In his seminal essay 'The Death of the Author' Roland Barthes states that meaning lies neither within the work, nor with the author's intention but is made by the reader, "a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination", for, as a character in the film 'Serious Undertakings' says,
"I am at the cinema attending a film show... I am present to the film in two inseparable ways, witness and helper. I watch and I aid. In watching the film I help it to be born, to live, since it is in me that it will live, and it was made for that; to be seen; that is, to come into existence when it is seen." 1
The loss of the author function is accompanied by the loss of a fixed singular meaning. Just as the text is composed of multiple writings so the spectator brings multiple knowledges to his/her understanding of the work.
This now, almost cliched postmodern position is a liberating one for the audience because it legitimates the relationship between the work and the reader/spectator. The spectator's reading of the work may not coincide with the artist's intent, but this in no way invalidates it. The author/artist may have declared a lack of interest in the current discourses on contemporary art (as is the case in this instance) but for me it is these same 'fashionable' discourses that illuminate the work; without them there is no intrigue, no meanings to disentangle, "no enigma to unravel".
The exhibition is a survey of paintings and drawings selected from the artist's work over the past decade. Based on chronological order, they demonstrate Platten's increasing skill, confidence and ability. My aim in this review is not to critically assess the work in terms of its technical achievements or aesthetic qualities - in fact not to critique it at all - but rather to provide a reading of the work generated by its narrative and symbolic elements.
The dominant motif in Platten's oeuvre is the young girl or woman who poses for the artist/viewer and gazes solemnly out of the picture (her mute look is not unlike that of the women portrayed in pre-Raphaelite paintings). Arrayed in satin and tulle (or a sequined leotard) she is accompanied by props such as a mirror, hoop or toy models.
A theatrical connection is further enhanced by the limited depth of the picture plane, the suggestion of a backdrop and heavy velvet curtains which frame the scene. Thus the stage is set for the performance of femininity - as spectacle, as display.
But an alternative motif that disrupts this theme of "that which is seen" is the woman who sees. The image of the artist is reflected in a mirror in two of the paintings and she is the subject of three other works.
Thus woman as both subject and object of the look is the theme of this exhibition.
The pleasure of looking (in cinema, in art) is based on voyeurism. The active presence (the one who looks) is male and its binary opposition, the passive recipient of the look, is female.
To be both object of the gaze and controller of the gaze is a contradiction - a problem that faced women artists such as Marie Bashkirtseff, trapped between the desire to be both subject and object of her art, and Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun who "never wearied of putting her smiling maternity on her canvases".2
With some rearranging of the picture sequence the works in this exhibition can be read as a passage from girlhood to adulthood. The introduction to this narrative, and to the gaze as an organizing element is the painting 'Man Watching Girls Playing Cards'. A visual space is constructed for the viewer by the distance between the male who looks and the young girls who appear unaware of his presence. The view of the spectator coincides with that of the man - thus we are implicated in this voyeuristic activity.
In the paintings 'Girls with Hoop and Ladder' and 'Girls in Sequins on Box' the young models rehearse their femininity, returning the gaze of the spectator and thus confirming his right to look. In the paintings of the young woman in the white dress (ballet, bridal or fairy) the inclusion of mirrors and cameras serve to underline the importance of the gaze and of women's role as its recipient.
Gazing into a mirror can also signify narcissism or the mirror phase, a period of transition from infant dependency to a speaking subject.
The poses of the models connote "to be-looked-at-ness" but they are not provocative or sexually displayed thus they signify not so much masculine desire as feminine 'otherness'.3 This otherness (not-maleness) is signified by fantasy, costume, mirrors, satin and tulle and the sense of dreaminess or self-absorption on the women's faces.
This then raises the question as to whether femininity is perceived as a given or a construct and to whom the work is addressed.
'Day Piece for Julia', whose surface is saturated in red and pink, prefigures heterosexual relations (but not necessarily sexual desire).
She is already free of her childish past and the present seems but a time of transition, it contains no valid aims only occupations. Her youth is consumed in waiting more or less disguised. She is awaiting man.4
And in 'Woman and Man in Embrace' she gets him!
This work could almost be a parody of chocolate box romance with its dishevelled satin sheets and the flower-strewn body of the heroine clad in a filmy shift. She curves herself around the man's body and gazes not at the viewer, nor into a mirror but up at her man. There is a fetishistic excessiveness about this work with its baroque folds, its abundant flowers and its surface gloss.
Fetishism evokes both pleasure and anxiety and trouble in paradise is indicated by the man's glance (of hostility, suspicion?) his grip on her thigh and her clenched fist about to place the toy animal on his chest. However fetishism in this case doesn't allude to masculine castration fears but rather to a primary loss.
"The super real and hallucination seem highly appropriate to define the way a highly detailed, evocatively coloured credible but fictional world of representation can satisfy the hankering after the forever lost object." 5
The lost object is the pre-Oedipal mother - and romance, the retreat into girlish reverie and the desire for unity with another, are the substitutes for this irretrievable loss.
The problem of female spectatorship is of particular concern for women artists.
"The woman who is an artist sees her experience in terms of the feminine position, that is an object of the look, while she must also account for the feeling she experiences as an artist occupying the masculine position as subject of the look." 6
'Woman Painting' and 'Self-Portrait in Studio' both reflect this dilemma. 'Woman Painting' is a witty intervention to the nude model/clothed artist convention but it doesn't provide a resolution to the problem.
'Self-Portrait in Studio' is a portrait of the artist in her working environment. The tools of her trade and her paint-smeared coat suggest a serious 'workman-like' approach, however the artist's timid look, the small amount of space she occupies in the picture, and the use of the table to bar the viewer's access to her, suggest that she is not fully confident in this role. The top half of the painting shows a dress-maker's dummy winged with tulle and lace. This fabrication of femininity and fantasy, hovers over the artist like an angel of death or desire. The tension between woman as object or subject of the gaze, as bearer or maker of meanings is clearly delineated.
Anna Platten's art reproduces rather than resolves the problems of women and representation. While her works do raise, for the viewer, interesting questions about gendered spectator positions (and perhaps even the pleasure of surfaces as a female desire... space precludes further elaboration on this point) it also bears the marks of being caught by the desire to be both the surveyor and the surveyed.
Many feminist artists have developed strategies to describe women's experience which avoids positioning them as object of the gaze, but these devices have not been adopted by Platten (interestingly enough, Annette Bezor, another successful SA woman artist also makes the female body the 'subject' of her work.)
Perhaps the need to conform to a traditional realism focusing on the body indicates a desire to seek an 'authentic' self. A parallel for this can be found in the popularity of woman-centred novels which merge the quest for identity with sexuality.7
Reviewed by Jude Adams
1. 'Serious Undertakings', dir. Helen Grace.
2. S. de Beauvoir, 'The Second Sex', Penguin 1972 (first pbl. 1949) p.716.
3. 'Vessels of Blood and Air' is the exception here, as it seems to quite blatantly represent woman as an object of male sexual desire.
4. 'Op cit.' de Beauvoir p.351.
5. G. Pollock, 'Vision and Difference', Routledge '88.
6. Ibid p.86.
7. R. Coward, 'Female Desire' Granada, 1984. This idea is further elaborated in "The True Story of How I became My Own Person".