AS Byatt on Portraiture in Contemporary Animation

The following transcript is taken from animate!’s three-part series of screening & discussion evenings in Spring 2006 at the National Portrait Gallery, London, entitled Tracing the Contours: Portraiture and Place in Contemporary Animation, investigating the unique way in which animation, the manipulated moving image, can amplify notions of portraiture.

The first evening Face to Place: Portraits in Public on 9 March screened the following animate! commissions:

Exposure by Peter Collis, Ferment by Tim Macmillan, Hypnomart by Joe Magee & Alistair Gentry, Jumping Joan by Petra Freeman, Soho Square by Mario Cavalli, Stressed by Karen Kelly and What She Wants by Ruth Lingford.

These were followed by a discussion between novelist AS Byatt and writer and Time Out film critic Gareth Evans.

GE: Antonia, I’m very glad that you could be here tonight, not least because it is perhaps the most recent incarnation of your ongoing relationship with the National Portrait Gallery - it has featured in your fiction but also you are featured in the Gallery in a number of ways, and I wonder if you could give us a sense of background to that and why you were interested in taking part in this event, in terms of the idea of portraiture?

ASB: It’s a very odd thing really, because I am hostile to the idea of portraiture. I began a novel with a quotation from a painter - it’s a real quotation from a painter I taught when he was a student at the Central School of Art, and he said that the words ‘national’ and ‘portrait’ were anathema to him. I am a person with an unusually deep fear of having my personality seized and represented by somebody else - it’s one of the horrors of my life. I hate photographs - you will not find photographs of me anywhere in my house; I have never taken a photograph that I’ve ever kept - I just feel extremely worried by it.

Ferment animate! commission © Tim Macmillan 1999

Nevertheless, somehow or other, possibly because of that, I’ve got dragged into this place. When they asked if I want to be painted for the gallery I said, ‘Yes, as long as it’s abstract’. So they picked Patrick Heron, who said to me ‘You do want an abstract painting?’ and I said ‘Yes yes, I don’t want it to look like me’. So I was very curious to come here this evening and see animated films that said they were portraits - I think the connection is in many cases tenuous, but it’s all part of the same thing. I was quite interested by the one that was clearly photographic, of the city.

GE: That’s Ferment.

ASB: Yes, Ferment. I came back to my old feeling that people’s faces are being stolen from them, which is a primitive feeling. I remember reading about people in Africa who felt that they had been hurt and disturbed or destroyed by having their image taken from them. One of the things that bothers me is the use of pictures of children by children’s societies doing television advertisements against paedophilia and damage. There was a period when they stopped using real children’s or actors’ faces and only used feet, which seems to me to be just about acceptable, but they’ve recently gone back to faces. I find that very disturbing; I find the use of people’s real faces very disturbing - which is why I’m interested. I mean, why am I so disturbed by this?

The other film that really moved me was the one (Hypnomart) that duplicated everybody so much that they became simply groups of themselves - designs on a surface and choreographed movements, which I would like to talk more about.

Hypnomart animate! commission © Joe Magee & Alistair Gentry 2001

GE: Perhaps we could take your first provocative response, the idea that these films might not be portraits at all; but if they are portraits, who are they portraits of? The intention of the season was led by the idea of looking at the relationship between portraiture and place. So if we look at the places shown in the seven films, there are four cityscapes, a suburban shopping mall environment, a coastal site and the archetypal locations of Jumping Joan - a kind of interior space. How do you think of these in terms of portraits, and who exactly might they be portraits of?

ASB: Well, it’s a cliché - which is usually therefore a truth - to say that all portraits are self-portraits and if you see seven films one after the other, you realise that the deepest element is the way the style of the film becomes a portrait of the film-maker. You come away with a very strong sense of one person’s aesthetic attitude, one person’s interpretation of the world. In the case of Jumping Joan what you have is a series of metaphors and in the case of What She Wants you get a beautiful Freudian reinterpretation of sex and shopping, of a very clever and brilliantly visually-constructed kind.

With Soho Square, you got the sense of the choreographed movements of all sorts of individuals, which have been added into the movement of a whole group in a place which was curiously intensified by the extraordinary colours, which always seemed quite the right colour, and yet kept changing. It’s interesting when you suddenly have an ordinary human emotion - when the large, smelly man came and began to talk to people on the park bench, I inside myself cringed.

Soho Square animate! commission © Mario Cavalli 1992

GE: We should perhaps say a little bit about its techniques: Soho Square was originally made as a video diary, a filming of incidents in Soho Square, but was then re-choreographed with a choreographer in the studio, and the graphic interventions were made at that point into the final finished film. So it’s actually many steps removed from the original reality that you expressed concern about, with the issue of children, for example.

ASB: I was thinking that when I saw it at home and noticed that it credits costume and makeup as well as crediting a choreographer, and I thought, ‘at what point did the costume and makeup become bright yellow and acid green, and where is it?’ And yet you can see that it is in there. It’s the layering of what human beings can do with their perceptions and the remaking of them that’s so exciting about that; the infinite plasticity of everything, and yet it has a very defined character.

GE: You also made some very interesting points about Hypnomart, with its idea of people becoming repeated into ciphers and therefore removed from their own original identity. With portraits like this, which are trying to engage with a public sense of space and identity in the public realm, on the spectrum of what is allowable, when does it become of concern to you? When can someone be incorporated into a work with success and acceptance, and when are they being transgressed?

ASB: I feel they’re being transgressed if you can see their individual face, with an expression of its individual emotion at a particular time, most particularly when it doesn’t know it’s being captured - and that is a good word. If somebody is posing and looks ridiculous, and the photographer encourages them to look even more ridiculous, even if they know they’re being photographed, this is also alarming.

Stressed animate! commission © Karen Kelly 1994

But curiously, when you get something like a large group of people all performing the same motion, I don’t think that’s at all intrusive; I think that gets hold of a human truth that I find very moving. I think, ‘yes, yes, that is the life we live’. At any moment one’s child might go under the bus, or one might lose hold of the pushchair because the child might go under the bus, and the large green woman in Stressed, who represents some terrifying force, rushes past you between the doors - that’s art. But every now and then in the restaurants in Ferment, you feel that somebody is using a real face to make a point about what they perceive about the world, and I feel, ‘you can’t have my face for that purpose if I can possibly stop you’, which of course I can’t, because now anybody can take your picture from almost any distance.

GE: We were talking a little before the screening about how one’s body, particularly in the city, becomes the defining label of one’s identity to the unknown public around oneself, and of course that has huge implications, particularly for the final film What She Wants, where the body is entirely sexualised, at least in its transport through the city. That particularly set you thinking about how we become our bodies.

ASB: I’ve been trying to write an essay about the history of the novel, and how the idea of the human being has become smaller and smaller. In the Christian times at the beginning of the novel, everybody had an immortal soul that they had to save; there were acts you had to perform and if not you went to hell. That went away and all you had was a heart, and you fell in love, and you either got the person you loved or you didn’t get the person you loved, and therefore you either had a happy ending or a tragedy. And then even that began to go away, and it became sex.

I’m not complaining about this, because I think this is just what happened - Freud partly started it by saying everything we did was sexual, but something I read not long ago had a really important effect on the way I think about imaging the world, something that Richard Sennett says in The Decline of Public Man. He says that somebody has done a study in Paris of how human beings think about their bodies, and he says we are now so identified with our own body as our own sexuality, that if I asked you, ‘Who are you?’ you would say ‘I’m a lesbian’ or ‘I’m a mother of three children and my stomach has sagged’; and what the French have discovered is that people no longer, when thinking, use metaphors about sexual activity. They simply use the words, because they are their body and their body is them, and there isn’t this distance of metaphor. They haven’t got an immortal soul which they are trying to save, which is a different part of their body.

What She Wants animate! commission © Ruth Lingford 1994

Jumping Joan is very Jungian and obviously all the creatures in that are metaphors for different aspects of the self. What She Wants, which is in many ways the strongest visually - every time I see them I change my mind - is in a sense crude, because we all know that the handbag is the vagina. We all know that, and we all know that sex and shopping are the same activity, and we all know that the Tube is a journey into the womb. This sends that up, and at the same time it represents to us that we’re stuck in that - that’s it, that’s what we’re stuck in. And the person in that film has no other existence, other than her body and wanting to buy things occasionally, which is deeply subordinated to the flopping-about penises, which are both threatening and exciting.

GE: There are implications then in what you’ve just said, for Jumping Joan obviously, which stands out in different ways as being a very different kind of space, a very different kind of portraiture in which a genuinely interior sense of identity is projected into the public by being made into a film that others can see. How do you think about that in relation to what you said has gone away in our sense of identity as human beings - can that still be caught un-ironically; can it still be portrayed directly?

ASB: Yes it can, and people do. I mean, it is in a sense more traditional; it’s been going on a very long time and I’m not a Jungian - I know more about Freud than Jung, but I think I recognise in that film various archetypes that Jung believes that the psyche, and the psyche in the world, consists of. There is your shadow, there is your anima, there is your journey to the underworld and the journey back, there is the tree of life which might be dead; and all these things exist in the drawings of Jung’s patients, looking very like aspects of that animated film in a way, although little Jumping Joan comes out of a nice English nursery rhyme: “Here am I / little Jumping Joan / when no-one’s with me / I’m all alone”, which is a sort of circular tautology. I liked it because of the ambiguity of whether Jumping Joan was absolutely desperate or perfectly contented. What did you think?

Jumping Joan animate! commission © Petra Freeman 1994

GE: It’s a Möbius strip in a sense; there’s the single journey of her life but at any point there are two surfaces and we’re not quite sure which one she’s on…

ASB: One final thing. It did strike me that insofar as this is portraiture, it’s portraiture of the rhythms of the body and of the rhythms of life, in a way that nothing else is. That’s what new about it. The rhythms of the music and the rhythms of everybody’s movements together in the films offer a way of seeing human activity that you don’t get in a novel or a poem or even in a proper dramatic film with actors. Once you’ve got actors there, it doesn’t do it. Each film has it’s own rhythm, which I really like.

One of England’s foremost writers, AS Byatt was educated at York and at Newnham College, Cambridge. She taught at the Central School of Art and Design and was Senior Lecturer in English and American Literature at University College, London, before returning to full-time writing in 1983. A distinguished critic as well as a novelist, she was appointed a CBE in 1990.

Her novel Possession won the Booker Prize and Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize in 1990. Her other fiction includes Babel Tower, Angels and Insects, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, and a multitude of short stories. Her writing merges realism and naturalism with fantasy, not as an escape but as an alternative to everyday life, creating a hybrid genre, a combination of experimental and realistic work.

Her critical works include Degrees of Freedom a study of the novels of Iris Murdoch, Passions of the Mind, and frequent newspaper essays on fine art and photography.

animate! thanks the National Portrait Gallery for supporting this film & discussion programme, a contribution to the Gallery’s 150th anniversary year.

The second evening in the three-part Tracing the Contours: Portraiture and Place in Contemporary Animation series entitled Route Masters: Portraits in Transition with writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair took place on 13 April, and the final evening Private Eyes: Portraits Inside with writer and critic Sukhdev Sandhu on 11 May.

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