Francesca Woodman- haunting self-portraits

Photography by Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), influential American photographer.

Francesca Woodman’s iconic oeuvre includes staged artful self-portraits exploring the relationship between body and space and aspects of identity, featuring her often nude or semi-nude body either in motion, fragmented, collapsed or disguised, like a ghostly, elusive presence in a seemingly abandoned domestic space. The uncanny mise-en-scene includes disintegrating decor and collapsing structures, contributing to the atmosphere of alienation and desolation. The haunting cinematic portraits evoke a sense of remoteness, but also timelessness, whilst alluding to the fluidity of self-image, sexuality, the subject-object dichotomy, and the ambiguity of existence and identity- also emphasised by the blur effect achieved by slow shutter speed. The choice of black and white photographs and a fashion style characteristic of previous eras further emphasises the uncanny atemporality. Whilst her photographs reveal a tendency towards and concern with neuroticism and self-dramatisation, her parents emphasise that art critics tend to infuse her work with underlying political and feminist themes whilst missing her playfulness, humour, and irony- perhaps more transparent in other less-known photographs. The mythologisation of her artistic identity might partially be influenced by her tragic suicide at the age of 22, at the end of a depressive episode.

Corey Keller, a curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, mentions: “Art students are drawn to the conviction she brought to her work and, in contrast to the cool slickness of the digital, it embraces tactility and decay in a very sensual and seductive way.”

Analysis: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943): a spiralling lucid nightmare, Maya Deren, & A dialogue with the Unconscious

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is a memorable, experimental, surreal short film directed and written by Maya Deren. Referred to as poetic psychodrama, the film was ahead of its time with its focus on depicting fragments of the unconscious mind, externalising disjointed mental processes, dreams, and potential drama through poetic cinematic re-enactments brought to life by uncanny doppelganger figures. The enigmatic protagonist, played by Deren herself, enters a dream world in which she finds herself returning to the same spots and actions in and around her house, chasing a strange mirror-faced figure in a nightmarish, entangling, spiralling narrative. Whilst she ritualistically goes through nearly identical motions, with some slight changes, within a domestic space that is imbued with dread and a sense of doom, unreality, and foreignness – we also witness glimpses of multiple versions of herself, watching herself. The camera shifts from subjective to objective angles as the self-representation of the protagonist alternates between the dichotomous concepts of the self and the “other”. The domestic space revolves around certain recurrent symbolic objects. The film conjures up the uncanniness of dissociation or, more specifically, depersonalisation; self-obsession, a woman’s dual inner/outer life and subjective experience of the world, all congruous with Deren’s interest in self-transformation, interior states, surpassing the confines of personality and self-construct, as well as the self-transcending rituals of Haitian Vodou. The dream story, culminating in death, symbolically alludes to the -sometimes strange and terrifying- initial, non-rational stage of the Jungian process of the “transcendent function” (the symbolic confrontation with the unconscious) leading to the separation of awareness from unconscious thought patterns and the liberating reconciliation between the two opposites: ego and the unconscious, which also has the effect of integrating neurotic dissociations.

Continuity is absent in the disjointed dream narrative of the film. The woman goes up the stairs inside the house and unpredictably emerges from the window in a haunting shot, wrapped in and caressed by soft, semi-transparent curtains. After catching her distorted reflection in the polished knife, the camera follows her fluid bending movements as she is crawling on the staircase, whilst being strangely blown away by the wind in various directions within a claustrophobic space, levitating, trying to hang onto things, and eventually hanging in a crucified position against the wall. With her bat-like presence casting a larger-than-life shadow behind her, she gazes at her sleeping body on the couch through a point-of-view shot from the ceiling. This moment vividly evokes the concept of an out-of-body experience. She then watches a previous version of herself through the window, following the flower-holding, black cloaked figure outside. Unable to catch up, she enters the house, and the subjective camera movement switches to this version of her, whilst she catches a glimpse of the funereally dark, cloaked apparition walking up the stairs.

The elusive mirror-faced character is compelling and symbolically evocative. Nun, Grim Reaper, or mourner? The hooded black cloak and the ritual of bringing a flower to someone’s bed are immediately reminiscent of death, of mourning, and associations between bed/tomb and sleep/death. As the face of the obscure ghost-like manifestation is actually a mirror showing the reflection of the watcher, the scenario conjures up the idea of mourning one’s own death. After leaving the flower on the bed, the character disappears and the image of the woman also disappears and re-materialises several times, back and forth on the staircase.  She then heads towards her own sleeping body whilst holding a knife, proceeding to try to stab herself before she awakens and sees a man holding a flower in front of her.

The phantom steps of the hooded dream character are traced and re-traced by the man and the woman in what appears to be reality but turns out to be a dream within a dream. The man carries the flower upstairs, leaving it on the bed, a gesture that echoes the dream act but is seen in a different context- of intimacy rather than a religious or funereal act. The flower, a symbol of femininity, is therefore connected with death and sexuality, respectively. After a shot of the reflection of the man in the mirror next to the bed, we watch her lying down through the male gaze. The camera switches to the predatory look on his face, and, as he is about to touch her, she grabs the knife and tries to stab his face. At this point, the knife breaks a mirror instead, and the face of the man disintegrates into shards (another connection between the man and the dream figure), revealing an image -perhaps a memory- of waves and the beach. The man comes inside the house again to find the dead body of the woman on the couch- she committed suicide by cutting herself with a mirror.

Deren poetically described the moment of the intertwining worlds as “a crack letting the light of another world gleam through.” [Deren, “A Letter”, in Essential Deren]

The uncanny dimension of the film lies in the transformation of the familiar environment into something mystifying, the dream-reality ambiguity, the repetition compulsion, the doubling (tripling and quadrupling), the distortions in spatial and temporal awareness, as well as the repetitive use of familiar images such as household objects that seemingly gain unknown symbolic connotations, whilst functioning as mnemonic devices. The juxtaposition of objects also contributes to the sense of dread and paranoia- the off-the-hook phone, the silent record player, the flower left behind by the enigmatic figure, the knife, the falling key. We can associate the off-the-hook phone with loss of communication, the knife -phallic form, therefore masculinity, besides the surface level connection with danger and death, the flower, as mentioned, having a contrasting effect-femininity, but also, death in this context; the key represents confinement, repression, and feeling entrapped, but also the possibility to escape. When the woman pulls out the key from her mouth, perhaps she had “the key” to find the way out all along, and then, as the regurgitated key turns into a knife, there is a connection between escape and (psychic) suicide. The mirror stands for introspection, and the death by mirror cut might allegorically refer to the disintegration of the identity construct, linked to liberation. When a version of the woman picks up the knife, she is re-claiming her agency, wielding phallic power.

It is worth mentioning that the director strongly opposed and discouraged psychoanalytic interpretations of her film and of the symbolic significance of the objects the film revolves around, instead encouraging the viewer to only interpret them in the context of the film narrative as a whole to avoid going beyond conscious intent in art. This brings me back to an inner debate on the topic of film analysis, its limitations and the question whether there is such a thing as going “too deep” into conscious and unconscious meaning behind film. The “risk” of going too deep is ingrained in the nature of the work of any film scholar or critic, especially when it comes to cine-psychoanalysis. However, when it comes to surreal films in particular, the intentions are blurred and open to interpretation, and clearly Deren’s art is lyrical in its symbolic nature, created by association of poetic images, and influenced by her interest in psychology. Before turning to cinematography, Maya Deren expressed herself through poetry, but she found it too limiting to convey the images in her mind through words.

To respect the wishes of the creator, let’s also look at her own statements related to the film, as well as her general preoccupations and beliefs, which are transparently relevant to the film.
This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” —Maya Deren on Meshes of the Afternoon, from DVD release Maya Deren: Experimental Films 1943–58.

The multiplying of the character is connected to dissociation, alienation, emotional fragmentation, and potentially reintegration towards the end. The multiple incarnations of the woman evoke an internal schizoid narrative breathing life into alternative versions of herself- challenging her self-construct. Some of her personas are passively observing her more powerful, key-holding, knife-wielding persona. The suicide is symbolic, despite the fact that, in the final scene, it appears as if the layers of the dream world are peeled off and we have access to the real world. I believe the death symbolism is derived from Jungian psychology- i.e. the death and resurrection of consciousness. In light of this thought, the film can represent a visual representation of Jung’s Transcendent Function. What unfolds on screen is the process through which a person gains awareness of and confronts unconscious material driving their life in order to unite and re-channel the opposing energies of the ego and the unconscious into a third state of being, of wholeness. This would also have an integral effect that will merge the embodiments of the character’s dissociations. According to Jung, the process involves a challenging, unnerving unleashing of fantasies, dreams, and instincts. The sense of dread and panic evoked by the film matches this idea. The process is also associated with the notion of ego death in Eastern philosophies.

To further delve into Deren’s psyche and establish other links, let’s remember that she was fascinated by the rituals of Haitian Vodou and religious possession. She later participated in Vodou ceremonies and documented the rituals. Together with her love of dance (and later, her experience with recreational drugs) her immersion in and fascination with rituals were also a result of seeking to drift away from self-centredness, to go beyond self-construct and personality, and merge with something greater. This is again related to the Buddhist concept of ego death – a transcendent, life-turning mental state with self-revelatory consequences. We know that Deren has a preoccupation with the transformation of the self and reaching higher spiritual states of awareness. In this excerpt from An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film (1946), she makes insightful comments about ritual:

The ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalised element in a dramatic whole. The intent of such depersonalisation is not the destruction of the individual; on the contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the specialisations and confines of personality. He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning.”

I am glad she mentions depersonalisation and associates it with a form of spiritual awakening, as this coincides with my beliefs on depersonalisation and derealisation. The two often go hand in hand. Both experiences (note I’m not referring to them as ‘disorders’) involve a feeling of detachment – from one’s thoughts and from reality, as well as an awareness of this detachment (which distinguishes it from psychosis: there are no delusions or psychotic elements involved). Derealisation involves experiencing the world as if you are living in a dream or a film, and depersonalisation is the feeling of unreality of the self, which has been introduced as a psychiatric disorder of the dissociative type in 1930 and has been updated and re-interpreted several times in various psychiatric diagnosis manuals. Other common features mentioned in the DSM-IV are an uncanny distortion in visual and temporal perception, a feeling that other people, places, or events appear unfamiliar, unreal, or mechanical and lacking emotional depth. An individual experiencing this might feel like an outside observer of his or her own mental processes. All of this also applies to Meshes of the Afternoon where the protagonist is in a perpetual, adrift state of trance as she navigates the dream web and observes herself from an external perspective, whilst familiar objects appear foreign, strange, or ‘tainted’.

Here is an excerpt from Feeling Unreal, one of the few books tackling the elusive topic of  DPD- written by Daphne Simeon, MD and Jeffrey Abugel. The description matches the insight and feeling revealed by Deren regarding the state of depersonalisation in ritual:

“No longer grounded by familiar sensations or surroundings, they feel as if they’re losing their grip on reality. But unlike people with psychotic conditions like schizophrenia, they are not going insane at all. They are, if anything, suddenly overly aware of reality and existence and of the ways in which their own experience is a distortion of a ‘normal’ sense of a real self. Depersonalisation, in fact, resembles a sort of altered ‘awareness’ or ‘awakening’ that in some cultures is thought to be a level of spiritual growth.”

Back to the film, it is worth watching both existing versions: Your viewing experience might change depending on whether you watch the early silent version or the 1959 version accompanied by the official sombre, atmospheric soundtrack created by ‎Teiji Ito, Maya’s second husband. You may also realise that the dreamlike atmosphere and narrative of Meshes was a source of inspiration for David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001).

Blow-Up (1966): Between reality and glamourised fantasy

Sixties London represents an alluring myth, a commercialised fantasy, a glamourised concept that conjures up a world of freedom, drugs, fashion, sex, and rock and roll in which young people revelled as a reaction against traditional values. It is a period of revolution and positive changes, which evokes a vibrant, frenetic city where fun and liberation are fundamental. Some underlying aspects of this media construct involve alienation, confusion, disconnection, the elusive nature of communication and existence in a fragmentary world, all of which also resonate with the work of the Italian art cinema director, Michelangelo Antonioni. Blow-Up (1966) reveals what lies behind the mythical London ‘swinging scene’ of the Sixties, at the same time extending its theme beyond London and beyond time, to universal questions about identity.

The rapid cuts and quick shift in images in the film sometimes mirror the characters’ inability to focus on a particular object or action. This is obvious throughout Thomas’ ADHD-like behaviour and his incapability to get fully immersed into any particular activity for the most part of the film. For instance, in the restaurant scene, he shifts his attention away from the photographs, to getting food, then back to a discussion about his fabulous new photograph, followed by a glance through the window and an expression of the wish to leave London. Another key moment that adopts quick editing is Thomas’ photo-shoot featuring Verushka, in a scene described by Danny Powell as “the most iconic of all Sixties cinema”. The dynamic editing, characteristic of the time, shows Verushka in different poses, through still images, imitating the act of photography. This scene is sexualised- through Thomas’ words, their movements, and position towards the end of the shoot. Making fashion and photography sexual is an innovation of the Sixties photographers, David Bailey’s particularly.

The opening of the film provides another sequence of fast cuts, this time between images of mimes revelling on the streets and images of homeless men leaving the shelter. The purpose here is to present different, contrasting sides of London, which indicate that the Sixties period is not only about freedom for everyone: some are still restricted to poor conditions of living and oppression. The less glamorous side of life at that time is omitted from the commercialised dream of Swinging London, which makes the viewers question their perspective of history.

Visually, the group of mimes brings some colour to an otherwise grey cold modern environment. Their make-up and clothes reveal an alternative way of living, shown in contrast to the nuns’ and the royal guard’s costumes. Their dismissal of these symbolic figures represents the rejection of old, traditional values- the attitude of rebelling against authority is characteristic to the Sixties.

Aside from the occasional quick cuts Antonioni employs, the film is generally made up of long sequences, most of unknown significance and amplified in intensity by the long, profound silences. There is not much non-diegetic sound to emphasise moments of importance or convey a certain feeling: the focus is on images, not on sound or words. However, in the end, both ways of communication are shown to be unreliable in determining or defining objective reality. This theme fits into the cultural context of Swinging London: it depicts, again, what lies beyond the glamorised portrayal of those times, namely a fragmentary world.

Thomas, the protagonist, epitomises the figure of the London fashion photographer who wanders aimlessly and has a short attention span and no background or defined identity. Antonioni points out that, like most fashion photographers in London, he belongs to the moment, and no one knows where he comes from or who he is. Admittedly fed up with London, he can’t stay still, moving from one action to another, none of them seeming to impact or interest him greatly; and he does not form any deep connection with any other character. His blasé attitude changes when an eerie event captures his attention – his fascination then makes him totally absorbed in the process of mystery solving through art examination.

Thomas seems to be constantly in search of something he cannot name: he is not satisfied with the world he lives in, and wishes to leave the city: “I’m going off London this week. […] It doesn’t do anything for me […] I’m fed up with those bloody bitches”, he says, echoing the words of the girl from the antiques store who was saying “I’d like to try something different. Get off somewhere. I’m fed up with antiques.”. While she is talking to him about moving away to an exotic place, Thomas does not seem to take her worries into consideration and he does not respond seriously to her- he acts as if he does not understand her. However, by expressing the same longing for something different in the restaurant scene, he seems to establish an indirect connection with the girl, to empathise with someone else for once. The person who listens to him, Ron, laughs and dismisses his train of thought, which further reinforces the disconnection between characters, the loss of communication. Although the characters might have things in common, they don’t really communicate and don’t seem eager to understand others, they’re self-absorbed, but they themselves would like to be listened to and understood.

The relationships between Thomas and women bring forward an important aspect of the film, referring to Antonioni’s views on power relations, gender issues, and toxic masculinity. Thomas the photographer exhibits distant, macho, impudent behaviour towards the women he interacts with and is generally devoid of respect. He has an insolent, dismissive attitude towards the models, he tricks Jane, the mysterious woman from the park and he addresses women as ‘birds’. The term ‘bird’ was commonly attributed to women in the Sixties, which is “a reminder of the attitudes toward women at the time which, despite the new ideas of liberation, are not applied equally”(Powell). However, despite tricking Jane, he seems to have some respect, interest in, and attentiveness towards her, as opposed to the models. This comes from his appreciation of her distinctive qualities: her allure is natural and graceful, she is associated with mystery and nature, she is cut off from the artificiality of the fashion world. Her demeanour and movements appear less performative and calculated. This is indicative of Thomas’ defiance towards and dissatisfaction with the fashion world and its artificiality and his longing for something different. On a larger scale, it is Antonioni’s comment on the lure of the Sixties’ myth – which is not ideal, as it seems to be in the pictures. Thomas’ problematic controlling, objectifying attitude towards the models reflects that.

Thomas seeks to escape from the artificiality of the fashion world by heading towards the park. This is what the Sixties were supposed to be about, moving away from a consumerist to an environmentalist world, which is depicted by moving away from the grey urban space to the green space of the park. This chromatic change marks entering ‘an island of relative peace’ in William Arrowsmith’s view, which sets up a binary opposition between nature and culture, however, as Brunette states, nature in Blow Up is not presented as separate from culture, but as a product of it. For instance, just before heading towards the park, Thomas enters the antique store where he is asked what he is looking for. He replies he is looking for pictures – landscapes in particular. He eventually sees a painting of a landscape which the owner says is sold. Nature is therefore objectified in this scene, just as in the next scene where Thomas takes his camera to photograph landscapes in the park. People cannot escape the artificiality of their world so easily: mod lifestyle in London became so embedded in a glamourised artificial world that a return to the natural would be impossible. It does not take us by surprise then, when the park turns from a place of illusory peace into a violent crime scene, supposedly.

The crime scene is a metaphor for the swinging London scene. Just as we are only aware of Sixties London through a media construct presenting the modern facade, Thomas only finds out about the crime through a photographic representation. Bill the painter’s comment is also closely related to both Thomas’ photograph analysis and to Blow Up– the film: “They don’t mean anything when I do them. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to. Then it sorts itself out and adds up. It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.” Similarly, Antonioni says “My films are documents, not a train of coherent ideas, but ideas which are born of the moment”, and then add up like pieces of puzzle, forming a beautiful, evocative final piece of art.

There are questions which are not or cannot be answered in Blow Up– for instance, regarding the identity of the characters and, most significantly, the nature of reality. There are blank spaces in the plot, which can be associated with the “elusive moment, the space between reality and myth” (Powell) of Sixties London. What is real and what is not still remains concealed, because of several moments in the film which amplify the uncanny ambiguity of the reality-fiction boundary. One such uncanny moment is the disappearance of the body from the crime scene. Thomas wants to step beyond his role and beyond the visual representation that he has caught on camera, just as the spectator should be aware that there is more beyond the surface presented by a media fantasy. He wants to find out the story, and tries to reconstruct it in a narrative form, using the pictures. He is finally engrossed in something: he escapes the state of distraction which is a way of living in Blow Up, not just a temporary bad habit. After seeing the body, he is only left with an enlargement of a picture to confirm what he has seen, since the body is removed and the rest of the pictures are stolen. The enlarged photograph looks like an abstract painting.

Another element which questions reality in the film is the imaginary tennis game from the end, namely, the moment when the camera moves away from the tennis court out into the fields, and we start hearing the diegetic sound of a tennis game, even though we had seen that the game was only mimed. And finally, as Thomas the photographer fades into the background consisting of the vast green space, the viewer is reminded that Blow Up is a film, not an objective reality, and that it is also not trying to convey an objective reality of Swinging London.

Blow Up is a film that can be seen as part of the cultural context of the 1960’s transition and its changes in mentality and way of living, in this sense revealing Antonioni’s take on the attitudes from behind the scenes of that time. It can be seen as a comment on the elusive aspect of language, as a critique on gender dynamics and on the artificiality of our world or as a philosophical investigation on identity and meaning. Through an unconventional editing style and dialogue and through self-reflexivity, Antonioni portrays a world of alienation, distraction, and meaninglessness, which leaves the viewer contemplating artistic truth, media-shaped truth, and the objectivity of reality.

Signe Pierce: Glamorous over-saturated hyperreality

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New York-based contemporary multimedia artist Signe Pierce self-identifies as a reality artist, exploring the blurred lines between art and technology, between art and life, and the concept of heightened reality through her neon urban signature photographic style characterised by a glamorous, saccharine aesthetic. The vibrant colour palette she uses is dominated by bright pink and purple hues, adding a different dimension to mundane urban landscapes. The chromatic excess emphasises artificiality, as the artist provides a visual commentary on the nature of reality in the digital world.
Signe Pierce embraces the idea of ‘unreality’ and takes it to the extreme in her lurid, holographic paradise. The viewer entering her world is mesmerised, distracted, trapped in hyperreality. Beautifully influenced by her environment and the chaos of New York, her work provides a glimpse into an augmented version of the famous city for the outsider to be virtually immersed into. Since her art is of a meta-referential nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that it self-consciously depicts the ubiquity of commercial ads and photography, phone screens, screens in general, which, instead of piercing into her world, are rather being harmoniously incorporated in it.

 


The almost aggressive, consistent use of pink and light purple tones reveals a feminist preoccupation with what is considered stereotypically girly- being subverted by the themes depicted, such as consumerism, surveillance, hyper-reality, and assertive hyper-femininity. The artist not only plays with visual perceptions by depicting fluid forms and using distorted liquefied shapes in some of her pictures, she also challenges perceptions of femininity, by blurring the line between the objectifier and the objectified and portraying the female figure as provocative and strong.
The slick fashion commercial aesthetic of the photographs is reminiscent of surreal fashion horror films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon and the urban vividness of cyberpunk cinematography. At the same time, her frequently updated Instagram feed includes cinematic photographs depicting a constantly wired, overstimulated world. Some elements often featured in her universe are mirrors, eyes, technological devices, shiny, holographic pieces of clothing, reflecting lights, rainy cityscapes, strip malls, and a lush, stunningly illuminated mise-en-scene. In addition to emphasising the inherent ‘simulacrum’ nature of the urban experience in New York, Signe Pierce’s hyperreal sensory spectacle merges perceptions of reality and simulation to make the viewer question the nature of truth and reality in contemporary society.

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A glimpse of Perfect Blue

perfect-bluePerfect Blue (1997), directed by Satoshi Kon, is a disturbing, disorienting, surreal Japanese animated psychological horror/thriller film based on the 1991 novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis written by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Mima, a 21-year-old former pop icon pursuing an acting career, can no longer discern between reality and fantasy, as she is haunted by ghosts of her past as a teen idol, and subsequently delves into paranoid delusions and nightmares. Her doppelgänger, an elusive mirror figure seemingly belonging to a parallel reality- is an embodiment of her former J-pop self whose taunting remarks about her failed diva status seem to spring from her own unconscious mind. The underlying commentary of the film touches the theme of unstable selfhood correlated with celebrity and the vicious effects of stardom, in a dark critique of Japanese pop culture and the cult of celebrity.
This eerie stylised depiction of madness filled with blood, violence, and suspense, has been seen as an animated version of a Giallo thriller directed by Dario Argento, and has also been cited as the inspiration behind Darren Arronofsky’s work, the most obvious one being Black Swan.

Costume design symbolism in Crimson Peak (2015): Lucille’s breathtaking blue velvet dress

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Crimson Peak (2015), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a visually stunning, gloomy cinematic horror spectacle, noted for its incredible and haunting aesthetic. A particularly remarkable and alluring feature of the intricate production design is Lucille’s breathtaking blue velvet dress. The bewitching symbolically-charged Victorian design of the dress includes a black garland resembling a vine with withered leaves, claustrophobically climbing towards her pale neck. The owner, played by the mesmerising Jessica Chastain, is a beautiful, tense, frigidly graceful corset-wearing ice queen filled with dark repressed emotions, whose attire reflects her inner state. Her blue, heavy rigid dress seems to blend with her eerie funereal surroundings, the underwater feeling given by the aquatic colours and the flickering interplay of light and darkness, the dark curtains, and the grandiose blue walls of the Gothic mansion. She is tragically connected to the ominous house and the dead vines tangled up around her body further anchor her in it, symbolising her psychological confinement. She is often shown in contrast to pure, innocent, and lively Edith, played by Mia Wasikowska, who wears light and loose gowns.

 

 

Review: Gregory Crewdson’s cinematic photography

Gregory Crewdson’s dark, atmospheric, cinematic photographs capture perfectly framed frozen moments incorporating disconnected figures which seem to reflect the domestic and natural landscapes they inhabit; the mundane landscapes are often characterised by an eerie solitude and transformed into something otherworldly, haunting, and compelling. His photographs seem to both reveal and conceal something, creating ambiguous narratives – they are both stills of life and embodiments of the uncanny. The boundaries between life and art, between intimacy and isolation, between strange and familiar environments are blurred.

“My pictures are about everyday life combined with theatrical effect. I want them to feel outside of time, to take something routine and make it irrational. I’m always looking for a small moment that is a revelation.” – Gregory Crewdson

The cinematic nature of his work is also reflected in the complex process of creating and staging his images: there is a large crew involved in various aspects of production; props, casting, storyboards, and the natural world is heightened by the use of artificial Hollywood-style lighting and effects such as artificial rain and ice.

“My pictures are about a search for a moment—a perfect moment. To me the most powerful moment in the whole process is when everything comes together and there is that perfect, beautiful, still moment. And for that instant, my life makes sense.” – Gregory Crewdson

In his interviews, GC emphasises the importance of the visual balance between the figure, the interior space, and the exterior space; the feeling of transcience and the sense of in-between-ness evoked by his images, the enigmatic moments between other unknown moments, the visual commentary on the human condition, the portrayal of flesh, nudity, aging, vulnerability, and mortality.

Crewdson’s aesthetic incorporates American suburban surrealism, and the mise-en-scène usually features windows, mirrors, bleak settings shown in a mysterious, ghostly light. His photographs are windows into the intimacy of a world filled with hidden unsettling desires.

“I’m interested in using the iconography of nature and the American landscape as surrogates or metaphors for psychological anxiety, fear or desire.”- Gregory Crewdson

The characters created often seem alienated, immersed in deep thought, in cosmic loneliness, internal conflict, or a longing for something ineffable. Their expressions are pensive, focused on something beyond the world depicted, at times introspective. The feelings evoked are anticipation – frozen in time, subconscious disquiet, and estrangement.

“I really love that dynamic between beauty and sadness…there’s always these moments of quiet alienation, the sense of disconnect, but also, these moments of possibility.”- Gregory Crewdson

Gregory-Crewdson-cinematic-photography-1Crewdson’s photography reminds us of the suspense, sadness, and solitude of Edward Hopper’s paintings, of Diane Arbus’ bizarre and psychologically intense photographic portraits of people on the margins of society, of William Eggleston’s saturated depictions of seemingly normal, mundane settings behind which something disturbing seems to lurk; as well as the surreal quality of the films of David Lynch.

Crewdson’s series include Cathedral of Pines, Twilight, and Beneath the Roses.

Reviews: Psychological horror films set in the fashion world: The Neon Demon (2016) and Helter Skelter (2012)

The Neon Demon (2016), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is a surreal hyper-stylised psychological horror film unveiling a dark satire of the fashion industry. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, who epitomises the trope of the pure, genuine, angelic character entering a wicked world filled with artificial, soulless, manufactured characters, and becoming tainted by her surroundings, acting almost as if hypnotised or possessed towards the end of the film. Meanwhile, everything spirals out of control and eventually down into the macabre and the gruesome.

The hallucinatory and grotesque spectacle is shown through a slick fashion commercial aesthetic, accompanied by fitting synth sounds and little dialogue, as the film relies on its bewitching atmosphere. Many parallels can be drawn between Refn’s film and the stylish Japanese psychological horror film, Helter Skelter (2012), which was potentially a source of inspiration: they are both bloody, visually stunning, surreal, satirical reflections on the artificiality of the fashion world. They even share torn out eyeballs – the difference being The Neon Demon goes all the way when one character eats a regurgitated eyeball, in one of the many scenes alluding to the theme of women devouring each other and destroying themselves in pursuit of beauty-based fame. The shock value of The Neon Demon is continuously impactful, with elements ranging from self-mutilation and absurd knife fights to cannibalism and necrophilia.

The ghastly, sickening acts and soft gore visuals are mixed with beautiful, compelling imagery and a glamorous style in such a harmonious way, as if purposely trying to make it hard for viewers to be grossed out; instead, the viewer is under a spell, watching the unfolding of a disturbingly strange dream.

The majority of criticism the film has been subjected to revolves around it being shallow, reductive, objectifying, offensive, form over content. However, the film is clearly self-reflective in the sense that it’s a critique of the things it depicts and the things it exaggerates to an absurd degree. Sometimes the subtext eludes viewers because the film might appear to revel in its own madness and in the culture it condemns, but, in the end, every viewer takes something different from the film. The Neon Demon is hypnotic and compelling with its gripping atmosphere, its dual aesthetic- incorporating both the glamorously exquisite and the macabre, and its bewildering dream sequences.

41272426_1918757085094468_5702621502751375360_nBased on the Japanese exploitative psychological horror manga by Kyoko Okazaki, Helter Skelter (2012), directed by Mika Ninagawa, is a disturbing hyperstylised surreal drama depicting the chaotic life of manufactured superstar Lilico, who navigates the dark side of the fashion world. What lurks beyond the glamorous facade is portrayed as not only sad, but grim, and merging with the macabre. Whilst Lilico gradually delves into psychotic delusions, the film touches upon notions of transience, artificiality, the impact of stardom and its correlation with mental state deterioration, the identification of the self purely with the image and the (fluctuating and inevitably fading) success of the image, and the consequent predictable corruption of the soul.

Lilico, played by suitably controversial Erika Sawajiri, is an influential and highly appreciated Japanese supermodel whose beautiful appearance permeates the news, magazines, and minds of Japanese teenage girls who look up to and aspire to be her – or the idea of her. Behind the scenes and the smiles, she embodies a clear case of narcissistic personality disorder, her existence solely dictated by an insatiable ego which is fed by fame and dependent on the recognition of her physical beauty and success. In some ways, her life seems to be a heavenly dream that she just grows tired of: she is always found either revelling or agonising in aesthetic, lurid, and shiny surroundings, around people who satisfy her every whim. She lives in an alluring, luxurious, decadent place, where the colour palette is dominated by red, the vividness of the decor being reminiscent of Argento’s classic, Suspiria (1977).

Jaded, tragically cynical, shallow, and malicious, Lilico ends up being a toxic presence in the lives of the few people in her proximity, constantly undermining and treating her assistant harshly despite her blind devotion, and trying to sabotage others’ happiness. Her self-centred, vitriolic demeanour is counteracted by moments of vulnerability in which she drowns in her own dramatic sadness, as depicted in explicit shots finding her collapsed and lying motionless on the floor. Lilico is unhinged, oscillating between feeling on top of the world, completely apathetic, in total agony, and at times terrifyingly psychotic. The psychotic episodes unfold like visually stunning, distorted psychedelic nightmares, featuring blood rain, optical illusions, and ominous butterflies.

When another model enters the picture and seems to steal the spotlight, threatening her goddess status with her presence, Lilico is faced with the acute awareness of the flimsy quality of the fashion industry. Consumed by feelings of helplessness and resentment, she wants to destroy the new star, Kozue Yoshikawa, despite acknowledging the inherent ephemeral nature of modelling careers and the hunt for newness. However, since her numerous cosmetic surgeries are taking their toll as the clinic she went to is accused of suspicious conduct in their treatments, Lilico’s physical health diminishes and she ends up destroying herself and performing a shocking act in front of a myriad of cameras pointed at her- an act which, of course, involves the eyes.

Aesthetically, Helter Skelter is a hypnotic feast for the senses, which is unsurprising considering the director of the film is Mika Ninagawa, who has a background in commercial photography and a lurid, vividly-coloured signature photographic style. The message is transparent in this twisted, grotesque, yet highly aesthetic spectacle, namely a poignant and compelling critique of the fashion world, its objectifying nature, and the concept of stardom which encourages the cultivation of appearance over essence. The protagonist displays a perfect, glamourous, appealing image out into the world, whilst being rotten on the inside- both mentally and physically. Lilico is unequivocally damned, however not entirely responsible for her own damnation.

Review: John Santerineross – neo-symbolist photographer


hushJohn Santerineross
, considered a neo-symbolist photographer, creates dark, sinister, erotic imagery whilst focusing on conveying moods and evoking states of mind, an approach favoured by the symbolists in art in general. Neosymbolism explores mystical, emotional, spiritual, as well as sensual themes, the unconscious mind and dreams, metamorphoses of good and evil, the connection between image and soul, employing private and universal symbols. Santerineross’ inspiration springs from world religions & mythology, and his controversial profane tendency to combine sexuality- particularly alternative erotic imagery with religious iconography has attracted both admiration and criticism. Whilst in some photography magazines he has been called “the world leading Neo-symbolist artist“, Catholic League President William A. Donohue describes Santerineross’ as a nihilist and one of the “artistic assassins and moral anarchists who want to artistically assassinate Christianity, especially Catholicism“. Santerineross does not confirm or deny any statements or interpretations due to his belief that art should appeal to each viewer on a personal level; that they should define his art for themselves rather than being limited by an explanation, another view also held by the early symbolists.
The Symbolist manifesto (1886, by Jean Moréas) emphasises:
Truth in subjective experience. Truth in apparent chaos and insanity. Truth in excess and extravagance. The risk of what was once rebellious to become conformist.

john santerineross

 

Review: Mira Nedyalkova’s underwater photography

A selection of artworks from the stunning, eerie underwater photography collection by Bulgarian visual artist and fine art photographer Mira Nedyalkova.

Mira’s work depicts the beautiful facets of pain and sadness in fluid forms, whilst linking water with eroticism, as well as exploring the erotic in the light of the emotional and the aesthetic.

Water symbolism always makes us think of regeneration, purification, and catharsis – a reflection of the beginning and the end. Mira emphasises the dual dimension of water, symbolising sin and purity, as well as pleasure and innocence. The aquatic element has both generative and destructive powers; it can be life-giving and apocalyptic. Her models are depicted as otherworldly beings, seemingly frail, yet also dark and enigmatic. Water is also the essential element contributing to the surreal aesthetic of the pictures, since it changes the light, colour, and shapes in unexpected ways.

Mira Nedyalkova is, admittedly, not very interested in pure photography – as opposed to many photographers who praise raw analogue photographs for capturing unaltered moments, she recognises the creative and transformative power of post-processing and digital editing as a way of enriching photography, of creating something new, conveying an emotion, and telling a story. As a former painter, she now sees digital editing as a way of getting closer to painting again- digital painting.

 

Like many artists, Mira believes emotion is an essential part of a remarkable piece of art. Her view is epitomised in her stunning and memorable photographs, which often depict expressive, intense characters, as well as captivity, nudity, nature, fragile-looking animals, and subtle sexuality.