The portraits in Heads and Tales
are photographic documentations of sculptures I made out of animal skin and body parts, intended to provide springboards for stories, reminiscences or meditations on the lives of women. I asked a number of writers I admire to select the image of one of my women and create a life for her. As the work addresses issues of violence, death and gender identity, the writing reflects similar concerns as they are specific to women, not necessarily from an obviously politically fraught or polemical perspective, but more typically resorting to fantasy, satire, irony, and other subversive modes of presentation to disrupt the hegemony of the everyday and release the power of its horror.
My intention with the work was to make it as life-like as possible, vivid and sometimes disposed in positions suggesting movement. I used untreated pigskin to cover a sculpture I had made out of clay, with raw meat for the lips and fresh pig eyes in order that the resulting portrait would appear as if it were looking at the viewer with a vital expression which the photographer had just captured at that moment. In fact, a photographer taking a picture of a model does more or less what I've done with my sculptures: the model will be made up, its hair will be done, appropriate lighting and pose will be chosen, etc. Or, if you prefer, what I am doing is reminiscent of what a mortician does in preparing a corpse for viewing: creating the illusion of life where there is none.
Taking photos of my sculptures is like reconstructing life; it simulates a simulation by fabricating an image of a fake face, an image calculated to deceive the viewer, since taxidermy (from the Greek, taxis
: order or arrangement, derma
: skin) and photography work so well together. The fake image appears convincing because we expect to see what we are used to seeing. The portrait of a face staring into the camera or captured in a snapshot simply doesn't conjure thoughts of death, even though we are often, in fact, looking at the living image of the dead when we view a photograph. Every photograph is a memento mori, and of course we like to forget that reminder of death, so we are easily persuaded that these images represent real, living people.
I didn’t make any demands on the contributors as to form or content. I simply wished that they would breathe life into these inert forms with their words. Since the violence that is often at the heart of women’s experience certainly pervades the images, I rather expected that the texts would to be related to pain, abuse, loneliness, madness, violence and death, etc., though I imagined that they could also be connected to, say, beauty, love, motherhood, aging, plastic surgery and any number of other themes, perhaps exploring the pain and mortality that pervades those themes as well. In any case, the simulacra that inspired these literary creations, and which are, thus, life-creating in themselves, intend to invoke a play of subject and object, of life and death.
I am delighted that I was rewarded with a collection in which the unknown, the uncertain, the arcane lives of virtually anonymous human beings who have suffered more or less obvious or explicit harms are thematized, not to mention how powerfully they are evoked in the contributors’ words. I feel that it is a step toward understanding the female experience.