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Seeing Double Eleanor Antin's Roman Allegories

Author(s): Thomas Zummer

Source: PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 28, No. 2 (May, 2006), pp. 80-88
Published by: MIT Press on behalf of Performing Arts Journal, Inc
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Eleanor Antin's Roman Allegories
Thomas Zummer
an exhibitionof photographsby EleanorAntin. Ronald
FeldmanFineArts, New YorkCity, February12-March 12, 2005.

is onlyallegory.
All the ephemeral

and allusionare

the most difficult of rhetorical
forms, a point not to be lost in
viewing EleanorAntin'srecentseriesof
large-scalephotographs.The title itself
is an allusion:RomanAllegories.Looking at these works, all of them created
in SouthernCalifornialandscapes,one
is instantlyawarethat somethingis going on, that the rich precisionof postures and places, both excessive and
overwrought,harbors something hidden, a secret,one which alludesto the
virtualitiesandlatenciesof photographic
representationby, first of all, naming
itself as allegorical. Roland Barthes
claimed that it is impossible to see a
photograph,since we characteristically
look at, and for, what it represents.
Photography,almost invisible, is subsumed by its referent-a face, a person,
or a place,but also a character,a type, a
pretense.In Antin'stableauxthere is a
remarkablestillnessto the images,as if
they embody,even proclaim,a "perfect
moment"of representation.In this re80

PAJ83 (2006), pp. 80-88.

specttheyaremonumentaland descriptive, preciousand ephemeral,traitsthey

share with both portraitureand pornography.At the same time they are
also excessive,anotherattributeof the
allegorical, not only in their ornamentality,but in their figuralrange as
well. But perhapstheir most surprising
effect is that they bringabout an unexpected reflectionon the photographic
Photography,tormentedby the ghostof
painting, bearsa secretin everyframe.
Is TheTriumphof Pana referenceto the
paintingof Signorelli,or Rubens,Snyder,
or Poussin?'Does it referto the legend
of Pan, who, as the issue of Hermes
(and a nymph), is a figurein need of
interpretation?Or does Antin referto
the doubledfiguralityof Baroquepainting and allegory(and so also to Benjamin or Deleuze)?An actor in a film
(or a photograph),for example,is allegoricalto the extent, that he or she is a
doubled being, one standing for, and

2006 Thomas Zummer

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before,another.There is a commensurability,at the level of identification,

between the traits of actors and the
charactersthey play; both biography
and pretense are mediated to such a
degree that they are almost indistinguishable,and the secrecyof the private
life of celebritybecomes highly commodified:what is [fill in name] really

eye once again takes up residence,within

the register of the image, as commensurate with a presumed originary subjectposition (e.g., the identification of the
eye that initially beheld the represented
event and that which now occupies the
position of a previous camera-operator
or portraitist). It is in this important
context, too, that Antin's photographic
project is allegorical.

Photography'sconceit, that there is a

the intercessionof the camera,one might
capture,2 arrest,or fix, is belied by a
phenomenologicaland technical flaw:
the camera,as WalterBenjaminnotes,3
does not see, and consequentlyits "second sight"apprehendsan event within
a purelytechnicalinterval,to which the
eye is at best an enablingand external
supplement.This is most clear in the
current generation of consumer-level
digitalcameras,wherethe instantaneity
of sight and touch enablean automatic
processwhich introducesa gap-a deferredinterval-betweenperceptionand
recording:push the button, and a few
moments later the images is "taken."
The perfect, unique, moment is no
longerimmediate,but mediate,and the
enablingeye operatesat best as a resolute approximation,and most often as a
familiarfiction.The presumptionof the
intending eye, whether factual or potential, is revealedas inessentialto the
technology, and, within this recognition, our own investmentin the visible
is renderedproblematic.However,it is

Allegory,from the Greek allos + agoreuein

("other"+ "speakopenly, in public community," i.e., in the marketplace or
agora) is a rhetorical term meaning "to
speak otherwise."Agoreueinhas the connotation of public, open, declarative
speech, a sense inverted by the prefix
allos, thus giving something like "other
than open, public, speech." Allegory is
often understood as an inversionwherein
there is couched something else, something different, than can be seen or
grasped in the literal sense. It is traditionally defined as an extended metaphor, when, for example, the events of a
narrative obviously and continuously
refer to another simultaneous structure
of events, ideas or phenomena. Thus,
allegory is performative in that it not
only states or presents something, but it
also accomplishes an extension of metaphors carrying over from one register of
sense to another.

in the very moment that the eye returns, reinscribing itself into the interval within which the photographic image is to be apprehended, that the
position of the spectator is naturalized
within the technical continuum. In its
passage from alterity to familiarity, the

Like metaphor, allegory is also destructive; it destroys the normal expectation

that one has of language, that words
"mean what they say." For words to
"mean what they say" while saying
"something else," implies a minimally
performative disposition within their
specific context. Allegory is interactive,
and requires both the (self) conscious
collaboration of an audience and a common ground or context. In their radical
ZUMMER / SeeingDouble N

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contingencyphotographyand allegory
sharecommon attributes:both have a
proleptic (cognitive, anticipatory)aspect and an analeptic(recognitive,culminating) aspect.4 In both cases the
proleptic (cognitive) is sensible only
within the analeptic(re-cognition),as
somethingalreadypast, or as occurring
or having occurredelsewhere,and the
recuperationof senseis re-mappedonto
the presentmaterialarmature.In Antin's
allegoricalworksthe tensionof heterogenouselementsstrainsand displacesthe
comfort of habitual reflexesand conventional interpretations.Her photographs present an aporia,an irresolution andapprehension,
in representation.
claim,one cannot
resolvethe tension of the visible to a
mere reference;here, the photographic
is not entirely invisible, but persists,
througha combination
of traces. In its mildest form, Antin
introducesan orderof a doubt or suspicion (that all is not as one might suspect) into the photographicscene, and
at its most vigorous, her works brilsomeof photography's
most intimatesecrets:thatphotographic
imagesare,in orderto be evidentiaryat
all, not fixed and secured from the
world, but permeable, suffused, and
bound up in the world.
At the Edgeof Night capturesthe dying
light of sunseton a scalethat cannotbe
approximatedby manual lighting or
digital simulation,even though we often take such special effects as real by
default.Instead,what focusesour attention on the globalaspect-landscapeis the intrusionof artificeof the most
localsort.Within the clamorof ephemera, Antin alludes to the hidden allenetworkin photographic,
and subsequent,media. Small details,

such as the fact that amidstthe pretense

of active life around a Roman bath,
thereis no indicationof realmotion, no
ripplesscarringthe surfaceof the water,
provideus with a renewedsense of the
uncanny. In early photographicprocesses,long exposuretimes produceda
blurringof the motion of water,a photographicerrorthat simultaneouslysecured both the evidentiarystatus and
of the image.Contemthe artifactuality
porary concern with the relation between evidence and artifice-think of
JeffWall,MatthewBarney,Vik Munizhas alwaysbeen latentin Antin'sphotographic (and cinematic)works. In Roman Allegories these interests are
foregroundedin order to addressand
reference, consequence, access, and
meaning.Much of the wit and whimsy
in these works residesin the play on
notions of scale and place-swapping
out one place for anotherin a kind of
spatialparonomasia.In Antin'scase the
swappingout of landscapes-Southern
Californiafor Mediterranean-playson
the long historyof Hollywood-typesubstitution. In a recent correspondence
(January2006), the artistwrites:
SouthernCaliforniais not unlike southern Italy.We shot a
number of the Allegories,and
almost all of Pompeii,at my
friend Marianne McDonald's
villa.She'sa classicistwho translates the Greekdramatistsand
adapts and transforms them
into a racymodernidiom. She
happens to have a very large,
uncultivatedestate which she
offersto us for ourwork.I have
still to figureout how to make
use of her 20 or so peacocks
who unfortunatelyhave always

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lost their splendor by the time

I shoot in the summer ... The
remaining images were shot at
Torrey Pines Beach at 7 AM,the
pool and the cavesof my friend's
house in the fallen rock zone in
the wild's of Jamul close to the
Mexican border, indoors in the
University of California-San
Diego Mandeville gallerywhich
was happily closed for the summer and so available to us.

an epiphany to be earned? Or do we
simply apprehend the presence of the
ineffable: an allegory "secret as to the
dignity of its origin" . . . "public as to
the range of its validity" (Benjamin)?
Perhaps the superfluous bones are
present precisely as an excess, a supplement (and a metonym) for the allegorical figure of mortality. So, the allegory is
doubled, coming back, as a citation, to
address the image from an unexpected

The Playersis a hilarious misregistration

of ancient and contemporary tropes
and topologies, a concatenation of
signs--contemporary copies of Roman
copies of Greek stone craft coupled
with Roman copies of contemporary
sport/leisure craft-strewn about a lush,
arboreal, tennis court. In Going Home
five of the six figures present walk out
into the gray sea, while the sixth, a
young girl, sits on a steamer trunk
accompanied by a doll and a crow. All
of the figures hold open umbrellas. It is
a moving and mysterious image, a rhetorical inversion, a witty play upon
dadaist tropes.5

There is a structural symmetry between

the notion of posing, and the order of
looking. It is not a simple relationship,
nor is it necessarily circumscribed as a
closed theoretical accomplishment, but
stands out in these works as a palpable
disturbance. In Antin's works we are
invited, even induced, to consider anew
the nature of the pose. To pose is to
cease, to pause or to rest, but it also
means to suppose or to assume, or set
forth (for the sake of an argument, for
example), or to place in a difficulty.
When it refers specifically to an artist's
model, the meaning of pose is to place
in, or assume, an attitude. There is also
the accompanying sense that such an
attitude is somehow inauthentic, or that
it masks or impedes authenticity, or, as
often as not, that it is a simulation. It
may be intentional or accidental, but
the photographic pose is always marked
a posteriori by its status as an artifact.
Reference is both arrested and set forth
in photographic representation. Antin's
doubled artifice underscores questions
of reference by introducing an economy
of possible secrets into the photographic
artifact. Photography is always, profoundly, allegorical, always outside, literally cut off, from its referent. It is with
the return of the referential field, its
doubling mobility and virtuality that

In The Gamblers,a young man in Roman dress sits opposite a skeleton loosely
wrapped in a linen cloth while the
empty gaze of the eyeless skull apparently rests on the shard of bone in his
hand; there are other bones, vertebrae,
strewn about the stone steps between
them. Whose bones are being wagered?
Or played? It would seem that such
fragmentswould be integral to the structural integrity and stability of both the
young man, and the skeletal figure. Are
they the bones of an absent other?
Whose? Are there proper names to be
assigned?Are there stories or lessons to
be derived?A riddle to be deciphered or


ZUMMER / SeeingDouble 0

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At the Edge of Night (2004). Photo: Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.


PAJ 83

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Above: 7he

of'Pan ('afterPoussin) (2004); Below: ihe Gamblers(2004).

Photos: Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

ZULMMER/ See'ig )Double

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the photographicis renderedallegorical. Is there some significance to a

certainfigure,such that we should recognize him or her,as an actorplayinga
figurefrom classicalmythology,or Baroque painting?Antin'smodels are interstitialfigures,in that they areneither
assigned to the registerof identitywho these people might be-nor to
that of identification-who they represent-but remain both linked and irresoluteas a visual artifact.'Is there a
hiddenmeaningto be discernedin that
relation?In pointedlynot stabilizingor
resolvingsuch matters,and in spite of
the massiveand evidentindex of labor,
Antin introducesjust enough unease
into the process of reading a photograph to cause the viewer to reflect
upon the conditions of apprehension
and consumptionof photographicimages in general.

tours of the psychoanalytic? Or is it a

concatenation, an admixture of myth
and fairytale,a play on the ungrounding
of common tropes? We may ask, in
another work, who the subject of Alice's
Dream might be. Shall we assume that
the child in the center of the composition bears that proper name? Or is it the
name of another Alice? Is this name
permeable to other references, inversions, or derivations? Or is the entire
mise-en-scene the fabrication (of a fabrication) of an absent dreamer?It is, in
every sense, impossible to tell.

There is an unruliness to allegory, an

impossibility to set to rest its references,
tempered only perhaps by unlikelihood,
or the index of labor invested in making
sense. Antin's allegories operate by revealing that such mimicry covers a kind
of "hole," or lacuna, a negative space
(mise-en-abyme) around which various
Is ComicPerformance
a performanceof
discourses, and even desires, are orgaa performance?
If so, whatis performed? nized and articulated. It is only via the
For whom?Without a paratextualclue claim of the absent (and therefore
to its interpretation(the title does not phantasmatic)source of the image in the
immediatelysuggesta specificallegory), stains of the photochemical trace, recuwe areleft to our own devicesto discern perated through the engaged presence
what might be at stake within this of a spectator, that the evidentiary stascene. A fragmentof an iron gate sug- tus of photography is grounded. Phogestsincarcerationor containment,and tography as an art of memory is a
the central figure, caught in a vulner- prosthesis to our own recall. Paradoxiable and somewhat inelegant pose, is
cally, it induces recognition in us of
mirroredby anotherfigure,in the lower things which we cannot remember,
left quadrantof the scene, whom we
which have preceded us, or taken place
must assume is "next."It is unclear elsewhere, which we know only through
whetherthe posed figuresare also pre- reflections, reproductions, and rumors,
tending--within their pose-to some or which we might suppose or imagine
distressor trepidation,or theyaremerely to have existed, and which we organize
as such, from outside.
playing a game within a game. WhoAre

We,WhereAre We Going?similarlyrecasts allegorical elements with minimal

clues to their resolution. Is there an
appropriation of the allegorical, recast
and remapped onto the hidden con86

Allegory is a perennial figure, and there

are many contemporary works that are
richly allegorical, works which accomplish the containment of representation,

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and delimitationof interpretation,by

circumscribingor framing their "secrets" in close, often authoritative,
proximities (while often unintentionally producing other figures, e.g., an
allegory of means, or of production,
temperedby an arrayof carefullycontrolled hermeneutic "keys"7).Antin's
works, on the other hand, brilliantly
and relentlesslyevokethe profoundunrulinessof allegory,and the uncontainability of secrets.

5. The referenceis to any variantof the

phrase of Isidore Ducasse, Comte de
Lautreaumont,so applauded by dadaists
and surrealists,concerning a "chanceen-


counterofan umbrellaand a sewing machine

on a dissectingtable."

1. In this case it is given away from

outside, by the title, in the parenthetical

6. In a recent correspondence(January
2006) EleanorAntin writes:

supplement "(after Poussin)."

2. The Germanterm aufnamen,used by

WalterBenjamin,means literallyto arrest,
apprehendor record;it has substantiveimalsoto thatwhichrecords.
The Germanword for "snapshot,"for example, is instantaufnamen.

3. WalterBenjamin,"The Work of Art

in the Age of MechanicalReproduction,"in
Illuminations,Section XII, edited by H.
Arendt and translatedby H. Zohn. New
York:Harcourt,Brace& World, 1968.
4. See Joan Ramon Resina,"The Concept of After-Imageand the ScopicApprehension of the City," in After-Imagesof the

City, edited by Joan Ramon Resina and

Dieter Ingenschay.Ithaca:Cornell University Press,2003. Resinadiscussesprolepsis/
analepsisin the followingmanner:
Betweenthe prolepsisof the impression-a "fore-sight"-andthe analepsis of recognition, seeing organizes,
and, in a sense, creates,perception.
Seeing, then, consists of the time
interveningbetween impressionand
fixation, or rather,of the event or
sum of eventsallowingus to focus on
a fragment of the visual field. But
since this activitybegins in the past

and fullyholdsthatpastto the present

of vision, it comprisesnot only the
memoryfunctionbut also a subliminal harmonizationof the different
moments in the visualtake. In other
words, seeing implies a certain tension within and resolution of the

Some of the actorshad been in The

Last Days of Pompeii. Many were

artist'smodelsherein San Diego, and

occasionalactorsand dancers.One of
my satyrs is a successful character
actor in films, usuallyplayingItalian
mobsters.He came down from L.A.
becausehe felt that being in my piece
brought him closer to his Roman
As you know,I inventeda wandering
band of playersout of a supposed
Pliny the Youngerquote, I don't rememberwhatthatwasprecisely,something like "That summer,there appeareda wanderingband of players,
who met with some successuntil they
disappearedwithouttrace,leavingbehind one of their number."They are
actors based loosely on Commedia
types who began back then in the
Romanworld.They aretropes,icons,
whose very presenceprojectallegory.
They are players,so they'reboth real
and not real, artists,outsiders,wanderersthroughan alien landscapeof
strangersand ruins.The strongman,
the trickster,the poet, the lover,Columbine, and the child. The strong
man,Nikolai,is my chiropractor,
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had had a featuredrole in my film

The Man Withouta World back in
1990. He played a strong man then
too, only he was a gypsy and not a
Roman. Likeall of us here in Southern California,he's a gym buff and
looks it. The tricksteris Van, a friend
also, besidesbeing my assistantPam's
boyfriend.He's a sculptoras well as
an artist'smodel. Charles,the lover
and gambler,is an actor from L.A.
whom I met at a friend'sparty and
signed on then and there. Eric, or
Ericaas he'sknown professionally,
poet, is a well known drag

queen who works drag shows for

straights in Vegas and San Diego.
is also the child'smother, is a belly
dancer and artist'smodel. She had
also been in severalof the Pompeii
photographs.I chose Nikki, the cool
beautifulchild as, forwant of a better
term,the watcher,becauseratherthan
projectwarmthor soul, she projected
7. MatthewBarneyis a good exampleon
all accounts.

THOMAS ZUMMERis a scholar,writer,and artist.He contributedto the

Imagein American
Art 1964-1977 (2001) and is currentlycompletinga book on the early
history of referencesystems entitled Intercessionary
He exhibitshis drawings,sculptural,and media works
worldwide.Recent exhibitionsinclude Museumvan HedendaagseKunst/
Antwerpen,MutterMuseum, PA, FrederiekeTaylorGallery,NY, and the
ClevelandInstituteof Art. Zummeris currentlySeniorLecturerin Critical
Studies at Tyler School of Art/TempleUniversityand RegularVisiting
Professorin the TransmediaProgramme/post-graduate
at the Hogeschool
Sint Lukas,Brussels/Associatie


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