What is the current that presents a behaved waist, as told by Stephanie Jane Burt 

Interview, 30 May 2020

“What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.” 

– Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons

What is the current that presents a behaved waist is the second solo exhibition of Singaporean artist Stephanie Jane Burt. Basing the narrative on Hitchcock’s film noir psychological thriller Vertigo, the exhibition continues her interest and engagement with film and fiction – considering the key but often eclipsed character of Judy who becomes a shadow to the fictitious ideal of Madeleine.

Using various materials such as metal, wire, bibbon and lace, Burt choreographs how the unyielding costume of Madeleine that Judy wears can be made vulnerable, yielding to other possibilities of becoming. The exhibition speaks of the challenges posed to feminine and female expressions, imagining an alternative mode of navigation for Judy. 

In our previous conversation, you spoke briefly about referring to works that have come before – in particular academic journals, feminist scholars, and how they have enriched your way of thinking. What have you been looking at recently?

Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich

Curator Samantha Yap described your second solo exhibition, ‘What is the current that presents a behaved waist’ as one that considers “the very currents that prescribe images of ideal womanhood and how these scripts can be refracted and divested of power”. What forms of power were you looking at as you studied Vertigo and the ideals of womanhood while making these works?

Vertigo by Hitchcock depicts a woman whose reality was denied and overthrown in a desperate bid for her to attain love. The exhibition was an attempt to give a stronger perspective to Judy, an assertion for her presence in a film where she was overtly dominated.

The film portrays a man’s gaze of a woman through multiple characters, Madeleine, Scottie, Midge and Judy. Were you trying to subvert these gazes in your works, and how so?

We decided to focus on Judy’s character. She is the pivot on which these stories unfold. Her voice is eclipsed by Madeleine’s husband and eventually Scottie’s desire. Judy is lively, colorful, and possesses a bubbly personality. Madeleine is cold, withdrawn, and quite authoritative. She presents an almost blank slate in a grey suit for Scottie’s fantasy to unfold. He was unable to ‘rescue’ her nor gain her love, his obsession with Madeleine begins to spiral.  Meanwhile, Judy, caught up in a plot of presenting a false Madeleine, agrees to change her appearance, further erasing her own identity.

The exhibition is an attempt to provide an alternative narrative for Judy, in her need to be loved by Scottie she allows his gaze to remake her into a woman she is not. Enveloping the space in light purple which mirrors the color of the dress Judy wore while she made her choice was an exertion of Judy’s autonomy.

What motivated you to use Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons as reference point for your show, apart from Vertigo?

I’m interested in how seemingly redundant objects open up different perspectives. Tender Buttons is a book consisting of multiple poems written by Stein about mundane objects, yet her language in which she positions the objects seem obscure and unrelated to their being. This disconnection between object and description allows the reader to redefine commonplace items, where the ordinary now holds more multitudes for interpretation and expression.

Your works convey Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine and Judy’s desires to be loved, and seem to play on the projections of identity and fantasy presented in the film. Can you share more about the materials used in your central installation? What roles do the paintings play alongside one another and the installation itself?

I don’t see them as paintings but as sculptural objects. They exhibit similar qualities of the installation, protrusion, spilling, and retaining their extensions of one another.

The crinoline is the terminus a quo where Judy’s narrative builds from. Samantha’s research saw many accounts of women depicting their experiences with the crinoline as agonizing and restrictive. There are some, despite the constraints of the crinoline, felt a contrary emotion of freedom offered by the structures’ ability to bear the heavy layers of the dresses. The choice of dressing is fundamental within the film to depict how Judy loses her identity to Madeleine. It acts as a signifier for both Scottie’s fascination and Judy’s demise.

Past criticism against Hitchcock regarding sexual assault and abuse – have you been conflicted over working on the narratives created through the gaze and minds of supposedly problematic real-life characters?

I’m not exalting Hitchcock in this exhibition. It’s a feminist reinterpretation of the film. It’s an attempt to rescue Judy from Hitchcock’s gaze. A question Samantha posed was ‘what would you have liked for Judy?’. A preferred resolution would be to see her walk away, free. While the exhibition might be one that does not explicitly show her liberty but frames Judy as a contender (one that possesses an agency in her choices), we allow her a possibility of negotiating a pathway towards a prototype of freedom. In this performance against the constraint and reticence, we begin to observe a tension, both intrinsically and extrinsically, towards the patriarchy and its instruments.

Your previous solo, ‘O Dear What Can the Matter Be’, referenced The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which shares themes of repression, fragility and also deals with the subject of sanity. How would you compare the material language derived and presented between both shows?

O Dear What Can the Matter Be stages a retelling of the story The Yellow Wallpaper. Claustrophobia and mania are initiations from where the materials and construction are built upon. The color, wallpaper, cage-like interior in a bedroom setting is important in its narration.

‘What is the current that presents a behaved waist’ is an interjection onto a pre-existing narrative, not so much a retelling of the story, it’s an attempt to write another one. Materials selected within the crinoline reflected the characters of Madeleine and Judy.

One of the main tenets of my practice is my obsession with utilizing building materials in contrast with softer more feminine-alluding fabrics that mirrors (one of many possible dichotomies) between confinement, restriction, rules placed upon women and a prospect of (patriarchal) independence. It's important to note that an expression of unadulterated independence of femalehood has never and will never exist. However, the journey (labored with resistance towards pre-established norms) sees the birth of a tested femalehood who is ‘freer’ from our predecessors.

Stephanie J Burt is an artist whose practice spans from sculptural installations to fictional prose. She completed her studies at Glasgow School of Art, where she received her Bachelor of Arts (Hons) Painting and her Master of Fine Arts. Her work invites the viewer to explore dialogues between her installations and their settings through a fictional narrative at times referencing film and literature. Her research looks across feminism, gender, an analysis of girl culture and the nouveau roman. She recently completed a residency at ISCP New York in 2019 and has started a research project, A Stubborn Bloom, which explores representations of femininity within fashion, film and material culture.

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