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I Am Not This BodyReview - I Am Not This Body
Photographs
by Barbara Ess
Aperture, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jan 28th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 5)

When handling a nicely produced hardcover book in large format, printed and bound in Italy, with a $40 price tag on the inside cover, it is hard to see the artist's work as subversive or questioning. But reading Thurston Moore's recollections of the work of Ess, you get a strong sense of how Ess thrived in the punk/art counter culture of New York in the early 1980s and how her work continues to be derive energy from the spirit of that movement.

At the back of the book is a listing of works by the artist. She has created videos, books, exhibitions, a series of anthologies of work by artists in various formats called Just Another Asshole, music as part of various bands including Ultra Vulva and Y Pants. Her work is diverse and deliberate fragmentary.

Ess creates her photographs with a pinhole camera, which works by letting the light in through a very small hole rather than a lens; it deliberately forsakes the clarity and precision of technology; normally only the center of the picture is in focus, and the rest of the image is out of focus. The perspective of the image is also distorted. Normally the image is circular, dark at the edges. Most of these images are monochromatic, but the pictures are in a variety of tones, from a plain gray through sepia to bright reds. A wide variety of things are photographed: perceptual illusions such as duck/rabbits, flowers, leaves, trees, fish, pigs, dogs, babies, people on beaches, people in their homes, and unidentifiable blurs.

The method and the subject matter certainly make Ess' work distinctive; the images are almost surreal, reminding me of how films sometimes represent dreaming. Ess seems to refuse to have any clear message - as if the refusal itself is the meaning of the work. Or maybe the meaning is in the mystery; it would be easy to give a psychoanalytic interpretation of these images as the representation of the unconscious - especially in the image of a snake on the suburban living room floor. This reading would be supported by the fact that Ess calls one of her works "Dora's First Dream": in this work, a pair of photo pillows are attached to a wall, and on one of the pillows is text from Freud's Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. But it is highly unlikely that Ess is attempting to provide a psychoanalytic model of modern society or even of her own mind, if only because psychoanalysis is so out of fashion these days. If she is using psychoanalysis, it's far more likely to be a metaphor for something else.

So there's no straightforward meaning, hidden or otherwise, to these photographs by Ess. What's more, there's no clear emotional tone to them; and looking through them can leave one somewhat bemused about what Ess is trying to achieve. I for one am unable to give anything more than a wild guess what her work is about. So that leaves me to take the pictures at face value, and I can't say I find a great deal in them to hold my attention. I'm left thinking that Ess' work might be more effective in its original context of smaller works growing from the punk/art counterculture of Manhattan.

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© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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