March 4, 2011

Francesca Woodman: Learning to Disappear

In telling this story we must begin, perhaps reluctantly, at the end. Francesca Woodman jumped to her death from the roof of a New York apartment building. She was 22 years old. The inescapable finality of that act has coloured all subsequent discussion of her work; to some every photograph now seems like a foreshadowing of her suicide. Regardless, there are still enough moments of near breath-taking clarity to suggest the kind of artistic force she might have otherwise become. The precocity of Woodman’s ambition was certainly unusual – indeed, it is a defining part of the mythology. From the age of just 13 we can see her testing boundaries, finding and losing her own image, trying to disappear into photography.

This is more than a youthful fascination. At stake is obviously something quite idiosyncratic, wilder and darker, something that is explicitly of the body – the summoning of some private anguish rather than an exorcism of conventional proportions. These are moments of feverish eroticism and inky nothingness, dazzled by the instability of appearance, its slow dissolve. She is herself at stake, the archetype becoming flesh, striking at the fragile veneer of social coherence attributed to the body. A disturbance uncontained, Woodman inhabits space like a provocation, the interior comes breaking through as a subtle kind of chaos. Her own reality contaminates the airless world she inhabits.

The research that first brought her photography to prominence was largely drawn from a background of feminist theory and that reading has been by far the most pervasive. The fact that she was the preferred subject of her own work gave credence to the view that Woodman was addressing the conflicted relationship that women are said to have with the “image” that is created for them by the treacherously visual desires of men, and specifically the misapprehension that such desires must be satisfied by the formula of woman-as-image. A fuller elaboration of those ideas is obviously beyond the scope of this present discussion, but it should not lessen them in any way to suggest that this work obviously has more do with the failures of representation than how it might otherwise be used to reaffirm a social hierarchy. It is rather the dangerous fluidity with which images operate that seems to have interested her most.

There is also a unique synthesis of elements that come together in the person of Woodman herself. It was perhaps the spark of some insatiable need, and a perverse confidence that allowed her to begin producing these photographs at such an early age. She had a preternatural understanding of the body as a complex manifestation of social agency and personal trauma, a site of discourse. In this respect she is very much on a par with those artists of her generation who would later make such themes the centre of their own work. The foresight to realise that an increasingly volatile performance of identity would soon belong in the medium of photography alone, is what marks the true potential that she would unfortunately never realise as an artist.

Masks are cast aside with sly humour, a certain voluptuous pleasure in the game of revelation, which is, in itself, another kind of mask, a way of losing and of being lost, but with the stark knowledge that we can never really come to the end of our concealments, no slipping cleanly out of the frame. Instead, we find her smeared into the materiality of these images, a rupture in the assumed continuity of space. Hers is a body that refuses every prescriptive formulation of how it might be seen, the way in which it becomes – or is reduced to – an image. The innate aggressiveness in how Woodman pursues a deconstruction of her photographic self belies a conveniently pleasing appearance, is indeed validated by the extent to which our perceptions of the “aestheticised” body depend on the mediation of images. For the most, part her efforts seem to have been directed toward a deep confusion of that expected subject/object relationship, taking it apart. But photography cannot make tangible or even account for the interiority of her bodily experience and so what remains is everywhere haunted by the density of that absence.

It is very possible that had she not chosen to end her life when she did, the photographs on which her reputation now so definitively rests would never have come to light, the first precocious efforts of an artist who developed upon the insights they contain, but ultimately moved beyond adolescent preoccupation into the more nuanced possibilities that these works do indeed suggest. Perhaps the most tantalising thing about them is the fact that we will never actually get to see this mature vision. Conversely, attaching an undue significance to the unfortunate fact of Woodman’s suicide achieves little, save to diminish the raw wound it surely left in the lives of those who actually knew her.

Although we think of the camera as an exclusively visual machine, it is also a temporal one, exposing slippages in the passage of time; now duration is revealed as loss, and it is irrevocable. This body that occupies space, site of a complex subjectivity, does not fill the image – we only get to see where it might have been, an act of displacement, and even when it appears so much like fiction, reality bleeds through, perhaps more forcefully than we imagined. Her theatrical gestures, what seem like games really, have a latent purpose. Woodman becomes a kind of disappearance within the image; we must acknowledge that as much as she is explicitly visible there is a real sense too that these are not so much self-portraits as they are experiments in being photographed. She is provoking certain distortions that reveal how much of what we actually see depends on what we expect from an image.

Spared the corrosive brutality of time and yet apparently tormented by something just as insidious, Woodman never lived to disappoint us. The collective image we now have of her is probably nothing like the person she was, or might have been. Saying that we can know her through the photographs is to admit that we don’t know her at all. To judge her solely by the influence she has subsequently had is to miss the burning ambition and intellectual rigour of what was left behind.