Essay | A. Lacroix
THE SPLIT by Anabelle Lacroix for Ballarat Photo Biënnale Australia
My body is a weapon waiting at your door…
– sountrack by Chicks on Speed in Klates Klares Wasser,
– video by Hester Scheurwater, 2004.
Created by her panties and crotch, a split often divides Hester Scheurwater’s images. This split is central in the artist’s work, as a symbol of the split between the image and its mirror, reality and fantasy, do-it-yourself and commercial imagery, and between intimacy, voyeurism and the public space the artist plays with. Hester Scheurwater explores how we respond to images by using the duality between the public arena and our privacy. The artist also uses photography to question the politics at play within the image, positioning the body as a social construct.
Shooting Back (2009) is a series of photographs taken of the artist and uploaded on the social platform Facebook everyday over one year. By calling the photographs “performance images” Scheurwater refers to how we act ourselves online and questions shifts in portraying intimacy. Playing with sexually charged stereotypes of woman mediated by advertising, TV clips, reality shows and widely on the internet, the artist’s take us right into the guts of our relationship to images and questions our own personas and the desires attached to them.
How the viewer engages with images often depends on a context. Questioning our relationship to images is intimately linked to this series, as they have consciously being displayed publicly on the Internet, Shooting back at you. The artist’s Facebook account was closed several times revealing the rules and morals of appropriateness’ in a publicly accessible sphere that constantly disseminates sensual images of woman. Herster Scheurwater responds with her work: “I take them, chew them, and spit them out again to transform them into raw fantasy portraits”, showing her over-the-top self. The artist plays with the relationship between actor and viewer using notions of the constructed self and the performative character embedded in the act of displaying ourselves online. These images are confronting, leading us to think about how should we deal with them. The act of looking, peering and examining the image becomes a micro ‘performance in the digital public space’, expanded in a gallery context.
The split between public and private is at the centre of the artist’s work. At first glance the photograph seem to be about the artist and her femininity, however, they are actually as much about Scheurwater as they are about everyone else. Their qualities as portraits, or as images taken casually in an everyday context, drifts away as their universal and mysterious feel is emphasised by the fact that the face of the artist is often hidden by the camera or by her own legs. The artist’s interest in the body’s relationship to the public space originates in her film practice, such as Red Finger Nail Polish (video, 3 min, 2003) shot in abandoned buildings that features doll-like figures habiting a liminal space between exhibitionism and one’s own fears and fantasies. Doll-like figures contribute to the uncanny aspect of the artist’s imagery. As opposed to her videos in which the artist is non-recognisable or absent, the photographic series Shooting back is highly personal, in their subject matter but also for being shot in Scheurwater’s intimate places such as her lounge-room and bedroom.
By choosing photography -the still and composed image- the artist positions herself within photography’s debated relationship to truth and its role as evidence. During the mid-19th century photography was born as the first surveillance tool, used by Alphonse Bertillon (French, 1853-1914) and Francis Galton (English, 1822-1911) to create typologies of human faces in order to establish a system of identification of criminals. Herter Scheurwater’s collection of images of her own crotch, legs, tongue and eyes may evoke Bertillon’s photographic plates of ears and noses, but more importantly refer to ideas of the deviant body.
Today Herter Scheurwater reaffirms that the body is a social entity, that not only reflects our identity but also the desires and thoughts projected upon it by others and by cultural standards. Being openly provocative, the artist asks in return whether there is something criminal in her intimate photographs when publicly displayed? How do we draw a line between her personal images and commercial ones that have pre-determined meanings?
Hester Scheurwater’s art practice is about images themselves and the visibility of the female body in society. As much as the artist is associated with feminist practices of the 1960s and 1970s, Scheurwater’s images are created to be empowering, moving away from the representation of woman as victims to “show woman in power” . The artist’s exploration is turned towards her own body, exploring her femininity. Created with the use of a mirror they are turned back on themselves by the artist’s auto-erotic gaze that shows the ambiguous relationship between images and reality. In our mediatised society, bodies and cultures are increasingly exposed, sometimes overexposed by a “blinding light” that only reveals stereotypes . The ambivalence in Hester Scheurwater shows the conditions in which the female body is exposed -or overexposed- and suggests its underlying dismissal in terms of acknowledging the politics at stake within the image.
Anabelle Lacroix is an independent curator in Melbourne, currently chair of the committee at Kings Artist Run Initiative. In 2012 Anabelle co-curated So You Say at West Space, curated Kings Flash Nights and Emerging Artist Programs as well as writing for UN. Magazine and The Maximilian. Originally from France, Anabelle graduated from the International Master Program in Curating Art at Stockholm University (Sweden) and undertook research in Art History (Contemporary Photography) at University College London (UK).