"Apoptosis/Lettre ouverte à une jeune fille morte"

Ariane Belisle, Lettre ouverte a une jeune fille morte, 2013

Ariane Belisle, Lettre ouverte a une jeune fille morte, 2013

You, a., have always used your body as a vessel of sorts. It appears concepts, fabricated narratives if you will, are endlessly more enthralling than the reality on which they are based. In fact, or rather in fiction, still ingrained on my retina is the mosaic of color that made up your face and body. The two-dimensional pixelated surface that momentarily became you. A fragmented version of you, of course. The facet you consciously chose to present to the world. Slightly parted bee stung lips, makeup meticulously applied, eyes that wore an expression lionized by Hitchcock’s leading ladies the moment they were caught like deer in headlights, left eyebrow provocatively raised (perhaps anticipating a reaction, #dareyoutothinkofthisassexy), legs extended and at times spread, fishnets, knee socks, petticoats, skin and the meaning it carried – the ongoing significance of steel and flesh, you thought to yourself. Click. Post. Likes. Self-expression in the noughties. Prohibition is destruction. Welcome to the exhibitionist club.  

You thought of your body as a vehicle for social change and with that belief came an empty Cindy Shermanesque promise of meaning. Hiding behind this veil of dubious significance, you must have felt comfortably detached from the girl you featured time and time again in your photographs – the urban sophisticate, the damsel in distress, the waif, the heroine, the nymph, the seductress, the floozy, the Miss over Mrs. Your I was malleable. You assumed stringing your persona through these disconnected signifiers would reveal gender biases within the realm of art history and media culture. And you hoped that the images would, in turn, be injected with substance and anchored within a greater theoretical framework. A noble motive to be sure, but what framework, may I ask, did you have in mind? Had you read anything by Craig Owens or Rosalind Krauss? Much like you, they contended that representation is pre-coded and championed the notion that play-acting can be used as a tool to critique the idea of femininity as a masquerade. Questioning master narratives, their viewpoint challenged first generation feminists to redefine the mythical femme. The truth, as one of your photographs’ titles suggested, is rarely pure and never simple.

Riding this new tide of feminism, a wave carved by countless before you, you shied away from imagery rooted in what we conceive to be an intrinsically female experience – childbearing and the iconography of corporeal differences. Instead, you chose to hone in on the construction of meaning within a culture that had proliferated the artificial commonality of batting eyelashes and pouts. Lost in a vortex of endless repetition, empty signifiers morphed into regurgitated stereotypes as you painted your face with a sensuous look learnt. Pubescent folly in imitation of some simulacral feminine essence. A copy with no original. Click & Repeat. Your captures, captured at 1/500 s, froze the apparent reality as a sign. The medium’s two-dimensionality was reflected in the stills you created, as none could mirror any form of human complexity. Destabilizing and fragmenting the female subject, yours is an accurate depiction of the female object. 

Much like the degenerate beauty queens and selfie-inflicted camwhores of your era, you pranced before a pervasive analog eye. Did you concur, as Jacques Lacan had decades before you, that voyeurism does, in fact, deny women human agency? You rehearsed this structure with ease, framing the girl – it – in a series of endless reiterations of her subservience and his control. Vacillating between reification and critique of the established order of femininity, and between celebration and decelebration of male subjectivity, you partook in the very activity you wished to condemn in an attempt to condemn it. Then tell me, a., did you succeed in exposing femininity as a construct rather than something inherent? Did your masquerade overthrow the tyranny of the male gaze? 

Does Cindy Sherman come to mind, here? Her Untitled Film Stills, I agree, successfully subvert the male gaze. Their effectiveness lies within the palpable tension that exists between the character Sherman is depicting and her own identity. Overturning the notion of the self-portrait, her performance is central to our understanding of the images. Unlike you, a., the self she pictures is an imaginary construct. Lights. Camera. Act(ion). To redouble and rephrase, it is only through Sherman’s interrogation of her own identity that we are led to explore female identity as a figment. 

Your subject, on the other hand, is subjected. Did you notice these self-portraits quietly cropping up in concurrence with your sporadic bouts of crashing insecurity? Each new photo was produced as a resounding affirmation of your place within a world where you equated your self-worth to your desirability vis-à-vis the opposite sex. You fed into the pervasive myths about femininity, perpetuating the status quo. Yours was not a face that launched a thousand ships, but rather one that publicly exhibited your private struggle with dysmorphophobia, anxiety and insecurity. A portrait of the young girl in all her candor. Click. Did self-portraiture present you with a release from who you were? Were you comforted by this simple act of drowning in a simulacral version of who you aspired to be? Could it be that your photographs were met with success simply because they did not menace phallocracy but rather confirmed it? Does the truth cut deep? My questions linger like thought bubbles. 

They say a photograph has the ability to guide us back into ourselves. You, a., always liked this notion. Vague and all encompassing, it attributed meaning without discerning it. It allowed a picture to transcend its primordial function as a record of real life and morph into a portal through which substance could be derived. Salvation. Mute, your images craved this completion. But always remember, a., that perception is never passive – it fills in the blanks, injects and cements. Through this new lens, it is difficult to dismiss your stills as vacuous constructs; they were, and continue to be, the reflection of a young girl’s vulnerabilities and insecurities. Perhaps this is a social comment within itself. A picture of the now, in all its gory.

Today, we are post-mystery, choosing to visually document our existence. Images made up of liquid crystals momentarily flash up on a computer screen, only to disappear again. It is on this stage that the female form is incessantly replicated as an object on display. The boundaries of her body begin to erode. Yet, each click is an act of self-realization. While you presented your body as something inherently vulnerable and private, it was also public. Preceding the self – yourself – it physically projected your image to the world and came to constitute a facet of your identity, as well as female identity. Frozen in celluloid within the plastic frame of a computer monitor, you existed.

And now the hand that created you wavers as the conclusion of this task draws near. One swift motion of my index finger and you will be gone. Are you sure you want to delete this photo? [Pause for dramatic effect] And then finally: Click.