Leonida Kovač on Ana Opalić‘s work
She began at this time to describe landscape as if anything she saw was a natural phenomenon, a thing existent in itself, and she found it, this exercise, very interesting and it finally led her to the later series of Operas and Plays. I am trying to be as commonplace as I can be, she used to say to me. And then sometimes a little worried, it is not too commonplace.
Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Ana Opalić adds her recent video-installation entitled I do not see, comprising six video-photographs, or rather six eight-minute video sequences where the static camera records an identical frame, to the series of photographic self-portraits which she has been making since 1994 to this day. Looked at in a superficial manner one could be led to conclude that the shot in question is a representation of a landscape, but how is one to define the type of frame presented to us – a close-up or a total; is it neither, or is it both rolled into one?
Furthermore, how can one define oneself – as an spectator – in relation to that which is being presented? Do I see an image or a scene; neither one or the other, or both? In order to answer my own questions, I must delve / into description, and description is nothing other than a representation. Should I decide to categorize the said frame as a scene, defining it more precisely I shall describe it as a forest scene. If I were to identify it as an image, then I would say that it is a picture of trees (although I do not see trees but only their fragments cropped by the left, right, bottom and upper edge of the frame) with a forest path leading through them – which becomes visible in the middle of the bottom edge, and is lost at the intersection of diagonals of the horizontal frame the cut of which constructs that which I am seeing, and calling, a picture. Positioned in medias res the camera yields a large close-up in which the movement of a branch annuls the static nature of the picture, i.e. that immobility peculiar to a photograph, while the audible sound of that movement within the non-happening suggested by a static frame infers a certain dramatic quality of the scene. At the same time, the path – which vanishes form one’s gaze in the geometric centre of the picture – denotes the category of perspective, historically immanent to painting, in other words the procedure of illusionisation of depth, of a three-dimensional space upon a flat surface. Thus the connoted perspective attributes the character of a total to this frame. The syntax of a video-recording, which allows the total and the close-up to exist at the same time and in the same place, leads me to identify the articulation of rhetorical figures of place and landscape – which in turn signify the interspace between the concepts of reality and illusion – in the sense of the object of representation of the video-installation, I do not see.
It is not by chance that the author defines the medium in which she executes her video-recordings, the segments of the video-installation, I do not see, as a video photograph. The shape of the flat monitors on which the video recordings are being reproduced resembles the classic format of a photographic picture. At this point I’d like go back to Barthes’s claim whereby a photograph always carries its referent with itself, both affected by the same amorous or funereal immobility, at the very heart of the moving word: they are glued together. The photograph belongs to that class of laminate objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities we can conceive but not perceive. Furthermore, whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.1.
Allow me to make use of Barthes’s metaphor of a window pane and a landscape for the sake of describing the structure of a six-fold photographic frame produced by Ana Opalić, which by way of video-technology, presents the same but not the identical, and where sameness and non-identicalness are manifested through the dimension of time. That which has been given to be seen, is the same place at different times, as well as the change itself which, paradoxically, is manifested only in the duration of that same scene – non-identical in its multiplication. We may not be able to see that change within some of the video-photographs, but we are able to hear it. Should we not be able to perceive the time dimension in a static frame, denoted by changes of light register, or by an ever so gentle a movement of a leaf in the wind, time – in the sense of a referent of the video-photographic image – will become fully perceptible due to a different duration of audibility, within the real reproduction time of the audio-visual recording, of heterogeneous sounds: sounds ‘from nature’ and sounds of the city. And it is in this very insistence on audibility, which is at the same time that distinctive element which defines the six identical frames as non-same, that the performative of this installation is manifested and which I am inclined to read as a statement about the limitations of occulocentric perception, or rather of its non-credibility. I do not see. What is it that I do not see?
Undoubtedly, the title I do not see, given to the video-installation, implies the speaking position of the first person singular, I, thereby connoting the category of subjectivity as the object of interest. However, it is the construction procedure of the position of the spectator which I can identify as the performative of this work. The manner in which the work addresses her or him who is looking at it is indicative. The point of disappearance (of the path), located in the geometrical centre of the picture, indicates that in the place represented by the scene we are watching, in the position on the other side of the point of disappearance, in other words in the position located outside the scope of our gaze, there exists something we cannot see. An object of representation which evades naming; that which is invisible. A question imposes itself – who is it that cannot see? Or, what is it in the picture that exists at the level of expected, but which has not been given to be seen? The ambiguous title of the work is aimed at the process of equating the position of the image construction with the position of the picture reception, at the process of equating of the position of the picture maker with the position of the spectator, where the coherence of meaning of the personal pronoun I gradually crumbles through the identification processes. The result is a transitive I which, in the discursive space of the installation I do not see, is simultaneously positioned within and outside the picture, or to be more precise on both sides of the screen, thereby disputing the possibility of establishing the category of a steady subject.
The performative effect of a constative statement contained in the title I do not see, a statement made from the position of the first person singular, enables one to read the homonymous installation within the context of an autobiographical discourse, thus making possible the identification of one’s own gaze at the level of both the object of representation and that of the referent.
Considering the autobiographical form within the context of women’s self-representation, Leigh Gilmore concludes that as an object, an autobiography, like a photograph, simulates the action of the eye in a way that obscures how the apparatus of representation works on and within the scene it depicts2. But what is the representational apparatus? A camera, or something else?
Here I would like to go back to the concept of perspective. Perspectiva is a Latin word which means ‘seeing through’. In early use, perspective was a term applied to various optical devices, but it also came to mean the art of delineating solid objects upon a plain surface so that a drawing produces the same impression of apparent relative position, magnitudes and distances as do the ‘actual’ objects when viewed from a particular point. Perspective, then, is reproduction of the ‘actual’, but it is also construction of the real – a delineation through representation, of the defining characteristics of ‘actuality’ as relative to and marked by distance – distance as marked from an unremarked, unseen viewer. The visual pyramid on which all classical perspective is built is a geometry, after all, by which the lines of sight and lines of light are absolutely co-ordinated, a co-ordination that produces the identity (in a mirror) between the vanishing point within the picture and the viewing point within the eye. Where the receding parallel lines appear to meet is the vanishing point – and at that point, geometrically, in exact proportion to the point of the viewing eye – an eye, importantly, is outside the field of its own vision.
It is necessary to stress the hidden assumptions: within the patriarchal economy of meaning, within, that is, the symbolic order of modernity, perspective, like the worldview to which it gives symbolic form, is deeply gendered. Within the terms of that order, the seeing eye is unseen. Its gaze penetrates a scopic field marked by distance. That gaze is rendered active, phallic, and it is subject to and constituted by proprietry of and anxiety about space. That which is seen is, simultaneously, that which can never be fully seen. The scopic field lies before the gaze but secretes within it a point of vanishing, a mirror of the viewer’s own view by which access of the field meets the black hole of infinite inaccessibility. The given to be seen, rendered passive, is feminised, made into an object of phallic (gaze) penetration, yet infinitely inaccessible.3 Legacies of perspectival ways of seeing have erected the female body as Prime Signifier of the Vanishing Point.4
Having identified the notion of one’s own gaze in the function of the object of representation, as well as in the function of a referent of the video-photographic image, in the video-installation I do not see, I find this to be the appropriate place to make mention of Lacan‘s claim made in his lecture entitled Schism between the eye and the gaze: “In our relationship towards things, as established by way of sight and arranged by the characters of representation, something glides, moving from floor to floor, but ever being at some evaded level – and that something is called a gaze.”5 Further on, elaborating on the privilege of a gaze in the function of a desire, Lacan literally claims that a gaze, in the scopic relation, is the object on which phantasm depends. Notably, as soon as the gaze appears, the subject attempts to adjust to it; the gaze becomes that point-like object, the point of a being which vanishes, that something with which the subject mixes its own weakness. Likewise, of all the objects in which a subject can identify its own dependence within the register of desire, a more precise description defines a gaze as something incomprehensible. That is why it is regarded as unknown quantity more so than any other object, and it is perhaps for this reason that the subject so successfully symbolizes its own vanishing and point-like line, within the illusion of consciousness of that to be seen as I see myself, where the gaze is elided. The subject Lacan is talking about is not the subject of reflective consciousness, but a subject of desire, which is why (at one point) he describes the a gaze as the reverse side of consciousness.6
It is by way of Lacan’s ‘definition’ of a gaze as something that “glides, transferring itself from floor to floor, only to ever be at some evaded level”, functioning as the element that both deconstructs and constitutes the meanings of scenes from the series of self-portraits which Ana Opalić has produced in various media since 1994, that I shall identify that gaze.
In words of Shirley MacWilliam, the self portrait is an unusual phenomenon of the subject-object relation. The self-portrait, as with an autobiography, is often read as a psychologically deep text, one which is revelatory either in its information, manner or narcissistic preoccupations. On the other hand, it is also a technical exercise, an artistic ‘ritual of passage’ which presents the body and the gaze with particular problems. The technical exercise does not abide in culturally neutral or objective space and it is therefore important to identify the tools, the process, the method and the spatial topology of making which it apostrophises.7
However, self-portraits by Ana Opalić are by no means ‘revelatory in their information’, quite the contrary, identification of the object of self-representation, or rather determination of the identity denoted by the personal pronoun I, typically exists at ‘some evaded level’, and is transferred from scene to scene. Rather than revealing, what we have here is hiding, or to be more precise, mimicry. In numerous self-portraits produced in the course of the nineties, the figure of the author positions itself at the distant vantage point, thus appearing as an element of landscape, which sometimes makes its detection within the texture of a photographic image possible only with a microscope-like gaze.
Hiding as an act, has been explicated by Self-portrait: The Hillock (2002) produced in the medium of video-photography. It is a kind of diptych (two frames identical in composition and duration are simultaneously reproduced on two monitors), in which a static camera records a scene dominated by the same hillock. It could be said that in the regulation process of the image, the video photograph which structures the self-portrait define the position of the spectator by the title of the previously mentioned work – I do not see. I can see a place in a particular landscape, but where within it is the subject implied through the title Self-portrait?
I would say that in this, as in many other self-portraits, Ana Opalić operationalizes the fundamental binary oppositions (in this specific case the visible-invisible, and nature-culture) in the function of rhetorical figures whose effects in the discursive space of her work are manifested as a challenge to the credibility of the system of binary oppositions upon which the culturally produced concept of reality is based. Within the duration of the frame showing a hillock there is a sequence in which the author enters the frame from the position of an spectator – identical to that of the camera, i.e. from the space off, from the invisible – coming into the visible, passing through the space of the picture and hiding behind the hillock: she positions herself in a place beyond the reach of a gaze defined by the eye of the apparatus which produces the picture. And vice versa, within the duration of the other, the same but a non-identical video photograph, there is a sequence in which is it possible to perceive that the static scene has changed, that the figure appears behind the top of the hillock and is moving toward the foreground of the picture, and out of it – into the space which the edges of the frame render invisible, to a position from which the viewing of the picture, and therefore the consummation of the meanings produced by that same picture, should take place.
To return to the meaning of the syntagm ‘given to be seen’, or rather its cultural repercussions, I would like to pose a question: what is it that is represented by this Self-portrait?
What is it that has been ‘given to be seen’? A landscape? A place? Or is it the act of hiding? One could possibly speak of a passive landscape in front of the active gaze of a camera, ultimately getting to the biologistic metaphors produced through representational practices of a patriarchal system, which establishes the binary female- male opposition analogously to the nature-culture opposition. However, I would not be inclined to read the landscape in the function of texture, and the procedure of mimicking one’s own image within that landscape, as an statement given from an essentialistic standpoint, as a metaphor which would place the self-representation of the photographer, i.e. the definition of the meaning of personal pronoun I, into the discursive space of myths within which the binary nature-culture opposition is being produced. Entering and exiting the scene existing as something that is ‘given to be seen’, indicates the fact that in the space off, the space made invisible by the edges of the frame, there is an apparatus producing a picture that addresses itself to some other gaze also existing beyond the edges of the frame – but in another time and space of the picture viewing, and that space is not natural but cultural. It is in the cultural space, which is not neutral, that definitions of gender identities are produced, with the representation processes generating their meanings.
Problematization of the category of gender identity has been explicated with another self-portrait – an installation entitled Portrait (2003). The mode of execution of this work, in the function of a referent, explicates several elements the interaction of which culturally defines the concept of reality. Firstly, Portrait is a form of reminiscence of the history of photography, i.e. its normative social function, and secondly of the role that a nineteenth-century photographic studio portrait played in the sense of encoding specific social identities. Here, Barthes comes to mind with his claim that historically, photography began as an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the term, the body’s formality.8 With its insistence on perceptibility of a form into which a certain body is being integrated within a certain regime of representation, Ana Opalić’s Portrait focuses the construction process of the identity category, as well as the meanings of specific identities, within the context of that which is being named as a civil status. What we have is a parallel inscenation of two nineteenth-century photographic studios. In the physical, three-dimensional space we see rooms equipped with sets and scenery required for taking a portrait photograph. In each of the two studios the point from which the portrait should be taken is occupied by a video camera placed on a tripod. However, that which the spatial disposition of this installation defines as being absent, or rather invisible, is the person whose portrait should be taken in that place.
The position of the camera on the tripod, in this work identifies the place from which a picture is produced – in other words, the position from which a certain person is represented – with the position at which the reception of the picture occurs. A camera placed in an empty photographic studio invites the spectator to view the scene from the position of a videographer. But, looking through the camera one can see a video-photograph showing the same studio, but not the identical scene. Notably, that which the video-recording being reproduced within the camera gives to be seen is not the image of an empty photographic studio, but the portrait made in that studio. In the first case it is a picture of a young, nineteenth-century man, and in the other of a girl from the same century, both of whom are posing for a portrait.
Here, of course, we are dealing with a self-portrait again, since in both cases it is the author of the produced image who is posing for the portrait. By visualising, literally, the fundamental binary opposition on the basis of which the gender category has been produced within the patriarchal, heterosexist economy of meanings, the male-female opposition, as well as the presence-absence and visible-invisible binary oppositions – which were the means of generating the adoption of gender identities in the course of the process of subjectivity construction within the symbolic order, Portrait places emphasis on the concept of masquerade.
In the psychoanalytical theory the concept of masquerade occupies a key place in the procedure of defining the female sexual, i.e. gender, identity. By being set as the starting point in the dialectics of desire within Freudian, i.e. Lacanian, psychoanalytical theory, the complex of castration by defining female sexuality as complementary to the physiological, psychic and social needs of the male, and indeed as deficiency in relation to the male sexual organ and its symbolic representative – the phallus, results in the exclusion of women not only from sexuality but also from the field of desire. In the very effectiveness of castration as a psychic structure – the internalised prohibition, or inaccessibility of the first (lost) object of desire, i.e. the mother’s body, the phallus represents at once the mark of difference and lack; the threat of castration and a signifier of desire. But only for a male subject, since the female relation to castration does not allow her entry into the field of desire except as its object. Furthermore, at one point Lacan distinctly claims that in order to be the phallus, that is, the signifier of the desire of the Other, the woman will reject an essential part of her femininity, notably all its attributes, through masquerade. It is for what she is not that she expects to be desired as well as loved. But she finds the signifier of her own desire in the body of the one to whom she addresses her demand for love. Certainly we should not forget that the organ invested with this signifying function takes on the values of the fetish.9
In her critique of Lacan’s dialectics of desire based on the distinction between ‘being’ and ‘having’, Judith Butler claims that “…‘being’ the Phallus and ‘having’ the Phallus denotes divergent sexual positions, or non-positions (impossible positions, really) with language. To ‘be’ the Phallus is to be the ‘signifier’ of the desire of the Other and to appear as this signifier. It is to be the object, the Other of a (heterosexualized) masculine desire, but also to represent or reflect that desire. To be the Phallus is to be signified by the paternal law, to be both its object and instrument and the ‘sign’ and promise of its power. Furthermore, by also defining it as an exposition of heterosexual comedy, Butler also claims that two very different tasks can be discerned from the ambiguous structure of Lacan’s analysis. On the one hand, masquerade may be understood as the performative production of sexual ontology, an appearing that makes itself convincing as a ‘being’; on the other hand, masquerade can be read as a denial of feminine desire that presupposes some prior ontological femininity regularly unrepresented by the phallic economy.10
The double, gender ambiguous self-portrait, entitled Portrait disputes the very assumption of the existence of some ontological femininity (or masculinity). Indeed, what this work portrays, i.e. what the video-photograph here ratifies, is not the indisputable identity of a particular person, but the representation regime itself within which identity categories are produced. What it is, is a pattern of visibility of space off – the social apparatus generating the meanings of specific gender identities, while at the same time defining their positions within the social hierarchy of power – inasmuch as representation is neither a neutral nor a disinterested activity, but rather a founding act of power in a particular culture. In the words of Terese de Lauretis, “…like sexuality, gender is not a property of bodies or something originally existent in human being, but a set of effects produced in bodies, behaviours, and social relations by the deployment of a complex political technology. Gender is a representation which has concrete or real implications, both social and objective, for the material life of individuals.”11
Just as the Portrait video-installation explicitly focuses the concept of masquerade in the sense of condition of normative femininity, so the photographs from the Self-portraits series apostrophise another notion, one which is inseparable from the concept of masquerade within the Oedipal matrix of desire structuring and establishment of subjectivity, i.e. within the process of gender identity adoption. The point at issue is the concept of melancholy. According to Judith Butler, psychoanalysis reads the mask as a part of the incorporative strategy of melancholy, the taking of attributes of the object / the Other that is lost, where loss is the consequence of refusal of love. The effect of melancholy would thus be essential to the feminine position as such. However, as a set of sanctions and taboos, the ego ideal regulates and determines masculine and feminine identification. Because identifications are consequences of loss, gender identification is a kind of melancholia in which the sex of the prohibited object is internalized as prohibition. This prohibition sanctions and regulates discrete gender identity and the law of heterosexual desire. The resolution of the Oedipal complex affects gender identification through not only the incest taboo, but, prior to that, the taboo against homosexuality.12
In the series of photographs by Ana Opalić entitled Self-portraits, which has to be considered as work in progress, signified melancholy has been deployed in the sense of a rhetorical figure the performative of which is manifested in ‘providing a way out of the melancholy of normative femininity’.13 Notably, within the discursive space of each individual photographic image which structures the self-portrait, melancholy, as a rhetorical figure, is produced by the relation between the author’s figure– its place, the mode of its positioning in space – and the landscape captured in the frame. In that frame we often see something that can, culturologically, be perceived as a melancholic scene: a solitary figure positioned in a specific ‘wild’, rock-bound landscape, or on a cliff overhanging the sea from which the view, paradoxically, extends into infinity. Elsewhere, she opts for a forest where the enclosed quality of the scene, a kind of stunted perspective, evokes different symbolic and metaphoric meanings related to the notions of fear and danger. The figure of melancholy is produced through contrasting the dramatic quality of landscape achieved by the procedure of an almost film-like phrasing, and stillness of the figure the title of the work denoted as both the subject and the object of the gaze. However, if in the symbolic (Oedipal) system, a phallus is the universal signifier which can play its role only if hidden, i.e. as the sign of latency affecting everything that is subjected to signification through the mere fact of being erect (aufgehoben) in the function of a signifier,14 then melancholy in the symbolism of the scene represented in the photographs by Ana Opalić functions as a scenery behind which an active female gaze is hidden: the gaze that undermines the phallic economy of meanings. By playing with the pragmatism of a photographic image, or rather with the properties of the medium itself, the series of photographic self-portraits simultaneously constructs the figure of melancholy and divests it of meaning.
Recognizing melancholy as immanent to the medium of (still) photography, Kaja Silverman backs her claim by the fact that a “…still photograph signifies first and foremost ‘mortification’.15 When we define a photograph as a motionless image, Barthes tells us, this does not mean that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anaesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.16 Further on he goes even as far as defining a pose as that upon which the nature of Photography is founded: its motionlessness. A moment – in which a real thing was motionless in front of the eye of the camera – however short it may be, is what constitutes a pose. In contrast to a photograph where something posed in front of the tiny hole – and has remained there forever, in cinema something has passed in front of that same tiny hole: the pose is swept away and denied by a continuous series of images: it is a different phenomenology, and therefore a different art that begins here, through derived from the first one.17
I would read the Self-portraits series of photographs by Ana Opalić as a sequence of directed cinematic scenes. Through the introduction of a time dimension, which is implied by the use of the elements of film syntax, those scenes erode the motionless of the picture immanent to the medium of photography. The meaning of a self-portrait is not constituted in individual photographs but in the perception time required for each individual scene, as well as in the process of reception of a series of photographs. Narration is not being exhausted in the picture contained within the edges of an individual frame, indeed it is being continually restructured through the staging process. Viewed as a series, the photographs appear as unedited film sequences. Representation technology of individual scene, manifested in the perfectionism, in which even the smallest details in the picture are produced, extends the time of reception, thus suggesting duration. A the same time, the separation of individual scenes – the cut – and their subsequent grouping is manifested as a kind of hiatus in the editing of a film story, which disputes the principles of unity of place and time of the plot. The Self-portraits series establishes a narrative structure in which the here always concurrently exists as somewhere else, and within such a structure the meaning of a self-representation procedure is constituted in the interspace between a pose and a passing, between motionlessness and leaving.
Arrival and departure have been explicitly signified by particular groups of photographs representing the same places within a specific landscape. The effect of the same, but not the identical, has in these frames been achieved through the application of a procedure characteristic of cinematic syntax, which could be described as a reverse shot: while the posing figure is visible in one frame the other, parallel frame shows the place, i.e. the position from which the (self)portraiting has been done. This ‘rotation’ of a photographic sequence points to the existence of a gaze for the sake of which the posing took place. Is this a case of a Lacanian to be seen as I see myself, i.e. of a representation of a place at which a gaze is elided?
At this point I believe it to be quite pertinent to make mention of Lacan’s claim of a desire being established within the sphere of vision, or rather his understanding of a gaze as the one by way of which the sphere of vision is integrated with the sphere of desire.18 Within the register of desire – so Lacan tells us –, a gaze is more closely signified as incomprehensible. It would appear that in psychoanalytical theory the very definition of desire evades the terms of comprehensibility. Desire is spoken of as something that is always somewhere else, something that is inherently characterized by wanting the impossible. In words of Theresa de Lauretis, “…even as it is perceived as a quality of the self, the support of one’s being, and although it can exist only through fantasy, desire is a tension towards the other(s), a drive towards something or someone outside the self. The signification and representation of that tension necessitates a signifier, the sign which describes both the object and its absence. It is this sign that signifies for the subject, the object’s essential otherness, difference, and distance from the self, the sign which both elides and remarks that separation: a fetish. It has to be pointed out that the object and the signifier of desire are not anatomical but fantasmatic entities.19
The fact that the discursive space of the photographs from the Self-portraits series has been articulated through the co-existence of two gazes is indisputable. One gaze is located outside the field of its own vision – it is the gaze that constitutes the scopic field and, in that field it establishes the (self) represented figure in the role of a subject in the visible. The other gaze is located within the scopic field itself, in the picture, and that gaze – the gaze of the figure in the picture – hides from the gaze which establishes that same figure in the role of the subject. The figure in the picture never establishes contact with the gaze for which it is posing in that picture. According to Lacan, there is no concordance in the dialectics of eye and the gaze. Instead, there is total deception: you never look at me where I see you, and vice versa, that what I am looking at is never what I want to see.20
It is within that dual articulation of the gaze that is structuring the narration, or rather the statement being made from the spoken position of the first person singular, that I would identify as a representation of tension towards others: a representation of a desire as a drive towards someone or something outside the self. Furthermore, I would identify the photographic image itself in the function of a fetish: a sign which signifies and represents that tension, a sign which at the same time describes the object and its absence.
Victor Burgin arguments his thesis about the photographic gaze as unavoidably implicated in the structure of fetishism, based on the famous case of Freud’s patient who fetishised a shine (glanz) on a nose, with – among other things – a brilliant surface characteristic of so-called art photography. If, he says, we bear in mind the gestalt orientation of the mirror phase – its emphasis on surface and boundary – we can admit that a narcissistic investment may be made in respect of the very specular brilliance of the tightly delineated photographic surface itself. Certainly, appreciation of the superficial beauty of the ‘fine print’ is a centrepiece of photographic connoisseurship. In Freud’s words, art photography can be something you actually want to hold in your hand and actually press close to you. You want to hold it close to your face or body because there is some subconscious reaction with it. Burgin goes on to conclude that the photograph, like the fetish, is the result of a look which has, instantaneously and forever, isolated, ‘frozen’, a fragment of the spatial-temporal continuum.21
Some of the photographs from the Self-portraits series explicitly signify the relation between the optic and the haptic, or to put it more precisely, they represent a touch. What is indicative is a kind of a photographic diptych where the figure, with its back facing the camera, located in the foreground of the photograph, and presented in the act of ‘leaving’, moving away from the observing eye, is touching the rough bark of a tree with the palm of her hand. The regulation technology of a photograph, the process of focusing, focuses precisely the place at which the touch took place.
According to Merleau-Ponty, in the visual experience which extends the objectivisation further than a tactile experience does, we can at least imagine that we are constituting the world, because it provides us with a scene displayed before us in the distance; it presents us with the illusion we are directly present everywhere without being situated anywhere. However, a tactile experience adheres to the surface of our body; we cannot arrange it before us; it does not quite become an object.22 Can the tactile experience referred to by Merleau-Ponty be compared with the ‘subconscious reaction’ to the photograph mentioned by Freud within the context of fetishism?
This is not an inappropriate point to make mention of the fact that light reflections, reflections on a surface (of, for instance, leaves in the forest, or the sun on the surface of the sea), are a frequent motif in photographs by Ana Opalić. Light reflections in the function of a backup motif, function within a photographic image as an element which discreetly breaks down the tectonics of a coherent, directed scene. Is not the light, just like a tactile experience, that which does not quite become an object? But then, what is an object?
The term ‘object’, which in psychoanalytical theory is used in phrases like the object choice and similar, in fact designates a sign, or something that functions like a sign – even when referring to a person, or a physical object like a fetish. In desire an object always functions as a sign since it stands for a lost object.
Numerous directed scenes captured within the frames of photographs from the Self-portraits series represent an act of searching. They show a figure in a forest looking for something. An object that is hiding there, or has been lost? Elsewhere, the figure – its back turned towards the place at which the observation of the photograph is taking place, is looking into the distance at something we cannot see. Again, searching with her gaze. For a lost object?
If the object and the signifier of desire are related to the desiring fantasy, and are – as psychoanalysis teaches us – unstable, the performative of the photographs from the Self-portraits series would be manifested through the induction of desiring fantasy in the place of the Other; in the place of the spectator. And while our gaze searches for that what the figure with her back towards us is seeing, the photographic image itself signifies that movement ‘between the subject and the object, between self and the other’. Here, this image functions as a fetish: a sign, a signifier of desire ‘which both elides and remarks that separation in the describing both the object and its absence’.
It is important to perceive that the figure whose presence (and absence) the photograph represents by the first person singular is gender ambiguous. I would be inclined to read this gender ambiguous articulation of self-representation within the context of the notion of (the originally lost) object the absence of which is signified by the fetishised photographs from the Self-portraits series.
Here I return to the discursive form of self-portrait, in the sense of a specific subject-object relation phenomenon, to which the narcissistic preoccupation is immanent.
Elaborating on the structuring of desire which by-passes the Oedipal matrix of normative heterosexuality, or rather the phallic economy of meanings, Theresa de Lauretis talks about the subject’s own body-image as a fantasmatic object: a denied and wished-for female body which castration threatens with non- existence, and disavowal makes it attainable by a compromise fantasy. When the disavowal of castration is predicated of the female subject of a ‘perverse desire’, then what is disavowed must be something of which her body has knowledge, pain and pleasure; something toward which she has instinctual aims. That something is not, can not be a penis, but is most likely to be her body itself (body-image and body-ego), although the symbolic structure of castration rewrites that loss as a lack of penis. For her, de Lauretis goes on to say, that disavowal produces an ambivalent or contradictory perception of having and yet not having a body: having a body designated as female and yet not having a body that can be narcissistically and libidinally invested. Hence, one could identify the denied and wished-for female body in the function of the signifier of desire; in the function of a fetish. That wished-for object, whose absence is represented in the fetish, stands for something that has never existed in perception, or something for which there is no perceptual memory – and in that sense it is the originally lost object.23
And is not the very fact of existence of that something that never existed in perception, that something which is signified by the statement I do not see, which is the object of interest or, if you will, the object of representation in the photographs from the Self-portraits series? Situated in the inter-space between the place and landscape, found in the movement of two gazes that by-pass one another.
ZAGREB, February 2003