Monstrous Feminine explores psychoanalytic discourse related to the woman-as-monster / woman-as-victim archetypes as historically depicted in the horror genre of cinema. Of equal importance to the work is the symbolism associated with the environments in which these allegories take place: the haunted house, the lawless forest of European fairytales and the American slasher film.
My interest in the isolated, insulated lives of Roman Catholic nuns began as a child born into an atheist family. I remember vague stories of mysterious and sometimes malevolent robed women. I have often felt that my only connection to a grandfather and great uncle I never met were images of the nuns who ran the orphanage where the two boys lived in the 1930s. Thus Arthur and Gilbert would likewise take on a haunted, grainy template in my memory.
I have spent the last two years exploring and, in many ways, absorbing the now-vacant building, which was once called Saint Joseph’s Providence Orphan Asylum and Hospital and home to those two destitute family members. One of the first social institutions in Vermont, Saint Joseph’s opened in 1884 and was overseen by the “Sisters of Providence.” At one time, it housed as many as 200 children. The photographs I have taken within the hollowed-out, once-hallowed space have gone through several incarnations and discoveries, each presenting a different shade of inquiry regarding my personal history and revealing a larger context: the nature of an isolated/insulated life within religious communities of women. It grew clear that the women who oversaw the orphanage and its occupants were confined to the space as steadfastly as the helpless orphans had been, bound by solemn vows.
In researching the history of the orphan asylum, I found one portrait of a woman presumed to have been a member of the Sisters of Providence. Sister Jane Doe was sitting at a desk in what was once the designated sewing room; the desk sits there now covered in dust. Rather than an archetype of spirituality, she seems to represent a persistent image of woman as other, abject, and inert. I culled several other portraits of anonymous nuns, many who worked for other Catholic institutions in Burlington, Vermont, and brought them into the abandoned orphanage. Projecting these images within various rooms on the second floor, where documentation states the sisters resided, I was able to rearticulate those images I had created in my mind many years before, now through a wiser aperture of memory. Illuminated by projection light, I re-photographed each sister as she posed for her classical portrait, gazing directly into the lens.
An otherness emerged in each portrait, a sense that seemed to highlight the sisters’ holiness while at the same time mourning it. They were robed in rigid black and white. Time had dulled them into anonymity, and, lamentably, life had done the same, but for their ghosts trembling on the walls in the light I tried to give them. I was struck by what had begun as an attempt at knowing Arthur and Gilbert had expanded into a desire to separate each of these unique women from their insular anonymity. Arthur and George, a little less haunted now, were bound here by tragic necessity, the sisters by reverent choice.
Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of a hand.
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers,
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon's repose.
- T.S. Eliot
These images represent a response to the ways in which cultural tensions were expressed in Japanese erotica, most notably in Shunga engravings created between the 1700s and 1800s – a famous image being that of Katsushika Hokusai's woman who is sexually devoured by father and son octopuses. Those curious expressions of sexuality were sometimes violent, death-obsessed, satirical, and often provocatively inclusive of animals. These visual studies aim to address my curiosities regarding the subtexts of Japanese erotica and to furnish a comparison between the restrained and sometimes shame-ridden representations of sexuality as expressed in post-war American culture.
These images are rural-centric and often consist of desolate roads, backwoods homes, and those objects we associate with abandon. Also central to this ongoing series of photographs are empty interiors, the walls of which may be composed of memory-oriented, familial artifacts.