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).