Project Series 10: Anne Bray and Molly Cleator
March 10 - April 8, 2001
Opening Reception: Sunday, April 1, 3-5 PM
For over ten years, Los Angeles artists Anne Bray and Molly Cleator have collaborated on large-scale installations that investigate issues surrounding gender, power, community, and one's place in our mass mediated society. The artists emphasize their contrasting backgrounds and points of view-Bray, as a public and installation artist, and Cleator, as a visual and performance artist-to examine and explore the often contradictory relations between the powerful and the powerless. Bray and Cleator use multimedia installations to reclaim and recombine stereotypes and archetypes through image and sound. For this exhibition, they expanded upon several previous pieces that used female figures juxtaposed with both personal and media-derived imagery to examine still unresolved conflicts about women, culture, and history.
In Pressure Drop, the artists literally placed the viewer underneath the room-sized skirt of a woman. Video imagery continually projects on the woman's body, her skirt, and on the wall behind her. Catalogue essayist Holly Willis points out that the artists invite us "to step into a space that is both comforting and totally taboo; it is at once much ado about nothing and the source of everything." As the inflated lower torso and legs of the woman's body expands and deflates-powered by a timed series of noisy fans-she struggles to stand up and resist the overwhelming force of the dominant culture's images projected on her and then falls to her knees exhausted. At the same time, her awesome scale, the beautiful materials of her skirt, and her powerful voice protest her victimhood.
For Bray and Cleator, video projection physically and conceptually addresses many of the issues they are concerned with. Most obviously, perhaps, is the reference to ideas of psychological "projection." Per Freudian and Jungian philosophies, one could say that all art is the artist's "projection" of deep-seated fears, taboos, desires, etc.; that the audience then "projects" their own issues and beliefs onto. On another level, in Pressure Drop, Bray and Cleator have chosen a three-dimensional, empathetic screen for their projections, in contrast to the traditional Hollywood movie's flat screen. The changing shape of the projected image-a time-based medium-and the body imply that there is no singular reality, no one decisive moment. Bray and Cleator also think of this installation-this "woman"-as a round peg trying to fit into a square hole, noting that women may fit into the "square" hole, but there are gaps between the perceived realities.
The video images stem from an extensive research trip Bray and Cleator took last summer to investigate their family histories. Bray videotaped the images of the whitewasher and the weedwacker on the same day in Ireland. The whitewasher scrubs as he paints the white body of the woman; the artists ask, "isn't this redundant? Isn't she pure enough?" The artists also address "whiteness" with such ideas as the contemporary art gallery as a "white cube," the dominant "white race," the psychological implications of a blank "white screen," and an empty "white canvas" only completed by an artist's marks.
The artists placed the video imagery of the green weedwacker on the wall behind the woman, forcing the audience to look through her skirt to see him. The weedwacker continually cuts down Queen Anne's lace and wild roses with his gas-powered machine. His containment and destruction of nature reflects the unease with which our patriarchal culture views nature and femaleness. Ideas of "nature," like the "feminine," have often been viewed by our society as uncontrollable and threatening; in opposition to the superiority of the intellect, expressed through "culture" and here signified by the weedwacker. In this discourse, woman is seen as land to be contained and as property to be annilihated. Bray and Cleator critique this masculinist ideology and represent these issues in a way that affirms their celebratory values and feminist priorities.
The exhibition of work by Anne Bray and Molly Cleator was the tenth in Montgomery Gallery's Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts. During each exhibition, participating artists work with faculty and students in relevant disciplines.
Welcoming their differences in age, background, outlook, and even discipline, artists Anne Bray and Molly Cleator have built a body of work founded on contradiction. Early on, they pledged themselves to exploring their amusingly complete and utter dissimilarities (one likes tea, the other coffee; one is from the East Coast, the other from the West; one favors the intuitive, the other the cerebral; and so on). As a result, their collaborative practice-embodied in bold video/performance pieces exploring power, the role of media, and the very ability to express critical ideas-has always brought together the personal and political, the theoretical and practical. Rather than assuaging the contrasts, Bray and Cleator have exacerbated them. They push against each other and, in the collision of scabrous differences, find places for fruitful contention and dialogue.
Schooled in the traditions of conceptual art, feminist art, and postmodern theory, Bray and Cleator met in 1983 when they found themselves on opposite sides of a wall dividing a studio space. They both had been enrolled in the New Forms and Concepts Program in the Art Department at UCLA, and Bray was working in video and public art, while Cleator was doing performance and installation work. Both were interested in very tangible social issues, but Bray tended to approach them intellectually, while Cleator worked from her gut, looking at the world from a perspective that would acknowledge an embodied, visceral response in tandem with the theoretical. Shouting back and forth to each other across the wall, they eventually uncovered the stunningly long list of divergences between them, and realized that these fundamental contrasts might form an interesting foundation for collaboration.
And indeed, they have. Over the last decade, the pair have built a remarkable body of work that mines very real social issues with intelligence and wit. Take their installation Easy Chair, Electric Chair (1992), for example. The piece incorporates two electronically rigged wheelchairs with small monitors situated to seem like heads of otherwise invisible people. Cleator's face adorns one, and Bray's appears on the other. The chairs whirl and twirl in the exhibition space, with sensors and software determining their direction. The onscreen faces speak, offering competing riffs on television. Overall, the conjunction of video, performance, and installation nicely embodies the principles under scrutiny. The wheelchairs are like strange cyborgs, unusual amalgams of human and machine that forcefully illustrate the influence of media, suggesting that it speaks as much through us as to us. And yet the piece also asserts a way of slipping into a position of power, of stepping into the frame and becoming the revered spokesperson. But the key to the piece is in the dueling commentaries. They are interesting in themselves, but more importantly, they offer two diametrically opposed points of view that are similar only in their shared description of alienation.
With their 1994 piece titled What Can I Say? Bray and Cleator continued to limn the powers of contradiction when they questioned their own attitudes about economic power, invisibility, and the institutional role played by wealthy women, by working directly with supporters of Los Angeles art museums. Mixing their own perspectives with those of their wealthy subjects, most of whom remain completely invisible in the circuit of power and control that rules the exhibition scene, Bray and Cleator brought to the foreground an uncomfortable side of power. Although these women wield a certain degree of power due to their social and financial status, as older, white, wealthy women they are also ignored or deemed fundamentally uninteresting. Once again, Bray and Cleator explored the tension between their disparate points of view, pondering the spectrum of personal responses to these women, as well as the political perspective that would so utterly silence them.
In more recent projects, the pair have begun to consider the idea of projection, both in the filmic sense and also in a more philosophical manner. In Double Burning Jagged Extremities (1998), for example, three large, billowy female dolls seem to rise up on a slow intake of air, and then deflate in exhaustion with its release. On their tremendously tall bodies, Bray and Cleator project a series of appropriated movie images showing women being brutalized, creating an extraordinarily visceral scene that is all the more potent because of its size and immediacy. In their abundance and shared codes, the snippets of film footage confirm the frightening circulation of cruelty, and in their projection on the female forms, become a manifestation of the ways in which the female's role is precisely to act as a screen or place-holder for the identity projected onto her. The dolls designate the blank nothingness attributed to the category of the female. It is perhaps no mistake, then, that a performance version containing this piece in 2000 was titled Weight and Volume, offering a connection to Luce Irigaray's essay Volume-Fluidity. Irigaray's scathing article describes a system of hysterical fantasy that relegates feminine subjectivity to nondifferentiation and nothingness. "She is patient in her reserve, her modesty, her silence," writes Irigaray, "even when the moment comes to endure violent consummation, to be torn apart, drawn and quartered..."
Irigaray's portrait might also illuminate Bray's and Cleator's Dis Miss War Party (1999), a brilliant piece of media manipulation that uses four video projectors, a live sound mix by A.R.M. (incorporating sampled medieval chants and Elizabethan lute and drum grooves), and a disco ball. Pairing images of the tortured heroine from Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc with images from the more recent film Elizabeth, Bray and Cleator show how the narratives of both female figures begin in the same place, with an incredibly powerful female caught in a system that does not know what to do with her; but these narratives gradually diverge. One woman's life culminates in torture and death, while the other's becomes a pageant of highly codified, aestheticized displays of power. The impact for the audience in seeing the incremental parting of ways onscreen in some ways embodies Bray's and Cleator's entire project-what do viewers do when faced with this sort of total opposition? While we may feel inclined to bring them together, to find closure or a solution that will reconcile the two extremes, Bray and Cleator instead urge us to contemplate the space in-between.
With their current project, Bray and Cleator use the fruits of an extensive research trip taken last summer to continue exploring issues of power and representation. The piece invites viewers to move under the skirt of a gigantic female, on top of which are projected video and photographic images. We step into a space that is both comforting and totally taboo; it is at once much ado about nothing and the source of everything. Indeed, with this new installation, Bray and Cleator have found an incredibly rich terrain. There are the obvious cultural references-think of the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe holding down her fluttering dress (and later unsuccessfully fending off an infuriated, jealous Joe DiMaggio, who beat her badly), for example. Or consider the myth of Baubo, the playful goddess who inspired a grieving Demeter to smile by pulling up her skirt and offering a flash of her vulva. One might even find a connection to Plato's cave, a womb-like cavity illuminated by phantom, illusory projections. There is also the very daunting threat of seeing what Freud described as a wound, and what Lacan designated as nothing but absence, lack, nothingness. And indeed, Bray and Cleator are flirting with the very core of gender and representation, inviting us to cross back and forth over the boundary between the visible and invisible, and to reckon with our own cultural phantoms and the fundamental fear that what we will discover is precisely the unrepresentable. But don't expect resolution! Bray and Cleator remain committed to their contrary natures even here; in place of a singular point of view, we find once again a sometimes contentious, sometimes exhilarating multiplicity and contradiction.
Holly Willis is the editor of RES, a magazine devoted to digital filmmaking, music video, broadcast design and Internet cinema. She writes frequently on video art and experimental filmmaking.