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Brenda Pelkey Haunts
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Essay by Ingrid Jenkner
In 1975 the Canadian experimental filmmaker and visual artist Joyce Wieland made the feature-length film The Far Shore. It is a work of astonishing beauty in which the Canadian landscape figures as the principal motif in a feminist re-telling of the life of the painter Tom Thomson. Released commercially in 1976, the film embraces melodramatic narrative conventions in a playful, self-reflexive fashion, linking the repressed feminine longing that is the major theme of melodrama with the lovers’ bodily assimilation into a romanticized landscape.
Critical response to the new film was decidedly mixed. Looking back in 1987, Kass Banning remarked on the totally evasive literature on Wieland and the inadequacy of past conceptual frameworks in which to situate her work.1. Lauren Rabinovitz, another feminist scholar, observed that Wieland’s two largest potential audiences [for experimental and narrative cinema] were so unprepared for the intertextual familiarity necessary for reading the film that the film ultimately frustrated and alienated much of its audience.2.
The older series that have been written about, such as Dreams of Life and Death and Memento Mori, incorporate printed verbal texts. Such texts are absent from the new work treated here; more precisely, they are subsumed among other inexplicitly present texts. Yet the artist continues, in the new work, to map invisible bodies onto the landscape, and melodramatic technique continues to shape the fictional connotation of the photographs. As the first curator to tackle Pelkey’s new series of panoramic assemblages, and having been inspired by the perceptive critical recovery of Wieland’s films, I propose, therefore, to consider her photographs in the context of film aesthetics.
Formerly a documentary photographer whose visual subject matter was people, Brenda Pelkey turned in 1994 to a category of subject matter that manifests itself spatially, as psychic landscape. The exhibition includes large-format Ilfochrome prints selected from the series Memento Mori (1994-1996), Oblivion (1996-1997) and a new body of work composed of mirror-reversed repetitions of single exposures, completed in 2001. The Memento Mori pictures incorporate cryptic text fragments that hint at tragedy, an implication advanced by different means in the subsequent works. Memento Mori and the recent mirror-reversed compositions were photographed near Havre Boucher, Nova Scotia, a former homeplace that Pelkey revisited in 2000.
Retaining the fieldwork aspect of documentary practice, the photographer scouts her material by speaking informally with local women. Pelkey’s information gathering differs from ethnographic research in that the women are her friends. Elements from gossip sessions might be woven together with events from her own past, forming the visible subtexts for images in the Memento Mori series and contributing to the invisible ones for the Untitled suite. Pelkey also walks in the landscape, which for her is filled with familiar associations. She carries an SX70 Polaroid camera and documents sites to which she might return, at dusk, with an assistant, movie lights, a generator and a four-by-five-inch camera. Venturing into the pitch-black countryside entails physical risk and a certain distantiation from daytime associations; this emotional tension haunts the resulting photographs. The eery depth of field and hallucinated colour effects are due to protracted exposure times.
Later, in the studio, the artist scans the images so as to flip and repeat them until she achieves a satisfactory composition on the computer screen. The negatives are then darkroom-printed to her specifications. Pelkey’s process encompasses aspects of post-photography, in that she edits image groupings with computer assistance. At the same time she remains somewhat faithful to protocols of straight photography by eschewing post-exposure cropping and digital recomposition of individual shots. Her three most substantial interferences with view in front of the lens—artificial illumination, distortion by long exposure, and, in the printing, mirror-reversed repetition-are all readily detectable. Consequently her gothically overwrought effects must be distinguished from the neo-Realist style and urban subject matter of contemporaries such as Scott McFarland.
Pelkey revised her practice when she found that documentary photography failed to communicate her intentions. She credits the work of Donegan Cumming and the pre-digital photography of Jeff Wall as inspirations for this decision. Pelkey’s connection to a film scene through her husband, the filmmaker and writer Chester Pelkey, may also have influenced her adoption of a more cinematic style. Whatever the case, in order to claim photography as a subjective, situated practice, she began to stage her images, emphasizing techniques of cropping, framing, and lighting, and later on adding snippets of text, auditory components, doubled and redoubled images. The results do not signify in the manner of photographic realism. As narrative fictions, Pelkey’s stylized pictures are much more comparable to a cinematic mise-en-scène.
In her photographs, none of the fields, forests or seashores contain figures.3. Deep shadows and rigid symmetry compress space to the point of claustrophobia, especially in works such as Forest I and Forest II. The unnatural lighting transforms ordinary locales into the mise-en-scène for melodramas. The ambience is further dramatized in Forest III and Ocean by the presence of a muted audio component.4. Perhaps the images’ tendency to imprint themselves so strongly on the viewer’s imagination comes from their character as settings for impending or recent actions. Because they are drawn from real lives (as in Memento Mori), the unseen events cannot be represented directly without indiscretion. Brenda Pelkey has found a way of harnessing the commemorative connotations of photography to the generic attributes of pulp romance and film melodrama-productions that are often denigrated as women’s entertainment. Familiarity with these genres allows viewers to recognize the codes and begin the work of narrative reconstruction without having to identify the dramatis personae.
In accordance with melodramatic conventions, Pelkey’s dream-like scenes rely on displacement-by-substitution, so that character (and gender) is created from elements of decor, and stylistic elements translate action into space.5.
The interior-with-figures of nineteenth-century genre painting and twentieth-century genre film is replaced by techniques such as low-key (high-contrast) lighting and medium long shot framing which, in the cinema, allows a human figure to span the height of the screen. This suggestive framing, when combined with the symmetrical patterning produced by multiple mirror reversals, makes Pelkey’s dead conifers appear to gesture. The size of the prints accentuates the human scale of the landscape elements. Using a rhythmic montage structure and the resulting spectacular distortion of space, Pelkey reconstructs landscape as an interior setting for bodies that are literally beside themselves. The rocks and the trees, even the shadows, acquire corporeal presence as if haunted. Fully interiorized, and no longer the abjected other of the technocratic gaze, landscape now accepts the projections of a romantic, intimist vision.6.
Traditionally, film melodramas address an audience of women who are assumed to be positioned under patriarchy as wives, mothers, and abandoned lovers. In weepies the emotional plot provides only the most rudimentary structure of meaning; the interiorization and personalization of ideological conflict is most dynamically expressed by means of aesthetic excess. Pelkey trades on our knowledge of this signifying system by suppressing verbal narrative and representation of the figure, but retaining the aesthetically sublimated features of dramatic conflict. The uncanny fascination exercised by her work—its seductiveness—arises from the mapping of undepicted events onto an acutely claustrophobic space.
The critical effect, of course, stems from the partial transposition of cinematic codes for feminine hysteria into a photographic genre, landscape, that is traditionally held to be gender-free, and therefore objectively true. Whereas melodrama and landscape photography work separately to mystify ideological issues under realist categories of experience such as personal suffering and the wonder of nature, the forced marriage of the genres in Pelkey’s art obliges them to expose one another.
2. Lauren Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance: Women, Power and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema. (Chicago: University of Illinois, 1991), p. 209.
3. The suppression of figural representation is an established strategy of second-wave feminist artmaking, which is linked in Pelkey’s work to a refusal to fetishize the natural in opposition to the cultural. In the recent multi-panel compositions, the displacement of human presence onto the landscape positions her subject matter between the two categories, clearly marking its gothic narrative potential as the return of the repressed.
4. The sound is composed of crowd murmurs rendered unintelligible by mixing with the sound of rushing wind in the case of Forest III and crashing surf in the case of Ocean. The recordings are further distorted by being played backward and forward, in emulation of the image-reversed photographic composition.
5. For detailed analysis of melodramatic film style as a technique of gender construction, refer to essays by Linda Williams and Thomas Elsaesser in B.K. Grant, ed. The Film Genre Reader II. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997).
6. Joyce Wieland contrasts these archetypally gendered visions of landscape in The Far Shore. Refer to Kay Armatage, Kass Banning et al, eds. Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women’s Cinema. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).