Dwoskin Project Blog #25: Traces, collage and time: Figurations of desire in the cinema of Stephen Dwoskin

Twenty-fifth in a series of posts from the Dwoskin Project based at the University of Reading

Cloe Masotta

There are three inscriptions of Stephen Dwoskin’s body that I’d like to discuss in this article. Firstly, the trace, the physical inscription of Dwoskin’s body in the illustrations of several books, some of which have come into my hands in recent years. Secondly, collage, of Dwoskin’s own body and other bodies, as performers in his photomontages. And thirdly, the filmmaker camera-body over time both in his analog and digital films.

Dwoskin’s paintings and book illustrations, such as John Smith’s Songs for Simpletons or James T. Farrell’s When Time Was Born, feature men and women; Dwoskin figures them with a stroke that also depicts the artist’s body movements, rhythm and even breathing, as in his cinematographic images, in which the camera is like the brush or the pencil, an extension of the filmmaker’s body.

a pen drawn line abstracted portrait of a woman
One of Dwoskin’s illustrations from Songs for Simpletons

What happens when he switches from drawing and painting to cinema? What impulse leads the painter and the graphic designer to make films? The irruption of the element of time, as Dwoskin says in his text ‘Reflections: The Self, the World and Others, and How All These Things Melt Together in Film’:

“For me cinema was the contemplative move from the sensibilities of painting to those of the moving picture. Conceptually this was a simple move and therefore a simple decision. Film added the element of time to an otherwise static image and I needed that element of time to extend my voice.”

In Dwoskin’s oeuvre, collage is also a key element. If in the transition from painting to motion picture we find time and its trace in the filmed body, what appears in the process that goes from photomontage to cinema is the question of montage, the significance of the space between images.

In her description of the filmmaker’s way of working, and how life and cinema intermingle in Dwoskin’s work, the artist and performer Maggie Jennings uses the word “collage”, and not “editing” or “montage”, to refer to the way Dwoskin assembles or engages images and small pieces that are glimmers of the intimate relationship between the bodies – the body of the filmmaker-camera and the body of the actress or the performer.

“He’s always saying to me he’s good at waiting,” says Maggie Jennings; “there’s a lot of time when he doesn’t do anything, and then he has the activity, but he has to compose the life he wants, compose his film and his life together, and then he gets all these little bits he’s had a chance to compose – the bits when I’ve come, the bits when he’s invited other people – and then he builds them together, interweaves them together into a collage of feelings. […] When I saw the first draft, I didn’t feel that I understood, or that we had reached a fullness of what I had been putting in. And then I saw the second collage that he’d re-edited. and I understood already how he was building it, and where it was going. And then I realised how he was taking these little elements and weaving them in. […] It wasn’t just about the hour we spent building up our rather strange relationship – very close, sexual, full of strength. […] It was not linear at all, but little elements of that: a flicker, the way I’ve looked at him, the way he’d received a gesture.”

Watch Stephen Dwoskin & Maggie Jennings on Vimeo

We can see the way in which Dwoskin performs his photomontages in his book Ha, Ha!: La Solution Imaginaire. Through a series of “spare parts”, we can see a “bricolage” in operation. Thus, there is an essential cleavage, which is visible in photomontages, and also in Dwoskin’s films, which becomes visible and defines the meaning of images.

Through this cleft, in collage, montage, or in photomontages, the artist creates another image of the body: a body that transcends mimesis. In doing so, we move from figure to figural, discovering an “unbound, rythmic” beauty that, following the French philosopher Lyotard in Discourse, Figure, defines the figural:

“What cannot be tamed is art as silence. The position of art is a refutation of the position of discourse. The position of art indicates a function of the figure, which is not signified – a function around and even in the figure. This position indicates that the symbol’s transcendence is the figure, that is, a spatial manifestation that linguistic space cannot incorporate without being shaken, an exteriority it cannot interiorize as signification. Art stands in alterity as plasticity and desire, a curved expanse against invariability and reason, diacritical space. Art covets the figure, and ‘beauty’ is figural, unbound, rhyth-mic.”

When Stephen Dwoskin inscribes the trace of his body in cinematographic and digital images, he’s opening this figural space that Lyotard tries to define in Discourse, Figure, exploring the aesthetic potential of the medium. The image of a fragmented body, the fluidification of skin and colour through the movement of the camera-body, or hypnotic slow motion in some sequences, the exploration of touching and haptic potentialities of the image, or the close-up of a face that becomes a hypnotic landscape – these are only some examples of Dwoskin’s constant search for an image that reflects his own desire, erotic, but also filmographic.

This happens when the camera is conceived as an organic extension of the filmmaker’s body that will establish in some films an intimate relationship with the person being filmed. In Dwoskin’s words, “I must make films into ‘my own story’. To conjure up the feeling of ‘my own story’, I had to not only make films, but to make films where I became the camera, therefore a participant, and where the con-nection to the ‘other’ became intimate and direct. This kind of film, my kind of film, as the words of Rilke or Baudelaire suggest, has to look so far to be able to see not only the beautiful, but the terrible and apparently repulsive things, because those things that exist and are in common with all other be-ings, have value.”

References:

Amarger, Michel and Frederique Devaux, Cinexpérimentaux #9: Stephen Dwoskin (Re:Voir DVD, 2012).

Dwoskin, Stephen. ‘Reflections: The Self, the World and Others, and How All These Things Melt Together in Film’, Rouge, 2004

Dwoskin, Stephen, Ha, Ha!: La Solution Imaginaire (Brooklyn: The Smith, 1993)

Farrell, James T. When Time Was Born (New York: The Smith, by arrangement with Horizon Press, 1966)

Lyotard, Jean-François, Discourse, Figure (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

Smith, John, Songs for Simpletons (London: Robson, 1984)

XXX

The Dwoskin Project is based at the University of Reading and supported by the AHRC. Visit its website: https://research.reading.ac.uk/stephen-dwoskin/

Cloe Masotta is a teacher, film and modern art critic, curator and art mediator. She holds a Ph.D in communications from Pompeu Fabra university, where she also obtained her degrees in the humanities and audio-visual communications, as well as her master’s degree in film studies and contemporary audio-visuals and her master’s degree in modern art theory and criticism in the context of the independent studies programme of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). She has recently published the books Cuerpos exquisitos. Identidades y deseo en el archivo Xcèntric (CCCB) and Tendremos que encontrar un lugar donde encontrarnos (La Caníbal edicions and Barcelona Producció 2020).

A pen drawing of a naked woman with her arms outstretched, drawn in a continuous abstracted line
One of Dwoskin’s illustrations from When Time Was Born

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