“…because the unconscious, that other limitless country, is the place where the repressed manage to survive: women, or as Hoffmann would say, fairies.” (Hélène Cixous)
In Cecelia Condit’s first film, Beneath the Skin (1981), the face of a woman, eyes closed, appears onscreen as the author’s overlaid voice narrates, “Let me tell you what a nightmare that was. Most of the time it just feels like the news extravaganza that it was.” With an incredulous tone and a nervous laugh, she tells us the story of a man she had been seeing for the last four years: the police found a body, “mummified, decapitated, wrapped in plastic, and stuffed in a trunk” in his apartment. She then details the murder of this man’s previous lover as images of a skull are juxtaposed with the description of the woman’s “missing head”.
Since the early ‘80s, Condit has been crafting her narrative videos and installations with a bizarre approach, creating a collage of hallucinatory reveries that skirt around the events of her own mundane reality. Born in 1947, Condit’s first home was a forest on the outskirts of a big city and, just like her, I was also raised very close to nature. But my childhood memories are set in a very different landscape from Philadelphia in the ‘50s – the southeast of Brazil, where the tropical weather never agreed with the profound sense of isolation I felt growing up. And yet, when researching the ephemeral monstrosity of Condit’s video tapes, I’ve often felt that the psychological realms of our minds are very much linked. All About A Girl (2004) features a girl alone in the woods playing with a dead rat dressed as a doll. This projection of identity onto a lifeless creature has a geographical transcendence: it’s the same grotesque playfulness that I often found in myself whenever my cat hunted a bird and showed me its corpse.
Recently, I wrote a piece about the nature of women’s illusory reality in film and literature, and the question that still remains is this: Is it coincidental that so many women have located their poetry inside their inner forest, the unconscious, a place where there is no pre-established truth and where society’s conventions are not prioritised over our irrational mind? Looking at filmic history, particularly in the US, women have experimented with the projection of their fantasies in the realm of the moving image since the ‘40s. Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), Barbara Hammer’s Dyketactics (1974), Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980), Cheryl Dunye’s She Don’t Fade (1991), are just a few of the works that explore the unconscious in women’s lives.
“I have always thought of my films as exploring the eerie, dark side of human nature. It is a place I go when life seems overwhelming and difficult,” Condit said in 2015. The experiences she relates in her stories are not only familiar but deeply rooted in memory. The almost comically impossible and surreal theme of her first tale Beneath the Skin is based on a real life story – her own. Before she decided to leave Philadelphia in 1978, she had been dating a man, Ira, a university professor – the same man who hid the decomposing body of his ex-girlfriend for 18 months in Condit’s film. The narrator of the film (Cecelia herself) claims, “I dreamed that it was me, not her, that he killed two years ago.”
The fluid editing and juxtaposition of images in the tape evoke a very particular emotion, conveying a sense of the decay of the self through the transformation of the body. We see brief glimpses of “classical” and “standard” beauty merging into a mummified corpse. The film uses the same kind of macabre tone that we often see in sensationalist tabloids, stories that disregard violence against women and the social climate in which these acts take place, but toys with these conventions. Previous experiences with men, from her family to her social circle, play a part in the conclusion of most of Condit’s films — but “the story of supportive women and female friendships provides a counterbalance to the tales of violent and scary men.”¹ (Patricia Mellencamp)
The attraction to death thrives not only in Condit’s subconscious, but mine too. Donna Tartt once argued, “Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” Her subversive spin on female representation is explored through her transgressive heroines — the little girls who play with dead things — and her work is treated as a cathartic means to increase self-knowledge and open up her inner monologue, keeping personal experiences alive through a dream-like vision. Curiosity, and the thrill that accompanies danger, are as often as not connected to the psychological landscape of fairy tales. Condit’s next tape, Possibly in Michigan (1983) is a wicked revision of a fairy tale from a feminist point of view set in an empty suburban North-American shopping mall. A catchy ‘80s industrial pop song starts playing as two women meet in a shop to buy perfume and a man with a plastic mask begins to follow them. Again, the familiar becomes the fantastic as scenery changes to a white picket fence, tree-lined street and the same man, disguised as the archaic Prince Charming, breaks into one of the girls’ houses. The perpetration of domestic violence in suburbia is brought into focus; the evil that lurks inside what is supposed to be the home of the perfect nuclear family is crucial in the artist’s work.
But an absurd, hilarious mood animates the story. As the man physically assaults the woman, her friend kills him with a gun. The girls then dismember his body, cook it and eat it. A murder ballad — the type of cannibalism scandal someone might find on late night television. The first lines of the song’s lyric, written by Cecelia herself, “I bite at the hand that feeds me, slap at the face that eats me. Some kind of animal, cannibal”, later collide with a compulsive, layered video editing of colourful shots of the two young women literally eating their abuser, throwing his bones into a garbage bag and smoking cigarettes in the satisfied way that people do after a large meal. Happy ever after.
Fairy tale narratives often begin with these hopeless situations. There’s the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the brother and sister are kidnapped by a witch who lives in the woods, or Rapunzel, where the couple steal fruit from a witch’s garden and must promise to give their baby child to the ‘evil’ woman. In this case, the women in Possibly in Michigan are being followed by a violent man – or men – that won’t leave them alone. Here, rather than being rescued by Prince Charming, the “princesses” rescue themselves by eating him. This is a revision of the fairy tale: the symbolism behind the feeding on and the dismemberment of the man at the end of the tape transforms Freud’s fear of castration into women’s fear of rape. Condit subverts the fairy tale scenario by concluding with a strong female friendship.
Condit’s works have transformed alongside her personal growth as an artist and, always, as a woman. The lurid side of the fairy tales (as we can clearly see in her 1996 tape, Oh, Rapunzel) and the autobiographical touches have remained throughout the expansion of her art into a more meditative ground. The stories are recollections: the lived experiences of women. To quote Mellencamp again, the artist “…discusses women and violence… beneath the veneer of fairy tales,”² and shapes the material into a skeleton of its own. She voices the history of her women in a natural (neither logical nor unusual) way, restoring identity by following the instincts of her mind, the body of becoming.
¹ Mellencamp, Patricia, The Alarming, Charming Video Art of Cecelia Condit: A Monograph on Fairy Tales (Pell-Mell Publishing, 2012)
² Mellencamp, Patricia, The Alarming, Charming Video Art of Cecelia Condit: A Monograph on Fairy Tales (Pell-Mell Publishing, 2012)