‘It was strange…here I was among all those people and at the same time I felt as I were looking at them from some place far away, a whole place seemed to me like a deep hole, and the people down in it like strange animals…like snakes…and I’ve been thrown into it…as though I were in the snake pit.’
With these words Virginia, the heroine of the 1948 film The Snake Pit, narrates a nightmarish sequence appropriated by Breda Lynch for the video installation The Pit, presented as a part of the present solo exhibition at Siamsa Tíre. This particular scene, remembered by the artist from her early childhood, served as a linchpin for this body of work, which she has been making since 2012. Lynch is an Irish artist known for her fascination with gothic and film noir aesthetics, which she employs in her visual negotiations of femininity and gender politics. In conceiving The Pit and Other Stories the artist again reached for a troubling and controversial stock of representations of the female body. Apart from the aforementioned video, the exhibition consisted of fifteen photographs, including the Thursday’s Clinic series and four other individual pieces displayed in the two gallery rooms at Siamsa. Works such as Ectoplasm, Mammy and Dog II were inspired by film noir and horror movies, namely Mother Joan of Angels, The Exorcist and Possession; while the ten pieces of Thursday’s Clinic referenced the famous 19th century photographic studies of hysterical women by Jean-Martin-Charcot, the Head of the Parisian mental asylum, the Salpêtrière. Overall, as the gallery informed the audience, the body pushed to its physical, psychological and social limits was the central concern of Lynch’s work.
The cinematic sequence selected by Lynch from The Snake Pit, one of the most visually compelling in the film, is no longer than 30 seconds altogether. It is a long point-of-view take where the camera, mounted on a crane, slowly rises up and seamlessly cuts to a zoom-out shot revealing a haunting image of female patients in a psychiatric ward. As the camera moves, the focus gradually shifts from an intimate close-up of Virginia’s face to the final frame, in which a tumult of distant silhouettes is visible, as if the convalescents were lurking deep down at the bottom of a gigantic snake pit. In purely cinematographic terms such a combination of impressive crane-shot and extreme zoom-out (offering a transition from the intimate POV to the omniscient God’s eye view) was popular throughout the 1940s and 1950s in Hollywood productions, and it served not only to highlight the magnificent sets and crowds but also to enhance the psychological impact of certain scenes.
Lynch manipulated the video by muting it, splitting the screen and looping two channels into one projection. Whereas the left-hand frame features the original sequence, the right-hand one simultaneously plays the same sequence in reverse. As a result, the spectator is affected by an unnerving visual vertigo, which, apart of its dizzying effect, never brings the narrative to any form of closure. It is impossible to view both images simultaneously with equal attention, and this confusing stereoscopic experience provokes not only a disorienting reaction but it also draws attention to the problematic nature of looking as such. The beholder is made uncomfortably aware of the act of seeing, pinned in the moment of looking in and out at once, which allows the spectatorial self to be sensuously realised.
On a symbolic level, the dynamic and fluctuating representation of the human body from a closeup of an individual to a multitude of anonymous, incomprehensible, twisting body-shapes, exposes the slim borderline between the human and the monstrous, the self and its other. This sort of technique, which relies on repetition, reversal, duplication and resonance, is often used and explored by Lynch in her video installations (for example, The Kiss, After Rebecca), and, as Jenny Keane has suggested, ‘generates liminality between presence and dispossession’. In these terms we may consider The Pit as exemplary of the unresolved tension between the experience and the representation of womanhood in its empowered and disempowered states. Lynch’s decision to employ this visually powerful sequence in such a manner that it keeps on folding into itself ad infinitum, proved effective at forging a link between the artist’s intentions – of representing the female body in extremis – and their expression in the detached mode of found footage. This essentially material and aesthetic joint proved to be of central importance to my interpretation of the surrounding photographic work.
In a famous 1957 lecture entitled ‘The Creative Act’, Marcel Duchamp stated that in every creative act, operating between the two poles of artist and spectator, there is always an inevitable gap marking the ‘inability of the artist to express fully his intention’. For Duchamp, this stood for the ‘art coefficient’, that is ‘an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.’ Encountering the Thursday’s Clinic series for the first time, I had a feeling that the artist’s intention was not fully realised. It seemed to me that the whole project was lacking something essential, or as if the artist’s statements concerning the body in extremis were too strong to be supported by the visual material. Lynch’s contortions and convulsions of the body seemed insufficient to represent such outermost limits as were conveyed by, for instance, the photographs of Man Ray in his fetishism series of the 30s and 40s.
However, when I looked deeper, once I started looking in and out simultaneously and tried to abandon my prior spectatorial expectations, then something happened. Drop by drop the Duchampian concept of the ‘aesthetic osmosis’ realised itself in me through the artistic medium, the transference from the artist to the spectator occurred through the material properties of the photographs. The pieces, carefully orchestrated and displayed in the ambulatory of the round gallery, opened themselves as not only visual but also tactile objects in space. The photographs, mounted by Lynch within liquid acrylic frames, may resemble contemporary computer screens, yet they look like sleek and ultra-modern versions of the 19th century Daguerreotype – the first precious image fixed on the copper plate coated with polished silver and described in 1859 as ‘the mirror with memory’.
The technique adopted by Lynch provides a pitchblack digitally mastered surface which serves as a background for the highly graphic, clean cut images of the female body clad in contrasting white shirt and vibrant red tights. And as with the Daguerreotype the highly reflective surfaces of Lynch’s images capture the spectator. As in a looking glass one can see oneself seeing, and thus the surface is pierced: punctured, as Roland Barthes would have it. The fictive dimension of the photograph is vividly stressed, the obsidian-like mirror surface exclaims: look, I am an illusion! Paradoxically, then, whatever properties are being exaggerated they are presented in a distorting light. The phantasmagorical nature of the pieces cancels, denies and negates whatever it may have affirmed. The images of the bodies captured by Lynch function as holograms producing an illusion of three-dimensionality, and yet they also stress the surface as a peculiar memory membrane. They remind us of the frail nature of photography by stressing their own inner construction of time and space, their reliance upon memory and history of certain images, and their impressive presence here and now.
All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world…’ observed Duchamp, and Lynch’s The Pit and Other Stories provides an engaging spectatorial encounter, drawing its strength not so much from ‘the intended’ but rather from ‘the unintentionally expressed’.