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Glynis Humphrey Breathing Under Water
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Essay by Heather Anderson
Coming through the surface of the self
Glynis Humphrey explores surface as a site of seduction, desire and repulsion, as a foil or masquerade, and as a facade on which we project the other. Allowing her video camera to rove at close range over the body’s opulent flesh, sumptuous fabrics, and lavish foods, her compelling video installations over the last decade have disavowed the distanced objectifying gaze that produces the monstrous feminine as other. An early example, the video installation Farewell (1996) lures the viewer to lean over the edge of a tall plinth and peer within at a deeply inset monitor. Through a veil of red lipstick smears, a fleshy mouth appears to kiss the monitor, repeatedly pulling away and then coming viscerally near, creating a pulsation between intimacy and abjection. A voice whispers bye-bye between each greased lip contact.
The video component of the installation, Gorge (MSVU Art Gallery, 1996) offered viewers another oral experience. Presented on five upturned monitors swathed in pastel tulle—like turned-up tutus or hazardous coral reefs—the videos bring luscious foods impossibly close - so close that some are momentarily unrecognizable, almost obscene under slow-motion, strobed animation. This time sensual appetite is implied as a hand operating a fork or spoon cuts in, silently scooping and jabbing. As viewers we are positioned even closer than the anonymous she who eats; our ravenous eyes are offered a gourmet body of folds, chunks, seeds, juices and creaminess. This delicious nearness became one of potential engulfment when viewers moved from the video installation and descended into the gallery stairwell that was occupied by a gargantuan size 66 strapless ball gown suspended such that passage required burrowing into its peach organza folds. Pausing within its soft bell-shaped cavern—a flesh-like inner sanctum akin to a womb—might have comforted or repulsed.
In tracing Glynis Humphrey’s practice it becomes clear that her attention to materiality and surface is aimed at inciting the viewer’s embodied response. Employing tulle, organza and Chloroprene, the artist invites our touch, while her camera’s caress brings us intimately proximate to foods and flesh, rousing the sensation of touching surfaces with our eyes. Her approach encourages a multi-sensory and physically engaged way of seeing —a haptic visuality. (1)
Haptic visuality emphasizes the role of our tactile, kinesthetic and proprioceptive (2) senses in how we see. As film and video theorist Laura Marks explains, haptic visuality, distinct from the distanced, disembodied and mastering sight of optical visuality, offers the potential for the eyes to function like sensuous organs of touch. Yet the two exist on a continuum, and it is precisely the interrelation of the haptic with the other senses that we rely on habitually but of which we are generally unaware.
Glynis Humphrey activates an awareness of this haptic mode in her installation Breathing Under Water. A number of suspended, large round white forms occupy the gallery, seeming to glow in the low-lit space. At one end of the gallery, they form a linear constellation close to the floor; elsewhere they are suspended at varying heights. The artist has chosen weather balloons, Chloroprene giants that are sturdy enough to sustain physical contact. Wired with audio speakers, they resonate with low sounds. I approach and lightly touch these body-like orbs, detecting a heartbeat, breathing and a body moving in water across their taut surfaces. The immateriality of sound and air contained within a thin membrane conveys the very material experience of the body. Sitting in a chair placed below a balloon five and one-half feet in diameter, I feel a heartbeat descend, pulsing in my temples and trembling through my body—supplanting my own inaudible heartbeat yet also remaining other than my own. The audio seeps below the surface of my skin and grounds me in my own physicality, the heart’s rhythm a conscious reminder of mortality.
The enveloping heartbeat presence beneath the enormous balloon simulates a former existence within the maternal body. This reference to a state of plenitude is reinforced as I stand beneath a suspended parabolic speaker, absorbing ambient underwater and breathing sounds as I watch a large video projection of a woman, the artist, under water. Projected within a large frame as though I am looking through a glass vitrine, the video is the result of a week-long experiment Humphrey undertook in a blacked-out dive tank with an all-women team of visual artists and master divers. Through this performative exploration of her own embodiment, she was attempting to access the much-theorized Imaginary from her experience as the middle-aged fat woman—of living within the maternal body which our society vilifies as grotesque. The mythical ideal of the Imaginary—as a primordial state of wholeness before the mind/body split which forms each of us an individual subject—is conceptualized as the experience in the womb when our mother’s body was co-extensive with our own. Appropriately, water is an ambivalent metaphor for Humphrey’s project; as a natural element it courts the essentialist response associated with the ‘primal’ and maternal body, yet these are also the very qualities thrust onto women. Her pleasure in the water is evident as I witness seductive sequences of her body cutting forcefully through the liquid element, gently turning or blissfully floating, the water swirling around her long dress and ample flesh. I see her plunge into the water and struggle to master the aqueous environment. Water is also threatening: beyond our amniotic months, breathing under water is impossible, a fact demonstrated forcefully as Humphrey surfaces, gasping for air. Yet the urgency for breath can also be understood as a need to return beneath the water’s surface.
Across the grain of the video’s surface flow sumptuous sequences of undulating fabric, flesh and water. A loose dress alternately conceals and reveals the artist’s body as she moves beneath its diaphanous sheen. Trying to hold the dress down, she is unable to free herself of the gaze even in her attempt to revisit the Imaginary. The camera is by turns desiring and devouring, both caressing and assaulting, captivating viewers with images that alternately seduce and repel, invite and threaten.(3) The image’s large scale and my immersion in the audio beneath the speaker displace me. I become permeable to this other whom I watch, unable to sustain the distanced, mastering gaze that produces the monstrous feminine. For Kaja Silverman this physical implication of the viewer offers a radical repositioning that catalyzes a new politics of viewing, the potential for intersubjectivity and ethical exchange. As viewers, we are challenged to confront the image of this other with an ethical gaze, to see the otherness of the desired self, and familiarity of the despised other and to recognize one’s self within those others to whom we would otherwise respond with revulsion and avoidance. (4)
Laura Marks locates the ethical look in acknowledging the physicality and unknowability of the other. A reminder of this gulf between self and other is present in the small figure in Humphrey’s second video, visible just above eye level on a flat screen monitor. As I watch this woman, I am positioned under another parabolic speaker. I hear her breathe through a regulator, and the body’s gentle movements in the water. She wears a facemask and is suspended like an apparition from another universe, the reflective particles in the water resembling stars in deep space. Her dress floats upward, engulfing her. (5)
Breathing Under Water is an experiential environment in which, as a viewer, I become immersed. Across the membrane of balloons that buoy her memory and experience, relayed as breath, heartbeat and the body’s movement in water, Glynis Humphrey transmits her presence. She exposes herself to my gaze through the vitrine of the video image. But Breathing Under Water expands the haptic visuality of which Laura Marks writes, and the ethical look that she, Kaja Silverman and others theorize. The sound, the exquisite images, and the balloon entities—simultaneously resilient and tenuous, like my own physical being—activate a psycho-physical response. This corporeal implication in perceiving someone I would position as other catalyzes more than an ethical gaze or look. Breathing Under Water calls for an ethical exchange between embodied subjects, a movement towards the other, allowing the other to surface within the self.
2. Proprioception is a sense that provides feedback solely on the status of the body internally. It indicates whether or not one’s body is moving with required effort, as well as where the various parts of one’s body are located in relation to each other.
3. Unpublished project proposals written by Emily Givner and Glynis Humphrey (1998) and reworked by Gillian Collyer and Glynis Humphrey (2003)
4. Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World (New York and London: Routledge, 1996), 170 cited in Amelia Jones, "Televisual Flesh: Activiating Otherness in New Media Art," Parachute 113 (2004), 74.
5. Marsk, xviii.