Shonagh Adelman

A Space

Some recent lesbian and feminist erotic imagery suggests that the road to libidinal democracy is to create as many objects of desire as possible. By contrast, Shonagh Adelman’s installation Tele Donna, 1994, takes the view that by definition desire cannot be captured in images but must creep around them.

Entering a large, darkened room, the viewer encountered 11 tall, black-lit boxes arranged in a V. Each pictures the figure of a woman from a different era of Western history. This reverse phalanx formation was itself interesting, for the rather intimidating images both confronted the viewer and beckoned her deeper into their company. These images of women were copies many generations removed, via clip art and other ubiquitous sources, from their woodcut or instruction-manual originals. Shorn of detail, they were barely recognizable as women, except for clichéd secondary traits such as high heels and chastity belts. The often grotesque details of their bodies also seemed more like culturally assigned attributes of womanhood than signs of innate femaleness: a hirsute, naked woman from a medieval woodcut; a medical illustration, which dates from around the 14th century, in which a woman conveniently lifts up her own abdominal skin so that we can see her insides; a steatopygic nude whose enlarged buttocks arc echoed in the bustled form of the Victorian murderess opposite her. These flattened forms were, in short, about as inviting to female identification as cartoon fringed holes.

Attached to the boxes were phone receivers that the viewer picked up to hear phone-sex monologues, mostly along the lines of the lesbian variety. Listening to a woman’s voice growling, “I don’t give a shit if you got them for Christmas—take off your panties. Now come on over here, bend yourself over this table,” while staring at the medical illustration created a violent push-pull effect, as it were. Though I was tempted to close my eyes in order to concentrate on the developing fantasy, the image was an abrupt reminder not only of the public space of the gallery but of the finality with which women and women’s desire are taken away and reified in images. Porn aimed at heterosexual men still has a powerful hold on the repertoire of sexual imagery available to lesbians (and, in a different way, to straight women). The phone-sex monologues, with their recurring images of spanking, rape, and sluts asking for it, were another reminder of how sexuality is already written for us. What made the monologue erotic was the slow realization that these were, for the most part, amateur phone-sex performers (Adelman’s friends, in fact). Their suppressed laughter and genuine arousal frayed the edges of the porn vocabulary, suggesting that there is indeed a desire just on the fringe of representation. When, over a vaguely Joan of Arc image, a woman giggles “I love girl chicken! Oh yeah. I got my dildo and my dildo’s right on my clit. . . . It’s making me shake,” I got a feeling that the tropes of male, hetero porn were being pushed to represent something quite different. The desire called upon in Tele Donna is so emergent that it does not have an image to go with it; it falls between the cracks of pictures and sound.

Laura U. Marks