Bachelor thesis: When Wendy Grew Up

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who decided to become an artist when she grew up. Her grandfather was a painter and it was he who awoke her interest in fine arts. When she was six years old, she made her first painting. She still remembers how her grandfather watched her as she used his oils on her tiny canvas.

I was invited to an interview at Malmö Art Academy that took place on my 19th birthday. At the time I found myself fascinated by artists such as Sophie Calle and Cindy Sherman. I had begun using myself as a recurring character and my theme was different types of observation. I had found that when I chose to use myself in my artworks, I had already chosen to use someone other than myself because all humans contain many different selves. I worked with oil on canvas and I felt connected to painting as I still do. Furthermore, painting and working with art in general has the ability to make me feel independent of time, like I can capture the present moment by painting, photographing or writing about it.

“(…) But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”[1]

I am greatly inspired by the works of the conceptual artist Sophie Calle (b. 1953). She mixes photo, text, video and installations and often uses herself as a base for her artworks. Take Care of Yourself was the first work of hers I heard of. The artwork is based upon a breakup e-mail written to her by her now ex-boyfriend. The title is the last sentence in the e-mail that has been analysed and interpreted by 107 women with different professions and skills.

I admire Calle’s relation to the outside world, as a means of exposing the private individual. She is adventurous in the use of processes and has many different practices, which is appealing to me, because I like to try out various techniques to broaden my horizon and to create additional levels.

I have also been very fascinated by The Sleepers. The trace of absence, which constitutes the illusion of presence, was important for feminist art in the 1980s and Calle’s The Sleepers pointed out the melancholic trace of a repeatedly missed figure. [2]

Sophie Calle’s collaboration with Paul Auster intrigues me as well. Calle asked Auster to create a fictive character that she would attempt to resemble. This led to the character “Maria”. Calle was so inspired by the mix of fact and fiction that she made a series of works supposedly created by Maria. This particular work makes me think of multiple personality disorders, constructed media personas and the subject of fiction. I enjoy fiction as a means of expanding reality and it is one of the themes in my own works.

Calle’s Address Book is a source of inspiration to me because of the attempt to find new ways of portraiture. Calle found an address book, which she photocopied and returned to its owner. She called some of the people from the book and discussed the owner with them. She turned those conversations into an artwork and added photographs of the owner’s favourite activities. Thereby she created a portrait of a man she had never met. The man discovered Calle’s artwork and planned to sue Calle because he felt she had violated his privacy. I find her way of pushing the boundaries elegant, intimidating and very intrusive.

Another of my sources of inspiration is Cindy Sherman (b. 1954). Sherman’s Untitled (Film Still) series and History Portraits suggest that memory itself might be an edited version of a picture never made – her photographic performances possess the charge of vivid memories of events that have never occurred.[3]

Francesca Woodman (b. 1958) made an untitled (New York) series of photographs back in 1979. A particular photograph consisting of Woodman facing a wall and holding a fishbone in front of her spine has recently inspired me. The relationship between her clothing and the interior, her body and the fishbone makes me think of disappearance relating to my previously mentioned fascination with absence and presence.

In my first year at the Art Academy, I worked with different kinds of illusions, namely painting versus photography, and I tried to figure out how to involve myself to a greater extent in my artworks. I began working with how my paintings worked in relation to space. Between floors (2010) was one of my first attempts. It is an installation consisting of a life-size self-portrait of me sitting in front of a red brick wall. The size and realistic painting style – the wall in the painting accurately depicting the wall hidden behind the painting – created an illusion of me really sitting and observing people passing. People often think that photography is closer to reality than painting, although painting has a longer history than photography. I wanted to point out that a painting is just as illusory as a photograph and that nothing would ever come as close to reality as reality itself.

In my second year, I worked intensely with Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860–1937) and his character Peter Pan. I felt an urge to try out different kinds of media and a fairytale felt like the perfect starting point. I wanted to immerse myself in both Wendy and Barrie through diverse installations, attempting to become extracts from the fairytales, and self-portrait photographs. I found it compelling that Barrie’s fairytales mainly consist of adventures played out by himself and some young boys that he spent much of his time entertaining.

“The difference between him and the other boys (…) was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing.”[4]

Barrie allegedly suffered from PSS (psychosocial short stature) caused by the death of his older brother. Barrie was only six years old when his brother died. Afterwards his mother, who was mourning the loss of her favourite child, neglected him. Furthermore, it was rumoured that Barrie’s marriage was never consummated, which created speculation about impotence.

Barrie’s most famous character, Peter Pan, is a boy full of fun and pranks but at the same time he is a fierce and formidable being. He is indifferent to the consequences of his actions, which is a very childish trait. Peter is very forgetful, he occasionally forgets who he has killed in Neverland. In my interpretation, it is because Peter is so very forgetful that he will never grow older than he is at present in the stories.

My installation Wendy’s Little House (2011) was inspired by the content of Peter and Wendy, in which Wendy is shot by a group of young boys called “The Lost Boys”. The Lost Boys and Peter Pan decide to build a small house around the wounded Wendy. When the boys finish the construction, they ask Wendy if she would like to be their mother. She agrees, and is then moved to their underground home for safekeeping.

My installation reflects on women’s roles in the Edwardian era (1901-1910), which had strict class division and very traditional roles for men and women, when the stories of Peter Pan were written. The two psychology books The Peter Pan Syndrome (1983) and The Wendy Dilemma (1984) by Dr. Dan Kiley also inspired the work.

Barrie invented the girl’s name Wendy, which was used for the first time in his stories. Later on, the term “Wendyhouse” became a synonym for small children’s playhouses. The exterior of my installation is based upon the instructions in Barrie's Peter and Wendy and my construction attempts to be an extract from the fairytale. Thereby I try to expand reality by forcing fiction upon it.

When I joined the course “Destroy, She Said”, about Marguerite Duras (b. 1914, d. 1996), I felt a connection with sound and text and was ready to take a new path in my work.

The peculiar writing style in Destroy, She Said and the female characters Alissa and Elisabeth Alione appealed to me very much. Duras avoids conventional ties by choosing not to describe locations in detail and thereby lets the mind of the reader complete the piece. The story is set in a heavily psychological space where time does not seem to exist. The two women Alissa and Elisabeth look like each other; they mirror one another and somehow blend into being Elisa.

India Song is a work by Duras in which she has a unique use of disembodied voices. The film is narrated by four voices that recall the events of a party at the French embassy in Calcutta.

In Real Time by Janet Cardiff (b. 1957) fascinated me because of the idea of moving around in the physical world with a pre-recorded video. She confuses your feeling of where you are by making real-time and pre-recorded time clash. Cardiff works with suspension of disbelief and disintegrating normal theatre.

Cardiff relates to Bertolt Brecht’s ideas of “epic theatre”, in which the spectator is constantly reminded that a play is merely a representation of reality. Brecht highlighted the constructed nature of the theatrical event. He wanted to provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on stage, appealing less to feelings than to the spectator’s reason.[5]

Later on, I became acquainted with Janet Cardiff’s and George Bures Miller’s (b.1960) Murder of Crows consisting of ninety-eight audio speakers. The structure of the piece and the soundscape tries to mirror an experience of the dream world.[6]

My first piece involving sound was constructed for the Destroy, She Said course exhibition. Duras’ ideas of remembrance and pre-recorded voices in India Song along with Janet Cardiff’s In Real Time were my two great influences. My work She Recites Subtitles (2011) consists of a bound text and an audio recording. The text and audio tell the participant about the room he or she is standing in and about the other spectators at the exhibition. The text is handwritten with white pen on black paper and the layout refers to both movie subtitles and scrapbooks. The recording consists of the written text recited in a sound studio. The text is written in present tense, and it is my own voice that is heard on the recording. I speak directly to the listener and there is a deliberate distance between sound and text. At the end of the artwork, I ask the participant to remember my voice and to find me among the visitors at the exhibition. I want to convey a notion of presence and absence. Later on, I have come to think of how my voice sounds on the recording. I believe I have a clear pronunciation, which gives the recording the atmosphere of a storytelling. Thereby my voice refers to audio books.

By the end of my 5th semester, I began making the artwork Curtain Call. By that time I was reading George Orwell’s novel 1984. The obliteration of the self and the idea that nothing exists except through human consciousness was an interesting facet for me to engage with while trying to use myself as subject. At the same time, I was interested in women’s and men’s views on themselves, their self-obsession, their vanity, and the thought of aging.

Curtain Call was exhibited at the Bachelor of Fine Arts Exhibition 2012. It is an installation consisting of a theatre stage, a one-page text for the audience to acquire and read, and an audio recording played on a hidden speaker. The audio recording consists of the text recited by an 88-year-old woman (my grandmother) in a sound studio. I chose my grandmother because I believe she adds authority to the work and a different aspect of time. The audio recording is played out loud in the gallery once every hour.

The text and sound start by telling the audience about the emotions they might feel as they look at the stage. Later on, the spectator listens to the thoughts of a young woman entering the stage. Yet there is no woman. By means of the sound and the text, the audience follows her stream of thought while she struggles with herself being on stage. The text and sound end by shutting the spectator out of the woman’s mind. The spectator is left with the same kind of images as in the beginning, explaining the woman’s looks and movements. The artwork is presented as a performance. It deals with different existential and psychological aspects of the true and false self, narcissism and Joan Riviere’s feminist idea of womanliness as a masquerade.

The little girl from the beginning of this story is all grown up now. She has told me that psychological aspects of theatre and fairytales fascinate her currently. She wants to make her own presence known in different ways, presently by directing herself as a protagonist. She strives to create tension between absence and presence, and wants to experiment with the difference between audience and participant – the distance between audience and performer.

“(…) and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”[7]

[1] Shakespeare, William ”Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”.
[2] Reckitt and Phelan ”Art and Feminism” pp. 42, Phaidon (2001).
[3] Reckitt and Phelan ”Art and Feminism” pp. 30, Phaidon (2001).
[4] Barrie, J. M. “Peter Pan” pp. 70, Penguin Books (1995).
[5] Brecht, Bertolt “Brecht on Theatre” pp. 23, Hill and Wang (1977).
[7] Barrie, J. M. “Peter Pan” pp. 185, Penguin Books (1995).