Staging Desire

Bernhard Jarosch

“I shall begin describing, writing about bodybuilding in the only way that I can: I shall begin by analyzing the rejection of ordinary or verbal language”, says the American author and bodybuilder Kathy Acker in her essay “Against ordinary language” [1] (1992). What she calls rejection, is the body’s answer to a language intent on penetrating it without loss. In her most recent work, Laure Cottin Stefanelli transfers this mode of rejection into the medium of film, as if stating: No matter how close I get to the body with the camera, I will never get it all. In “Double You Double You” (2019), it is the skin of bodybuilder Jennifer Teuwen that sets the limitations of film as a medium. In the first scenes of this 17-minute video, the camera scans the bodybuilder from her toes upwards, following the hands of an assistant who greases her with smacking fingers. The close-up creates not only a highly sensual picture, but also the illusion that one can see how the oil dissolves under the skin. The result is a scenario that captures what the film longs for: to become a body itself.

With this film, Cottin Stefanelli makes us realize that this wish fails, too. Indeed, the film is suffused with the understanding that desire lives on the impossibility of dissolving into the other. There is a space in between the camera and the body, a minimum of distance, that is never overcome. And without it, there would not be the feeling of being close to somebody. One might say that Cottin Stefanelli constructs her film around these pulsating empty spaces, or better still: that the film actually generates them. Thus, in the course of the three phases of the film (changing room, corridor, stage), the viewer becomes aware that he is following a reenactment and not, as he first suspected, a live recording of a public bodybuilding competition. Desire, as the artist shows us, is a precise staging of distances, and intimacies : in other words, it is a result of disciplined spatial construction.

The artist’s interest in spatial conditions is not only found within her films, but also in the way they are shown, both “Double You Double You” and “Timothy” (2015) were made to be screened in exhibitions. In both cases, one’s own movement through the space of their showing reinforces the impression that the bodies shown are exposed to us as objects. Their naked skin are like samples that can be viewed from different perspectives. While Timothy’s chest pumps violently (Timothy is a swimmer who pulls himself up onto the edge of the pool and then rests there for 9 minutes), the picture, filmed as a sequence shot, remains in a stable state, which seems strange, even obscene. This fixed gaze also triggers the unpleasant feeling that we are staring at someone who, framed by the camera and directed by the filmmaker, has no freedom of movement of his own. Just as Douglas Crimp wrote about Warhol that his scenes with Mario Montez [2] were of an “extraordinary cruelty met with disbelief on the part of the performers”, so Cottin Stefanelli consciously inhabits the limits of the exposure of a carnal (that is, fragile) body. The questioning gaze of the swimmer repeatedly meeting the camera is exemplary of the insecurity of the protagonists that Cottin Stefanelli provokes in these works. The artist counters ethical doubts about such a procedure with the effect she creates through direct confrontation: she lets us feel how the gaze burns on the bodies, and how the bodies thirst to be seen. Something strange happens within the rigorous frames she constructs: suddenly, you find yourself looking through the perfect surfaces of these bodies, into the persons they are. And then you feel melancholy; why does everything always have to be so hard?

Her two medium-length films, “No Blood In My Body” (2011) and “A Passion” (2016), are comparatively permeable. Here the camera is not a mirror but a soft surface in which the portrayed persons inscribe themselves. The intoxication of the heroin-addicted couple in “No Blood In My Body” continues to show in the image, which appears spongy, blurred, foggy. And the images of “A Passion” bear the same aesthetic qualities. Here, it is the family life of Aleksandra, a young woman who lives with her husband and their child in a Paris suburb, that sets the pace for the film. In the small rooms of the house, the camera rarely finds a good position between the three of them, so it often has to be moved, shifted and readjusted. The husband, who pushes himself into the picture again and again, doesn’t only disturb the flow of these images, but the flow of Aleksandra as well. In front of Cottin Stefanelli and her camera, she speaks openly of her desire for an affair, and this declaration becomes the link between the two women. The resulting complicity between director and protagonist not only drives a wedge between Aleksandra and her husband, but also goes beyond any common definition of documentary and/or fiction film. Even if the planned escape to Paris at night fails due for lack of a car, Aleksandra’s passion nevertheless finds its form: it is the form of the film itself, its restlessness, its desire to leave behind familiar structures and find new ways.

[1] Kathy Acker, Against Ordinary Language, in Kroker, Kroker (Ed.): Feminism and Outlaw Bodies (1993).
[2] Douglas Crimp, Mario Montez, For Shame, in: Diederichsen, Frisinghelli, Gurk, Haase, Rebentisch, Saar, Sondergger (Ed.): Golden Years – Positionen und Materialien zur queeren Subkultur 1959-1974, 2006.

Bernhard Jarosch is an art critic and essayist living in Berlin, Germany. His work crosses aesthetic theories, body politics, media studies, and German pop literature, and is in particular based on observations of everyday life. He recently published an article about the fitness studio and its impact on contemporary identity construction. His texts appear in the Feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and in art magazines such as EIKON, Die Epilog, and Am Strand, among other places. In addition to his journalistic work on contemporary art and literature, he also works as an actor and screenwriter.