Review by Colin Herd
In a tiny photograph of a domestic interior, the doors of an ornate wooden cabinet gape open. In the lower half, a chest of drawers; the upper half, three deep shelves. On the top two shelves are books, papers and medicine vials; on the third shelf, something altogether more surreal: a slight-built young woman lithely scrunched into the cupboard. Dressed in shorts, white socks and a sleeveless polka-dot blouse with a bow in her hair, she looks both adolescent and feline, insouciantly stretched out, all gangly limbs and eyes tight shut, apparently asleep. In spite of the bow and the polka dots, there’s something provocatively boyish about the prominent arm and leg dangling from the edge of the shelf, limbs tanned the colour of bronze. Her face, too, has a statuesque lustre from heavy, monochrome bronze make-up. Subverting erotic fantasies and tropes of Western Art, the image is transgressively androgynous, ironically refusing easy categorization even as its subject is literally placed ‘on the shelf’. Taken in 1932, this unforgettable photograph is one of over fifty self-portraits by the French Surrealist Claude Cahun (1894-1954), currently on show at Inverleith House.
Cahun was born Lucy Schwob, niece of the Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. She was best known in her lifetime as an experimental writer who blended fact and fiction in fragmented and disjointed texts that vacillate constantly in style and tone. In 1937, Cahun and her life-partner (also step-sister) Suzanne Malherbe, known under the pseudonym Marcel Moore, settled on Jersey, and very quickly found themselves under German occupation. Showing tremendous bravery, as well as remarkable skill and cunning, the pair were active in the resistance movement, producing anti-German fliers which they disseminated by dressing up as German soldiers and infiltrating military events, to surprising effect. Finally, in 1944, Cahun and Moore were arrested and sentenced to death, but both escaped due to the looming end of the war, and Cahun died nine years later. It wasn’t until the French writer François Leperlier was researching a book on Surrealism in the mid-1980s that he discovered the wealth of photographic experiments created over a forty-year period. Since their discovery, the photographs, which are almost exclusively self-portraits, often in androgynous poses, have come to be championed by Queer theorists and are seen as an important antecedent to the gender-bending photographs with which Cindy Sherman burst on to the art scene in the 80s.
When seen in such an extensive exhibition, Cahun’s chameleon-like ability to portray herself in different styles and poses is astonishing. In one picture, she’s wearing what looks like a trapeze-artist’s leotard and men’s baggy sports shorts. Her hair is slicked to her head, except from two curling whiskers. On either cheek there is a face-painted love heart and on her breast, two black buttons. She’s holding a set of dumbbells. Scrawled in messy handwriting across her chest is the slogan: “Don’t kiss me, I’m in training.” In another image, she’s doubled, looking in a mirror, with her hair crew-cut. Both the collar on her checked coat and her chin point insouciantly and intimidatingly skywards. Anticipating the Psychoanalytical theories of Jacques Lacan, it’s as if Cahun is caught in “the mirror stage”, permanently experiencing the gap between emotional self-image and perceived appearance. A definitive image, in a body of work that thoroughly rejects the idea of a definitive image or identity, might be Self portrait, with masks (1929). Cahun is standing in front of a heavily patterned curtain, wearing thick woollen tights and patent black shoes, her toes pointed outwards. Her hair is neatly bobbed around her face, and her lips are bashfully pursed. She’d look the picture of honesty, and slightly awkward innocence, if it wasn’t for the black cape she’s wearing, covered with sewn-on masks.
Once you adjust to the procession of bizarre, disturbing, and often amusing portraits, perhaps the most disarming of all are those that employ and subvert a veneer of naturalism and vulnerability. In one, Cahun is seen bald-headed and shoulders bared, wearing a loose black chiffon robe, which encloses her arms. Her face is turned towards the ground, and she appears sensitive, tender and ill-at-ease. As with all these pictures, Cahun reminds us it is just that, an appearance and an artificial effect. A piece of black chiffon almost identical to the one worn by Cahun is pinned to the wall behind her like a minimalist work of art. The colour of her skin behind the chiffon is almost identical to the grayish colour of the wall. Deconstructing our impressions of transparency and femininity, it’s a meticulously posed photograph that wears its artifice on its sleeve.
Downstairs in the ground floor gallery, Inverleith are showing new work by Glasgow-based artist Sue Tompkins. Tompkins, who graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1994, found cult fame thanks to her distinctive vocal performances with the indie band Life Without Buildings, a glorious blend of talk-singing, shouting and squealing, the epitome of hyperactive passion and nervous energy. The exhibition consists of six object-based pieces and a performance entitled Hallo Welcome to Keith Street, which she has also recently performed at The Hayward as part of British Art Show 7. Her work channels the tradition of radical experimental writing, a tradition that includes Cahun herself. On either side of a huge, wall-sized folded sheet of non-archival newsprint, the words W. Coast and E. Coast, cut, it looks like, with scissors from a piece of tartan fabric. On the newsprint there’s a typewritten text, spaced out in constellations and conglomerations. Making use of all the page’s dynamics, it has to be read vertically, diagonally and horizontally. Given the use of newsprint, it’s tempting to see the text as not a text at all, but an erasure, and re-arrangement of a newspaper. Perhaps less fancifully, it’s as if the text is the spilling over of half-mindful projections experienced while reading a newspaper. An obvious influence would be the concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (Tompkins was included in the ICA’s recent survey of text-based art which took its title from Finlay’s legendary magazine ‘Poor. Old. Tired. Horse’) but the artist I was most reminded of is the American poet Hannah Wiener. Wiener’s performance pieces, as well as her long, experimental projects of personal ‘journalism’, shared with Tompkins a restless investigation of language and personal expression, conducted through the details and debris of everyday language-use.
The collage-aspect so prevalent in much contemporary experimental writing is provocatively taken out from the text and overtly stuck or pinned to the wall in a number of Tompkins’ pieces. A torn magazine advert for Clinique combines with safety pins and keys in a humorous dynamic of, what, give-and-take maybe, or nip-and-tuck. In other pieces, Tompkins’ exploration of text crosses over into an exploration of textile, such as three wall-collages made from purplish chiffon, safety pins and zips, in various states of open and closed. But even in her silent, non-text-based pieces, Tompkins seems to be hinting at the complex procedures of transparency and obliqueness through which we communicate to each other. Her work lays bare possible scenarios and metaphors for the processes by which language connotations attach to one another and through which texts are fabricated. Zips, (as the creators of the T.V. show Rainbow knew), can also be a potent metaphor for the mouth. Just as in her photographs, Cahun deconstructs the self-portrait, Tompkins dismantles its literary equivalents: the diary, the lyric and the personal utterance. It’s a piece of subtle and inspired programming from Inverleith House to show these two artists together.
Claude Cahun/Sue Tompkins continues at Inverleith House until 17 April. For more information please visit their website here.
Image: Sue Tompkins Untitled, 2011. Typewritten text on newsprint, fabric, photograph: Paul Nesbitt.