Interview with Margaret Sundell
Lennon, Weinberg Gallery
July 10 to September 13, 2014
MS: When I first met you, in college, you identified as a filmmaker in a very emphatic way. I remember I took a course on feminist film theory that you taught at Oberlin's Experimental College. I'm interested in exploring the role that film played in your development as an artist.
LL: I was drawn to film because of its capacity to work both dramatically and critically—a film can tell a story and also create a set of self-reflexive terms to interrogate narrative and representation. I was introduced to feminist theory in art history classes as part of a broader study of postmodernism. This led me to research the history of women’s film production and feminist film theory, which formed the intellectual foundation of my earliest works. When I saw Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by the Belgium experimental filmmaker Chantal Akerman, I knew I wanted to be an artist like her (as opposed to being a filmmaker in the more traditional sense). Another huge, early influence was Martha Rosler. I went to Rutgers's M.F.A. program to study with her. Questions of representation and politics are at the heart of her practice and she explores them across disciplines, including photography and video.
MS: You've made a number of videos throughout your career, but there's a definite shift in focus toward photography, beginning in 1996 with your pictures of dollhouses. Can you discuss this change? Did aspects of film inform these photographs? Conversely, what aspects of photography drew you to the medium that you didn't find in film?
LL: I had always made photographs and supported myself for many years as a printer in commercial labs. In graduate school, I worked on a video about the author Jane Bowles and her struggle with writer’s block. It was a difficult project for me, very slow going—I was suffering a block of my own—and I began to pursue photography in a more deliberate way. I also discovered that, temperamentally, I was much better suited to the solitude of photography. There’s a contemplative aspect to making photographs that’s very different from making films. My first photographic series—Domestic Interiors and Well-Appointed—are rooted in the cinematic in their attention to mise-en-scene: how does the room itself tell a story? How do the frame and the absence of a character also play a structuring role? These concerns continue in my next two bodies of work, My Dark Places and Complimentary.
MS: There's a change with Apparition, when you begin working with spirit photography--rendering explicit a connection to the nineteenth century and its photographic history that informed your earlier work, but more as a subtext. Could you talk about this connection and how it's developed over the course of your career.
LL: In Domestic Interiors, I was thinking about how I look into a viewfinder and how this experience is similar to peering into the apertures of a dollhouse. In Well-Appointed, the scale of the spaces (period rooms and historic homes) and my means of production (I switched to a medium format camera) resituated the questions to thinking about how institutions frame history. But in both cases—really, in all my work—I’m interested in photography’s physicality, as it pertains to shooting and print production: How do I hold the camera? How does this shape my relationship with the subject? How does the manipulation of scale in printing fold back into the representations? Of course, I'm also very interested in the fact that, with analog technology, the photograph is itself a physical trace or index of the light rays that bounced off the object it depicts. This becomes less relevant with digital photography, but it was particularly significant and pronounced in early photography. I don’t think of myself as an analog purist but these questions almost always bring me back to practices that originated in the nineteenth century, like shooting with the view camera and the experience of printing in a darkroom.
In Apparition, and again in Asylum, I made my own spirit photographs—a genre that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century genre that harnessed photography's "reality effect" to "prove" the existence of ghosts. Many people thought I used Photoshop, but the forms they depict actually appeared before the camera. I staged them—as did the original spirit photographers—in my case, mostly with cigarette smoke. There was a physical aspect to nineteenth-century production that's obvious in spirit photography and permeates the medium's early history as a whole. This lends itself to thinking about photography's connection with performance, with the physical endurance of making a photograph.
MS: Speaking of performance, your interest in spirit photography opened onto the figure of the female medium, who supposedly channels the dead, often in very dramatic and visceral ways. That's the subject of your next series Ectoplasm, which marks another important shift in your work—toward the representation of the body. I'm interested in hearing about that move and your interest in the female medium more broadly.
LL: As a young artist, I struggled to find my identity within the legacies of first and second wave feminism. First wave, or 1970’s feminism, emphasized the inherent power of women and its rootedness in the female body, which was celebrated artistically. The second, postmodern, wave theorized feminine identity and its representation as cultural and psychological constructs rooted in patriarchal society. This raised the question of how to picture the female body critically, without reinforcing those constructs. In the early 1980’s, when I was coming of age as an artist, the two waves were posed as mutually exclusive binaries—a move that dramatically over-simplified both forms of feminism, along with their interrelationship. But that was my starting point. With Domestic Interiors, I began with the question: what does a feminist photographic practice look like if there are no bodies? How can I address, even obliquely, the social experience of women while still critically working with questions of representation? The dollhouse and the period room are readymades—found representations. I see my photographs of them as a form of documentary that reflects on the experience (for both photographer and viewer) of looking at these idealized "feminine" spaces, which by their very definition can’t be physically inhabited.
There’s a fascinating divide in the history of spirit photography. In its earliest forms, the photographer was the medium, endowed with the power to summon the manifestation of spirits on the photographic plate. Toward the latter part of the nineteenth century, the practice shifted to the documentation of physical mediums during séances. The photographs were evidence of the medium’s capacity to produce physical materializations of spiritual presence; the photographer’s job was to bear witness. There was a shift from the photographer-as-performer to the medium-as-performer for the photographer, which in some way parallels my evolution from making latter-day spirit photographs in Apparition and Asylum to staging and documenting the "feats" of the female medium in Ectoplasm. I guess after nearly a decade of relegating the body off-camera, I was ready to take a look again! I was ready to revisit the legacy of 1970s feminism and to rethink the binary opposition between feminism's first and second waves.
MS: In fact, in Ectoplasm you explicitly link the figure of the female medium to first-wave feminist performance art…
LL: Ectoplasm became a way for me to return to those pioneering works—Hannah Wilke’s Starification series, Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll, Yoko Ono’s Cut—and to cast these artists as latter day mediums, acknowledging both the force and poignance of their gestures. I found the historical photographs of female mediums incredibly funny—the hammy theatricality, the barely disguised fraud. But they're also quite moving. I recognized their power for an audience who wanted to believe in these women and the magic of photography itself. Photography is the only medium that engenders this particular tension between skepticism and faith. It remains unchanged since photography's invention, and it's really what motivates my work: my desire to believe in photography—what it claims to represent—and to critically question its terms.Click here to return to the top of the page.