Wednesday, 15 September 2004

Paulette Phillips: The Secret Life of Criminals

Like a kaleidoscope the image multiplies, distorts and blends beyond recognition. In The Secret Life of Criminals (2000) the reflected video images of contortionist Jinny Jacinto’s impossibly malleable legs twist and spiral up the inside of the cone and stretch until they seem to touch your nose. You are literally sucked into this woman’s world, which is both familiar yet also so alien. Comprised of a stainless steel cone mounted over a small LCD screen, The Secret Life of Criminals has the appearance of a laboratory experiment. The viewer participates, looking through the cone at a putative criminal (as the title of this work invites you to believe) and becomes part of this experiment, to become both the investigator and the investigated, to lean over and look through the cone to see, and to become part of the image.

* * *

Writer, performer, filmmaker, videographer, installation artist: Paulette Phillips has combined the varied facets of her art practice of twenty years to create The Secret Life of Criminals – a series of video installations that marry short dramatic performances and staged scenarios with the texture and three dimensionality of installation sculpture. The “apparatus of delivery” as Phillips call it – the projectors, the screens and supports – are the physical component of her work. These objects are not a mere media “means to an end” but are integral to her shaping our apprehension of her work. The apparatus of delivery is by turns disruptive or expressive, either confounding our habits of viewing or extending the metaphors and symbols of the recorded drama into real space.

Phillips's video installations disrupt traditional narrative structures and collapse the comfortable space we place between ourselves and the fictions we are invited to consider. Her fictions are, however, only half that – they are true stories heard, events seen and felt, investigations without resolution – facts that live large as both individual and collective apprehensions of the world.

Influenced by the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht, and by contemporary theories of narrative, each work by Phillips is an essay into the space of the viewer.[1] Each work is an attempt to blur the line between the observer and the observed, to compromise the viewer, to destabilize the leering, judgmental gaze and to engage us as inherently prurient – as both voyeurs and a co-authors of the tragedies played out before us. Phillips invites us into scenarios and dramas and sculptural environments that penetrate our contentment and direct us to recall the source of our own compulsive narratives and adult anxieties. The viewer is never allowed the luxury of turning out the lights, to slump down in the anonymity of a dark viewing room to empathize with some tragic narrative, or to be swept away by the artful evocation of sublimity. We are instead constantly recalled to our physical circumstance, to our own position as observers and participants in the spectacle before us.

* * *

It is obviously staged, but that seems not to matter. The image is appalling just the same. “It’s about how people judge appearance” (2000) is a flat panel video monitor, built into the wall and framed in pink faux ostrich skin leather. On screen, a woman walking in an alley approaches the concrete base of a loading dock. She deliberately, and with considerable force, proceeds to smash her own head against it. The camera follows her from the left as she steadies herself on the adjacent wall with her right arm and focuses on the concrete.

She is visibly counting:
One, she inclines forward, then pulls back.
Two, she inclines forward more strongly and again pulls back.
Three, she leans back sharply at the waist, closes her eyes and launches herself head-first into the concrete.

The action is accompanied by a sound – something like a pumpkin smashing or a watermelon dropped from a height – a sound that is very credibly that of a skull being crushed.

Phillips’s unfortunate heroine bounces off the wall and the camera changes angle. We see her from the front now. She recoils and slumps to her knees with a bloody gash on her head. Steadying herself, she struggles to stand up, touching her hand to the wound. Phillips doesn’t leave it at that, however. She plays out the scene twice more in different edits, before it is looped to begin again. You watch the loop once, twice, maybe three times before it becomes too much, and then you turn away. But of course the image remains.

Real and enacted violence directed at others is an ancient form of entertainment. Codified in folklore and myth, perfected as spectacle in the Roman games, rationalized as a source of wealth in professional sports and now a multi-billion dollar corporate industry of film, television and electronic games, the representation of outwardly directed violence is an expression of the commonly held inner desire to strike out and to be decisively effective. We want to become super heroes. We recognize in our emotional responses to violence a primal desire for domination, a fantasy of freedom from coercion and an escape from feelings of powerlessness. Violence as spectacle plays a redemptive role in our popular culture and it is as American as apple pie, as Canadian as maple syrup, as common as dirt.

The image of a woman smashing her head against a wall remains indelible (forget the fact that she gets up and walks away in the end – this does not let her, or us, off the hook), as do many of Paulette Phillips’s images, because that violence is self-inflicted. Self-directed violence, lacking the conventional de-sublimating energies associated with striking out, isn’t widely consumed as entertainment. Buffoons and tragic heroes don’t inflict injury on themselves – their injury is unintentionally the result of foolish neglect or unavoidable fate. We laugh at the buffoon, a subtle maliciousness, not far from violent fantasies of superiority and domination. We identify with tragic heroes mawkishly, as valiant characters like ourselves – comrades with whom we bravely, and at great sacrifice, strive against all odds.

Clearly, “It’s about how people judge appearance.” recounts an unpleasant truth. Phillips’s troubling image illustrates how far these fantasies of domination are from the lives we lead. Neither heroes nor buffoons, our demons are invisible and complex, as much the product of our own minds as invading foreign bodies. We pathologically internalize and nurture our psychic pain, obsess over our shortcomings, nurse our emotional injuries and repeatedly act out our dysfunctional narratives. The subject lashes out, not at some other poor soul, but against the self, inflicting harm as a means of making emotional pain physical and visible – stimulating pain and denying pleasure to generate feeling and to stave off existential emptiness and hollowness.

Self-inflicted violence is an acting out of the text, “I feel like bashing my head against a wall,” or “I want to injure myself,” or even the milder and seemingly innocuous, “I want to deny myself pleasure.” It is not a frustration against the outside, it is a revolt of the inside. Even if it doesn’t present itself in such dramatic terms as head bashing, it may be more commonly manifest in, say, the refusal to participate in something that might be pleasurable or beneficial, or risky behaviour that verges on the reckless.

On another level, Phillips’s protagonists are invariably female, part of the profile of the typical victim of self-directed violence. Making bad choices and repeat offending is clearly a universal malaise, but the particular masochism of self-injury represented by Phillips in her work speaks to us of a pathology most often associated with women and victims of sexual abuse. Andrea Dworkin provides a troubling narrative to this particular gender dysphoria:

The female life-force itself is characterized as a negative one: we are defined as inherently masochistic; that is, we are driven toward pain and abuse, toward self-destruction, toward annihilation – and this drive toward our own negation is precisely what identifies us as women. In other words, we are born so that we may be destroyed. Sexual masochism actualizes female negativity, just as sexual sadism actualizes male positivity.[2]

Or maybe not. Dworkin’s pessimism leaves out the possibility for agency and makes all women out to be victims, while Phillips marvels at the motivation of her protagonists – that they are not frozen by their lives but moved to act in such a dramatic, if self-destructive, fashion.

* * *

            O sublime Goddess! O naked oneness!
            What is the meaning of your nakedness?
            Are you shameless, Divine Lady?
            Yet even when discarding
            royal silks, and golden ornaments
            for earrings, bracelets, and anklets
            fashioned from human bone,
            you retain the dignity of bearing
            suited to the daughter of a king.[3]

In the video installation Ecstasy, (2001) two asynchronous videos follow the progress of a woman walking in a snowy and barren industrial lot. Presented on a glass shelf, the image on the left is projected on its surface from above, while on the right another image appears on an adjacent LCD which sits in a depression in the glass. The projected image on the left focuses on the woman’s journey, while the LCD images follow the ground, passing over the snow and the rocks and the stalks of dead grasses that crunch underfoot. The LCD image feels like a monitor – it operates the way our eyes scan the ground, like an extension of the self, a material sensor for where we are in the world. The projection, by contrast, feels like a narrative or a myth. It has the warm glow of the projected image, a reality even more ephemeral than the hardwired LCD screen.

We follow the image of the woman in the heavy coat and hood who emerges from the tall reeds. She tosses her hood back and loosens her coat to hang from her shoulders, and then to slide down her arms. She pulls the coat tightly around her, takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, then kneels down, pressing her forehead into the snow. She rolls on to her back, gathers fistfuls of snow on to herself, then spreads her arms and legs to make a snow angel.

We watch her get up, slip off her coat, carefully fold it and place it on the ground. She removes her gloves and boots, places them beside her coat and begins to walk again, untying her hair and shaking it out. She removes her dress, her tights and her underwear, and lies down on her side in the snow, where she remains motionless. The LCD on the right holds this image – an image of a reclining (or is it recumbent?) woman who is “nude” and who seems to have become part of the landscape, while the projected image frames from above a woman who is “naked,” lying in the snow, zooming in on the head, zooming out, zooming in again like the subject of some television homicide drama, then panning the ground and the milkweed pods and the sky to begin the loop again. On the right and left the images overlap at the point where the woman and the ground appear to have become one.

Presenting the two images on the shelf, Phillips makes this narrative at once mythic and intimate. She illustrates a story the way one might imagine it taking place. She illustrates the prosaic detail of the woman making a snow angel. She undresses – not in a theatrical manner, but as one would undress before bed, privately, at the same time folding clothes and putting them away. As spectators and voyeurs we lean over the table on which this story is played out for us, shifting our attention from left to right and back again, from the mythic narrative on the left to the physical detail – “what it known” – the discovery of a body, her neatly folded clothes, and the cold hard ground which has become the theatre for this final sleep.

As a eight year old child in Halifax, the report of the discovery of the body of a naked woman in a nearby wood lot profound impact on Phillips. Decades later she researched the unexplained death of Joyce Belliveau, a woman who, according to some accounts, was “known to take off her clothes.” Like Phillips’s protagonist in It’s about how people judge appearance, her mythic heroine in Ecstasy is pushed (or pushes) to the edge of her existence, the place where life and its absence are closest. If the former work makes reference to clinical self-inflicted violence and masochism, the latter is less clear. Is Joyce Belliveau the author of her demise, or a victim? Was her walk in the snow as Phillips imagined it, or is this just a convenient fiction fabricated to make a terrible reality comprehensible? Marginalised, dislocated, dispossessed, Phillips’s heroine is, perhaps, a woman who, abandoned by the world, simply returned to the earth.

            O Mother of the Universe,
            this child is terrified by your naked truth,
            your unthinkable blackness, your sheer infinity.
            Please cover your reality with a gentle veil.[4]

* * *

“It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded – as it were, ‘oceanic’.”[5]

Windows, picture frames and video screens are portals between physical and psychic spaces. We look through windows to connect to other worlds. As a literary convention, the view from the window can establish the space for the first person narration of the memory of another time and place, or of a dream. So it is that Paulette Phillips’s video projection, The Floating House (2002), begins with the view of a bay as if one were looking out a kitchen window. Across the water, on a drizzly overcast day, a small clapboard house with a brand new cedar-shingled roof drifts into view. It passes in and out of the picture frame in a series of edits – sometimes closer, sometimes further away. A droning cymbal and voices – children and adults – and the chirping and squawking and barking of animals accompany the house on its voyage.

The image of the floating house engages two large metaphors of feeling. Houses, frequently the subject of children’s art, are often understood as a representation of the self. The representation of the house – its structure, functionality and stability – may be an indication of a fragmented or integrated personality and may reveal feelings of well being or fears of loss, exposure or dysfunction. Water can mean many things, but it is often symbolized as either a source of life or its all-consuming opposite – deep, dark and unfathomable nature. Water can trigger deep fears of engulfment, submersion and drowning. In Phillips’s work, water clearly plays both roles. A house floating on the water is both a dream and a disaster. It is a dream of freedom, of disembodiment – to float buoyantly, aimlessly, to be part of the world, to be in the world, but detached and above it at the same time. Rootless, adrift, the floating house is the ego in full flight from necessity, a meditative state perhaps, like that of a dervish, a feeling of eternity, like Rolland’s “oceanic” state to which Sigmund Freud makes reference.[6]

The house comes into closer focus and we can observe the details in the windows. The window coverings move in the wind in a ghostly fashion, as though someone is pulling them aside to look out, and we scour the windows anxiously for signs of life. The sound track suggests the sounds of a family life that may have once fill this home. The building lists forward perilously, as the water reaches up to the bottom of the window sash. The camera tracks around the structure and the gentle bobbing feeling gives way to a slow but powerful spinning. The water appears choppier, darker, menacing, and the windows begin to fill with water.

In the first part of the video, the house gently bobs across the bay. There is something magical and slightly absurd about this house that is cut loose from its foundations to be carried by the current. Quickly, however, the aimlessly drifting house appears to be have been sucked into a whirlpool. The water changes from buoyant and supporting to ravaging and consuming.

The absurdity of a house floating languidly in a bay calls to mind the similar, strangely beautiful absurdity of the woman in Ecstasy who removes her clothes to lie naked in the snow. Like the way we unconsciously touched our hand to our foreheads after watching It’s about how people judge appearance, we root for the little house, identify with it – feel a sinking feeling as we watch it fill up with water and discharge its human artifacts to float on the surface. It seems only natural to identify with it as a container of human feeling.

But for a brief moment all logic is suspended and we imagine that these things are not only possible, but also desirable. We are children again. We can cut loose our ties to the earth and drift away. We can shed our clothes and play naked in the snow. Then we are seized as Phillips’s protagonists are engulfed by their fate. We are consumed by their demise the way we are transfixed by any disaster, no matter where it takes place. We watch, not because we love to, but because we feel we must. We watch, because we are implicated as both conspirators and victims. We watch because we are part of this laboratory experiment. We watch because the creator and the destroyer demands it.

Is my Mother Kali really black?
People say Kali is black,
But my heart doesn't agree.
If She's black,
How can she light up the world?
Sometimes my Mother is white,
Sometimes yellow, blue, and red.
I cannot fathom Her.
My whole life has passed trying.
She is Matter,
Then Spirit,
Then complete Void.[7]

Gordon Hatt, 2004


[1]. Cf. Among others Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill, 1977, where it is suggested that a narrative is an ‘intransitive’ function, and that insofar as any meaning is to be made, it is made by the reader, not by the ‘author’.
[2]. Andrea Dworkin, Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics, 1975. <>.
[3]. Kali is "The hungry earth, which devours its own children and fattens on their corpses . . . It is in India that the experience of the Terrible Mother has been given its most grandiose form as Kali. But all this and it should not be forgotten is an image not only of the Feminine but particularly and specifically of the Maternal. For in a profound way life and birth are always bound up with death and destruction." Elizabeth U. Harding, Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, Nicolas Hays: 1993. <> and Rama Prasada, Devotional Songs: The Cult of Shakti, (1718-75), published in 1966 by Sinha Pub. Calcutta.
[4]. Ibid.
[5]. Sigmund Freud, citing his famous correspondence with Romain Rolland in Civilization and its Discontents, 1930. <>.
[6]. Ibid.
[7]. Kamalakanta Bhattacharya (1769-1821).

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