Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pinochet Porn – The Dictator and the Maid


Pinochet Porn – The Dictator and the Maid 
Works by Ellen Cantor, curated by Dallas Seitz and The Black Mariah.
The Black Mariah, Cork
6 October – 7 December 2014

Review by Darren Caffrey



The Dictator and The Maid by American video artist Ellen Cantor was made as part of her magnum opus entitled Pinochet Porn. Cantor describes the work: “Pinochet Porn, a feature length soap opera on super 8! A story of five children growing up during the Pinochet regime into adulthood.” 

 

In 2013 she died, at which point her work had been shown in New York's PS1, London's Serpentine, Vienna's Kunsthalle, and Edinburgh's International Film Festival. The work showing upstairs in Cork's Triskel Arts Centre is a 21 minute scene taken from Cantor's full-length film. Presenting simply the activity of two characters in a New York apartment, it contains no obvious dialogue and much strong sexual content from the beginning.

Sex is of course a classification and an act. The act is straight forward, requiring only joy to gain effective proficiency. Its purpose is life, in the moment and in the future of man. As a means of definition, Dictionary.com tells us that sex is also “the sum of the structural and functional differences by which the male and female are distinguished, or the phenomena or behaviour dependent on these differences.” Naturally, this determination of sex is just a guide. Acceptance for various frills of the sexual experience shift with time. This is as true for the act as it is the classification.

For his part, the man named Pinochet ruled the people of Chile for seventeen years. Following which, he stood as Commander in Chief of the Chilean army for a further eight. During his spell in charge he favoured the economic theories of a deregulated free market. This super-capitalist set up was aided not only by U.S. educated economists, financiers, etc... but also by force, leading to countless kidnappings, killings and property seizures. Salvador Allende, the man whom Pinochet replaced in 1973 had by that time shown inclinations toward a clear socialist agenda. U.S. president Nixon and a number of the United States' wealthiest private investors set up an exchange program for select young Chileans to learn and take home the theories espousing the virtues of a free market economy. Back in Chile, these individuals were placed in positions of power, carrying out the will of specifically capitalist programs of reform whilst operating under the protection of Pinochet's brutal regime.

This man's indelible mark has been taken as the inspiration for Pinochet Porn. In particular, his myth has been reproduced as a full length narrative. It takes a liberal approach to the man's true life, choosing instead to portray his effect through the life of his daughters and their various husbands. These characters all appear to reflect the sorts of myths which endure within western culture: the older man, the refined artist, the hard worker, the wasted talent, and the lesbian. Everything from patriarchy to the doomed dreamer to the psychoanalytic trend of archetypes which illustrate a demographic to, of course, the institution of marriage itself and the emancipation of woman, all are lampooned in a story about love. By enmeshing such a figure in the myths of western culture, the politics are consistently light while the drama is always full on.

At times when art strays into the realm of prurience, it becomes difficult. This section of the video by Ellen Cantor, showing her to fellate a man whom she has dressed up to resemble the general frame and virtue of a dictator, might just be that sort of work. Like all exchanges of value, respect for the possession is made explicit at the outset. In this instance, it takes the form of a tender caress. Titled The Dictator and The Maid, we are led to assume that the female role, played by a fifty-something Cantor, is one of submission.

One thing which can be said about this 21 minute scene produced in the artist's own home, which cannot be said about all video art or screen representations of sex, such as television or internet pornography, is that the viewer observes from the point of view of the 'victim' and the perpetrator, both responsible and helpless. In the truest sense, you watch to see what happens. 

 
Of course what happens is exactly what you think would happen. The interaction between these two characters is one of obvious submission. This is brought to light by what we perceive of dominance. Yet as the male stands over Cantor's tousled bottle-blonde hair which twists beneath him, static appears to cling these chemically bleached strands to the trousered legs of her 'oppressor', as though the composition of the space between the two is itself a living thing, subject to interference and perhaps even containing the properties of self determined outcomes. For a moment, their intimacy permits an exchange which occupies itself with only base materiality, such as the interactions of natural fibres and metals, in the peroxide and the wool fabric. As the video continues to reveal the depth of their exchange, their faces in turn reveal true feelings of anguish and delight.

This scene as a whole provides a parody to a political fantasy of the West. In it, the woman delights in male power. She gives in to what she wants. The male represents a commonality of authority – smooth shaven, well turned out and ever vulnerable to his own wants. It is this vulnerability which produces his orderly conduct. It is this vulnerable state which marks the sensuality of each touch. To break the thing possessed is to undermine its value outright. When such force as an authority is only able to establish the limits of order in the face of human want, the force becomes a negotiation between the object of control and those subject to its force. Throughout the video, the threat of violence is limited to a knowledge held by the viewer. This knowledge is a construct of societal norms and expectancy. It is supposed that the female must engage or risk the threat of upsetting the social order, and in particular his role as an authoritative figure. This is precisely as Cantor herself would have it.

By the time that the female figure is bent over onto her stomach, it makes perfect sense that she would tease the feathers of her fluffy duster over the surface of this very personal and indeed domestic setting. On screen, she suffers the joy of loss, leaving societal function and determinate roles to appear only as jokes amidst the savagery of being taken. More than her dignity, she performs at the knees of her oppressor with consummate simplicity. In a word she is playful. The man's role once performed comes to be defined as an erection. His own will in relation to this mastering of sexual energy and potency is itself the thing which breaks him. In the climactic phase of this work, beyond the reverie of feather dusters and chocolate covered spatulas, it is the man who appears most obviously as the tool of the whole performance. As such, the camera begins to focus more intently on the male's face, providing us finally with a sort of closure. In the closing of his eyes we see his loss to be so much more, and rather than titillation the experience is that of execution. With this, the performance and the scene are complete.

When the video ends and the rousing musical composition which has been following and pushing the narrative throughout finally does cut off, we are left with a projection screen hanging from a cross beam which casts its shadows in the dimly lit space of The Black Mariah. On the other side of this screen is the only other work in the exhibit. It reads 'CHAOS – PANIC – AND – DISORDER – MY WORK – HERE IS DONE'. 

 

In 2010 a Kickstarter project (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1023148801/pinochet-porn-0) was set up to have the full-length film processed for wider public viewing. A darkly coloured print with a hollow skull set by a flesh-pink type: this picture is a flat-out statement about the fear of loss at all. A gift to each sponsor who donated two thousand dollars to the cause, this signed lithograph/collage provides a token reference to artistic process. In the darkened space of the gallery it is next to invisible, but when it is found it is instantly familiar, as though it came out of an old notebook you thought you had lost. Borrowing from comic book style lettering, the various characters dance within the frame and in the way that a child pokes things, it is pernicious.

What really stands out though is The Dictator and The Maid. The reason it does so may require a resetting of social relations in respect to sexual exchange, such that when we see the body, we see the sex also. But in light of much live performance art, or again the expanse of a seemingly more permissive society, the question of roles and how best to perform them enquires that art is concerned with more than just showing the body's physicality, male or female. Likewise, the social premise that sex is underlying our understanding of one another as individuals need be redressed with some angle offered which suggests at least that sex is still open to interpretation. The role of 'man' and 'woman' must contain such openness or it becomes the property of the ruling classes.

The Kickstarter account, which was set up by the artist herself, closed three months later having exceeded the goal. The full feature-length film, shot on grainy Super 8, is not shown here however. Instead, screened in Cork at the same time each day, this single scene feature is but a taster. It contains full frontal nudity, and yet its action is that of digging into the psychology of sex and the abuse of its power over those it captivates. Horrific stories abound about the man Pinochet and the regime he led alongside the shadowy influence of various foreign interests. But it is the effect on those who lived within this sort of repressed but politically incoherent society which makes the stories so real.

As far as the art is concerned, this work reads as it plays. In one scene, we are able to witness the demise of a dictator and the rise of a feminism which demands more than cock and balls, but crucially, these things also. Consistent with any communion of man, the action between the two characters on screen remains connected throughout and the opportunity to laugh is welcome and purely human.

Numerous faces from the art world do make an appearance in the full length film. British conceptual artist Cerith Wyn Evans plays 'Oshu the sex guru' while New York's gallerist-to-watch, Lia Gangitano, plays both Pinochet's twin daughters, and Jay Kinney of Anarchy Comics is responsible for the film’s art direction. Given the manner through which cultural capital exchanges hands and gains focus, it is surely fair to say that this will not be the only chance to see Ellen Cantor's Pinochet Porn, in part or in full, but perhaps it will be your first, in which case you will most likely remember only the feelings and a few scant details.

Darren Caffrey is supported by an Artlinks Bursary.



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