Carrie Schneider: Reading Women

January 21 - May 22, 2016



 

Writing Women notes on Reading Women by Carrie Schneider

by Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

 

Marguerite Yourcenar said
she wouldn't be in a book of women
collection of women's writings because
only women would read it, and
they already knew they were angry --
And
anger, she said, is one, one person
a little personal sputter.
But that's that kind of anger, Marguerite --
what about
an anger like Dante's, a whole leaden sky
a church-charged orthodox anger,
creating, in Amer-lingo, a norm for the Great?
That's not so bad, to damn in perpetuity,
if you're Great?
Well, she says,
it's certainly not trivial.
 
Alice Notley, from "Just Under Skin of Left Leg," in Disobedience


Asked to speak about women and fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote and delivered a lecture that became the ur- feminist text, A Room of One's Own. "Chloe liked Olivia," she wrote, citing a woman-authored novel and implying that, for the first time in literature, woman was not in relation to man, but to other women. In her diary she wrote, "I'm afraid it will not be taken seriously. . . . It is a trifle, I shall say; so it is, but I wrote it with ardor and conviction. . . . You feel the creature arching its back and galloping on, though as usual much is watery and flimsy and pitched in too high a voice."[1]

The poet and theorist Maggie Nelson's account of a recurrent kitchen debate with her partner offers insight into Woolf's conflict, which is clearly the engine for her work. "Harry and I are always having this debate in our house: should the work rehearse the problem, or should it try to leap over it? He's a natural leaper; I can be a natural rehearser. But that's why Roland Barthes's comment . . . has been so liberating to me: '. . . there are two texts. Text I is reactive, moved by indignations, fears, unspoken rejoinders, minor paranoias, defenses, scenes. Text II is active, moved by pleasure.'" [2] Woolf often seems to be rehearsing while leaping. The preemptive paranoia in the diary entry is a familiar tone in the history of textual feminism, anticipation of a critical reader producing a voice pitched too high.

But "Chloe liked Olivia" suggests Text II -- the active, pleasure-driven text -- and the homosocial, if not homosexual, context in which it appears. The release it enacts is felt in the horse metaphor in Woolf's diary. Woolf wrote at a standing desk, her body's vitality harnessed to her language. Pleasure charges the quotidian with a specific heat. In her deft handling of temperature (through light, distance, scale, and time) Carrie Schneider's Reading Women imbues the fraught, hot territory of women-only spaces with a deceptively cool enlightenment halo.[3] If it seems outlandish to invoke the halo here, think of Schneider's previous project, Burning House (2010-2013), in which she built and burnt a small house on an island in the middle of a lake at least fifteen times. This effort becomes, in light of Reading Women, an epic struggle to master and contain the power of fire. Schneider has planted herself firmly in the tradition of the female mystic warrior.

Thus equipped, but not inclined to authoritarian heroism, Schneider is recruiting. She has invited interlocutors -- her fellow artists -- to a silent three-way conversation between authors, readers, and a photographer. Reading Women is ambitious, and, notwithstanding my elemental metaphors, Schneider's construction skills are resolutely cultural, rigorously dialectical, pressing ontological fullness hard against the rupture of the photographic frame. The project manifests in multiple ways; in the four-hour video -- a succinct relay of portraits, structured by the turning of the page; in the still photographs -- a fraction of a second is chosen from each two-hour session of raw video footage; and finally in the book you hold in your hands -- doubling the hands of the readers with your hands, their eyes with your eyes.

The interval between reading and writing is often tortured. Simultaneously avoiding and desiring my own shambolic voice (masked with bombastic asides, carefully edited out), lack of authority (just one more quote), anxieties about audience, and vacillations in tone between optimistic intimacy and feigned academicism. I've a hunch that writing here is trickier still because I too am pictured in this project. Contextualized by ninety-nine other women, my body, with its long silences and curled limbs, is employed in Schneider's project of representing women reading, holding, and being held by the words of the (women) writers whose books we read. Looking at these images of women summons internal conflict, not least of which is a felt sense of my own unreality. A nervous but smirking voice scratches my neck and simpers, "I'm not a woman like those women," and I can't distinguish between envy and insecurity.

I began writing this essay in 2013 and have learned, in the intervening two years, that the anxious, even angry, heat that I originally brought to Schneider's project was my own projection; Schneider herself had already mastered the fire. Poising her project in the indeterminate space between nineteenth-century paintings of bourgeois subjects enjoying the privilege of an obsolescent interiority, and late-twentieth-century advertising using representations of women to sell whatever, she produces a climate of contemplation, at once hot and agonistic and slightly chilly. These women would prefer not to.[4] Necessary perhaps to remind the reader that Schneider is also present, though not pictured, in these photographs. Thus they are also images of women together, women who, neither wearing the congenial mask of sociality, nor a guarded defense, seem assured of a privacy that history has given them no cause to expect.

Understanding our looking to be voyeuristic, yet also anticipated and prefigured, look over my shoulder while I look. A woman is reading a book. She is between the ages of twenty and fifty, she has light skin, dark skin, she is blonde, brunette, curly-haired, tousled, seen through a heavy curtain of hair. She sits with her legs up on a chair, thighs crossed, ankles crossed, feet tucked under her, lying on a couch, in profile, three-quarters view, head inclined, focused, softened, self-contained. Framed, frequently, by a window, a painting, a brightly growing plant resting on the sill behind her, next to her. A few are in darkness, the woman's body lost in the folds of shadow. In Rebecca reading Joy Williams, the view through the barred window is cool, northern, but still brightly illuminated. The woman is striated by the chiaroscuro that unifies the image, visually and historically: the highlight grazing the line of her hand, wrist to finger, as she reaches a taut but languid page-turning finger. One woman is smoking. The interiors feel spacious, the unseen ceiling and the tops of the windows extending beyond the frame of the photos. The camera was positioned low, on a tripod carefully adjusted to meet the reader at eye level, were these women to raise their eyes to look at the photographer, but they don't. This is quietude without quiescence. The anxiety of time wasted or poorly spent (on the wrong book, for example) is temporarily held at bay.

My initial angry response to these photos bears reexamining: rethinking the critique of the male gaze as something to be obstructed or deconstructed. A little further down the nonteleological path of history, our generation (mine and Schneider's and that of the majority of women pictured, although, significantly, not necessarily or often that of the women being read) has a more psychoanalytic, or perhaps more commodified, but also more queer-theory inflected, understanding of ourselves as performing, dressing for, and generally courting the female gaze as much as the male. This queer reading of female representations houses both envy and emulation. Sianne Ngai's book Ugly Feelings broaches the difficult topic of envy and broadens its application for feminism. She writes, "If aggressive acts of not identifying can play as active a role as identification in facilitating the transition from single to group femaleness, this usefully highlights the primary and . . . even constitutive importance of antagonism to collective political formations such as that of feminism."
[5]

Schneider has a history of negotiating the territory of mimesis, identification, envy, and antagonism. In graduate school, when I first met her, she was photographing herself in intimate, almost incestuous proximity to her brother.[6] Their similar appearance -- both tall, attractive, strong-boned brunettes [7] -- and the actions performed -- banal, domestic routines such as bathing, reaching for a book or a box of cereal, and peeing? produced, in 2007, an uncanny, sleepy desire in me, a strange dazed cocktail.

The verb to dwell has its roots in Old English, and Proto-Germanic terms like to mislead, to make a fool of, to lead astray, to perplex, make giddy, hinder, and delay, error, heresy, and madness. Feels like the opposite of home. Or it feels just like home. Sometime in Middle English the hindering and lingering settled down and made a home. Is the triumph of monotheistic and patriarchal religions occurring at the same historical moment a mere coincidence? I suspect that matriarchal, polytheistic, and pagan religions might have engendered a more mischievous, digressive, even transgressive relation to home.

Lately I read in the bathtub, on the train, in other people's beds, while eating. I have a physical and deeply attached relationship to my library, to the texture, weight, and color of books, and of words themselves. So in 2014 I packed my library into forty boxes and drove them to northern Wisconsin, to be housed at the Poor Farm while I became peripatetic, in a project titled Packing My Library. This provides a necessary distance from embodied attachment, while spurring the creature to arch its back and gallop. I am haunted by Woman Reading, an Edgar Degas monotype from 1885 depicting a hunched, monstrous naked form turned away from the viewer, plunged in the darkness of the scratched plate, her enormous back and thigh forming a giant sausage grin. The Cheshire-cat-like "thataway" inscribed in her body perplexes as it instructs.

I turned forty this year, during a cold January while housesitting for Schneider in her Brooklyn home. Three of my close friends have lost their mothers in the years since graduate school, and the adolescent problem of differentiating from her has long since been supplanted by anxious anticipation of her eventual loss. In A Very Easy Death, read by Antonia, Simone de Beauvoir writes with analytic precision about the coming and going of doctors in the rapid decline of her mother's bodily health. Her clarity is tempered by deep feeling, which she bears alone, protecting her mother from her mortality, preserving hope in the months before her death. "But when I reached home, all the sadness and horror of these last days dropped upon me with all its weight." This deception weighs on her, as her mother's frailty reveals a sweetness and warmth de Beauvoir had not known before. "My unfair harshness wrung my heart. At the time the truth was crushing her and when she needed to escape from it by talking, we were condemning her to silence; we forced her to say nothing about her anxieties and to suppress her doubts: as it had so often happened in her life, she felt both guilty and misunderstood."[8]

Tillie Olsen's now classic text, Silences, performs polyvocality as a political response to a lifetime of struggling to write amidst the obligations of mothering, of not just caring for but supporting a family. The text is composed of a collage of literary voices, from Herman Melville to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Virginia Woolf. She quotes Anna Tsetsaeyva, "An astonishing observation: it is precisely for feeling that one needs time, and not for thought. Thought is a flash of lightning, feeling is a ray from the most distant of stars."[9]

Carrie Schneider's project is timely. Reading recently composed texts on backlit screens feels close, hot, and immediate; despite easily sparked affect, there seems little room for the kind of feeling Olsen invokes. Space and distance for internal reflection is not easy to achieve or represent. Distant starlight is a cold and lonesome image for feeling, but it feels right. Feeling is difficult work, informed by relationship, and processed, mostly, in solitude. When the work is done well, it's audible.


1 Quoted in Mary Gordon's introduction to the Harcourt edition, 1989, vii. My emphasis.

2 Darcey Steinke, "The Rumpus Interview with Maggie Nelson," The Rumpus, May 6, 2015, http://therumpus.net/2015/05/the-rumpus-interview-with-maggie-nelson/.

3 Giorgio Agamben invokes the halo as the supplement added to perfection; this logical absurdity makes possible the nimbus that blurs the limits of a singularity, allows it to blend, to make itself whatever. The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

4 A reference to Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853), but I also mean it to imply, perhaps most clearly to a female reader, the irritation and rebuff of incursions on solitude, often made by men in public presuming that their intrusion is welcome, when all signs indicate otherwise.

5 Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 161.

6 The series, titled Derelict Self (2006-2007), can be seen here: http://carrieschneider.net/work/brother.html.

7 The use of brunette to describe a man is a deliberate mistake, meant to invoke Schneider's feminizing influence on her brother; even as she ostensibly imitates him, her mimetic action transforms the model (see Sianne Ngai above).

8 Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy Death, trans. Patrick O'Brian (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965), 57, 66.

9 Tillie Olsen, Silences (New York: Delacorte Press / Seymour Lawrence, 1978), 145.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published February 2, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the Haggerty Museum of Art, granted to TFAO on February 2, 2016. The essay was written to accompany the exhibit Carrie Schneider: Reading Women, on view January 21 - May 22, 2016 at the Haggerty Museum of Art.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Susan Longhenry, Director and Chief Curator, Haggerty Museum of Art, and Mary Dornfeld, Communications Assistant, Haggerty Museum of Art, for their help concerning publishing the essay.

Return to Carrie Schneider: Reading Women; with essays by Cauleen Smith and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung


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