Lorna Simpson talks to Frieze about her life and work in her Brooklyn studio. Simpson came to prominence in the...
Human power is
my heart beats
as my eyes open
as my hands move
as my mouth speaks
– Audre Lorde (1973)
How one is able to interpret a work of literature or visual art depends on how one sets about reading it, a process that may be keyed to theoretical, historical, aesthetic, or political issues. when it comes to considering the oeuvre of Lorna Simpson, which has already generated a vast corpus of particularly rich and rewarding propositions, we may wonder if there is a different way to approach her photographic production – a body of work that has occupied a singular position and broken new ground since the mid-1980s.
For the first time in the history of American art, a woman artist was engaged in a conceptual practice that addressed both African American cultural history and the memory of slavery, both the heritage of artistic or cinematic avant-gardes and conceptual photography, questions of race and gender as well as political consciousness and critical thought. Simpson’s work would enter the mainstream american and international art milieu by advancing notions of marginality, invisibility, and stereotype. It was a fine balance, especially when considering the latter, since artists of her generation who emphasized their belonging to black (or nonwhite) culture were quickly labeled with the cliché of otherness. Huey Copeland, in his essay ‘‘bye, bye black girl’: Lorna Simpson’s Figurative retreat,’ trenchantly analyzes the reception of Simpson’s work, notably citing with critical irony the front page of ‘New York Newsday’ on September 19, 1990: a full-page photograph of the artist, standing in front of a detail of her 1989 photo-text work ‘Untitled (Prefer, Refuse, Decide),’ accompanied by a huge headline proclaiming ‘The Outsider Is In.’ According to Copeland, Simpson’s fortuitous ascension was taken
to augur the beginning of the end of white patriarchal exclusion, the absolute other now given her ‘place in the sun’: representation in the age of representativeness.
Of course, such representation is never without its price and as the mascot for a brand of specious multiculturalism, Simpson was expected to speak tirelessly of and for her oppressed sisters, and in the idiom that had already become her signature.(1)
This altogether singular artistic position goes hand in hand with Simpson’s sharp lucidity, allowing her to think about the context at the heart of her production; it is the latter that spares her work from being co-opted. Despite the ‘object’ nature of her photographic installations and the ease of their assimilation by an art market hungry for artists responsive to its expectations, she confounds these expectations by voluntarily obscuring her sources. like a rebus combining visual elements and words, a Simpson work offers with its photographs and texts – fragments of deconstructed narratives, sentences on the run – moments when the spectator, focusing on the text and the image, suddenly gains the freedom to make the references resonate and thereby understands that it is this process, in turn, that is the producer of meanings.
In the second chapter of Toni Morrison’s novel ‘Home’ (2012), we read: ‘Frank fell asleep between a wool blanket and plastic slipcovers and dreamed a dream dappled with body parts. He woke in militant sunlight to the smell of toast. It took a while, longer than it should have, to register where he was. The residue of two days’ hospital drugging was leaving, but slowly. Wherever he was, he was grateful the sun’s dazzle did not hurt his head. He sat up and noticed socks folded neatly on the rug like broken feet’.(2)
Simpson’s approach is astutely based on the model of objective photography that privileges a frontal and perfectly impartial perspective, yet her work turns on the moment when the viewer’s gaze pierces this facade of forced neutrality.
Two elements here bear attention and may be seen as relevant in reading Simpson’s work: Morrison’s reference to both a ‘dream dappled with body parts’ and socks ‘like broken feet.’ These are not necessarily literal, for when reading Morrison’s words, pausing in particular on the mental images conjured by these ‘body parts’ and these ‘broken feet,’ it is understood that this kind of narrative skews the relationship between fiction and reality. We enter a very visual world through imagination; we see what the author speaks of; we intuitively grasp what she evokes. The second is the question of point of view. Where do we stand when we observe a scene? How might we reassemble the scattered elements? The body fragments? The repetitions?
Admittedly, African American literary and visual culture is an important reference that helps us to grasp the foundations – and read between the lines – of Simpson’s work. As Deborah Willis, an authority on black photography in the United States, suggests in her 1992 book about Simpson (which was one of the first monographs devoted to her work): ‘one could argue that within the African-American community, no art is developed without narrative, whether explicit or implied. Lorna Simpson’s photographic work is rooted in this tradition; it uses literal, suggestive and visual narratives to create a partly personal, partly fictional account of contemporary society’.(3)
At the same time, for Simpson, immersion in this tradition is mediated by her understanding of the approaches of other artists. She notes, for example, how important Chantal Akerman’s and Babette Mangolte’s films were to her. (Simpson took Mangolte’s course at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), in 1985.) For both Akerman and Mangolte, the question of point of view is essential. As Akerman explains, speaking of her experience as director of Jeanne Dielman, ’23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles’ (1975) in an interview published in the California-based feminist publication Camera Obscura:
I didn’t have any doubts about any of the shots. I was very sure of where to put the camera and when and why. It’s the first time I had that feeling so strongly.
You know who is looking; you always know what the point of view is, all the time. It’s always the same.
It was not a neutral look – that doesn’t exist anyhow. The way I looked at what was going on was a look of love and respect. I let her live her life in the middle of the frame.(4)
In her collaboration with Mangolte, who was the film’s director of photography, Akerman arranged for the camera not to move. Her own height determined the framing. As a result, when the character played by Delphine Seyrig is standing or stands up, her upper body is cut off. Mangolte, in her own 1976 film ‘What Maisie Knew,’ privileges a child’s point of view and affirms the usage of a ‘subjective camera.’(5) The way Simpson frames the women’s (and men’s) bodies that she photographs is based on a similar principle. Although we could consider Simpson’s ‘Gestures/ Reenactments’ (1985), ‘Five Day Forecast’ (1988), or ‘Three Seated Figures’ (1989), to cite but a few of her works, as ‘off-frame’ since faces are not visible, we could also say, based on what Akerman proposes, that these bodies, with their heads and legs amputated, translate a different story and send us back to a subjective scale in which the ‘whole; expresses itself as a fragment. Like the absolute rigor imposed by Akerman on her actress and her framing, Simpson’s approach is astutely based on the model of objective photography that privileges a frontal and perfectly impartial perspective, yet her work turns on the moment when the viewer’s gaze pierces this facade of forced neutrality.
The choice of point of view is obviously a crucial question in photography. The decisions the artist makes about what to record, what is or isn’t in the frame, the interactions between images, and what we see and what is out of frame all coalesce in defining and elaborating an extremely precise aesthetic and critical position. Simpson began to shoot black-and-white photographs to capture moments of New York life when she was studying photography at the school of Visual arts at the end of the 1970s. We know that she is very well versed in the history of documentary photography through her studies. She would deconstruct its function bit by bit, however, making the photograph no longer documentary but a document (informer and witness at the same time).
Simpson also conveys a more critical approach to the ‘documentary’ function of photography, in keeping with the conceptual positions she became familiar with when taking one-on-one courses with artists teaching at UCSE as part of her MFA studies during the early 1980s. For these artists, aesthetic analysis is inseparable from political faculty. Martha Rosler, a product of the same school of thought, notes:
A documentary image has two moments: (1) the ‘immediate,’ instrumental one, in which an image is caught or created out of the stream of the present and held up as testimony, as evidence in the most legalistic of senses, arguing for or against a social practice and its ideological-theoretical supports, and (2) the conventional ‘aesthetic- historical’ moment, less definable in its boundaries, in which the viewer’s argumentativeness cedes to the organismic pleasure afforded by the aesthetic ‘rightness’ or well-formedness (not necessary formal) of the image. The second moment is ahistorical in its refusal of specific historical meaning yet ‘history minded’ in its awareness of the pastness of the time in which the image was made. this covert appreciation of images is dangerous insofar as it accepts not a dialectical relation between political and formal meaning.(6)
‘Figure’, made by Simpson in 1991, could be an illustration of the dialectic suggested by Rosler and may also serve as a reminder of the importance of representation’s and interpretation’s many declensions. ‘Figure’ allows us to figure that this figure of a woman from the back, on a black background, wearing black clothes and black shoes, harks back to hypotheses that the word figure can operate according to its various definitions. All these definitions, in one way or another, reinforce the impossibility of arriving at definitive conclusions: the form of what we figure ‘figures the worst,’ disfigures itself (‘he was disfigured’), becomes suspicious (‘figured she (or he) was suspect’), and even envisions the moment prior to the photographic apparatus’s presence (‘figured on all the times there was no camera’). the dialectic relation between the image and the text is precisely what allows for the union between political and formal significance recalled by Rosler, even though the force of the figure is indeed apparent in its vanishing.
As we decipher Simpson’s works, the pieces themselves become their own tools for critical analysis. Simultaneously subject and object, they inflect possibilities for reflection: the forms of historical narration and vast tracts of memory concentrate themselves in photographic and semantic spaces. This very particular, ongoing back-and-forth makes for an oscillation from the objective to the subjective and vice versa. An almost clinical and nearly indescribable sensation is prompted by looking at these works composed of body fragments, framed and accompanied by text. There is no affect to hold on to. ‘Amnesia,’ ‘Error,’ ‘Indifference,’ ‘Omission,’ and ‘Uncivil’ make up the texts of ‘Easy for Who to Say’ (1989); ‘Sex attacks’ and ‘Skin attacks’ are repeatedly stated in ‘Guarded Conditions’ (1989); ‘Died last year,’ ‘died a year ago,’ ‘died last month,’ ‘died 18 months ago…’ are relayed by ‘Time Piece’ (1990). Each time, this vocabulary is pendant to female portraits (with the subject shown from the back or with the face obscured), photographed nearly identically with an extreme rigidity. In ‘Completing the Analogy’ (1987), the artist shows a woman, again in a dress (which looks like those worn by slaves) and presented from the back, at shoulder height, with messy hair, her arm standing out from the white of the clothing. we can read, on the image, white text on black:
HAT IS TO HEAD
AS DARKNESS IS TO . . . . . . . . . . . . . . SKIN
SCISSORS ARE TO CLOTH
AS RAZOR IS TO. . . . . . . . . . . . . . SKIN
BOW IS TO ARROW
AS SHOTGUN IS TO . . . . . . . . . . . . . . SKIN
The analogy can be completed only by recalling the violence endured by the black body since slavery, by lynching, by racism. In a striking way, in the silence of the black background and of those words in white, we hear the chilling sound of scissors cutting cloth or the whistle of a bullet’s trajectory from a firearm. Text and images are linked to life and to death; we read them together.
Michel Foucault has often been invoked in discussions of the work of Lorna Simpson.(7) The paradigms of power and bio-power, of surveillance and oppression, of social and racial discrimination advanced by Foucauldian thought can in fact be entirely associated with the artist’s practice. The philosopher was particularly influential on American postmodern theory at the time that Simpson’s generation of artists came of age. In the spring of 1982, at the age of twenty-two, Lorna Simpson took part in an exhibition organized by local 1199 of the National Health Care Workers Union’s Bread and Roses program. The exhibition was called ‘Working Women / Working Artists / Working Together’ and proposed collaborations between women artists and nonartists. Lucy Lippard was involved in the project and described empathetically the nature of Simpson’s work: a lace-dress sculpture accompanied by the artist’s text in memory of a young maid of her age. The social aspect of this work and the context in which it took form were heightened by the fact that Simpson’s sculpture-text itself was a subjective memory. (8)
A few months earlier, on January 6, 1982, Foucault, teaching at the Collège de France, continued his arguments on the historical dimensions of the ‘truth/subjectivity’ relation: ‘The question I would like to take up this year is this: in what historical form do the relations between the ‘subject’ and ‘truth,’ elements that do not usually fall within the historian’s practice or analysis, take shape in the west? So, to start with I would like to take up a notion about which I think I said a few words last year. This is the notion of ‘care of oneself.’’(9) A few weeks later, on February 10, 1982, Foucault insisted on an extension of this notion that, again, raises the possibility of his argument’s alignment with Simpson’s work. He said: ‘in order to understand what ‘turning your gaze on yourself’ means, I think we must first of all ask the question: from what must the gaze be turned away when one receives the injunction to turn it on oneself? Turning one’s gaze on the self means turning it away from others first of all. and then, later, it means turning it away from the things of the world.’(10)
Foucault pursues the analysis of this reflexive relationship a bit further, exploring ‘how the knowledge of things and the return to the self are linked.’(11) For years, Simpson radically repeated representations of figures turning their backs or refusing to show their faces. This radicalism on her part may be recognized in Foucault’s philosophical proposition: by turning away from others, the figures turn toward themselves. They grant importance to their own person. They produce a truth. By turning toward themselves, Simpson’s characters nevertheless maintain ‘eyes in the back of their heads,’ to paraphrase a text from one of the artist’s works. These eyes turn away from the ‘things of the world’ not out of indifference but out of ‘care of the self,’ out of the will to preserve an interiority and an integrity in a social and cultural space that denies them a place. While summoning African American gender and race identities, Simpson refutes autobiographical absorption. One could recall what Douglas Crimp wrote about Cindy Sherman in 1980 in ‘the Photographic activity of Postmodernism,’ which Simpson would likely have read when it was published in October: ‘the pose of authorship is dispensed with not only through the mechanical means of making the image, but through the effacement of any continuous, essential persona or even recognizable visage in the scenes depicted.’(12)
The question of butting heads with history and one’s own her/history could be the one that recurrently illuminates Lorna Simpson’s work. In her text ‘the oppositional gaze,’ Bell Hooks reminds us that slaves were forbidden from looking: ‘the politics of slavery, of racialized power relations, were such that the slaves were denied their right to gaze.’(13) This is also, without a doubt, why the importance of ‘looking toward oneself’ can be interpreted in the Foucauldian sense, as is evident in the way Simpson has experimented with it in works such as ‘Photobooth’ (2008). Hung on the wall, these lost-and-found portraits of people who looked at themselves in the photo-booth mirror become, with the lightness and fragility of butterflies pinned down by entomologists, signs that prolong the life span itself into eternity. Lorna Simpson reminds us that ‘the subject that I reach towards most often is memory.’(14) Forgetting is out of the question.
Translated from the French by Kira Simon-Kennedy
Huey Copeland, “‘Bye, Bye Black girl’: Lorna Simpson’s Figurative retreat,” Art Journal 64 (summer 2005): 66.
Toni Morrison, Home (new York: Knopf, 2012), 16–17.
Deborah Willis, “in the Back of Your Head: the Work of Lorna Simpson,” in Lorna Simpson (san Francisco: untitled 54, Friends of photography, 1992), 5.
“Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman: excerpts from an interview with Camera Obscura, november 1976,” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory, no. 2 (autumn 1977): 119.
See Constance Penley, “What Maisie Knew by Babette Mangolte: Childhood as point of View,” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory, no. 2 (Autumn 1977): 131.
Martha Rosler, “in, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography),” in Martha Rosler: Three Works (Halifax: press of the nova scotia college of art and design, 2006), 81.
see Beryl J. Wright, “Back talk: recoding the Body,” and Saidiya V. Hartman, “excisions of the Flesh,” in Lorna Simpson: For the Sake of the Viewer (new York: universe; Chicago: museum of contemporary art, 1992).
Lucy Lippard and candace Hill-montgomery, “Working Women/ Working artists/Working together,” Woman’s Art Journal 3 (spring– summer 1982): 19–20.
Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–1982, trans. graham Burchell, ed. Frédéric gros (new York: picador, 2005), 2.
Douglas Crimp, “The photographic activity of postmodernism,” October 15 (Winter 1980): 99.
Bell Hooks, “The oppositional gaze: Black Female spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: south end press, 1992), 115–31.
Lorna Simpson, In Conversation with Thelma Golden, in Lorna Simpson (London: Phaidon, 2002), 11.
Lorna Simpson, was published by DelMonico Books•Prestel, Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, and Jeu de Paume in 2013, and is available for sale worldwide.
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