Monday, April 09, 2007

What Remains

(Before I say anything else: rocking good news from Mr. Bernes about his collection Starsdown (great title!). I've been waiting for a while now for someone to have the good sense to publish that work. Well done!)

Jessie, Emmet, and Virginia Mann, from Sally Mann's 1992 collection Immediate Family.

This past weekend we saw a documentary about photographer Sally Mann named for her exhibition of photographs of decaying bodies, landscapes in which death had occurred (Civil War battlegrounds, but also a spot on her own land where an escaped convict had killed himself to avoid capture by the police), and—as a perhaps willed moment of redemption (redemptivity?)—luminous, spooky photos of the faces of her three adult children (who as youngsters were made famous by photos like the one above). I'm a sucker for portraits of artists at work, which partially redeemed Pollock for me (almost more as a portrait of an actor at work than a painter); this is also why The Five Obstructions continues to be one of my absolute favorite films. The film depicts Mann as that rarest of artistic birds: a committed romantic who is also thoroughly unsentimental. The controversy that erupted over her most famous photos, which made her something of a bit player in the culture wars of the early 1990s, was centered on the the photos she took of her own children, many of them nudes or partial nudes. At least as disturbing to the public as the simple fact of a mother exhibiting photos of her naked children was her characteristic oil-and-water mixture of high romanticism (the photos are ravishingly beautiful, as are the children themselves—the whole Mann family appears to be an unusually good-looking one) and a refusal to idealize children in the accepted ways. If Mann's children are "little angels" and cherubim, they come out of Milton rather than Hallmark: fierce, terrifying, simultaneously innocent and knowing, and sexy without being sexualized. Mann's photos aren't in the least degrading of their subjects—these images are as idealized as anything produced by John Singer Sargent—but they refuse the uncomplicated notion of innocence that we like to attribute to children and childhood experience. They are, in short—you knew I was going to say this—a mode of pastoral.

The makers of the film What Remains have a lot invested in their notion of Mann as a pastoralist. She is depicted for the most part as rooted to the ground of her Virginia farm (though curiously isolated from other Virginians, save for her family members and a couple of family friends) and seemingly detached from modernity. The camera fetishizes Mann's own camera (a gigantic nineteenth-century model that uses glass plates) and the matter-of-fact, dirty-hands artisanship of her photographic practice. If there's a computer or a TV in her house we don't get to see them, and it's mildly shocking to see Mann driving her BMW (which has a pro-choice bumpersticker on the back windshield, the only glimpse of overt politics in the film). Interviews with Mann stress her attachment to the land, while the narrative of the film mostly thwarts the possibility of her cosmopolitanism (in spite of a photo of young Jessie Mann that imitates Manet's Olympia [Manet—even their names sound the same]). We do get to see her briefly at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, but because the Pace Gallery in New York decided not to show the death-haunted photos of What Remains we are spared the country-mouse-in-the-city image of Mann in Manhattan (where it is hard to imagine that this supremely confident woman would not in fact fit right in).

I am not trying to argue here that Mann's connection to the Virginia landscape is bogus—it's rather that I believe the filmmakers' desire to present Mann as a pure product of that landscape is a disservice to the full sophistication of her art. While Mann admits to being naive about the impact her family pictures would have—and how could she truly have anticipated her work's becoming a political football?—it's a mistake to depict her, however subtly, as a "naive artist" the way the film seems to want to. It may also be a mistake, though, for me to discount Mann's participation in that particular act of mythologizing—consider her response to an essay on the family photos by Noelle Oxenhandler (now THERE's a pastoral name!). Although she rather uninterestingly slams academia, for me the most vital part of Mann's response to Oxenhandler is her insistence that her children are willing collaborators in artmaking. I think this is a necessary fiction for many artists—not that by "necessary fiction" I mean that the assertion is necessarily untrue, only that it's a construct, a kind of ethical ladder, that the artist needs to climb if she's to fully encounter her subjects and materials. It's a particularly fraught fiction for a pastoral artist—someone with an investment in depicting the possibilities of a non-exploitative relationship to and among nature. In the case of Immediate Family, Mann's children appear as nymphs, spirits of the landscape that both beckon to and withdraw from the camera's eye. The images are startling for their unpredictable combination of polish and rawness: we feel we are beholding something of the quicksilver essence of life, yet that essence slips away even as we sense its presence in the stony, vulnerable eyes of Mann's children. In the spirit of nature we discover the unheimlich, the uncanny which, as Freud taught us, comes from recognizing some detail entirely intimate to our own lives that we have disavowed. We see ourselves in the photos as we imagine we once were, as we dream we might be again: fully alive, at one with our desire, suffering and free.

An image from the What Remains exhibition.

The What Remains photographs are a logical next step for Mann to take: from the uncanny of eros to the uncanny of death. Et in acardia ego: according to the film, Mann began taking these photographs after her husband Lawrence was diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, bringing a whiff of mortality into their idyllic Virginia landscape. Also crucial was the above-mentioned convict's suicide by self-inflicted gunshot in full sight of Mann's house. Mann became fascinated with landscapes through which death had traveled, and from there became fascinated with how landscape travels through death in the form of decomposition, the absorption of the body by the land. So she took beautiful, deliberately flawed pictures of battlefields, and then she took photos of a beloved dog's decay (the above image), and from there took the most controversial step: she took photos at a coroner's laboratory of the decaying bodies of human beings. Presumably those people gave their bodies to science, but did they also intend to give them to art? In what sense is Mann a collaborator with the dead? It's the sort of unanswerable question that sharpens our relationship with that most seemingly harmless and pastoral of art forms, the landscape; as Mann says in the documentary, it's the artist who gives meaning to a landscape by remembering the deaths that took place in it.

Untitled #7 from Mann's Antietam series.

Mann's work is valuable for my understanding of the artist's pursuit—her construction—of a relationship to nature and the world that is neither exploitative nor wholly passive. We might call it humanist pastoral, or by any other label that would preserve the active stance we ought to take toward the world that made us and which we make. It also presses me closer against the barrier between my vulgar Marxist understanding of the world as a vortex of ideologies that conceal real material conditions, and my intuition of something more significant—some kind of resource—to be derived from mythic patterns of understanding of life and death. These structures of thought and feeling need to contest each other more vigorously, rather than coexist uneasily or through blindness to the other's reality. It's that path of contestation that Mann's work helps me to see more clearly, and to tread. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood....

No comments:

Popular Posts