IN HER DRAWINGS, paintings, sculptures, and moving-image works, feminist artist Ellen Cantor demonstrated a singularly transgressive vision. Borrowing characters from pop culture and footage from iconic cinematic works, Cantor constructed powerful, dreamlike, and often sexually explicit narratives that blur autobiography and allegory. When she died of lung cancer in 2013, at the age of 51, she was immersed in the production of her most ambitious project, the feature-length Pinochet Porn, a melancholic and campy meditation on life under military dictatorship that Cantor had been working on since 2008. Intercutting flickering archival footage and animated interludes with scripted scenes shot by artist-filmmaker John Brattin on Super 8, and elucidating a tangled narrative via voice-over narration, Pinochet Porn is a no-budget labor of love featuring a cast of friends. Wooster Group actor Jim Fletcher plays the Dictator; Participant Inc director Lia Gangitano stars as his twin daughters; Cantor herself is the maid. After her death, the film was painstakingly completed according to the artist’s wishes by Brattin along with art director Jay Kinney. On October 31, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Pinochet Porn will premiere at long last.
Its debut is in fact the culmination of a series of concurrent shows and events spanning no fewer than seven New York venues, each concentrating on a facet of Cantor’s innovative multimedia practice. In addition to the premiere at MoMA, this constellation includes a program of Cantor’s videos at Electronic Arts Intermix and, at Foxy Production, an installation of the multichannel video installation Be My Baby, 1999. Exhibitions at Participant and at NYU’s 80WSE Gallery focus primarily on Cantor’s object productionearly paintings and sculptures at the former space; drawings, book works, marionettes, and a video at the latterand Skowhegan Space is hosting a series of five panel discussions. Last but not least, “Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-Plicit Art by Women,” a group show Cantor organized in 1993, has been restaged at Maccarone. This past month, I spoke with artist Jonathan Bergerone of Cantor’s closest friends and the curator of the 80WSE showabout this invaluable multivenue survey and the passionate, exacting work that it comprises.
JONATHAN BERGER: I met Ellen in 2006 at Participant Inc, when the gallery was still on Rivington Street. I was having a meeting with Lia Gangitano, the founder and director of the space, and, as friends frequently do at Participant, Ellen stopped by. I remember, vividly, that when Lia introduced me to her, Ellen pulled back rather dramatically and blinked in an exaggerated way. It’s a move that female Disney characters make, I realized later. It was completely sincere, but also startling in how she could instantly fully embody that kind of stylized behavior.
JOHANNA FATEMAN: And this is a major theme of Ellen’s workthe appropriation of heroines, or protagonists, from pop culture and from Disney stories in particular. . . .
JB: Yes. This is the current that runs through Ellen’s work, across multiple mediums, that I’ve included in the show “Are You Ready for Love?” at 80WSE. All of the works in the show recast preexisting characters within highly personal narratives. We’re showing the storyboards for her film Pinochet Porn; nine rarely seen, meticulously hand-drawn book works, which are often structured like fairy tales; and also monumental wall-size works on canvas comprising overlapping micronarratives. Some of them, amazingly, incorporate maybe eight different stylesfrom life drawing to Disney-ish porn cartoonseach mode representing a different voice or element.
JF: And how do figures such as Snow White or Cinderella function in these pieces? We’ve talked before about how Ellen’s appropriation of them isn’t necessarily critical, at least not in a straightforward way.
JB: She had a complex relationship to those characters. She celebrated them as they were depictedhyperfeminine, with their huge, doleful eyesand, at the same time, she experienced them as the women that she believed they actually were, which departed altogether from their creator’s intent. Rather than discard them as caricatures, she added to them, gave them dimension. For her, that was a powerful, feminist practice.
JF: Her “misuse” of the material was her critique, I think. One isn’t supposed to know about Snow White’s sex life, for example. But Ellen shows it to us. And that effort to retrieve what culture suppresses or elides was a throughline in her workfor instance, in Madame Bovary’s Revenge , where she intercuts Louis Malle’s The Lovers with scenes from Behind the Green Doorusing porn to supply the sex that is bowdlerized in romantic movies.
JB: Right, and when she shows Snow White’s sex life, she does it in a loving, reverent way. It’s almost like she made these characters fully actualized versions of themselvesand, in a sense, of who she wanted to be. These were avatars for her. You can sense this not only in her videos but also in the early work that is the focus of the Participant show. In the paintings, she created tableaux of women, often nude, in fantastical or dreamlike scenarios. There was something celebratory and empowering about her depictions of these women; she often imbued them with supernatural qualities, showing them in flight and interacting with animals that acted like people, for example. And then the sculptures have a totemic quality, incorporating bits of wood, smashed cans, and bells. Ellen was fascinated by ancient cultures. She was obsessed with a small gazelle figurine from ancient Egypt that she found at the Met. She had an old, tattered postcard reproduction of it, which I was always struck by, because she loved that postcard to deathlike, she could have gotten a new card but she just obsessively held on to this one until it nearly disintegrated. These points of obsession inevitably either made their way into Ellen’s work or became fascinating to her in retrospect as a possible origin of her work. The gazelle, for example, looks strikingly like Bambi, and I feel pretty sure that she made that connection. I can see how her interest in the magical qualities of ancient and pagan depictions of women and animals informed her early works and later manifested in her Disney appropriations.
JF: Can you talk more about how this approach to appropriation translates into her film and video work?
JB: Well, at 80WSE we’re showing Ellen’s video Within Heaven and Hell, which she made in 1996. The video is emblematic of a format she pioneered, editing together two iconic works of cinemain this case The Sound of Music and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, leaving some of the original sound but adding her own voice-over. As she recounts tumultuous love affairs, the footage of the films’ female protagonists corresponds to her narration in provocative ways. There’s often a muddying or merging of multiple stories in her work, not only in video but in drawing as well. That’s certainly the case in Pinochet Porn, though I don’t know if I would use the word appropriation to describe her development of its characters. While she does incorporate found footage into the film, the story itself is told through actors in scripted scenes, and it loosely chronicles people in her lifetheir stories. And, of course, her ensemble cast is composed of close friends. So the film is effectively her life performing her life.
JF: Pinochet Porn is hard to describe. How do you explain what it is, what it’s about?
JB: There are five chapters, each of which corresponds to a character. Ellen talked about it as the intertwining stories of these five characters’ lives. They each grow up experiencing, either directly or residually, the political and cultural effects of the Pinochet regime and 1973 coup in Chile through their relationships. Ellen was interested in how power structuresmore specifically, how fascist governments and the people at the top of the ladderinfluence and destroy the lives of normal people in their everyday lives, through multiple generations. Toward this end, the film makes radical connections across time and place. She refers in the film’s trailer to historical truths, such as the fact that Pinochet received support from the United States and the papacy, while also making compelling associations. For example, she juxtaposes an image of the archetypal fairy-tale witch (played by Mindy Vale, artist Danny McDonald’s alter ego) with the sound of Hitler’s voice to make a sobering parallel. She wanted to understand how trauma and violence permeate our experience of life and subsequently how we re-create them in our personal relationships. The central question that she poses with Pinochet Porn“Is tragedy a choice?”gets at this. What is the limit of our agency?
JF: It’s interesting to think about this next to Within Heaven and Hell. What immediately struck me about that film when I first saw it was the way that she used The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to inject horrorhowever campyinto The Sound of Music, which, though its plot concerns Hitler’s encroachment into Austria, obviously doesn’t portray the horrors of Nazism. Ellen’s voice-over connects both plots and their respective imagery to intensely personal situations. Romance, trauma, sex, horror, family, fascismthese are the themes of Pinochet Porn, too.
JB: I hesitate to address the subject of trauma in Ellen’s work because I feel like that discussion can veer into a stereotypical way of thinking about feminist art. Yet I do think she fought in complex ways to reclaim power through her artistic practice and to overcome the effects of trauma. She hoped to find agency somehow within oppressive situations.
Throughout our friendship, one of the things Ellen and I often talked aboutit seemed to come up a lotwas the censorship she experienced in 1995, when her work was supposed to be shown alongside Sabina Baumann’s and Ugo Rondinone’s in an exhibition called “Oh Pain, Oh Life” at Helmhaus Zürich. The show was shut downactually, it never opened at allbecause the mayor of Zurich decided Ellen’s work was pornographic. It was a big deal, and there was a lot of press coverage. And, as is often the case with incidents of censorship, there were many inaccurate characterizations of the work. People wrote about Ellen without having seen her art. The experience was incredibly traumatic for her, especially since her career was just beginning. I remember something that the artist Julie Tolentino recently said that captured for me how difficult it is to be a younger artist facing censorship: Suddenly, you’re in the position of justifying your work, of proving that you’re not wrong. The assumption that you’re a kind of mindless provocateur is confounding when, in fact, you’re taking what you’re doing extremely seriously, trying to figure out how to make the most meaningful work possible about urgent issues. Juliewho’s co-organizing the restaging of “Coming to Power” with Pati Hertlingwas in the thick of the ’90s culture-war battles over NEA funding, because of her collaborations with performance artist Ron Athey, a major target of Jesse Helms et al. So she speaks from firsthand knowledge.
JF: She was also involved with the 1993 version of “Coming to Power,” right?
JB: Yes. The original “Coming to Power” came out of Ellen’s desire to put her work in dialogue with that of other women artists dealing with sexually explicit imagery and content. I think she felt a need to identify a lineage for herself. That said, the show, though it was intergenerational, didn’t point to any conventional art-historical trajectory. There was work by Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono, Lorraine O’Grady, Nicole Eisenman, Zoe LeonardEllen drew from many dramatically different sensibilities and communities. It was important to her to use the galleryDavid Zwirner’s old SoHo spacein a way that allowed women artists to claim it in an active way. So Julie essentially moved the Clit Club, the legendary queer women’s night that she founded and curated, into the venue for a night of programming. Ellen had great stories about Zwirner coming in the next morning, sweeping and picking up beer cans. She saw the Clit Club as creative and democratized, a non-elite space, and she wanted to bring that energy into conversation with the formal and often hierarchical ways in which visual art is presented. It was a political gesture. I love that Julie and Pati are bringing another generation of feminist artistsniv Acosta, FlucT, and Narcissister, among othersinto their restaging at Maccarone.
JF: An important thing to note about this major presentation of Ellen’s work is that, remarkably, all of the organizers, across all of the venues, are somehow personally connected to her and her practice. I think that’s quite a testament to the kind of person she was, to her practice and the social context she created for her work’s exhibition. And to bring the conversation back to Pinochet Pornbecause its premiere is really the centerpiece of these effortsthe film is also the product of a close-knit group of friends functioning as both cast and crew. It operates on a whole other level, as a document of a time and a portrait of a milieu, because of this really scrappy approach to production.
JB: I tried to talk to Ellen about this, and she really never wanted to have the conversation or reflect on this aspect of her process, which I understand, because for her it made sense as the only way to do it. She knew that in order to make the kind of film she wanted to make, it had to be made out of the relationships that she hadboth in terms of artistic collaborators and in terms of the sincerity and personal significance embedded in the performances. Pinochet Porn was the logical next step for Ellen artistically. She drew on everything she’d done previously. She employed her established radical strategies of appropriation and editing, but now she was also a director, making a feature-length film with actors. So, as you said, I think the film is remarkable as a document of a milieu but also as a testament to trying to accomplish something that you truly don’t know if you can pull off or not.
There was a moment where the film moved to another level, in terms of how much work she had done, how many people were involved, the complexity of all the moving parts; there was a moment where she knew that what she was making was greater than her and all of those involved, and that she was in uncharted territory.
Even before Ellen was diagnosed with cancer, and in the year that followed, up until her death, she referred to Pinochet Porn as “our film,” when talking to John [Brattin] and Jay [Kinney], who worked with her intimately, shooting and editing from the beginning. And so, consciously or unconsciously, Ellen had set up the whole thing in such a way that they were prepared to complete the film after she passed away. The three of them had become a sort of fluid unit. I think that’s significant, too. It’s a profound creative act, to intuitively plan for that situationto ensure that the film would be finished and to reach a level of collaboration that verges on psychic communication, where your collaborators can almost channel you. This is a hokey way to say it, perhaps, but there’s a way that the question “Is tragedy a choice?” came into play under the circumstances in which Ellen found herself, facing death with her most ambitious and complex work unfinished. The film concludes that, in fact, tragedy is a choice, and I think that says a lot about the way she lived her life.
“Ellen Cantor: Are You Ready For Love?” is on view at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery through Nov. 12. Electronic Arts Intermix, New York, will screen a program of Cantor’s moving-image works on Oct. 5; “Coming to Power” is on view at Maccarone, New York, through Oct. 16; “Ellen Cantor” is on view at Foxy Production, New York, through Oct. 23; “Ellen Cantor: Lovely Girl’s Emotions” is on view at Participant Inc, New York, through Oct. 30; Pinochet Porn will premiere at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on Oct. 31; and Skowhegan Space, New York, hosts a series of public programs on Cantor’s work through November.