Ineradicable Stain

How to Cite

Firth, J. (2006). Ineradicable Stain. M/C Journal, 9(5).
Vol. 9 No. 5 (2006): 'filth'
Published 2006-11-01

For almost thirty years I have been an artist working predominantly in photography. My primary preoccupation has been to devise a visual language that expresses as closely as possible my experience of the interface between conscious and unconscious experience. This exploration has occurred on two fronts: in my production of artwork and in my analytic experiences. From the outset, the two have been inextricably linked and, over the years, have fuelled progress in both arenas.

While certain themes have remained constant throughout my career, for the past eight years my investigations have been circling the territory of desire. I have been addressing this territory in one way or another since my career began, but it wasn’t until my previous body of work, Fall from Grace, and my current body of work, Stain, that the address became direct. These two bodies of work also marked the introduction of a new medium, video, into my practice. There is a long and rich historical relationship between psychoanalysis and cinema that formed the basis for my decision to work with video. These ideas are cogently expressed by film critic Vicky Lebeau:

it [cinema] is a type of mime of both mind and world….Breaking from the confines of photography and theatre, it is unique in its representation of an abundant world in motion….There is a persistent sense that cinema imitates the movement of the mind, that there is a correspondence (however elusive) to be discovered between psyche and cinema.

Stain is a multimedia installation that integrates still and moving image within each work. In Stain, the idea of introducing the video screen into the work itself was particularly relevant to my ongoing investigation into the issue of desire. This investigation was fuelled by Jacques Lacan’s thinking around desire. Slavoj Žižek in his book, Looking Awry, An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture states:

fantasy space functions as an empty surface, as a kind of screen for the projection of desires: the fascinating presence of its positive contents does nothing but fill out a certain emptiness (8) … It is precisely (and only) the logic of desire that belies the notorious wisdom that ‘nothing comes from nothing’: in the movement of desire, ‘something comes from nothing. (11)

Lacan’s notion of reality is one of fabrication, construct—the result of the symbolisation process and induction through language. The Lacanian real, by contrast is the stuff of unconscious experience, a ‘grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life’ (Žižek 40). These ideas provided me with a new platform for devising visual strategies that addressed matters of conscious and unconscious experience and, more specifically, the issue of desire. Within these ideas the very evocative notion of a stop gap, a plug in the plughole between the real and reality, particularly appealed to me and suggested all kinds of visual possibilities. The strategies I developed regarding the function and aesthetics of the still versus the moving images were grounded in these particular Lacanian ideas.

As my theoretical research and studio explorations developed, the title for the work, Stain, emerged. Stain expressed for me the idea of an encounter between substances and the residue deposited, left behind as a kind of evidentiary trace. Žižek’s discussion of the meaningless stain as the remainder of the real that protrudes, sticks out, ruptures through the seemingly organised screen of conscious experience, was particularly relevant to the aspect of desire I was exploring. Specifically, I was concerned with the polarity between beauty and horror and how this plays out in an ambivalent experience of desire. Where desire is concerned, Stain, stretches the poles of opposition even further and on one level can be posited in terms of the Freudian bi-polarity of eros and thanatos. Desire is explored, on the one hand, in terms of the abject, the carnal, in which to cede fully to this extreme of desire can lead to death. On the other hand, desire is explored as exalted and sublime, an ethereal expression of life, anticipating conception. In Stain desire is posited as both brutally savage and hauntingly beautiful, ideas that are expressed through a variety of aesthetic strategies as well as in the content itself.

I became preoccupied with the notion of rupture as occupying a vertical, phallic trajectory, in which the real nature of desire is repressed and only becomes consciously known in the form of hallucinations, compulsions, suspicions and guilt. The consideration of repression as an activity that jettisons intolerable feelings and experiences to subterranean depths – requiring them to pass over into the realm of the prohibited – lead me to consider the art work itself as object, occupying three-dimensions, articulating ideas around psychological depth and layers. It also allowed me to reference the body and its three-dimensionality, the body as both map and territory of desire.

It was out of these considerations that I chose to imbed passive layers within the still images that only become activated through engagement with the works over time. The quality of these layers is intended to lead the viewer into an ever more fragmented, distorted and uncertain realm of experience. The video further heightens destabilisation rendering all of the elements suspicious and pushing the viewer into a compulsive search for meaning. The viewer, robbed of certainty, finds that the work instead dishes up endless ambiguity, requiring interpretation, re-interpretation, and promising no conclusive understanding. The idea of creating a destabilised viewing experience in which everything becomes contingent appealed to me enormously in terms of creating a deeper level of connection between the viewing experience and the analytic process.

Developing the content is something that occurs alongside the more formal considerations. It is, perhaps, the most intuitive part of the process and is the most directly linked to my analytic experience. There are moments in sessions when I’ve ventured into particularly evocative territories where certain images float up into consciousness and I recognise them as the basis for exploration in the studio. At other times, it’s not an actual image but a word, or series of words, which triggers recognition of creative potential. In either case, both are linked to a quality of feeling that I recognise as one that I want to work with. This is an exchange in which the therapy drives the creative process.

The image that appears on the cover of Filth is an example of this process. While this image is not a part of the final body of work, it was critical as supporting research. As the work evolved, the symbolic narrative developed a sub-plot concerning multiple selves and splitting. Again, previous bodies of work had touched on these ideas but in Stain the idea of splitting, and the nature of the relationship between these split-off selves, became quite particularised as they related to the specific issue of desire. While the cover image is a fully resolved image in its own right, the relationship between the two figures (selves) began to read as too didactic within the context of the overall body of work.

There were two crucial turning points in the development of the content for Stain. The first was when I decided to work with the tallis – the sacred Jewish prayer shawl worn only by men. As is often the case, I did not know why this was an important object to me but I decided to honour the impulse to work with it. The act of simply donning the tallis was a deeply affecting experience. On the one hand, I felt the subversion of this act, experienced the prohibition. On the other hand, it was a deeply reverential experience and I felt an overpowering connection with my father whose tallis it was.

The second turning point occurred somewhat later when I encountered a pig carcass in a butcher shop and knew I had to work with this object. For months, while I worked with the pig carcass and the tallis I agonized: why did I have to work with such charged objects? Would this work be interpreted as antisemitic? Would it appear blasphemous? Would the work be hijacked by political agendas? Though the images I was producing were incredibly powerful, still, there were moments in which I thought I should abandon this work.

Yet what was the alternative? If I couldn’t make work that honoured what was most authentic and urgent in me at any particular point in time what was the point of being an artist? I had my internal compass, I trusted it absolutely, what would happen if I chose to ignore it? Could I make work that was meaningful without this interior imperative? I thought not.

So, I continued to make the work, I continued to tolerate the anxiety, and finally, there came a moment when I understood the meaning of my choices. It was lodged in a childhood dream in which an anthropomorthised pig was the protagonist, the only dream from my childhood that has stayed with me for my entire life. There is much that I unraveled over the years in relation to this dream but in all the years of carrying the dream inside of me, all the years of thinking and wondering about it, the one thing I never factored into the equation was perhaps the most obvious: the pig is food. And, in the Jewish tradition the pig is one of the few animals that is utterly taboo.

I came to understand that on both a metaphorical and practical level the pig is the Hated Other. Yet the tallis is the sacred and revered. In placing these two objects together I began to realize that my work was creating a context in which hated extremes could co-exist side-by-side in an attitude of acceptance. I came to realize that Stain is about forgiveness. It is about redemption. It is about compassion. It addresses both a metanarrative and micronarrative. On the level of the universal, it is a protest against any beliefs that position individuals, cultures, religions into polarized extremes of hatred. On the level of the personal, it is an appeal for re-integration, self-acceptance, and a plea to bear the unbearable. On both of these levels the work argues for compassion and generosity of spirit.

Žižek talks about Lacan’s notion of the ‘open wound of the world’ (90) –

a cut that derails and disturbs the circulation of what we call reality…in that unrepresentable point where the very foundation of our world seems to dissolve itself, there the subject has to recognize the kernel of its most intimate being. (91)

This idea of recognizing and encountering the kernel of one’s most intimate being has been at the heart of my art practice for nearly 30 years. It has been the drive, the motive, and the call. More than anything else, making art has for me been an act of connecting with myself, of knowing myself, and of forgiving myself.

Author Biography

Julie Firth