Eyes Wide Shut: First Look at Cindy

September 14, 2008 |  Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Eyes Wide Shut: First Look at Cindy

~Joan Bowlen

American society loves to be terrified. Nothing seems to get the public more excited than to continually consume books, movies, and interactive entertainment which instill a sense of fear and heart-pounding doom. One delights in the ability to partake of another’s terror, to throw oneself into another’s plight all the while secure in the certainty that at the moment of discomfort, the horror can cease.  The eyes can close and things will pass: the book’s story line will still, the movie will move on to the next frame, and the amusement park ride will come to an end. Even though there is security in the ability to make the terror stop, the compelling desire exists to make the fear feel as real as possible so that the moment before drawing back and shutting our eyes, we suspend reality and we believe. We believe that the knife or the chainsaw or the claw-like hand is actually coming for us this time. This moment becomes the defining terror that we take away from the entertainment; the moment is crystallized in our minds as an image of horror to be drawn on to titillate the senses while walking alone or falling asleep. The most successful moments are the ones with the most striking images, as Amelia Arenas states: “what keeps a child awake at night after a scary movie is not a story, but an image[1]. The impression of the image lingers long after the freshness of the plot line has expired.

Cindy Sherman displays a kind of fascination with the terrorizing image throughout her work.  In much of her work, there can be seen a deconstruction of a horror image so that the viewer can see how fully he/she has been taken in.  Unlike the chainsaw or the menicing hand, Sherman’s disection of terror begins with the presentation of psychological thrills rahter than blatent violent grotesqueness.  In many of her early Untitled Film Stills, Sherman utilizes the conventions of suspenseful film noir in order to create parodies of the genre’s oppressed female figures. Stills such as Still #12, in which she stages a character who is hunched in a corner of her hotel room wearing a revealing bathrobe and a distraught expression, present the female icon as vulnerable and anguished. Such images create a sense of impending drama to make the viewer feel as though they have stepped into that moment before the dénouement, the life-or-death confrontation between the damsel and the demonic figure hounding her. Many of these photographs present an image of a woman who have just been jarringly pulled from the isolation of her own thoughts back to her ambiguously seedy environments, though the reason for this return to reality is left decisively vague.

The story line is left to the discretion of the viewer.  This discretion grants one the ability to make the imposed narrative as psychologically thrilling and provocative as the mind desires. Sherman does not impose a direct representation of a specific woman within the photograph, but rather creates doppelganger images of women which feel as though they have been photographed before, whose stories can be easily filled in from the viewer’s vast repositories of popular culture. Through this strong sense of present and previous display, Sherman is forcing the viewer to recognize the power of the gaze: the viewer is observing these familiar depictions of persecuted women, the camera is relentlessly intruding into their private space, and often, through the construction of the set, there is a sense that someone else in the photo is viewing these subjects.  Stills such as Untitled Still #5 and #14 use the turn of Sherman’s head and her glance past the camera stand to provide the sense that another figure has drawn the character’s attention or that the character seeks to draw the other’s attention. In the case of #14 the bruises on the woman’s arm and the sheathed object held loosely in her hand strongly suggest that the other presence in the room represents a physical threat.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled 14, 1978

Evenso, the photograph provides a rather ambiguous plot line, allowing the viewer to assume that the woman is most likely a victim of physical violence, but does not limit readings to this interpretation. Sherman’s characters exude a sense of bondage, held hostage within the confines of the photographic frame. These frames can feel incredibly stifling and restrictive depending on Sherman’s way of positioning the camera’s viewfinder, such as in the closely cropped images of #3 and #5. This reduction of space accentuates the sense that these women are forever under the scrutiny of the voyeuristic gaze of the audience, camera, and an unknown third party[2].

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #3, 1977

Sherman’s later works demonstrate a more blatantly terrifying dimension than the Untitled Film Stills series. Rather than the film noir genre, she turns to the pornographic and the horror movie industry to create allegories that are both grotesque and strangely humorous.  She incorporates lighting so dramatic and ebullient that the viewer can easily discern the photograph’s mechanic underpinning, thereby deflating the terror that is built up through the unknown.  Sherman replaces this fear of the unseen with a direct confrontation of the grotesque image that can feel more unsettling . Her manipulation of everyday objects into striking still lifes of violence and decay, such as Untitled #175, demonstrate the interior/exterior struggle of women. The light confectionery cupcakes and pastries that have traditionally been the stuff of dinner parties now lie haphazardly strewn about on a carpet of blue, while a pile of vomit is juxtaposed with a pair of black-rimmed glasses. The reflected image of a woman mid-scream contained within the lens of the glasses draw the eye into the still life and places the focus on the pile of vomit on the floor.  It is unclear whether the excriment belongs to the woman or whether she is being subjected to someone else’s, but regardless, the woman lies in a disturbing landscape of a debaucherous aftermath.  The inclusion of cupcakes and other edibles in this still highlights the use of food to control the body’s exterior appearance. What is taken internally can be projected externally, though in this case, it is a violent rejection of the interior being forced into the plane of the exterior still life space[3]. This splattering of an interior thing across an exterior surface forces the viewer to question the sense of self and its relationship to its environment. Through the voluminous build up of objects, both whole and disgustingly fragmented in the composition, Sherman presents the viewer with a scene that is beautifully composed and emotionally detached yet unsettlingly and disturbingly private and personal.

Also in her later series of Sex Pictures, Sherman turns to human-like objects such as dolls and mannequins to present the human image as fragmented and warped within the paradigm of the grotesque. Sherman provides the viewer with a fun house mirror view which allows us to see and be seen, encouraging us to relate our experiences and desires to her figures while still recognizing the artifice of the photographic presentation. These photographs function as a morphing of the self into visions of fantasy and horror, but with all the stage mechanics illuminated in order that the viewer might comprehend the construction of these hallucinogenic photographs. The grotesque mannequins and masks represent the underside of the human sense of self, the fascination with things horrific and gratuitous. Such images of the strange, deformed, and mutilated can unearth feelings of a secret self, of untapped forces that often go unacknowledged. Sherman strives to recreate the gothic conception of the moment when Jekyll becomes Hyde, when light turns dark. Her photographs “revel in the mock horror—the perversely intertwined repulsion and seductiveness—of the shape-shifting moment itself”[4]. From the vulnerably complete stereotype of victims of the original Film Stills to the brazenly mutilated monsters of her later work, Cindy Sherman draws the viewer into her images and demands that one view and be viewed. One cannot help but contribute to the voyeurism as the eye gazes where the camera dictates. And Sherman’s camera dictates that we see a dark reflection of our societal values in the images of women and monsters contorted in their moments of contrived privacy.

[1] Amelia Arenas, quoted in Elizabeth A. T. Smith, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, in Cindy Sherman: Retrospective (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2006, pp.28).[2] Amada Cruz, “Movies, Monstrosities, and Masks: Twenty Years of Cindy Sherman”, in Cindy Sherman: Retrospective (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2006, pp.3).[3] Amelia Jones, “Tracing the Subject with Cindy Sherman”, in Cindy Sherman: Retrospective (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2006, pp. 45).[4] Smith, 24.


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