Skip to main content

< Return to artist's essay

Sarah Pucill

By Helena Blaker


In encountering Sarah Pucill's work, two impressions remain in the imagination.

First, that in their formal quality her films evoke a history of images in painting. Secondly, that there is a relationship in her work to Surrealism. These impressions lead one to ask what place her films have in the gallery, and within the traditions of artists' film. But they also create ways of reading the films together, as a sequence, to allow a view of their relationship to the audience and their internal dynamics and complexities.

Pucill's work is more complex than it at first appears. While her early films seem to inherit the classical conventions of painting and photography, and at the same time to critique them, it emerges through the later films that there is a stronger dynamic in relation to Surrealism. Pucill herself qualifies this link. But it can be seen in her use of a key surrealist principle, as understood from the Manifestoes of Andre Breton: the disruption of rational values in order to access the power of the unconscious in image-making. Pucill enacts this in all her films as part of her enquiry into the construction of images at a psychic level; and the disruption Surrealism advocates allows her to access and animate figures of thought.

Starting with a still image, Pucill's first films explore the legacies of traditional still-life painting and related images in photography. The formal values of both classical and modernist still-life composition underpin an exploration of female self-portraiture and a meditation on the use of woman as image. This is at the same time an exploration of stillness and movement, of the monochrome image and of colour, and of silence and speech. In her first film You Be Mother (1990) Pucill's projected, still self-image is superimposed upon a subtly-rendered, grainy and beautifully framed and lit composition of objects in a table setting. Movements of slight but overt animation bring the two aspects of the combined image together; and the addition of sound suggests moments of psychic as well as physical disturbance, or of thought.


With this pictorial scene and highly formal setting, Pucill's first two films create certain expectations in the viewer, suggesting that meaning is created through adjustments in framing and composition.

It is already startling to find the second film's combination of projected, still and moving images - Milk and Glass (1993) - displaying an 'evisceration' (an emptying out of material or matter) rather than the first film's careful construction of a threshold between subject and object viewed. In Milk and Glass, an overt metaphor for the painterly and photographic revelation of identity - the eye and lips emerging on the emulsion or material surface - gives way to a shocking and visceral evocation of the 'interior' of the body on a physical level. The body's presence emerges from behind the representational surface of the image. This process of disruption is echoed, in different ways, in her later films, and is key to the deeper mechanisms in her work.

At the same time, it is the vividness and precision of the images and their creation of an individual, and unsettling, psychic world, that leaves a lasting impression in Pucill's work. A consistent visual language, a vocabulary of distinctly seen objects and closely framed spaces, marks her films: images which stay in the imagination suggesting some articulate but unexplained meaning. Within this language Pucill defines certain key connections between the films: "There are ... things that look similar ... things I have worked with: the macro lens, the interior, ... photomontage, the image being important."

In observing the extreme formality and the surreal disruptions of Pucill's film sequence, it becomes apparent that this concern with the image is central to her work. Throughout, she uses the language of film to explore and to question the status of the visual image; and it is the formality of these first films, and their quality of stillness, that lays the foundation for her work's unsettling impact.


The direction of Pucill's work is dramatically altered by the events of her third film, Backcomb (1995).

In this, the formal composition of the first films provides the starting point for a very different kind of development, one in which their formal values and our expectations as viewers are violently disrupted. The kitchen setting hosts an un-nameable object which moves irresistibly through the others, knocking glasses over, spilling liquid, and destroying the composition. The object is introduced by the movement of the camera, which for the first time creates an active viewpoint. The principle of movement cast upon the still image is drawn into the object itself; and our pleasure in the precision of the image is mixed with revulsion as this bizarre object of hair pursues its own autonomous movement. This is fulfilled with deadpan humour and logic as it moves intimately through the table setting, working backwards, and removes all other objects from us as it leaves.

In several respects Backcomb brings out the surreal qualities of Pucill's films: the striking but distanced quality of the visual image, the startling sound, the strange juxtapositions; as well as the visceral and ambivalent responses these provoke in the viewer. In formal terms, there is a link to Surrealism in the use of collage and montage techniques in editing, which involve rupture, disorientation and re-composition. But her approach to editing also defines her work in contrast to other film-makers. Pucill refers to her construction of film space with the aim of "being situated" - of creating a space where subjective presence is expressed in relation to the environment. This means "using a certain continuity editing;" but for her purposes using it "to the point where it falls apart."

The surreal elements of Backcomb depend partly on the film running backwards - which gives the impression of the hair's inexorable forward movement - and on the framing, through the use of the macro lens, which brings the objects so close to our view as to deny us control over their movement through perspective. The film's surreal quality depends most significantly, however, on 'the juxtaposition of two different realities' which is so much a feature of Surrealist image-making, and on the distance and deadpan humour these discordant opposites often entail. This distancing is echoed in the formally contained quality of the images and their vividness; and in the beauty of the images and yet their visceral associations. It is also present in the sense of a reflective, solitary consciousness that is behind the framing of the work, which is a key factor in Pucill's working method. In Backcomb, the "I"/"eye" behind the camera is strangely other - is estranged from us as viewers - though we also enjoy its intimacy. This allows her construction of the image to reflect the complexity of the subjective position: the fluctuations of consciousness between self and other, and between irrationality and formal composition: "I expect experimental work to be exploratory ...[so it's] not just what a camera can do - it can go anywhere - but ... to go deeper ... go in."

It is valuable, therefore, to see where Pucill's work and that of Surrealism diverges. This is in the evocation of her position as creator of these forms and juxtapositions. In contrast to the anarchic desire of the Surrealists to access the power of the unconscious as their main objective, she goes on from this to formulate her own self-image, and a particular experience of the world conveyed through specific subject matter.


Despite the dramatic rupture of Pucill's third film, Backcomb, formal values and a rigorous formal analysis seem to be restored in the subsequent film, Mirrored Measure (1996).

Here the concern is with continuity; and the development of the two films is quite different. Mirrored Measure starts with a similar opening image - a woman lays a cloth over a table - but where Backcomb was in colour this is in monochrome. An old and a young woman, more or less still, are seen as elements in a sequence of correspondences and associations, each holding a glass of water or a jug at the table. The context is evoked through a play between image and sound. This creates expectations for us as viewers - a certain woman holds a certain glass of water, a certain glass of water makes a certain sound - but the associations are played with and challenged. No help is given. A thread of sound associates the women with the objects, as if a finger circles the rim of a glass, reflecting its volume of water through a fluid tone. This sound also evokes an interior space: the subjective spaces of - or the space between - the two women. But by crossing over from one glass to another, and cutting between shots of the women, the associations and relationships are made uncertain. And while the water in each glass creates a horizontal level and framing device for the camera, by the end of the sequence it is turbulent like the sea, and it comes out of an eye.

"The first four films had a starting point in a single or still image. ... This was partly because I was working with animation at the time, and ... the film would start with or come back to that. I would let the image work on its own, and see how that's going to affect the film ..."

Despite its formality, Mirrored Measure challenges our notion of rational certainty; and the factor of oscillation is made only more explicit in the structure of the film. By introducing people into the composition, Pucill creates a diagram of subject positions, including our own as viewers: one which introduces another level of instability into the image and challenges our cognitive abilities. She mentions an ongoing interest in theories of subjectivity: " In critiquing the [humanist] idea that subjectivity is unified and separate, I wanted to look at the links. ... In Mirrored Measure there is a slippage between mother and daughter, in Swollen Stigma a lesbian element, in Cast a bleeding between subjectivities ..."

Both Backcomb and Mirrored Measure deal, in different ways, with the impacts of the external world on interiority and the creative imagination. The complex exchanges within these films alert us to the way in which Pucill is using her films to explore the production of subjectivity through these visual processes. This is a pointer to this theme in the rest of her work. Her films deal, in different ways, with the construction of the self in relation to the world through visual images; and they are used to picture and reflect her own subjectivity with a critical eye for the parallel processes of film-making: the formation of mental images as representations of the external world; and the formation of psychic images or phantasies from the imagination. This is taken further in the later films, where Pucill stages key exchanges in the formation of her own subjectivity with the use of performers. In Cast (1997) and Swollen Stigma (1998), she explores the position of a woman who looks at, and is looked at by, other women, where the image of a woman forms the content of her imagination and her means of self-reflection: the subject matter of the film.


In speaking of film-making traditions which reflect her broader concerns, Pucill refers to Maya Deren's films of the 1940s and their legacy in the work of Pucill's contemporaries Jayne Parker, Tanya Syed and Isaac Julien.

In their work, Pucill sees a modernist concern with formal issues - with choreography and composition - but one which still maintains "an interest in subject matter:" [I am interested in] artists constructing something in relation to poetry, and constructing [it] in a conceptual way.... I am not interested in abstraction ... but in trying to strike a balance with where there is a person [in the film space], so it is not just a camera looking ... [but] a person in a place: being situated ...

In creating a "situated" space of enquiry in her own films, Pucill opens up representation both to the impacts of the external world and to the recesses of the imagination. In Cast (1997) and Swollen Stigma (1998), Pucill stages key exchanges in the formation of her own subjective position as a film-maker and as a woman. In these complex later films, Pucill addresses the question of psychological projection onto an external object and the creation of an internal object or phantasm from the imagination; and gives equal status to the internal, imaginary, self-generated image and to the representation of the external object seen. This oscillation creates the "hallucinatory quality" she is interested in and which she cites as a development out of Surrealism: a hyper-realism ... a hallucinatory quality ... in which people are moving - just - but it is still all an image.

In Swollen Stigma the sound of a bird's wing accompanies the process of thought - even "startles" the mind into the process of association, ruptures its own fixed position, and signals its creative passage or movement. This is an explicit narrative of the processes of perception and imagination. A seated figure reflects on her own stillness, is startled into thought, and proceeds to construct an image. Suddenly the figure of a woman hangs suspended from the ceiling - inverted like the light which, from an external object, hits the retina. She swings in colour, lies prostrate on the ground, hues leaking from her costumed surface; her knees creak open like cupboards. There is a link between literal and metaphorical perceptions of the body; and a confusing of the internal and external status of the object. But certain taboos are also approached directly: a rose is red enough to be eaten, its image bleeds into the colours of her imagination.

Cast explores the processes of imaginative construction differently. A group of actors in period costume - equally representing a doll and the person who regards it - fluidly occupy the positions of object of desire and subject. There is in the film-maker's words a "bleeding" of identities, as the editing process carries the movement of one psyche through different cast members. These strange characters occupy an airless quiet atmosphere, where a mirror frames the enclosed space of their reflected interaction, and there is a literal movement of rocking and mirroring before this 'breaks' into the open space outside.

Pucill relates her psychological, and at the same time political, concerns with subjectivity, and with the female position, to a mode of representation which materialises the object in poetic terms: roses, liquid in glass, hunger, the touch mediated via film or mirroring, exact sound, the senses.

The principle of disruption in her work allows Pucill to explore both the visual and the conceptual limits of these acts of representation, and to work with rupture as a creative space for the imagination. In her later films, we inhabit the interior 'site' of such psychic ruptures and juxtapositions: the theatre of the imagination. Pucill's work explores the complexities of an inner and outer relationship to the world by addressing her own consciousness and its capacity for image-making. Beyond the formal and aesthetic composition of the image, it is these perceptual and imaginative negotiations, the negotiation of subjectivity through visual images, and the analytical and irrational power of the visual imagination, that are her primary concern and the content of her work.

Helena Blaker is an artist and writer who has researched and managed new commissions in public art for international artists working in Britain, and curated a number of exhibitions of artists' work in performance, video and experimental film.

< Return to artist's essay