Behind the veil
By Erling Mostue Bugge
Lillehammer kunstmuseum (2013)
The participants in Charlotte Thiis-Evensen's new films are caught in a cross-fire between internal forces and different forms of external discipline. The body is explored in its role as the boundary of the self, a border zone for colliding forces, a meeting place for tensions stretched to breaking point. Either the situation remains unresolved, or the protagonists are compelled to gradually resign themselves to more powerful agents such as time and aging, or less visible but no less active threats from outside the body. The body may be more subtly disciplined by an encounter with an imagined Other or with the gaze of the public. In Falling Trees a triggered reflex is sustained by the eye of the camera, an expression of life forces the subject does not quite control. The women revolve bizarrely around their own axes, their bodies are rotated almost mechanically in the gradual breakdown of the aging process.
Hair has a profound significance in Thiis-Evensen's work. She uses its close contact with the head, the abode of the self, as a particularly complex metaphor. In these films the women's hair serves as a primitive symbolic focus for the struggle over the self, which is also a struggle to identify what it means to be a woman. In primitive societies hair was associated with the world of the spirit, where the soul belonged; it served to join the soul to its fate in the other world. Cutting the hair broke this vital contact, and the consequences could be fatal. In the Bible story of Samson and Delilah, God's gift to Samson of the supernatural strength to win the battle against the Philistines is vested in his long hair, which he is forbidden to cut. When he falls in love with Delilah she coaxes him to tell her the secret of his strength; she then cuts off his hair and he loses all his power. Thiis-Evensen's A Mother. A Daughter illustrates a power struggle between the mother and daughter over the possession of strength and vitality, producing a tension that expresses itself particularly clearly when the daughter brushes her mother's hair. The women are participating in a closed ritual surrounding the power vested in the hair; in clan-based society this was a vital metaphor, which is apparently being kept alive here.
In Combing Hair, we are witnessing the negation of the outer world, a more introverted bodily expression. Facing us is an emaciated girl, but at the same time a girl who has hidden her face behind her hair, which she brushes and brushes, perhaps in order to protect herself from the force of our gaze, the gaze of the outer world or of the powerful Other. Many artists, including Edvard Munch, have used the bowed head as a metaphor for shame. Thiis-Evensen's reference is to a drawing by Edgar Degas of a girl bending forward to brush her hair. The drawing can be traced back to Degas' painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1865), where the raped women are standing or lying with their faces and heads bowed towards the earth and covered by their long hair. In Thiis-Evensen's film the girl is also covered by her long hair, which she is manically and obsessively brushing. We are prevented from seeing her face, as if it is our gaze that makes her ashamed. And perhaps as onlookers we do bear some responsibility, perhaps we are taking part in a collective censorship that is doing violence to young girls' bodies. Young women are being pressured to identify with their bodies, forced by an imperative beyond their control to display a beautiful, tanned, slim, well-trained body. In a culture that only thinks of young girls as bodies, violent responses such as anorexia and self-mutilation, and perhaps also this obsessive brushing, this turning away, are acts of defiance, a negative response by the self.
The veil arouses a desire to see what it is concealing. But what could the camera lens unveil – how far can it penetrate the substance, the truth behind the appearance? In The Bathtub the absolute clarity of the image reveals a play of different codes and references, a tension displayed on the borderline between depth and surface. A group of girls and boys of different ethnic backgrounds are playing masters and servants in the bath. Fantasies and categories are deliberately mixed up: signs and signals of gender, class and racial stereotypes are played against each other in a mental ping-pong match. Deeply buried prejudices rise to the surface and are revealed as our particular mental veils. Instead of satisfying our desire for meaning, and delivering a definitive text, a naked truth, the film deals in illusions, presented with a growing intensity. We are impressed by the technique and the utterly realistic situation, which reflects one of the original motives of photography: the desire to reproduce an objective truth. But here the search for meaning is filtered through our own perceptions, and the semiotic significance is doubled, tripled and quadrupled in the dialogue taking place in our minds.
In this film, and in Combing Hair and Untitled, where three girls on the cusp of womanhood are slowly trying on hijabs, we encounter the enigma of the veil. What is the veil concealing? What is Western culture trying to achieve in its desire for exposure, for absolute truth? In other cultures, veils, masks and jewellery have a central role, but they suggest the opposite: that there is no corporeal reality, that the body is merely a metaphor. The pull exercised by the body as an object of pleasure depends precisely on the fantasies it evokes, on the seductive signals that separate it from a banal reality. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, the West's desire for exposure is driven by the idea of the world as empty of content. Reality is itself an illusion, and behind the veil there is only a void. In Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science) Nietzsche says that: The notion of truth beyond appearances, underneath and behind the veil, is rendered null and void. It is certainly true that life deceives us with her ambiguous apparitions: but she deceives us not because she conceals an essence or a reality behind appearances, but because she has no essence and would only like to make us think that she does. Her essence is to appear.
When all the veils are torn away, reality is laid bare, and becomes increasingly banal and boring, as it does in the series Big Brother. It is impossible to see the world fully naked; the will to strip it of its secret in this almost pornographic way in the end makes it repulsive. Jean Baudrillard stated that obscenity is a wall it is impossible to pass. Thiis-Evensen's films on the other hand show the world as a play of fantasies, an illusion with its own alluring force – reality not unclothed and enlightened, but in the form of a fateful seduction.
«The life lived by dogs» is how André Breton described realism in art. The Surrealists, however, thought of the world as veiled, mysterious. They believed that the search by the West for objective, universal, static meaning reduced the world to skin and bone, its conception as a unique event. Nietzsche saw the world as a woman, who seduces as the world in its turn seduces, and who is therefore a threat to any fixed system of meaning. In traditional societies like that of Islam, where a woman's place is decided from birth, the veil signifies concealment, born of a fear that what is concealed would, if revealed, disturb a system of strict control. The fear is exaggerated; when the veil is torn away what appears is neither chaos nor truth, but only the gaze of the other forming another veil, a last impenetrable mystery filled only by our imagination.