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by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

La Femme De Nulle Part

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La femme de nulle part is a show that, at its heart, is about the theatre and per­for­m­ance, a med­it­a­tion on the space between reality and con­struc­ted narrative.

Curated by Glasgow-based artist Lucy Skaer, the ex­hib­i­tion brings together work by Anita Di Bianco, Sophie Macph­er­son and Rosalind Nashashibi. Di Bianco comes first, with Dis­af­fec­tion and Dis­af­fect­a­tion, a film based on Jean Genet’s play The Maids, and starring - if that’s the right word - Skaer and fellow artist Hanneline Visnes.

In Genet’s telling of the story of the Papin sisters, who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter, iden­tit­ies are blurred in the near-sa­d­o­mas­ochist­ic ritual re­hear­s­als of murder carried out by the two sisters. Di Bianco blurs boun­d­ar­ies further, having her players address each other by their real names, re­gard­less of which role they are playing, dis­pen­s­ing with a third actress to play the maids’ mistress, allowing the play-acting within the play to bleed into this version of it.

For all that it is based on a piece of theatre, Di Bianco’s film is in­her­ently anti-the­at­ric­al. Unlike Chris­toph­er­ Miles’ 1974 film ad­apt­a­tion, with its static cam­er­a­work and lavish mise en scène, Dis­af­fec­tion and Dis­af­fect­a­tion is shot almost entirely in close-up, the camera re­lent­lessly hovering over shoulders and homing in on faces.

Skaer and Visnes are artists, of course, not actors, and their per­for­m­ances make for difficult viewing, with Pinter-length pauses as the pair struggle to recall lines, rather than for dramatic effect. This is, it seems safe to assume, a de­lib­er­ate tactic. The claus­tro­phobic filming, the dud per­for­m­ances, the confusion of already confused iden­tit­ies all combine to make Dis­af­fec­tion and Dis­af­fect­a­tion not a staging or ad­apt­a­tion of Genet’s work, and not simply a crude bid to evoke in the viewer a pale emotional imitation of the maids’ claus­tro­phobic mania, but an essay on the play’s themes expressed through a skewed rendering of it; com­ment­ary as per­for­m­ance, per­for­m­ance as com­ment­ary.

Di Bianco’s second piece, Studies for J., is a sketch or rehearsal for a proposed film about Joan of Arc, itself taking the form of a film. A woman paces around a room, reciting texts on the martyr. Those texts range from speeches made at the trial of Louis XVI to the first volume of Bob Dylan’s memoirs, lighting on e e cummings and Mon­t­esquieu along the way. At the centre of the piece, though, is Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s script for his 1928 silent mas­ter­pie­ce The Passion of Joan of Arc, which reveals Di Bianco’s rather contrary approach to her filmic sources. Where Dis­af­fec­tion and Dis­af­fect­a­tion exchanges the stillness of Miles’ direction for frenetic, intrusive close-up, Studies for J. responds to Dreyer’s work by excising the passion from his passion play, and reversing his focus on full-frame facial ex­pres­sion by having the camera loop languidly around the reader, dwelling on the set as much as the actor.

Between Di Bianco’s pair of en­gross­ing, pro­voc­at­ive film works sit Sophie Macph­er­son’s quiet, un­as­su­m­ing sculp­tures and works on paper. The re­la­tion­ship between Di Bianco’s moving images and Macph­er­son’s static ex­plor­a­tions is, though, im­me­di­ately clear. The space is dominated by an untitled gunmetal grey con­struc­tion that rises from floor to ceiling, its right-angled sides bisected by a curved shelf. Behind it sits Black Her­ring­bone Screen, echoing its basic form in miniature, with regularly spaced chevrons marking its interior surface. These two simple, re­strained pieces point to Macph­er­son’s in­vest­ig­a­tion of the­at­ric­al themes, twin stages enclosing the absence of actors.

Other works are more explicit, and step beyond the theatre toward other modes of per­for­m­ance. Apparatus consists of a card table without its top, its crossed legs painted canary yellow, and a black box laid on its side, as if a street conjouror has been chased from the scene. In­ter­lock­ing Coins looks like an attempt to explain the magic behind that absent conjouror’s con trick, with hundreds of one penny coins studding the surface of linked wooden discs. A drawing, Figure In Ruff, shows an an­dro­gyn­ous figure in con­tem­por­ary clothing save for the titular ruff, entering a world of make-believe through a simple act of tran­s­form­a­tion.

In amongst Macph­er­son’s work hang two pho­to­graphs by Rosalind Nashashibi, taken from a four-part series, Untiled (Abbey), which invert images from a study of 12th Century Cister­ci­an ar­chi­tec­ture. It is tempting to gather Nashashibi’s pho­to­graphs into the the­at­ric­al fold - perhaps the upside down ec­cle­si­ast­ic­al ar­chi­tec­ture is a comment on the per­for­m­ance inherent in religious ritual, perhaps the grinning faces formed by the upturned arches are meant to hint at the sock and buskin masks of tragedy and comedy - but, ul­ti­m­ately, they seem out of place, un­con­nec­ted, an af­ter­thought.

This broken link is a surprise. Aside from the awkward ap­pear­ance of Nashashibi’s pho­to­graphs, Skaer’s curation is taught, even witty. Whispers of dialogue from Di Bianco’s films are allowed to bleed into Macph­er­son’s empty set, a subtle means of high­light­ing the potential nar­rat­ives held in the latter’s work, and the mounting of the work is bluntly con­front­a­tion­al, with visitors whisked straight from the Edinburgh streets into the immersive world of Dis­af­fec­tion and Dis­af­fect­a­tion.

There is a sense, too, that Skaer has ap­proached the show as she might approach a piece of her own work, adding a quiet treatise on col­l­ab­or­a­tion to the show’s more obvious themes, from her ap­pear­ance in Di Bianco’s film to the seemingly forced inclusion of Nashashibi, with whom Skaer has worked closely in the past.

There is something of a problem with La femme de nulle part, though. Macph­er­son’s work suggests the pos­s­ib­il­ity of imagined nar­rat­ives, but falls short of prompting such ima­gin­ings in the viewer, and Di Bianco’s films are sa­t­is­fy­ing, but in a cool, academic sense; they are about drama, but never dramatic. This is a show that fairly fizzes with ideas, then, but while those ideas linger in the memory, the work itself does not - to twist a term from the theatre, La femme de nulle part never quite breaks the fourth wall.

This review was first published in Art Monthly on April 1st, 2007.