SELINA OU
Author: Lily Hibberd
Selina Ou
Beside myself 2010

The photographer loads, aims and fires a shot. This is the vernacular and ritual of camerawork. Like so many technologies of the west the camera lends itself to the dominant visual culture of its age. It has a single Cartesian-type eye, just one point of view. Monocularism is embodied in the body of the machine and it behaves accordingly. This operation is inherent to the movie camera too, as established by Laura Mulvey in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema of 1973. Mulvey nailed that eye to the cross of the privileged male gaze and of scopophilia and what she argued as the predominantly masculine pleasure of cinematic spectatorship. Susan Sontag, likewise, pointed out the domineering and unitary (or phallocentric) tendencies of the camera: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” We are faced therefore with an obvious contradiction: what happens when a woman uses this machine? Avoiding an essentialist reduction of feminine-masculine oppositions (an egg-cracking exercise in which the yolk is always broken into the white), let us consider how a camerawoman, a female artist, may or may not consciously deploy this machine. Is she in a position to undo or resist this dominant visual discourse and construct an alternate way of seeing? And what of her subjects?

Anti-Oedipus: capitalism and schizophrenia is Deleuze and Guattari’s guide to the advantages of multitudinous living – otherwise potentially cast as how to resist the hegemony of phallocentric thinking. To make a political surmise based on Ou’s images I would contend that women represent themselves here as implicitly anti-Oedipal, they are always all those others at once: mother, cook, friend, professional etc. Schizo? Yes. Let’s now consider the classic response that social analysis makes to the stereotype of the great multi-tasker upheld by all as “woman” today. This critique is overwhelmingly derisive of her lifestyle and connotes that women seem to be fragmenting or splitting as a result. Here we get the strong sense that women are thought to be on the edge of reason once more. (Schizo? Yes). They might be imagined to be on this edge, moreover, because of that old underlying propensity to madness. Remember that photography itself played an insidious role in substantiating female hysteria at the inception of both disciplines, most evidently during the age of “great confinement” in 17th century Paris at the Pitié-Salpêtrière asylum for women. This is precisely the point that Anti-Oedipus turns on; pivoting off its ideological axis to argue that schizophrenia is not the enemy. The enemy, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it, is the order of social intolerance to difference that disavows and disallows multiplicity and exiles it from society. This order demands all those who might threaten its sanctimonious sanity to be sanitised, hence the asylum.

To come at things visible again, to look at Ou’s photographs: what is apparent? There is a familiar documentary aesthetic of course yet there is also a form of social analysis at work. We see bodies in space (a politic of the physique taken up by women artists such as Julie Rrap) but we also see a room, the private space of this manifold human. Like Simryn Gill’s 2001 series, Dalam, Ou’s images reveal how these people live: their things and the arrangement of things; their clothes and “dress”; their bodies and gestures or “carriage”, and the sometimes quite classical compositions that play out through the poses that Ou has captured and re-placed in the scenes. This amounts to an incredibly layered and complex anthropology. Irreducible to any single style, label or habit, as such the “showing” that the photographs do is not the point at all. What is being elicited here is a “doing”. The women are acting for the camera yet with the sincerity of sharing their private lives with a photographer who, let it be said, is an ally. The apparent missing element is the assumed other, perhaps a sly statement of independence.
While the camera is unlikely to relinquish its hold over the subjective unitary imaginings of the modern eye and mind, in a move that Foucault proposed as the subject’s only hope against the power of the state and its institutions, the women in this work are taking apart the machine from within, designating themselves as split, multiplied; as many selves. They are interacting with the camera to revise the eye like Dziga Vertov did in 1929 (except it’s the “woman with the movie camera”), to ask the mind: What do we see ourselves as? Which of us, which of ourselves, is the locus of our being? The women who pose for Ou’s shots-within-shots are engaged – whether they subscribe to it or not – in the ongoing struggle for the acceptance of difference: they are mobile, transcursive and decentred; empowered and re-embodied by multiplicity. They show a way of resistance, just by being themselves.


Lily Hibberd 2010

Footnotes:

1. Susan Sontag, On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977, 14.
2. Essentialism being left behind, especially since feminism is now generally conceived of being situated within the wider framework of (global) identity politics, and seen through the lens of cultural and social differentiation; racial and cultural otherness arguably having a common bond with women’s issues, whereby, on the level of human rights, everyone is a feminist. This fits the model of “difference” that underpins much of the feminist discourse surrounding recent contemporary art practice, taken up by major curated exhibitions such as Global Feminisms at Brooklyn Art Museum in 2007.
3. See Georges Didi-Huberman’s The Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere, 2004, which examines the inseparable history of the treatment of women and the use photography at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital-asylum, Paris. Also note how the birth of this practice coincided with women’s suffrage in France in the 1780s and 1790s. See also Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, 1961.