BY Helen Molesworth in Frieze | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

The Comfort of Objects

Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills twenty years later

BY Helen Molesworth in Frieze | 10 SEP 97

Twenty years after Cindy Sherman first began dressing up for the camera and taking pictures of herself, New York's Museum of Modern Art purchased a complete set of the now famous Untitled Film Stills. For only the second time in two decades, the 69 black and white photographs are on show in their entirety. While we are afforded a little frisson by the fact that this historic exhibition is funded by Madonna, popular culture's favorite dress up girl, one of its most interesting side-effects lies in the opportunity it offers to reflect upon Sherman's work and the continuing role that MoMA attempts to play in shaping the narratives of modern and contemporary art.

Let's start with MoMA, long a whipping boy and once again deservedly so. The Film Stills have been installed salon-style in a very modest exhibition room. They are neither hung chronologically, nor grouped according to theme, locale, or content. Modest in scale compared to Sherman's later cibachrome photographs, they are all 8 1/2 by 11 inches, each displayed in identical, simple black frames. A schematic key on the wall tells you the dates and titles of the works, a device that Chief Curator of Photography Peter Galassi said 'frees the photographs from their text.' This gesture, along with the hanging of the works, has the effect of presenting the Film Stills as if they were one unified work. This is no accident: Galassi himself said at the press opening that this was how he thought of them. MoMA has apparently decided to refuse the structural condition of photography as integral to the meaning of the Film Stills. When MoMA purchased and exhibited the Stills, it ratified one of the more ambitious artistic endeavours of Postmodernism, yet their presentation reads as an attempt to transform them into a coherent, unified, and hence, modernist artwork.

Theories of photography and postmodernism that emerged concomitantly with Sherman's practice argued that the photograph has built into its very structure some of the most important artistic and theoretical innovations of Postmodern thought. These theories propose that: photographs make evident the contingent and contextual aspect of meaning (e.g. the caption); they show that seriality and repetition are constitutive of meaning in the 'age of mechanical reproducibility'; photographs problematise the general favouring of the unique over the copy, and they engender fairly complicated relations between authorship and 'creativity'. The rich meanings that emanate from Sherman's Untitled Film Stills partake of all of these attributes of the photographic image. With their sequential numbering system of titles, they point to the ever proliferating nature of mass media images; far from being one contained artwork the Stills acknowledge the arbitrariness and impossibility of precisely such a closure.

In MoMA's didactic handout to the exhibition we are told that Sherman's work and the criticism which it engendered (largely denigrated by the curator) are 'assertions about who we think we are', thus refusing to acknowledge that part of the project of the Film Stills is to represent the very impossibility of this kind of artistic expressivity. One of Postmodernism's claims, particularly the Postmodernism that grew out of Feminism, was that representations (be they artistic or mass cultural) are not reflections or 'assertions' of our identities, but more precisely they help to produce them. No artist more than Sherman, particularly in the Film Stills, has shown this so clearly. An identity produced in and by representations is bound to be as fragmented as the Film Stills themselves, and the desire to make a whole from fragments is one of the many things these photographs are about Yet the Stills are in large measure about thwarted desire, and despite MoMA's attempts, they remain evocative and frustrating images: fragments without a whole, film stills without a film.

It is difficult to separate the Film Stills from the extraordinary amount of criticism they engendered in the 80s. They were used to illustrate theories as varied as the new use of photography, feminist film theory, psychoanalytic theories of the gaze, the return of allegory and the culture of the spectacle, to name only a few. One came upon the Film Stills in books, anthologies, and magazine articles more often than in galleries or museums. Whether they appeared in printed media or in exhibition spaces, however, it was always the case that one or two images had been carefully selected in order to clinch an argument.

Seeing them all at once is a challenge, for it becomes clear how much picking and choosing was at play on the part of this writer or that curator. Some of the Stills are much more familiar than others, used and reused to illustrate various arguments (many of them contradictory). In this regard, Sherman's work is a bit like that of Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol: the images have become iconic and they repeatedly serve as a projective surface for interpretation. While this threatens MoMA's play for a coherent meaning or identity, surely this ambiguity or porousness of meaning is part of the strength and the elusiveness of the Film Stills, which have something left over after each interpretation that continues to yield to the changing currents of intellectual life.

Much has been made of the fact that Sherman is both the object and the taker of her photographs. What emerges from this viewing, however, is the total construction of the images - the plethora of choices both big and small that the artist has made in order to build each one. She has chosen the locales, props, and costumes as well as the genre, lighting, and expression. More than the agent and object of her own drama, she is also the interior designer and art director. These professions arbitrate the taste of our culture, creating fantasy spaces (either in our living rooms or in the living rooms of the movies) that provide the cues for our performance of ourselves. Exhibited together, the Untitled Film Stills show us that identities are not only performed through clothing and gesture: these performances of the self happen in spaces that are chosen and arranged either by ourselves or others. They demonstrate how a successful performance depends on having the right props.

Sherman, in the sum of all of her choices (from lighting to ashtrays, from gestures to clothing), has constructed images that are designed to appear generic, stock, immediately evocative of a type. The easy legibility of Sherman's types - the office girl, the slut, the lush, the working-class housewife, the budding beauty - points to the public nature of these identities. We read these types with the presumption of assuredness and are permitted these small moments of mastery courtesy of Hollywood. But Sherman's appearance in each image finally serves to undermine that authority. If Sherman can move in and out of these roles so easily, if she can construct them and their attendant mise-en-scènes with such acumen, then her characters have been denied a traditional sense of interiority: they are, after all, types. Once the interiority of Sherman's characters has been denied, the viewer is thrown back on herself: am I also a type, the type that goes to museums, to look at photographs...? Am I as readable through my clothing and mise-en-scène as Sherman's characters? The double-bind is made evident: I have chosen my clothes and milieu to act as a private expression of myself, an embodiment of my taste, yet it is an expression that will invariably be read as a type.

While the Untitled Film Stills claim that taste cannot be taken as a manifestation of identity, they suggest that taste continually consolidates around the figure of the type. And for women, this suggestion continues, the version of an identity formed through taste finds its strongest progenitor in Hollywood. (It could be argued that fashion magazines and tabloid television now fill the role once played by Hollywood's star system, and that this may account for the development in Sherman's work toward those venues.)

Some Film Stills articulate this problem of taste's public dimension better than others. The opportunity to see them all together shows their uneven quality. This is not a bad thing, for the weaker images point toward an understanding of how the stronger images work. The more expressive Sherman is (when she is crying, or looking scared in a nightgown in an apartment building hallway) the less convincing the image, the less evocative of the generic type. When she 'acts' and loses the surface of her blank gaze, the photographs veer toward a botched sentimentality. Likewise, the images where she has not controlled the mise-en-scène (long shots of Sherman sitting in a tree, standing in front of a mission-style church, sitting on a sloping hill) lack the specificity of objects (ashtrays, necklaces) that go into the fabrication of an identity. They lack, in other words, the power of Sherman's choice of objects. Strength in these images comes from the props - the kissing seahorses on the glass motel door of Untitled Film Still # 7 (19??), the hide-away bar of Untitled Film Still #49 (19??).

Roland Barthes has argued that the function of taste is to establish a simple but important fact: 'my body is not yours.' Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills seem to suggest a revision of this formulation as 'my taste is not mine'. Taste does not come from the 'inside' of a subject, yet is it never experienced as solely coming from the 'outside' (movies, television, magazines). Taste is fluid, ours and not ours simultaneously: it provides us with readymade identities that we experience as created instead of bought. In the Untitled Film Stills expressivity as an indication of interiority is awkward; landscape as a signifier of emotion seems an empty gesture. Finally, what we are left with is the transitory comfort of objects, objects that we borrow from a culture of commodities and images, a culture that acts in large measure as a lending library of identities.