From culture

gazing outwardly from A Room With A View (1986)

James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View is divisively stylised with a satirical portrayal of aristocracy, and with notes of nostalgia for quaint Britishness. In 2019, it invites revision. Twice removed from its 1980’s production of Edwardian subject matter, ARWAV maintains a rather obscured position in the cultural imagination. It has, since its genesis, divided critics, as has heritage cinema generally, for its ascribed sordid, banal vision of rather enervating caricatures that depend on conservative nostalgia, and a longing for a time of sensibility and anti-progressivist values. It’s worth noting here that these views constitute that of those who are anti heritage cinema altogether, and deem ARWAV an example of such. Others suggest ARWAV is not a heritage film, but a product of transnational creative effort that sought to deconstruct class and sexual stereotypes across social boundaries. Much like recent period-erotica Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 The Favourite, ARWAV borders on a camp aesthetic in its embellishment and decorative priority, refined with its romantic centrality and its witticism, with its period representation as central to its irony. Of course, The Favourite is not heritage cinema, but I’d like to suggest that ARWAV isn’t either. That description, one charged with negative connotations, disservices ARWAV‘s complexly satirical portrayal of aristocrats and tourism, of romance and subjectivity.

It is one of many films that constitute 1980’s emergence of such nostalgic films, a movement we can largely attribute to Thatcher’s governance turning British creatives towards a reimagining and commodification of the past as their subject matter. With its success perhaps largely indebted to its popular cast of actors, ARWAV, if nothing else, upholds as a prototypic rom-com in its critical acclaim. However, I shall suggest it exhibits a far more sophisticated perspective altogether, one that assumes anti-heritage cinema in its portrayal of heritage filmmaking.

A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory

ARWAV essentially follows a group of English tourists as they traverse rural and urban Italy, attempting to soak up its culture while remaining detached and voyeuristic. For Miss Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), note the absurdly ‘English’ name, Italy personifies a repressed, passionate spirituality, a sensual and romantic freedom that is inhibited back in England. Britishness is far from an idyllic vacation in spatial and figurative measure. In their position as affluent tourists, the characters gaze upon Italy and project their own fantastical versions of its culture, carving out a utopian space upon which they are far more attuned to their emotional sensibilities and romantic intuition than social convention would usually allow. Of course, this creates a neat dichotomy in cinematic terms, the distinguished and opposing spaces and their distinct affectations. However, herein this separation lies a contention of which Ivory is entirely aware.

When paired with tourism, the act of gazing refines what we mean when we try to draw the parameters of what a tourist is and what they essentially do, and this complicated, problematic position. Gazing is a historically and culturally specific action that implies hierarchy and mobility. It is far more penetrative and active than seeing for this implication of power. Gazing, as active, contains a superior gazer and implies a less autonomous, more passive, subject. Take classical art for example, the masculine gazer and his feminine subject trace back to antiquity. This action can be applied to ARWAV, wherein gazing is exercised to satirical excess and generates the fluidity with which English characters orient Italy on an entirely separate plane to Italian inhabitants. Guided by selectivity, they construct a vision of Italy that either challenges or reinforces their touristic imagination, never slipping below the surface of whichever envisioned ‘Italy’ they desire.

A scene that evidences this constructed view is the stabbing in the square, wherein Lucy faints at the sight of a brawl-turned-stabbing, yet quickly returns to the side of the street, quite literally, to her position as tourist. Her safety is secured in a shaded spot, having acquired evidence of her preconception that Italians are passionately violent. This marks one of the only interactions, if one can even call witnessing an interaction, between Lucy and an Italian space. Of course, this moment is certainly obscured for how unlikely it is to witness a stabbing in the street in Florence, but nevertheless, in catching one moment of tragedy, violence is sewed into Lucy’s fabric of Italy. The rest of Lucy’s experiences, of course, are contained within the titular room from which she views, or in the haze of her memory upon returning to England.

A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory

Though ARWAV demonstrates a love for highly aestheticised gentility, it undoubtedly suggests it is a privileged, inauthentic position to be a tourist. Touristic gazing renders an authentic experience impossible, and it seems that this does not matter for the aristocracy. The English tourists in ARWAV are bound to their position unless they expel their preconceptions of the terrain upon which they wander, in search of evidence for their own idealised, fabricated space: a romantic yet violent, exotic yet civilised Italy that pertains to a vision that they long to see. And this is not such an action they choose, for their preconceptions are rooted in a greater agenda within which Italy is a tool. For Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench), Italy is the blueprint of her upcoming novel, thus her conceptions are of commercial benefit. Characters’ view of Italy is always, willingly, tethered to their preconceptions, every moment charged with a bias that is either confirmed or contradicted. All experiences are measured against a touristic vision they have imagined or hoped for. They are either disappointed or gratified with all that they see, and both assume a preexisting vision, a vision that is exercised through the act of gazing.

A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory
A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory

The act of touristic gazing extends beyond the narrative and into cinematic reception. We too, as critic Ellen Strain names us ‘armchair travellers’, imagine what we see rather than experience it, or at least the filmmakers imagine for us. In ARWAV, Italy is not just a mise en scène as a touristic metaphor, but it is, of course, literally a mise en scène. This complicates where exactly our sympathies are directed, as they seem tethered to the English tourists and their vision of Italy, though it is clear that we are not to take their vision as reality. Yet, of course, the film is glorious to look at it, with abundant cinematography of rural and urban Italy. One then asks, does ARWAV‘s indulgently, beautiful construction merely constitute nostalgic, romantic filmmaking or does it quietly reinforce the film’s premise, including the audience in the role of touristic gazer? I think the latter is far more interesting to consider, and it does not exclude the former. We, as audience, don’t see Italy. We see Italy on film. And perhaps this vision is comparable, if not entirely similar, to the characters’ own satirised and detached gaze, their position as the indulgently naive voyeur.

If ARWAV is heritage cinema, it would be far less self-critical. If heritage cinema longs for nostalgia and commodifies itself as an agent of a simpler past, then ARWAV presents its antithesis. It presents a stock characterisation of the past. It’s a cartoon, not a fresco. It’s a mockery of Edwardian aristocracy. It plays with absurdity and with the rapid love often seen in the novels of Forster and Austen, noted influencers of the heritage movement.

ARWAV is inappropriate and ridiculous, unreal and lavish. It is not heritage cinema, rather, a union of convention and critique that doesn’t for a moment take itself too seriously.

american dream and nightmare: suburbia in film

 

‘Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,  

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,

And they all look just the same.’

                                                                             – Malvina Reynolds, 1962

As pro-suburban policies were launched in conjunction with a national construction program of 1945, suburbs sprouted all over America and increased the attainability of the American Dream. Surviving from frontier to front-line, this ethos saw nuclear families in pastel neighbourhoods supplanting the horrors of war with their picket fences, Tupperware parties, and flowerbeds.

William Levitt, hailed as the ‘father of suburbia’, developed a scheme with his firm Levitt & Sons that allowed them to build mass-producible and inexpensive housing for the flood of returning veterans in America. In the three separate developments of New York (1947-51), Pennsylvania (1952-58) and New Jersey (1958), the firm offered small houses that could be built in just one day. Despite the modern approach to assembly, the homes themselves strayed little from the conventions of house design upheld by Americans at the time. The structures were revolutionary in their construction, but nostalgia was manifest in their appearance. Within the settings of the ‘Colonial’ or ‘Ranch’ type, the lives of nuclear families were aided and improved by efficient, hygienic and top-of-the-range appliances. Returning from the horrors of war, the veterans were awarded with domesticity.

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A neighbourhood of Jubilee models, Levittown, Pennsylvania, c. 1953

However, due to the standardisation of the Levittown houses, the homogeneity of the streets became a popular criticism. As Levitt sorted his residents by income, each house-type was grouped by neighbourhood, rendering swathes of streets indistinguishable. The long history of racial segregation further upturns this narrative of a suburban utopia. The development in New York was founded on the basis that it was only available to white people alone. Indeed, this stipulation was written into the house contracts by Levitt stating, ‘no dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the caucasian race’. Sales agents were advised to turn away black families and automatically register their applications as unsuccessful. Even after the states enforced a non-discrimination law, sales agents located the black applicants away from their white neighbours. The homogeneity of the residents is thus facilitated by this aim to constitute a community with a specific racial identity.

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The suburban landscape of Levittown, New York, c. 1952

The little boxes of American suburbia are some of film’s most frequented locations, its homogeneity frequently rendering the protagonist or narrative as extraordinary in comparison. In films that centre around a singular character, think Carrie, Donnie Darko and The Truman Show, the protagonists display their deviation within a stifling suburban setting.

In Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma), the title character faces unanticipated menstruation, peer-bullying, and abuse from her Christian fundamentalist mother. Carrie Whites’s telekinetic powers are the ultimate deviation from the claustrophobic household and school her mother and peers respectively enforce. Following Carrie’s murderous revenge and the burning down of her house, the final scene begins with an opening shot of suburbia. Birds sing and the sun casts shadows on a manicured lawn. The scorched plot where the White house once stood is set up as its inverse. This contrast serves as a reminder of suburbia’s nightmarish potentiality, one that is shown in the final scene, to still haunt the sole survivor of Carrie’s rage.

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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)

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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)

In Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly), suburbia is first introduced as a landscape of mundane yet tranquil normality. In the opening scene, Darko cycles through the streets, the camera panning to the morning joggers. Darko’s father is shown blowing leaves off his lawn, and his sister plays on a trampoline. Immediately Darko is set up as the anomaly – an adolescent who frequents a psychotherapist, disturbs classes, and treats his family with hostility. Again the underside of suburbia is unleashed. The tranquility first introduced is done away with by the end of the film and instead suburbia is set as the home of supernatural powers, multiple universes and sexual deviants.

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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)

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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)

In The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir), suburbia is a simulation. As a product of a corporation, the life of Truman Burbank is broadcasted live around the world as reality entertainment. Here suburbia is not intended to be residential. Instead, cameras are hidden within each wall and suburbia is presented as the ultimate facilitator of voyeurism. When Burbank realises the reality of his situation, this realisation marks his deviation from the suburbia. He becomes transgressive, determined and defiant, assets the suburban simulation attempted to suppress.

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The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)

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The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)

The placidity regularly assigned to suburbia is exploited in the genre of horror. Films like Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter) set the horrific actions of Michael Myers within the sleepy streets of Haddonfield. Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele) subverts this in the setting of the Armitage country-estate. However, despite its isolation, the systematic racism and manicured appearance of the estate seem Levittownian in their presentation.

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Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter)

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Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele)

American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes) has been described by critics as a satire of middle-class notions of beauty, sexuality, materialism and personal satisfaction. In the opening monologue, Lester Burnham introduces his suburban place of residence with contempt:

‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead … And in a way I’m dead already’.

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American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes)

Films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton) and The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola) use suburbia to emphasise the abnormality of their central storyline. In the former, Edward’s behaviour, appearance and physicality are stark contrasts to the pastel utopia of the suburb. As the film progresses, his disruption to the homogeneity of the community ultimately results in his eviction by mob force. In the 1999 film, it is the suicide of the youngest daughter that disrupts – the setting of suburbia heightening the atypicality of her action.

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Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton)

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The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola)

For Levitt, suburbia offered security. In film, that veneer is firmly pulled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

thelma & louise (1991): redemptive violence, femininity and queering masculine space

[contains spoilers, content warning: rape, sexual violence]

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This essay weaves together some of the cinematic elements that animate romance, dark comedy, redemptive violence, absurdity, feminism and queer space – tethering them to the centre of the compelling cinematic universe of Thelma & Louise (1991).

Callie Khouri’s screenplay

“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake”

In writing Thelma & Louise, Callie Khouri composed a 131-minute long love song for the screen, an ode to women and freedom, and in doing so earned herself the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Thelma & Louise has one of the most beautiful, quick-witted scripts to emerge from this genre, a genre that can only be seen to fit a loose definition of comedy, action, mystery, romance, in one marvellous, amorphous conflation. Below are some of the iconic quotes that evidence Khouri’s mastery at writing the female voice as an agent of the reworked crime/romance/comedy genre.

Louise: You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.

Thelma: [with her gun to the state trooper’s head] I swear three days ago neither one of us would’ve EVER pulled a stunt like this, but if you’d ever meet my husband you’d understand why.

Thelma: You awake?

Louise: Guess you could call it that, my eyes are open.

Thelma: Me too. I feel awake!

Louise: Good.

Thelma: Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feeling this awake. You know what I mean? Everything looks different. You feel like that, too, like you got something to look forward to?

Louise: We’ll be drinking margaritas by the sea, mamacita.

Thelma: Hey, we could change our names.

Louise: We could live in a hacienda.

Thelma: I gonna get a job. I’m gonna work at Club Med.

Louise: Yeah. Now what kind of deal is that cop gonna have to come up with to beat that?

Thelma: Have to be pretty good.

Louise: Have to be pretty damn good.

fluorescent light motifs

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Borrowing from a Lynchian aesthetic, the fluorescent lights are emblematic of Edward Hopper paintings, of the illuminating metropolises of America at the height of mid-twentieth-century modernity. If Thelma & Louise is to writer Callie Khouri a love-song to women, to director Ridley Scott it is a romantic novel translated onto film, to simulate rain-speckled gas station signs and advertisements that glow neon from the highway.

feminising the road-trip

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Perhaps the reason Khouri writes such a vibrantly comic and erotic road-trip tale is that it is her reimagining of what is otherwise a historically masculine genre. To avoid any comparison to its masculine contemporaries and predecessors, Khouri reinvents the road trip film as an active site of femininity and romance mitigated with a plot of criminality. Even the initial crime itself is feminised, as an act of sexual violence against women, male-on-female. Thus the violent action throughout the film, all of which comes as a result of the male-on-female violence at the start, is the only remaining satellite that orbits the masculine genre at its core, and is feminised. Therein lies a kind of liberation in the betrayal of masculine convention. We don’t witness Thelma and Louise meet a historical expectation of weak feminine subaltern characters wrapped up in action, instead, there is inversion. Their friendship is eroticised, the men they meet are enemies for their abuse of power or their enforcement of the law, their violence is reactionary at first and evolves into comedy, influenced by that of which they’ve seen on TV. In all aspects, there is an inversion of the female role and of the action genre, and together, in the absence of men in a man’s universe, they find a space where femininity and action coexist in harmony.

“nobody’d believe us”

Louise: I think I fucked up. I think I got us in a situation where we both could get killed. Damn, I don’t know why I just didn’t go to the police right away.

Thelma: You know why. You already said.

Louise: What’d I say again?

Thelma: Nobody’d believe us. We’d still get in trouble, we’d still have our lives ruined. You know what else?

Louise: What?

Thelma: That guy was hurting me. If you hadn’t come out when you did, he would’ve hurt me a lot worse. And probably nothing would’ve happened to him ’cause everybody did see me dancin’ with him all night. They would’ve made out like I’d asked for it. My life would’ve been ruined a whole lot worse than it is now. At least now I’m havin’ some fun. And I’m not sorry that son of a bitch is dead. I’m just sorry it was you that did it and not me.

Rooted in the film’s feminism is a harrowing consciousness of rape culture and the judicial system’s treatment of rape victims. One of the first incidences we witness a self-awareness of Thelma’s otherwise naive characterisation is her acknowledgement of the reaction to those who claim to have been raped, upon reflecting her own close encounter with assault. The act of self-defence, Louise shooting the attacker, represents a process that is altogether contentious and perplexing according to judicial law: the grey areas of innocence, guilt, attack and defence. Thelma & Louise takes a social and feminist issue and turns it into something we as audience are subjected to stomach: the same consciousness of our own culture’s attitude to rape and sexual violence. Even after 27 years, little in attitude has changed. Beneath the fluorescent lights of the bar and the drinking and the comedy, there is a known reality. We don’t take Louise’s violence as we take a typical action film’s violence, as superficial entertainment, hypermasculinised, emphatic power assertions. We don’t view the violent act of shooting the attacker, preventing Thelma’s rape, as escapist mythology, but as a mode of survival. Thelma and Louise don’t experience the cinematic luxury of slinging a gun and outrunning the bad guys. They commit violence as a mere reaction to the violence inflicted upon them, ‘them’ as a symbol of women.

Louise: In the future, when a woman is crying like that, she isn’t having any fun.

violence as a vehicle of control, more pertinently, taking back control

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Thelma & Louise has been criticised by some for its abundant violence. Some have even stretched far enough to claim misandry. Troublingly so, these inconclusive critiques raise the question: is cinematic violence only ever permissible when it’s male-on-male, female-on-female, or worse, male-on-female? If so, does female-on-male violence have to be so outrageously untethered to a known reality in order to be permitted? If so, only the blood-spattered Uma Thurman armed with a Samurai sword in exoticised rural Japan is allowed. Apparently, female-on-male violence for cinematic and aesthetic entertainment can only exist if it promises to leave the U.S. and travel into the realm of the unbelievable in order to be unthreatening, in order to uphold the monuments of violence that are ‘normal’, or at least the ones we are used to seeing. It is probably worth remembering that the only man who is actually killed in Thelma & Louise is the sexual predator, in an act of self-defence, right at the beginning. God forbid there were actual spontaneous female-on-male killings, or perhaps our newly found sensitivity to violence would render us uncomfortable and upset. Any other kind of violence though? Sure. Grab a gun. Go crazy. When we enter the realm of the fictitious, of the cinematic, we should maybe debunk this sensitivity to violence that seems to only exist for female-on-male exclusively. Especially, in this case, when the violence is an act of self-defence. If even reactionary violence can be seen as ‘too violent’ or misandrous, then we are at a crossroads in which we must actually decipher what cinematic violence means regarding gender relations entirely.

Incidentally, not only is the violence compelling (here, I refer to the killing of the sexual predator thus it is definitely not misandrous but deserved), it is necessary. Our position as audience depends on it. It circumvents the structure of the story, it emancipates Thelma out of her subordinated life and it draws the women closer together. Without the crime spree, catalysed from the killing at the start, we would spend our viewing expecting the weekend to come to an end, as the credits roll and a far more bleak finale presented to Thelma and Louise: returning back home to their suffering, their normal.

In fact, in its necessity, violence becomes a vehicle of control. In a hyperbolic and feminised fashion, embellished with one-liners, the violence throughout keeps the plot in motion whilst garnering control for the women. In stark contrast to their occupations back home, a housewife and waitress respectively, once they unwittingly begin this spree of criminality and outrunning the law, they find an obscured sense of control within their own lives, a kind of redemption for the violence they have both endured as women.

it passes the Bechdel test

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I wouldn’t usually examine a film according to its Bechdel assessment. Bechdel tests can be rather unfortunately sobering and feel somewhat futile to discuss for their indication of cinema’s stagnant lack of gender representation, but here it seemed significant to mention. For a film that orients femininity through a narrative of criminality, we see the feminine space operate to cinematically and symbolically omit men: Thelma and Louise running away from male partners for the weekend, the killing of a sexual predator and the preoccupation of skirting the notably all-male law enforcement in their constituents. In constant motion, following Thelma and Louise on the run, we spectate their dialogues and their omission of men as subject (passing Bechdel) and we witness this omission in practice. Throughout the narrative formation itself, men are not subject, but object. Nearly always in the distance (excluding Brad Pitt’s thieving cowboy subplot), men are at a remove spatially and temporally; across another state, back home, in a helicopter or police station, in memory. From the lens of Thelma and Louise, whose perspective from which we are exclusively confined, we are given access to a meta-cinematic visualisation of passing and somewhat reframing the Bechdel test altogether. Our heroines certainly do have at least one conversation about something other than men, and they have at least one of these conversations in the 1966 Ford convertible as they drive on into the desert, far from the men who subjugate them.

the punctuative and concluding kiss

Arriving at the end of the film, where Thelma and Louise have been surrounded and the anticipated confrontation with the law is at our feet, we stand over the grand canyon. We are given more dialogue of how much both Thelma and Louise feel they have changed, their reluctance to go back home and their exchange of silent compassion. They implicitly agree to “drive on”, over the edge of the canyon, and in doing so, punctuate the film’s absolutely beautiful, necessary absence of men. Thelma and Louise’s tireless effort to escape the men who dominate their lives (domestically or even societally, ie, the law) inevitably draws them into each other. What is seen by many as the final piece of evidence for the film’s queer undertones, is concluded with a kiss before they drive off into the canyon, “to keep on going”. This ending has left its mark on cinema and routinely and referentially lives on in modern culture. I don’t think (mainly female or queer) audiences have ever been so thrilled and heartbroken and emotionally invested in a car flying into a ravine. Perhaps because of the love story framed with criminal excitement we experience this unusual sense of beauty in this mania and euphoria. It isn’t Tom Cruise jumping out of a helicopter, it’s our heroines turning their backs on mistreatment, injustice and unfulfillment. It is, in all its absurdity, the happiest, most beautiful resolution for Thelma and Louise, and for us their audience, as their faithful companions.

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poetry as untranslatable: gloria anzaldúa on straddling dual identity

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Alison Hawthorne Deming

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“borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them”

The Chicano movement – the extension of Mexican American civil rights movement during the 1940s and 60s – was a movement of working-class Americans born of a cultural and racial ‘mixture’ across the southern borders of the US, exhibiting political solidarity and a linguistic common ground within their community. Queer theorist and Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa is known for her Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), a poetic discourse of the hybrid identities formed in the borderlands and voicing the people of inherited colonial oppression.

‘Chicanos did not know we were a people until 1965.. with that recognition we became a distinct people, we became aware of our reality and acquired a name and a language that reflected that reality’

the tool of language

The semantic field of Anzaldúa’s poetry, her littering of Spanish nouns amongst her majoritively English political discourse, raises the question: do the words she uses mean more, or something altogether different, in the language in which they are written? Does Anzaldúa speak to greater literary philosophies beyond the cultural, political remit that thematises her work? In conflating her dual identities, she speaks only to those who share this identity, irrespective of the glossary given at the bottom of her text to translate her Spanish. We ask, what does ‘rajetas’ mean for Anzaldúa, and is its meaning lost in translation lest it is kept in Spanish? Does the exercise of translation rid the word of its cultural exclusivity and meaning altogether? Her bilingualism speaks to the transitional state of life on the border: a physical and psychological border. Yet in her alternation, she is unable to commit fully to either language. Her orphan tongue is not native to any fixed geography, instead, she straddles in between, incomplete. Her linguistic alternation becomes central to the way she understands herself and the complexity of her cultural background: the border splits and prevents her from one sole identity; she is both.

In this dualism, Anzaldúa finds strength. The ‘crossroads’ she imagines become a point of divergence. Self-determination born out of identification. A sense of autonomy and agency is manifested within the crossroads, and in this exercise of choice, there is identity. It seems that to transcend borders, whilst the borders home identity, requires being ambiguous and contradictory. Anzaldúa is emphatic in her promotion that to overcome or navigate the border, you must become a crossroads. You must diverge and emancipate from the border rendering it as merely an origin, not as a final, immobile destination.

the struggle of the mestiza* is above all a feminist one

“The future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures.”

The Chicano Movement, in its romanticisation of the past, was a highly masculine environment, with conservative ideas of sexuality and gender roles, and Anzaldúa’s Chicana identity is rooted within this patriarchal and homophobic community. As a working-class queer woman, her sexual identity became another means of ostracisation, and for her poetry, she risks exclusion from her own cultural movement for her sexuality. Thus the intersections of her identity become internalised within the Chicano movement: oppressed outside the community for her Chicana heritage, and within for her queerness.

Violent metaphors seem to feminise the poem: the Woman as a site of bodily oppression and violence. The ‘open wound’ Anzaldúa imagines can be seen as a state of suffering, an exposure of dual identity that prevents healing, or, identification from either side of the border. Belonging exclusively to the isolated ‘third country’ in between. However, Anzaldúa seems to believe that in the possession of an ambiguous, contradicting identity, there is empowerment. In contradiction there is conflict, and in conflict, you can shake up both sides of the border.

Anzaldúa speaks self-consciously to her own language within her poetry: “until I am free to switch my language I will be illegitimate”. In translational gaps and miscommunication, the paradigm that she will be misunderstood by monolingual Spanish or English speakers, she finds strength and community. There, in refutation of the exclusion from her racial community, she speaks to the Chicana movement itself. She tackles and activates the language that defines her community around a shared experience and identity, insofar that her poetry, its duality and conflict and fragmentation, is her identity: “I am my language”.

*Mestiza = (in Latin America) a person of mixed race, especially one having Spanish and American Indian parentage.

synecdoche, new love: modern couples exhibition review

Modern Couples presents a different way of looking at Modernism in art, as seen through the artist ‘couple’, an elastic term encompassing all manner of intimate relationships that the artists themselves grappled with, expanded, embraced or refuted.’

– Exhibition Guide

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is the newest exhibition at the Barbican Centre. Organised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou-Metz, the exhibition draws on a wide range of original paintings, handwritten letters, sculptures, artist manifestos, and furniture. The idea of the solitary artistic genius is done away with, giving attention to the muses, rivals, lovers and companions whose consideration seems long overdue.

Including the likes of Vanessa Bell & Roger Fry, Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin, Claude Cahun & Marcel Moore, Eileen Gray & Jean Badovici, and over forty more- the exhibit considers more than just romantic or sexual couplings but platonic, familial, professional and competitive ones. It also steers away from a heteronormative model, including couples such as Lili Elbe & Gerda Wegener.

D. Tanning and M. Ernst with his sculpture ‘Capricorn’, 1947, @John Kasnetsis

Sprawling across two levels and filling twenty-three rooms, the exhibition is comprehensive to say the least. Each couple is given a section of wall on which their names, artistic output and biography of relationship are printed. Oddly, the ‘birth’ and ‘death’ dates of the relationship are also supplied, each one coming together on one wall to produce a timeline: ‘from the liaison to the life-long’. The works of art are exclusively framed within the rhetoric of the ‘modern couple’. Little evidence and reference is given to work beyond the timeline of the relationship, as if that artistic output is deemed unworthy of mention.

But this is not to say the exhibition does not have its successes. For example the sheer variety of material is extremely impressive- a testament to the effort and rigour of the curators involved. From Marcel Duchamp’s Erotic Objects (1950-1) which are based on the moulds of female genitalia, to the harrowing handwritten communications between Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin: “please don’t be unfaithful to me anymore”. Upstairs the exhibition also features examples of Aino & Alvar Aalto furniture and a selection of designs from the Bloomsbury group.

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, 1933. Houghton Library, Harvard University

‘Liberated, Radical, Obsessional!’ is the tagline emblazoned across the promotional tote-bags and posters, but throughout the exhibition I asked myself: where? Where is this obsession that inspired, enabled and empowered the artists behind these wonderful works of art? The fervour that supposedly fuelled these works of passion are displayed in a format that quickly becomes repetitive and mechanical. It is like one has stepped into the physical manifestation of each artists’ dictionary entry and we are unable to delve further beyond their opening sentences. Unfortunately, despite its good intentions of representing the overshadowed partner, the exhibition does little to advocate their genius and brilliance.  If one compares Modern Couples to the Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibit which ran last year, the former seems entirely soulless. Whilst Boom for Real celebrated Basquiat as a multifaceted and energetic creative, Modern Couples is a straightjacket to those it includes. It does little to relieve the more unknown partners of their obscurity as their work is only presented as the output of a ‘couple’.

Whilst I admire the variety of material, Modern Couples flatlines in the struggle between quantity and quality.  The art is used, not only to represent the whole relationship, but each artist’s entire oeuvre.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova in the workshop. (in front of Kino-phot magazine covers), 1923 Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde can be seen at the Barbican Centre, EC2Y 8DS, until 27 Jan 2019.

art and the everyday

If money were not object, my nursery would have been fitted with William Morris wallpaper. Strawberry Thief may have been chosen, or perhaps Seaweed or Honeysuckle. I’m sure their scrolling foliage and patterns of blossoming flowers, fruits and wildlife would have fascinated any young child. However, despite these designs not adorning my childhood walls, I came to know them very well. Compton embellished my dad’s favourite mug whilst Fruit existed as a tea towel in the kitchen. Larkspur, Wreath, Trellis and Pimpernel today still furnish our home in the form of aprons, trays, pillow covers and tote-bags. I even used a free sample of Golden Lily to cover my GCSE art sketchbook. For me, there is something so nostalgic about Morris and Co. designs. I grew up with their reproductions in my home and until recently thought nothing of it.

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Trellis wallpaper, designed by William Morris and Phillip Webb, 1862, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Morris once wisely said,

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

Although our home is filled with many things one would struggle to claim as beautiful or useful, the mismatched junk of the family house has its own strange kind of beauty. The bowl filled with a jumble of pebbles, keys, coins, dog biscuits, hair clips and old receipts. The box of wires and cables never used and their functions long forgotten. I feel that I am starting to romanticise the mundane here, and one probably shouldn’t start to analyse the clutter of everyday life. Yet, I feel there is more to be gained from looking at interiors this way. I grew up with Morris and Co., not on my wall, but in the everyday objects I interacted with. So much has been written about Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement and interior design as a whole, but little considered into how this translates into the homes of ordinary people today.

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Wreath wallpaper, designed by William Morris, 1876, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So I suppose this acts as a brief prologue to a series of writings surrounding the topic of the everyday interior. To come will be further analysis into the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the interiors of the Bloomsbury group and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright across the pond. I’ll also be considering the importance of  reproductions and the accessibility of design. Perhaps by considering these renown designers alongside our ordinary furnishings, a reevaluation can take place, as Morris said,

The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.’.

identifying dialogues between japanese architecture and the rest of the world

Innovative quarterly architectural magazine JA (now rebranded with a focus on urbanism to ja+u (Japan Architecture + Urbanism) explores movements and conversation in Japanese architecture.
JA’s website describes the periodical:
“JA – the Japan Architect – was first published in June 1956 and was the only English language periodical that introduced Japanese architecture to an overseas audience. Since 1991 it has been published as a quarterly journal in both Japanese and English, expanding its readership both inside and outside of Japan. Today’s JA showcases contemporary Japanese architecture with in-depth commentary on the theoretical history and context of the projects. It is organized with an emphasis on developments originating in Japan. The magazine surveys the country’s diverse, ever-changing architectural scene, identifies important trends to convey to a wider audience outside Japan, takes up current, compelling issues and considers the latest architectural trends”
JA and its sister partners (a+u, Shinkenchiku, Jutakutokushu) place an importance on the dialogue created between reader and content. Published in English alongside Japanese (both languages are seen across the same spreads), JA directly distributes detailed ideas of Japanese urbanism to its residents and to the rest of the world. In its acknowledgement of its wide-spread readership and the dialogue its translation creates, JA also gathers and presents high-quality works from around the world in their publication. Beneath the surface of academia and information, there is conversation and collaboration.

 

 

A 2013 spread by Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, entitled ‘New Approaches to Apartment Living in Japan’, is an example of JA’s commitment to distributing information through creative visions of Japan’s urban, contemporary architecture of living spaces. It can be seen in photographs below.

okurayama apartment

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one roof apartment

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shakujii apartment

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