Heads and Tales, 240 pages, 31 images, CHARTA, Milan, New York, 2009
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The portraits of women made out of animal skin and body parts were intended to provide springboards for stories, reminiscences or meditations on the lives of women. I asked a number of writers I admire to select the image of one of my women and create a life for her. As the work addresses issues of violence, death and gender identity, the writing reflects similar concerns as they are specific to women, not necessarily from an obviously politically fraught or polemical perspective, but more typically resorting to fantasy, satire, irony and other subversive modes of presentation to disrupt the hegemony of the everyday and release the power of its horror.
I didn’t make any demands on the contributors as to form or content. I simply wished that they would breathe life into these inert forms with their words. Since the violence that is often at the heart of women’s experience certainly pervades the images, I rather expected that the texts would to be related to pain, abuse, loneliness, madness, violence and death, etc., though I imagined that they could also be connected to, say, beauty, love, motherhood, ageing, plastic surgery and any number of other themes, perhaps exploring the pain and mortality that pervades those themes as well. In any case, the simulacra that inspired these literary creations, and which are, thus, life-creating in themselves, intend to invoke a play of subject and object, of life and death.
Catharine A. MacKinnon Introduction - Giving Her Life
Asked to imagine another woman’s life – this woman from her shoulders up – women here imagine banal horror, despair, hopelessness. Sluggish, dazed, cold, familiar, she “can’t get the point of herself straight” (Carol Novack, Crazy Broad), like a stubbed-out cigarette on broken pavement. She is alone to a depth philosophers of alienation have never plumbed. When other women reach out to her, their solidarity tends to be a gesture to little end beyond itself. Nothing helps really. Rarely overcoming, she gives birth to someone else, a baby we are allowed to imagine will have a life that is not like hers (Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfano, Jill, Big With Child). Or she protects a bird she killed, keeping watch over its suffering-to death, preventing loutish men from desecrating its already violated corpse (Lydia Millet, Sexing the Pheasant). This she can do. Her own semi-sleepwalking life is seen with clarity only in retrospect, when it is too late. “What’s done is done. It’s about the horror beginning to be assimilated.”* Newborn babies, killed pheasants: over these she has momentary power. Over those, and her own fatal knowledge, her own suicide. Never over living her own life – safe, joyful, triumphant.
Look into another woman’s eyes given image in pig flesh. What other women see is year after year of being acted upon. Sexual abuse that never goes away, leaving tracks in the body as well as the mind. Much rape called anything but. Relationships predictably, but unpredicted, gone askew and awry, as she daily lays down her life for those around her. Endless trips to doctors who do not help. She is acted upon as a body but the scars that are left are spiritual: silent, aching, almost without even memory of hope lost. But her despair is not grandly existential; it is circumstantial. If things did not go as they did – with men, primarily – they would not be as they are, feel as they do. Her passion spurts to the surface on occasion, rarely to salutary effect, often as a last-stand valedictory. The fact that this life of misery, tedium, terror could be different for her, carry her own meanings, is always there just around the corner, making the fact it usually does not utterly heartbreaking.
Each woman here has her own style, but Heide Hatry’s portraits also convey everywoman, nearly all the same woman and feeling tone underneath the skin. What the style says of the self is complex. Each one’s particular life story is learned from the smallest details of dress and demeanor – which, as it happens, is how women learn to look at one another. Who is she from that wrinkle, that fur collar? Where did that hair wake up this morning? What family history is hidden behind that cut of those eyes? Embodying this woman’s way of looking at women, these portraits are not a series of examples of generic women or abstract woman. If amalgamated from what seem initially to be laden clichés, even stereotypes, each is definitely someone in particular, first imagined visually by the visual artist, then given a certain specific life verbally by the verbal artist. Neither monumental nor metaphorical, the portraits hardly resist meaning. If anything, their meaning is too familiar, overdetermined. The life context each portrait embodies is so quotidian as to be almost virtual. Every detail is something we have already seen, its meaning pre-coded. We read the life from the face and its close material surround from decollete up, filling in the rest of the body down – the cross of the legs, the slouch or tautness of the stomach or stockings – imagining we know the rest of her from there. As the writers imagine it, her world is mostly one in which everything is over for her. Other than these nearly postmortem sketches, no one is keeping track. She twists in the wind.
Even as each nightmare belongs to her alone, these portraits and stories as art create and inhabit a particular social world. The looking and writing in this volume are connected not as art and criticism, but as art and art. The referent of the stories is the world, not the world reproduced simply but the world imagined by the visual artist, who seems to be copying but is instead, almost god-like, creating life by distilling a commentary on it in deceptively literal form, who then has writers give her images back a fuller world, filling in the background, coloring the foreground, casting her in a moving picture short subject of her life. The words are under the spell of the images, which is where they belong. Hatry’s portraits thus inhabit a life visually even when made from a dead pig and the characters, as they often are, are given a verbal death. Although tangible, providing the credibility of the real, they are not real, but embody an idea of their reality, and thus are also “exercises in an emancipation from the tyranny of matter.”** Thus does an uncompromising message of dead-ended hopelessness, in facing up to it squarely, offer up a deeply buried hope.
The resulting book – not a catalogue or comment on the exhibit but the exhibit itself – is accordingly not a trapped hall of mirrors but a layered murmuring dialogue between image and word, book and world, artists and audience, in a conversation that comes close to theatre. The politics of this spectacle within two covers is markedly democratic and participatory in its invitation. You can give these women a life.
* T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death (Yale, 2006), p. 81
** Leon Wieseltier, Spirit in the Sky, in Constable’s Skies (Frederic Bancroft ed., Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York 2004) p. 61