Liz Magor (1984)

“Liz Magor: Four Notable Bakers,” Vanguard, 13:3 (May 1984), p. 30.

Liz Magor
Four Notable Bakers
Toronto, self-published, 1983

The front cover of Liz Magor’s artist’s book, Four Notable Bakers, is a plate from an open book, itself captioned “Four Notable Bakers”. Here with the rectitude belonging to both middle-class British society and late nineteenth century photographic poses are four notable British bakers from Swansea, Cardiff, Sheffield and Bristol. The four are identified by what unites and sets them apart. The caption identifies them as the same, i.e., bakers, and yet different: it distinguishes them from other bakers through their notability in this field. The sub-captions differentiate them from other ordinary individuals through their own names. What is notable only distinguishes them within a system, which is here baking, a system which is socially established.

On the cover it is language which differentiates and classifies by means of the caption and proper name. But it is what socially unites these differing and yet similar individuals, the process of baking, that becomes the means within Magor’s book of pursuing questions of identity. That order or ordering principle is to be found, and it is to be discovered through appearance. The process of baking and the look of bread are used as a grid to interpret another order of identity —the human species. On a superficial level, this ordering process literally identifies its elements through natural or physical resemblance; but once again this comparison takes place within a system that is socially determined. That is, the “natural” is constructed according to an artificial order that pre-exists it. This is akin to the incessant systematizing out of which individuality seeks to identify and mark its place. It is the systematizing of the primitive, the child and the paranoid, which is not to say that this book is any of these things or naive. Beautiful in itself, the book displays the clarity and disturbances of an erotic attraction for a fetish object. In frankly sensual terms, it shows that this identity, which is an identity of attraction, is also sexual clarification.

What are these resemblances that begin to compose a system? They are two-fold—a look and a process; and it is this two-foldedness that gives it the breadth and complexity of a system—that is, that allows it to be used as a grid of interpretation. Flesh is compared to bread; parts of the body (e.g., sexual organs) are juxtaposed to the dough in different stages of the making of bread; decoration of the body (e.g., braided hair) is conjoined to features that mark specialty breads and buns; diseases and deformations are matched to textures of breads.

Describing a system of classification, simply as what is paired, will not realize the functions of the images. For instance, a page contrasting photographs of a baby held in the palm of a hand with that of a lump of dough is about handling the bulky weight of both, as much as it is about the similar look of their lumpy texture. It is a relation of hand to thing; but rather than a relation of hand to predetermined object, it is a sculptural process of making—the unformed brought to formation.
Formation is taken up as a theme within the book, from its beginning. On the inside front cover, two hands delicately display a small ball of dough. Following a blank page, the next two facing pages juxtapose a nude young girl, head bowed and arms stretched open, as if in the guise of truth or innocence or the unfolding of individuation, with an illustration of a cloth being gently removed from a bowl in order to display the dough inside. Both are gestures of revelation: something is shown; beginning is both a revelation and a creation. But that beginning is undifferentiated still. Making and being are also matters of marking.

At first it seems that these comparisons cannot construct a system because oppositions are lacking in the simple matching of appearances and things. But certain oppositions develop in the course of the book as a passage in the process of working the dough in its different stages. One is from female to male. The other is from the hand-made to the machine-made, from making to attending. Generally the hand-made is made by women, and the machine-made is attended by men in the illustrations. The mechanical is interspersed with the manual throughout the book, while sex passes from female to male about halfway through. The passage to the male is followed immediately by the introduction of another theme coupling twins and knives—a doubling of the cut, of nature and the machine.

Although appearing the same, in a way the twins are also an amplification of opposition or difference that was previously marked in its “pure” form as male-female. Twinning is not a simple association with mechanical production although it appears in that nexus of associations in the book. Twins are marked as the monstrous double: they are displayed with some defect, which again finds its analogy in some characteristic of bread. Mass production is taken as another measure of identity. But this system of classification produces doubles. In a return to the natural through the twins, identity is given as a problem.

Near the end of the book, the imagery returns to that of the beginning, with a similar small ball of dough cupped in the hands. But now, it is juxtaposed to the mass individual with its fear of individuation, to a group of identically dressed cheerleaders. This is succeeded by the last pairing of images—two undifferentiated masses of machine-kneaded dough, counter-pointed on the inside back cover by the reduced image of a bread-slicing machine. By its position this image recalls its opposite on the inside front cover, that first small round ball of dough. At the end of the book, this initial potential of identity has been reduced to the identicality of the mechanical.

The individual reduced to the social, identified metaphorically in mechanical replication, returns us to the cover. While this reduction of the individual to a conforming sociality, with all its threats of the cut of “castration”, can be taken as one of the themes of the book, the book itself is a construction that displays itself, from the simple to complex levels that compose it and its content. It starts from the simple identity of resemblance, the basic idea of comparison through likeness; moves to the mimetic level where analogies can be drawn through processes of making, moulding and marking; and completes itself as a totality which is both itself and its process of reading, a classification that incorporates the other two levels and their processes.