“Mirror of male desire, a role, an image, a value, the fetishized woman attempts to locate herself, to affirm her subjectivity within the rectangular space of another fetish – ironically enough, the ‘mirror of nature’.” Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Figure 1: Louis Pierson, The Eyes, c1864.
A mysterious femme fatale of the nineteenth century Paris, Countess Le Castiglione immortalised herself through a fascinating series of more than four hundred photographs taken over a period of forty years, the majority between 1856 and 1865 “at the height of [her] fame and beauty.” Rather than conventional portraits, these photographs record her elaborate performances in which she either restages scenes from her life or plays a variety of mythological and fictional characters. The costumes, the set-designs, and the overall scenarios were all meticulously designed and directed by the Countess herself, the photographer being there as a mere technician. More than a means of self-expression or signs of narcissism, these photographs could be understood as the Countess’ attempt to take control over her own representation and challenge the narrow, patriarchal view of previously assigned identity inscriptions, thus, asserting herself as an autonomous subject rather than a fetishized object of the gaze.
According to theorist of fetishism and photography, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, such a reading of Countess’ photographs is presumptuous because it is impossible for the Countess to occupy a critical position from which she would desire to overturn the patriarchal principles of fetishisation. As she watches herself, explains Solomon-Godeau, the Countess automatically assumes a position of a patriarchal surveyor and can only relate to herself through this patriarchal gaze. From this position, which is tainted by an inherent patriarchal scopic regime, she is unable to radically reimagine herself as anything but an object of sight. Rather than disavowing patriarchal prerogative, she participates in it and even endorses it. Solomon-Godeau writes: “a living artifact, the countess has so fully assimilated the desire of others that there is no space, language, or means of representation for any desire that might be termed her own.” Rather than an author, she is nothing more than “a scribe”.
Nicole Foreshew and Jacob Nash, Hereby Make Protest, 2014.
“Some experience of voyaging and exile is […] necessary for being’s complete fulfillment,” wrote Martinican literary critic Édouard Glissant in his 1990 book Poetics of Relation. Similarly, art historian and curator Miwon Kwon suggests that it is through traveling and being out of a familiar place that one finds him/herself. For Glissant, this newly found self is no longer connected to a single, unitary root. Once determined by geography of our origin and a single culture, our identity is now unmoored, diffused, and characterised by the “errant thought.” We find ourselves in Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome – “an assemblage of connected multiplicities, without center or origin, […] always in process of becoming;” detached, capricious, and able to swiftly shift course.  But this fluidity and flexibility in thoughts and actions is both exhilarating and daunting. Unmoored and unbound, we also crave stability and belonging. Errantry is, thus, paired with melancholia and nostalgia; rhizome experienced as vertigo and tension.
“I don’t believe that gender, race, or sexuality have to be identities, I think that they’re vectors of power.” Judith Butler
Drew Pettifer, The Decisive Moment, 2009.
It is necessary to “radically challenge the entire concept of an identity based upon sexual orientation,” wrote Elizabeth Ashburn in her 1996 publication on lesbian art. Twenty years on, American feminist and queer art theorist Amelia Jones finds it necessary to echo Ashburn in her 2012 book Seeing Differently reminding us to “think beyond […] the grain of binary models of identity in favour of multiple, intersectional, and relational processes of identification.” Sexuality must converge with issues of race, gender, geographical and socio-political location, class, religion, age, etc. to reveal the immense complexity and diversity of subjectivities. Jones likens this intersectional approach to anamorphic viewing which distorts the one-point perspective to reveal a new, previously neglected viewing angle. The result of this perspectival distortion is de-objectification, de-fetishisation, and abandonment “of oppositional othering.” Continue reading
‘Dear Sylvia’, a group photomedia exhibition inspired by life of American poet Sylvia Plath is currently on at the Australian Centre for Photography (ACP) featuring the works of nine female international artists who examine the representation of the female body and the female condition in contemporary society – whether this society is developed, Western world (i.e. France, UK, Australia, Netherlands) or a country such as Romania, Ukraine, Palestine, South America, and Israel where not only female, but human rights in general are under constant and extreme threat.
Through variety of photographic styles and genres, these nine female photomedia artist depict female body as both fragile and suffocated, as well as a powerful and vibrant agent of revolutionary change. In doing so they portray the complexity of Sylvia Plath’s own condition as unconventionally passionate women, a spirit eager to fly high and free in a society where freedom, joy and superfluous love was discouraged, perhaps even ridiculed.
On Thursday 5 February, I spoke to Claire Monneraye, the exhibition’s curator and Marlous van der Sloot, a Dutch photographer whose body of work features in the exhibition and examines the ways photography can be used to restore physicality to our overly rational minds; to encourage return to senses in what could be seen as a “touch starved” society. Marlous images re-establish connection between animal and human creating distortions that prompt us to re-learn to see.
Laurens Craen, Still life with imaginary view, circa 1645-circa 1650. Oil on panel, 63.4 x 85.3 cm. Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia.
Seventeenth century Dutch Republic was a place of remarkable prosperity and intellectual progress. After gaining independence from Spain, the Dutch became leaders in international trade which brought not only exquisite wealth but also contact with exotic objects from around the world. Material welfare was accompanied with scientific discoveries and development of individual thought, and a practical attitude and reliance on reason became a norm. These attitudes were reflected in increasingly secular artworks – instead of glorifying God and heavenly realms, the artists began to celebrate man (portraiture), his everyday life (genre paintings), surrounding nature (land- and seascapes), and objects of his world (still-life paintings). Artists “marveled at the creative diversity of nature, her ability to form coloured shapes beyond the flights of human fancy”, and found great delight in capturing these forms. The various types of still-lifes developed, including “banquet-pieces” which depicted tables arranged with food. Many painters specialised in this particular type of imagery, amongst them Laurens Craen whose Still life with imaginary view shows a typical compositional structure and formal elements of the 17th century Dutch banquet paintings.