Essay | Catrien Schreuder
Beautiful too, Hester Scheurwater’s video work
by Catrien Schreuder, Head of Education and Interpretation Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Over the past twelve months Rotterdam video artist (1971) Hester Scheurwater’s direct imagery and radical subject matter have drawn a great deal of media attention. After her work was described in the NRC Handelsblad, she appeared as a guest on, amongst other things, Paul de Leeuw’s show on Nederland 3 and was interviewed by Volkskrant Magazine. The explicit images in her work are shocking and prompt discussion about the purported sexualisation of society. At the same time, her works also share links with international feminist art. Scheurwater’s videos were part of feminist programmes and exhibitions, including those at the Brooklyn Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art in the USA. Now that an overview of Hester Scheurwater’s video work can be viewed at the Municipal Museum in Zwolle, the sophistication of her work at the interface of feminist traditions and sexist media images becomes apparent.
Hester Scheurwater’s work includes videos, short films and three-dimensional installations, some of which are in the public domain, and a large series of photos which she posts daily on Facebook to as many as 1,200 digital friends. Time and again in her work she presents herself in vulnerable poses which one might also call soft porn. In the video ‘Mama’ (2005), she looks face down into the camera positioned underneath her as she constantly calls out ‘mama’ like a child demanding attention. Her lips are painted bright red, her eyes thick with black eyeliner and her hair tumbling down over her face. The cries become more desperate and more frustrated until she slaps herself in the face. Without moving, the camera records the scene and acts like a mirror in which she casts her desperate glances. In video work such as ‘I Must Be Beautiful Too’ (2000), ‘Bruises’ (2005) or ‘Baby’ (2006) she also films herself from a fixed camera position and looks deep into the lens. In other works the situation is the reverse and it is Scheurwater’s eyes which quite literally replace the camera. For example, in the video ‘Red Finger Nailpolish’ (2003) the long legs in stockings, fingers painted with red nail polish and the other woman in the room are shown from her own perspective. Then in other videos the camera moves like some independent being around the body. In ‘Heal Me’ (2001) Hester Scheurwater stands motionless in an empty room. She hangs her head, her face is hidden behind her tumbling hair and her breasts protrude from the tight black dress. Whilst the camera inquisitively probes her body, we can see a colourless liquid trickling down her legs. In many of her works these three different camera positions smoothly alternate. In the short film ‘Glamour Girls’ (2005) the empty apartment in a Rotterdam apartment block is shown from her eyes, alternating between a shifting camera filming Hester Scheurwater and two other women. They are wearing high heels and dressed in stockings and lingerie only. They are looking in the mirror, sitting in a pool of blood, staring lifelessly at a blank television screen and shooting one another with pistols. In front of the stationary camera we can see heavily made up Hester Scheurwater brushing her teeth and looking at us with gaunt black eyes.
The images are never staged and there is no script in advance. Like in a performance Hester Scheurwater literally and figuratively lays herself open to her impulses in a prearranged setting in front of the camera. The casual nature of the moment the image is captured, the interaction between Hester Scheurwater, any other persons who happen to be there, or attributes such as clothing, footwear, blood, foam, babies or weapons are what determine the course of the action. Many images ensue from these intuitive recording sessions, sometimes yielding hours of footage. The videos are then selected by Hester Scheurwater herself and rigidly edited, in a style reminiscent of video clips with its associative image combinations, repeats and jumps in time. In the video ‘Dazed’ (1996) the plot is virtually impossible to follow because of the super-fast editing, whilst in contrast there are heightened time delays in the film editing in ‘Purify’ (2007) or ‘Ani(fe)mal(e)’ (2006). This way she can mould the images to her own will.
This intuitive method and the playing with time and form reveal the influence of experimental filmmaker and artist Frans Zwartjes (1927), whom Hester Scheurwater studied under at the Vrije Academie in The Hague during the late 1990s. He is a major proponent of the intuitive manner of working, whereby the camera, sound and editing all remain in the hands of the artist. His films are characterised by the freely moving cameras, the impulsive actions and a tense eroticism between the actors. And his choice of subject matter also seems to have been a source of inspiration for Hester Scheurwater. “There is only one topic,” Zwartjes claimed in an interview, “the vagina. In fact, there are no other relevant topics.” His films – featuring languid female bodies, crawling or lying on the ground, naked amidst clothed male company and spied on by a continuously moving camera – therefore came up against fierce criticism from feminists. In 1979 the cinemas were even occupied by feminists in response to his film ‘Pentimento’. And it is precisely these strong responses which hold the key to a consideration of Hester Scheurwater’s work. After all, is Zwartjes not simply portraying the inequality of the male and female roles? Is he not simply putting on the agenda the realisation of aggressive sexuality? Zwartjes asserted in response to the criticism, “You cannot say: “there is something wrong with the vagina”. But you could say there is something wrong with the person watching.”
What Zwartjes meant by this is the now classical theme of the objectifying male gaze, the common thread running through the work of the early feminist artists in the sixties and seventies. “It is no wonder,” stated art historian Lucy Lippard in 1976, “that female artists so often, consciously or subconsciously, choose sexual images as a theme (..). Even now (..) we are brought up to believe the idea that our face and figure will have an effect on how we fare in life, and that we have to mould those parts of our body, however uncertain we feel about this, to the forms that will appeal to the (male) population.”’ Lucy Lippard discusses artists such as Carolee Schneemann (1939), Marina Abramovic (1946) and Valie Export (1940) who examined female role patterns. Their works, featuring their own bodies as material, were loaded with explicit sexuality but also criticised the look of the male viewer who reduced the woman to a body, an object.
With her work Hester Scheurwater, sometimes consciously but more often subconsciously, displays many similarities with the feminist art of this generation of artists. Short films like ‘Poster Girl’ (2003) and ‘Glamour Girls’ (2004) featuring women dressed in stockings, bras and high heels seizing weapons, in terms of their imagery and plot, are reminiscent of Valie Export’s ‘Action Pants. Genital Panic’ (1969) in which Export (1940) entered a movie theatre in leather trousers with the crotch cut out and armed with a fake gun. Like Export, Scheurwater appears to wage war against the culture of the film world in which women are placed as a lust object in a passive role. In ‘Ani(fe)mal(e)’ (2005) Hester Scheurwater shakes her head wildly and slobbers like an animal, dark circles around her eyes and a large red mouth staring at the camera, whilst we hear slow sounds of what could be her breathing. The images are reminiscent of performances such as ‘Meat Joy’ (1964) by Carolee Schneemann, in which naked men and women, smeared with blood, gave free reign to their urges rolling around in pieces of meat to the sounds of loud pop music. Scheurwater’s work ‘I Must Be Beautiful Too’ (2001) is the only piece literally inspired by an earlier work, namely ‘Art Must Be Beautiful, Artists Must Be Beautiful’ (1974) by Marina Abramovic. In this Scheurwater combs her hair so heavy-handedly that her lipstick gets smeared over her cheeks and the hairbrush scratches her face. The work goes with what Lippard calls ‘cosmetic pieces’ from the 1970s in which women make themselves up in public and force themselves to look nice. “Cameras and screens have taken the place of the mirror in which, for centuries, women gave a quick anxious looked before going out,” according to Lippard. Lippard describes here the performance ‘Lea’s Room’ (1971) in the Cal Arts Feminist Art Program in which a young woman applied her make-up over many hours and removed it again discontented. Also Hester Scheurwater’s work ‘Bruises’ (2005), where she strikes herself in the face, is a powerful response to the compelling beauty ideals which women constantly emulate. Works such as these which feature blood and mutilation also remind one of feminist performances by, for example, Gina Pane (1939-1990) or Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), in which women denounced physical and sexual taboos by violating their bodies. A subject matter that has only gained in popularity over the past few years with photo editing and plastic surgery set to determine the ideal image of femininity. The music from Scheurwater’s short film ‘Poster Girl’ is telling, featuring the words ‘On the poster, you look so good. In reality, I wish you could’.
It is possible to distinguish two extremes in the way Hester Scheurwater portrays herself. In the first extreme she shows herself in a soft porn style, in which she appears to keenly adapt to her role as a lust object. She pleases the (male) viewer with high heels, bright red lipstick, and bare breasts and by acting as a willing woman, often lying, reduced to legs, thighs, breasts and mouth. But to this end she also assumes a certain distance to her body. The rooms she is in are empty and cold, her lipstick and make-up on her face become a mask and also her thick head of hair conceals her face. For her over the top image of the ideal woman she seems to have to play a role. However, as Lucy Lippard also asserted, “women who use their body as art for their work, use their self: a key psychological element turns these bodies or faces from an object to a subject.” Scheurwater’s method, the performance-style approach, is comparable with that of feminist performance artists. In a prearranged setting she evokes a moment of truth, a moment that is not orchestrated and this yields an opposite extreme image of femininity. In ‘Kaltes Klares Wasser’ (2005) she stands in an empty white room, a pool of blood on the floor between her feet. She looks devoid of emotion, lying on the ground or bent forward, letting her upper body dangle over her legs. In ‘Purify’ (2007) Hester Scheurwater is sitting in a bath of red coloured water, immediately conjuring up the association with (menstrual) blood. From above the camera films Hester immersed, lying down and glancing up from time to time with black-rimmed eyes and an empty gaze. She represents the woman as she does not wish to be seen, menstruating, grappling with her body, aggressive or just extremely vulnerable.
Upon closer inspection it is possible to see something of the two extremes in all the videos . Hester Scheurwater uses her body, her personal impulses but also the idealised images with which she must comply as a woman. And unlike many of the feminist artists of the sixties and seventies she does not make a great distinction between the ‘reality’ and these compelling ideal images of femininity. Neither does she seem burdened down with the pressure of beauty ideals or role models. Indeed, an assertion also made by Abina Manning, director of the Video Data Bank – the American distributor of Scheurwater’s work who said, “I don’t find Hester’s work to be depressing or to point to an ultimate hopelessness as women continue to struggle oppression. Rather, I find the work to contain something strangely liberating.” After all, she claims for herself both extreme images of femininity and sets to work. She looks at herself, via the camera, with what you might call an ‘auto-voyeuristic gaze’. With the different camera angles she analyses different perspectives of her body, the relationships between “viewer” and “viewee” and creates new images from this. It is not the ‘self’ of Hester Scheurwater that we see but the image that she creates of herself by looking in the mirror, filming and editing. Or, as she describes it herself, “I take the media image, chew it and chew it again and give back the mirrored (image).”
“It’s a subtle abyss that separates men’s use of women for sexual titillation from women’s use of women to expose that insult,” warned Lippard then. Hester Scheurwater’s controversial images catch the attention as befits rousing images. But the images of Hester Scheurwater offer no delight. Telling is the experience of Abina Manning when she showed ‘Baby’ (2006) at the LOOP Video Art Fair in Barcelona. In the video, Hester Scheurwater, who is naked and heavily made-up, stares into the camera, a blank look on her face, whilst holding a crying baby in her arms. Manning recalls: “a large group of teenage girls came in and one of them asked if I could screen Baby for her friends. When I played the video back to them, they became a squealing, giggling mass; it was as though they were watching a horror movie, and they left the room promising each other that this would not be their fate.” Hester Scheurwater’s works often evoke many such fierce reactions. The images themselves cannot be the cause; after all, images of sex and temptation surround us all the time. It is the combination of her strong identification with media images and the powerful portrayal of her personal reality which are shocking. Both are at once recognisable as uncomfortable viewing for the audience.
Raymond van den Boogaard, ‘De grenzen van vriendschap verkennen’, NRC Handelsblad Cultural Supplement, 18 December 2009 ; De Leeuw op Zondag, Vara Nederland 3, 21 March 2010; Wim de Jong, ‘Kunst in spreidstand’, Volkskrant Magazine 17 April 2010, pp. 41-43
Screening of ‘Bruises’ during the programme ‘Apelling / Abseiling. Videos about trust’ in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum New York, 29 June 2008. Participation in group exhibition ‘Difficult Daughters’, Jack S. Blanton Museum Austin, 29 August 2003 until January 2004
Ruud Monster, Frans Zwartjes. The Great Cinema Magician, dvd Moskwood Media, Amsterdam 2007
Lucy R. Lippard, From the Center. Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, Toronto/Vancouver 1976, p. 124
Ibidem, p. 129
See also: ‘Artists Biographies’ in: Lisa Gabrielle Mark (red), Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, tent. cat. Los Angeles [The Museum of Contemporary Art], pp. 295-296, 279 and 265-266.
Lucy Lippard, op. cit. (note 4), p. 124
Abina Manning, e-mail correspondence 20 August 2010: ‘I don’t find Hester’s work to be depressing or to point to an ultimate hopelessness as women continue to struggle oppression. Rather, I find the work to contain something strangely liberating’
E-mail correspondence with Hester Scheurwater, August 2010
Lippard, op. cit. (note 4), p. 125: ‘It’s a subtle abyss that separates men’s use of women for sexual titillation from women’s use of women to expose that insult’
Abina Manning, e-mail correspondence 20 August 2010: ‘a large group of teenage girls came in and one of them asked if I could screen Baby for her friends. When I played the video back to them, they became a squealing, giggling mass; it was as though they were watching a horror movie, and they left the room promising each other that this would not be their fate.’
Catrien Schreuder, 21 August 2010
Head of Education and Interpretation Museum Boijmans van Beuningen