Inside a highly unreal environment, Janieta Eyre portrays herself twice, emphasizing her own presence by the nearby portrayal of what one assumes is her twin. She plans imaginary rooms with the help of sketches: or she surrounds herself with objects or animals recalling the world of infancy - for example, she puts a colander on her head to recall the make-believe helmets used in childhood battle games. A plucked chicken is a reference to when, as a child at her grandmother's in the Netherlands, she wanted to feed the poultry but ran away when the animals turned and chased her. Other objects without any particular meaning - a bicycle wheel or a tomato - are simply an excuse for studying a form or a color. And, lastly, photography has the task of giving the scene a believable air.
In creating her images, Eyre prefers pure color when it is a question of present time while, if she wants to explore memory or to investigate pure form in order to arrive at a greater abstraction, she works in black and white. Contingent facts obviously have their importance: "In the summer", she says, "I use color because I see colors" (1). Her iconography, with references ranging from the Renaissance to the Pre-Raphaelites, and frozen in the wastes of black and white or in the unreality of full, ripe hues, results in a heavy atmosphere pregnant with sensuality, eroticism, and death. The photographic scenarios with their many-layered meanings become fetishes capable of conferring both reality and transfiguration on the subject and its double.
Since, in displaying this repetition of herself, the artist does not reveal which is the authentic person and which is the copy - or even if there is one - the subject's identity is made and unmade in a symbolic exchange between life and death which flow into each other, just as a young girl in front of a mirror is unwillingly subject to allusions: she does not think of the mirror but it duplicates her all the same. In the photo the mirror disguises itself, the two subjects become equally authentic and equally virtual: the young girl is born and dies where the reflection begins. And so opposites live, not in opposition, but in superimposition. In this purposeful banalization of recognizable signs Janieta Eyre makes play with the exchange-fusion of identity. At the same time, by imposing a secret and intimate dimension on every detail she eliminates the narrative structure of what is represented. "I work intuitively", she has said to me. "So it's difficult to give a literal explanation of my work. When I talk about what I'm doing I often contradict myself by saying something I can also deny. So in a certain sense I have given myself the opportunity of inventing something. I hope that when people look at my work they might also have the chance of inventing their own history"
And Eyre has spun a well-crafted history around her work convinced, as she is, that imagination is at times more credible that reality: She says she was born a Siamese twin joined at the back of her head to her sister Sarah who died shortly after their surgical separation. "A lot of people would ask me if my work was autobiographical", she says. "And so I began to say that it was. My work makes more sense for people when they think it's history rather than when I tell them it is only my imagination" .
The artist's starting point is in photos of other people, in adverts or in images found in magazines. Out of this external experience she constructs a history of her own which, however, she brings to a conclusion still keeping it at a distance and thus alienating it. And so she also investigates the relationship between the image as filtered by the media and reality, she explores the narrative vision of mechanical reproduction, the ability of photography to bring into existence what does not exist, to make real what originates in the soothsayer's vision. In this prospect she has created, amongst other things, a series of about thirty photos in which, acting out her own death, she has managed to be the witness of the event. "My photos are a kind of burial", she states, "and my gesture is similar to that of the Egyptians who buried everyday objects together with the mummy". In this way the artist lends her body to a different kind of subjectivity than her own, almost as though the photo, instead of being a self-portrait, was about the life of someone else. In this sense the fiction is about identification with others and not simply a piece of theater. Eyre says, "Even if the theatrical elements are obvious - and in fact I use costumes and make-up - I do not like theater: it is too artificial. In my mind everything is real".
Taking on another history is a way of masking the ego: the subject disappears not by way of subtraction (of the self) but by the addition of an external object - the superimposed, hiding mask. The mimetic device is a fiction in which the secret can only be revealed at the cost of becoming banal; and since what is represented is pure relationship so is whatever can be represented: identity is not a static reality, masks can liberate the individual from himself and lead to a new existence. This is not a question of refusing what seems to be real and of considering present thoughts and feelings, objects and figures as counterfeits to be unmasked, but of accepting the duplicity of being in its totality. As with the face, so with the mask: an individual, that is, finds and loses himself just like someone who has, out of sheer boredom, gone to a fancy-dress ball and discovered his real self through wearing the clothes of another. The awareness of a moment: the day after, in the banality of daily life, the self is lost again and just pretends to be living. What is represented, however, is not simply the exaltation of subjectivity but also the negation of whatever is objective. So how can an escape be made from this vicious circle? By knocking on every door from which there trickles the sound of an orchestra hinting at a fancy-dress ball within? Or by accepting the knowledge that the ground occasionally conceded to acquired truths is a zone subtracted from the self, that it is a voluntary sacrifice to some overpowering god? Over the years many have fought against the hegemony of the wish for truth which does, in fact, limit potential truth. Eyre's work is close to that of those heretics - from Rimbaud to Van Gogh, from Nietzsche to Baudelaire, from Bataille to Klossowski, from Foucault to Baudrillard right up to Cindy Sherman, Matthew Barney, and Inez Van Lamsweerde - who have wanted to break down homologation at all costs. These have broken the lock imposed by habit: and beyond the door truth justifies madness and opens on to infinite spaces.
Psychoanalysis has formulated the hypothesis that the resolution of tensions can also be found in pleasure. In Eyre's images woman is considered as a sexually aggressive subject, lacking in passivity. Eroticism too is subjective; and since we know from Bataille that the erotic experience and the experience of holiness, similar in their extreme intensity of sensations, are of the same nature, it is not surprising that there is in this art an atmosphere pregnant with holiness. Bataille writes, "The saint does not go in search of efficiency. What animates him is only desire: in this he is similar to the erotic man. [...] Erotic desire is the desire that triumphs over prohibitions: it assumes the opposition of man to himself" (2). To himself certainly, but also to others if it is true, as Baudrillard has written, that "A strange pride pushes us not only to possess the other, but to unlock his secret, not only to be dear to him, but to be fatal [...]to make the other disappear. This necessitates a ceremonial" (3). Probably the same ceremonial which Eyre's images introduce us to.
- Demetrio Paparoni
- All statements by Janieta Eyre quoted in the text are from a conversation with the author which took place in New York on July 19th, 1997.
- Georges Bataille, Eroticism
- Jean Baudrillard
Demetrio Paparoni is a well known Italian art critic. He lives in Italy where he publishes Teme Celeste, a contemporary art magazine, and teaches art history. He has written numerous books on art criticism.