16 January 2009

An exorcism regained

I'm never keen on labels. Can't live (or communicate) without 'em, of course; but I don't love them any more for that. Every label manages to get on the wrong side of me at some time or other. Look at "photography" for instance; or "photomontage"; or just plain "montage" for that matter.

Yes, yes, yes, of course - they have their uses, in fact they are essential. One of my professional lives would be impossible without them. But they are most useful when used as technical descriptors for methods of image production, and most likely to be irritating when used to suggest homogeneity of intent.

It's "photomontage" that's uppermost in my mind at the moment. Though I have never done very much of it, and that usually experimental on the level of first grade finger painting or lino cut, it has always had an irresistible fascination for me. But what does it really mean?

Look at Jerry Uelsmann, for instance, who first put his tree roots into me in the mid 1960s. His images of trees, floating above the land or surreally interpenetrating with other objects, or cruciform woman floating above a lake, have more in common with Dali's "Atomicus" paintings (Christ of St John of the Cross, for example) than with the deliberately raw photomontages of Raoul Hausmann and his contemporaries, or in the other direction with the meticulously and breath takingly crafted virtual sculptures built by the likes of Julie Heywood. Yet, all of these are photomontage (call its digital incarnation compositing, if you wish, but they are conceptually the same thing) and Dali is not.

And within the photomontage spectrum, what I have in mind is most like Hausmann in technique yet utterly unlike him in any other way.

For Christmas, I was given a copy of Penny Slinger's An exorcism. I had copy once before, in 1978, but it long ago fell victim (along with many other books, records including my Janis Joplin LPs, and sundry other artefacts) to a chance mortar shell. So, this was renewal of acquaintance after a quarter century or so.

Not every renewal of acquaintance is a happy one. An inseparable school friend from 1961 was, by 1981 ... well, never mind.

Last night I watched Antonioni's Blow up. In 1967, aged 15, I thought it superb. It now seems to me a mess containing within it brilliant bits (which if cut out would make a couple of wonderful ten minute films) and toe curlingly embarrassing ones (which if cut out should be burned). The final scene in which a group of young people mime a tennis match and our hero retrieves a nonexistent ball is sublime. The episode in which Hemmings and two nymphets jointly demonstrate a wooden inability to act made me ashamed to be in the same room with it.

An exorcism, though, has kept its promises. Constructed in the same spirit of unashamed collage as Hausmann, and with the same open espousal of a cause, it nevertheless ploughed a completely new furrow. It embodied the sexual liberation of the previous fifteen years, but Slinger made it uniquely her own. A personal exploration of the liberation struggle for an oppressed inner landscape, it applied political methods to the personal, elements combined with deliberate disregard for natural perspective or scale, ruthlessly rejecting both sentimentality and technical subtlety. And it still does all of this, to just as great effect, even though I feel no commonalty with Slinger's more recent Goddess Channel ventures.

A wonderful gift, a wonderful book, a wonderful performance (because if Julie Heywood's Equilateral is sculpture, then An exorcism is a performance in twenty one acts and ninety nine scenes), a wonderful piece of (but least importantly) photomontage.

  • Slinger, P., An exorcism. 1977, London: Villiers Publications for Empty-Eye. 0854352740.