Shelagh Alexander: Photomontages (1989)

“Shelagh Alexander: Photomontages,” Shelagh Alexander: Photomontages, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1989.


Shelagh Alexander: Photomontages

If in recent years the theoretical analysis of cinema has provided structures for the look of art, rarely has the result actually delved into the dynamics of the image—into the language of the images themselves: the language they “speak” outside their narrative constructions. Usually, the process in art is arrested at the fetishized image, which may be dislodged by juxtaposition to another image or unfixed by the set-up of a caption. The images in Shelagh Alexander’s photomontages are taken from film stills; but they are constructed in such a way that the narrative and scopic relations are disrupted and images from different sources confront each other in a completely other, artificial space, a space of manufacture: the space of photomontage. [1] This space of construction comprises both film and its female subject. The process takes over the devices of film in its creation, that is, the aspect of projection, and in its presentation: the screen. The use of stills, however, is an interruption that makes the photograph into a new projection and not merely a transmitter of film’s effects. This exacerbated confrontation—or overloading of the image—presents a subject, one admittedly unformed at first, but empowered in coming to speech.

In earlier work of similar source material and technique, the images were conjoined into a narrative, a chain reinforced by separately integrated subtitles drawn as well from films. Now the images alone carry an affect. By throwing away language as a narrative guide to the images, the artist plunges the viewer into the dynamics of the images themselves. This, at times, subterranean world (witness the imagery of diver, swimmers and shipwreck of Untitled (Wish)) partakes of the unconscious in viewing.

The projections in these works are reflections of an initially incomplete self or self in flux which exists in a pre-verbal state. On the one hand, the self is inarticulate because it is thwarted: thus the blindness of the heads of Untitled (Suspicion) and the masked eyes of Untitled (III) (blindness is also an excess of eyes). On the other hand, the self is inarticulated because the female self in culture is impossible. Therefore, the representation of women in this work is fragmented and the female face is the site of an aggressive intervention.

In all these works, the female face is the site for other images, masked by what overlays it; it is forced apart so that its own image does not cohere; or it is full of holes. Yet, something grows from these heads. This may at first be born from a death’s head, as in Untitled (Suspicion). What is engendered from a head, then, is put there as an idea (the voices behind the ear of Untitled (Wish)), as a projection of an idea, in which the image (of woman) would be a reflection. The impossibility rests in the fact that these female subjects are the children of an idea whose invention vacillates between the botched attempt of the silhouetted Frankenstein and the polymorphousness of the “shmoo”-like figure (really a magnified drop of water) in Untitled (Mother), unveiled under a lightbulb.  

Another birth of the self takes place in Untitled (Mother). This work sets in place a number of means of imprint: the weave, the map and the cell. But the weave in the forehead through which the word “mother” peeks is broken: there is no secure transmission. Instead, an ominous shadow projects into the image(the name of the Father?). Chance disrupts in the moment of lightning (“any thought utters a dice throw”); and confusion blurs map and skin in one surface. The broken weave, however is a puncture in a screen and what rests behind this rent—“Mother”—is a place of impregnation: the self is full of holes for this self-birth. What is born, however, is a product of those accidents of chance as much as it is an outcome of a genetic or social program and initially is as unformed and perverse as the “shmoo”. (What is potential, of course, rests between the two.) If these images are screens or stagings, they are also punctured or full of holes: a microscopic weave or cells compose their surface, which a curtain or veil only disguises. Every face passes between functioning as a mask or a screen and serves to project or be projected upon, and each is riddled with these openings.  

A film still punctures the rhythm of a movie’s temporal motion; but the arrest of the images which compose Alexander’s work takes place between scenes, at the edge of our consciousness. A gesture may be caught in one frame only and is thus the unconscious of the image that escapes narrative or scenic construction. These images are distracted, so to speak, and driven to distress (the source images are of women driven to extremes). This hole is hallucinated or projected over the entire surface to become a ground for seed, cell or voice to implant a message or command in that the message comes from outside.

Whatever comes from outside is projected back again, but what is “paranoiac” is part of a process of reconstruction and recovery. Speech is the locus of this process of construction rather than any biological imprinting. The voice behind the ear of Untitled (Wish) prefigures the “paranoiac” descent and the anxiety of a voice that is about to form in the figure of the synchronous swimmers after the seeming thwarting of the desire for speech of the earlier panels. Whatever appears as a seed or cell is always more complex and not necessarily genetic: the seed of Untitled (Wish) turns out to be a splitting eye with all its effects of transmitting both the individuating process and the horror of the double.

Repetition and splitting are procedures of construction of the image here with repetition leading to splitting. Even the anamorphic images of faces and masks seem in an inexorable process of splitting. Cells do not imprint an identity (perhaps the repeated images of the diving superman figure or complementary dervish dancers function this way) as much as create surfaces for projection just as other substances take on the role of building parts of faces. Loss of identity can lead to a sensation of splitting, but splitting off also can be seen as a self-creation which is the aim of these works.

The plunge into the depths of Untitled (Wish) precedes the ascent to power of Untitled (V). All the previous images of cells now disperse into a positive explosion of “words” from the reversed tower of Babel and they change from eyes to tongues in the two faces of the top left corner. This speaking in tongues translates the multiple play of images, the conflux of voices that make up the overall images. (It also shifts the focus from the eye to the voice in all these works.) Even from things breaking down, represented by the dismembered dancer, there is strength in a refiguring of language, in taking power over the image. All the other images and interventions into faces and heads now are recast positively and have to be read in retrospect as new constructions rather than negative receptions. By meansof what is unconscious or uncontrollable in the image, the artist wrests power from those image-constructions given to us and offers something else a voice.


1. Photomontage in this instance is a printing process by which different negatives taken directly from film strip are projected or contact printed on the same sheet of photographic paper through a combination of paper negatives and stencils. There is no cut and paste of collage: all images are the result of a photographic process. The resulting print is then transferred to a photomural.