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Stopping Motion in Stages of Mourning

Animated film is that which has been manipulated frame by frame, but is generally understood by its root, ‘to give life to’ things that are ordinarily inanimate. It has been identified as a desire to remake a world that corresponds to inner reality in which control can be had over the single image. It has also been proposed as a concept of power and a form of ownership over animate things. [1]

Sarah Pucill’s films have drawn on all of the above to explore the edges of animation: manipulating the single frame in You be Mother (1990) and Milk and Glass (1993); and ‘giving life’ to inanimate objects in Backcomb (1995), and Mirrored Measure (1996). My interest here is how animation, as a form which obeys no laws of real time or motion, is used obliquely in Pucill’s film Stages of Mourning (2004), to describe the temporally discontinuous work of mourning. How does Pucill translate the psychic experience of mourning into audio visual scenarios, how does animation enable her to do this and how does this treatment of animation evoke the uncanny?

Stages Of Mourning, is described, by Pucill, as a ‘document’ of the work that she made with the help of her late partner, the artist Sandra Lahire, and her return to that work in order to move beyond both it, and her partner’s death. The task of mourning is theorised by Freud and Klein as a phased activity of reviewing, removing, restoring. The mourner as artist translates the process into moving images to make a film in which she literally stages and breaks through the physical stasis of grief using animation as a tool to undertake this emotional and artistic journey.

Living Pictures

The first phase of the film is composed primarily of black and white photographs of Pucill and Lahire holding each other, as artworks, in empty picture frames. In these photos mirrors and frames are gathered together in a scaffold of lines creating uncanny confusion between representation, reproduction and reflection. This grid restricts levels of mobility locking the figures in space. At this stage, Pucill cannot allow the past to move. The atmosphere of immobility is enhanced by a repetitive single intermittent wailing sound. The ‘… reaction to the loss of the loved one … contains the same painful mood, the loss of interest in the outside world – except as it recalls the deceased…turning away from any task that is not related to the memory of the deceased…’[2]. These photos, made before Lahire died are revisited by Pucill as she re-frames in time what has already been framed in space. Pucill enacts her loss of interest in the outside by focussing in close on the inside. She holds onto the frame controlling the duration of the single image, arresting the flow of time.

In order to ‘fix moments’ [3], Pucill refers to the tradition of ‘tableaux vivants’ - re-enactments of myths or plays in which the performers strike exaggerated poses which are frozen until the curtain falls. This tradition, with its dynamic between stillness and motion, is appropriated by Pucill as she shuttles between film and photography to stage both her own presence and her past with Lahire. We look down onto Pucill in her bedroom lying in a static pose on sheets of photographic images of herself and Lahire. The high angle gives Pucill a flattened appearance, as though merged with the image, occupying the past and the same space as Lahire. Her body is horizontal in this scene, but at each stage of the film, Pucill raises herself into a more animated position, from lying to sitting to standing then walking, she literally picks herself up to move forward.

An analogy can be drawn between the function of the curtain in tableaux vivants and the role of the film projector shutter in cinema. Both serve to conceal the animation of the interval between the primary action. In tableaux vivants the curtain hides the movement of performers between poses while the projector shutter hides the transport of the film material between frames, as it is clawed through the gate. Pucill reveals the moments that are traditionally kept concealed. We see her resolve as she moves with slow determination out of one pose and into the next ‘living picture’ arrangement. She exposes not just the pose but what drives the pose, the animation, the will to live and the need to put images and time behind her.

Respect for reality cannot be accomplished immediately. It is now carried out piecemeal at great expenditure of time and investment of energy as the lost object persists in the psyche. Each individual memory and expectation in which the libido was connected to the object is adjusted…leading to its detachment…’[4]. Here Freud observes that the move toward acceptance of loss can only take place after the bereaved has painstakingly sifted through and relived memories of the loved person. Pucill compulsively works the image, cutting across black and white, colour, still and moving image, through multiple layers of re-projected material that merge different temporal realities. The different media function as a metaphor for the varied ways in which memories appear to us and are used to communicate a sense of progression through the inventory of mourning.

A camera slowly pans across the still images giving an illusion of life to these motionless representations creating further disorientation between the animate and inanimate, animating the memory. The world of black and white photographs is uncannily disturbed as a mirror is introduced into the frame replacing the still with Pucill’s face reflected back in moving colour. As the layers of images are stacked together, the juxtaposition of different temporal registers is made visible to the audience and we are held in a disconcerting uncertainty concerning animate, inanimate, past, present, original and reproduction.

Going Through the Motions

In the recent Animate book, Ian White proposes a model of animation as power relations between director and performer, or on a wider scale, the state and the individual. White bases his argument within a Foucauldian framework in that the body can be made ‘docile’, moulded and regulated by regimes. He argues that animation can be seen as an occupation of forms in order to control behaviour and reduce individuals to automata.

Pucill is both artist and performer in her work, following the logic of Whites argument, she must take possession of and forcibly animate herself. Pucill mechanically moves through a number of ‘attitudes’. In terms of mourning it is necessary for her to do this in order to continue with the work - to perform ‘to a set of fixed terms’ [5], acting out the psychical conflict between the loss of interest in and yet the instinct to cling to life. In terms of the relation of the artist to her art, Pucill frequently sets up a number of temporal and spatial contradictions. 'I frame the fact of not having emotional distance from my work…’, and ‘…I merge into the impossible place of being the viewer and the viewed’ [6]. Pucill’s observations on ‘Stages of Mourning’, indicate a splitting of self into two places of both being and making the work – a split that Pucill has to undertake to occupy and animate herself in order to continue with life and the film.

The next phase is made apparent by the artists more upright and active position. Pucill performs in her home increasing the distance between herself and the past by holding, not being in or lying on, the images. ‘Flashback’ shots follow in which the artist repeatedly performs permutations of the same instance, gestures which join her to images of her past . We see a photo of Pucill at the table supporting her head in her hands which cuts to a match shot of the same pose. Pucill gradually relaxes the pose and we understand that we are seeing moving images in the present. She pours milk from a bottle and carefully eats it with a spoon. The action of ‘eating’ milk appears to have no practical objective, complicating an otherwise everyday action to give the milk extra value. The scene illustrates Pucill’s conflict between the instinct to preserve the physical self complicated by regret for surviving and severing the link to the deceased.

As the ritual is performed by Pucill, the black and white film cuts to colour. The shot is matched at the point where Pucill takes the spoon to her mouth. Colour here signifies affirmation of life functioning as a code to the audience that we are closer to the present. Once again Pucill places her head in her hands and holds the pose, echoing an earlier stage of her art and life. The gesture has the appearance of being ‘involuntary’, as though Pucill is no longer able to perform. Her, ‘…body given over to the physical manifestation of her pyschological condition…’ [7]. This attitude of withdrawal is a pivotal moment in the film which illustrates the confusing position between performing and actually feeling loss. In this way she treads a line between document and fiction, caught between withdrawal into the inner world of self and the demand made to accept the outer world of reality. Her use of tableaux vivants implies that the performance continues beyond the frame, after the curtain has dropped placing emphasis on the uncertain private or public status of the film.

Projecting Life

The final phase of the film shows the artist re-playing moving images of her and Lahire on the laptop and 16mm projector. A shot of Lahire sitting on a bed appears on the computer screen followed by a shot of Pucill on the same bed, in the same clothes. The uncanny figures repeatedly in Pucills ouevre – manifesting itself in the form of dolls, doubles, peripheral movements and estranged domestic spaces. Here Pucill invokes the uncanny by replaying the past, she occupies the place of the deceased - casting herself as Lahire’s double. Lahire speaks to Pucill from the laptop discussing theories of rupture and suture. These particular snatches of dialogue remind the viewer of the separation forced between the lovers. A greater distance is placed between the viewer and the viewed. We see material which derives from Pucill’s film, Cast (2000), in which, as the title suggests, inanimate characters play aspects of Pucill’s psyche as she explores animate and inanimate inversions and relations of control between subject and object.

Pucill is more physically active, now operating the mouse, threading the projector, crossing the room to interact with the projected image. In this materially reflexive scene, Pucill laces the film projector, allowing the audience to see around the edges of the image; the frame line: the sprocket hole; the machinery which animates cinema; the moment between frames. She manipulates out-takes from Cast - wildly animated scenes of Lahire talking and laughing to camera and dancing across the beach.

Other moving elements appear within the revisited frames to give a sense of life and perpetuity. Lahire is on the beach and the incessant motion of the sea is in shot. Lahire spins arms outstretched across the sand and so echoes the perpetual motion of the ocean. A sense of increased animation is also suggested by the soundtrack. The forward ticking of the movie projector replaces the stillness of the single wail sound. Waves crash energetically on the beach and snatches of playful dialogue can be heard between Pucill and Lahire.

Pucill projects onto the wall the 16mm image of Lahire spinning. She crosses the room and enters the projected frame. Her body becomes the screen as Lahire ‘dances’ on Pucills skin. She turns to the window and slowly opens the curtain and the image of Lahire grows smaller and fainter. Pucill combines two gestures of film closure, endings which create beginnings. She turns her back to the audience and opens the curtains in her darkened room. The window admits light and the images grow pale. A sign for the viewer to leave the auditorium and enter the light of reality. The artist has rebuilt links to the external world and completed her filmic journey, having enacted not merely her own journey from stasis to motion but also leaving us with an image of Lahire at her most animate and vivid, spinning infinitely suspended in a moment of ecstacy and life.

1 Proposed by Ian White, ‘Occupation and the Visual Arts’, Cook, B and Thomas, G, eds., the animate! book rethinking animation Lux, London 2006

2 Freud, S, On Murder, Melancholy and Mourning, trans: Whiteside, S Penguin, London 2005

3 Pucill, S, On Stages of Mourning, Mantis 2004

4 Freud, S, On Murder, Melancholy and Mourning, trans: Whiteside, S Penguin, London 2005 p204

5 Ibid, p 129

6 Pucill, S, On Stages of Mourning, Mantis 2004

7 White, Ian, ‘Occupation and the Visual Arts’, Cook, B and Thomas, G, eds., the animate! book rethinking animation Lux, London 2006 p129

Vicky Smith
Still from Cast by Sarah Pucill (1999)
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