The devil in the back seat. Woodman, Wang and photography

Eloy Fernández Porta
May 25, 2022
mounir fatmi, "Calligraphy of Fire", 2015.
mounir fatmi, "Calligraphy of Fire", 2015.

Esmé Weijun Wang tells us that she is the author of about a hundred photos. The meagre number surprises and moves us in an age of compulsive overproduction and exchange. Most of them are self-portraits, images of shadows, long winters. Landscapes. She has taken some of them using a Polaroid SX-70; others, with a Contax T2. She has never exhibited them; we only know of them from the description she gives towards the end of Todas las esquizofrenias (Sexto Piso, Graywolf Press Prize) (The Collected Schizophrenias), his autobiographical account of this ailment, to which have been added, in different and often contradictory diagnoses, bipolar disorder and chronic Lyme disease –one of the diseases that remain outside Obamacare and which drive most patients into debt, if not ruin.

"C. had to explain to me the concept of television." Among the symptoms of her illness, Wang, who trained at Yale and has excelled in fields of activity as diverse as psychology, fashion and, of course, writing, mentions episodes of blocking in which an overwhelming suspension of evidence takes place. Suddenly, the real has escaped; nothing can now be taken for granted. It is highly significant that, in order to explain this sudden lack, this resignation of memory, in two chapters she draws on her experience with two modalities of the second-degree image: cinema and photography itself.
It could be said that in the distribution of the sensible to which Rancière refers, the American author has been assigned an extreme combination of acute sensitivity –due to the frequent episodes that she narrates with resigned intensity– and occasional disorientation. A void that she tries to fill with the help of her analog cameras, as if the smartphone were not capable of producing sufficiently convincing or conclusive visions. As a viewer, Wang is forced to be cautious, because she is aware that exposure to a fabulous story, such as those in fantasy or horror films, may cause her to get confused between fiction and reality. Furthermore, the cathartic feeling that some fans find in violent or gory sequences cannot affect someone who, in her worst moments, is convinced that she is already dead –and is amazed that those who pass by her are not aware of it.

This regime of perception affects, in turn, her work as an amateur creator. She draws on two main points of reference. The first is Susan Sontag's theory of photography, from which she takes the notions of the revealing or unrevealing image characteristic of the memento mori and, above all, that of vulnerability: the snapshot exposes, shows a psychic or physical lack. Every image is the stolen pose of the unconscious. The second is the brief but highly influential work of Francesca Woodman. Wang visited with relish the retrospective devoted to her by the MoMA in San Francisco in 2012, studied her letters, engaged in an imaginary dialogue with this artist who prematurely passed away by her own hand and drew inspiration from her figurations of loneliness, abandonment, architectural and sentimental ruin. The ghost.

Wang's creations, which for the reader exist only in ekphrastic description, are located in a peculiar liminal space between modern and postmodern conceptions of photography. On the one hand, she defines her practice as "a tool that my sick self uses to believe that it exists." In this sense, it can be said that it is incorporated into the aesthetics of the decisive instant and the mimetic representation of the real. However, when she looks at other images she sees "everything but expression. Instead, there is an imitation, or illustration, of what I think should be an emotion." This other idea is positioned on the side of the conceptions that understand the photographic record as trace, remainder, simulation or even theatricality. It is in the shadow, which she feels she has lost, where she finds the confirmation of the real. This aesthetics of the spectre is related to a theme that in clinical autobiographies usually appears in an inconspicuous, if not obliterated, way: the carer, C., her husband, the one who, from time to time, must explain to her who they are and what they are doing together in that room at that particular moment. In numerous such stories, starting with the classic reference on depression, William Styron's That Visible Darkness, the reader can see that it can be obscener for the person reporting their condition to describe themselves as inadequate and in need of constant attention than to display a list of acute symptoms and sour feelings.
It is understandable that Wang does not adhere to a programmatic approach to photography and that she distrusts pure theories: she was expelled from Yale for being neurodivergent, and the successive doctors she visits offer her dissimilar explanations for her disorder. The images she produces are not imagined as yet another example of Woodman's imitative scholasticism, the kind that is all the rage on Instagram as doomer visual rhetoric; nor can they be stored in the drawer of the purely therapeutic uses of the arts, and she doesn't claim for herself the already institutionalised tradition of art brut. At least in one aspect her tentative approach to the genre is consistent with the cognitive alternations that characterise all spectators in the contemporary era: on the one hand, an inevitable mistrust of the veracity of representations; on the other hand, a very 20th-century need to continue believing in the certainty of the image –and to recover in it a presence of the real that the very habit of visual consumption has taken away from us.
This perceptual intermittency, that of being a photoreporter and post-photographer at the same time, corresponds, in effect, to the experience of the pathology she describes, expressed, in the best possible way, in the testimony of another patient: "I know that the devil is not in the back seat. But the devil is in the back seat." According to this logic in which the analysis and questioning of mental health is related to modes of visual consumption, it is no longer a matter, like the bygone days of anti-psychiatry, of exalting the schizophrenic subject as the hero of capitalism and lay genius by default, but of recognising in neurodiversities ways of seeing, using and suffering representations that neurotypical gazes are not always able to assume or to recognise as their own. Because sometimes, from time to time, consciousness is blurred and we need someone –companion, caregiver, supposedly-knowing subject– to explain to us again what a camera is, and, above all, to accompany us with that explanation that dispels these ghosts, which brings here these other ones.