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Where is Francesca Woodman? / a review

The 2009 ARTIST ROOMS On Tour with The Art Fund supported by The Scottish Government will include works by Diane Arbus, Joseph Beuys, Vija Celmins, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ellen Gallagher, Gilbert & George, Johan Grimonprez, Damien Hirst,Jenny Holzer, Alex Katz, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, Jannis Kounellis, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Robert Mapplethorpe, Agnes Martin, Ron Mueck, Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, Robert Therrien, Bill Viola, Andy Warhol, Lawrence Weiner, and Francesca Woodman 1

 

… the largest and most imaginative gifts of art ever made to museums in Britain… 2

Hirst, Celmins, Gallagher, Katz, Woodman, Warhol

SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART,

14 March – 8 November 2009

Officially launched in 2009, Artists Rooms is a new, National resource of contemporary art exhibited simultaneously at the Tate and National Galleries and Museum sites throughout the country. This collection contains over 725 works; participating artist’s have their work displayed in their own individual room.

At the National Gallery of Scotland, in Edinburgh, I went to Francesca Woodman’s Artist Room. A collection of eighteen, rare, vintage black and white photographs, once owned by the artist’s boyfriend were on display. My trip to Edinburgh, specifically to see Francesca Woodman’s photographs would mark my first encounter with the artist’s original works.

As with most artistic works, responses to Francesca Woodman’s photographs are varied and constantly revised according to different collective and personal knowledge’s. Ranging from performative enquiries, feministic art histories and psychological perspectives, especially in response to her suicide in 1981, they also find meaning within her work retrospectively. I am not denying that her early death at the age of 22 does not require of us a constant backward-looking when viewing her work, nor do I deny my inclusion in this, or in the drawing together of various similarities, that her work shares with other artists and disciplines.

Amongst the many ways Francesca Woodman’s photographs speak to me, there are those like poems by Emily Dickinson, others like films by Michelangelo Antonioni; those that speak of intimacies and private realms beyond the domestic and more akin to dream. Needless to say, her very inclusion in the Artist Room’s exhibitions causes one to think of Virginia Wolff and A Room of One’s Own (1929)

A Room Of One’s Own… A Place Apart… Words like these have become synonymous within ‘retrospective’ readings or critiquing of Francesca Woodman’s works, especially through the vies of feminism but not only within this context, also through the theories of location and sense of self-identity.

From Francesca Woodman’s adolescence, through her graduate studies in Rhode Island and Rome, and the few years she spent in New York before her death, Woodman was prolific in her photographic production.

Historically Francesca Woodman’s work is placed in the 1970 circa, explorations in which the camera harnessed, for many, a primary way of expressing the self-states in temporal flux, in hybridity and disappearance. Others working at this time, in performance, with video and photography, using similar strategies to Francesca Woodman, include Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman, Yoko Ono and Laurie Anderson, to name but a few.

Yet, the temporality of Francesca Woodman’s photographs are estranged from any immediate nostalgia for the 1970s, as if she was participating in, or anticipating a gaze that would ‘look back,’perhaps at the world’s end.

I am reminded of debates about the Mona Lisa and whether we find her geographically, in the Louvre, in Memory, or in imagination. I find the question – ‘Where is The Mona Lisa” – is never answered the same way twice, equally so with Francesca Woodman. Where is She? Are we viewing a place of imagination and spirit, somewhere between sanctuary and decay? Are we seeing the remains of her centuries, in derelict buildings and abandoned factories? Are we in a Fallen Rome, Rhode Island or simply - her artist studio?

These original works on display would neither confirm nor deny any questions I might ask of her work, presumptions I may have made or speak of any legible motive for their existence. They could read as a sonnet to her boyfriend and now, benefactor, especially those where messages appeared for him, as part of the photograph itself: but this reading is unsatisfactory. Here, there was not the common or general intimacy I had envisaged throughout my longstanding and fiercely affectionate viewing of her pictures, prior to the exhibition, but a privacy personal, to her, to him, to them.

One by one, the photographs responded as a collection of strangers.

Although we must watch Francesca Woodman’s body repeatedly disappearing, and her subjects play purposefully in the ellipses, I was faced with what had escaped, got away, become fugitive to the viewing of her work, and that was her intention, or evidences of it. This almost seemed like a miracle in itself, or a punchline from a joke we were never told. I can only wonder at the choices her work cannot make, or mark down as testimony. Francesca Woodman is made all the more untouchable for it and perhaps all the more deceased, and her photographs all the more haunting. They were speaking for themselves in an unknowable dark.

Her body refuses to be pinned down as the lead in a female life. It is a Figure unnamed. This figure has none of the immediacy of Someone. There is no hierarchy between Shadow, Reflection and Figure, a sort of triad, performing within the interplay of light-bodies.

 

Footnotes

1 & 2) Tate, Press Office: Press Releases ‘ARTIST ROOMS Collection of Contemporary Art Goes

Nationwide, (Press release: 22 January 2009) http://www.tate.org.uk/about/pressoffice/pressreleases/

2009/17730.htm

 

 

 

 

Posted by L. M. H. C on 3/2/13







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