January 23, 2012
On Photography: Elisabeth Subrin’s “The Fancy”
Thursday, Jan. 26 at 7pm; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; 151 Third Street in San Francisco
Disappearing Acts: Elisabeth Subrin’s The Fancy
by Nicole Armour
There’s a chilling moment in Elisabeth Subrin’s […] The Fancy when the video’s narrator refers to a curator’s description of “Girl with Weed,” a triptych by photographer Francesca Woodman. The work features the head of an androgynous figure with closed eyes in the left frame and a nude woman holding a weed that’s as tall as she is, standing in shadow on the right. In the center panel, a barely perceptible dragonfly perches atop an ambiguous object that Woodman claimed was a bar of soap. The narrator goes on to tell of how Woodman’s father explained to the curator that he once told his daughter that “a dragonfly would sew a girl’s lips together if she ever lied.” The most remarkable thing about this passage is that, even though Subrin never shows us “Girl with Weed,” its mere description is enough to make your flesh crawl.
At no point in The Fancy, a somber, eerie, and deceptively simple representation of Woodman’s life, work, and death, are we ever shown a single example of the artist’s actual work. Instead, we’re presented with an assortment of objects that may or may not have been either her personal possessions or the props she used in her photographic tableaux, and a series of empty rooms in which she may or may not have lived or worked. But Subrin’s video is more concerned with absences than it is with the facts enunciated by its skeptical narrator. Though the few catalogues published on Woodman’s art are exhaustively referenced, Subrin’s tape hints at conspiracy, calling attention to the Woodman family’s unwillingness to make the bulk of her body of photography available, as if they were intent on collapsing the artist’s chosen channel of communication.
Subrin’s videos are acute, highly imaginative excursions in precise yet speculative detective work. Drawn to marginal figures, she subjects them to rigorous biographical needling, devising a whole new approach to documentary in the process. In fact, the filmmaker’s work to date, Swallow (1995), Shulie (1997), and The Fancy, are unclassifiable; you could call them formalist experiments in documentary wrappers. Through them, Subrin cunningly insists that all along the wrong people have been asking the wrong questions. Forget what you’ve read. This is history the way it should have been written.
Having named her new video The Fancy, Subrin qualifies her title by presenting multiple definitions of the word. Two of them—“to believe mistakenly or without evidence” and “to suppose, guess”—neatly summarize her unique approach to biography. Although Subrin’s affront is never stated outright but only implied, The Fancy is an incriminating tape that brazenly insists that Woodman’s family has compromised the record of the photographer’s life by effectively suppressing the majority of her work. The tape suggests that, with so little to go on, any appraisal of Woodman’s output is necessarily limited and provisional—and scarcely disinterested. At the same time, The Fancy does not exempt itself from this indictment.
Subrin’s video is broken down into a series of sections as in any biography, such as “Possessions,” “Education,” and “Residences,” but the tape remains haunted by absences. The contents of catalogues, including essays, are described in voiceover. In two long sequences Subrin’s camera roams exhaustively over collected ephemera, some of it parceled in clear plastic bags, dressed as evidence in an investigation. We see a series of empty rooms that accord with Woodman’s affection for decaying environments. At one point, the titles of certain Woodman photos are scrawled across a white screen in handwriting that presumably resembles the artist’s, although we have no way of knowing. Descriptions of photos are offered in voiceover and later in a sequence in which people perform tableau vivant re-creations before Subrin’s lens. It’s unclear if Woodman ever possessed any of the items it’s suggested she owned, or produced work in the rooms Subrin invites us to contemplate. The sites and props that she deployed are presented in abundance, but the ideas, the imagination, the artist, and her creations are frustratingly unavailable.
Subrin’s decision to chronicle Woodman’s life on video is an interesting one. Although the clarity and sharpness of video befit documentary, they’re at odds with the often blurred, shadowy textures that define Woodman’s art. Subrin uses video to reduce the mystery in the photographer’s work—perhaps a sharpened image would reveal its secrets. But while Subrin painstakingly collects the detritus of a life, she simultaneously conveys the inadequacy of using such material to explain a subject’s experience or outlook. If we believe that we can understand Woodman through codified objects and spaces, we’re mistaken. As Subrin’s dictionary definitions suggest, documenting a life is a game of guesswork. The end result may approach accuracy, but it’s inevitably fictional, a fanciful interpretation.
Subrin’s formalist approach, however, does limit the impact of her work. Although her tapes evoke feminism’s glory days, their formal construction refers to the feminist film theory and filmmaking practices that emerged from universities in the Seventies. Subrin has inherited academia’s aversion to personal, emotionally direct methods. She seems more comfortable operating at a safe distance, constructing opaque profiles of successful but relatively obscure female artists whose backgrounds mirror her own—like Firestone and Woodman, Subrin is a product of art school, and she leaves herself open to the accusation of having conflated her experiences with those of the women she represents. Problems associated with spectatorship plague Subrin’s videos—the work’s reception is too dependent upon the viewer’s familiarity with subjects and texts that seem relatively obscure beyond the confines of academia and the art world.
In the end, Subrin’s films and videos always return to the sober realization that there are innumerable obstacles to any attempt at understanding ourselves and our place in the world. Her efforts to express the fluidity of truth are vital in an age when new methods of recording experiences and information abound. All too aware of how flawed approaches taint memory, Subrin invents new procedures for chronicling history. At the same time, uncovering misrepresented subjects, she’s hell-bent on settling scores.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Film Society of Lincoln Center; used with permission.
THE COMPLETE LINEUP: The Fancy by Elisabth Subrin; miniatures by Stephanie Barber; the vision machine by Peggy Ahwesh; (If I Can Sing a Song About) Ligatures by Abigail Child; Photography is Easy by Leslie Thornton; Lisa, Heal Me, I Must Be Beautiful Too and I Wanted You by Hester Scheuwater.