FATAL SONG by Olivier Zahm
(text translated from French) written for the Players

First we feel then we fall
James Joyce

I now understand, through flashes of
insight, that to possess a being in the
flesh was like stabbing a spectre

Paul Morand

What happens in the photographic allegories that are Christine Webster’s incandescent images? The woman becomes a flame. Sudden flashes. She embraces her images in the same was that fire consumes the chemicals of the photos we erase from our memories. The burning image puts an end to the psychodrama of femininity by its impending disappearance. The portrait fades rapidly into obscurity while destiny’s impersonal flamboyance invades the cibachrome surface.

The allegories of Christine Webster are further removed from contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman, Genevieve cadieux, Suzanne Lafont (to mention only women,) than from the cinematographic works of a Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract) or a David Lynch (Blue Velvet) because in this nouveau-cinema, as in the petty personal histories of the self, yield to the emergence of a cruel and bizarre symbolic order that reintroduces the ritual to the very heart of existence.

UNCERTAINIES

Destiny lies not within the bounds of fiction, even if it may momentarily outline its contours – destiny is an experiment. A ceremony controlled by a higher order. A world of dangers and victories that drags the consciousness down into bottomless chasms of thought. A reversible order where good and evil may in turn topple into their opposite. A ceremony where things are no longer stable, simple or clear, but where time follows the rhythm of the heartbeat. Thus beat Webster’s images, like the organic heart of the portrait.

The order of destiny concerns neither a negative metaphysic of evil, nor a teleology in reverse. The clear-obscure art of Webster is the emergence of a principle of death, but rather a vital principle of alienness, of seduction, of radical antagonism. Against all the artificial paradises of the depiction of women (advertising, television films, erotic films) that show the range of stereotypes of femininity from Cindy Sherman to Jeff Koons – and which are instead a principle of death – the icons of Webster, dark and ambiguous, display a living energy. The woman according to Webster doesn’t fall into immoralism on the side of the principle of evil, inhumanity, madness or crime. At heart, she is instead maternal, benevolent, seductive, childish, worried by the Other, as it were, always concerned, always open. What Webster makes tangible is the inseperability of good and evil. Between Heaven and Hell, between pious images and terrifying images, between the erotic film laden with sensuality and the horror film that makes terror trite (Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, filmed on video by John MacNaughton, is a typical example), Webster’s photographs plunge us into the heart of fatal uncertainty.


THE RULES OF THE GAME

Woman is obscure, essentially incomprehensible. Moreover, she radiates this obscurity about her. Her organic life, her private life, her public life cannot function without these sudden plunges into the shadow of consciousness. She must leave the light, the sign-posted ways of society and identity, to softly withdraw. Her altruism, mortality, beauty, violence, kindness, insolence, seduction…all would be artificial if woman did not have this ability to escape from herself, to plunge into this abyss where the consciousness frees itself from its laws (exterior, social, rational) to obey the Rules of the Game.

Christine Webster’s images show this passing from the sign, the code and the appearance, to the fatal rules 9the game, the ritual, the ceremony). Such is the power of these photos, where all images of femininity (the body as feminine objects and attributes) fall into a symbolic universe. There is no self, no subject, no unconscious in the woman of Webster’s work. Only the Other. An inhuman authority outside the human element that frees us from illusions. Christine Webster’s women have suppressed all posing, all show of artifice, yet they have nothing of the natural, the true or the authentic. They topple artifice into insanity and the game into drama. But here the insanity is not so sure, the drama is not obvious. These images are as warnings, more obscure but more troubling. In Webster’s work the face of the woman no longer has an identifiable psychology. It is not gentle nor aggressive, not sensual nor repulsive, but alternately grimacing and seductive. Something disquieting crosses it, haunts us fleetingly, without us knowing exactly what it is.

There is nothing good within us
that defines us as an individual. It is
our dislikes that distinguish us, our
sorrows that give us a name, our
losses that make us possessors of
ourselves.


Cioran, Precis of Decomposition

In a certain way, the woman according to Webster is cruel, unintelligible and savage. She escapes illusions of intimacy, of inferiority, in the same way that she escapes those of fiction and perpetual metamorphosis. She doesn’t play at being herself or at being another. She is the Other. She plays no role, not even her own. She is a game, a symbolic rule.


THE STRANGER

For Christine Webster the woman does not believe in her desire, identity or difference. She expresses instead her indifferences, or her radical alienness. She no longer believes in herself, but lives her otherness. Therefore, all feminist readings of this work must be rejected without hesitation because the woman in these portraits has definitely emancipated herself from all desire such as, for example, that of being recognised and accepted in the eyes of others.

She is not a woman-object (an ‘alienated’ image, subject to preconceived models and appearance) nor a woman-subject (the function of a femininity ‘liberated’ from its symbolic roles and attributes that she enjoys at leisure). Neither image nor imaginary, femininity appears under Webster’s lens as a radical otherness, evading all labelling, all identity, all nature. And if she is prepared to play along with the game of photographic subject, it is in order to escape the objective. Woman is fleeing, she is elsewhere, she is alien. Neither ‘subject’ of a fiction that multiples identity nor ‘object’ of a desire or a power that fixes identity on a sexual, sociological or family basis, woman is a fatal body.

... In this world of
predestination of the Other, where
everything comes from elsewhere,
fortunate or unfortunate events, even
diseases. All commandments come
from the inhuman – gods, beasts,
spirits, magic. That is the fatal
universe that confronts the
psychological one.


Jean Beaudrillard, The Transparence of Evil


The fatal appears in a sombre and cruel light, but is always close and perceptible. Femininity in Webster’s work contains something fragile and yet barbaric at the same time. It rapidly dissolves as a familiar or desirable figure, only to suddenly recrystallise as a symbol of violent power. To the heart of darkness she seems an intelligible reality, a manifestation of an extraordinary violence, because it has no origin, no destination, no desire, and yet remains a soft and welcoming image.

The problem of the Other in a
fatal universe is one of hospitality.
The Other is a host. Not equal in
law yet different, but alien,
extraneous.


Jean Beaudrillard, The Transparence of Evil


Webster’s images open for us the feminine continent, at the same time revealing its insoluble enigma that escapes the other, who watches as much as she who is captivated by the objective. Woman is a principle of alienness and Webster’s images release us permanently from thoughts of difference, that pretend to ‘Understand’ woman in order to better integrate her (socially, sexually, emotionally...).

For at heart, Webster’s female subject doesn’t reflect herself. She is not aware of herself. Woman remains cruelly, wildly alien to herself. She is not aware of herself. Assuming her most familiar symbolic attributes, the woman in Webster’s work avoids the conventions of appearances. Such is the power of Webster’s art: to seize the part of woman that escapes her. In Webster’s art, the female subject withdraws and the other appears – a woman without identity, without a face, without a name. Ritual violence, savage and primitive, impersonal and eternal. It is at this price that a mutual stupefaction of the Self and the She is possible. The rest is bad literature – I mean psychology or sentimental or pornographic distraction.


FETISHES

Mirrors, a rose stem and a foil, dice, a gilded frame, white crockery – objects in Webster’s images, sometimes depicted again on an adjacent panel, that seem to be lit from within. They are not only feminine attributes, assembled as a metaphor or an allegorical symbol of femininity.
The withdrawal of feminine identity, its sudden disappearance in the ritual produce a radiant luminosity that shines within the object. The symbol becomes a fetish. It takes on an alien potential in order to assume the immaterial density of the fetish. It is there, more than in the depiction of the body, that Webster’s image threatens reason because the fetish is a sign the conscious self tries in vain to possess.

Do you remember that scene from Lynch’s Wild at Heart (Sailor and Lula), the terrifying scene of an accident on a desolate country road in the middle of the night, during which the last survivor, on the point of death, desperately seeks her comb? Like Lynch’s comb, Webster’s dress (Child) mirror (Clairvoyant) or red silk nightgown (Wanton) are fatal objects. They emerge from consciousness like lifebelts sinking with the ship. Instead of heading for the surface they take it further down. This is why the fetish in this case has no Baudelairian links. It doesn’t act as a crystalliser of passion, of a desire of the body (the lock of hair, jewellery, shoes . . . ).
With Webster the opposite occurs: the object doesn’t refer to the body; it is the body that refers to the object, which tries to cling (Rememberer) to drape itself in it and to please (Wanton).


VANITIES

Webster’s images are not besieged by hallucinations of the self nor even intimate fictions, but by obsessions. These products of our minds that, through insistence, become corporeal. How can the body become the place and territory of an obsession? How can an obsession become organic? Obsession with games (Gambler). Obsession with prediction (Clairvoyant). Obsession with infancy (Child). Obsession with memory (Rememberer). Obsession with pleasing (Seducer).

How can we escape from the obsessions that torment the self? One would have to imagine a being deprived of body and instinct as soon as they appear. The obsession which rages in the heart of the self is both familiar and worrying. It is like the destiny of the body. Thus the body would not know it was being torn apart without disappearing. Ideas and convictions, like social activities and roles, feminine and masculine, are nothing other than organic obsessions. The body makes obsession.
And obsession in Webster’s art is a possession – possession of the body by the image it has forged from itself. Possession accompanied by a dispossession of the self, a gloomy radiation that passes to the surface of the image as though it had come from distant horizons and remote times.
In this sense, the photography of Christine Webster is a portrayal of contemporary vanities. If the allegories seem to be suspended between the mirror and the cemetery, it is not in order to warn us. The agony of the aging body in The Players.

Series is neither the beginning nor the end of metaphysical anxiety.
Neither death nor triviality shall have the last word. The red fingernail polish, the mirror or the rose do not prevail over the withering flesh, no more than death will get the better of passion in the Game. Webster’s allegorical pictures have no ethics of appearance. Vanity here does not represent the menace of death as a final limit of pride of mind, body and desires. It does not plunge the world into nothingness, but into the abyss of obsession. The limit is not death but insanity. The danger is not nothingness, but the dispossession of the self. This is not without charm. The dignity, elegance and humanity of the self are preserved. A certain something, a sort of nobility, persists in these portraits on the edge of the abyss. A sort of softness floats in the obscurity. Consider lynch again, and Blue Velvet, the woman, alienated, singer, brutalised, magnificent prostitute, sings at night before all in an evening gown, melodies of an extreme softness. The vanities of Christine Webster have this same soft and terrible music: Fatal Song.

© Olivier Zahm 1991, co-founder of Purple Prose, Paris art/fashion writer
From Pleasures and Dangers: Artists of the 90s, (Ed) Trish Clark and Wystan Curnow, Longman Paul