The Persistence of Memory

What’s the most beautiful of all the things given by God is this body of Hélène Lagonelle’s.

Hélène Lagonelle’s body is heavy, innocent still, her skin’s as soft as that of certain fruits, you almost can’t grasp her, she’s almost illusory, it’s too much. She makes you want to kill her, she conjures up a marvelous dream of putting her to death with your own hands. 

—Marguerite Duras, The Lover

Man Ray, Anatomies, 1929.

Anatomies, Man Ray, 1929.

How is it that violence is also beauty?

What undergirds the aesthetics of violence: an aesthetic to be found and celebrated in photography, fashion, film (as well as everywhere else)?

To what do we ascribe the desire to mark, interrupt, violate those whose beauty we find, as Duras does above “too much?”

Is it that same mythologized impulse that caused jealous women to knife cut the faces of the women whom their lovers betrayed them with, or the Old Testament god himself turning Lots’s wife into a pillar of salt as she glanced back at her burning city?

And does the object of violence need beauty for violence to be bestowed upon it? Is violence a state of mind for the bearer of it, or is it just something that befalls one, comes with the territory; that is: the territory of being female?

I was twenty-four years old when real violence descended on me, the kind I had the thought during which: “I could die here. Right now.”

The details don’t matter much. Or: they do, but they are not your details. They belong to me. The person that snapped on me that day had been in the process of becoming undone for weeks, and I was too young or stupid or both to recognize the increasing dangerous pitch. It was late June in the south. An apartment with no air conditioning. I was in the process of folding laundry and then a moment later I was pinned on a couch, a man’s hands around my neck. Squeezing hard. I started to black out; he released his grip for a moment before I lost consciousness. Somehow I got out of the room I was trapped in, and then out of the house. Running down terraced, residential streets in the middle of the day, hoping to find a sane-looking neighbor that could let me in to use their phone.

It was just that one time, but the physical body has a memory, as does the emotional one.

I went to a healer the day after I had been attacked, and after a long reiki session she told me that I needed to come back in a week, no charge. My energy was better than before, she said, but still “very out-of-whack.” That sounded about right. I felt out of whack, whatever “whack” represents or is. There had been no visible marks on me when I visited her that afternoon, but later that evening I watched in quiet horror as a red wave encircled and crawled up and around my neck as well as across my collarbone. Unmistakable red shadows of everywhere I had been held and gripped by him. The markings stayed for a week. A week in ninety degree heat in the south where there was no chance of disguising or hiding such a fact. Then they faded. A year later to the day, the marks returned, exactly as before, and again remained a week. If it hadn’t happened to me and you told me that it had happened this way to you, I probably would not believe you. But it did and I learned something then. The body, I understood, definitely has a memory.

As does the mind, conscious or otherwise. I would dream of this event, or of him, or of every possible and horrible permutation or periphery of circumstance, nearly everyday in the month of June for ten years. Most years the dreams had a theme: friends didn’t believe me. Or worse, they did and told me to just get over it. Or: I did not leave after the attack and instead stayed with him. Other times he would just appear in the dream where ever I was, hovering menacingly on the outskirts of the main plot. Silly subconscious: whenever and where ever he appears, he IS the plot of the dream. A short villain with a goatee and a power complex. One I am grateful to be rid of. At least I am mostly rid of it.

Man Ray, Anatomies, 1929

Anatomies, Man Ray, 1929

June is a month of uncomfortable anniversaries. June is the month I married this beast of a person; June is also the month he tried to kill me. I had a dream about him last night. He took up too much space in it, too much of the plotline. I awoke thinking about necks. Photographs by Man Ray of his lover Lee Miller, a series where he’d excise her exquisite neck from the rest of her body, treat it in the Surrealist style, and then title the series “Anatomies.” Is an excision itself grounds for violent practices in art? Arguably not, but then again when Lee Miller left him a few years after the “Anatomies” series were taken, he did create the ready-made “Object to Be Destroyed,” with the following instructions:

Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.

Object to Be Destroyed

Object to Be Destroyed, Man Ray, 1932

The eye pictured in the ready-made is Lee Miller’s. So you tell me.

I thought too, of the Duras quote above, from her famous quasi-fictional, quasi-autobiographical novel The Lover. I was reading a lot of Duras in my early twenties, and I’ve come back around to revisiting her as of late. The passage about Hélène Lagonelle has been scored into my mind since I first came across it more than twenty years ago.

Lastly, I thought about my own neck. About an image of it that did not exist yet.

The neck is the jugular. It is what the head hangs on, and also that on which one is hung by. The neck connects the lower and upper chakras of the body, literally the body to the mind. The neck is what we adorn with jewelry, that we protect in cold weather with turtlenecks and scarves. There are seven bones in the neck, all cervical vertebrae. The uppermost bone, the C1, is also known as the “Atlas” bone. Like the titan who held the world on its shoulders, the Atlas bone supports the skull, the spinal cord, arteries and is the attachment point for many muscles in the neck. Notably, it is also the thinnest and most delicate bone in the entirety of the neck. A last bone, the hyoid, sometimes classified as a neck bone and at other times as a bone related to the skull that happens to exist in the neck, is the Adam’s Apple, a U-shaped floating bone located just under the chin. It is the only bone not connected to another bone in the body. The hyoid is also the bone that is most often broken in strangulation victims. It is the piece of me that was not broken on that hot afternoon in late June.

Neck: Hyoid Intact

Neck: Hyoid Intact, Stacy Platt, 2017

Unlike Man Ray’s excised necks of Lee Miller, my neck is still very much attached to the rest of me. It holds a head on it that carries memories like these within it, as well as much better memories since then, and a body that has moved past that place, that time, that person I was and that he forever remains, existing somewhere both beyond and between us both. Especially in the dreamtime during the month of June.

 

the limits of photographic character: images you thought never existed

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.
–diane arbus

so i lied earlier, when i said that photography hadn’t done anything for me lately.

i have seen quite a bit of art in the last year, and in several genres that are not my focus, especially: dance, performance, theater and new media. like my experiences with photography, some of it has been morbidly bad. some of it sublime (heiner goebbel’s eraritjaritjaka springs immediately to mind for the latter category). photography though, for all its hits and misses, is the mistress i return to, and will continue to write of.

there are images that once seen, you know will follow you; that certain ideas you maintain will be punctuated now by this new collective visual unconscious. that the word which sprung into your mind when you saw this image will be recalled by you whenever the image appears suddenly and unbidden. that such images are what form each of our highly personal and subjective inner galleries.

i would imagine that the images which fill my private gallery space contain a single continuous thread: those images which i’d like to imagine some other version of myself might have taken. which is not to say: images i wish i had taken or images that i wish i had the capacity to take. no, i mean the images which, given a different set of priorities or choices made, are those that i (perhaps delusionally) know are things i could have seen myself seeing. as if these images, when i encounter them, are an aha! moment of negated destiny.

alack and alas, we all choose (and keep choosing) who it is to be and who it is we want to become. and in the choosing, so many paths-not-taken fall to the side. this notion of self-identity and awareness of that self has got me thinking about a schematic construct i once encountered, thought was incredibly important, and over the succeeding years had nearly forgotten all about. considering my abiding interest in art, art-making and art-makers, it was alarming to me that it had nearly slipped through the cracks. i’ll get on more about it later, but as an initial tease-of-thought the idea i’m speaking about is that of photographic character.

it goes something like this:

Projects + Ideology + Temperament + Social Group + Psycho-biography
=
photographic character

to understand photographic character is to (1) enter a similar frame of mind [as the photographer’s]; (2) experience their photographic experience, and (3) understand it [them] in a total way. once you understand what a photographer would never do (e.g. walker evans would never make a nude), you can begin to understand the parameters of a given artist’s photographic character.

diane arbus. self-portrait, pregnant, nyc, 1945.

it seems like that at a certain age it is very fashionable to like the work of diane arbus. and that age would be a young, coming-of-age age, when her raw inquiry and love of a gritty new york–which arguably doesn’t exist anymore–finds in your impressionable youth a receptive and captivated audience member. if, as you age, you further develop an interest/practice in photography, the bell curve will complete itself and it will become equally fashionable to dislike the work of diane arbus. to claim her output as that of an exploitive, voyeuristic depressive, and to attribute her status among the art-elite as having something to do with how still, to this day, culture is intoxicated with the myth of the mad genius, the maker-of things. your attitude of her may fall within this framework, outside of it, or be of the persuasion to have simply never given the matter much thought.

my conception of arbus changed when i encountered the above photograph. i’d like to imagine that what i find in it goes beyond my own photograph-as-confession voyeurism, and that it isn’t simply the peak into the obvious personal that gives me pause. beyond my first flush of shock and thinking that this is a photograph i’d never imagined she’d make, i have come instead to see that this image is really a prelude to all the other photographs that i have come to know as arbus’s–touching, vulnerable, a little skewed–as if she made this one imprint of herself before she went out seeking the same in the world over the next twenty-odd years.

arbus is 22. pregnant with her first child, doon. her husband is in military service in india. it is 1945, and she is living with her parents. this will be one of a series of images that she will make and send to her absent spouse, and one of the only self-portraits of diane arbus that i’ve ever known.

the words that come to mind in looking at this image: tender. vulnerable. uncertain. firsts. spare. and that head of hers, cocked over to one side, as if in appraisal of herself, the fact of her first pregnancy, the oddity of taking a photograph of oneself naked in front of a mirror. as if in that look she gives herself she’s trying to get at some essential core, some thingness that differentiates her, or this moment, or herself in this moment, apart from all others and all other moments. this going within to extract and reveal something that will remain occluded, fantastic and a quiet secret. and i realized in looking at this that it’s the same feeling i get as her intention in any photograph that i had ever seen that she had taken of someone else.

Our baby is a girl…curious and even a little funny. I simply stare at her. I expected to feel a deep recognition but I don’t. She isn’t like either of us but lovely: very alive with very beautiful shoulders. I love our lack of connection: that she doesn’t feel anything towards me and i feel such an odd, separate way about her.

I expected great changes (first, I expected it from pregnancy, then when it didn’t come, I expected it from birth), but I’m glad I didn’t change or at least feel changed. I trust myself better as I am. It was very simple–I have forgotten most of the bad part because of the anesthetic–but I still know it was simple. I guess events are always simpler than people–which is good.
–letter from Arbus to Alfred Stieglitz

the retrospective show where I saw this image has been hailed as everything from landmark to overtly worshipful (“why are we in her panty drawer?” critic David Spiher wrote of the MOMA show). While I can appreciate the sentiment driving the latter criticism–that of turning the spectacle of photography into the spectacle of personality (or, more precisely, maximizing the dollar potential of the former by elevating the latter)–I believe that it is too easy to dismiss the value of the inclusion of the personal in a show such as this. Whatever the intentions of the curators–displaying cameras, collage-walls, notebooks and even a recreation of her studio–the inclusion does end up lending some insight to a particularly hard-to-get-at aspect of both the photographer and the critical process. having the ability to peruse this at leisure lends us fodder to contemplate arbus’s psychological biography, which in turn could further inform us about her work, processes, artistic project via her artistic boundary conditions. one could argue that the gallery or museum is no place for such inner critique, but i think that would be a mistake. for all that we have projected onto the work of diane arbus and what we think from that we can assume about her, having a sustained moment with her letters, diaries, jotted-down-dreams et al. lets her speak her psychology back at our projections.

it seems there has always been the argument of “appreciate the art and keep the artist out of it,” but is that really viable? to consider the character of any given photographer seems hopelessly outmoded, anachronistic, but i would argue for this practice in any genre where we would exercise a critical model or mode of thinking. even of (perhaps especially of) critics themselves.

douglas nickel‘s notion of photography and photo-history as being a discursive, social practice based on an entire set of discourses and commentaries in our lifetimes can serve as a basis for understanding how to approach the notion of photographic character. photographic projects should be viewed with these questions in the back of our pockets: what were they trying to do with photography here? what of their character is evinced in their photography–what have they put of their person in here? what was their attitude? what was their disposition?

where one points the camera is where your psyche pointed it. if a photographer does not deal with that thing the psyche is putting forth, the psyche will in turn relentlessly keep pointing them there. an artist that is aware of what they are doing and what motivates their actions are serving the rest of us with tasks and life-lessons to follow: Know Thyself. ideally: be able to speak cogently about what it is you do and why, without having critics and curators proffer meaning in your stead. often when an artist fails at this, it is motivated by two cross-purpose actions: deferral and denial: defer the meaning and realization of what it is being sought in the work, and deny the reasons why it is being done through photography. noble projects versus neurotic ones.

a noble project can simply mean one in which the photographer is self aware to the degree that she knows what her tastes and predilections are and why, makes no apologies for them, and makes images based on what conceptual visions interest her. sometimes this can involve an agenda, sometimes not. either way, the approach will be open-ended in terms of strategy, with no pre-conceived notion as to what the final product will be. ideally, the work will not be viewed as a “product” at all, but in terms of a means by which to better understand something.

the image above of arbus pregnant is not such an image. it is instead a photograph taken by someone so known to my image-repertoire that the existence of this image stretched my understanding of what i thought i knew about her work. it actually ended up expanding it. the pregnant artist is not the culminating work of an open-ended teleology or practice, but this particular image is, i would argue, the beginning of her starting to think like one who could posses such a thing.