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Accumulation in Stages of Mourning
An essay on Sarah Pucill's Stages of Mourning by Naomi Salaman for a screening of the film at the University of Westminster, 2003

Thinking about Sarah Pucill's recent film, I come across a picture by Jeff Wall The Flooded Grave (1998-2000), of a recently dug grave full of water. Looking in you see a clear and sparkling rock pool, full of life and brightly coloured sea anemones. This frame/grave, this hole in the ground, gives onto another world; it's a composite image with a dream logic - tears of grief have become a pool of life, filling the void left by/for the deceased. The point of view is that of the mourner, on the threshold between the lonely place of the graveyard, and the seductive, heightened palace of memories. The suggestion is to jump in, but the framing is enough to distance us, enabling us to distinguish this pull and feel its heady effects.

In Stages of Mourning, Sarah Pucill set herself the task of ordering the fragments of her late lover Sandra Lahire's image which she had on film and in photographs. This meant re-viewing the work made over the six years that they were lovers and collaborators. These images were made by Pucill with the presence behind and in front of the camera, of her partner Lahire, also a filmmaker. They are highly constructed scenarios full of the artifice of the frame; of absorption and exclusion, reflection and illusion, the exchange of looks, the play of the light. They are also heavy like stone. Their precision and weight is somehow literary, depicting an interior world that is fraught with aggression and desire shot through with a wish for all over tenderness. These images stand as complex suggestions, intricate mise-en-scene, suggesting reciprocity and incorporation, past danger, past pain and future sanctuary. But here, in Stages of Mourning, they are filmed as remembered moments, as mementoes, functioning paradoxically as documents, for as photographs they trap moments and show this unbelievable truth, of the two of them being there, working together and being alive. With the nostalgia of the snapshot, a facet of the photograph, these still images perform a classic evocation of the dead, and of loss, kept alive. But they are not snapshots. Like most of Pucill's work, these images stage an aftermath, they show what makes sense, and reveal paths of desire for one who has been destitute. This must be a perplexing role reversal. Images produced to represent a traumatic emotional landscape - shown here to indicate an actual tragedy.

Stages of Mourning works on many levels. The opening text is very direct, we know this film is a kind of love poem, very personal, about coming to terms with loss and living through a time of grief. At the same time the film making itself is knowing. There are self referential play-offs between the different registers of "being there" between the still image and the moving image, between footage taken when Lahire was alive, and that which has been restaged by the filmmaker, following her death. There are slow static shots of the grieving filmmaker in a kind of reverie, looking at photographs of the two of them together; lost in the time of the photographic image, trying to touch it. And then there are clips and out takes from previous films showing her late lover; some in character and costume, others more at home, followed by Pucill's efforts to restage and re-enact, to put herself in the place of her lost partner. Here the doubling is most alarming; the overlapping could be interpreted as some kind of cancelling out.

Throughout the film Pucill performs what she has called 'rituals with the image'. She places herself on the image and wants to get inside the image. Then she deliberately restages or re-films shots from her archive. This doubling of illusions; layering of illusions of illusions; this accumulation is like a machine that should have stopped. A machine based on repetition and doubling, that we only see when it falters, when it malfunctions.

A climax is reached when the filmmaker sits at a kitchen table and drinks milk she has poured from a tall bottle. Tension gathers as the image switches from an actual shot from an earlier film, Swollen Stigma (1997), to the present restaging of it, and then as the filmmaker sits there, acting out the figure she played in an earlier film, she breaks down. The collapse seems real, unplanned and the questions are hard - why go on going over this material? It seems to be the most filmic moment; the narrative tension is self evident, and fills the frame. We see Pucill sitting alone at the kitchen table; grave face, bent head. There is a moment of naturalism, or verite, the sorrow is familiar, even generic.

The taking in of liquids, mouth and milk have formed repeated scenarios in Pucill's work. Milk is such a potent substance; nourishment for the baby, product of the mother's body, the breast, model for all future desires; intimate connection and breached boundary. Milk also speaks of ambivalence, with introjection of the milk/breast, there is also the dynamic of rejection or ejection, which has also featured much in her work. The authored, staged tableaux has been Pucill's constant working method, with the kitchen and food as a backdrop and subplot. To a point of near abstraction her work deals in a determined way with the tense field of intimacy between two women. Her work belongs to a new/old genre, a kind of kitchen sink drama - coming after the paradigm of the domestic has been exploded by feminist thinking and action. This work, a kind of home movie making, explores the strangeness of domestic space, of family relations; intense desires, rivalries. With that haunting of the family, and particularly of the mother, there is also the presence of the unfamiliar in the familiar; the unusual double-use of the filmmaker's own flat; time and again the site for filming. Pucill does not so much make a space to live in, rather she lives in a set to film in. The spaces are known typologies, recognisable assemblages; kitchen, living room and bedroom in a Victorian flat. Her domestic space is ordered for the purposes of making images; her sustenance and her progeny. In the very space traditionally marked by children and fathers at work, the filmmaker reworks and stages scenes from a pungent, ghostly residue of family life.

After the scenes of drinking milk, Stages of Mourning changes, the periods of reverie and absorption are contrasted to another kind of looking and loss of self. We see the filmmaker in the process of editing, in front of her computer screen reviewing footage, lost in the work, taking control of the media and the many illusions, acquiring some distance. It is at this point, Pucill has said, that the immanence of the phantom emerges most strongly; the filmmaker's control over her late partner as image comes up against the power of her presence as illusion. Lahire's spirit is produced and reproduced by the materiality of the recording medium, and yet at the same time seems to be excessive of it, moving beyond the edges of the frame. The editing process becomes a narrative of containment, which Pucill ultimately embodies as her darkened bed/work room is filled with Lahire as projection, until she opens the curtains drowning out the large whirling image of her late lover on a beach, leaving only a small animated figure sheltered from the window light by the outline of Pucill's own bodily frame.

In Stages of Mourning the temptation to plunge into a pool of memories has been raised and resisted, somewhat. There is no resolution, no ceiling on loss, but here in the archive, Pucill has cut, pasted and re-shot fragments to make one continuous stream of Sarah and Sandra together. This life they now have on film is an illusion, one we know well in film, but these illusions are not simply the loss of Sandra - they have a life of their own.

...the question of the archive is not, we repeat, a question of the past ...rather a question of the future itself ...tied to a promise.

Archive Fever, J Derrida

Naomi Salaman is an artist, writer and editor/curator of What She Wants: women artists look at men, Verso, 1994; and Postcards on Photography: photorealism and the reproduction, Cambridge Darkroom Gallery, 1998. She is working on a PhD at Goldsmiths College, London, on the history of the art academy.

Naomi Salaman
University of Westminster leaflet
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