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Saturday, 19 April 2008

Naked Image

When I was last at the Tate Modern, I saw some video by Francesca Woodman from the 1970's. She had a piece where she had stretched butcher paper in front of the large window of her loft. Light was shining through the window and through the paper. She stood naked behind the paper, so that her silhouette was visible and drew on the paper from behind. Then she tore the paper in a kind of provocative way, revealing increasing sexualized parts of her own body, until finally she stepped through it, tearing it all away and walking off frame.

I've been thinking about this piece a lot. I was first drawn to it because of the attractiveness of the artist, but the viewer is being asked to consider several things. By drawing on the paper, I think she was trying to create an idea of it as a canvas. We have a cultural idea that artists express themselves in a pure, cerebral form through their art. The canvas becomes almost an extension of self - but specifically, a very dualist kind of self. The canvas is not about the body, but about the mind.

Hélène Cixous argues that all binary oppositions eventually come back to gender. So when we put mind and body into opposition, immediately, we assign one of them to male. And, indeed, historically (and currently, alas) men are mind and women are body. These oppositions are also an implicit comparison, so the mind is more noble and pure than the body. The (male) artist is thus a triumph of masculinity. He expresses the true, the valuable and the pure of himself through his canvas. But if this is implicitly masculine, then women have greatly reduced access. They're not artists, they're women artists and that's something different. Their body is thus always made visible, not just because it's a site of difference, but because women are presumed to entirely be of and about the body.

By allowing light to filter around her naked body and through the canvas, Woodman makes this explicit in her work. The strip-tease aspect of her tearing makes a connection to sex and femininity even more explicit and invites a feminist analysis. Her drawings are torn to bits to reveal her body / herself, which / who then leaves. She breaks down the mind/body dichotomy, and, in so doing, her work is placed in the male gaze, which is not a site of empowerment. But she remains in control. There is no operator behind the camera. She controls what we see and when we see it, as much as she can, since the paper tears in unpredictable ways. By working within the male gaze, she makes it visible to the viewer.

I was also drawn to the aesthetics of the piece. It's shot in her home. The attachment of the paper is ad hoc. The video is actually a series of takes. She tried this multiple times and put several of them on the finished tape. I like the experimental nature of it. I like that it's about process. I think the aspect of it being in her home, which is an intimate setting (I mean that the way that small chamber music venues are described as intimate). She lets us into her life in a small way to make a statement about herself, her art and art in general.

I also admire her courage. There's no metaphor for being naked on camera because it is the metaphor. She is actually uncovered, but never uncomfortable. It's amazing.

So as I begin to think about making little films, I keep thinking of hers. I also think of her relationship to her body and the camera. I've spent most of my life striving to remain covered, living in my head. I don't think I have the "wrong body," but I think my identity was at odds with aspects of my body - not even in a way that I've been fully aware of. Which is to say, being naked on camera is not something I would ever have considered in a million years. No. No. No. What are you kidding? It's another door that was closed - right next to all the doors that disallow crossdressing. These doors are starting to open for me. (Note that they should never have been closed in the first place.)

I'm working on a video of me giving myself a shot. It is uncovering. I thought of her video for courage to continue. My nakedness, though, is metaphorical. Do I want to put out there a picture of me in my bed room? Hesitating? Pausing? Failing?

Why do I want to do it? I have no idea. I try to get things out of my head sometimes and if you that with art, then how you do it is by putting it in other people's heads. What does it feel like to have your identity hinge on an injection when you have a fear of needles? Well, here's one answer.

I'm considering doing a piece with a bunch of still photos, slowly fading from one to another. In them I would be in the same location, in the same pose. I would start wearing a suit, hat and jacket and in each picture, remove one item until I was wearing nothing. (Why do I want to do it? I have no idea.)

I pass when I'm clothed. People see me as a man, which is what I want. But I've only done hormones and only for a few months. My body is ambiguous. Not even as ambiguous as I would like. It would be a stripping away of identity and of self. (Why do I want to do it? I have no idea.)

What is sex? What is gender? They're both culturally constructed. My very body is queer now. I call all of these oppositions into question just by existing. My queer self is inscribed on my person, on my physical being.

I don't want to be a shock value, though. I don't want to be daytime TV. I don't want to be a women's glossy mag. I don't want to be a bad joke. I want to be a person, clothed or unclothed. Woodman was dealing with the same sort of issues in her work, about how her image is transmitted and received. She can't control what the perceiver thinks. Somebody like me could come up to it and think , "ooh, hot woman." But if that person engages the work, they walk away with more than that. She does with pacing, timing, repetition of the same scenario. She's got some advantage over me in that we, as a culture, acknowledge that cisgender women's bodies exist.

So, I don't know if it's a good idea. I'm looking for thoughts.

1 comment:

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