She is a problem because she is a seducer, and I — I mean we — love to be seduced, though we also resent it, and she is a problem because she is a suicide, and suicides are seductive because we all want to die sometimes, and dead young women artists and dead women artists of any age are a problem because it has always been easier for this culture to love their artworks when they, the women, are not alive to interfere with our relations with them, and her precocity was and remains a problem because of its completeness and because precocity is also always resented and dismissed, and she is a problem because it has historically been too easy to praise what is dead and too difficult to nurture what lives, and she is a problem because she is a martyr and ours is a culture addicted to martyrs and martyrology and powered by competition and self-loathing, which leads to the wrong kind of death, and she is a problem because the relation between life and nonlife or the animate and the inanimate is the subject of her photographs and this is too easily mistaken for merely gothy or pre-Raphaelite morbidity or Surrealistish oneirism, and she is a problem because when I look at her pictures I identify with them completely and therefore resent analyzing them as I resent mere praise or critique, and she is a problem because I cannot deny that I identify not only with her images but with real and documented aspects of her despair, and she is a problem because she was not only female but feminine in ways that have caused her work to have been seen as insufficiently critical or insufficiently conscious of its critical potential, and she is a problem because the fact that she appears in her own photographs has caused many to mistake them for self-portraits which they are not, and she is a problem because her photographs do not merely contain elements of nostalgia but they produce nostalgia plastically, though this ache of desire for something somehow lost or past cannot be located in mere mundane time and little resembles her actual times, in a manner analogous to the way Proust’s In Search of Lost Time manufactures its own time, which cannot but trump actual history even as it is generous enough to include it.
Strindberg, in the ardent and unhinged way he announced a lot of things, once announced that the stars in the sky were peepholes in a wall. He believed it was possible to take a photograph of himself and capture something essential: his soul. And he believed it was possible because he was the one who could control the image. That element of control in self-photography is important, and it’s possible that to take a picture of yourself may seem to reveal something, while in reality it discloses nothing.
We’re accustomed to accepting that a photograph can lie—Photoshop can slim waists, tighten jaw lines, and give somebody a glass of juice to hold—but those aren’t the things that make a photograph artful or even poignant. We continue to believe a picture speaks a thousand words.
And we’re especially liable to believe the thousand words we perceive in a picture if it’s a picture of a woman. Women more than men have spent most of history being seen and not heard. We’ve spent five hundred years trying to find the source of the Mona Lisa’s smile. We look for the anguish in the faded picture of Virginia Woolf, we sense the trembling behind the stretched smile of Lindsay Lohan emerging from a doorway into a neon-lit street at 3am, the compromised grace of an anonymous teenage girl lit up by the flash of the smart phone she holds in her hand. We’re used to anatomising the essence of a woman in the images that have been taken of her.
If a woman took tens of thousands of photographs, many of them pictures of herself, and then never showed them to a soul, never meant for anybody to see them at all, what could you know about that person from her photographs?
kate macdowell, francesca woodman, ana mendieta, kiki smith, hiba schahbaz, ana mendieta, marie-hélène cauvin, b. prabha
I remember vividly the moment when the nymph Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree. She is fleeing Apollo, the love-struck god who pursues her. She would like to remain alone, chaste, dedicated to the forest and the hunt, like the virgin Diana. Exhausted, the nymph, unable to outstrip the god, begs her father, Peneus, a river divinity, to help her. Ovid writes: “She has just ended this prayer when a heaviness pervades her limbs, her tender breast is bound in a thin bark, her hair grows into leaves, her arms into branches; her foot, a moment before so swift, remains fixed by sluggish roots, her face vanishes into a treetop.” When Apollo places his hand on the trunk of this tree “he feels the breast still trembling under the new bark”. Until she is transformed, Daphne is running for her life. Now she is stopped; she can no longer move. Apollo can touch her, but he can’t possess her. Though cruel, the metamorphosis is her salvation. On the one hand, she loses her independence. On the other, as a tree, she remains forever in the wood, her place, where she has a different sort of freedom. —Jhumpa Lahiri
She could plant herself in the ground. “I’m not a seed, I’m a tree. I must plant myself.” Perhaps she would turn into a tree. She wanted to grow on the riverbank with leaves greener than the slime, and fight the battle of shades of green in the pool. If she became a tree, she would sprout new leaves. She would be covered with new leaves. She would give her new leaves to the wind. —Shahrnush Papsipur
Mother, I keep having the same dream. I dream that I’m growing tall as a poplar. I pierce through the roof of the balcony and through that of the floor above, the fifteenth floor, the sixteenth floor, shooting up through concrete and reinforcing rods until I break through the roof at the very top. Flowers like white larvae wriggle into blossom at my tallest extremities. My trachea sucks up clear water, so taut it seems it will burst, my chest thrusts up to the sky and I strain to stretch out each branching limb. This I how I escape from this flat. Every night, mother, every night the same dream.—Han Kang
There are plenty of legends about women turning into trees but are there any about trees turning into women? Is it odd to say that your lover reminds you of a tree? Well she does, it’s the way her hair fills with wind and sweeps out around her head. Very often I expect her to rustle. She doesn’t rustle but her flesh has the moonlit shade of a silver birch. Would I had a hedge of such saplings naked and unadorned. —Jeanette Winterson
She stayed by the solitary tree all day and all night, waiting for her lover to return. She stayed for two moons. But he did not return. She stayed there for another six moons but he did not come back. She would not leave, and some say she went mad, like a crazy wild woman. The tree grew bigger and bigger, until one day it grew into her flesh, piercing her heart, absorbing her every breath into its trunk, branches, flowers and petals. —Terri Janke
Daphne is changed. Into what is she changed? Daphne is changed into a green laurel. And what does it mean? It means, it obviously means, that trees keep quiet. —Suniti Namjoshi
There was a girl called Phega who became a tree. Stories from the ancient times when Phega lived would have it that when women turned into trees, it was always under duress, because a god was pursuing them, but Phega turned into a tree voluntarily. She did it from the moment she entered her teens. It was not easy, and it took a great deal of practice, but she kept at it. She would go into the fields beyond the manor house where she lived, and there she would put down roots, spread her arms, and say, “For you I shall spread out my arms.” Then she would become a tree. —Diana Wynne Jones