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Interiority as a Positon of Strength - On Helena Almeida

The work of Helena Almeida provokes an awareness of self actuation as a woman artist, as well as the limitations of art practice itself. The sense of the difficulties and challenges of being a woman artist are palpable within the work, in addition to the problematic of authorship. And yet, the images she has produced, over more than forty years, from carefully staged performances captured on camera, are very powerful in their iconic simplicity. They are mostly still images, which challenge the viewer to 'fill in the gaps', to interpolate and to interpret the intentions behind the work. The works articulate "her own role as protagonist in front of the camera." [1] They are also "strongly influenced by cinema... as they enact small plots. Her images look like stills from films that never were." [2]

The work is essentially a dialogue between Almeida, as artist, and the cultural positionings which she perceives surrounding gender. This dialogic quality is also directed at art practice itself; what it means essentially to draw a line,""I turn myself into a drawing"" [3],or to paint on a canvas. The gender relationship is thus combined with the interrogation of art-making, which is the contextual aspect of the work, and which has its roots in the early seventies. There is also the question of whether 'life' is not more important than 'meaning', daring the viewer to reevaluate, in a pre-oedipal sense, the nature of representation itself, when she 'inhabits' the work as in 'Inhabited Painting', 'Inhabited Canvas' and the various 'Inhabited Drawings' from the seventies. "the artist emblematically inscribes herself into various artistic formats." [4] There is clearly a feminist perspective in this work, "in these experiments with "inhabitation" there was also an emphasis on human scale and thus an intimacy which was again in keeping with much 1970s feminist art." [5]

In effect, the use of photography is made singular, by the addition of painted marks. This is important in terms of turning the photographic absence into a 'presence', momentarily, which engages the viewer in "a new visual exercise which defies any priviledging of the real." [6]Part of her very authoritativeness appears in the interventions she makes into the photographic images with paint which helps to create the visual dialogue which extends the photographic image into a conceptual space.

Interiority is very important to Almeida, as particularly exemplified by the work "Dentro de Mim" (Inside Me), 1998, where a trail of black pigment diagonally crosses her studio space. Almeida crouches over the pigment which seems either to be going into, or coming out of, her mouth. In this work she has made "the private into the public" [7], and turned "the body "inside out"" [8], she "reduce[s] artistic experience to human scale, to a realm that is unmistakably private."[9] She has played on the duality of interiority/exteriority by combining 'fiction' or artifice; the impossibility of this act as anything other than a contrivance, with an 'enunciation', where the image is intended to be interpreted, responded to, in an outer textual space. It is the "inner textual space" [10] which she externalises and extends into the gallery, into the public realm. It is through this externalisation that "Almeida interrogates... the relationship between the body and the space it inhabits and so the tension between the active and passive voice." [11]

Interiority can be both a priviledged condition, "synonymous with soul, spirit or conciousness" [12], or a "confinement to the body" [13], particularly in terms of the way that the female subject has been perceived and represented, especially in classic cinema. It is this "intractable materiality" [14] in terms of a view of femininity, which Almeida 'dramatizes' as part of her dialogic structure. Many of her image making techniques give the illusion of her 'presence', and her active relationship with the work, while at the same time acknowledging that the photographic forecloses the real, which creates an absence which she refuses to compensate the viewer for, and has instead expressed herself through her own art language: with pigment, horse-hair and 'costumes' she has specifically made for her performances.

In "Ouve-me" (Hear Me), 1979, a video of Almeida behind a gauze covered canvas stretcher, so that she is performing from inside the 'canvas', "The artist is never located solely on either side but simultaneously and fully on both: she is at the same time work/object and author/embodied subject." [15]Her mouth sucks air in, the tongue pushing and describing the surface from the other side of the material, writing 'ouve-me' in saliva with her finger, crossing it out with a pen held in her mouth. The drama of this staged event again explores an interiority, situating herself as artist 'speaking' from behind, from 'inside', the picture plane, although this is a displaced notion as the actuated 'voice', in the abstract sense, has both veracity and fetishistic value, creating a presence which "is given the imaginary power to place ...meaning in the here and now" [16].And yet it was an event, captured on film.

It is found to be part of the ontology behind Almeida's work, a discipline which speaks both of the "exclusion from symbolic power" [17] and that very notion of "an incapacity for looking, speaking or listening authoritatively" [18] with the enactment, in fact, of diametrically the opposite.

 

Sarah Thompson 04.03.10

www.hansardgallery.org.uk

[1] Filipa Oliveira in, Helena Almeida, Inside Me, Kettle's Yard, 2009, p 5

[2] ibid, p 6

[3] Lilian Tone in, Helena Almeida, Inside Me, Kettle's Yard, 2009, p 25

[4] ibid, p 26

[5] Alyce Mahon in, Helena Almeida, Inside Me, Kettle's Yard, 2009, p 15

[6] ibid, p 11

[7] Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror, Indiana University Press, 1988, p 53

[8] ibid, p 53

[9] Lilian Tone in, Helena Almeida, Inside Me, Kettle's Yard, 2009, p 26

[10] Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror, Indiana University Press, 1988, p 56

[11] Alyce Mahon in, Helena Almeida, Inside Me, Kettle's Yard, 2009, p 16

[12] Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror, Indiana University Press, 1988, p 45

[13] ibid, p 45

[14] ibid, p 61

[15] Filipa Oliveira in, Helena Almeida, Inside Me, Kettle's Yard, 2009, p 5

[16] Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror, Indiana University Press, 1988, p 43

[17] ibid, p 31

[18] ibid, p 31