Essay by Christel Tsilibaris Assuming a Pose

Christel Tsilibaris

On the evening of 10th June 1960 American viewers sat in front of their television sets to watch the popular series The Twilight Zone. That evening’s show was entitled The After Hours and followed the adventures of a young woman, Marsha White, in a peculiar department store. In search of a thimble as a present for her mother, she is told she can find what she is looking for on the ninth floor. Arriving there, she notices the absence of people and the customary merchandise. Nevertheless, a female shopping assistant suddenly appears and offers her help. When Marsha tries to return once more to the ninth floor, she finds it has uncannily disappeared. After a series of qui-pro-quos with the store’s manager, she is left to rest in the manager’s office, but is forgotten about when it’s closing time. Left alone in the empty department store, she returns to the mysterious floor, which in the meantime has reappeared. Encountering a number of people, she is faced with the truth. Our heroine is not a human being but a shop mannequin who was allowed for one month to come to life and venture into the outside world. With her freedom now having come to a close, the young woman/mannequin is obliged to come to terms with the reality of her condition. The following day, she is found again in the same department store, only this time she is a lifeless mannequin with her movements permanently frozen. She has turned back into an inanimate object whose purpose is to display, in the best possible way, clothes for sale.

The After Hours is manifestation of our wildest thoughts as it confronts us with life-size imitations of ourselves. Whilst being overtly synthetic, these soulless objects, with their static poses and real-life resemblance, provoke us to imagine their personalities and secret lives lived after hours. Exploring further the theme that is central to The After Hours, this programme is intrigued by the confusion between the artificial body of the shop dummy and the real one of a poser who is shown in the moving image as momentarily immobilized. This confusion and exposition of the body is a rich source of fascination in a variety of film genres, from comedy (Four Beautiful Pairs, 1904), newsreels (How Mannequins are Made, 1941, Mannequins for Sale, 1938 or Smooth with the Rough, 1944) to films and videos made in the context of both art and fashion.

In Jean-Pierre Khazem’s video Volume (2000) the viewer is confronted with the image of a voluptuous woman positioned naked in front of the camera. Rather than assuming a still pose, the woman moves her arms very slowly. The film camera is there to record her actions over time, not capture a specific moment. However, the model is conscious of the camera’s presence and her actions are influenced by the awareness of its voyeuristic gaze. Although the model’s nudity suggests a corporeal intimacy and presupposes a revelation of her identity, in the case of Khazem’s model, her identity is concealed by a wax mask she wears on her face. Her real face is hidden and replaced by a fake visage which appears still, cold, cryptic, and even scary.

The metaphor of the mask has been used repeatedly when referring to posing. Striking a pose is not only an attitude that the body assumes; it also connotes an artificial way of behaving. This falsity in one’s conduct reveals a pretence that has often been ascribed to the fashion model. In his 1992 essay “Posing” (1) Craig Owens discusses the question of pretence in posing from both social and psychoanalytical perspectives. He explains that the social perspective identifies posing as the response to the surveillance of society (2). Therefore, to strike a pose is not only to recognize that you are being watched, it is also to subversively accept that condition and threaten it by exaggerating posture and conduct. In her short video piece Photo-Shoot (2001), the artist Jen Wu assumes the role of a model and poses for a photographer in a room that does not necessarily resemble a photo-studio. The viewer looks at this photo session through a camera placed in the corner of the room. The absence of sound, the grayish color of the image and the obstructed visibility of the action by material, light and people, makes the act of seeing appear to be facilitated through a surveillance camera. The viewer instantly becomes a form of authority, an Orwellian big brother. Though the model assumes, as expected, various poses for the photographer, the accelerated speed at which the action is presented seems to exaggerate and intensify the act of posing. By doing this, Wu does not necessarily intend to comment on the fashion model’s profession but rather on the intrusive quality of the CCTV-like device.

Owens also examines various aspects of pretence in posing through the psychoanalytic writings of Freud, Lacan, and others that are all concerned with the notion of desire. According to Lacan, the power of the image arrests us and takes us into custody. The subject – let us name it the model – is confronted with a gaze that finds sexual pleasure in looking. The model is turned into the object of an immobilising gaze. The act of assuming a static pose, when a picture is taken, is seen by Lacan as a protective device. The model does not stand still to help the photographer capture a good image, on the contrary, the model freezes in order to resist and protect him/herself from that sexually objectifying look. Posing is hence a form of mimicry where the model splits into being and its semblance (3).

Images of split selves are exposed in Jean-François Carly’s video I Feel (2005). Two frames are juxtaposed; the one on the left shows a young man wearing his own clothes, the one on the right simultaneously shows him endorsing clothes from the collection of the Belgian designer Raf Simons. The male models alternate but the structure remains. A voiceover reads the models’ feelings about their transformation from a person to a model. The commentaries range from: “I feel excited” and “I feel good” to “exhausted,” “nervous,” “sick,” “sweaty”… In the left frame, the men appear more relaxed, as if unaware of the camera: one eats an apple, another listens to music, and another drinks coffee. But when they don the designer’s clothes, the change in attitude is immediately obvious. The men assume poses and reduce their “natural” activities and movements. Carly’s piece is a visual interpretation of the Lacanian form of mimicry. The model here is divided into two selves, one where signs of personal identity are still visible, and the other an object where individuality is diminished. Carly’s video effectively exposes the masquerade of the pose. Released from the constraints of the photograph, the medium of the moving image can document the transition from a neutral stance into the artificiality of striking a pose.
(1) Craig Owens, “Posing,” Beyond Recognition. Presentation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), p.201-217.
(2) Ibid. p.202
(3) Ibid. p.211-212.

© Christel Tsilibaris 2006

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