[Catalogue essay for Nina Siska's They're Together Again at No No Gallery, written in collaboration with Roger Nelson]
RN: When Nina Siska first sent me some digital images from the They’re Together Again series, she attached an artist’s statement about the work. It described the series as a celebration of ‘the relationship between lovers, where individuals come to each other’s position for private knowledge, private experience.’ She reckoned that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were ideal subjects for this study, explaining that ‘their relationship was both public (as a Hollywood couple in the spotlight, starring in four movies together) and private (they married after falling in love on the set of their first movie together, To Have and Have Not).’ Nina likened this contradiction in a romantic relationship to that of a rainbow: sure, they are public – they are writ large in the sky – but as well as this, Nina wrote, ‘a rainbow is essentially a privileged experience: any other viewer needs to be in our viewing position under certain conditions of sunlight and rain.’
RHC: When I first saw this series, I thought Nina was commenting on the ways that meaning shifts in the digital age. Bogie and Bacall’s image belongs to a bygone era – a time when we imagine that the great Hollywood star and the greater Hollywood romance were still possible. They’re Together Again appears like an attempt to forcibly wrench these images into the present, awkwardly contemporising the couple by plastering their faces with the lurid technicolour of the rainbow. When Nina transports them across time and formats, however, their image becomes distorted in the process. Despite the crispness of digital film, their celestial image is ever so slightly stretched, their glossy skin marred by the television lines of analogue. But the longer I look at these photos, I don’t feel like Nina wants to alter their meanings at all. In the digital age, even Bogie and Bacall are but an ephemera, as subject to the manipulations of meme culture as is the “double rainbow” at the hands of an overzealous camper in Yosemite National Park. But I think Nina wants to freeze Bogie and Bacall beneath her lens. I think Nina is holding onto the myth of the Great Hollywood Romance. Do you believe in romance Roger?
RN: Of course I believe in romance! But yes, it’s harder to maintain a dewy-eyed faith in true love when the rom-com has replaced the romance film. Actually, I question how romantic the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood romance really was. At least one of the images in this series is a still from a scene in which Bogie is too busy barking at and lording over Bacall to even kiss her. And with their garish-coloured faces, there is something eerie about these pictures – green-faced folk aren’t exactly crush-worthy. I think something has changed in the meanings here, whether you think Nina wanted it to or not. Even the colour looks, as you say, lurid – and yet it is drawn from that most natural of palettes, the rainbow. The lines from the television make me feel nostalgic for my childhood innocence (I remember secretly photographing stuff on the screen with a disposable camera), but they also remind me of surveillance, of stolen likenesses: they’re at once nostalgic and vaguely sinister. In indiscriminately juxtaposing shots from four movies, the series seems to me to cunningly rob the individual moments of their contextual specificity. If there was romance between Bogie and Bacall in these scenes, surely it was dependent on the ham-fisted plot, the swell of the cheesy orchestra, the mumbled and breathed dialogue: and of course all this is missing from the works here. I see not so much romance here as absence – and it induces both a sighing wistfulness and menacing worry.
RHC: Absence, definitely, and that’s what I find so intriguing about them. Bogie and Bacall’s onscreen relationship, at least in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, was based on antagonism rather than adoration. Those larger-than-life screen kisses that Nina has zoomed in on represent all of a minute of screen time. The remainder of each film is filled with hard-drinking and chain- smoking, double crossings and deceits, weathered men and dangerous broads. It’s interesting that they induce that feeling of innocence in you. For me, it’s like they’re trying to capture an innocence that was never really there. And this again comes back to that idea of absence – they’re nostalgic for something that never really existed. They divest Bogie and Bacall’s relationship not only of its onscreen meanings, but the wealth of offscreen information which invariably influences the way we watch these films. To Have and Have Not took Betty Perske, daughter of Jewish immigrants and burgeoning fashion model, and transformed her into screen siren Lauren Bacall. It took a 19 year old girl and placed her in the arms of a 44 year old married man. Their romance doesn’t seem so, well, romantic, when you hear about Bogie’s deserted wife. She collapsed into alcoholism and depression after Bogie left her for Bacall. She died alone in a hotel room a few years later, her body undiscovered for several days. And yet all the sleaze is obliterated beneath the spectral colours of the rainbow. At the risk of getting into postmodern territory, is this kind of nostalgia, as Frederic Jameson might claim, representative of our own waning historicity? We can’t access the ‘real’ anymore (hell, the real never even existed), but we’re content to just revel in its surfaces?
RN: Wow, that’s quite a story! Poor Betty/Lauren… and Bogie’s wife, whatever her name was! Thanks for sharing that: I think it really adds to the richness of Nina’s series to know something of this historical context. To me, these works are romantic and tragic, innocent and sinister. The ‘sleaze’ as you call it – the violence and the tragedy and the artifice – isn’t really obliterated under those big bold colours, in the same way that the nerviness and insecurity of poor young Betty Perske isn’t ever entirely obscured by Bacall’s mask of makeup and manufactured mystique. Yes, this is nostalgia for nostalgia for nostalgia: digital photographs of an analogue television (the very one that is running in the gallery space) showing a movie recorded on pre-TV film which was set during an already vanished past and based on an already successful novel. Yep, there’s a lot of fodder for postmodern simulacra theory there! But I don’t really buy it. I don’t know that we can really be satisfied to simply revel in these surfaces: I think they are too complex and disturbing for that, and also that there is too much to be gained from bringing extraneous narratives (like your biographical sketch) into the relationship. Personally, I’m going to ignore Jameson and quote instead from Hal Foster, who writes in his cleverly titled The Return of the Real that ‘Most accounts of postwar art based in photography divide somewhere along this line: the image as referential or as simulacral. This reductive either/or constrains such readings of this art.’ (p.128) Surely if we can see in these pictures the relationship between Bogie and Bacall both onscreen and offscreen, we can also allow a chorus of other meanings and associations to creep in beneath the surface?
RHC: Totally, and this is a glaring absence in Jameson’s nihilistic view of postmodernity. It’s almost impossible for images such as these to remain pure surface when you consider the wealth of cultural meanings that we, as spectators, bring to them; meanings that are always hovering just beyond the edges of the frame. Sure, there is a danger of slipping into the realms of total relativity, but it’s impossible to look at a photo of Bogie and Bacall and not bring to it the cultural associations of your own viewing position (which is in some ways what Nina is getting at with the rainbow metaphor). Richard Dyer’s star theory is a really neat way of thinking about this. He talks about the way a star’s image is never static but always shifting – that the way we watch a star on screen is informed by every character that they’ve played, every gossip rag that we read, every rumour that we hear, as well as the personal significances with which we ascribe them. But Dyer also talks about the way that stars’ relationship with dominant ideology is often highly contradictory – that they simultaneously express crises within the social order but then attempt to resolve such crises. I think you can see that in these films. Bogie epitomises a kind of haggard, anachronistic masculinity. Yet no matter how much new world sass Bacall brings to the party, she always eventually concedes to Bogie’s paternalism. In real life, he called her “Baby”. Vomit. Today, it’s nearly impossible to watch their films without considering the gendered imbalances of power that were inherent in their relationship. I don’t know. Maybe I just can’t shake my own Bogie/Bacall myth. By the way, Bogie’s wife’s name was Mayo. I concede that her being named after a condiment may have contributed in some way to him deserting her.
RN: Hah! The fact that a person could be called Mayo (or indeed that a movie star could be called Humphrey) is surely proof of just how very different things were back in the olden days. Right? Or maybe not. I mean, we all know that symbolic (and actual) violence within relationships continues – did someone say Chris Brown? But let’s not end on this grim note. Because as much as I find these pictures almost monstrous, and definitely creepy, something about them is optimistic, hopeful, beautiful, even. It seems as though Nina draws strength and inspiration from the specificity of every individual’s own cultural baggage, or viewing position. After all, anyone can watch a Hollywood movie, and anyone can gaze at a rainbow. For our experience to feel like it is wholly our own it needs to inhere in our relationship to these artefacts of light. As viewers we are agents, we are writing new meanings on these faces which remain forever young.
RHC: They are definitely optimistic, but I think that’s why they make me so sad. Because the great romance never existed, and it never will exist. Because beneath their optimism lies a melancholy sense of fait accompli. These images hold such hope, and yet we all know how the story ends. Apparently Howard Hawks said of Bacall, ‘Bogie fell in love with the character she played, so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.’ Maybe something similar happens when we fall in love with Nina’s images? The meanings that we each attach to Bogie and Bacall become frozen in time beneath the bright lights of Hollywood, together forever.
Nina Siska’s They’re Together Again will be showing at No No Gallery from October 27 – November 19. For more information, visit nonogallery.org.
Download a copy of the catalogue here.