Essay by David Bate Patricia & Marie-France Martin’s C’est comme être

David Bate

This hypnotic video work has two parts. The first has two women preparing themselves in a mirrored parlour, where they rub cream on their faces and upper bodies. With delicate relish they are absorbed by their self-images, checking their appearance in the mirrors, caressing their mirrored selves. The two women are identical twins. Both seem oblivious of each other, yet small gestures show they are aware that their narcissistic space may well be interrupted. Their gestures, refracted through the mirrors in the scene, guard their own space and bodies, as though to reassure it is still there. In enacting the processes of preparation for a performance, the gestures and poses of making-up are made to show that preparation is itself a suite of scenes of display and posture; a ritual of beauty in the making, of “becoming.” The tarnished patina of the mirrors taints their skin as though to show that time is of the essence in beauty. As the camera moves around the room, it closes in onto the faces of the two women who finish their dress with lipstick. Finally, the twins both pull on what look like homemade balaclavas, demonstrating that getting ready is a form of preparation for camouflage and deception. At this point the figures merge and metamorphose into an insect-like pattern, butterfly wings, transporting the viewer and the twins into the second scene of the video.

Set in a chandeliered room with sombre red flock wallpaper, the two figures elegantly dance in their masks mimicking each other’s activities, but in doing so, quickly morph into different identities, sometimes non-human. Here the process of dancing is morphological, where their individual identities are destroyed through camouflage. With their insect-like movements, they become one and the other in a kaleidoscope of animal skin designs. In this way, the twins explore the characteristics of identity. Like the famous Papin sisters who identified with each other so much they could not separate themselves, the figures here merge into the same being, destroying their respective identities yet producing something new, “animal-like” in a “beautiful violence.”

As the twins dance, their gestures take on a malevolent force – their images join and mutate into another image, one that resembles the wallpaper designs behind them – thus merging into the very fabric of the space in which they exist. This process is reminiscent of what Roger Caillois called “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia” – the strange morphological habit of organisms copying their surroundings (1). But here the two characters disappear into the material of the room only to gradually re-appear. Here again, now separated, disappeared, now joined and so on. In this dance of identity, the twins demonstrate how crucial the relations between pose and image and the separation between body and space is in identifications. Their gestures of self and other are shown as not only inter-dependent but also vital in relation to the surrounding space. The transformation of the twins’ bodies in this video relates to the “mask of femininity,” so often invoked in fashion discourses on the female body, but also to the spectacle of disguise that underpins it. The twins show us the sensuous pleasures of the flirtatious body through the terrors and opulence of decoration that are so involved in such identifications.
(1) Roger Caillois, “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” translated from the 1935 text French by John Shepley, October no. 31 (1984). Jacques Lacan refers to Caillois’s argument in ‘The Eye and the Gaze’ in Seminar Eleven.

© David Bate 2006