Sunday, February 28, 2010

3/10 "The Vestige of Art II:" Interior and Exterior

Consider the images by Francesca Woodman on this week's image presentation in relation to Margaret Sundell's brilliant essay "Vanishing Points:The Photography of Francesca Woodman."
Why does Sundell refer to Woodman's quest for self-knowledge via the genre of self-portraiture as self-mutilation. Please attempt to paraphrase the following statement by curator Matthew Teitelbaum which Sundell cites, and explain what it means in relation to the images:

"It is as if, by making herself a subject to be looked at, she makes herself dissapear."

Please rehearse the cornerstone of Sundell's argument; what is Lacan's "mirror stage" and what has it to do with the photographic self-portraiture?


  1. Louise O'Rourke

    Why does Sundell refer to Woodmans quest for self knowledge via the genre of self portraiture as self mutilation? Because Woodman is deconstructing her body in various ways through the use of the house. She is questioning herself, her existence by hiding and covering up parts of herself using clothes pins and inflicting a slight pain to the body which is a way of questioning the existence of the self. Pain gives life to the body, makes it become real by causing a reaction to flesh that can be felt. She uses a mirror to project outward to question the viewer, this can also be seen as a quest of the self through others. By using the mirror to reflect anothers image onto her own body i think she is asking more of the viewer. Asking the viewer for a part of them for her self exploration.
    The mirror stage is when the infant realizes the self but is not fully aware of this strong connection being made. Through the photographic self portrait the realization is clear. It shows the self to us the way it is seen by the self in the mirror. When Woodman uses the mirror outward she wants the viewer to identify with themselves as she does when she is looking into the mirror. It is as though she is asking the viewer to challenge there image.
    It is as if, by making herself a subject to be looked at, she makes herself disappear." For this statement Woodman uses herself alot in most all of her images, placing herself for the world to see. While placing herself in the public eye she is trying to hide. She uses the surroundings of her to blend in;. she masks herself. Through the household objects it is as though she wants the world to know her but just as she is about to give us all we need she changes her mind. Through the self mutilation it can be viewed as the true self of Woodman that she wanted to give us but at the same time wanted to hide. clothes pins attached to her body with no face to identify is giving us her body but no identity. If she gave us the whole image we would see a bit more. Maybe the optical unconscious would let us read more about this woman.

  2. Woodman's quest for self knowledge via the self portrait is considered mutilation by Sundell due to the impossibility and futility of trying to capture an authentic and true self. Within Woodman's photographs the true self is never depicted, it is always hidden just out of sight via camouflage. The wallpaper the mirror the blurred film, or the shadow prevent a clean and clear depiction of Woodman. These attempts to physically camouflage herself are only an external version of Barthes ideas of what occurs before the lens. One is always four people as Barthes explains. If you take away the visual camouflage of tangible things and bare it all so to speak you are still camouflaged by the mind. Before the camera you attempt to be the one you think you are, the one you want others to think you are, the one the photographer makes you, and the one that the photograph makes you. Woodman attempts to counter this perpetual camouflage by making use of Lacan's "mirror stage", the mirror stage being the point at which the subject realizes that they exist due to the mothers gaze. The mother sees the child and the child realizes that they must exist (be) at the same time the child is also turned into an object. Woodman's use of the mirror is her realizing her own existence as a human but at the same time adding another level of camouflage by becoming an object of the gaze of the viewer. The quote, "It is as if, by making herself a subject to be looked at, she makes herself disappear" expresses the futility and masochistic nature of traditional self portraiture. Regardless of the individuals intentions and motivations it is always the other that ascribe who that person is in the photograph. Breaking down the sentence, by making herself a subject to be looked at she is making herself an object and not real. Woodman uses this loss of humanity via the mirror to reassert to herself that she is in fact there and real. Woodman also attempts to rectify her disappearance by the gaze of the viewer by removing herself from the photograph first, before the viewer has a chance to objectify her she has already begun to camouflage and remove herself from the photograph. It seems that woodman knows about Barthes notions before the lens as well as Lacan's subject transformed into object and in an attempt to portray an accurate portrait must hide herself in the photograph to make a true self portrait.

  3. Through presence in her self portraits Woodman manages to make her absence felt. What I mean by this is, that we are aware of her presence in the image through title (self portrait) and through visual signifiers such as a ghostly mark left by her body, or parts of her body dissected by the frame. These parts of Woodman that we are permitted to see, reflect not her presence in the image but her absence usually showing herself fragmented and being devoured by her surrounds. This is part of what Sundell is talking about when calling these images a form of self-mutilation. By dissecting/reveling herself, turning her body into an object she is in a way mutilating or the word I will use transforming herself into symbol. Teitelbaum is also tackling this issue in his quote about the subject (Woodman) making herself disappear through the act of subjectivity. Lacan's "mirror stage" which is said to be the moment when an infant first recognizes her own images as such, (meaning her own image as an image of herself), the image is a way of the infant seeing itself as an object in a world of objects self realization through difference. I am an object in my environment and am a subject through that difference. Woodman is interested in the boundaries within that difference, she visually works through these questions by literally blending into her surroundings forcing the viewer to try to distinguish where Woodman ends and the environment begins

  4. “The body serves as a transitional object between living and dead, part and whole, inside and outside, self and other (Simpson, 1980). Finally, self-mutilation may also serve to actually produce an identity as well as confirm boundaries.” (Suyemoto) Woodman’s body submerges and emerges as if it were Polaroid. Her body begins to mimic her environment and the boundary between her body and the space blurs. “Self-mutilation serves to define the boundaries of the self, as the skin is the most basic boundary between self and other, and the blood or the scar are an indication of self-reality” (Suyemoto) The image of Woodman turning the corner and discovering her reflection in the mirror is not staged in the way that most infants experience the mirror (either propped up or being held by an adult). This staged discovery seems to imply the breakdown of the Ego, what was established early on as a way to recognize self, becomes a misrepresentation of self. Her reflection, though occupying the same space, appears to be looking at her. She is not making eye contact with her image, but rather looking at her arm in the mirror so that her reflection’s gaze returns to the same focal point. Her reflection then becomes aware of her body. As an image she is able to see another self; herself seeing her. Possibly it was a reaffirmation of self. Her body seems to become fragmented. Her image separates and is cut by the corner, by the mirror, and by the position of the camera. While photographs might be similar to the mirror stage where the reflection, or image, is the more idealized self, the image of Woodman seems to be the opposite. The photograph fragments, distorts and bends her body and places her as the subject on the floor; crawling similarly to an infant. However, Woodman as the photographer stood and positioned the camera and was as it were a whole self. It appears that she is aware of herself as a complete being but instead shows us how we would see her, as latent and fragmented. The state between being a child and being a woman.

    “It is as if, by making herself a subject to be looked at, she makes herself disappear.” The way she stages her portraits articulates the unraveling difference between self and object. She plays with the skin in masochistic ways that again seem to be enforcing the skin and the self against the object. Portrait after portrait seems to be an attempt to validate self separate from object or environment, but as the wallpaper is draped and the paint is applied she seems to become part of the background. It again becomes a question as to whether she is emerging or submerging. I can’t help but feel that her suicide indicated submersion. It seems that she was showing her skin and her body before it became part of the abandoned and decaying landscape.

  5. Lacan’s mirror stage focuses around the infant’s first recognition of its own image. The recognition of the self through the image formulates the infants understanding of the self as subject versus its ability to be an object at the same time (via the image of the self held within the frame of the mirror). So through this tension of the self as subject versus the self as object we delve into the work of Francesca Woodman and realize the overwhelming disenchantment of the photographic self-portrait.

    This disenchantment begins in Camera Lucida where Barthes writes of how it is impossible to fully capture the self or any self in a photograph. The self is always aware of the apparatus, the camera, that is front of themselves and because of this awareness the self is constantly, even when unaware of their actions, acting in a manner that suggests the epitome of what or who it is to be the specific individual. This constant acting infringes upon the camera’s nature of being an apparatus that is capable of rendering itself objective and capturing the “truth” of nature. This denial of the “true” individual also leads into how Barthes also discusses the photograph as a violent act of force. The photograph is an object that “fills the sight with force”, this forced nature of the photograph also plays onto the indexical action of the image upon the viewer’s gaze or memory. This index, impression, is what also lies at how Barthes’s considers the photograph as a violent action, because he considers the function of the self portrait as an attempt to capture the self in a moment of transcendence, to live beyond the photograph the “true” self, and yet it can not because of it indexical trace of its lost object. This lost object takes the self as subject and denies it transcendence and thus re-establishes it as an object and one that is lost because it has been rendered (upon film, paper, etc.) and cut from the real and with this cut time is understood as “what will be and what has been”. This lost object is but a moment that was and is no longer able to be understood as the “true” rendering of the self in an epitomizing form.

    This understanding of the self-portrait lies out in front of the photographer the impossible task of rendering the self in a “truth” that never can be. This inability to fully render the self in one epitomizing photograph tortures the photographer into a obsessive, constant ritual of clicking the camera’s shutter, so that in hopes one of the images designed will be able to shatter the limitations of the apparatus and medium and push beyond and outwards to the viewer the revealing nature of the true self of the photographer. As Sundell writes, “But the ‘Iam, Iam,Iam’ of throwing images of oneself into the world can at any moment revert into it opposite, into the ‘I am not’ of having given one-self over to a circulation in space that one no longer controls”. This throwing of oneself into an un-organized space is this constant violation of the self (by constantly “cutting”, “framing”, of the self) and constant abandonment of the self to the space that renders the self-portrait as an impossible means of “true” representation and losing of the individual to the photograph, which in turn objectifies the subject as a lost object.

    “It is as if, by making herself subject to be looked at, she makes herself disappear.”

    It is this constant “never-ending chain of images” that cuts away at the self and abandoning it over and over and over again, that mutilates the autonomy of the subject, the photographer, and fills the viewers vision with tension between this fight of independence and interdependence. She is constantly searching for herself, Woodman, and yet with each cutting from the real she is losing herself to the camera, to the photograph. Death being the eidos of photography completely consumes the self-portrait and its desires to transcend the limitations.

  6. p.s. if there is time tomorrow we could discuss, which i could not figure out how to write, the topic of Bataille's discontinuous beings verses continuous. I think that within that relationship that there is an agent of violence in Woodman's photographs that Sundell considers that there is not. For the death of the individual is a very "unreal" experience or action. So I can or could use help in organizing my train of thought with that, but I do believe that Death and Sensuality could play a part in this discussion.

  7. Woodman, according to Sundell, is not a "momento mori" within her pieces but is instead an indexical "narcissistic projection" (Sundell, 437). This self-objectification, as well as the points from Lacan, serve as Sundell's arguments of self-mutilation through the vehicle of self-portraiture in order to obtain self-knowledge.

    In the mirror stage of Lacan the child see's his/her own reflection, solidifying his/her self in the world. This reflection, however, is also understood to be autonomous and coherent and, subsequently, becomes an object of desire. The child is split and ultimately alienated from his/her self via the reflection and the reflection's intangibility.

    The photograph with Woodman craning and twisting her body around the degraded, white-washed corner in order to view her reflection (which essentially alienates her head through her shoulder and arm from the rest of her body) is a great example of her self-objectification. In the reflection her hair is styled in a representational way; it is structured and unnatural. Yet behind the corner and cascading from the back of her head rolls muscles and corporeality twisting only to view (attempt to obtain) the Lacanian desire object (self already understood as desire-object through the mirror stage).

    Woodman is constantly and quite literally disappearing behind the infrastructure of deteriorated buildings (negated by wall paper, or echoed in the spine of fish, her spin and the rigging of the walls).

    Through the reproducibility of this medium and the repeated problem set (subject/object, internal/external, corporeal/infrastructure), she is also vanishing from the frames. Much as Benjamin argues that reproduction diminishes aura and authenticity, Woodman is without history or binding within the photos. The only thing ever bound or mirroring her "subjectivity" is found within objects (the color similarity of skin to paint, body hair to fur collar/scarf).

  8. Woodman's serial self-portraits render herself as an object of the "Other's" desire (be it her own desire as photographer and image maker or the desire of that ever elusive You). Lacan's mirror stage theory of development is excruciatingly relevant here in that it (de)constructs the evolutionary figuration of one's self via the mirror phase, the gaze of one's self at one's self, essentially reflecting the ego into place gradually as the subject desires it's own image as thing-hood to be had.
    There seems to be a struggle in Woodmen's work, and Sundell is well aware of this struggle. It is a kind of burden that Woodmen takes upon herself, as a sufferer of her own object-hood among space, a spaced squared off into sharp right angles (rarely if ever occurring in nature) that seems to limit and threaten Woodmen as she struggles to understand her relationship to this world that has already been constructed For her, a world in which she is forced to relate to upon emergence into existence, into body. What's interesting is that the places in which she inhabits in these photos are often "abandoned" industrial apartment dwellings (given the sheer scale of the doors, windows, and walls) in which she finds herself alone trying to relate to this world via the writhing, twisting, configuring of her own body against these sharp, hard architectures that she animates as threatening and violent. Her effort is perhaps to figure out where she stands in her environment, asking herself "what is this surrounding me, where/what am I in this space?" Although self-portraits, the images are just as much if not more about the surroundings than about her, and certainly she is struggling for a dissolution of herself back into that which is seemingly "outside" of her: "The tension and strength of Woodman's work lies in her ability to return again and again to the precise point of instability, to simultaneously create and explode the fragile membrane that protects one's identity form being absorbed by its surroundings." Whereas with Mendieta, she was able to re-constitute her self back into nature, here we are confronted with a figure seemingly struggling to find that kind of dissolving into space, a tearing open of the "fragile membrane." She calls into question the boarders of her own body (outside from inside) and the boarders of her surroundings in order to tear things apart, to shatter the lines that separate, the very lines of sedimentation that limit and concretize her own self as organism.