Ellen Cantor’s Perpetual Revisions

Ellen Cantor’s Perpetual Revisions

The artist’s final film tested her belief that love could be stronger than the will to power.


Around 2008, Ellen Cantor began working on a project that would occupy her until her death in 2013, at the age of 51. The project was a feature-length movie she called Pinochet Porn, and it was something of a culmination of her career-long study of innocence and truth. Cantor was a friend; we were both living in London at the time. Several times a year, she would invite me over to see how the project was going. She was making a trailer for it as well, which seemed to obsess her just as much as the film itself, and I kept losing track of whether I was looking at the feature or the trailer.

I don’t think it was just practical issues that stretched out the making of the film. Knowing Cantor, I think she would have kept working on it much longer than the five years she was able to devote to it—editing and re-editing it, drawing more storyboards, spinning off other sections as separate pieces, maybe even reshooting scenes. Cantor loved nothing so much as working on her film; perhaps she didn’t really want to finish it. Her happiness was to keep doing it, to stay immersed in its making. I suspect this became even more the case when her health began to fail. When she became ill, her work on Pinochet Porn took on a different kind of urgency: What had been a way of feeling alive, of being alive, had in some way become a way of staying alive, of choosing to push tragedy away.

It didn’t work; nor did she get to see the piece finished. But her close collaborators—notably Lia Gangitano, the director of the New York nonprofit exhibition space Participant Inc., the most consistent proponent of Cantor’s work over the years, and the film’s lead actress; filmmaker John Brattin, who served as the cinematographer; and Jay Kinney, the art director—kept faith with the project and ushered it to completion according to Cantor’s plans. The finished version, a homemade fever dream in the tradition of no-budget masters like Jack Smith and George Kuchar, was screened for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this past Halloween, while segments of it were included as a multiscreen installation at New York University’s 80WSE gallery as part of a Cantor exhibition organized by the gallery’s director, Jonathan Berger, titled “Are You Ready for Love?” The showings were among several concurrent exhibitions on Cantor this fall in New York. Under the title “Lovely Girls Emotions,” Participant Inc. showed a group of very early paintings, drawings, and freestanding works that I would call totems rather than sculptures. Foxy Production, a gallery in Chinatown, presented a small show of photocollages from the mid-1990s and a three-channel video installation, Be My Baby (1999). And another downtown gallery, Maccarone, staged a sort of remake or update of an exhibition that Cantor curated in 1993 at David Zwirner (one of the first shows at the fledgling gallery, which was not then the commercial dynamo it is today), “Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-Plicit Art by Women.”

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Each of the four exhibitions might offer its own entrée into Cantor’s wide-ranging oeuvre. “Coming to Power,” for instance, which borrowed its title from a controversial 1981 compilation of lesbian S&M writings and graphics, shows that Cantor’s art would always be rooted in feminism, queer politics, and defiance, but that she was equally concerned with finding a tradition in which to locate her work—a tradition that included elders like Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Lorraine O’Grady, as well as contemporaries or near-contemporaries like Marilyn Minter (whose outstanding retrospective is currently at the Brooklyn Museum through April 2), Zoe Leonard, and Lutz Bacher, not to mention performers like Trash, whom Cantor described as “the sexiest drag king in town…dancing topless in black leather chaps, ass cut out, huge black dildo cock, stylised sideburns and goatee.” With Be My Baby, Foxy Production showed the kind of work for which Cantor would eventually become best known: videos pieced together out of found material in the tradition of Bruce Conner’s collage films like A Movie (1958). As with Conner and other proponents of cut-up techniques, Cantor seems to be looking for revelations of hidden truth within some of the most banal disjecta of the culture, juxtaposed with reminders of some of its moments of greatest artistic and technological aspiration (and with something like William Burroughs’s dictum, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out,” in mind).

Be My Baby mashes up the polished innocence of Motown (Cantor was a Detroit native) and the torrid emotional extremism of Hollywood romantic melodrama with the authoritarian ecstasy of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, the mechanized dystopia of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the literal otherworldliness of space travel, as seen in footage shot by astronauts exploring the moon. It’s such a bravura feat of rhythm and editing that it may not be obvious how even the most clichéd emotions that churn up within the flux of imagery are meant to be understood as genuine. For Cantor, the work’s subject was nothing less than “how to transcend tragic experience and heal painful memory…. By imaging a ‘gravityless’ world—an astronaut floating in space for the first time, a couple laughing doing front flips down a hill, another astronaut doing somersaults in his space ship—I tried to externalize inner metaphors for innocence and freedom from constrained confusion.”

More basic in their construction, the photocollages—made from grainy images shot off a TV screen—combine scenes from porn and romance movies into iconlike gridded patterns reminiscent of the earlier works of Gilbert & George. Their burden seems to be the hypnotic fascination of an unmanageable desire—the Freudian “compulsion to repeat” as a way of assuaging anxiety. The photocollages might have put one in mind as well of the disenchanted gaze of the somewhat older “Pictures Generation” of artists like Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, and Allan McCollum, with their cold stare at the debased image-world in which they found themselves swimming. But Cantor’s work, no matter that she took her material from the world’s reservoirs of ready-made imagery, was always personal, almost diaristic. Even when, in other videos, she took her material from the Disney fantasies of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Bambi, she took it straight—as something that could earn fervent belief.

Still, I was surprised by the raw, non-analytical nature of what I saw at Participant Inc.—works that Cantor mostly made before she started exhibiting, in the 1980s through the early ’90s. Their crudely painted imagery yokes violence with sex, fear with desire, in ways that echo the work of Nancy Spero (who would later include Cantor in a 1993 group show of women artists, “Songs of Retribution”), though as yet without Spero’s deep historical perspective—substituting instead a stark emphasis on the here and now of immediate feeling, such as one might expect of an outsider artist.

And in a way, despite her efforts to construct an alternative tradition for herself, Cantor was something of an outsider. As cool, smart, and conceptual as her later work could often look, and as deeply schooled as it always was, she based that work on an implacable search for emotional truth, and on the intuition that such truth would have to be disruptive. The title that she gave to the largest exhibition of her work during her lifetime—at the Kunsthalle Wien in 1998—is telling: “my perversion is the belief in true love” suggests not that the belief in true love is a fantasy devised to keep women satisfied with their subordinate positions, but rather the opposite—that if one could only be so perverse as to demand nothing less than the true love that society proposes as every woman’s happy ending, the world as we know it would burst apart. That world depends on our keeping quiet about the fact that our desires remain unsatisfied—because actions that fulfill those desires are typically what we condemn as perversions. Of course, from the perspective of what William Blake called “gratified desire,” what is normal is the true perversion.

Cantor’s video Within Heaven and Hell (1996), which was shown at 80WSE, cuts back and forth between footage from The Sound of Music and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which turn out to fit each other brilliantly as torn halves of a whole that don’t add up (to twist Theodor Adorno’s famous phrase), at least when they’re knit together with Cantor’s voice-over recounting her own love troubles. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the show at 80WSE, however, was its plentiful gathering of Cantor’s drawings, including, most notably, the cycle of more than 80 sheets that she titled Circus Lives From Hell (2004), which eventually became the basis for Pinochet Porn. Cantor’s drawings were where she preserved the spunky energy that animated her early paintings, but there’s more to them than might be initially apparent. When I first began seeing them around 1993, I took their naive, almost adolescent directness at face value. It was only gradually that I started to notice the sophistication of their composition and the variety of mark-making she employed with such understated fluency. Now that’s the first thing I see.

Cantor turns out to have been a closet formalist. In 2005, when I was working as the London reviews editor for the Scottish art magazine Map, I asked her to review a Frida Kahlo retrospective at the Tate Modern. I was surprised at the critical note on which Cantor—whom one would have expected to be entirely sympathetic to the Mexican painter’s fiercely personal approach to image-making—ended her review:

Kahlo purposely intended her work to seem naive, embracing Mexican folklore and craftwork in opposition to the overriding influence of American imperialism. But often a genuine naivete undermines the intelligence and vastness of scope expressed in her paintings. Kahlo seems unaware of how to meld narration into abstract form. Often her work remains simply a diagram of emotion and experience. Kahlo knew many important and famous people—Leon Trotsky, Isamu Noguchi, Josephine Baker; my secret wish is that she could have known Hans Hoffman. He came to America in the mid-’30s with a profound understanding of formal developments in European painting. His insightful teachings influenced many artists and changed the face of American painting. Perhaps he could have taught Kahlo to transcend her descriptive mode.

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Whether or not she was right about Kahlo, Cantor’s own mature work was never naive about either feeling or form. She knew how to deal sophisticatedly with her own passionately maintained innocence, as embodied in the demand for true love where propriety would have urged the acceptance of something less. In Circus Lives From Hell, and then in Pinochet Porn, she managed to refract her own experiences through those of others in order to bring into focus her idea that “the traumas in our childhood brought out parallel traumas in our adulthood, which seemed to extend from the largest historical catastrophes, to the most intimate personal misfortunes.” She based the narratives not on her own life, but on that of a friend who had grown up in South America. “I found I could channel my own raw emotions through her dramas,” Cantor explained. Circus Lives is the story of five children growing up under dictatorship; the film she eventually derived from it focuses on the two “identical daughters” (sometimes referred to as twins, sometimes said to be a year apart) of the dictator himself. The girls, Pipa and Paloma—both played by Gangitano—enjoy, if that’s the right word, feverishly complicated love lives. Cantor cast herself as their father’s maid; she’s the servant of the story rather than its focal point, except when she becomes the object of the general’s sadomasochistic attentions; she continues to erratically clean with her feather duster as he fingers her from behind.

There would be no use in trying to recount the plot of Pinochet Porn; I’m not even sure if, in any meaningful sense, it has one. Although it’s unlike Cantor’s earlier videos in being much less reliant on found footage—Pinochet Porn was made using actors (however amateur), following a script (however loose)—it is still very much a work based in collage, and not just because it includes significant quantities of found footage. Cantor makes no concessions to continuity: Every segment seems to go on far longer than would have been necessary from a narrative point of view, which only highlights the fact that the story (such as it is) has been put together out of separate pieces that never entirely connect. It made me think of what Cantor once said she loved about the 1981 film The World of Gilbert and George: “the slow pacing, the moments of silence. It feels so simple, as if anyone could make such a film about themselves and their surroundings.” The lack of direct sound in Pinochet Porn, obviously a product of budgetary constraints, works similarly to Cantor’s advantage: Even when the voice-over is explaining (usually in what I suspect is a rather rudimentary Spanish, with subtitles) exactly what we see transpiring on camera, it makes us conscious that the two elements, sound and picture, are quite separate, and could have been recombined otherwise. It’s the sense that amateurishness is a surprisingly useful virtue because it creates the illusion—albeit an enabling one—that this could be anyone’s art: the punk aesthetic in a nutshell.

The seemingly arbitrary way the film is constructed might be its own answer to the question it poses: “Is tragedy a choice?” And yet the answer remains ambiguous. The sufferings we experience are not destiny, the very form of the film seems to argue; instead, they’re a contingent amalgamation of choice and random circumstance. But if our love relationships are also essentially power relationships, which is generally the case in Pinochet Porn, it’s hard to see how they can bring us anything but frustration and torment. The fact that it’s difficult to keep track of which of the parallel lives we are witnessing—Pipa’s or Paloma’s?—suggests that the personal identities we mean to reinforce through our choices are ephemeral, almost arbitrary, and not necessarily under our control.

If there’s a lesson to be derived from Pinochet Porn, it might be the one that Angela Carter had already drawn years before, in her 1978 essay “The Sadeian Woman,” that “our flesh arrives to us out of history, like everything else does,” and that “although the erotic relationship may seem to exist freely, on its own terms, among the distorted relationships of a bourgeois society, it is, in fact, the most self-conscious of human relationships, a direct confrontation of two human beings whose actions in bed are wholly determined by their acts when they are out of it.” If that’s what Cantor had in mind, then in this film she was really putting to the test her belief that love could be stronger than the will to power, and that it might be possible to be not mutual victims, but equals.

Maybe that’s what accounts for my feeling that Cantor never wanted to finish the work: She never wanted to arrive at a decisive answer to such a question. Or it could be, I admit, that I am retrospectively projecting my own feelings onto her because, as happy as I am that I’ve finally seen this delirious DIY masterpiece in its entirety, and that others can do so too, it also makes me sad. I’d really prefer going to the studio to see one little detached bit of it or another, not knowing in advance what it will be, then talking about what else could be done over cups of tea. In the little world of the studio, tragedy was never a choice, because no choice ever had to be final. Art and life were open to perpetual revision.

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