PRINT April 1990


The difference in scale should normally produce a disequilibrium in the spectator and, possibly, enable him/her to see those things which might pass by unseen at a smaller scale, a little bit like close-ups, slow-motion or fast-motion cinema, where they are able to have a revealing effect, and thus illuminate those things which normally would rest hidden.
—Geneviève Cadieux, “Écrans de réflexion”1

Quel dommage que le cinéma possède le gros plan. (What a shame that the cinema possesses the close-up.)
—Marcello Mastroianni, “Le Danseur et son double”2

THREE PHOTOGRAPHS: A BLACK and white image of a woman, facing left, simulating a moment of physical and/or mental discomfort; a similar image in color; and a black and white detail of the woman’s lips. Hear Me with Your Eyes, 1989, like much of the work of Geneviève Cadieux (born Montreal, 1955), encompasses a number of subjects: photographic representation, voyeurism, the gaze and its connotations of gender, the body, movement, etc. In fact, much of the written material on the artist has focused on her manipulation of photographic practice and the subsequent reversal of the medium’s mimetic properties. At the same time, Cadieux’s persistent use of the body as a subject and the integration of the representation of the gaze into her installations is frequently seen as a questioning of the eroticization of the look. While these concerns are clearly evident in her work, I would argue that the overall subject is not so much the objects of contemplation themselves as the process the viewer must go through in order to associate the disparate elements.

In photography, of course, this process is loaded with meaning, given the conventional emphasis on the camera as the means of capturing “reality,” the mechanism that is capable of producing truthful images. Cadieux’s work takes this history into account and borrows from an allied medium, the cinema, in order to bring a series of inconsistencies to the forefront.

Thus the overriding subject of the work, that which integrates all of its subtexts, is the art of editing, the art of compressing or expanding images until an enhanced visual impression is generated. In Hear Me with Your Eyes, we are presented with a moment that has obviously been staged: the actress has been posed, the lighting accentuating her facial expression, her makeup self-consciously applied. These images, tracing a line from general to particular, from close-up to extreme close-up, construct a narrative that is characterized as much by its depth as by its linear movement. Each image anticipates the next, as well as signifying a unique moment under examination. As viewers, we wonder first what the context is, what drama is being acted out. Then we experience sensory synesthesia: the eyes are closed, the lips are isolated but do not speak. As the title suggests, our sensory expectations are to be frustrated.

In the quote cited above, the artist is speaking of another piece, La Blessure d’une cicatrice ou Les Anges (The wound of a scar or the angels, 1987). However, her comments on scale and close-up can be applied to many of her works. In effect, Cadieux is referring to a restriction and expansion of the spectator’s visual prerogatives. A work like Hear Me with Your Eyes may be seen as a meditation on the nature of the close-up. In the cinema, the close-up is frequently used as an end point, to denote emphasis and to focus the spectator’s attention. At its most rudimentary level, it represents a closure of possibilities. This is what Mastroianni, the actor, is referring to. When André Bazin spoke of depth of focus in the films of Orson Welles or William Wyler as a means by which various planes would be developed simultaneously, the close-up as used in montage functioned as its antithesis. For Cadieux, the use of sequential photographs sets up each image as a function of the previous one. Yet, unlike the sequential viewing of film images, they are to be seen at the same time. She effects a deep space through the use of montage. In this case, the notions of expansion or restriction are not antithetical; they are collapsed into the same process.

An oil painting caught and held him. A heavy surf thundered and burst over an outjutting rock; lowering storm clouds covered the sky; and, outside the line of surf, a pilot-schooner, close-hauled, heeled over till every detail of her deck was visible, was surging along against a stormy sunset sky. There was beauty, and it drew him irresistibly. He forgot his awkward walk and came closer to the painting, very close. The beauty faded out of the canvas. His face expressed his bepuzzlement. He stared at what seemed a careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the beauty flashed back into the canvas. “A trick picture,” was his thought, as he dismissed it, though in the midst of the multitudinous impressions he was receiving he found time to feel a prod of indignation that so much beauty should be sacrificed to make a trick. He did not know painting.
—Jack London, Martin Eden3

In fact, Martin Eden’s experience when confronted with the painted image, as detailed in Jack London’s 1909 novel, is the reverse of the phenomenon that we normally associate with the cinematic close-up. At first, Eden is completely taken in by the illusion of the work (“caught and held”). Yet, upon approaching the canvas, the original fascination gives way to disillusionment, to a sense that the painting is really nothing more than paint, an elaborate “trick.” Even when he steps back to confirm his first view, he remains a skeptic. His ire at the primary effect the painting triggered in him is due to effects of the privileged, secondary view—that of the close-up.

In Eden’s case, the closer view strips illusion from the work, rather than heightening it, as in a film. In the classic cinema, the premise that governs the reduction of distance is based on a notion of successively closer shots representing the privileged position of the spectator, the advantage that is held by the viewer over the nonseeing characters in the film. The close-up is the ultimate selection, the ultimate manifestation of the omniscient viewer. For Eden, however, it is a betrayal of confidence, the denial of his omniscience. The balance between viewer and object, that is, the work of art, does not hold.

This relationship between the denial and affirmation of the illusory properties of the artwork is at the core of a number of Cadieux’s works. In La Blessure d’une cicatrice ou Les Anges, we find two images: on the left, a defaced illustration from Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), and on the right, a turn-of-the-century photograph by E. J. Bellocq of a nude, her back to the camera, her hand reaching up in the act of drawing a butterfly on the wall.

These two images may be seen as two conductors that invite, yet ultimately frustrate, our desire for another view. The drawing relates to the artist’s childhood memory of coming across the book and finding the hero’s face rubbed out. Like the child confronted with this lapse of signification, we, as viewers, see it as an image with a lack at the center. It has either not been completed, or it has been disassembled. In either case, it is the lack, the empty space, that dominates our view. If the drawing were the subject of a film, the close-up, the privileged view, would reveal only a blank.

The Bellocq photograph presents this same refusal to complete the view. With the woman’s black hair flowing down her back, her face turned just enough that identification is impossible, she is both exposed and hidden. The fact that she is a prostitute may provide a practical explanation for the photographer’s refusal to record her features. (Many of Bellocq’s photographs feature women whose faces are literally scratched out.) Yet the denial is more meaningful than this. Seen from the back, literally up against the wall (Cadieux’s installation of the two pieces at Montreal’s Galerie René Blouin also placed them on the floor, leaning directly on the wall), Bellocq’s prostitute is presented in a closed view. As with the drawing of the Little Prince, our attention is shifted to the action, or the formal properties, of the image, while the ultimate disclosure is kept in abeyance. Whether it is the faceless storybook character or the woman with her back to the camera, the subject is missing.

Cadieux’s reference to the close-up and to the cinema’s means of enhancing the spectators’ view can often seem paradoxical. In La Blessure, for example, the juxtaposition and alteration of the images do not represent a closer view, but instead a larger view. The effect of distancing is not produced by the images, it is produced by the objects that the artist has made of these images. Like a magnifying glass, Cadieux enlarges elements in order that the spectator may make associations “which normally would rest hidden.” The result is more than a privilege: it becomes a challenge.

The use of scale as a device to both enhance and block our reading of the images is used repeatedly by Cadieux in pieces in which the human body is the subject. In Hear Me with Your Eyes, it is the face and its capacity for expression. L’Inconstance du désir (The inconstancy of desire, 1988), is structured around a photograph of a pair of arched feet. L’Écho, 1989, includes a bronze cast of a chest. The Shoe at Right Seems Much Too Large, 1986, juxtaposes an image of a skeleton with that of a body’s shadow, Caligari-like in its eeriness. In all of these pieces, the body, and its constituent parts, is so fetishized that any subsequent fragmentation—a division of a division—becomes both problematic and inescapable. It is as if the artist had isolated, distorted, and reordered the body so that we, too, may put it back together again.

At the same time, the artist’s use of large-scale, almost monumental images transforms the body into a map of signification. These magnified images are sometimes paired with others that are out of focus or blurred: the wavering shadow in The Shoe at Right, the feet in L’Inconstance, the smoked mirror in À fleur de peau (Skin deep, 1987). The result is a simultaneous presentation of surplus (via magnification) and lack (via obscuration). Clear, readable, whole images are juxtaposed with problematic, variable details. When an image is expanded to its limit, the result is a loss of focus, a mirror that does not reflect, a map turned into chaos.

Geneviève Cadieux is fascinated by the mechanisms of representation and, more particularly, the manner in which these mechanisms influence perception in a modern society equipped with advanced technology. . . . [Cadieux’s] pieces generally exist at the boundary between visible and invisible.
—Chantal Pontbriand, La Ruse historique4

After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it—hence we cannot say everything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automism of perception.
—Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”5

In Cadieux’s Trou de mémoire, la beauté inattendue (Memory gap, the unexpected beauty, 1988), the objectification and disordering of body parts is most evident. Emerging at an angle from a smoked two-way mirror is a light box holding a large-scale image of skin that has been stitched together. The image, while clear, is far from unambiguous. The most obvious reference, or association, is with the vagina, due to the particular folds of the skin and the way the sutures simulate pubic hair. Once again, the viewer’s look has been dislocated; once again, it is the result of a disorienting close-up. Yet this time, Cadieux combines a multiplication of scale with a narrowing of distance. The result is an image that is so “close,” it gives way to misinterpretation. Perhaps that is the memory gap—our inability to place this image and our reluctance to guess. It is both familiar and strange: an image that simultaneously repels the viewer, reluctant to deal with its subject matter, and encourages him/her to approach it, to apprehend its ambiguous method of presentation, and so penetrate its meaning.

The ambiguity of a work like Trou de mémoire is two-fold. Like many artists currently using light boxes, such as Dennis Adams, Alfredo Jaar, or Jeff Wall, Cadieux plays on their association with advertising and publicity. No matter what type of image is enclosed in the light box, it takes on a glossy, perfect shape. But whereas Adams and Jaar insert images with concrete political subtexts into their light boxes, and Wall subverts our sense of naturalistic photography, Cadieux engages—and implicates—us in a sort of photographic impropriety.

Cadieux’s work may be more effectively compared to that of artists like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Silvia Kolbowski, all of whom use manipulative devices as a means of disjunction and a way of consciously overstepping boundaries. And while her foregrounding of the process of the privileging of the spectator shares certain properties with the work of Lili Dujourie,6 there is one major difference. The process that the spectator goes through in confronting Dujourie’s works is a gradual, linear one that may be compared to video’s distended use of time. Cadieux’s works, on the other hand, are cinematic, influenced by montage and the resultant shock or jolt to the viewer’s system. Far from proceeding in a linear fashion, our comprehension of these works is a cumulative one, a result of following a number of different directions.

Cadieux consistently presents the body in situations that are contradicted by the method of presentation. Whether using the seductive attraction of the light box or the organized dramatization of an installation, in which lighting directs our gaze, her works achieve a rupture of the look. Trou de mémoire, with its purposeful confusion of sexual references and its “cosmetic” altering of the body, is patterned on a series of visual synapses. Hear Me with Your Eyes manipulates and provokes us into a reaction of discomfort. Yet at no time can the viewer of Cadieux’s seductive images surrender his or her critical distance. The works, despite all of their intimacy, keep us at arm’s length. As in Shklovsky’s definition of the artwork as a means of defamiliarization, a means of rejecting the recognizable, these are image-constructions in which nothing can be taken for granted.

Ravissement (Ravishment), a work from 1985, is another example of this strategy. The centerpiece of the installation is a repeated stereoscopic image of two nude women, taken at the turn of the century. The double view, whose purpose is to produce one unified view, is thrown off-balance by the imposition of a black square onto the bodies of the women in the image on the right. The two images no longer mirror each other; they no longer form a composite. The black square, the absence superimposed on these bodies, not only interrupts our gaze and turns it back upon ourselves, it posits a reduction of a specifically male gaze, the controller and definer of pornographic images. For it is the male, the prime consumer and producer of pornography, who connotes these sexual areas as forbidden and, therefore, a privileged site of the viewer. The black square restores the privilege to a genderless viewer; restores the objects to their position as subjects.

Ravissement, along with Hear Me with Your Eyes and Trou de mémoire, is among the most effective of Cadieux’s works in initiating a “stuttered” representation in the eyes of the spectator—a doubling of the look that mirrors the multiplication of the image. Sometimes, as in The Shoe at Right Seems Much Too Large, the emphasis on looking and the subsequent description can seem too studied; the artist seems a bit too willing to be satisfied with visually stunning the viewer. The best of Cadieux’s pieces are those that go beyond phenomenological notation to the inconsistencies that result from a second look. The images function as the means for a devious kind of seduction, one that invites rejection as much as it courts acceptance. Through all of the devices I have described—the close-up that questions privilege; the light box whose veneer is a screen for a set of loaded images; the body revealed that becomes the body denied; the theatrical installation that dedramatizes our response—Cadieux constructs a series of reversals that places the viewer at the most critical juncture.

Michael Tarantino is a writer who lives in Brussels and contributes regularly to Artforum.

1. Geneviève Cadieux, “Écrans de réflexion,” interview with Jean Papineau, Parachute no. 56, Montreal, October–December, 1989, p. 20. Translation from the French by the author.

2. Marcello Mastroianni. “Le Danseur et son double,” interview with Michel Chion, Cahiers du Cinema no. 380, February 1986, p. 21. Translation from the French by the author.

3. Jack London, Martin Eden, New York: Penguin Books, 1986, p. 33.

4. Chantal Pontbriand, “La Ruse historique: L’Art à Montréal,” exhibition catalogue, Toronto: The Power Plant, 1988, p. 86. Translation from the French by the author.

5. Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism, ed. and trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. p. 13.

6. Michael Tarantino, “Lili Dujourie’s Images and Afterimages,” Artforum XXVIII, no. 4, December 1989, pp. 94–99.