Playing and Reality
09.01. - 06.03.2016
The title of EJ Major’s show refers to a book written by psychologist Donald Winnicott and published in 1971, the year the artist was born. In the text, which has long drawn the artist’s interest, Winnicott investigates the role of play in both childhood and adult life and its connection to the development of the ‘true self’. Play in adulthood can be many things, including structured activity through sport or, more pertinent here, creative pursuits. For Major artistic activity is core to her sense of self and her mental wellbeing. There have long been ruminations on the relationship between artistic talent and mental health; one need only think of the notorious mental instability of Vincent van Gogh or the contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama. It seems there are people who simply have to make art; it is an inescapable calling which it is both wise and necessary to fulfil. Winnicott takes this to another level of observation, seeing play / creativity as an essential part of peoples’ identities, crucial for the key early development stages of a child but also for adults. Taking that as its overarching theme the work in this show explores this concept in a variety of ways. As the artist states: “Perhaps some of us need to make this continued 'play', this symbolic negotiation between ourselves and the world, our primary activity. Illusion may well be a defensive activity but it also gives space to the imagination and can be a catalyst for creativity. If 'play', no matter what form it takes, is fundamental to our sense of self, it then also follows that an absence of 'play' will result in insecurity and detachment from one's sense of self. Taken to its extreme this will lead to breakdown. My experience here is that without my practice being at the very centre of my every day existence, I gradually fall in on myself.” (1)
The performed self
In several series in this show the artist appears in the work including Marie Claire RIP (2004-2007), Shoulder to Shoulder (2009-2011) and her most recent works Every Day in November /When Nothing will Do (2015). You would not call any of these series self-portraits but more that the artist is the performer in the work. Once this is known by the viewer it of course significantly shifts the work’s meaning.
Marie Claire RIP was made in response to police mugshots taken of an anonymous woman’s descent into drug addiction. These images were then published in a glossy women’s magazine as part of a campaign to educate women, one assumes, that drug addiction can impact negatively on their appearance. Major’s response to what she found a troubling exposé of an unnamed individual was to meticulously recreate the series using herself as the subject. Working in her studio she spent a lot of time both in the pre and post-production stages of the work. In Major’s version we see what we first read as a set of images showing a woman’s gradual loss of control, only to realise that the woman we see is an artist in total control of her look, masquerading as another.
Shoulder to Shoulder grows from investigations into the photographic archives of the UK Suffragette movement. The women of this early political movement were keenly aware of the potential of photography as a means of media manipulation. Working in the early 1900s they were staging events that would often translate well into images that were then published in newspapers of the day. Harnessing the visual impact of their staged public acts they were photographed chaining themselves to railings outside public buildings; hurling themselves in front of horses in races and carrying out street demonstrations with banners. To get their message heard they were willing to shock polite society and the middle classes out of their complacency.
One act in particular, which in itself was not photographed at the time, involved a work of art and led to the temporary closure of the National Gallery in London. On Tuesday 14th March 1914 Mary Richardson attacked a painting: The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez. In the middle of the day, whilst the work was guarded by two gallery staff, the diminutive figure of Richardson took a small axe to the painting. She smashed the protective glass and furiously slashed the canvas. When stopped she was taken to London’s Holloway Prison, advocating the case of the Suffragette movement as she went.
E J Major’s work focuses on the moment before this act, where she stands in for Richardson and looks at the painting, wrestling with the decision of whether or not to commit the act. Talking about why she was drawn to the subject the artist states: “When Mary Richardson took an axe to The Rokeby Venus in 1914 it was not just the destruction of property; it was the destruction of a particular kind of property: art. Such an act unnerves me even in a context in which I believe in the struggle ie the Suffragette movement. It raises complicated questions regarding the making of art in relation to values, both economic and moral. It’s these contradictory responses that interest me and that inform my work.” (2)
Symbolically there is another layer that can be read into Richardson’s act which concerns the fact that the image she chose to attack showed a female figure – nude. This is a theme that Major addresses further in her work Venus Vanitas (2009), which forms part of the series Shoulder to Shoulder. In this re-staging of The Rokeby Venus the artist appears twice, along with her mother. Her mother’s face is reflected in the mirror, and the artist’s photoshopped nude figure appears in the foreground reclining and with her back to us. The artist then also appears dressed as a nurse holding the mirror and gazing at the reclining version of herself. In this work she is looking at three types of women familiar to us in traditional art – the older mother or Madonna figure; the slave / servant / nurse, and the young nude female body. The first two are asexual in the canon of classical art whereas the nude young female form is the desired sexualised object, the muse. This female form is seen so often in classical and traditional art as the object of the male artistic gaze that it becomes almost normal. As the US campaigning group The Guerilla Girls have often pointed out, there are more images of nude women on the walls of most major museums than female artists represented in their collections. They put this more punchily stating: Do women have to be naked to get into the Met? (3)
Feminist performance artists have, since the 1970s, used their own bodies as the subject of their work as a way to reclaim the female form. Taking it away from the male gaze, they literally insert themselves in the frame as a statement. Being both the artist and the model shifts the power dynamics of the image. It is this side of Performance Art that seems to still draw and have relevance to women artists, like Major, today. In both these earlier works the artist is using found photographs as the source of inspiration for her practice. Her more recent work Every Day in November/When Nothing Will Do, an installation in two parts, mines her own family and personal archive. Every Day in November refers to footage shot each day of November 2011, up to when the artist turned 40. The footage was compiled and exported as stills, a single frame per second. When Nothing Will Do refers to two films made of still images set in her family home in Malvern and also in her studio in London, taken between 2010 and 2013. Many of the stills in the film show Major staging the shots with her parents or her brother. We see glimpses of her family home and garage. The latter is full of boxes referring to her family’s peripatetic military lifestyle during the artist’s childhood. In this work she seems to be using her own story as a starting point for the piece. The work raises the question of who is in control as the artist shows us her at times clenched hand on the slow release button that will instruct the camera to take the shot. And yet there is a sense of claustrophobia in many of the images, as we are seeing a number of alternate selves at play.
With her parents she is in formal attire playing the role of dutiful daughter; in the garage we see her in a puffer jacket in a space of introspection and reflection looking less posed and looking less directly at the camera. The work seems to raise the question of family dynamics and to investigate how our identity is built up, with the help of photographs which seem to place us and are supposed to tell others who and what we are. But of course they do not tell the whole story of our complex shifts or the morphing of personality and character that happens in different situations during our lives. On one level the work appears to be more personal than previous series and yet on another it is no more revealing or confessional than any of her other works. Relating back to the title of the show we seem to see shifts represented in this work. On the one hand we see the artist in moments of solitude and despair, when her sense of self seems limited to fitting in with others in the family. Then a shift to moments of reflection, acting / performing in the landscape, through which the artist seems able to be her ‘true self’ as Winnicott would describe it.
Process and methodology:
There is a structure behind each of Major’s series, a conceptual process that is strictly adhered to. There appears to be a discipline to this which at times makes the work painful to view and, one expects, difficult to make. We bear witness to her own creative blocks and her emotional and psychological state during the production of her work. At times she is asking us to witness her suffering, in a way many artists have done before her. This is not masochistic or self violating in the way that the Viennese actionists were apt to be, yet there is a tension, an unease, in some of her works. Performing in street demonstrations in Shoulder to Shoulder was clearly not easy for her and equally in the stills in Every Day in November we see her again and again forcing herself to be photographed at a time of great emotional strain.
Often the methodical and painstaking process is at the heart of the work. Freezing each frame of the film and separating it out for us to see in Every Day in November or each second of the film Last Tango in Paris to make postcards for love is…(2004-2006) is not for the faint-hearted. There is an element of repetitive activity lying behind the work that seems more resonant of much older forms of artistic production. Months of time have gone into it and it is an almost perverse use of more recent camera technology, taking something of speed back to still images. Yet this slowing of speed and movement, and slippage between moving and still image, is a recurrent interest in her practice. As well as literally slowing the movement of the film, it makes us as viewers slow down and take note. Suddenly details and recurrent motifs that would have been background information in moving image become visual statements and gain greater significance.
For love is… Major introduced even more risk in her working process, as she handed it over to an anonymous public. Would anyone respond to her freepost postcard? Would their replies be interesting or banal? Could she trust others? Over 7000 postcards were hand delivered to people’s letterboxes across London and the West Midlands over two years. 451 were returned. The resulting project love is… proves to be testimony to the kindness and openness of some strangers and the open hostility provoked in others, with statements such as “seems like a self-centred ego trip”, “give up” or “you need to get a life mate”. It is interesting that even those annoyed by the request still felt compelled to participate and have become part of the project. In the work Major had set out realistic parameters. The participants could remain anonymous, though some chose not to, and many felt able to be candid and respond in the moment, perhaps caught off guard by the request. Coming together as a body of work it speaks of so much. Some responses to the question love is…
Carrying on without them
The whole point
Bloody hard to find – got a map?
An evolutionary oddity
A bit of a bastard
Part of the impact of the work, lost here but present in reproductions of it, is that the words are handwritten, and in many cases hand drawn, including personal annotations and illustrations. Letters and postcards are becoming antiquated anachronisms in our current culture. The British postal service delivers significantly fewer letters since email was developed. Today they mainly deliver parcels for internet shopping. Something significant may have been lost here when we consider how often we mediate our social memories and histories through first hand written accounts. Will those be replaced by blogs and Facebook pages in future? How will that alter what is said? We reveal much more visually today in our digital age but seem to say so much less in terms of communication.
The stills taken from the film Last Tango in Paris were the images shown on the front of each postcard. A film about love intertwined with erotica and sex, the work features the screen and cinematic icon Marlon Brando and the then 19 year old Maria Schneider. The film was about lovers who did not know each others names and when they do reveal personal details to each other it ends their relationship. Given its explicit sexual content it could be seen as a controversial film to choose. In some ways it undermines the notion of the Hollywood constructed love story; certainly the film does not have a happy ending. The comments on the postcards offer a very different sense of what love is. The tender and deeply personal responses, the humorous fleeting insights into anonymous strangers’ lives, transform this as a body of work into a very contemporary love story in itself.
Of course the postcard with ‘love is…’ as a prompt on the back is also about a connection between text and image. The collection of the returned postcards means the project is self-editing and when published in a book these responses become a narrative. The prompt for the participant may have been the image on the card or the open question written on the back. In talking about her work Major has asked the following questions: “Why do we tell stories? What stories are left to tell? How do we tell them?” In many ways her work is about interrogating narrative and in this work rupturing the original film authored by the Director Bernardo Bertolucci. Major quite literally tears the film’s chronology apart. But then there is also great love for the film, as the artist carefully relocates each image when returned and puts the postcards back into the narrative sequence of the film. This work more than her others seems to question the whole notion of authorship in artistic production. We, as readers and interpreters of the work, are as much the work’s authors as she as the artist; Bernardo Bertolucci the Director; as the actors or those that have written their replies. If the theme of the show is about play then this work in particular opens up that notion to a wide group of players and all of us are encouraged to take part. It is perhaps through the element of play in her work that Major is able to shed more light on our reality.