The contours of the girl blur. She is both becoming and fact. A rancor defines the split.
from “Violent Rooms,” A Gathering of Matter,
A Matter of Gathering, by Dawn Lundy Martin
I’m having a hard time beginning this piece. I’m not sure how to begin, or what to say, or if I can bring myself to say what needs to be said. In truth, I don’t want to begin.
I keep thinking of speaking, but the words are stuck. Trying to dislodge them I feel disturbed and the words stop coming. Then I have to beg them to come out.
When I was around fourteen, something happened to me–something both common and terrible–and my vision broke. (My voice broke, too.) There are other ways to describe what happened, but basically I did not see things the same way that I did after that.
First I was in the backseat of a car shaking my head and saying no. Then I was somewhere else entirely. My mind wandered far away. My vision became hazy. I was floating up somewhere toward the beige field, the ceiling.
Back in my bedroom, in my pajamas, I felt like I needed to take a shower. The day was beginning to dawn. I looked out from two blue windows. They occupied the wall’s upper quadrants. The panes were held by two frames, also blue. I had this feeling that I was inside someone else’s head, behind two glass eyes. Then everything became blurry again–blue and blurry–and I went to sleep.
Then, the anomaly in my vision would recur. Boundaries would soften and objects would lose their edges. This happened most often when I felt the weight of another body pressed on mine. But it could also happen when I was staring off into space, or looking up from a book, or looking out of a window.
Years later, I saw photographs from the series Ground (1994-1997) by the German, Los Angeles based photographer Uta Barth. For this early work–which consisted of both interiors and landscapes–Barth focused her camera on a point in the empty space between lens and background. The result is the unrendered atmosphere made apparent. What is unseen is the point. What is seen is the ground, so to speak. Her work is, she says, “perfectly in focus.”
Barth’s backgrounds blur; the colors bleed together. Light yellows turn to golden yellows, which turn seamlessly into chartreuses and darker greens. Gray floors grade into white walls.
Seen in Ground is the missing subject. Encountering the work, I felt the absented subject was myself.
The press release that accompanied Barth’s first show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in the winter of 1995 read, “With blurred, matte surfaces and apparently simple literal content, [the images] appear to be, following Roland Barthes, all punctum…”
All punctum. Barth’s images pierce .
Roland Barthes’s canonical 1980 text Camera Lucida consists of 48 short reflections on photography and its relationship to such states as love, desire, pity, madness, and mourning.
Often cited in regard to Camera Lucida is Barthes’ distinction between the studium –that in a photograph which is easy to see because it is culturally coded–and the punctum –the accidental detail that disturbs a person and is difficult to name. The punctum is that “which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me.)”
Punctum is a Latin word meaning “that which is made by pricking,” so among its many meanings are: a mark made by a point, a small hole, or a wound. It comes from the Greek word for trauma (τραύμα).
Thus, there is also a temporal aspect to the punctum as detail. Barthes writes, “sometimes…the punctum should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it.” He continues, “Ultimately–or at the limit–in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes.”
Having not ever been whole. Or simple. Or young. Just split and open. Not of it. For it.
In 2014, when I started seeing a therapist for the first time, I couldn’t have anticipated how I’d react to Teresa Eng’s Speaking of scars (2012). The book’s 50 color plates span a three-year period where Eng used photography “to process an experience that couldn’t be processed.”
The first image that follows the epigraph, a quote from J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (1999), is a tipped-in photograph of a hard object–its shape resembling a thick, blunt pencil–boring into an almond-colored vinyl. Where the the object meets the fabric, the fabric gathers, resisting.
This first image is pasted into the book so it lies on top of a portrait of a woman in a striped, green shirt. Her skin is roughly the color of the vinyl. Her face is covered by the preceding photograph. The object pierces an area around where her mouth would be, and the shadow it casts covers her exposed throat.
A viewer has to lift the first photograph to see the woman’s face (women’s faces are concealed throughout the book). The woman sits for the camera, front forward. One sleeve of her shirt has slipped a bit, revealing a single strap, a truncated black line on her shoulder.
What is compelling in this set of images is not that the woman’s face is obscured by the tipped-in photo, or even that the photo suggests violation, forced entry, and a woman’s silencing. The punctum is, for me, that the woman’s eyes appear closed, but they are in fact half-open, almost imperceptibly so.
There’s an analogue later in the book. A spread with two seemingly identical windows, one on each side. The blinds, translucent, are lowered. There’s an idea of a landscape outside. A wan light enters from the edges.
I was brought forcefully back to that pre-dawn day. Two windows, one on each side, two big glass eyes.
Trauma often repeats itself. Moreover, the traumatized person can re-experience the traumatizing event through flashbacks or what psychologists call “intrusive images.”
In my case, at sixteen, I woke up with a headache in a bed that wasn’t mine. Cold air blew in from a pair of open windows. (Why did the windows always show up in twos?)
And then, one morning, at twenty-three, I looked at myself in a mirror and my body was covered in bruises. The night before, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. When he woke, I said, “Please, stop.” He said I sounded playful. I cannot forget that.
A bedroom is supposed to be a place of rest. But some days, when I wake up and see my feet peeking out from beneath the sheets, I think that I am dead, in a morgue, that I have been murdered.
I think about how sexual assault has changed the way I perceive everyday occurrences, like a cell phone vibrating, like taking off my clothes, and everyday objects, like windows, and everyday spaces, like cars and bedrooms. Everything is fraught.
This friction is present in Jo Ann Callis’s photo of an empty bed in a yellow room. The rumpled sheet intimates a person has been there before who isn’t anymore. Three rolling blinds are down; one is peeking, spying. There’s a disquieting air. The angle and quality of the light bring to mind a crime scene.
Callis is perhaps best known for her sensuous, surreal, and tightly-choreographed color photos, and the image described comes from her book Other Rooms. Although only published in 2014, all the photos (save one) were taken between 1974 and 1978. Many were never seen before their publication. When Callis had her retrospective at the Getty in 2009, the curator asked if there were any images in her oeuvre she hadn’t shown. Callis said no; she acted as if the images “didn’t exist.” She said, “even at that time I just didn’t think this was appropriate to show.”
The photos in Other Rooms are a subversion of the male gaze; they are Callis’s take on fetish photography. The nude figures are bound by belts, strings, strips of cloth. Hands are held behind backs. There are heads out of frame (a formal decapitation) or faces covered with sheets or masks or face-down in pillows.
The photos are psychologically charged and engender a sense of possible danger. The boundary in them between what is pleasurable and what is painful, strange, or humiliating is thin and permeable. What is made manifest in Other Rooms is the latent anxiety in all spaces, in all bodies, in all gestures.
In another image, a woman stands in front of a peach-colored backdrop pinned to a wall. Her hands are behind her head. It’s the stance of a person about to be arrested. And yet her knee is bent: she is posing. Her body is tied up in strings that leave visible marks. She stands on a short square pedestal that bears resemblance to an oversized scale.
The photo, titled simply “Nude Facing Wall,” reminds me of the first segment of Martha Rosler’s video Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977) in which a woman is systematically measured and asked to undress. At the beginning, even before an image appears onscreen, over the black, a voiceover recites, “This is a work about coercion. Coercion can be quick, and brutal. That is the worst crime. Coercion can also extend over the whole of life. That is the ordinary, the usual crime.”
These past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about all the women who have come forward with their stories. I’ve been thinking about what they’ve had to suffer in hotel rooms, in classrooms, in bedrooms, in boardrooms. I’ve been thinking about how tragic it is to learn so early that no space is safe for women, that the world does not belong to us, that it is not for us, that there is potential for gender-based violence all around us.
“I was called to meet”
“when I was 17”
“He said… let’s go up to the room.”
“As soon as I was in there, I realised it was a terrible mistake.”
“He asked me if I was good.”
“I wanted to flee… He told me that I looked stressed”
“I said no, a lot of ways, a lot of times”
“Everything suddenly turned dark.”
I’ve been thinking of the images seared in: cream-colored leather, glass and metal, reddish-purple clouds, an oak tree, a chain-link fence, a field, a dead-end street, a house, silent. The words used, the pleading, the alarming mix of desire and disdain, the quick removal of clothing, the shame, the silence. Even now. How difficult it is to speak. Those two windows.
Callis has said that her images function more like Rorschach tests–what you see in them, or fail to see, is ultimately what’s revealing.
There’s another set of images in Teresa Eng’s book–a tipped-in photo of hands holding an inkblot glued over a woman’s face. Lift the photo and reveal her tilted head resting on her fist. Her ears are pierced. A single earring catches the light. What does she see? Follow her gaze diagonally down the frame and you might notice the background in soft-focus. The white picture frame moulding doesn’t quite meet the floor as much as it bleeds gently into it.
As friends and strangers have been using the refrain, “Me too,” a part of our culture is coming into sharp focus. Powerful men are being exposed as serial rapists and molesters and harassers. This moment is long overdue, as women have known this to be our reality for forever. It is in the air we breathe. Yet I have seen some men express genuine shock at the pervasiveness of the abuse.
In the Journal of Contemporary Art in 1997, Uta Barth spoke eloquently on the condition of blur: “It is part of our everyday vision and perception, yet for the most part we are not very aware of it, as our eyes are constantly moving and shifting their point of scrutiny. We do not “see” it unless we make a conscious effort to observe the phenomenon.”