Female Body Art – František Wirth: In nuce

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Female nudity is a frequently used device in avant-garde film. Both male and female filmmakers have experimented with several different angles the subject suggests. In Dog Star Man Stan Brakhage – “who often suggests a deeply religious conception of the body and its relation to nature”[1] – identifies the female body with the cosmos itself.[2] In her dance films Amy Greenfield’s own naked body transmits a rather transcendental viewpoint and stresses the “etherealization of the flesh.”[3] Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses protests against the fetishization of women by showing lyrical abstract sequences of lovemaking between her and her partner, James Tenney, from the viewpoint of an objective observer; her cat. Valie Export chooses a more explicit imagery in Man & Woman & Animal (1973) to introduce female sexuality being entirely independent from male pleasures. František Wirth’s In nuce follows in Schneemann’s footsteps and stands out as a rare advocate of female nude representation in Czech experimental cinema.

Although some Polish filmmakers, like Barbara Konopka, Teresa Tyszkiewicz and Ewa Partum have experimented with the filmic representation of female nudity, the image of a bare, exposed female body is hard to find in Eastern European experimental films. Piotr Piotrowski’s theory on the late blooming of Eastern European female body art helps to understand the reason for the absence of this specific topic. Besides discussing phallocentric and patriarchal modes present in Eastern European communism, he explains that:

“Due to the specific historic and political circumstances present in Eastern Europe, Modernism persisted here much longer than in the West. Hence art practice based in criticism of the Modernist paradigm had in this region of Europe a much stronger foundation and a much longer duration than else where. Female body art, fully implicated in the neo-avant-garde art practice, had to slowly make its way through the labyrinth of artistic values and only gradually and with difficulty found broader interest in the questions which it raised.”[4]

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The limitations of the development of female body art were also aggravated by the repressed representation of the male body. While the Western European male body image was redefined by the sexual revolution of World War II and thanks to the iconoclastic work of Robert Morris, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol, the Eastern European region’s official visual culture stayed intact and insisted on the male body being represented strictly in a heroic manner.[5] This attitude also extended the traditional position of a male spectator and determined the long standing dominance of the male gaze.

František Wirth’s 1998 film In nuce could easily be interpreted as a late herald of the transformation in the representation of the female body. This role is confirmed by Wirth’s decision to openly draw on Schneemann’s approach in Fuses and his connection to Kurt Kren. Although Wirth’s imagery is far less explicit than Schneemann’s, which includes clear images of male and female genitalia, he adopts several elements of Schneemann’s methodology to demonstrate a deeply intimate situation.

In In nuce – which means “in a nutshell” – Wirth shows a couple making love during the day. But instead of depicting them from the viewpoint of an objective observer, like the cat in Fuses, Wirth’s camera – with the exception of a few scenes of the two of them kissing – takes on the position of the man. It is possible that with this positioning Wirth referred to the lack of female body art in Eastern European experimental films or aimed to follow Scheemann’s unique feminist art which instead of opposing the repression and the exploitation of the female body, explores the possibilities the body offers; it is more likely that Wirth used the female body “simply” as an analogy to the filmic body. Similarly to Blažíček’s approach in Test (1997), Wirth takes a stand on analog film and its quality of being unrepeatable. But instead of the metaphors suggested by the attributes of the X-ray imagery in Blažíček’s film, he uses the female body as an extension of the film material, and the ephemeral nature of the situation to refer to the vulnerability of the 16mm film stock.

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Like Blažíček and Alice Růžičková, Wirth was a member of the Ultra group, a Prague based expanded cinema project, focusing on the materiality of the film and the unrepeatability of a projection at the dawn of the digital takeover. In In nuce Wirth deals with both of these issues when he chooses an improvised event and records it on 16mm film which he later modifies with etching and chemical interventions. When Schneemann designed the imagery of Fuses, she did it according to the nature of the depicted event and the associated emotions. As she explains: “I wanted to put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense – as one feels during lovemaking.”[7] The difference in the intensity of the sequences in the two films is proportional to the difference between the tensions of the depicted scenes. Wirth’s film, which is rather a romantic confession than an explicit expression of sexuality[8] works with calmer rhythm and warm colors and contains more figurative parts and more easily identifiable images than Fuses.

In Wirth’s In nuce – just like in Schneemann’s film – the impermanence of the film material in analogous to the transience of the recorded scene and the transmitted emotions. Even if Wirth chooses a more traditional viewpoint when mainly presenting the intimate scene from the perspective of the man and positions the woman as a protagonist, he clearly distances himself from the traditional, suppressive presence of the male gaze. For Wirth the film material, this second layer covering the naked female body gives opportunity to perform his unique method of body art: to ornament, to abuse, to mutilate, to push it to its physical limits.

Written by: Dorottya Szalay

[1] Elder, Bruce R. (1997) „The Body as the Universe in Stan Brakhage’s Early Films” in: A Body of Vision: Representations of the Body in Recent Film and Poetry. Ontario: Wilfrid University Press, p. 294.
[2] Elder, 1997, pp. 140-141.
[3] Elder, 1997, p. 297.
[4] Piotrowski, Piotr (2011) „The Politics of Identity: Male and Female Body Art”, in: In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989. London: Reaktion Books.
[5] Piotrowski, Piotr (2002) „Male Artist’s Body. National Identity vs. Identity Politics”, in. Hoptman, Laura J. and Pospiszyl, Tomáš eds. (2002) Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1950s. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
[6] According to Martin Blažíček Wirth hosted a retrospective screening for Kurt Kren with the participation of the author himself.
[7] Daly quotes Schneemann in. Daly, Ann (2002) „Body of Evidence: Schneemann retrospective Exposes Subversive Gestures”, in. Critical Gestures: Writings on Dance and Culture. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, p. 156.
[8] Blažíček, Martin (2010) “František Wirth – In nuce”, Mediabaze.cz

 

 

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