Abigail Child’s Mirror World: Feminist Reflections
The miracle-making of digital manipulation: from Peter Greenaway to Abigail Child
miracle (n) \ˈmir-i-kəl\ (1) in theology, an event or effect that apparently contradicts known scientific laws and is hence thought to be due to supernatural causes, especially to an act of God; (2) a wonder or wonderful thing; and (3) a wonderful example.1
The above interpretations of miracle will be the locus of the following discussion of art, truth finding, and feminism. Beginning with Peter Greenaway’s 2009 installation of Paolo Veronese’s Wedding at Cana, I will explore the notion of a miracle created by the mechanical use of digital manipulation. Not only is Greenaway’s artwork a thing that stirs wonder but it is also a wonder-ful example of digital manipulation and – through Veronese’s own mirror – an example of religious instruction, inviting such questions as: what is at the center of the painting and of the installation? What is at the center of the miracle that is depicted in these two representations? The answer to these questions is an iconoclastic reflection on the nature of seeing, thinking, and believing.
Recognizing this mirroring as the source of Peter Greenaway’s iconoclasm provides a frame for understanding Abigail Child’s miracle-making. She is equally iconoclastic, both as a poet and as a filmmaker, but in an explicitly feminist sense. Her artwork – which can be understood as a wonderful thing to look at and a wonderful example – is “an event or effect that apparently contradicts known [patriarchal] laws and is hence thought to be due to [feminist] causes.” What is compelling about her films is that, just like a performed miracle, they are never solely abstract: “The objects are manipulated, moved in front of one another in an exploratory fashion, and we are invited to see in the film how meaning is constructed, to examine how we make our illusions, how we can know our history”2 – more specifically, how we can know our history as women.
At the 2009 Venice Biennale, the talk of the town was Peter Greenaway’s third addition to the “Nine Classical Paintings Revisited” series: The Wedding at Cana. In a marriage of High Renaissance painting and advanced technology, theatrical illusion and formal dissection, Greenaway projected a full-scale replica of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana onto and around the great rear wall of the Benedictine refectory on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Why was this installation so striking? Was it because of the life that digital lighting infuses in the painting by renewing its colors? Was it because of its synesthetic nature? Was it to see this painting magically restored to its original location – where it had not been seen since 1797? Or was it the intrinsic beauty of Veronese’s painting? Since time immemorial, images, music and words have mesmerized audiences with their aura; yet, when it is digital manipulation that performs the miracle, there seems to be an invisible magician at work, almost a deus ex machina extending human abilities and perceptions into the realm of the supernatural, shedding light on the unconscious as a conscious process.
Not new to such soulful and social interrogations, and to formal and spatial parsing of the image, word, and sound, Abigail Child, dea ex machina of a complex set of digital manipulations, has consistently and successfully experimented with the powerful art of frames and their relation to content, whether the frame in question is the black box of a monitor; or the passe-partout of a painting around a moving image; or the frame of a billboard onto which a film has been projected, as in the case of her work at the 2002 Viennale International Festival. Frames, as the quintessence of visual art, and in particular of cinematic art, provide a supple palimpsest for narratives. In the case of Greenaway’s re-presentation of The Wedding at Cana, for instance, we identify a variety of concentric frames enclosing multiple narratives:
The Venice Biennale provides a cultural frame for the installation to take place; the island of San Giorgio Maggiore offers a natural frame wherein the space of the Benedictine refectory, designed by Palladio, becomes the perfect structure and frame for Peter Greenaway’s digital installation (that is exactly where Veronese’s original hung between 1562 and 1797, when Napoleon had it taken down, cut up and carted back to Paris as war booty, thus creating another frame and another space – that of the Louvre Museum, in France – in which to view the original painting). Through technological means, Greenaway’s installation at the Venice Biennale (part of his larger project for the “Nine Classical Paintings Revisited”) frames Veronese’s Wedding at Cana, and Veronese’s original painting provides a pictorial frame for the Biblical story of Jesus’ first miracle. At the center of it all is the turning of water into wine, a miracle and a mystery that, in this continuous unfolding of Chinese boxes and artistic re-circulation, brings us back to Greenaway’s own miracle: the transformation of Veronese’s classic work. Turning water into wine is the subject at the center of the frames; yet, the subject and content of the art becomes the form and the art itself because the act of creating a product out of something else is exactly what artists do. Greenaway’s installation is, therefore, a self-reflection on the transformative power of art: as Jesus transforms water into wine, so Veronese transforms a blank canvas into artwork, and so Greenaway transforms the blank wall of the Benedictine refectory into the colorful replica of Veronese’s famous painting. They are both a kind of miracle, a thing to be seen (from the Latin mirari), to be wondered at.
If the symbolic center of these visual narratives is the idea of Jesus’ first miracle, the figurative center of Veronese’s painting – and, by default, of Greenaway’s installation – is not the miracle itself, but the couple at the center of the table. They are commanding the screen and the canvas and would appear to be the bride and bridegroom of Cana’s wedding party, while the jugs of water turning into wine – the miracle proper – appear on the margins of the composition. There would seem to be nothing wrong with the idea of the bride and bridegroom being central to the figurative narrative, as they are so positioned in many other artistic representations of the Biblical story. What is strange here is that the bridegroom appears to be Jesus. Veronese is taking the traditional narrative of Jesus’ first miracle and creating his own (iconoclastic) story of Jesus’ wedding, thereby subverting religious convention. In other words, he transforms a traditional narrative into an iconoclastic one. Greenaway builds upon it, using Veronese’s “footage,” and expanding the project. The miracle, in this sense, turns on its head as “an event or effect that apparently contradicts known religious laws.”
Abigail Child’s miracle-making is of the same iconoclastic nature: she transforms (often traditional) found footage into new narratives, while stressing the importance of the social function of art. In her filmmaking, social, aesthetic and cultural forces create new forms of trouble for the viewer: borrowing Judith Butler’s notion of “troubling,” one could define Child’s practices as a way to open up the field of possibilities without dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized. Abigail Child explicitly adopts the theoretical, critical, and political stance that to question how thought is thought, or how remembering is remembered, is in and of itself an important practice for attending to regimes of truth. Transformations and revelations are essential to her art: from form to content, from past to present, from word and sound to image, from genre to gender, from montage to installation, her moving images poignantly reproduce the miracle of transformation, from a feminist perspective.
In the installation of Mirror World (2009), the mystery of the trinity is performed in an oppositional secular mode. Child drives at the heart of the matter. As it was religious precepts that helped deepen the hold of patriarchy, Child establishes the influence of new perspectives by exposing and deconstructing such precepts. As a filmmaker, she wishes to extend human abilities and perceptions into the realms of the mechanical and the supernatural. As a feminist filmmaker, she wishes to extend to women the (human) rights that are already enjoyed by men.
In Mirror World, three screens showing different moving image works (To and No Fro ; Mirror World ; Dark Dark ) transubstantiate into one uniform installation. Arranged as a typical medieval church triptych, with the central frame being bigger than the other two on each side, this film installation, too, is a self-reflection on the transformative power of art – of art as a feminist practice. To begin with, the title of Mirror World is an important signifier, as mirrors signal the magical correspondence between an object and its copy, between art and reality, between oneself and one’s own soul, or equality between woman and man. In Child’s three-dimensional installation the eyes of the author are reflected into those of the viewer, and sometimes caught by the gaze of the actors alternating on the screen, in a never-ending and egalitarian mirroring cycle and re-cycling of images. In a large room three projectors are placed in front of three white screens. As soon as the switches are on, the white screens are turned into moving images, black-and-white on the left and right, and color in the middle.
To and No Fro
On the day I viewed this installation, I positioned myself in front of the screens, facing the projectors. Not seeing the images, I could concentrate on the sound, and thus reflect on Abigail Child’s view of Jakobson’s ideas of image-sound relations:
‘The important thing… is not each phoneme’s individual phonic quality considered in isolation and existing in its own right. What matters is their reciprocal opposition within a… system.’ Similarly, the visual/aural relations are various, infinite; it is their combinations that create new meaning and new rhythm centers. It is in combination that these images and sounds begin to become ‘language’.3
The sounds that came out of the left and the right projectors were converging in the middle, almost forming a frame for the center audio piece, thus symmetrically echoing, in a cohesive language, what was happening in the images behind me. Another transformation occurred: my body became the moving screen onto which the light was projected.
Between the projectors and the screens, as I moved from left to right, my clothes-turned-screen reflected black-and-white and colored light. As the audience, I became the mirror and the screen onto which the installation was projected, interrupted, while at the same time interrupting and interacting with the light, carving an alternative moving image out of the three screens with my silhouette, and therefore as part of the installation itself. This blurring of the limits between subject and object, between image and self-image is like water turning into wine, and precisely the stuff film is made of. The image turns into a self-image, which turns into a thing to be looked at (a miracle), endlessly: “We are both subject and object. We are the movement between the subject and object. We become the subject, and we can also become the object.”4 This continuous transformative process recreates a democratic mirror world and, in Abigail Child’s words, is called “moving.”
Frames and Narratives of Trouble: Feminist Transformations in Art
Frames and narratives, form and content, both provide the author with threads that move the artwork along a trajectory of meaning, whether as an interrogation or an exploration. Abigail Child’s films often seem to offer a set of questions to the viewer: “How can we go outside of the frame and exceed it?” or “How can we question established formulas?” or “How does the hand or the eye edit, and why?” and “What does one leave out in this process, and why?”
Informed by feminist theory, Child’s films embody an important message of social activism. She uses her work to investigate the interstices of meaning: what is left over and out of the picture in public discourses about race, gender, class, religion, citizenship, sexuality, ethnicity, disability and geographic location. They explore public space and strategies of resistance through memory and history. In taking up different sites and practices of (auto)biography, memory, and history through found footage, Abigail Child argues for the need to (re)open a space for the recognition of those multiple stories and meanings, which are always steeped in a variety of geographies and locations, identities and subjectivities. To make this opening up possible requires attending to how a feminist narrative is re-membered (or put together) in its various practices and sites. The multiplicity of identities and transformations desired in and by Abigail Child’s films signals her intention to attend to the need to keep those different narratives in play; the question of what kind of aesthetic and social transformation is desired in her projects ought to be answered by considering our own positioning in this historical time. In the wake of the political events in the latter part of the twenty century, what we might possibly share is a sense that any project whose objective is transformation, emancipation, liberation and progress is a lot more difficult to envision than even fifty years ago. We find that we are no longer working from a position that is confident of its own efforts, nor are we certain that desired social change and transformation will be the direct (if hard-fought) result of what we write, teach, or create in art. Instead, we find ourselves working from a more skeptical position.
The grand narratives of liberation that animated modernist projects, among them early second-wave feminism and Women’s Studies, are no longer available to us. To sustain an attachment to the “narrative of progress” seems difficult, and yet this does not mean that we do not share historical and present-day transformations of all kinds, although we may not necessarily agree on what these may be. Rather than presenting a frame within which we each find an easy comfort, direction and purpose for feminism and art, Abigail Child suggests we focus on that frame as a matter of trouble and to trouble. Frames shed light on identity positioning and their concomitant psychic and social identifications, but simply to note that our identities “matter” does not say very much. What is left open to further question and deliberate is how identities and identifications matter, in what framework and context, and with what kind of effects for the authors/writers as well as the audience/readers/viewers. Rather than simply catalog identity categories, then, Child’s feminist narratives in film endeavor to address identities and identifications in another register, a register that recognizes that thought cannot take place without identities and identifications; yet we need to subject such thought to inquiry rather than assuming to know its meaning in advance.
Child’s installation of Mirror World takes identity as always and already productive and delimiting. If we accept that each edited frame may connect (in ways Child anticipates but cannot entirely imagine) with a multitude of sites of struggle and interrogation, then we necessarily recognize the narratives of Mirror World as partial, and as seeking to find connections and differences with other narratives, other histories and herstories, present conditions and future potentials. Connections as well as transformations are the foundations of Child’s work. As stated in the initial caption of Mirror World (2006), “Every person’s story starts with another person.”
The threads of the narratives are carefully and metaphorically woven in the fabric of these alternating images. A viewer may choose to comprehensively “read” the installation by following either a progression or a cyclical loop of frames – both at its best. For instance, in To and No Fro (on the left) there is a series of doors opening and closing; we could read this narrative as advancing in a linear way – to and no fro. These doors could be opening and closing onto the body in Mirror World (the second frame), which appears to be the central subject of the narrative. In the third frame (Dark Dark), death seems to mark the end of this progressive line, as dead women and men alternately appear on the screen.
On the other hand, the cyclical pattern in this installation is mainly created by the effect of open frames: To and No Fro mirrors Dark Dark, with its black and white quality, with its similar screen size, and also through clear visual references that appear in the left screen and are repeated, with variations, within the right screen. The doors opening and closing of the left screen are present in the right screen; a door opens on the left and closes on the right, or vice versa. This initiates a spiraling movement that is mirrored in a variety of elements: the staircases on the left screen replicate a spiral walk that appears on the right screen (played backward and upside down); the twirling of a dancing party displayed in a sequence of slanted frames on the left parallels the movement of a spoon twirled in a glass of water, on the right. To and No Fro and Dark Dark play together like a Möbius strip – becoming a cyclical movement that allows no closures but constantly renews itself.
The cyclical effect is enhanced by the fact that Dark Dark could be identified as the “fro” of To and No Fro: upside-down frames, as well as film shots played sideways or backwards, enhance the spiraling quality of the installation. In addition to these formal references, Dark Dark contains a number of images that autoreferentially signal the “to-ing” and “fro-ing” of film in general and of this installation in particular. Dark Dark contains the literal “to-ing” and “fro-ing” of a videocamera on wheels, as well as the symbolic references of a woman moving forward while turning her head back and looking behind her into her pocket mirror and another woman looking into a crystal ball, seeing both past and future reflected onto it.
This word-image play is not simply an aesthetic game, although a healthy dosage of humor on Child’s part is undeniable. The issues investigated and interrogated in Mirror World are not innocent. I take the gestures presented to us by Abigail Child as a way to look back at ourselves as women through our own cultural creations, our actions, our ideas, our pamphlets, our organizations, our history, our theory and our films, while simultaneously looking ahead at our future. As a form of political critique, feminism not only has invented new strategies and created new texts, but, significantly, it has conceived a new social subject: women as speakers, writers, readers, spectators, users, and makers of cultural forms – shapers of cultural processes. Destabilizing dichotomies, as Child does, by setting up a third orientation or questioning boundaries by making them permeable is a provocative gesture directly aimed at dismantling social hierarchies and hegemonic structures. Challenging this hegemony is fundamental to the feminist agenda, and yet this challenging, in order to be true to itself, must be led by a clear and constructive vision. Instead of simply exposing the dominant aesthetic as patriarchal, we must work towards and support a woman-centered vision – a matriarchal aesthetic.5
Abigail Child fulfills this challenge by providing multiple models of representation, especially for women. At the forefront of Child’s feminist vision, among other social and cultural transformations, emerges the notion of “(m)othering”: constantly re-producing our selves, nurturing our cultural and biological daughters. To and No Fro borrows from Luis Buñuel’s A Woman Without Love (1952), which is in itself a stealthy examination of the institutions of marriage, motherhood and the social contract that requires women to sacrifice themselves to the demands of others. Child’s response to this model of sacrificial representation is clear. In the edited scenes of To and No Fro, as in Mirror World, reproduction by parthenogenesis is presented as an intriguing possibility, as a single woman becomes both mother and daughter to herself, without the need to subordinate herself to a social contract.
Empowering women with the agencies of self-definition, the modes or the very possibility of envisaging oneself as subject are fundamental aims for feminism, especially because, historically, women’s images and subjectivities have not been ours to shape, to portray, or to create. The creation and transformation of images, and of women in these images, define an ideology of empowerment where the creation/invention of new images reflects the creation/imaging of new forms of community, fostering feminist thinking as well as feminist thinkers.
Multiplying Feminist Visions
All feminist transformations require a plain understanding that achieving equality between men and women is necessary. Feminist transformations furthermore require a clear understanding of the difference of women from Woman, and, that is also to say, the differences among and within women. There are, after all, different histories of women. Mirror World offers the viewer a microcosm of women’s roles and faces, acknowledging that there are women who masquerade and women who wear the veil; women invisible to men, but also women who are invisible to other women.
The question of class, endlessly debated within Marxist feminism, is explicitly articulated in To and No Fro through the presence of a nurse and a variety of maids in the context of unmistakably affluent households. These women, almost invisible in film narratives, and generally filling decorative and self-sacrificing marginal roles, regain their subjectivities in Mirror World, as it becomes an official discourse on class. Here the camera’s and the editor’s eye reserve to them a relevant place. In many of the selected sequences, these women’s bodies appear to be the main subject within the frame, as if to underscore their centrality to the story and on stage: the nurse is framed within the projection of a window (whose outline is perceived through the shadow of venetian blinds); the maids carrying food are made central to the camera shot by the contour of door frames; the maids cleaning the house are framed by the architectural elements of the room in which they appear, such as arches and a banister; another maid can be seen within the open lines of a fireplace, stirring the fire. Not only are their actions what stir the narrative and keep it going (caring, nurturing, feeding, etc.) but they also embody the point from where movement originates. In Abigail Child’s politics and aesthetic, what is in the margins moves to the center, and vice versa, endlessly troubling the social order.
Through Child’s careful editing, these otherwise invisible women, such as maids and nurses, reclaim their unique individuality and their crucial position in fictional as well as real accounts. Even though Fifties society (in these scenes) kept their (gender and class) roles subordinate through the consistent use of visible markers such as aprons, uniforms, and caps, these working-class women remained a threat to the established order. As social agents of order, they are in control of people’s bodies and houses. If they want to, they can cause a revolution. Abigail Child comments on the screen: “Hunger and loneliness are the best remedies against rebels.” Because the potential rebels, here, are the providers of food, care, and service, then the power is reversed, and the social order is threatened. The steps we hear, following the credits at the end of the film cycle, might well be the steps of the maid, literally climbing the social ladder that is stretched in the scene right in front of her, while her body grows in power and size (through edits it doubles).
The feminist understanding in Mirror World is that the female subject is en-gendered, constructed and defined in gender across multiple representations of class (in addition to the above reflection on class in To and No Fro, the two protagonists in the Bollywood scenes of Mirror World  appear to be at opposite ends of the economic spectrum), race or ethnicity, language (written and spoken words throughout the installation are in Hindi, Spanish, English) and social relations. This understanding also entails that differences among women are differences within women, which is why feminism can exist despite those differences and cannot continue to exist without them. The originality of Abigail Child’s installation is its representation of woman as a social subject and a site of differences – differences that are not purely sexual or merely racial, economic or (sub)cultural, but all of these differences together and often in conflict with one another.
Such a clear example of woman as a social subject and a site of differences is offered by the staging of ethnicity in the various films used for the installation (Indian, Italian, Mexican) as well as the staging of conflicting identities in Mirror World, the central film of Abigail Child's installation. The existing conflict is presented visually by the inclusion of film shots showing the soapy face of the Bollywood protagonist – a clear reference to western soap operas and an interrogation of identity. It is also presented in the form of a series of doubling and troubling identities of women, alternatively simulating empowerment and alienation.
The focus of Child’s film is clearly the subject/object, active/passive, master/servant, rich/poor, conqueror/conquered dichotomy of social relations. To vibrantly illustrate this conflicting dichotomy, the untamed white horse in the initial scenes of Mirror World is presented as an obvious symbol of unrestrained conduct and is thus counterbalanced by the later images of the well-trained brown horses on a tight rein. The fact that half of the screen is missing in the first images with the horse, points to the fact that the missing images (on the right half) will later be displayed. Together they symbolize the integration of the two spheres of the psyche: in psychoanalytical terms, horses represent the Id (instinctual, as the untamed white horse) and the Ego (organized realistic part of the psyche, as the well-trained brown horses).
Psychoanalysis is used by Abigail Child as a political weapon. She successfully demonstrates how the unconscious of patriarchal society has organized film forms, while she simultaneously proposes a new language of desire and resistance. In Mirror World, the dichotomy exemplified by the untamed white horse versus the tame brown horses is reflected onto the two heroines on the screen and their conflicting identities. From the beginning of the film, they appear face to face, in all their pointed differences. One is displayed with a defiant facial expression, untamed and untamable as the white horse shown at the beginning, while a title reads: “It is futile to restrain me.” The other character comes into sight in a series of contrasting shots, in a rather submissive and childish posture, with eyes lowered and finger in her mouth, unable to articulate speech under the close scrutiny of two male guards.
The contrast between the binary of active/passive, wild/domesticated, powerful/powerless, resistance/submission is intentional, and this particular double thread is carried throughout the film, where the parallel between colonization of land and woman is also manifest. One of the most significant ways this thread of conquest and submission is addressed in the film is, of course, through the gaze.
Abigail Child takes Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze in Hollywood film and turns it on its head. In her film theory, Laura Mulvey has famously discussed the notion of the gaze connected to sexuality, and, in particular, of woman as image, and man as the bearer of the look. In striking sequences, Abigail Child shows the first heroine as she removes herself from under the objectifying (and sexualized) gaze of the (male) viewer. The actress turns her back on the viewer as the title defiantly reads: “Take your eyes off my face.” On the contrary side, the traditional exhibitionist role in which the second heroine is portrayed, with her appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact, seals her defeat as a passive subject. The corresponding title eloquently reads: “This is my defeat.”
Abigail Child shows the viewers the way in which films usually support the man’s role as the active one. What Abigail Child attempts in her installation is to expose the patriarchal gaze and rewrite romantic tradition from different women’s points of view in order to move toward fruitful feminist change. Referencing writer Nicole Brossard, Child writes: “Rewriting romantic myth from the position of woman means rewriting from the position of the social reality of women – as a colonized character – and from the position of the future: the questionable backbone from which mutilated and mutated branches arise.”6
This idea of mutilation would also suggest, in psychoanalytical terms, women’s lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration to phallocentric society. Analyzing women’s sexuality in the context of films where the male gaze is central brings us closer to the roots of women’s subjugation and inequality: even though we are still caught within phallic language, we can at least interrupt that language and examine patriarchy by using the tools it provides. Our radical weapon and threat in this context is to deconstruct and reconstruct visual pleasure. Abigail Child’s ability to display the threat of castration, here, is supported by a profusion of images showing women with a knife or a gun, ready and willing to use it. The Law of the Father is going to be contested, and the fate of his phallus will unavoidably be in her hands. In Child’s humorous words, it is as if the “flute” were lost from his mouth (“How do I say the flute was lost from his mouth?” asks the untamed heroine in Mirror World).
In Dark Dark, Abigail Child presents the cutting of a woman’s hair in an ominous light. Through bold editing in Mirror World, she becomes even more explicit and unequivocal: by manipulating the celluloid, she literally cuts, breaks (castrates?) the patriarchal fabric of the film and is thus free to command the stage. Child creates a new image on the screen, ingeniously editing it in order to articulate the look and create the action. For instance, the previously sexualized image of a woman on stage metamorphoses into a powerful thing. Refusing to carry the burden of sexual objectification, the woman is no longer an icon signifying male desire, but the abject chasm of sexual difference: a hairy vulva on the center of stage that is capable of generating powers of horror.
The body of woman becomes a site of subversive difference, with the potential to disrupt and displace paternal law by eluding the very requirements of representation. For Luce Irigaray, however, the female sex is not a “lack” or an “Other” that immanently defines the subject in its masculinity, as theorized by Laura Mulvey. The female sex is the subject that is not one. It is unrepresentable, unconstrainable, and multiple. For the masculine subject of desire, the agency of a female “object” who returns the glance and reverses the gaze, contesting his place and authority, is unexpected and intimidating.
The question of identity in Mirror World is made more complex by this multiple, unconstrainable, and different subjectivity, both in terms of gender and sex. One of Abigail Child’s titles, at the beginning of Mirror World, refers to the fact that gender and sex roles are not predestined: “This is not astrological.” Whatever biological intractability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed. Gender is neither the casual result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex. The unity of the subject is therefore contested by the distinction that views gender as a multiple interpretation of sex. If gender is a sum of the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way. Consequently, the sex/gender distinction suggests a radical discontinuity between sexed bodies and culturally constructed genders. It follows that the construction of “men” will not accrue exclusively to the bodies of males, and “women” will not exclusively interpret female bodies. In the end, there is no reason to assume that genders ought to remain as two, even if the sexes would appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution. In a binary gender system it is presumed that gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one. The cross-dressing of the untamed character in Mirror World and the ambiguous triangulation of homosexual/bisexual relations in To and No Fro are reminders of the fluidity of such categories.
As in a dream, images with recurring titles questioning the self and the “Other” alternate on the screen, making the quest(ion) of identity and its subversion central to Abigail Child’s installation. The question of gender identity, as also explored by Judith Butler, is never settled and is as open as a question mark:
To what extent do regulatory practices of gender formation and division constitute identity, the internal coherence of the subject, indeed, the self-identical status of the person? To what extent is “identity” a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience? And how do the regulatory practices that govern gender also govern culturally intelligible notions of identity?7
Mirror World is punctuated by questions regarding identity – in terms of gender, but also in a much wider sense: “Who are you?” “Why are you?” “That is what the world thinks I am.” Just as the films’ narrative in Abigail Child’s installation remains unresolved, fragmented, and difficult to follow, heterogeneity and difference within women remain in our memory as the films’ narrative images, their work of representation, which cannot be collapsed into a fixed identity, a sameness of all women as Woman, or a representation of Feminism as a coherent and available image.
Framed in the consciousness of 1960s radicalism and 1970s feminism,8 Abigail Child understands that within contemporary feminist political practice, a radical rethinking of the constructions of identity appears to be necessary in order to formulate a representational politics that might revive feminism on the grounds of identity politics and desire: “Desire is no longer identified only with the psychic relations but with an energy that moves, creates links, alliances, connections. In this sense desire permeates all movement, emotional, social, and mechanical. Desire is not actualized or latent; it is always active and real.”9 Film and the feminist movement have precisely this in common: an energy that moves, creates links, alliances, connections – an energy that is capable of transforming our aspirations and longings into aesthetic and social truths. Like the feminist movement, and like the very idea of miracles, film bears witness to truths. Based on social ideologies and beliefs, film creates its own miracle as it ‘sees things’ and “expands the capacity for witnessing. It potentially creates multiple positionalities and, in doing so, interrogates its own authenticity.”10
Wanda Balzano wishes to thank Abigail Child for the permission to use her stills from Mirror World (2009) and Victor Faccinto for lending his careful recording of both Abigail Child’s installation and her talk at Wake Forest University in March 2009. Many thanks also go to Lynn Book, for facilitating Abigail Child’s installation as part of the Creativity Symposium at Wake Forest University, and Paul Bright, who kindly offered his assistance in re-viewing Mirror World.
1 Webster’s Dictionary.
2 Abigail Child, This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2005), p.151.
3 Ibid., p.130.
4 Ibid., p. 232.
5 See Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), p.135.
6 Abigail Child, This is Called Moving, p.25.
7 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), p.23.
8 See This is Called Moving, p.XXI.
9 Ibidem, p.57.
10 Ibidem, p.264.