« This room, housing the flesh, is home for the heart: point of return and point of departure; contains those objects which, the sight fallen or fixed upon, are thresholds for the quick heart’s eye. The real thing, caught in the hand, through which the heart takes flight … The breath caught in the early morning because the heart’s eye saw something which the hand could never hold… ». This is what Maya Deren wrote in her apartment at Morton Street in an article which remained unpublished until her biographers decided to resuscitate the above extract in The Legend of Maya Deren.
Half a century after the death of she who History remembers as “the Mother of the American Experimental Cinema”, another personal belonging of hers emerges from the same apartment. It’s her bathroom sink from the 40s that Barbara Hammer discovers by chance at Anthology Film Archives. This discovery will trigger Hammer to undertake her “Grand Tour” in quest of the old residencies of the artist in Los Angeles and at Greenwich Village. First, Hammer sought out to explore the material aspect of these places: the objects, the furniture, the walls. But her vision will eventually rise above the physical reality to grasp what the heart’s eye saw and which the hand could never hold …
The sink, perceived more as an artifact to be preserved than a home accessory, Hammer will immediately vision as a projection screen. She places it in a dark and undefined space and then she films it, at times alone in the darkness, at times illuminated by the exhumed images of Deren which are projected by a video projector. This series of projections echoes the performances that Hammer introduced starting back in the late 70s when she projected her films on a weather balloon hanging from the ceiling, attempting this way to «change the form of film». Here, the images of Deren projected on another curvilinear surface, that of the sink, become deformed and three-dimensional. Furthermore, Hammer will repeat these video-projections in situ in the old apartments of Deren and everything will become a potential screen of projection: the images of Deren’s face slip on the walls, dimple on the curtains, pleat on the angles between the floor and the walls. By blending into the bumpy ground of the objects, the images undergo an amamorphosis. They will once again animate these interiors as they did long ago, when Deren was showing her own films in her Morton Street apartment, a distribution network for experimental film in the postwar years in the United States being practically inexistent.
The apartments of Deren, we know them well. It was at North Kings Road that she filmed with her husband at the time, the filmmaker Alexander Hammid, their renowned Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a “home movie”, because it was filmed in their home, by themselves and produced independently by their own means. The apartment in Morton Street was later her home and studio; it was also the main set of the films A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945), The Private Life of a Cat (1945) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946). In her quest of background details in these interiors, Hammer will film them by projecting on them their own images coming from the films of Deren. This unexpected juncture of a former space projected back onto its present duplicate produces a strange disorientation.
But today everything seems different and nothing resembles the modernist analog images of Deren in black-and-white. The painting of Paul Klee, Fetische, once hanging in the living
room, is now replaced by all kind of objects and plants. The shelves once filled with shells, stones and primitive objects brought back from Haiti are now empty, the floral wallpaper is now painted over. The imagery of Hammer plunge us in an anachronism as if the past were always distorted and redefined by the present.
Despite the fact that the film joins an expanded practice of recycled images in the contemporary cinematic production, the use of found footage stays limited. It’s through Bekka Lindstrom, an actress who would physically resemble Maya Deren, that Hammer will create her own iconography inspired by and quoting the films of Deren to film the artist’s doppelganger in different angles. She films her in the apartments introducing new images which, superimposed on the images of Deren we know, blur the real and the non-real, the original and the replica. Furthermore, the quotation goes beyond the visual realm and affects the text when a voiceover repatriates multiple passages from the theoretical writings of Deren on film. However, her writings date from the 40s and 50s and her theories on poetic film as an art form fit in the technological context of the time. At the present, in the age of technological growth and the new media haze, Hammer diffuses the esthetical beliefs of Deren by combining them to a digital technology and opening them this way to new paths of reading. Thus, opposed to an overwhelming linearity that would institutionalize the past, Hammer reclaims the extension and contemporaneousness of ideas forever into the present.
Her intention to examine the ways history is written is manifested in her interview with Elisabeth Lebovici for Mousse Magazine, when she says that with Maya Deren’s Sink she reached into the archives of the everyday to study how Deren used to keep her diaries, what kind of space she lived in and, by extension, how the everyday life of an artist unfolds and finally how we conceive and build up a posteriori an archive (the ways of living, the objects we preserve, those that we leave out, etc.). The undertaking of Barbara Hammer as an artist and activist in the field of history writing and the erased history of the oppressed in particular is multiple and is evident in her films, such as Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fictions (1995), Resisting Paradise (2003), Lover/Other (2006). Maya Deren’s Sink clings to the unseen – the anthropology of domestic life, the routine, the intimate everyday rituals – intending to explore how all the above could secretly be articulated in the practice of an artist and his forming of an esthetics. The example of the diaries is very illustrative and it is through the film that we learn that Deren used to keep three diaries simultaneously. Indeed, the simultaneity by which she used to keep a record of her thoughts follows her conception of cinema as a powerful instrument which is capable to make perceptible, even visible, the simultaneity of a body in space, conforming to the theories of Einstein. A while later, her film At Land (1944) was born.
Hammer’s film illustrates a way to use this same power of the filmic instrument to show on the image that was never documented because it was considered secondary, shallow, an accessory even, for the collective memory. Curiously enough, with regard to the life of Maya Deren, few facts seem to have slipped out of the history notebook and from her legendary biography in particular, the title of which grandiosely announces as: The Legend of Maya Deren, A documentary Biography and Collected Writings. This chronicle was a lengthy project which first two volumes appeared in the 80s and counted 1200 pages, while there is still an important amount to follow. Facing the hierarchical dilemma inherent to the act of archiving, Deren’s biographers seem to have chosen to exclude almost nothing by retracing the life of the artist in its smallest details. At the same time, in the 70s and when this edition was being prepared, Barbara Hammer was herself playing the archeologist. As she confesses in her own biography Hammer! Making Movies out of Sex and Life (2010), it was then, interested in the neglected history of women artists, that she exhumed at Boston University Library the tapes of many of Deren’s lectures which she presented to her students at Binghamton.
Today, the intention of this biography and that Hammer’s «essay documentary» complement each other. On the one hand, Deren’s biographers explain their choice of title as follows: the word documentary is used to emphasize their commitment to the original materials and biography to honor the life. On the other hand, Hammer herself has many times challenged the frontiers of the documentary form in film and was also a passionate reader of artists’ biographies without ignoring their fictional aspect. With Maya Deren’s Sink, she goes a step further and dives into the bathroom sink, to confirm and reaffirm the term Legend, in other words, the story of a person converted into myth and whose life was distorted and amplified by popular imagination. Accordingly, the images of Deren are deformed when projected on the curvilinear surface of her once upon a time sink, just as her memory, like a never-ending worksite, is deformed and refracted through the great amount of documents available to readers and researchers who write and rewrite her history like a palimpsest. Maya Deren’s Sink follows the same registry and its flux of images – soft or sharp, inversed, saturated, superimposed, sometimes psychedelic, out of a thick patina – allures us to a sensation of a ghostly Deren, more liquid than solid, that metamorphoses herself in the flow of the Ηeraclitean dictum: « Into the same river no man can step twice ».
Furthermore, the Legend also meets its original oral tradition since, in her film, Barbara Hammer makes the walls speak. In the frames found hanging in the apartments, the artist incrusts the speaking portraits of several witnesses she interviewed, such as Carolee Schneemann, Catrina Neiman, Judith Malina, Jerry Tallmer, etc. This way, a collective voice will rise and will write the history, not by her unanimity but through its rich polyphony. Through this montage, the narrators transcend their individuality to become part of a collectivity tied together by the anecdotes on the life of Deren. The history Hammer offers us is written in plural and is sculpted sometimes by harmony, sometimes by divergence.
At the end, when the closing credits appear, all the moments of doubt and hesitation flow: «The rumor that I’ve heard…, I don’t know the story…, I don’t remember where I’ve heard it…, I don’t know who told me or how I know it …, etc.» It’s by suspending this doubt at the end of her film that Hammer reverses the hegemony of the «veracious»: and what if everything we’ve heard and witnessed wasn’t but the flit of an unverifiable rumor?
Sink! we hear voices repeat throughout the film in the sight of the bathroom sink. Sink! also repeats Hammer and, without a doubt, she hints:
Sink! in the abyss like an Atlantis.
The author gratefully acknowledges Barbara Hammer to have been generous enough to send her the film to pursue her research. She also thanks Nicole Brenez for her support and encouragement throughout her work, as well as Vaso Nikolopoulou, Marianna Kaplatzi and Lucie Wright for their expert advice regarding translation.
Eleni Tranouli is a student in Master 2 in film studies at the University of Paris III. A graduate of the School of Architecture at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, she also attended several courses (painting, photography and theater). She has participated in numerous exhibitions in Greece and worked especially with the experimental group “Living Theater”. She is currently pursuing research under the direction of Nicole Brenez, on the theoretical writings of Maya Deren, which she is translating into French in the meantime.
The Risky Visions of Barbara Hammer
Barbara Hammer : the selection of the Jeu de Paume Bookshop
Barbara Hammer : official website