The Alchemy of Intimacy
Artist Statement for Cara Judea Alhadeff
I develop my photographic scenarios by finding natural and architectural sites (found and constructed) that I juxtapose to human gestures and psychological states. I then choreograph scenes set within these environments. Although the photographs are consciously constructed, the relationships are born out of an improvised collaboration in which the physics of touch, gravity, and balance establish an unfolding performance. My photographic performers simultaneously splay their bodies like a smear, echo, trace of memory, and compress themselves into the tightness of the present-moment. What I see through the camera lens is my reality. The photograph exposes the viewer to what is unfolding in front of the camera; nothing is manipulated during the analogue developing or printing process.
Although I am a photographer, I don’t see my work as only photographic, but also as sculptural, performative, cinematic. This is one reason why collaborating with artists from other disciplines is so critical to my working process.
I arrange the space, objects, and bodies (including my own) in such a way that blurs the lines that separate them. This luminescent excess inhabits both the domestic and the animalistic. The characters become hybrids of machine and animal that populate dream-like worlds. The quotidian in relation to the sensual spectacle sets up a ritualistic narrative—a strewn collision of bodies and space is simultaneously purposeful and haphazard. Through a carnal visual language, these polymorphic bodies are engaged in ambiguous ceremonies. My photographs explore the body as a membrane between sensuality and restraint, surrender and resistance. My intention is to disrupt the distinction between the interior and exterior of both psychological and physical experiences.
My images illuminate a call and response between anxiety and beauty: anxiety in the moment of recognizing the familiar within the unfamiliar—feeling a connection with the other, yet clinging to a separate identification; beauty in the moment of responsiveness to our undeniable connectedness. Through my , I explore this web as a process of multi-layered storytelling in which ambiguity is not a lack of clarity, but a multiplicworkity of clarities.
The following elliptical stories further expand my photographic scenarios. These include my childhood pilgrimage toRomanesque cathedrals throughout France and Le Museé Picasso, my early intimacies as a teenager working on a biological farm and as a beekeeper in the French Pyrenees and in Béja,Tunisia, a sensory explosion of teaching yoga and photographing in Seoul, Korea, and numerous censorship incidents.
Imbibing the articulated muscularity of Michelangelo’s David coincided with the chaos of my parents’ divorce. This collision offered me my first conscious taste of the power of vulnerability, beauty, and the naked human body. As an art historian, my father had an acute appreciation of the nude in art—in particular, the male nude. His preoccupation with developing his own ideal body led us to the university gym. He would frequently take me with him to lift weights. At the age of five, I remember hiding in the tall yellow lockers in the men’s locker-room—eagerly peeking out to see college students pumping iron, showering, parading around in all their magnificence. Primed by my father’s art historical pontifications about the eroticized nobility of the male form, I conflated these sneaker-wearing, muscle-bound, towel-less men with Michelangelo’s idealized marble statue of David that I had seen the previous in Florence.
The same year, my artist mother collaborated with Nancy Spanier Dance Theater of Colorado. I can still feel the exhilarating sense of curiosity and awe as two topless female dancers strode majestically across the stage wearing undulating pleated pantaloons and the Egyptian funerary portrait masks that my mother had made for the performance. These Faiyum-like headdresses were mesmerizing portraits of the deceased, like those painted on sarcophagi—a spectacular image of the living soul for the dead to take to the afterlife. The dancers’ naked breasts and the sumptuous flow of pantaloons draped around their bodies, floating across the stage with stylized determination and purpose, set in motion an uncanny, raw intensity that continues to influence my vision of gesturing into consciousness, life in constant flux.
I find home the first time I visit Le Musée Picasso. As a nine year old seduced by Picasso’s contorted bodies, the world suddenly made sense. I recognize myself within a vulnerable Deleuze-Guattarian swarm. Picasso’s grotesquely beautiful heads integrated into monstrous forms, help me feel at ease in my own body—dissonant and rich, with life-affirming, sensual energy and political potential. My young body-mind straddles the dialectical possibilities.
Soon after I visited Le Musée Picasso, I saw my first Japanese Butoh dance performance. I understood the outrageousness of Butoh, like the erotic, as a key to examine the unconscious mind by plunging into our carnal nature that is often prohibited and suppressed in both Western and Eastern societies. Butoh asks, “What does it mean to be incarnate on earth?” Like the uproar provoked by Le sacre du printemps, Butoh is not only performance, but also the embodiment of one of the most precise critical political actions in the history of consciousness of the body.
The dance evokes images of decay, of fear and desperation, images of eroticism, ecstasy and stillness…the essence of Butoh lies in the mechanism through which the dancer stops being himself and becomes someone or something else…Perhaps this enables us to bring our bodies back to their original state and reconcile us with ourselves and with the world around us. The more you adhere to the details of the body, the more they expand to a cosmological scale…(Ashikawa Yôko cited in Kurihara 1997: 159).
These were some of my many childhood introductions to understanding our bodies—both private and public-—as non-hierarchical, and knowing that contradiction and difference are inevitable and replete with potential. I learned early on that the way we choose to experience our bodies can provide a framework of intersubjectivity which moves beyond the narrow limits of what we think we know. I am reminded of Hélène Cixous: “Suddenly I was filled with a turbulence that knocked the wind out of me and inspired me to wild acts…in the depths of the flesh, the attack…An urge shook my body, changed my rhythms, tossed madly in my chest, made time unlivable for me…Who’s striking me? Who’s attacking me from behind?…Who’s changing me into a monster?” (9)
Cixous’s urgencies conjure the fertility of the stranger within. Because the word monster shares its root with the verb to demonstrate, I find that creating a spectacle actually establishes a space where we can reflect on our differences and similarities. “Extreme” individuals and groups are on display—re-appropriating the spectacle of the real. In my photographs, self-portrait videos, and theoretical practice the grotesque or disarrayed body of the “monster”/the other/the unfamiliar/the immigrant/the socially inappropriate female is intended to rupture predetermined categories of identification.
In his book titled, The Uncanny, Nicholas Royle reminds us that the experience of oneself as a foreign body becomes an uncanny process of being; an otherness within, a monstrosity of one who lives as the nomad in perpetual exile. Similarly, Audre Lorde invokes the imperative for self-investigation and recognition of difference not as opposition, but as fertile grounds for contingent encounters: “I urge each one of us to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there.” Lorde’s urgent call is at the core of my work. When we touch that difference, we inhabit the potential of the erotics of the uncanny.
I explore how we experience the other within ourselves as a key to provoke social agency: the creative potential of what Lorde identified as erotic politics.
My work investigates participatory citizenship through a conscious integration of the erotic into the everyday. This erotic politics disrupts and reorients our cultural constructs of pleasure and vulnerability, and ultimately re-appropriating power and control over our own bodies—setting the groundwork for a citizenship that embraces the fertility of the uncanny—the unfamiliar and its accompanying relational tensions. I am proposing an embodied democracy in which social models are based on recognition of the absolute necessity of difference. This alchemy of vulnerability offers an infinite potential of our bodies as autonomous and contingent modes of relation.
I begin to read Cixous’s Coming to Writing and re-read George Bataille’s L’Histoire de l’Oeil. My body tells me that their positions converge. I am delighted. Cixous’s act of writing mirrors Bataille’s characters’ abandon(ment) and relation to sexuality. I equally devour both texts simultaneously—knowing that the work/art/love I have always lived-shared is embedded in Cixous and Bataille’s provocations. The last time I read Bataille’s work, I was 18 and actually living one version of Bataille’s lurid tales.
Just months before the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, I join La Commune du Monde, Wilderdorp, the commune of the world. Servicing a tiny, lavishly wealthy village near Ghent, Belgium. This macrobiotic commune is a sanctuary for itinerant poets/story-tellers, philosophers, recovering drug-addicts, sexual freedom fighters. During that time, I wrote incessantly about the manipulative extreme psycho-sexual relationships I witnessed and experienced on the communes and farms, not just in Belgium, but in Tunisia and then in the South of France with a lover who had just been released from a psychiatric hospital. That was the first time writing became critical to my survival; when language propelled me into my body.
Sarah Lawrence College.
Returning to the States and to my first year of college, a school renowned for its creative writing program, I found I could no longer write—stifled by the tyranny of reductive language that I found in both academia and popular culture. I began instead to take color photographs—images that directly mirrored my written language and my commitment to erotic politics. I first started photographing in the forests of Westchester where I found tree trunks full of cicada exoskeletons. I incorporated these symbols of transformation, along with moldy gourds, glass laboratory vials, latex gloves, hair wax strips, my fingernail clippings, preserved pigs’ ears, my grandmother’s dentures (a holocaust survivor who had lost her teeth during the war,) patinaed metal, multiple mirrors, bloody menstrual pads, bird claws/skulls, and bats’ heads, as if crawling into and emerging from my models’ orifices.
By structuring scenarios using hyperbole and excess, my work has always been about the process of finding ease with the things that make us uncomfortable, i.e., the unfamiliar, ambiguities, and contradictions. We deny the power and inherent inevitability of contradictions when we insist on categorizing ourselves and others into what is considered normal/familiar/acceptable. Attempting to question socially constructed expectations and prohibitions of the human body, my images explore the complicated processes through which we interpret our bodies in relation to definitions of what is “real.” By saturating my images with flesh, friction, gravity, weight, touch, color, pattern, texture, and the fertile spaces in-between, I unfold environments in which the excess actually invites a new kind of normalcy—a third interval—a new kind of everyday way of being. In my yoga teaching, my writing, and my photographic process, I amplify vulnerability as a key to fully experience being alive. I intend to make the world safe for life-affirming deviance: true play, humor, irony, desire, and pleasure.
I often need to forego the use of my camera and must instead write about what I am witnessing—for the very same reasons that seventeen years earlier I could not write: the private is subdued by the public. The issues involved when my photographs were first censored (which I will discuss momentarily) surprisingly, are even more relevant today: first, because I now photograph in public spaces; and second, because of the prevalence of digital technology and the phenomenon of artificial representation. I feel compelled to discuss what I see as a dangerous phenomenon of digital photography: a reflection of our addiction to certainty and the familiar, and our fear of the ambiguous nature of interpretation. When we believe that our everyday world rotates around a calcified central root of an unambiguous neutrality, we diminish the possibilities of our creative potential and our willingness to be fully engaged.
Throughout the 90s, because my photographs explored the unfamiliar or immediately unrecognizable, viewers often reduced my images to the categories of pornography or abstraction. Today, viewers assume they are digitally manipulated. Photo-shop is the norm in commercial and fine art photography in which order, rationality, and the familiar are sanctioned as “the real” within the domain of the public and the everyday. As a result of this shift in perception, my photographic images are frequently interpreted as “not real”. What I see as my reality through the camera lens invokes Bataille’s coincidentia oppositorum—a continual exchange of differences. In fact, nothing is manipulated during the analog developing/printing process which I do myself—now rare among contemporary color photographers. My commitment to Deleuze’s non-teleological flux offers a deviation from the tyrannical laws of normalcy that digital imagery may inadvertently impose. The assumption that my photographs are digitally manipulated coincides with our learned compulsion to be categorically certain of the illusion of absolute truth. Order, rationality, and the familiar are commonly sanctioned as “the real” within the domain of the public and the everyday. Given these parameters, my images could not be “real.”
I see myself not as a neo-luddite nor am I making a case against digital manipulation itself as an art form, but, I am reluctant to identify digital imagery as the next frontier, the edge of progress in a vertical hierarchy of imagination—obliterating the infinite possibilities of exploring what already exists—the magic and intensity of our everyday worlds. Paradoxically, the body has become a spectacle of the invisible—an alienated, mythified, commodified site of colonization. In cultural production, as in reception, vulnerability becomes a vital intervention in public-private discourse. Vulnerability that is not regulated by authority is forbidden in the public sphere. Status quo defines this site through order and familiarity. In contrast, the private is construed and constructed as vulnerable and ambiguous, therefore messy and chaotic, thus requiring unquestioned taxonomies of regulation and normalization.
What I choose to photograph and how I exhibit my images are strategies intended to encourage viewers to question their habitual, taken-for-granted comfort zone that they may not realize exists because it is so automatic. Too often, anything outside of the zone of the familiar is seen as socially inappropriate, and therefore deviant. More and more, we use the lowest common denominator (Kierkegaard’s “lower immediacy level of discussion”) as a justification for how we make our decisions for what can or what must not go on in the public realm. When the so-called normal dictates what is real and what can be legitimately expressed in public (i.e., self-censorship), the voice of authority remains uncontested. The illusion that we have creative and intellectual freedom is based on the prevailing notion that a “neutral” territory exists. The idea that there is a morally safe, non-threatening ground that must not offend anyone actually neutralizes, thus eradicates difference. “Corporate art” satisfies this anti-intellectual, repressive position.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s term, misrecognition, emphasizes a dialogue with an uncanny. But instead of dialogue, within the context of our body-phobic, hetero-normative society, the sanctity of normalcy has led to my photographs’ censorship in multiple environments—in both art and public venues. What happens when socialized norms are so deeply ingrained in us that our imaginations contort our perceptions of reality—become more threatening than reality? For example, the consistent rationale for my photographs being censored has been rooted in misrecognition of objects and relationships that did not actually physically exist in the frame of the image.
My first major incident with censorship occurred at Penn State University Pattee Library, named after William Pattee, who ironically was known for his defense of freedom of speech. Censorship of my photographs was rooted in peoples’ fear of their own imagination. Half of my exhibition was removed even though it had gone through the official review process. Not satisfied with partial removal, some university employees continued to challenge the entire exhibit calling the works ‘degrading to the human body,’ ‘immoral,’ “too explicit’, and ‘inappropriate for a university library.’ Given that the term ‘explicit’ generally refers to what is perceived as ‘clearly defined’ and ‘precise,’ it is ironic that the protest demanding the removal of my show condemned my work as ‘sexually explicit’. They were threatened by the ambiguity of the images, yet they defined them as explicit. Did those who found my photographs ‘offensive’ feel threatened by what they “actually saw” or by what they imagined they were seeing, or perhaps by how and what I was actually photographing?
In the context of multiple constituencies, creativity becomes a political imperative in which intellectual and aesthetic risk-taking gives voice to social justice. I am proposing an embodied democracy in which social models become a practice based on recognition of the absolute necessity of difference: an infinite potential of our bodies as contingent modes of relation. Converging with Sam Weber, I embed my explorations of the uncanny within an empathic field: “What is at stake in the uncanny is nothing more nor less than the disposition to ‘put ourselves in the place of the other’” (31). Erotic conjunctions provide a framework for perceiving the world through possibility rather than habitual prescription.
My photo series titled “Fermentation” is part of the ongoing Conscious Dream Project that included many of the men, women, and children who lived on the ecovillage commune in Oregon where I was teaching yoga. After a photo shoot, one of the women subjects sat with me and wept because she felt such relief to be able to be naked with many others, after having hated her body for so many years. I gave her the opportunity to be in an intimate environment that normalized nudity—a public space in which eroticism, nudity, and intimacy are not about sex, but simply the way things are if we are committed to the practice of trusting our bodies. I want to unsettle commonplace conventions of vulnerability by re-appropriating how our society orders the inside and the outside.
This intervention is not about exposure or access to what is normally “hidden,” but about questioning and re-conceptualizing the ways in which the real is constructed in relation to how it is embodied as the private. Abigail Solomon-Godeau elaborates on the complexities of interpreting imagery: “[I]ts meaning will be determined by the viewer’s reading of it; a reading as much determined by the viewer’s subjectivity as by the manifest and latent contents of the image” (229). I want my images to provoke this move from a privatized aesthetic to a political intimacy, an erotic agency. Performance artist Suzanne Lacy’s observation is characteristic of both post-colonial and post-modern art made in the last 30 years: “[W]hat exists in the space between the words public and art is an unknown relationship between artist and audience, a relationship that may itself become the artwork” (20). Because the relationships among the “objects” , including my own body (myself) within my photographs play out a process of continual de-centering and excess, I hope this language of critical imagination becomes an erogenous life-affirming power; breaking up predetermined taxonomies of knowledge, and suspending what we habitually think we know.
In City Hall, my photograph of the mirrored shaved head of my model is interpreted either as testicles or as hairy breasts, and censored as profligate sexuality that must not be allowed in a public space. In the Oakland Federal Building, the same image is censored for racialized interpretations: it is Black History Month—the head is recognized as a head, as opposed to testicles and breasts, but this time as the head of enslaved peoples. The justification for removing this particular image includes perceived references to both the monks who had recently been brutally burned in Tibet, and to the Oklahoma Federal Building Bombing. I am accused of depicting and even celebrating the mutilated, fragmented bodies of subjugated ethnic others.
Another example of how commodified hegemonic practices distort our self-perceptions and how difference is institutionally neutralized occurred during the same show. As I installed my what was supposed to be a three-month exhibition, one of the city supervisors warned me that Mayor Willie Brown could not be expected to walk past an image of a vagina everyday on the way to his office. The so-called “vagina” actually was a close-up of my armpit.
As a sex radical, Deleuzian nomadic feminist writer and visual artist, my photographs have been frequently censored because of ambiguous gender representation and people’s taken-for-granted fear of the unfamiliar—or what the viewer identified as uncertain or unknown. A few years ago, I was invited to participate in an exhibition sponsored by San Francisco’s apparently not so radical fetish scene—Women-of-Color BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sado-Masochism). Among the four participating photographers, I was the only woman. After months of preparation, my photographs were abruptly censored by the curator because of our conflicting interpretations of the concept of fetish. She expressed disgust at what she interpreted in my photos as placenta emerging from a “man’s” crotch, and at a woman with hair-growth on her toes—an unexpected and ironic gender reversal. Her bottom-line was that the images of the body needed to be unambiguously beautiful, i.e. hairless, well-groomed, and gender-specific:
I believe I stated that there can be nudity, however, it should be tasteful, fetish-style sexy, artistic and in keeping with the 2257 [code]Mark i.e.: No sexual stimulation, no intercourse, no erect penises, no fingers in vaginas, no spread eagled legs for the women, no spread butt anus shots, fisting, pornographic inspired. The images we would like to present will give a flavor of the various fetishes. However, many aspects of fetish are about the sexy clothes, shoes, props, play toys, hair and make-up…
Apparently, I should have photo-shopped out all physical “imperfections”. Like Cixous, I am compelled by “…the need not to submit the subject of writing, of painting [in my case, of photography and teaching yoga], to the laws of cultural cowardice and habit…not to make things pretty, not to make things clean” (118).
During my lecture at the Contemporary Museum of Art in Lyon, France, one of the curators from the Lyon Biennial told me how much he liked my photo of an old woman. I responded by informing him that “the old woman” is actually a young man. What interests me is not his interpretation of age or gender, but how he reacts when he discovers that his taken-for-granted supposition is actually the opposite? “That such disruption and interrogation can be accomplished within the regime of an almost formalist beauty…is just one of many moments in which Alhadeff shows that she thinks through the senses as well as the mind. Hers is a sensuous, as well as ruthless, intelligence for which the brilliant image is the best way of making an argument” (Sarah K. Rich, Uncanny Congruencies exhibition catalogue). As a medium-format color analog photographer, writer, and activist, I experience my visual work as a sociological investigation, a philosophical engagement, and as a collaboration with the performative.
Berkeley. Only through cross-disciplinary activism can I thrive as an embodied artist and cultural worker. Fusing theory and image, Viscous Expectations: Justice, Vulnerability, The Ob-scene (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), my first transdisciplinary feminist philosophy book, like my photographs, scrutinizes how racial hygiene, anti-intellectualism, and ethnocentrism configure the troubled yet vital concept of equality. Viscous Expectations explores vulnerability of the body as a strategy for collaborative justice. It covers a spectrum of political, philosophical, and personal subjects woven throughout my ninety-two color photographs and video stills, 522 pages of theoretical text, and extensive footnotes, a triad that presents polyvalent, overlapping narratives. Lucy Lippard, feminist curator, activist, and author of 22 books on art and cultural criticism, wrote of my book:
Alhadeff’s work is a fascinating fusion of art and scholarship. Intricate theoretical text is paralleled by unexpected photographic imagery – sensuous, enigmatic, and layered. The book extends into new and fluid realms the still valid idea that ‘the personal is political.’ Intellectually rigorous and esthetically daring, the book is hard work, and worth it.
I include Rich’s and Lippard’s reflections as part of my artist statement because they both illustrate how I live Ken Plummer’s concept of intimate citizenship. Like Lorde’s “erotic politics,” intimate citizenship designates our radical interconnectedness and loosens the grip of alienation—the illusory belief, sustained through neoliberal internalized fascism, that we are all separate individuals. My work, an alchemy of intimacy, animates the fertility of uncanny congruencies—illuminating a recognition of difference, the familiar within the unfamiliar—a visceral, socio-political connection with multiple others as constitutive of a dynamic democracy.
Cixous, Hélène. “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Lacy, Suzanne. “Introduction: Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys,” Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, ed. Suzanne Lacy. Seattle: Seattle Bay State Press, 1995: 19-47.
Lorde, Audre. Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.The University of Virginia: Out & Out Books, 1978.
Royle, Nicholas. The Uncanny.New York: Routledge, 2003.
Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
Weber, Samuel. Legend of Freud.Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.