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The Anaconda in the Chandelier: George Steeves and the Politics of Public Expression
The Anaconda in the Chandelier: George Steeves and the Politics of Public Expression
The title Anaconda in the Chandelier quotes a Chinese phrase describing the censorious atmosphere following the Cultural Revolution. The image evokes a big snake coiled overhead and hidden in the dazzle of light. We cannot see the snake, but remain uncomfortably aware that it takes only one false move, and the snake will crush us. The chill surrounding George Steevesís art has had a similar psychological effect in this region. It has kept his work off gallery walls in the Atlantic Region for a good 17 years. As we worked on the exhibition, the artist and I had to stay conscious of that snake in the chandelier. The panel discussion gave everyone a chance to forget the snake and talk about something more importantĖthe art itself, and its inexhaustible potential for interpretation.
George Steevesís biography appears in a separate link in the exhibition entry. Below are capsule biographies of the other two panelists:
Dr. Christine Overall is the Nancyís Chair in Womenís Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University. Sheís currently on loan from her home university, which is Queenís. A feminist philosopher and public intellectual, Dr. Overall does research in bioethics, philosophy of religion, feminist philosophy, and sexuality. Her award-winning book, Aging, Death and Human Longevity: a Philosophical Inquiry, appeared in 2003.
Dr. Peter Schwenger teaches in this universityís Department of English and his research interests include aesthetics, gender and textuality. His book-length study on art and other objects, The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects, was published in 2006 and, as you know, Dr. Schwenger contributed an essay entitled The Desiring to the current exhibition catalogue.
In 1985 I did not possess the technical or theoretical underpinnings to attempt something as monumental as Excavations. Thus I determinedly set about to acquire the tools and skills. I slowly built a solid library of every aspect of photography: technical, historical, aesthetic, and interpretive. And I backed away from any direct involvement with the Excavations project. Complex problems are not solved by fixation on the solution—they are solved by cataloguing every fact that seems relevant and then letting oneís mind, conscious and unconscious, associate, triangulate, and postulate until the solution itself, as though unbidden, and perhaps unwanted, presents itself. While the simmering was going on the Excavations Ďback-burner,í I taught myself how to make photographic prints according to the 19th century practices, using only drawing paper and raw chemicals and 8x10-inch negatives. Next, I retreated to work shot before 1985, and put together a series of photographs and authentic, real letters called Evidence that documented the death of a marriage that I helped kill. In 1987, Astrid Brunner and I agreed that I would shoot her on a regular schedule, as she recovered from her own suicide attempt, got her PhD, wrote books, and cycled men in and out of her life. This material was fashioned into another series, called Exile, that included pithy little texts that I wrote up about her operatic life. And then came the Equations series, in the early 90s, 24 large diptychs that I made with Susan Rome. This work is the precursor to Excavations and it contains many of the required elements: explicit sexuality, theatrical staging, uncontrolled emotions, unusual camera and lighting work, and an overlay of the Liebestod creed.
In 1993 Martha Langford, the founding director of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, mounted a retrospective of all that work at the then-new museum in Ottawa. The show was not particularly well-received in English Canada. A beautiful catalogue was produced, and sections of the show toured Québec and Scandinavia. I knew as I walked down Wellington Street to the opening reception and panel discussion that it was going to be a long time before I would ever be doing anything like that again. And that premonition has proven to be correct. Fourteen years after Ottawa, Ingrid Jenkner put Excavations on the walls of this Halifax gallery and she got us together here tonight to talk about it.
Excavations, the project, started in fits and starts after the 1993 retrospective. And it may not have developed into the 600 piece work it is now, with more of it to come, if I had not met a remarkable man. Not long after I got home from the Ottawa opening, I received a fourteen page handwritten letter from a complete stranger named Richard Simmins. It was excoriating, denunciatory, and seething with anger. Steeves, he wrote, when I came out of that gallery and blessedly into the sunlight, I encountered an old friend from my AA days. He was drunk, filthy, smelly, and snot and mucous ran down over his stubbled chin; he wanted money; I gave him some. As I walked away I thought your pictures are just like him. I tried to find out who Richard Simmins was, but could not. I replied to his letter at length, attempting to sincerely address his points. He wrote back, suggesting we meet for breakfast the next time I was in Ottawa. We soon did, at Mellows, in the market, along with the whores and the cops. We spent the entire day together. He became my substitute father and teacher about lifeĖadvisor, confidant, and unflagging supporter. Until he died in 1999, of old age from a life won hard, he sent me more than 300,000 words of correspondence. Richard taught me things that I hadnít learned properly, and skills I used too little. He had a series of expressions for communicating uncomfortable things. His code for good, something that he was always doing, was Putting something positive into the spiritual system. Richard, who remade himself after enormous personal failures, was always encouraging others to do the same by his example. And he had great faith in the power of art to give solace and hope to everyday life. With Simminsís indomitable and highly informed encouragement, I fully devoted myself to the Excavations project that was now, or at that point, in gestation for ten years. Each time we met, about twice a year, Iíd have a box of new work prints, and we would discuss them for days. Simmins knew me, and he knew I excavated myself from my own grave. Jesus wept, heíd say to me, when we talked about the things men like us had done.
Excavations was mostly shot from 1994 to the present. Fine printing started in 2000, only because I needed pictures of Daisy, the little dancer, for a group show in Holland. I worked for all these years with a remarkable series of collaborators, people who willingly gave up their secrets, people who werenít afraid of themselves, people who usually were in some way or other marked, in ways known to them and identifiable to others. Every cripple has his own way of walking, the Irish say. Or if you have an odd way of seeing, one that youíve perversely cultivated, you might be understandably tempted to use it for best effect. I did my utmost to show in pictures the emotional, and even the spiritual, truth of a life that came my way. And more than that, I wanted it done in a way that went forward and paid homage to no one. I used just everything, be it mine or my collaborators in these frames. Nothing went unexamined. Death of parents; gross betrayals; abortions; cancer; and love, sex, jealousy, and much raging in the night. Even the dreadful Other Man is on this wall; I recreated him in self portraiture once in a while.
As new work was being produced, old work was being itself excavated. I came to a realization that although I hadnít deliberately taken up the project until 1994, I had been unconsciously exploring its background, and maybe its underbelly, much earlier. As I shot the present, I was simultaneously taking Ďback-sightingsí into the shots made past. I trolled through tens of thousands of negatives to occasionally find a Ďcatchí that fitted the Excavations specifications. These were pictures that Iíd made, or thieved, in the past and I was too cowardly to use when I first had them. But now I hesitated not.
Behind us on the wall are many images that use mirrors as significant picture elements. Why use mirrors? Theyíre hard to fit into compositions. They only reflect 50% of the light that hits them. And they seem like some kind of intrusive alien personality. Well, this goes back to 1985 again, when I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit. I jumped out of bed thereby tearing out all the wires and tubes, because I had to look in the mirror. I looked in the mirror, touched my burned face, and cried. And itís strange that I only realized this connection yesterday when I was preparing for this talk.
Thereís a narrative thread that runs through these 78 pictures, these frames arranged in counterclockwise progression. There is an unwritten, perhaps unspeakable storyline in them. This is the result of a hard-won battle with the 533 possible contenders. I consulted, doubted, and worried. Then once framed and here in the gallery, another version of Excavations forced itself onto the walls, as doublings and clusters and the partitions.
Iím borrowing here and adding to Malcolm Lowryís Under the Volcano, a favourite text, by referring to the image of a man from a distant land called Death, an explorer who discovered an extraordinary land to which he can never return, a land called Hell, but came home to a place heíd never been, an alien among the estranged.
I end my talk by quoting Elinor Wylie, My dear, my dear, itís not so dreadful here.
Now that Iíve heard George talk so poignantly about the origins of Excavations, Iím almost regretting that I even agreed to be on the panel, let alone volunteer to go second.
It is an honour for me to be asked to take part in this discussion. Itís also an occasion on which I feel something of a fraud. For I am a philosopher. A feminist philosopher. I have a rather untutored eye, and I cannot comment on the aesthetics of this exhibition. Instead, my training inclines me to think about the philosophical issues that this exhibition might raise. And there are many.
Philosophers are often associated with ethics, and that is where much of my own work has been done. But tonight I am going to talk about what I think are metaphysical themes. Metaphysics has to do with the nature of being, with what exists. Iím going to talk about two metaphysical themes: First, reality and unreality, and second, what Iíll call the metaphysics of sex.
The first theme, reality and unreality, is indicated rather clearly I think, by the title of this panel, The Anaconda in the Chandelier. And I guess I interpret that image a little differently from its original use. To me, the chandelier is the bright light, the surface sparkle, the gaudy face of propriety, good behaviour, and etiquette. The chandelier is the mere appearance, the artifice.
The anaconda is the reality that is hard to see, because the chandelier shines so brightly. But it is lurking in there, wound around the light bulbs, nonetheless. Traditionally, of course, in the Christian faith the snake is a symbol of evil. But I think the poor snake has always been unfairly maligned. The snake urged Eve to eat the apple of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I applaud Eve for following the snakeís advice, and I applaud the snake for encouraging her. As an academic, my role is to care about knowledge, to seek knowledgeĖeven, or especially, when that knowledge may seem disorienting or even dangerous, as George Steevesís images may appear. So, what happens when we try to see past the bright lights of the chandelier and discern the anaconda curled therein? What knowledge does it bring?
I want to suggest that the exhibition plays with the questions, What is real? and also, What is not real?
As a child, I always had a profound sense that something strange and bizarre lay behind the façade of normalcy, the façade of appearances, that was so painstakingly maintained by all the grownups around me. There was a sense of not being privy to strange doings. I had a feeling that there was something going on behind the scenes.
For me, the images in this exhibition give the impression of exposing what is behind the façade, depicting the reality behind the appearances. In these pictures the skeletons are being brought out of the closetĖand much else is being brought out as well. So it seems entirely appropriate that the exhibition is called Excavations.
I was very interested to learn from a meeting that we had a few weeks ago, to plan this panel, that George usually asks the subjects of his photographs to tell him a secret. For these are not the typical photographs that people put in their family album. Looking at them is like peering into crucial and usually hidden moments in a drama. It is the visual equivalent of eavesdropping.
And as I eavesdrop, I first have a moment of shock: Is this what is going on behind the scenes, behind the façade of normalcy and civility? Is this the anaconda lurking in the chandelier?
But at the same time, I also experience a feeling of relief, a sense that the ridiculousness and contingency of human life is being exposed for what it is. Let me tell you a related story. My mother is a self-identified feminist. Sheís proficient with computer technology. She is also eighty years old. She likes to be updated on my professional activities, so I told her about the George Steeves exhibition and my role on the panel. I also gave her the website address so that she could look at the images that are posted there.
She went to the website to look at the photographs. I was interested to find out her reaction to them. Hereís what she wrote to me in an email message, I think I really need a curator or someone to explain this to me. I always [want to] think of art as something I enjoy looking at...Oh well, [at least] it did make me laugh.
Indeed, laughter is one reaction we might have, when we see what lies behind the façade of appearance. I think these photographs can be seen as an existential reminder of the ridiculousness of our human existence. Look at the predicaments we get ourselves into! Behind every upright, self-confident, self-assured person is this vulnerable, naked being, trying to be dignified, and yet caught up in a private drama that might seem laughable to the rest of the world.
So thatís the first theme I want to discuss. My second theme is what I am calling the metaphysics of sex. For another way to see the anaconda in the chandelier is as a phallic symbol. Whether we want to or not, our eyes are often drawn to the conspicuous genitalia on view in many of George Steevesís images.
Now, genitalia are the central marker of sex, by which I mean our femaleness and maleness. In this society, as in probably every society, we are encouraged to believe that our sex is the most important and fundamental characteristic that each of us possessesĖmore important than our abilities, our feelings, our thoughts, our morality, or our relationships. All of us, all the time, are expected to identify ourselves by reference to our sex, female or male.
And in our culture, oneís sex primarily means oneís genitalia. In very sexist times, it was only the presence of a penis that mattered. Women were those beings that did not have a penis. Today, perhaps, with the influence of feminism, there is more recognition of the existence, structure, and significance of female genitalia. But what has still not changed is the fact that genitalia are consistently given enormous significance in defining who we areĖwhether we like it or not. Our genitalia mark our most fundamental identity. Social processes, not biological ones, make an individualís sex the most significant way of categorizing her or him, and the genitalia are seen as representative or even determinative of who and what an individual is. Every one of us is repeatedly invited, or more usually compelled, to check F or M on almost every document we ever fill out: reports of birth, marriages, and death, questionnaires and surveys, and applications for school or university, employment, health insurance, a driverís licence, a pension, or a passport.
In every case, those documents are asking, perhaps rather rudely, about the configuration of oneís genitalia. At the same time, in almost every social context, the genitalia are that which must be hidden. You cannot be out in public displaying your genitalia. The genitalia are supposed to be reserved for the most intimate and private of times. So genitalia are both that which are most hidden, and only to be imagined, and yet at the same time that which are supposedly most real about each of us.
In addition, every one of us is expected to signal the nature of our genitalia indirectly, in symbolic form. We are required to signal to the world whether we are female or male, but without exposing the genitalia directly. Instead we are expected to do it via our clothes, our hair, our use of accessories, and our ways of walking, talking, and sitting. In other words, our gender display is supposed to reflect the configuration of our genitalia. The genitalia must be concealed, and at the same time we are expected to wear symbols for them all over our bodies.
It has been said that Art is the disruption of the banal (Gary Michael Dault quoting Simon Schama, Globe and Mail D8, January 13, 2007). George Steevesís art disrupts the banal. I have already said that he provides a peek behind the façade. He also disrupts the banal by breaking the convention about femaleness and maleness: Instead of indirectly symbolizing them only via gender display, he directly exposes the genitalia. The imperceptible vulva is made visible. The invisible penis is put on display. It is as if the images are saying, All right, if people are defined by their genitalia, letís show the world what those genitalia are.
So my point once again is that this series of photographs reveals the reality behind the appearance.
Iíll conclude with one final comment. It may seem that I interpret these images as a representation of reality when in fact, they are entirely contrived. You might be inclined to say, If this is reality, then it is a manufactured reality. It is an imagined reality, and often a very theatrical reality.
Perhaps, then, what this exhibition suggests is something deliberately ironic and paradoxical: Even what is real, reality itself, is, ultimately, entirely manufactured, artificial and unreal.
Thanks very much.
Iím going to pick up on what Christine has just said and talk a little bit about the pose, about the fact that most of these pictures are posed, which is not to say that they are preconceived and carefully rationalized beforehand. From what I know of Georgeís methods, he engages in a complex kind of negotiation with his subjects, out of which emerges a pose, a moment that is captured by what he calls a time slicing machine. These are not moments that are spontaneously captured; they are moments that are staged precisely.
If you look at the very last image on this wall, you can see that at times George constructs a conscious homage to the days of early photography when all photographs had to be posed because of the limitations of the medium: you couldnít move without blurring the film. Heís recreated in that picture and in a few others the claustrophobic decor of the studio: dark draperies, often crumpled, a deliberately staged quality.
A pose is quite often a way of displaying the self. Most of you are like George in this respect, if in no other. When you snap photographs, say for instance to memorialize a party, you are very likely to group people in a poseĖarms around each other, mouths wide open in that yell, scream, or whoop that is now the prevailing semiotics for Iím having a good timeĖ rather than taking candid photographs during the party, when people will forget to suck in their stomach.
But something else is going on with Georgeís work, clearly. The fact that itís a pose doesnít mean that itís somehow frozenĖfar from it. In fact Iím going to try to work my way around to the exact opposite of that common understanding of the pose. If the pose is generally seen as a kind of self-presentation, revealing public aspects of the self, the way that Georgeís work proceeds is to reveal private elements of the selfĖnot just physically private, but psychologically private as well. So private, in fact, that I would suggest that theyíre not even fully conscious. I was struck by Georgeís comment that there were aspects of his own motivations that he hadnít quite figured out, until he was asked to rethink his own reasons for doing things. And similarly, I suspect that the subjects of his photographs, in their complex negotiations with him and with themselves, discovered something that they would be hard put to express. So that what is ultimately being conveyed by these photographs are flickers of things that are right at the edge of consciousness, things that we canít see and therefore things that have to be photographed in a pose, a pose that is constructed in a way that we never see in reality but which may reflect a half-conscious psychic frisson.
In his remarks at the opening reception for this exhibition, the first thing that George said was, Visual art is in the business of showing what canít be seen directly or easily. Itís a paradox: how can you show in a photograph something that canít be seen? And of course one possible answer is to say that itís not so much what is portrayed as how it is portrayed. If the idea here, as Christine has suggested, is to disrupt the banal, there are nevertheless certain themes in this exhibit that could indeed be described as banal, traditional, almost clichéed. Yet the ways that these themes are treated move them past the official, well-worn poses and into movement itself, in various senses.
Letís take one of these themes: the traditional image of a woman gazing into a mirror, which is usually read as a kind of vanitas. Iíd like to look at two examples, and I want to show two just because they are so different from one another, and because each of them is different from the normal expectation. Iíll begin with this image of Marise Vachon gazing into a circular mirror, a clearly posed image. It should seem strained, but it does not, because of the way the bodyís lines and those of the reflected images echo each other, or take us off into tangents that lead us to discover new echoes. This is an exquisite knot, with the reflection tying itself back into the body of the real woman and constantly suggesting trajectories for the eye to follow, like light caught in the facets of a diamond. This, then, is a pose that moves. It irresistibly impels movement of the eye, and that movement is itself a pleasure, and a continuing discovery.
A very different picture is this one, of Astrid Brunner gazing into a mirror, with George standing directly behind her, close behind her, too close behind her, perhaps. Itís a very difficult image to read: his expression seems a bit grim, hers is thoughtful. These are thinking people; we are encouraged to think about what theyíre thinking. Is Georgeís proximity menacing? Is it erotic? Is this in some sense a metaphor for the mutual gazing at an image that often happens with George and his subjects as they create the work between them? Certainly the camera is visible in the background, reflected in another mirror. The attire is oddly carnivalesque, and Iím not quite sure what to make of that, and yes thereís a drapery there, emphasizing the artifice of this setup. The movement here is different from that of the eye in the photograph of Marise Vachon; here it becomes like a movement of the mind. We sense little bits and pieces of narrative, potential narratives, going off, and youíre never quite sure which one to follow. You want to follow all of them at the same time. And this keeps our interest, keeps the mind moving beyond what the senses see.
Thereís a third kind of movement in these photographs, and that is the way that they are moving in the emotional sense. They are not purely matters of visual composition nor of intellectual speculation, but are suffused with emotions that are difficult to specify. No doubt they have been evoked in both the artist and his subjects by the extended and intimate conversations that, George has just told us, precede any single photograph. I canít often pin down exactly what moves me about certain of these photographs, but itís undeniable that the emotional charge is there.
And finally, something said to me by Liane Heller in the gallery before this event started. She probably knows these photographs, many of which are of her, better than almost anyone short of George—sheís seen some of them come out of the developing fluid for the first time. And yet she said, Looking at these, they keep morphing, they keep moving. All of this movement, movement of different kinds, takes these photographs beyond any notion of the pose as fixed or static. And this movement is part of their power. That is why I canít actually tell you how to look at these photographs. I can indicate various ways of approach, but theyíre only a few samples of the many possible approaches that are moving around you here—and which I think you are now going to be invited to add to.
IJ: Thank you, Peter. [To audience] Itís your turn.
My name is Marina. I came to this exhibit not knowing what to expect and I thought maybe I might be embarrassed or angry or any number of emotions and actually, surprisingly enough feel liberated, very liberated. And the reason being that, in looking at the photographs, you come to realize, like the name Anaconda in the Chandelier implies, that each one of these people is exposing their own personal anaconda to us, that they have a personal censorship they have had to overcome in order to share their bodies in all their supposed imperfections. These bodies make me feel normal. I feel more perfect in the presence of this nakedness. I feel that we have been crammed with images of false perfection for so long, we forget what we really look like, who we really are. And here we are, and weíre sexual beings and thatís here also. And we all relate to it differently. I just wanted to thank George for sharing this body of work.
LH: Hi, my name is Liane Heller. Iíd like to ask George to give a few examples in these 78 pictures, of how specifically the change that you spoke of after your suicide attempt of 1985 reflects itself in this work here on the walls. And if any of the other panelists would like to comment on that very central point of catalytic experience in artmaking, that would be wonderful as well.
GS: Well, the only direct pictures that relate to that are the several in E-Minor that depict the other man, so on the anniversary of the event for many years I would drag out my camera gear and some few props and see if I couldnít work myself back to that unimaginable event that seems so dream-like. I would say that the picture with the US mailbag behind it is definitely a time when I was thinking of just that.
LH: Are there any pictures that are re-enactments of the suicide attempt?
GS: Oh yes, you can see the scar, the tracheotomy right here in E-Minor No. 4 (GS) 1995. I wouldnít have made it beforeĖthe other man hadnít shown up yet. And, well, that being something I had to live with all this time, I would also, in the editing and the choosing process which is so central to this kind of work because you have so many frames to choose from, I have 40,000 negatives. I chose to put a few pictures in this exhibition that pre-date 1985, as a kind of memorial to the way I was before I was transformed. And there were women I was in love with. Thereís the picture of the dancer en pointe (Exegesis No. 4 1984), and thereís the picture of Ellen Pierce (Entropy No. 20 1983). So thatís the kind of thing that directly manifests itself visually here.
LH: Are the mirror images related to the same question?
GS: Why donít you tell me?
LH: All right, Iíd be glad to. Hereís a life out of death image if I ever saw one. The head of Medusa, if you like, clutched to the chest and the feathers coiled all around. To me, all the mirror picturesĖthe mirror is a very ancient symbol of the other world and this world seen side by side. So is this man alive or dead? Where is he? Where has he gone? Where is he coming from? Again, this comes out of, I think, the same sensibility. Here heís holding a piece of the other world and a tattoo marking itĖmarking into death or marking into life?
This one (E-Minor No. 13 2001)Ėis this pleading for oneís life? Who is this person? Thereís always a shift between the here and the other world. And I think, if you look around, most of these pictures speak of that. The one with the rifle (Entropy No. 16 2000)—this man is looking into a house. Inside the house there is no one, because the homeowner is in the hospital, dying of cancer. So who is he guarding? Heís obviously a guard. Is he guarding himself, is he guarding the house against the return thatís never going to happen? Or is he thinking about his own life and death?
I think if you look, every single one of these pictures is speaking, emotionally and symbolically, about that aspect of life and death. Emotionally, sexually, psychologically, in different ways. And I think what Dr. Overall said was very germane to that, of reality and unreality. Because really to me, itís the same thing as saying life and death, reality and unreality, depending on how you look at something.
And itís New Yearís Day. And the man is Georgeís father. But you donít know that from looking at the picture, but you know somethingís going on.
Steven Bruhm (MSVU English):
George, you were talking a moment ago about the other man; Liane, you were talking about this world and the other world. Iím just thinking of this emphasis on otherness. Both Christine and Peter were talking about the photographs in terms of appearances, poses, realities. George, some of the photographs are of your subjects like Liane and Ellen and Tim, and one gets the sense of a kind of communication of energy in those faces and in those bodily poses coming toward you as the holder of the camera. But then there are photographs such as the one directly behind Christine in which you are placed looking back at the camera. Iím assuming youíre using the timer mechanism; or is someone else is taking the shot?
GS: No, itís radio controlled. I have a way of triggering the camera at will.
SB: Ok, good. What Iím interested in hearing you talk more about is yourself as the other man, the other person—yourself as both the subject and the object of your own photographic process and whatís involved for you in imagining yourself on both sides of the camera at the same time.
GS: Well, thatís a complication that I chose to take up. After years of taking a picture of people in front of the lens, I had learned how the camera looks, to such a degree that I didnít need to look through the thing anymore. And then I moved out from behind the camera and became an actor, depending on the melodrama that was going on at the time, I would enter into things. And some people I worked with were willing to participate with me in making things look the way I wanted to get at them. Is that what you mean? Or Iím not answering the question?
SB: Yes, in some ways that is what I mean. I guess Iím mostly interested in looking at the moment where clearly you know that itís now the time to press the radio button. Although you know when Liane has the look you want to capture, you canít physically see the picture to know whether your pose is the one you want. So thereís somehow, for you, an imagining of yourself, from within yourself, to capture that moment, to think of the image of you as the one you want, from the outside, to convey.
GS: I guess itís knowing the window and the mirror at the same time. You know the framing from experience; you know the mirror because youíve studied this so intensely that youíve a pretty damn good idea how youíre going to come across. And so itís a very deliberate, voluntary act to do that. And then to wrestle with it afterward and actually accept it is another level.
LH: I feel as if there is a looking for the self, the self that, we talked about—redemption—but it seems to me that thereís always this shadowy figure that we see. Then to me thereís the figure behind the figure that speaks of what I sometimes see. Itís like trying to find the other Ė we talked about the other man, the other self. And I look for this elusive figure everywhere in the images.
GS: Well I would say in comment but not in answer that people, all of us, are very heavily armoured, very heavily masked. People you think you know can do the most surprising things, and you donít find out these things from people until you get them in some crisis mode, perhaps, or a stressful situation and the armour falls off and a completely different person than you expected comes into view. So part of the strategy in making these pictures was to try and strip off some of these layers by constructing situations where it would be difficult to hide. Or, to turn that around, to let people hide to such a degree that they would reveal themselves through all the outrageous costumes and props. And this gave them some kind of freedom to express themselves, to drop the armour. So it worked in many different ways.
CO: So, speaking as a philosopher, it just makes me wonder whether what you actually see when somebodyís armour gets stripped off or when their mask is taken off, is the real person, or whether you simply see another version of the person which is perhaps revealed a little less often, but which is no more and also no less the person than the armoured self and the masked self. I understand the idea of looking for something that is true and authentic, but thereís a sense in which each one of us is the whole package of everything we do and everything we present, everything thatís visible and everything that isnít visible, and there are some things you see much lest often or only rarely or maybe never, but Iím not completely sure that they have more of a claim to be the real person than what we always see—and thatís more of a question necessarily than a statement.
GS: I wasnít asserting that I have found the true, hidden individual by doing this, only that I have discovered something seldom seen about that person which may or may not be central to themselves, but as a primary investigator of whatís visible, Iím interested in those hard-to-get-at facets.
CO: But do you discover it or do you, in fact, provoke it or create it through the situations that you put people into?
GS: Well Iíve worked with most of these people a very long time, with Astrid twenty years, and weíve spent a great deal of time together. Iím sure I spent 100 hours talking to people for every ten minutes Iíve spent taking their picture. We know a lot of background and contextual information about each other so we can get past the superficialities rather quickly. And itís those more private things that interest me. Iím not saying this constitutes a faithful, taxonomic record of this personality.
CO: I think my point was just that maybe together you are creating something new, not necessarily just uncovering something, but actually creating something new that wouldnít have existed without your collaboration.
GS: Yeah, like a subatomic particle only exists in a few milliseconds in a particle accelerator.
CO: Yes, thatís right, and isnít it the case that if you actually try to pin it down then it isnít really there?
GS: Well, we get into that too.
CO: Thatís what happens when you put a philosopher on the panel.
GS: Heisenbergís Uncertainty Principle.
Robin Metcalfe (Director/Curator, St. Maryís University Art Gallery):
I have a little cloud of uncertainty to share on that subject, this question of the search for the exposure of the self, because I think that itís very two-sided in this work. So many of the images have the appearance of enactments of fetishized desire, of little tableaux that can be seen as enactments of desire, so one of the things thatís going on is self, another is making of the self into another, a subject/object of desire. Revealing desire, which is a form of confessional, is often interpreted as a way of revealing the true self, but itís something that can dissolve and stabilize the self. People can be afraid to enact or reveal an erotic narrative of desire because it would mean the loss of their stability and integrity as a person. For example, the place of gender in the imagesĖthe men wearing female fetish clothingĖis that revealing a true aspect of the self or is that a dissolving of the stability of the self into some kind of play where the self becomes multiple in enacting different roles in desire? I guess Iím just putting that forward because when Iím looking at these images I donít necessarily seeĖI mean there is confessional, there is enactment of a confessional dynamic, but Iím not sure that Iím being shown a true self, a true, stable, central self. I think whatís happening is a kind of breaking up, in fact a mirroring of the self can do that, break up the image into something thatís not spatially coherent, and for me that reflects a kind of breakup of psychological coherence that I think underlies a lot of fear that people have of highly sexualized and sexually charged images like this.
GS: My response to that would be that people have a certain identity, as Christine elucidated. What happens if you go counter to their stated identity and get them to enact the thing that they know theyíre not? And how do they look when they do that? How confident are they in their identity when theyíre pressed like that? Those are interesting psychological conundrums that often arise in these pictures.
SB: Hi George. I just have a comment and it sort of goes along with what everyoneís been saying. Weíve been asking about the true selfĖwhat is this definition of a true self? One of my favourite artists, Craig Thompson, kept a diary of a trip that he went on. It was a drawing diary, and thereís a quote in it in which he says, You know, artists are like onions because weíve got so many layers. We take a layer off and we put it on display for everybody, and everybody makes a big deal about it, but we know itís ok because weíve still got another hundred layers to go. And George, I think thatís you...I really think itís true to you because when I see your work itís so deep and thereís so much to it that you canít take in at just a glance, but yet I know that itís just scratching the surface of who you are and that youíve got another hundred layers to go! So I commend you on taking one of those layers and putting it up for us to see. Thank you.
GS: Thank you.
IJ: Now might be a good time to wrap up the official part of the evening and people can mingle and talk. The panelists will be around for a while, including George. So thank you everyone for your responses. Itís been a very good evening. Thank you, panelists.