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Catherine Elwes

By Kathy Battista

1. Introduction

Catherine Elwes is a British artist known for her groundbreaking work in video.

Her practice has also included performance and installation, critical writing, curating and teaching. Born 1952 in St Maixent, France, Elwes attended the Slade School of Art and the Royal College of Art during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This followed a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s in which the political climate led some artists to question the authority of the art object. Concurrently the use of alternative media such as performance and installation became widespread. Elwes became interested in these forms, as well as the debates around feminism, which has been an abiding concern in her work. Indeed, Elwes was involved with the Women Artists' Collective and Women's Arts Alliance and played a curatorial role in two landmark feminist exhibitions: Women's Images of Men and About Time, both at the ICA in London in 1980, the latter devoted entirely to video and time-based media. Recently she has acted as Director of the UK Canadian Film and Video Exchange, a biennial event that connects video artists from across Canada and the United Kingdom.

2. Early Performances

At the Slade Elwes studied under Stuart Brisley, a performance artist who explored endurance and catharsis using visceral materials such as bodily fluids including blood, vomit and spit.

Elwes gravitated toward Brisley's studio because there, she said, "you could do all things experimental, performance and video." She did, however, feel the strain of a male-dominated art school environment, and one of her earliest works was an ironic do-it-yourself manual called A Plain Woman's Guide to Her First Performance (1979).

The manual consists of double-page spreads of text and images. Photographs document Elwes performing a rather inelegant striptease, page by page discarding elements of her outfit. The accompanying text that complements each image is an ironic emulation of the mythology of the performance artist. For example, one image portrays the artist awkwardly pulling off a sock, accompanied by the statement, 'BE AWARE OF THE IMAGE YOU ARE CREATING. POWERFUL IMAGERY PROVIDES THE FOUNDATION FOR GOOD DOCUMENTATION'. Elwes has always been aware of the power of the image that the artist creates in the traces left behind from performances. The use of striking images, often derived from the artist's own body, would feature throughout her career, first in the form of performances and later in her video work.

While A Plain Woman's Guide to Her First Performance may be a humorous critique of male performance art, there was a serious side to the work. Elwes was parodying the prescriptive conventions of performance art in the vein of the Viennese Actionists, who staged controversial events in the late 1960s and 1970s. In Elwes' piece the strip-tease act is simultaneously interrogated - the epitome of sexual provocation - which feminism then saw as at least partly responsible for the objectification of women. A further layer of meaning may be less recognizable today: criticism was leveled at female performance artists like Elwes by certain academic feminists who saw live work as tantamount to strip tease, based on the view that the female body was over-determined by patriarchal precedents. Elwes has said, "Like Carolee Schneemann, I was trying to find out whether it was possible to be a naked woman and still create aesthetic and political meaning."

3. Performance

At the Slade, Elwes continued to create a series of powerful works on the themes from female experience. In Menstruation I (1979) the artist dressed in white and sat atop a circular sheet upon which she bled, drew and wrote.

In Menstruation II (also 1979) Elwes used the same principle, this time enclosing herself in a small makeshift room, with a glass partition between the artist and the audience of daily passersby at the school. Onlookers would write questions on pieces of paper, which Elwes transcribed, along with her answers, onto the glass partition. The piece ended when the glass was entirely covered in writing.

Elwes' point in this work was that menstruation was not an extreme condition, but a banal event in the lives of every woman. The context of these performances was a widespread radical feminist attempt to retrieve menstruation as a source of creative energy lost to the patriarchal order and contemporary taboos. Many women artists (for example, Carolee Schneemann, Judy Clark and Judith Higginbottom) were trying to reclaim menstruation from its negative image. These early performances can be seen as predecessors to Elwes' later work in that the body - hers and others - would become primary visual material.

4. Motherhood and Video Indoors

Elwes continued to use her body, as well as that of her child, in videos made upon leaving art school during the 1980s.

The development of video technology enabled the artist to create pieces in the private space of her home. Using her body, along with simple devices and domestic found objects, she acted out various scenarios. In 1983 Elwes made With Child, which featured the artist heavily pregnant. In this work she explored notions of time, ranging from anticipation of the birth to feelings of boredom and destructiveness. It recalls the work of American feminist artists, such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro's Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts in the early 1970s. In Britain feminist artists were also exploring issues around their bodies, motherhood and what it means to be a woman artist. For example, Tina Keane and Shirley Cameron, as well as Mary Kelly, an American artist living in London at the time, made works with their children. At the time there were many feminist groups that one could belong to or be associated with, for example the Women's Arts Alliance and the Women's Artists Collective, an offshoot of the Artist's Union. Women art historians such as Roszika Parker, Griselda Pollock and Lisa Tickner were also taking on roles of activity and activism. Elwes was ensconced in these debates, groups and activities.

Myth/There is a Myth (1984) was made after the birth of her child, Bruno Muellbauer, and continues the theme of motherhood in her work. It opens with typed statements telling the story of a woman who creates the world and gives birth to a group of men; she is then killed by them because they fear that if she can give life she can also take it away. This text is intercut with a close-up image of a breast, which slowly leaks drops of milk (strangely resembling tears) as an infant's hand grabs and beats against it. The viewer eventually realizes that the infant is feeding from the other breast, which is causing the one in view to lactate. This is interspersed with images of the artist sucking on her own thumb, suggestively cut against her clamping her teeth together. Text appears intermittently saying 'GIVE LIFE' and then 'TAKE LIFE'. Indeed, it is women's ability to create and nurture life that is juxtaposed against the hint of a darker, violent impulse in the video.

Elwes' fellow artist Susan Hiller described this as her 'Kleinian piece', referring to the work's debt to the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who revolutionized psychoanalytic theory by asserting that the child's development was centred around its relationship with the mother's body. Klein's theories contrasted with that of her fellow Austrian Sigmund Freud, whose notions of development were focussed on male sexual organs, especially the presence or lack of the penis. For Klein the breast played an ambivalent role in the child's psyche: providing nourishment and relief from hunger, but containing the power to withhold vital resources. Elwes has said that she wanted to create a positive image of the breast as an object of nourishment. At the time she was taken aback by the taboo against breastfeeding in public, which seemed nonsensical in relation to the number of breasts on view at magazine stands at every newsagent in Oxford, where she lived.

Images of breastfeeding and motherhood were taboo with some left-leaning academics, who feared that reminders of reproductive functions risked biological determinism, and thus, kept women in a subservient status in culture. Elwes objected to the idea that a feminist artist had to avoid depictions of the mother's body in the work of art. The knife-edge of her work exists in trying to reconcile a celebratory approach with an awareness of how such images were used in the past. Finding an angle, a mother's or infant's eye view, was part of Elwes' attempt to undermine established visual language while asserting women's rights to their biology as well as their creativity.

5. Video as Medium

Elwes featured her son in the work Sleep, which is an eight-minute videotape comprised of a close-up of the sleeping infant.

In this video Elwes wanted to show the intense scrutiny of the mother's gaze. At the time she was having trouble sleeping for fear that her child might stop breathing. Sleep illustrates the fragility of the infant, with its quick patterns of breathing and gurgling. For Elwes, the duration was key to her piece, even though it was only eight minutes long. She has noted that the length of the tape was modest in comparison to the invisible investment of time that a mother makes in her children - often her whole life.

Two of her shortest works are also indicative of the artist's investigation into the role of video as a personal and performative medium. Grown Up and Introduction to the Summer are both short pieces made in the early 1990s. In Grown Up we see and hear a thigh being slapped repeatedly and rhythmically. As the camera pans down the leg, a recent wound, complete with stitches, is revealed to the viewer. A child's hand caresses the knee and we briefly see his face come into the shot. The shot slowly dissolves into the same view of the knee some months later with the wound healed to a thin scar, and the child's hand seemingly incorporated into the mother's body. Here Elwes appreciates the 'trick quality' of the medium of video, where time could be condensed and the healing of the scar appears to be linked to the child's agency.

Introduction to the Summer (1993) is a one-shot video that lasts only one minute. It features a female hand, palm facing up, on a plain white background. The accompanying sound of a tennis match is the score that complements a simple action: a male hand caresses and eventually clasps the female hand. Applause is heard on the soundtrack, suggesting the climax of their interaction. The sound then switches to distant seagulls and rolling surf as the male unclasps, and then slips away, leaving the female hand on its own. Introduction to the Summer tells the entire story of a summer romance and the eventual parting at the end of the season, managing to convey romance, sex and loss in just over sixty seconds. For Elwes, it is the ultimate wordless piece. Like Sleep, the use of close-up shots play a central role in the work, as well as video's ability to convey notions of touch and contact.

5. Recent Work

Recently Elwes has been working on a series called War Stories, which are based on the testament of WW2 veterans.

In 1997 Elwes began this series with The Liaison Officer, a 45-minute film that was inspired by her father's obituary, which described a man that she hardly recognised. The work is structured in three sections. 'Part One: Exposition' opens with a long one-take shot of the artist's hands, rummaging through the objects that belonged to her father: a watch, hairbrush, cigarette lighter, golf tees, war medals and eyeglasses. The artist speaks in French, interspersed with English, in conversation with someone while she examines her father's life as a decorated career soldier.

In 'Part Two: Training in Scotland' Elwes interviews Paul Robineau, a former French SAS colleague of her father, who describes their training in Scotland during the second world war. This section is shot in a mirror, which grows steamy because Robineau is shaving as he speaks. The viewer sees the artist moving in and out of the shot while she converses with him in French. Here subtitles are introduced and play an important role: instead of directly translating their conversation, they relate Elwes' personal response to the conversation. The artist subverts the notion of the subtitle, which she writes "are often inaccurate and biased to the point of censorship."

'Part Three: Operation Lost A Reconstruction' takes place in France, where Elwes and others reconstruct her father's dangerous SAS mission. Elwes again uses subtitles and adds clips of found footage in sepia tones.The sense of chasing fictions with fictions heightens the artist's frustration in recovering only the bare bones of her father's tale. Elwes' quest for answers is not fulfilled as the witnesses' memories are resistant to scrutiny; hence, the story is underscored by the artist's own need to recover a part of her lost parent.

For the artist the video is an investigation of identity within a blood relationship, in this case father and daughter. It is also a vehicle for cross identification between the female author and the masculine subject. An intensely autobiographical piece, The Liaison Officer relates to earlier work including Sleep and With Child. While these videos interrogated her feelings around pregnancy and motherhood, The Liaison Officer examines her role as daughter. For Elwes, an artist steeped in feminist enquiry, the changing roles of mother, wife and daughter are rooted in her work. This examination of the personal, which is inextricably linked to the political, is an ongoing concern in her work. The second work in the War Stories series, The Boy Scout Soldier, tells the story of Roger Hourdin, a parachutist. Like The Liaison Officer, it questions the notions of documentary and investigates masculine themes. Elwes is planning to conclude the trilogy with Scars, a video that will feature Paul Robineau, who appears in Part Two of The Liaison Officer. Here, Robineau retraces the map of his military past through the scars on his body, each with a violent story to tell.

5. Conclusion

Elwes has used consistent themes and practices throughout her oeuvre.

There is the repeated use of simple actions such as in Sleep or Grown Up. The exploration of the body, first with performance and then in videos, acts as a metaphor for various ideologies. Elwes' investigations into language - verbal and visual - are connected to the feminist critique of masculine codes embedded in the visual arts. Elwes is considered a central figure in post-war radical practice, especially one within feminist art. Her work can be seen as inspirational for a younger generation of women working in performative and video practice, including artists such as Lucy Gunning, Tracey Emin and Hayley Newman, all of whom have explored themes around the personal and the domestic. It is artists such as Elwes who paved the way for younger artists in general to explore notions around the body, sexuality and endurance. As an artist, teacher, writer and curator, Elwes has made a lasting contribution to artistic practice in Britain during the last three decades.

Kathy Battista

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