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(Dis)Appearing Acts

Nina Levitt

Illusions! Magic! Photography!
In the first chapter of The Aesthetics of Disappearance, cultural theorist Paul Virilio, in his meandering critique of technology's impact on space and time, touches on the seemingly unrelated subjects of picnolepsy (the momentary lapses in consciousness that frequently afflicts children) and childhood society (games, spinning, avoiding the adult gaze). He then relates these peculiar forms of presence and absence to certain early discoveries made in cinema and photography. Virilio recounts a pivotal moment in the history of image making: Georges Méliès, one of the most important pioneers of early cinema, describing his discovery of "the cheapest trick [that has] the greatest impact":

One day when I was prosaically filming the Place de l'Opera, an obstruction of the apparatus that I was using produced an unexpected effect. I had to stop a minute to free the film and started up the machine again. During this time, passersby, omnibuses, cars, had all changed places, of course. When I later projected the reattached film, I suddenly saw the Madeleine-Bastille Bus changed into a hearse, and men changed into women. The trick-by-substitution, soon called the stop trick, had been invented, and two days later I performed the first metamorphosis of men into women. (1)

From our twenty-first century perspective, Méliès' discovery seems like a simplistic one: yet, at the time, the technology was brand new, and cinematic space was only beginning to be explored. During the early period of cinema and photography, events were being staged for the benefit of the camera/viewer. In fact, realism quickly became uninteresting unless technology somehow intervened. "The great producers of the epoch recognized that by wresting cinema from the realism of 'outdoor subjects‘ that would quickly have bored audiences, Méliès had actually made it possible for film to remain realistic." (2)

It is interesting to note that Méliès was a successful magician in Paris. He attended the first screening of the Lumiere Cinématographe on December 28, 1895. Soon he was using the camera to document magic acts and gags from the stage. By late 1896, he was producing his first "trick" films. These short films relied on his technique of stop motion to create the illusion of people and objects appearing and disappearing at will, or changing from one form to another, as used in Cinderella (1899) and Voyage dans la Lune/A Trip to the Moon (1902) — both blockbusters of his era.

Virilio also discusses other early filmmakers and photographers, including the scientific endeavors of Etienne Jules Marey who is known for his studies of human and animal locomotion:

Around 1880 the debate centered on the inability of the eye to capture the veracity of chronophotography, its scientific value — the very reality it conveys insofar as it makes the "unseen" visible, that is to say, a world-without-memory and of unstable dimensions. (3)

So here we have an interesting duality: Méliès capitalizing on lapses in recorded time because of the breakdown of equipment, and Marey harnessing technology to show what can't be seen with the unaided eye. Virilio succinctly describes this dichotomy:

What science attempts to illuminate, "the non-seen of the lost moments," becomes with Méliès the very basis of the production of appearance, of his invention, what he shows of reality is what reacts continually to the absences of the reality which has passed. (4)

Illusions! Spectacles! Projections!
The shift in my own art practice from photo-based work into video projection encouraged me to curate a show of emerging photographers whose work is related in a broad sense to the notion of projection, both by physical manifestations and psychological references. Reading Virilio's book again after several years, it brought me to the realization that projections are the perfect visual trope for his poetics of appearance and disappearance. Consider these three dictionary definitions of projection:

An apparatus used in cinema to cause light or shadow to fall into space or an image to fall on a surface.

The act of perceiving a mental object as spatially and sensibly objective.

The attribution of one's own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects; especially: the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defense against anxiety.

The four artists I have chosen for (Dis)Appearing Acts made works that relate to early cinema, if not consciously, then by virtue of (my) re-examination. Collectively, the artists nod to their historical visual roots: not as their revisionist predecessors did, but rather to mine visual strategies about picture making. These works are not necessarily political, but rather they are about an enchantment with the photographic. The artists also construct images that stage either psychological or physical projections which can be read as symptoms of anxiety, loss or faith.

In a series of four related works, Kotama Bouabane stages events for the camera, creating illusions that relate most directly to Méliès' discovery. Photographing himself against a white backdrop with minimal props, Bouabane enacts simple visual illusions that extend across and beyond the photographic frame to both deny and capitalize on it.

In Absence, a sequence of three large colour photographs, the artist seems to disappear into the floor. A complimentary piece, Weightlessness, depicts the male figure disappearing into thin air, lifting up and out of our visual field in resistance to his concrete-weighted feet. In an accompanying pair, Holding On and Uprooted, Bouabane uses sequencing and the limits of the photographic frame to create the illusion of great space and physical tension.

Clean (almost clinical) and visually simple, Bouabane straddles the worlds of both Marey (in his visual aesthetic and earnestness) and Méliès (entirely dependant on the controlled picnoleptic lapses of the shutter). We are left to marvel at the consequences of these incomplete scenarios and at the illusions they create.

In the psychological realm of projection, Lindsay Page creates elaborate tableaux in two related bodies of work. Staging miniature worlds using photographic effigies and props, Page has devised exquisite scenes of implausible torture and whimsy that contemplate the human condition. Constructing and then photographing a series of Joseph Cornell-like boxes, she presents an entourage of images and found objects performing for the camera as a kind of photographic defense against anxiety or perhaps as a response to it.

In one series, Page seeks pictorial revenge on people who were mean to her when she as a teenager. She states that this sequence of nine photographs entitled Collections: people who picked on me in high school is concerned with "the ways in which we communicate. We project certain things about ourselves in our encounters with others. We reach out in dysfunctional ways, failing to connect and speak about things at the right time and in the proper context. We say little of what we mean, and threaten action we'll never see through. These portraits are as much about a failure to react appropriately as they are about the culprit's unfair targeting. They play off of the retrospective fantasies of childhood, the scenarios we relive after the fact." (5)

Page turns the subject from a more personal struggle to a collective one in an untitled series of six large colour photographs. We witness "a spectacular show of moments and feelings and thoughts…we share in this with all people everywhere, yet stand alone to contemplate it." (6) Within the photographic frame and through specific sequencing, Page creates an unsettling narrative of "moving through life, waiting, wondering. A collective anxiety progression, choices, paths we choose to follow." (7)

Combining physical and psychological manifestations of projection, Judy Ditner creates miniature theatrical spectacles. Using tabletop slide projectors, her strategy is to literally pull female characters out of the two-dimensional field of pilfered Hollywood movie stills. These luminous works tamper with the narrative logic of the scene in order to re-examine the portrayal of the passive female character.

While the film stills are identifiable as 1950s melodrama, Ditner is careful to select images from films that may not be familiar to us. The female characters, therefore, are not recognizable, a choice Ditner made so that we could form our own narratives, uninfluenced by our memory of the film. Her luminous sculptures are like soliloquies — they give drama to the female figures in a series of silent (photographic) reflections.

Chris Curreri pursues a complex form of psychological projection using archival images. The source photographs in this new body of work are from a performance of Twelfth Night by students at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston in 1912. His series of five large Giclée prints are presented with proscenium-shaped window mattes echoing the theatrical setting of the images. Piercing the paper using the French knot (embroidery stitch), Curreri has sewn circles around the heads of several students. Creating a unique pattern for each, these delicately sewn halos appear and disappear, moving in and out of focus depending on the viewer's distance from the prints. A spectacular form of animation occurs in these still photographs — a dusting, an oscillation of time and space. Curreri stitches around the actors who, perhaps because of their disability, are not quite looking in the "right" direction — a wonderful mis-gaze. The artist capitalizes on this barely perceivable strangeness.

Echoing Méliès' description of turning men into women with his stop-trick, the performance of Twelfth Night has a cast of male characters performing femininity to varying degrees of success. But more importantly for Curreri is the visual dilemma that the actors are posing/performing for an audience they cannot see, echoing our relationship to nostalgic images. Using embroidery to create a tension between the viewer, the portrait and the photographic material itself, these complex works comment on the nature of the photographic gaze, "the non-seen of the lost moments."

Illusions! Identity! History!
The visual enactments of appearance and disappearance in this exhibition look to a rich history of image making. The artists' varied works are united by their obsessiveness with the body and the performance of identity on many levels – something that early cinema and photography could not have done consciously. These young artists, with respect and knowledge of the history before them, forge ahead into new terrain. Méliès would be impressed.

(1) Virilio, Paul, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, New York, Semiotexte, 1991, p. 15.
(2) Ibid p. 15
(3) Ibid p. 16
(4) Ibid p. 17
(5) Lindsay Page, artist's statement
(5) Ibid
(6) Ibid

Additional Resources:
Braun, Marta, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne Jules Marey 1830-1904, University of Chicago Press, 1992.