// Too Close – An Essay on Intimacy (2014) // “What, however, makes it remain “too close” yet without transcending the flimsy borderline and not being regarded as pornography? “

* Zofia Cielątkowska, Too Close, “Punkt” 14, 2014, p. 316-325.

The body – its stamina, sexuality, every, day existence, and commonality – definitely remains in the centre of one of the most frequently addressed topics in the field of “transgressing borders” in art. It appears in many contexts, indeed. The present time provides a vast number of examples of work that shows intimacy in a very graphic manner, or – as Rebecca Schneider would probably call it – as the “body explicit”[1]. This work usually toes the line of saying too much and sometimes comes too close to the viewer. What, however, makes it remain “too close” yet without transcending the flimsy borderline and not being regarded as pornography? Isn’t it precisely the category of proximity or closeness understood as a relation between people, a kind of authentic engagement in emotions, the factor which prevents such a tag? Moreover, at least this is what I believe, there is a link with the body seen as a subject. Let us take a closer look at a few characteristic moments in art history which have departed from conventions and broken the taboos and yet address closeness. Perhaps even too close, indeed.

 

For me vision is what you see, to the least extent related to picture. It is just seeing — it is a very simple word — and to be a visionary is to be a seer. The problem is that most people can’t see.

Stan Brakhage

 

In 1959 Stan Brakhage films his wife during a delivery – Window, Water Baby Moving. The sunshine enters through the window, the interplay of strong light stresses prolonged close-ups of Jane Brakhege, her smiling face and big belly. The cut stills shows fragments of her body, room, and finally the film’s author. A delicate interference – painting directly on the film – is a measure that is more formal than aesthetic and does not strip the delivery of its realism. We see everything literally and precisely, without embellishment. The baby’s head slowly emerges from between the female intimate parts, which in this perspective look foreign, become deformed and expand to an unusual size. We can see blood oozing down, the midwife at work, the swollen body, and Jane’s face contorted by pain. When the child is lying beside her after the placenta is cut, the camera returns to show how the placenta is actually extracted. Stan Brakhage was criticised for this film on two counts. First of all, for infringing on the taboo of a delivery and showing the female body in an uncomfortable situation, and second of all by the feminists, for introducing a male eye into the woman’s zone. Let us not at this moment dwell on this critique and point out two issues: of the body and of formal measures. From the point of view of art, Brakckhage’s film uses the motif, known from US films shot at that time, of a window as a metaphor of a camera[2]. The stills include the author himself, and the reel is slightly coloured. That much for formalities. As to the aspect of the body that interests us here, it is worthwhile to notice not so much the body as a tool – which is the way it had always functioned in art history – but as a subject of artistic expression. Let us imagine now the same scene filmed by a stranger. Probably the climate and atmosphere of the film would be totally different; details such as a glance, smile, sweeping camera movements, repetitions, and gestures would take on a unique significance. The film demonstrates the involvement of the person in the back and in front of the camera and reflects an actual relationship, a kind of closeness. In turn, the viewer is left to assume the position of a participant in an experiment, rather than that of a typical audience member. Even if the images seem too literal, the entire context focuses here on the experiment; the subject of the work is not the body as an object but as the subject: experience, event, relationship. This subjective aspect of the body was observed in the period starting from the late 1950s, in particular in the 1960s, in theatre, the visual arts, dance, and music. One of its most intriguing manifestations is, no doubt, the emergence of performance.

 

I didn’t stay naked in front of 300 people in order to be fucked.

Carolee Schneemann

 

Edited with a great care for the artistic aspect of the picture, the film Fuses (1964-1967) is sixteen millimetres of twenty-two-minute spool showing Carolee Schneemann and her then partner James Tenney having sex. Before I proceed to discuss this – by now “classical” – film, let me say two words about Schneemann’s approach to working with matter or rather about the manner of translating her then experience as a painter into work with the body. Identifying interrelations between Schneemann’s films and painting does not seem that obvious. Still, when you hear what she says in interviews or writes in texts, you may observe that she was interested in the formal aspects of the painting and its philosophy. As Kristine Stiles observed, Schneemann was so persuasive at animating the space between the window and the body as if it was real, formal. The aesthetic comments she made on the history of painting went unnoticed.[3] The body is the centre of nearly all of her projects. In her notes from the years 1962-63, in principle dedicated to body kinetics, Schneemann observes that gesture, resistance, strength, etc. are the fundamental life of any material used and its concretisation. A manifestation in space of any gesture acts on the eye as a time unit. Reflections on kinetic representation are for Schneemann a kind of exploration of an image in motion, i.e. many of its variables such as colour or light, together with their temporary visibility and invisibility. In the Fuses film, shot in the space of a home, where we see a cat in the background, there are many close-ups, long shots, rather implicit, but at the same time eluding the literal. This film exudes intimacy and warmth. When Fuses screened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, as Schneemann recounts, the public grew still and there was a complete silence after the film ended. Finally some man shouted, leaving the room with a female partner: “Come my dear! Away from what only a deranged frigid nymphomaniac could make”. A young critic in attendance, in turn, told her: “Madame, you have assaulted my sexuality”[4]. In the above interview Schneemann explicated the problem with the reception of Fuses. The earlier context of sexuality was either medicine or pornography, i.e. illness or perversion. If there was a motif of sexuality outside this context, it was usually ascribed to one or the other; definitely there was no positive image. The above explains to some extent why the artist tries to pack into this film all that seems normal and ordinary, including a cat[5]. Moreover, this also makes us aware that in the early 1960s both the terminology and traditional prejudice were strongly ingrained. This is borne out by a commentary in a chapter dedicated to Schneemann in Aleksandra Juhasz’s book Woman of Visions. The author observes that the only model of women’s open sexuality of that period were the boyfuck orgies of hippie culture, the performative model of The Living Theatre, and blue movies[6]. Therefore Schneemann openly admits:

I really wanted to see what “the fuck” is and to place it in the living sense of equity. What would it look like?[7]

Fuses arose from the need to show an image of people making love as an ordinary spontaneous gesture of closeness. The film includes visible cuts after coitus of a woman and a man and both are treated on a par, as equitable. As Schneemann stresses, in this work the lover is neither a subject, nor an object. Actually she tries to move beyond these categories, to show sensual and equitable action. Apart from the social and cultural message of the work, the film is a visually attractive material in large measure thanks to the application of paint directly on celluloid[8].

 

My aim is to use second-hand images with first-hand emotions.

Marlene Dumas

 

Dumas uses almost exclusively photographs as the source material and some of the paintings are based on photographs and stills from blue movies. However, her “paintings” are never literal translations of photographs, just like the essence of the topic she addresses goes beyond mere representation. She tries rather to capture inherent differences between photography and painting; something she herself defines as the essential immortality of indifference. What happens in the paintings is a slight shift of the subject, as it is neither nudity, nor the posing body. It is also a slight shift of meaning – we move from a voyeuristic pleasure to an emotion. As the quote in the introduction implies, Dumas focuses on showing relations and does not copy a pose. It is rather a question of showing life’s eroticism, a certain state, conditions, emotions – two subjects in confrontation, perhaps.[9] There are always emotions which cannot really be painted between the knowledge of creating an object, a tangible thing, i.e. canvas, and a reference to this object.[10] The difference between pornography and an image painted on its basis seems subtle yet meaningful. In the former, the viewer’s gaze is arrested by the very layer of representation, which as such is to provide a source of pleasure. In the latter, the represented is only used to create tension; the genuine meaning and emotions are beyond it and the eyes are set free. In other words, concentration around eroticism arises from totally different reasons than representation itself. Eroticism is regarded by Dumas as an expression of consciousness in human discourse. She counters allegations of being too literal or obscene by pointing out that ignorance or abuse may be obscene, but eroticism cannot[11]. Why, however, does she use pornography as her source?

Because I do not see myself when I do it. I cannot see myself when I look at you?[12] Naturally, the above examples do not exhaust the complex and multifaceted subject. They do show, however, that it is always possible to constantly shift signification and mark subtlety in what is explicit and obvious. Closeness, both being “too close” and a kind of commitment, emotion with a subjective approach to the body want you to be vigilant.

intimacy builds worlds; it creates places and usurps places meant for other kind of relation. Its [intimacy’s] potential failure to stabilize closeness always hunts its persistent activity, making the very attachments deemed to buttress “a life” seem in a state of constant if latent vulnerability[13].

Living in a constant state of vigilance.

[1] Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance, Routledge, New York 1997.
[2] This appeared e.g. in Maya Deren’s Mashes of the Afternoon or in Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1966).
[3] Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics. Essays, Interviews, Projects, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2003, p. 8.
[4] Ibidem, p. 138
[5] Ibidem, p. 33.
[6] Alexandra Juhasz, Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2001, p. 61-62.
[7] Carolee Schneemann, Imagining Her Erotics…, op. cit., p. 23.
[8] The very process of exposing the spool with Fuses is an interesting history, which Schneemann recalls in an interview (Interview with ND, From ND, Austin, Texas, No. 14, 1991, p. 5-10.). The only place where the footage could possibly be exposed was Stan Brakhage’s lab in Denver. Brakhage assured the artist that they had come used to bizarre footage. As it turned out, however, they refused to expose Schneemann’s film unless, as the studio made clear, she would append a letter from a shrink to any spool that she will submit. There was a problem, then, who would provide such a letter with each spool. Finally, the husband of the artist’s friend (Marta Edelheit) agreed to that and issued a letter that read as follows: “The appended film by Carolee Schneemann is a study of the archetypical evolution of the cross”.
[9] Richard Shiff, Less Dead, [in:] Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, ed. Lisa Gabrielle Mark, exhibition catalogue, 2008, p. 151.
[10] “The Fearless Body: An Interview with Marlene Dumas”, Robert Enright, Border Crossings, No. 91 (August), 2004, p. 34.
[11] A statement by M. Dumas – audio materials. http://www.moca.org/audio/#dumas. Access date 10.01.2009.
[12] A statement by M. Dumas – audio materials. http://www.moca.org/audio/#dumas. Access date 10.01.2009.
[13] Intimacy, A Special Issue, ed. Lauren Berlant, The University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 2.

*Text published in Magazine “Punkt”:
Too Close, “Punkt” 14, 2014, p. 316-325.

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