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What Are You Looking At?
Allyson Clay and Eliza Griffiths, Encounters with the Gaze
In choosing photography’s perceived objectivity rather than painting herself as odalisque, Clay questions painting’s tradition of objectifying the female figure. Her use of first-person text acts to emphasize her subjectivity as an individual and artist, and acts as an exposé or journalistic investigation into the construct of woman in representation. I have the feeling I’m not where I’m supposed to be and Traces of fantasy inhabit my body, interrupt, my work and sleep refer both to the potential of fantasy as a tool for (re)imag(in)ing female desire, and the repercussions of how fictitious constructions of woman as object play out in one’s life. Clay’s textual accompaniment gives this odalisque a voice. As a rule, objects do not speak. Clay underscores the subjecthood of the woman in these photographs, thus inscribing resistance against art historical tradition.
If Clay’s work, as Henry writes1, deals with the delicacy and force of the glance (9), Eliza Griffiths’ work functions at the level of a stare. The majority of her characters (usually female) boldly return the gaze. Rebecca Schneider, in her The Explicit Body in Performance, describes this position as the third eye, the eye of she who is seen. The ‘seen’, Schneider explains2, takes on an agency of her own and wields the unnerving potential of a subversive reciprocity of vision, an explicit complicity, or mutual recognition between seer and seen, who become seer and seer, subject and subject, object and object in the scene of viewing. Such reciprocity threatens in that it suggests a disavowal of the terror and anxiety that demarcates subject from object in Western cultural habits of knowing (86). In Griffiths’ work the typical voyeuristic relationship is subverted by the oscillation of both ‘viewer’ and ‘viewed’ as each is simultaneously subject and object.
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1. Karen Henry, “Spatial Relations – Architectural Fragments,” Allyson Clay: Imaginary Standard Distance (Banff: Walter Philips Gallery Editions, 2002).
2. Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1997).