Gina Pane is described in the TPG’s handbook as “one of the most radical artists of her time” (34). We saw her work at the recent study visit which I have already talked about.
I am returning to her here because the work she did was understandably seen as controversial but also dismissed by quite a few of the students. It is a difficult work but one that retained a great deal of power, and is particularly relevant to some of the hegemony related and structural ideas we’ve been exploring.
Pane began with sculpture but became a performance artist. Le Lait Chaud (the Hot Milk) 1972 is a photographic record of a performance where Pane was dressed entirely in white, exploring the theme “white doesn’t exist”. The room she was in was also white, as was the milk placed around the room in jugs. She used a razor to slice her back, arms and face, and consequently bled on the white surfaces. She has photographs of herself and she also turned the camera on to the audience to record their shocked reactions.
There is a fairly long description of the work here along with images:
There are several things going on:
First I need to quote James Elkin from What Photography Is, “On this subject (pain), I think it is necessary to push to the end of the scale (what can he mean…the end of what scale? And where is the end…?) First to push past metaphorical discussions of represented pain, where the subject doesn’t need to be illustrated and images not confronted: then to go on past pain as it might, or might not, be glimpsed in faces (which Pane certainly does); past a distaste for ‘shock’, or a defensive thought about the powerlessness of little black and white images, or in the hope that even searing images heal quickly in the mind; and past the ambition to make art out of painful pictures of the body by upping the aesthetic ante. After all those increasingly desperate dodges, photography waits patiently, always willing to give us naked pain if only we would look” (80% Kindle)
- A usual narcissistic impulse would be to protect the face
As quoted in the book we were able to keep, Pane breaks a taboo by cutting her face. “the face is the only place that retains a narcissistic power.” (Pane, 1972 – quoted in TPG booklet, 2016) Just thinking about cutting one’s own face is difficult; the place we usually try to keep looking well, by brushing our teeth, washing it regularly, using makeup and surrounding it with a decent(ish) hair cut. It is therefore incredibly powerful to see someone actually cut their own face and that touches a place within us, the viewers, in a way photographs don’t normally tend to. Is Elkins satisfied that Pane has pushed far enough here? He is dismissive of Witkins, calling his images ‘precious’ on two separate occasions in his book What Photography Is, and in comparison to Pane’s images they do seem so. Photography has the power to effect us in this way, but it is rarely employed quite so aggressively. And perhaps Elkins is saying that it should be more often, that we should confront what we do to each-other and experience the ‘real’, rather than see it dressed up and anaesthetised by artists such at Witkins and also Sally Mann, who like Witkins uses dead flesh in his work in a ‘shock’, but makes it bearable with artistic flourish. (Actually both these artists are heavily criticised for using flesh in their art, so maybe it’s not that bearable for people – but there is no literal physical pain, and it is not self inflicted.) Pane does what Elkins describes. But it is so hard for people to witness, does it actually have the required effect – because where I was standing at the TPG on Saturday, most people did not want to look. Maybe that’s Elkins’ point. People don’t look. We will always avert our eyes from the real. And allow the horrors to continue, thereby perhaps being complicit by default.
- White non bleeding male – bleeding female
We are looking at Richard Dyer’s White. We are exploring its invisibility. White, as Dyer states, ‘colonises the definition of normal’ (Dyer, 458; 1988) – a normal that has decimated and colonised large parts of the world for several hundreds of years. Here Pane smears blood all over the white. It would be overly simplistic to interpret this as a symbol of the blood spilled by the ‘normal’ whites throughout history, and in relation to white-driven wars being waged at the time, Vietnam, although that too is certainly relevant, as described: “Pane’s art was not only about Vietnam. Critical commentaries on body art also emphasized that the risky and radical practices of 1960s and 1970s artists were suffused with the revolutionary spirit of various civil rights movements that shook western civilization and transformed it entirely. Risk-taking, exposing oneself to suffering, and confronting the aggression of the dominant system was the experience of those who fought in the name of women’s rights, the rights of people of color and lesbians. Democratic civil rights were extended to those groups because someone took the risk of confronting injustice and discrimination. The story of minority movements in the history of humanity’s development and humanization is also a story about the continuing sacrifice of human victims. A wound must appear on the social body for an awakening and a healing to take place. It was in this context that Pane spoke about making an intervention into an anesthetized society and climbed without anesthesia.” (Leszkowicz, 2010-15) White relates to historical power and power had been in the hands of the white male (and his white Christian God).
However, If we look at Zizek’s description of Lacan’s Real and Imaginary, where he explains with words along these lines; “you and I talk to each other in the imaginary. We do not picture the real, we do not admit that we are people who defecate”… and therefore also bleed. Then we can connect white, i.e.’normal’ to the imaginary non defecating and certainly non-bleeding figure that dominates the world in western history, and popular culture. Blood is feminine. Blood is horror. Blood is real. See the end of the film Carry for a very obvious example of this being played out in our culture. To deny the existence of the real bleeding woman is the issue in the psychological minds of the non-real, imaginary powerful white male. Power, says Zizek, exists in the imagination (I’m not entirely sure about that myself actually, but I understand the concept). Pane makes that denial impossible by revealing her blood and her capacity for bleeding. Pane’s performance took place a decade before Dyer wrote his essay about the invisibility of white, which tells me the theory was already there, and Pane is exploring that.
- Another thing leaking out of females….
Hot milk is another leaking substance that comes out of women, and it feeds babies and makes them grow, and men can’t do that. They can’t secrete milk or bleed or grow new lives in their bellies. It’s ‘magic’ – actually it’s the real but in the imaginary it can only be magic, which is not to be trusted. White male history has existed in the imaginary far more readily than in the real, a place where power games can be played. Where Hegel’s masters and slaves can operate, pertaining to power. But the invisible white males need the bleeding, milk leaking Others, as well as all the other non-white Others to experience their power. So they concoct tales of sorcery and other imaginary tales in order to condemn the real of Others and destroy it/them. Milk, like blood, is a very real aspect of who we are – organic and animalistic. Women exist in the real more readily because they have little choice. They bleed, and leak milk, and give birth -and historically died doing so fairly frequently too.
Pane’s work effectively embraces and explores the real, and however you wish to interpret her work, her blood cannot escape being a potent symbol of the feminine.
A few of the people with us said the work was dangerous today because many young girls cut themselves in acts of ‘self harming’, and risked encouraging such behaviour. I do not know if self harming was as rife in the 70s, it certainly was not known about to the same extent if so. We humans are fragile and mirror group behaviour at a very unconscious level though, so there is some merit in the concern for girls today being negatively influenced. The work’s narrative therefore is now transformed because of today’s context. But it was at the time of making a reaction to the world in which Pane lived. As Leszkowicz, who’s article I posted above says, “It was in this context that Pane spoke about making an intervention into an anesthetized society and climbed without anesthesia.” I wonder if Elkins would be satisfied by Pane’s work, after all, it echoes the Death by Thousand Cuts images he explores at the end of this book.
Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University, pp.456-466.
Elkins, J. (2011). What photography is. New York: Routledge, p.80% Kindle edition.
Zizek, S, (2012) The Reality of the Virtual, User generated content https://youtu.be/RnTQhIRcrno (Accessed 2 November, 2016)
Image Witches illustrated in Martin Le Franc’s ‘Le Champion des Dames’ (1451) (via Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF)/Wikimedia) from http://hyperallergic.com/332222/first-known-depiction-witch-broomstick/ (Accessed 2 Novemerb 2016)
Leszkowicz, P (2010-15) Female St. Sebastian: Parallel lines in the radical lesbian art of Gina Pane and Catherine Opie http://www.interalia.org.pl/en/artykuly/2010_5/07_female_st_sebastian_parallel_lines_in_the_radical_lesbian_art_of_gina_pane.htm (Accessed 2 November 2016)