A photograph in Des histoires

A photograph in Des histoires vraies titled “Le Divorce” shows a man urinating, and a woman, whose face we cannot see, standing behind him with her arms wrapped around his body, one hand holding his penis. Calle writes that this picture was a pretext to hold her husband’s penis one last time, and that the same night he asked to end the marriage. While this reiterates the chronicle of male attention that can only be obtained by way of subterfuge, the story is also significant for the phrase with which it begins: “In my fantasies, I’m the man.” In another photograph in the book, her husband is posed nude with his penis tucked between his legs, out of sight, the “amnesia” of this story’s title referring to the fact that Calle says she can never remember after the fact the colour of a lover’s eyes, his height or the shape of his penis. But visually what is “forgotten” is that he has a penis at all, while in the “divorce” photograph a few pages later, she has, in the image, come close to acquiring one. It is only visually, thought Freud, that the fact of female “castration” can be apprehended; here it is visually that Calle attempts to endow herself with a penis. In these pictures and texts, Calle seems to be both accepting and attempting to sabotage, put right, the classical psychoanalytic notion of woman as lack, as the being with, as Irigaray puts it, “nothing to be seen.” Her wish for a real penis, and for the attention of men, masks her desire for the phallus that will allow for the possibility of expression within the symbolic order, an option closed to her in Lacanian terms given her gender. But like the pseudo-satisfaction of her marriage and her meeting with Henri B., this possession too is a fake, a stolen voice. The viewer knows she does not really have a penis, that she is “castrated,” metaphorically “blind.”

Norman Levine has noted that for the protagonist of Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film Proof, Martin, a blind photographer who struggles with the absence of his father, the camera has become a “prosthesis, the phallus that he does not have.” (12) Martin’s “missing eyes as phallus in the Lacanian sense of signification,” writes Levine, “evoke the castration and blinding of OEdipus.” Something similar transpires in Calle’s work. The camera has allowed her to speak “like a man,” to investigate the world and to translate what has been outside the domain of the masculine symbolic order into its own terms. The camera has made it possible for her to insert the visions of her blind subjects into the chain of representation of the sighted (i.e., masculine) from which they have been excluded, and this activity mirrors her attempts to assert herself, “blind” because a “castrated” male, into that same representational order.

In their film, Shepard reveals that like Calle he is unable to identify with the phallic powers of the father. He whispers into the microphone of his video camera that he does not want to take Calle to Florida to visit his father because the man refuses to believe Shepard is his son, and had his mother followed for years by a detective in the hope of finding her with a lover. The lack of recognition by the masculine leaves both Shepard and Calle outside representation, in the position of the woman, “castrated.” Both are, in this way, “blind.”

Calle’s 1989 installation

Calle’s 1989 installation The Blind included photographic portraits of persons who were born blind along with framed texts describing their image of beauty, and her photographic rendering of that image. In Color Blind, produced in 1991, a colour photograph of a man with a white cane facing a painting of grey stripes of colour is juxtaposed to grey panels on which are printed statements made by blind people about what they see and quotes from Richter, Reinhardt and others concerning the notion of monochrome.

Along the way, at least in the more autobiographical work, Calle has replaced the straightforward visual style of the conceptual artist with the more aestheticized one of the modernist photographer. This personal work includes the book Des histoires vraies,  published in 1994, and is made up of photographs coupled with personal reminiscences; some of these works were earlier exhibited as Autobiographical Stories. In contrast to the many stories Calle has solicited from others, in these works she relates her own, all of which refer to psychologically resonant moments in her history. Far from representing a passage away from what has been perceived by some as the ethically problematic work of the earlier photographic “sagas,” Calle’s current projects seem to me to entail the working out of questions of female subjectivity embedded in the photographic “detective” work.

Various aspects of Calle’s current work – the preoccupations with absence and blindness, and the concern with autobiographical revelation – converge in the film made with Greg Shepard, Double Blind (1992-4), a road movie a deux in which the two wend their way from New York City to San Francisco, stopping to get married at a drive-in wedding chapel in Las Vegas. The film is a layering of stills and video the pair shot of one another, Calle’s diaristic musings in French with English subtitles, Shepard’s interior dialogue in English, and their conversations with each other and various hitch-hikers, waitresses and garage mechanics in real time. While the viewer encounters the obligatory American simulacra along the highway, the focus of the film is the freighted relationship between Calle and Shepard. The narrative is punctuated with nightly shots of a double motel-room bed (a configuration familiar from Calle’s L’Hotel series) and her voice-over lamentation: “No sex last night.” Equally accented is Shepard’s relationship to his car, creating a kind of onanistic version of the North American preoccupation with the automobile seen in Robert Frank’s The Americans. The couple’s interaction is tortured – an approach-avoidance dance of power with Calle almost begging for physical attention and commitment and Shepard attempting to deflect her demands. When they finally marry Calle comments that it was only the possibility of getting married in a car that convinced Shepard to go ahead with the wedding – “Let’s face it,” she says, “I owe my marriage to a Cadillac.”

With Calle uttering thoughts like “That’s it. I did it. I will have been married. I won’t be an old maid anymore,” and “One day I’ll forget what I went through and remember only that a man wanted me enough to marry me,” Double Blind can be painful to watch. Several women with whom I screened the film felt that Calle’s almost frantic struggle to drag the reluctant suitor to the (drive-in) alter could not possibly be true, that the film must be meant as a critique of romantic love a la Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. This reading is given fuel by the fact that the film opens with Calle recounting how upon meeting Shepard, she stayed in his apartment alone for two days and found written on his list of New Year’s resolutions the injunction “No Lying,” opening up the possibility that the character of Shepard in the film functions as a kind of alter-ego for the photographer who has been accused of lying herself, of faking projects like L’Homme au Carnet. Calle insists that everything we see in the film is true:

It’s a fiction in the sense that if you take two months out of the lives of anyone and make an hour and a half out of them [you will have a fiction]. It was a choice to privilege the sexual aspect and to privilege the car, [these were] artistic choices that distort reality, but otherwise it’s all true, entirely true. Almost every comment I make in the film I’d made in the car.

Double Blind unfolds like a primer of Lacanian sliding signifiers and unfulfilled desire, as it moves from one night of sexual disappointment for Calle to the next. Even the few months of happiness she experiences after the wedding turn out not to be real. At the end of the film, she discovers that Shepard has indeed been lying to her all along. Under his car seat she finds a garbage bag full of the love letters he had been writing to another woman throughout the marriage, in which he states that he will be free as soon as his three-month trial run with Calle is up.

James Bay Revisited

“Amazon of the North: James Bay Revisited” comprised several shows at once: documentation of Hydro-Quebec’s interventions in Northern Quebec; reiteration of the vulnerability of the Cree people inhabiting the region; and an exhibition of politically-based art intended to bring awareness through formal expressiveness. Considered as a political declaration, the exhibition was both evocative and powerful. German collaborators Rainer Wittenborn and Claus Biegert, artist and journalist, respectively, sought to make a statement that would resonate across time. They shied away from haranguing their audience, most of whom were likely already deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Cree people.

Wittenborn and Biegert have presented such material before. In 1981 the two produced a multimedia exhibition, highly documentary in nature, entitled “James Bay Project: A River Drowned by Water.” The show was based on three months of collecting information of all kinds – images, words, biological specimens and artifacts. Unlike many of the anthropologists and travelers who collected data and then were never seen again, Wittenborn and Biegert ensured that their stay was characterized by regard for their Cree hosts. Indeed, the show opened in the Cree village of Chisasibi before touring throughout the world. In turn, the Cree’s Grand Council invited them back in 1989 to report on recent changes in Northern Quebec.

“James Bay Revisited” is starkly resonant. It remains openly, perhaps naively, divided about its dual allegiance to art and politics. Housed in three interconnecting rooms, the art sometimes felt thin in material terms, even as it argued with eloquence that the hydroelectric project would result in immense cultural suffering and ecological devastation. The conflation of political and aesthetic messages demanded an unusual technique; many of the pieces evidence a kind of visionary didacticism, in which a part stood for a much larger whole.

The first gallery held a large, computer-generated printout of a caribou, meant to symbolize a catastrophe brought about in September 1981 when Hydro-Quebec directed overflow from the Caniapiscau reservoir into the Caniapiscau River. This decision was based on economic expediency, for if the surplus water was released through the power plants, the power would have been impossible to market. According to the wall text, Hydro-Quebec opened the gates for twenty-five days, and the resultant overspill killed ten thousand caribou migrating across the river toward their winter home. The Inuit people of Kuujjuag helped clean up the site, a week-long job that cost close to $600,000. With stunning hubris, Hydro-Quebec announced that the flooding was an act of God. The computer image is based on an actual photograph of the disaster: a caribou buck nearly overwhelmed by white water. The pathos of its repetition across the wall is initially numbing – until one invests the work with historical fact and consequent feeling. In fact, the show’s hortatory and aesthetic power revolved around the quality of the audience’s response – that is, the intellectual and ethical passion brought to the image.

In a show such as this historical awareness dictates everything. As Armin Zweite observed in the 1981 catalogue, “Wittenborn … groups all the cited facts around a context of suffering which, of course, no longer conveys itself directly, [but] rather unfolds itself alone in the consciousness of the viewer.” In other words, the real change, both aesthetic and political, is supposed to occur inside one’s head. This rings true. Wittenborn challenges monumental power with quiet images that stay close, aesthetically and historically, to Cree culture. As a result, often the show’s meaning must be expanded by a particular knowledge of the politics involved.

This was especially evident in the exhibition’s last space, containing large prints of five young Cree women. In their own right, these photographs conferred no innate meaning, except, perhaps, the suggestion of an anthropological study. Once again, exhibition notes proved not only informative but necessary. The young women are future mothers, photographed in a local hospital. It appears that the huge reservoir – flooding more than 4,200 square miles of Cree land – has been responsible, along with acid rain, for the presence of mercury in the food chain. Pregnant women have been warned not to eat fish at all. Wall notes made it clear that the Cree women, presented so impassively, are in fact being tested for mercury levels that could deform their children. With such background material, the photograph of a simple strand of hair assumed poignancy – that is, if one knew that mercury levels can be determined by analyzing hair samples. As in all the works, the image is meant to instruct and move at the same time.

The exhibition’s middle room, holding two mixed-media installations, was devoted to Hydro-Quebec’s effect on marine life. Last Dance for a New Skin had as its primary image a white whale drawn in outline on black fabric. About where its heart would be were two audio speakers emanating the animal’s calls and cries. The catalogue explains that the whales stay close to the rivers after shedding their skin, preferring freshwater to saltwater. If the second part of the James Bay project is completed, the rivers will be diverted and the whales will have to go elsewhere. Such changes would deprive the Inuit living in the area of a regular food supply.

For now, the political subtext of “James Bay Revisited,” the Great Whale Project, is off (there is, however, no guarantee that project will not be resumed). Wittenborn and Biegert must be congratulated for their effective melding of historical data, political perception and aesthetic form. Still, larger questions are unanswered. For the collaborators, working as transmitters of propaganda, there is no difference between the issues and the aesthetic means with which they express them. In a sense, the individual works are meant to stand as discrete events in the thoughts of someone committed to saving the ecology of James Bay. By fostering awareness of the problems facing the Cree, the art is admirable; but it also tends to be visually oversubtle. Viewers must bring much background information to their experience of the art, and it is primarily in light of what they know that their perception is energized. The wall texts and catalogue proved absolutely necessary for the comprehension of the art.

In many ways, Wittenborn and Biegert profoundly politicize what they create by reversing the usual experience of an exhibition – they would like us to think first and then perceive. Yet there has been a cost: their work sometimes possesses a formal isolation only the prose of a historical document might bridge. Involved in collaboration, the two men must have realized how their purposes and methods would sometimes split – that the intuitive communication of the artist and the factbased writing of the journalist would inevitably diverge. As political communication, the show demonstrates an acute awareness of its own intentions. Viewed as art, it becomes slightly less effective, for the filling in of gaps requires rigorous effort. The patience Wittenborn and Biegert ask – evident in the way the viewer needs time to take historical knowledge and use it to bracket and expand a formal perception – suggests new ways in which contemporary art can posit a spontaneous world, wherein our perception and our readiness to act coexist at exactly the same moment.

Re-assessing the Freudian theory of penis envy

Re-assessing the Freudian theory of penis envy, Jessica Benjamin has written of the father who is unable to provide active recognition of his daughter’s wish for personal agency, and is therefore “missing.” He is, she writes, “the key” to women’s missing desire,” and to “its return in the form of masochism.” Benjamin understands female masochism as the kind of self-abnegation characteristic of an “ideal love” situation like that around which Double Blind revolves. Admitting that women “may have no female image or symbol to counterbalance the monopoly of the phallus in representing desire,” Benjamin proposes for women “an alternative psychic register.” This register partakes of an “intersubjective dimension,” that refers to “experience between and within individuals” rather than the “intra-psychic” model of the “phallic mode of representation.” This viewpoint encompasses “not simply what we take in from the outside but also what we bring and develop through the interaction with others – our innate capacities for activity and receptivity toward the world,” a mutual rather than one-way recognition. It is precisely such “receptivity toward the world” that is embodied in Calle’s presentation of the memories, perceptions and stories with which various individuals have invested the sites and objects, be they stolen paintings or out of favour political plaques, whose physical absence she marks.

Benjamin suggests that this “intersubjective” mode is often expressed in terms of a metaphor of “inner space” where women have been able to discover “their own, inner desire,” and a sense of personal authenticity. Within the pages of Des histoires vraies, Calle’s personal stories and photographs tell only of loss and a resignation to the female position outside patriarchal recognition. It is when inserted into the context of pre-existent museum installations (as for instance, a photograph of a silk wedding dress and its accompanying story hung next to a case of antique lace and a Baroque painting of an aristocratic woman) that they cease to speak of “castration” and lack and begin to function very differently. Writ large, startling because so seemingly “out of place,” these tales of unrequited longing assert themselves with an authority and a plenitude of desire that literally fill the spaces that in so many other works Calle has made to signify the absence of her own power.

The search for male validation and the abandonment

The search for male validation and the abandonment by men informs Calle’s Des histoires vraies as well. In addition to several photographs and stories alluding to her unsatisfactory marriage to Shepard, a story is featured, next to a blank page, that begins: “I was in love with him, but he had decided to leave me;” and beside an image of handwritten pages: “I’d never received a love letter. I commissioned one from a public scribe….”; facing a photograph of a closed eyelid surrounded by black, a tale ends: “I didn’t know that that would be our last night: he was going to leave me.”

Des histoires vraies suggests too what the absence of the missing art objects in her museum pieces might, at least subliminally, signify for Calle – the book includes two photographs of paintings, one belonging to Shepard that she took as a “hostage” to insure his return. It was behind the other painting, she writes, that as a child she hid a letter which she believed revealed the identity of her real, absent father. The absence signaled by the paintings is the absence of the masculine, an absence that is always implied, although more obliquely, in her earlier work as well. If in Calle’s “detective” projects one is struck by her obsessive, quasiscientific enumeration of the movements and possessions of others, one is even more impressed by the state of fear and trepidation in which she carries out these investigations. And by the fact that it is always men whom she follows, as she has herself been tailed by a man. Her anxiety in Venice as she scouts out Henri B. smacks of proscribed, OEdipal desire (as does the later rifling through hotel rooms, likely sites of Freud’s “primal scene” – the copulating of the parents that leaves no doubt in the child’s mind that she has been left out of the family romance). Her preoccupation with Henri B. is presented as a forbidden one that feels somehow to her like an erotic attachment, with the fear of retribution most likely to come from Henri B.’s female companion:

I glide through the streets. A fear seizes me: he recognizes me, he follows me, he knows….I’m afraid …. I mustn’t forget that I have no sentimental feelings for Henri B. These symptoms, the impatience with which I wait for his arrival, the fear of this meeting, really doesn’t belong properly to me.

After spotting Henri B. with a woman: “She frightens me, more than him.” Calle dreams that the woman orders Henri B. to stop going outside, in order to sabotage Calle’s game. When he finally recognizes her, complete anti-climax: “What did I imagine, that he was going to take me away, provoke me, use me? Henri B. did nothing, I discovered nothing. This banal story demanded a banal ending.” Once she stops tracking him, each day unravels with the same sense of “absence.” Like the Las Vegas wedding of Double Blind, (and the faux mariage staged outside Paris weeks later, referred to in the film and a picture of which is included in Des histoires vraies) the gratification she receives is forced, stolen and ultimately empty.

In both the work where she has herself shadowed by a detective and again when she is photographed working as a stripper (seen in Des histoires vraies and the limited edition book La Fille du Docteur, ) Calle at once offers herself up to, and attempts to control or “own,” the male gaze. Laura Mulvey has written of the conflation of the desire of male film protagonist and male audience spectator that comes to bear on the movie showgirl (11); in Calle’s The Shadow project and striptease pictures she simultaneously places herself in the position of female object of desire and male (since it is a male detective who shadows her and male strip club patrons she refers to) observer. Here it is not a relationship to the OEdipal male/father that she attempts to procure for herself, as she did in the “saga” of Henri B. in Venice, but the entitlement and prerogative of masculine desire. Even as she poses for these photographs, trying to incite male longing and thereby assure her existence within the patriarchal order, she claims for herself the power to confer this existence by controlling the photographic gaze.

Biennale d’art contemporain de Lyon

Se tient dans le nouveau musee d’art contemporain construit recemment par Renzo Piano a Lyon la troisieme biennale d’art contemporain. La premiere du genre fut consacree en 1991 a l’art francais, la deuxieme en 1993 <<convoquait l’Avant-garde et insistait sur l’importance de l’engagement artistique>>. La troisieme biennale annonce clairement l’orientation unilaterale de la manifestation: presenter des oeuvres sur support film, video et a base d’appareils informatiques. Soixantetrois artistes internationaux ont ete invites a presenter des installations ou des travaux informatiques. <<Cette biennale, affirmeront les commissaires Thierry Raspail, Thierry Prat et Georges Rey, s’interesse a l’image mobile et presente le meilleur de l’art s’appropriant d’une maniere ou d’une autre, le recit cinematographique, la culture de la video et la pratique de l’informatique.>>

Cette manifestation tente de montrer de maniere panoramique l’etat de la creation dans le domaine des techniques reproductibles de 1963 a nos jours. Deux sections se partagent cette biennale. L’une se voulant historique presente des oeuvres des debuts a nos jours: les premiers detournements de Nam June Paik (1963), des TV-Decoll/ages de Wolf Vostell (1963) juxtaposes a des performances/environments de Dan Graham, Vito Acconci et Bruce Nauman (1969 a 1993). Font partie de la meme histoire, Piotr Kowalski et ses quatre Time Machines (1969 a 1995), Woody et Steina Vasulka et leur machine de vision (1976), Michael Snow et la celebre installation De La (1969-1972), Bill Viola et un dispositif en circuit ferme He Weeps for You (1976), Gary Hill et une installation recente <<interactive>> [quatre moniteurs presentes dans leur fly case sur roulettes proposent un montage rapide d’extraits de video tire de Solstice d’hiver (1995)], etc. Cette premiere enumeration non exhaustive indique la diversite du parti pris qui, meme s’il se veut mettre en evidence les thematiques du corps et de la machine, propose sans hierarchie des performances devenues installations pour la bonne cause, des travaux techniques de pionniers: une histoire certes mais sans cheminement. Des artistes paraissent avoir ete choisis pour la place qu’ils occupent dans le developpement d’un medium. Ils sont toutefois presentes ici par une installation recente qui n’apporte aucun argument a l’histoire de ce medium (Nam June Paik, Gary Hill, Joan Jonas). On peut s’interroger, consequemment, sur les raisons de l’existence de cette histoire…

La section contemporaine presente des artistes, chacun dans sa <<boite noire>>, qui dans d’autres circonstances auraient ete historiques tels Orlan, Tony Brown, Tony Oursler, George Legrady, Sterlac, etc. Elle propose egalement un panorama etendu d’artistes travaillant les nouvelles technologies tels Paul Garrin, Toshio Iwai, Laurent Mignonneau et Christa Sommerer, Jon Kessler, etc. Les travaux ont ete selectionnes selon les commissaires pour leur <<magie, leur interet pour le corps, l’identite, la prothese, le renouvellement perspectif des manieres de voir>>. Une autre serie d’oeuvres a ete choisie parmi la jeune generation de plasticiens utilisant le support video parmi bien d’autres, tels Marie-Ange Guilleminot, Douglas Gordon, Stan Douglas, Carsten Holler, Cheryl Donegan, Pierre Huyghe, Claude Closky, etc. Chacun de ces artistes a recuun nombre equivalent de metres carres plus ou moins obscurs dans lequel il avait la possibilite de rajouter des sieges pour eventuellement faire salle de cinema. Il n’est represente que par une seule oeuvre. Deux points paraissent importants a souligner dans cette generation d’artistes. D’un cote, ce desir de reconsiderer le contexte de presentation des oeuvres et les conditions de reception par le spectateur. (La salle de cinema, meme si de nombreux artistes retravaillent a partir d’archives cinematographiques, n’est pas pour autant le lieu ideal de monstration. Les artistes d’aujourd’hui preferent des lieux autres, a connotation plus sociale, tels un cafe, un bar, un parking, un grand magasin, etc.) De l’autre, la reemergence du narratif. Non pas le narratif lineaire obligeant le spectateur a une vision figee, mais le narratif permettant au spectateur de <<monter>> sa propre fiction. Il parait des lors difficile de comprendre l’absence dans cette manifestation de James Coleman, d’une part, et de Jean-Luc Godard, d’autre part.

De grandes expositions ont marque dans les annees quatrevingt l’histoire de l’art en proposant des panoramas d’oeuvres a base de techniques reproductibles. <<The Luminous Image>> au Stedelijk Museum d’Amsterdam, <<Video Skulptur>> au Kunstverein de Cologne, <<Passages de l’image>> au Centre Georges Pompidou, <<Signs of the Time>> au MoCA a Los Angeles ont fait le point sur ce type d’oeuvres en proposant d’ors et deja des connections avec les arts plastiques en general. Dans les annees quatrevingt-dix, apres les diverses biennales du Whitney et les expositions monographiques consacrees a de nombreux artistes exposes ici, il aurait semble necessaire de dessiner un projet eclaire tant par l’experience de toutes ces manifestations et de la theorie qui les ont entourees, d’une part, et de tracer les perspectives des annees a venir en faisant precisement surgir les concepts sous-jacents a des ensembles d’oeuvres, d’autre part. Certes les nombreux travaux a partir d’archives permettent de noter la permanence de la memoire. Celle-ci n’a-t-elle toutefois pas toujours ete sous-jacente a ce type d’oeuvres (Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Jean-Luc Godard, James Coleman, Victor Burgin, Antonio Muntadas, etc.)? Une omnipresence de la narration aurait necessite un ancrage de ce theme dans la section historique et des rapprochements avec le cinema contemporain.

Cette manifestation semble etre a la recherche d’un statut, hesitant entre l’exposition historique (sans toutefois sembler prendre le temps necessaire a ce type de projet) et la biennale dessinant les tendances a venir, sousentendues par un ou plusieurs concepts forts.

Un catalogue papier qui presente les memes caracteristiques que la manifestation et un CD-Rom accompagnent la Biennale. Le CD-Rom realise par Jean-Louis Boissier pour la Reunion des Musees Nationaux parait etre l’un des catalogues hypermedia les plus appropries a ce type de manifestation. Il laisse en effet la parole a chaque artiste, presente l’oeuvre exposee ainsi qu’une selection d’oeuvres anterieures et quelques citations de textes sur la demarche de l’artiste. Le rapport qui s’etablit entre le texte (aux dimensions adaptees au support) et l’image fixe et en mouvement semble avoir trouve ici un juste equilibre.

Stereotypes from the frontier

Indian Princesses and Cowgirls, a collaborative publication by Marilyn Burgess and Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, with a bookwork by Rebecca Belmore, originates from the exhibition of the same name. Mapping post-colonial North American identity through the archetypes of the fair Indian princess and subversive cowgirl, the authors use archival images, stories and testimonies to re-appropriate the appropriation of First Nations culture.

Luscious illustrations testify to the proliferation of the Indian princess and cowgirl icons in popular culture since the turn of the century. Valaskakis investigates the glaring discrepancy between real First Nations identity and that created by White culture. As a fabricated archetype and White mainstream fetish, the alluring sexual mystery of the “savage” princess served to maintain the status quo and regulate the “other” through sexual spectatorship.

Belmore’s bookwork presents a contemporary imaging of the First Nations woman. Five Sisters, a series of five photographs showing a spectrum of identities, refreshingly questions the positioning of twentieth-century First Nations feminism.

Burgess traces the roots of the cowgirl in the “white savage” – the “wild” White girl brought up by Indians and returned to the White milieu. This blurring of identity, at once White and Indian, masculine and feminine, intriguingly transgresses normative gender roles. That women are the site of such popular cultural appropriation should be of no surprise, for it serves to contain a potentially dangerous cultural and gender “other” in masculinist national ambitions. The location of this very design within a feminist postcolonial perspective extends Indian Princesses and Cowgirls into a new frontier of cultural criticism. V. L.

Stephanie Beaudoin exposition

Je puis bien dire que je ne commencai de vivre que quand je me regardai comme un homme mort. – Rousseau, Confessions, livre VI.

Depuis 1993, cette jeune artiste montrealaise se specialise dans des expositions eclair qui occupent des espaces commerciaux laisses vacants ou des devantures de magasins et qui traitent, avec une approche tant sociologique que theorique, de l’exposition et de la mise en vitrine de la mort. Cette fois-ci, le projet, reellement pense comme une suite en progression (l’artiste s’est manifestee a quatre reprises sous ce theme depuis 1993), atteint une ampleur et un impact inouis. Intitulee Je suis morte; commemoration, preservation et dissemination, cette installation tripartite s’approprie en totalite, sous un mode pastiche, la spectacularisation du rituel mortuaire dans notre societe. Dans un meme elan, l’artiste reagit ironiquement face a la place reservee aux jeunes artistes et a la difficulte de s’infiltrer, lors de la quete d’une premiere reconnaissance publique, dans le reseau des galeries reconnues. En cela, elle s’inscrit dans la pratique (en expansion) que favorisent certains artistes en prenant l’initiative de louer des espaces afin d’exposer leurs travaux en dehors du circuit <<officiel>> des galeries. Ici toutefois, la nature commerciale de l’espace occupe connote largement la reception de l’oeuvre et en constitue un des rouages importants.

En 1993, Beaudoin imaginait une fiction ou elle inaugurait le debut de son existence artistique par le fait de declarer sa mort comme individu anonyme. Le mythe qu’elle s’est elle-meme forge veut que devant l’absence de reconnaissance publique, elle s’auto-declarait morte symboliquement pour eclairer son oeuvre de la rarete, donc de la plus-value, qu’on accorde generalement aux oeuvres des artistes disparus. Elle prenait a rebours le mythe de l’artiste maudit inconnu de son vivant qu’on celebre de facon posthume. De plus, en produisant des reliques de son propre corps, l’artiste forcait ses oeuvres a temoigner de son existence propre et litteralement a actualiser cette maniere qu’a souvent l’histoire de l’art traditionnelle de fetichiser the-man(?)-as-his-work. Ainsi, le corps de l’artiste gagne le statut d’objet d’art, s’offrant comme objet de desir lie a un besoin de reconnaissance, etablissant une relation d’intersubjectivite (Lacan) avec le public. L’evenement prend aujourd’hui l’allure d’une commemoration de la performance initiale.

Des trois parties de l’installation, celle designee comme la commemoration est d’abord visible de la rue dans la vitrine de la boutique. On y voit, dans un parterre de fausses roses rouges, un cenotaphe en memoire de la disparition de l’artiste en 1993. Plus haut, accrochees dans la vitrine, deux photographies de l’artiste morte couronnee <<sur un lit de parade>> sont devoilees dans des cadres d’un materiau pauvre mais dramatiquement ornemente. L’artificialite de la mise en scene emerge en deployant un effet de theatralite qu’on retrouve dans toutes les facettes de la piece. La transcription du titre de l’installation figure egalement sur la vitrine, comme une reclame. Cette presentation singuliere attire et invite les passants qui s’arretent et souvent entrent dans le local, intrigues par cette manifestation etonnante.

Au fond de la piece habillee de lourds drapes de velours se trouve un cercueil dans un decor floral doucement eclaire. Le cercueil contient, en remplacement du corps de l’artiste, des fruits et legumes trempes dans une cire odoriferante – la cire joue le role de preservatif – et qui sont disposes de facon a reprendre la courbe du corps, rappelant les portraits peints par Arcimboldo a la Renaissance. Au moment de visiter l’exposition, la legere odeur de putrefaction des fruits commencait a se meler a celle, deja perceptible, de la cire, accentuant la forte dimension pragmatique de l’oeuvre.

Au-dessus du cercueil est accrochee une grande photographie de l’effigie funeraire de l’artiste vetue d’une robe tiree des contes de fees. Puissant artifice, la surface de la photographie semble subir, comme une vitre, l’effet de la condensation. Ceci suggere l’existence virtuelle d’un caisson de verre dont une des parois correspond au plan pictural. Tout se passe comme si le corps etait conserve dans une cage transparente. La photographie est jouee comme telle. En plus de rappeler le Condensation Cube de Hans Haacke (1963-1965), ce truc iconographique n’est pas sans rapport avec les oeuvres sous verre de Jeff Koons en redoublant la vitrine du magasin. En echo a la theatralite introduite auparavant, l’iconographie de cette image reprend la figure de La Belle au bois dormant, mais substitue cette vitrine au cercueil de verre du recit pour accentuer l’idee de conservation, de commemoration du corps endormi.

En un troisieme temps, l’installation contient une photographie grand format d’une machine distributrice de roses. A ses cotes, on retrouve une de ces machines dans laquelle l’artiste a substitue de fausses roses un peu caricaturales qui dissimulent un coffret a bijoux. Elles contiennent cette fois-ci des meches de cheveux de l’artiste filees en forme de bague que le visiteur peut emporter avec lui. Le titre de cette partie, dissemination (Derrida), introduit l’idee d’une dispersion du corps, toujours selon un principe commemoratif. Selon la croyance, les reliques ont le pouvoir de placer leur possesseur sous une bonne etoile, leur transmettant les dons du mort. L’artiste table sur ce culte en disparition ou la plus petite particule du corps tient pour son entierete et en conserve, par relation synecdochique, la memoire vivante.

L’artiste selectionne les operations qui, dans l’epreuve que peut etre la mort, sont valorisees dans leur ritualisation. De l’environnement qu’elle montre, de la monstration meme de la mort, elle retient surtout la dimension transitionnelle, sublimante – le rituel – qui en favorise l’acceptation et l’actualisation. Il en resulte une sorte d’intimite (un gathering) avec le public integre parfaitement au dispositif de l’oeuvre.

Beaudoin etale une strategie identitaire qui profite de la facilite qu’a l’histoire de l’art a produire un discours cherchant a traquer le nom propre afin d’expliquer les tableaux. Elle propose un espace rhetorique qui fonctionne a l’interieur de conventions (mortuaires) qui lui sert a se donner une existence dans une strategie de self-making. En litteralisant la <<mort de l’auteur(e)>> de Barthes, paradoxalement, elle en retablit la figure. L’artiste critique tout de meme l’hegemonie auctoriale, en ce qu’elle ne reinstaure pas l’aura enigmatique de l’auteur. Le mode de narrativisation autobiographique privilegie concourt a structurer l’identite en meme temps qu’il en performe la dis(-)location. La dispersion des reliques devient un reste qui substitue a la quete du <<sens>> si chere a la discipline de l’histoire de l’art une quete de reconnaissance partagee avec les visiteurs.