of Ninja, who teaches the usually inept young female models how to walk the runways, and be “Fierce”- a phrase inescapable in this programme, shouted at the wannabe models when they are performing well, it is highly reminiscent if not identical to the praise shouted in the drag ballrooms. The homosexual male judges on this programme call each other “she” and engage in camp performances in their personae as gay judges on the show. Fisher comments, “What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes of the capitalist culture”. What was once seen as subversive behaviour is now a gimmick on a television show that relies on reinforcing the old gender roles within the miasmic allure of capitalist dominance.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Laugh of Dworkin: Counter Erotics

Counter Erotics:
A Manifesto For an Axiomatic Anti-Pornography

A new tumblr from Dominic Fox that will eventually form the basis of a new book on pornography. With writing so far from Andrea Dworkin on sexual intelligence, Hélène Cixous on the inexchangeable, J.-F. Lyotard on capitalism - plus clips from Kate Bush - it's going to be a den of insightful delights...

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Documentary/Non Fiction Films, Top Thirty

As my own "top films of all time" LIST got so long, I had to divide it up; so here's just the documentary/non fiction selection (excluding short films) top 30 in random order:

Grey Gardens,
Albert and David Maysles

Bill Morrison

Robinson in Space,
Patrick Keiller

The Great White Silence
Herbert Ponting,

Louise Bourgeois:
The Spider, the Mistress and
the Tangerine,
Marion Cajori

Paris is Burning
Jennie Livingstone

(After Sebald)
Grant Gee

The Alcohol Years
Carol Morley

Nitrate Kisses
Barbara Hammer

The Nine Muses
John Akomfrah

The Celluloid
Rob Epstein

In Bed With
Alek Keshishian

The Pervert's
Guide To
Sophie Fiennes

London Orbital,
Chris Petit

Metallica: Some
Kind of Monster,
Jo Berlinger

Roman Polanski:
Wanted and Desired,
Marina Zenovich

In The Mirror of
Maya Deren,
Martina Kudlácek

Jack Smith: The
Destruction of
Mary Jordon

Tender Fictions,
Barbara Hammer

San Soleil,
Chris Marker

Man With The
Movie Camera,
Dziga Vertov

The Thin Blue
Errol Morris

People on
Robert Siodmak

Klaus Kinski:
My Best Friend,
Werner Herzog

F For Fake,
Orson Welles

Matthew Barney: No Restraint, Allison Chernick

The Gleaners
and I,
Agnes Varda

Le Quattro
Michelangelo Frammartino

Way of
The Morris,
Tim Plester

Lyrical Nitrate,
Peter Delpeut