Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Fetish & Figure - LUX / ICA Biennial of Moving Images, Martha Kirszenbaum

Martha Kirszenbaum's curated programme of screenings on the theme of "Fetish and Figure" was the highlight for me of the recent biennial at the ICA. Her chosen films were not too literal in their expression of the theme, yet they all played around with the types of pleasures that cinema offers with its objectifying kino-eye. Kirszenbaum says of this programme of screenings: "Fetish & Figure brings together six films and videos by artists and filmmakers that address both the fetishisation of objects and the body. Exploring the theme of tableau vivant, this programme challenges the presence of the human body that disintegrates, allowing objects to come to life on screen as the camera captures them. The proposed works share a common approach in their use of feminine iconography constructed around sophisticated accessories - perfume bottles, enchanting jewellery and shimmering pieces of clothing - while questioning images of voluptuousness and consumption and finally, reflecting on human solitude, existential melancholy and physical disappearance."

The experience of pure cinematic scopophilia was unguarded, laid bare, exaggerated and enjoyed in the films in this screening. Everything in front of our eyes was presented as an object for and of our visual pleasure: these were objects seemingly with souls, possessing an apparent autonomous power of attraction, radiating an allure, desire and "specialness". Even people were not altogether thought of as not being objects here, as in the case of the woman in The Twilight Zone episode Kirszenbaum chose for the end of the screening: a young women in a department store, after getting disoriented and turned around, finds out that she is in fact a mannequin who has been let out to live like "one of them", amongst the "real people" for one month. Oh the terrors: are we real or are we also just objects walking around thinking that it is us who are the real people with real choices living real lives? The joys of The Twilight Zone never get old.

The first film, Kenneth Anger's Puce Moment,1949, was a delirious fantasy space of dreams of an excessive glamour. Twinkly multicoloured flapper dresses flash in front of the screen, a feast of sequins, diamanté, lace and beading. A woman slips on a shimmery blue frock over her pleasingly plump pink shoulders, in dizzy ecstasy. She touches things of the dressing table, things that represent the costumes of femininity. This woman is not ambivalent about these trappings, they do not restrict her or oppress her: she is greedy for them, they are her mania. She lays back on a bed, maybe dreaming of her own deliciousness? The bed moves by itself as if the whole scene is just her fantasy of being "adorned in dreams".

The relationship between women and clothing here is not presented as something natural, but as something manic, exciting and also excessive. The guilty pleasures of this over-abundance of shiny stuff mirror the uneasy way that film covets itself, fetishises itself as object as well as all that it touches.

Other films of note were Agnieszka Polska's Plunderer's Dream, 2011, and Ursula Mayer's film, The Lunch in Fur / Le Dejeuner en Fourre, 2008. In Plunderer's Dream, computer graphics and animation create a world of still-life objects and displays. A floating, surrealist-style gloved hand touches and points at pleasing "things"; a silver teapot, shiny round beaded necklaces, juicy ripe fruit that once cut open has the suspiciously suggestive core of a a single pearl, a tender button. A selection of Agnieszka Polska's films were also screened earlier this year alongside a conference about the Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow. In Sensitization to Colour, 2009, she gently takes to task, or simply teases, luminaries of the Polish avant-garde such as Włodzimierz Borowski.

In Ursula Mayer's The Lunch in Fur / Le Dejeuner en Fourre, 2008, an imaginary meeting is staged between famous "second women", the lovers and muses of "great men", but also women who were artists in their own right: these three women (not playing themselves obviously) are Meret Oppenhiem, Josephine Baker and Dora Maar. Standing amongst objects signifying themselves, their history, or fetishes of them created by lovers, each tells tales of identity, time and place. Dora Maar stands in front of Picasso's Weeping Woman,1937, the famous painting of her crying (as a lover of Picasso is it any wonder?)

Meret Oppenhiem and Josephine Baker play with Oppenhiem's sculpture, My Nurse, the upside-down and bound shoes placed on a silver tray. This sculpture epitomises the very idea of what I think this programme is about - our complicated pleasures in looking, and anxieties towards the "things" we desire. Nurse itself is a collection of objects placed together and bound, taking on the significance of Oppenhiem's claustrophobic feelings of desire for her old Nanny/Nurse who apparently wore very tight skirts, underneath which her thighs could be heard to rub together. The bound shoes then become fetishised objects endowed with sexual connotations due to thier significance in Oppenhiem's eroticised memory of her nurse.

Can a fetish ever be free of negative connotations? The surrounding meanings connected to the shoes here, and the dresses in Kenneth Anger's film, seep in to this fun film programme, making the larger problems of power, visibility and the way women are seen inescapable. Can we appropriate a fetish or reverse objectification by choosing it ourselves? Womanliness as fetish makes women into objects like Oppenhiem's shoe, a bound object, served up on a platter to be devoured, but by whose desire? Or are we just devouring ourselves for our own fetishistic delectation?

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