N° 51 Under
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Human behavior and its psychological dimensions constitute the focus of Liza May Post's films and photographic works. Post examines attitudes, movements, actions and encapsulates her observations in extremely stylized scenes: photographic and cinematographic settings - somewhere between a period piece, science fiction and a thriller in terms of atmosphere - in which the characters submit to strange, irrational choreographies. Post's anonymous 'interimfigures', having no distinctly personal characteristics, are present yet,at the same time, absent. They barely respond to each other and seem lost in an autistic universe. Often they don't move a muscle - frozen in strange, contorted positions - their backs facing the viewer, faces turned away, the physiognomy obscured from view by a head covering or piece of cloth. If they do stir, then repetition and awkwardness distinguish their behavior. The orchestration of these movements involves no build-up of tension or dramatic development. In the film Trying, from 1998, a young woman in a grey dress, her face veiled by a wig of the same material as that of the dress, vainly attempts to mount an elephant. No matter how hard she tries to conquer the wrinkly grey massif, the animal continues to chew away, complacently staring into space. He does not resist her attempts; nor does he accept them. The scene ends as abruptly as it began. One could mentally repeat the action over and over.The way in which Susan Sontag associated the happenings of the sixties with the structure of dreams relates, unexpectedly, to Post's alienating visual world: "...this is the alogic of dreams rather than the logic of most art. Dreams have no sense of time; neither do happenings. Lacking plot and continuous rational discourse, they have no past." (1)
Those who view the work of Post as an entity will notice that her compositions are fairly consistent in terms of the formal intent which focuses on the image surface. The images are emphatically framed. The characters are shown frontally or from the side, parallel to the image surface. There is no perspective; a wall or a piece of cloth fills the background. The work frequently has a confined visual space, which gives added emphasis to the depicted figures and objects. In several works, the viewer has no spatial orientation. The figures exist in an undefined realm, in a white vacuum which merely heightens the sense of artificiality and dreamy introversion.
In the film Sigh, from 1994, a balding young woman, dressed in a white shirt and a black skirt, is sitting on the floor with her back against a bed. With her head cast downward, hands resting despondently on her lap, she gazes at a campfire burning in the middle of the room. Her immaculate white shirt shines brightly under a spotlight. The silhouette of her upper body appears on the wall behind the bed. Actually nothing happens, but the scene offers sufficient cause for all sorts of speculations. Is the woman sitting in the room by her own will, or has someone shut her in? Why has she started a fire indoors, and what is the significance of her balding head? One tries to read the image as a fragment of a coherent and logical whole, but this ultimately leads to nothing. Post's images do not allow themselves to be approached as narratives. In an interview she once remarked that she sees her images primarily as condensations of narrative structures: "There aren't specific narratives for each work, although I have stories in my head all the time and from that I define the sublime moment. I am putting together the most important elements to make a condensed version. Also, the narrative I have in my head may not be obvious to the viewer, who can have created a completely different story. In films you are required to sit through hours of detail, but the point and feeling of a film can be captured in a single minute. I am interested in that one moment and want to dispense with all unnecessary material."(2) Post's photographs and films often produce a comical effect due to the absurdism of the actions and situations. Generally, however, a dark and oppressive undertone prevails. One cannot escape the idea that manifestations of psychological disorders provide a context for her work. It is telling that Post has published stereotypical images of women in a state of exhaustion and mental upheaval as reference material. On the artists’ page of the Manifesta I catalogue, for instance, she showed documentary black & white photographs from the fifties depicting a woman who, dressed in a suit and holding a purse, is about to jump from a roof.(3) On contemplating such distressing visual material, one is apt to think of Esther Greenwood, the protagonist from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, from 1963. Plath describes how (this now sounding somewhat anachronistic) repressive male/female relations are the background of this mental crisis of Greenwood, who is doing an internship with a New York fashion magazine. Greenwood becomes confused about the incompatibility of her own expectations of the future and the demands which society makes on her. More and more, she shuts herself off from her surroundings, reverts to antisocial, compulsive behavior and eventually makes several attempts at suicide. Echoes of such existential anguish can be felt in the photographic works where Post portrays a person wearing a fashionable pant-suit who is working her way up between two walls, placed close together, as though she were trying to escape something. Another example of stylized desperation is the photograph in which there appears a girl with a blond wig and a short white fur jacket. With her back facing the viewer, she stands apathetically in front of a strip of spotlessly white voile curtain: "I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel,moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabloo."(4) In the video and photographic work The Perfume Department (1996) a young woman is lying motionlessly on the cold white tile floor in the perfume department of a large store. The clientele pass by hurriedly, without taking notice of this elegant figure who, breathing softly, persists painfully long in her unusual position. Her performance of negation and surrender in the epicenter of consumer urges is as absurd as it is unfathomably melancholy. Post: "My work is about the will to be there, while not wanting to be there at the same time... What you really want is to do nothing and simply wait."(5)
A commission for a work in semi-public space led, in 1997, to the film Visitors, a production with three protagonists. The restrained choreography of Visitors takes place against a set which consists entirely of brownish red Persian carpet. The walls, the floor and even the three chairs and the table of metal tubing are completely covered with this woolly material which, in the Netherlands, stands for everything that is bourgeois and narrow-minded. Even the costumes of the three figures that move about the space are made of Persian carpet, causing them to more or less blend into the background. With neutral, expressionless faces these 'aliens' are involved in mysterious activities. The film begins with a very sharp close-up of a shoulder clothed with the abstract patterns of an Oriental rug. Then the camera zooms out to a full shot of the space in which the characters are crawling backward across the floor, irritably shaking legs and leaning over a table. Advances are made, sometimes resulting in a short and inconsequential dance.(6) At the end the camera zooms back in to the back of one of the characters. Persian motifs fill the image and, for a moment, one sees how the breathing of the figure makes the cloth move. Visitors is accompanied by a soundtrack that can best be described as desolate cosmic noise.
In the new work Under (2000) Post continues on the course taken with Visitors by involving a number of characters in the performance. The film is about four minutes long and consists of one long shot. The camera zooms out for a minute-and-a-half at the beginning and is then fixed in a full shot. The restrained choreography and presentation of Under contrasts sharply with the baroque excess of Visitors. The spatial, ornamental staging has given way to a barren, oppressive setting: a cellar, with a low ceiling, in which five figures are confined. Post herself characterizes them as "shadows of people." The characters are dressed in bathrobe-like outfits or pants with a bizarre ducktail’ seat. The floor is covered with sand. Four of the five characters are sitting or standing practically still; they are frozen in their movements. The only figure moving is a tall figure in a sack- likecostume. He stumbles awkwardly about the space, afraid of bumping his head, and makes attempts to have contact with the others. In this he does not succeed; he is completely ignored. When he finally manages to get through to the comfort zone of the boy sitting on a bale of straw, that advance is also dismissed. With her new film performance Under, which Post has produced specially for the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, she once again manages to combine a dreamy, stylized presentation with a stifling,existential vision.
Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen
Translated by Beth O'Brien
2. Sadie Coles, Questions from Sadie Coles to Liza May Post, cat. 'Ein Stück vom Himmel/ Some Kind of Heaven', Nürnberg/London, 1997, p. 85.
3. Rosa Martínez et al., cat. Manifesta 1, Rotterdam, 1996, p. 62.
4. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, New York, Toronto, 1998, p. 6.
5. Janneke Wesseling, 'Steeds die gepoetste schoenen - gesprek met Liza May Post', NRC Handelsblad, November 29, 1996.
6. Due to the controlled, abstract movements of the characters, not insignificantly through titles such as, Lifting Up, Push, Afloat and Bound, Post's work evokes associations with modern dance. It should also come as no surprise that she has recently worked with dancers in the interdisciplinary theatre production Post Coitum Omne Animal Triste Est (1999). Post herself appeared in this performance in a costume made of Velcro. Throughout the performance a muscular dancer fixed her, like human scenery, to Velcro-covered walls.