For the majority of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), the actress Monica Vitti, who plays an emotionally exiled woman named Giuliana, spends her days holding on. She holds on to her grey sweater, clutching its sleeves and asking the question “Who am I?” She holds on to her black scarf, which she uses to conceal half of her face as she walks alongside her future lover. She holds onto a sandwich, which she eats strangely, standing outside of an industrial plant in the film’s first minutes. Vitti wolfs down the sandwich with both hands like a woman starved; greedy for a feeling, any feeling. Later, she holds on to a paper map of the world. “I wonder if there’s some place in the world where people go to get better,” she says. Giuliana quickly waives away the thought: “Probably not.”
And on and on she goes, holding on: to her son Valerio, and soon after, a quail egg. She holds onto rare moments of stillness that telegraph like a form of sinking; lapsing towards a specific “elsewhere” (the dream of a pink beach in Sardinia it’s later revealed). She holds onto her hair – that auburn, tousled sweep of Vitti volume – further framing the sharp-puff of her glare. She holds on to it so intensely that Vitti forces two modes of being with a single gesture: safeguarding what remains (of herself) by way of seduction. In one scene, it appears as though Vitti’s Giuliana is holding on to the walls of her bedroom with gripping ennui, like her insides are experiencing an earthquake that nobody else can feel. Betterment is never near, nor is it suitable material according to Antonioni. Giuliana is barely riding it out, holding on even when her attention is stolen by the arrival of ships – a preoccupation so obviously attendant to her need to escape that the ships function as a version of her subconscious; as a presentiment of the growing gulf between Giuliana and everyone else.
Vitti’s Giuliana is not a woman on the verge, no. She’s already been there. She is looking up, estranged from the site of her fall. She is weary, desperate to be spun around. She is spinning, too, desperate to lay down. These ambiguities are enough to send her back to bed, yet even there, she appears troubled. “Sometimes I want to attack someone,” says Guiliana, resting her head on her pillow.
I mention Vitti’s beautifully elegiac, larger than life performance in relation to artist Sara Cwynar’s work because Cwynar’s project – with photography, film, self-portraiture, bookmaking, and to some extent, performance – often recasts the notion of the muse, capturing instead varieties of reluctance that train the viewers gaze onto something more simulated, congested, and visually footnoted. Cwynar’s approach to the model is presented like an interrogative clause instead of a sure thing. Her models are amalgamations. A confederacy of characters and coincidence, power and personhood; of allusions to place, the colours pink and pale blue; of historical figures often reworked with commercial innuendo as if to attitudinize a sculpture or make statuary the girl in a catalogue. The cornucopia of references (e-commerce imagery colliding with Nefertiti busts; interpretations of poise, like hands resting on hips or holding an apple Eve-like; surveys of kitsch held together with neon Post-it’s; various degrees of desire like luxury goods superimposed by more practical, even retrograde totems of a “woman’s things” like pantyhose) are abundant yet achieve something more cryptic and intangible. Cwynar’s models possess a logic of anonymity. Who is she? is the common refrain folded into each of her photomontages – a refrain shared by Vitti’s Giuliana, who too, offers up plenty only to disclose very little. Regardless of the the visual bounty (Vitti’s unforgettable green coat for instance, or Red Desert’s engineered shades of pastel, in bloom and sickly, both), Antonioni’s heroine and the Cwynar subject (sometimes herself, other times a model or a friend named Tracy) are unsolvable. That we will never really know Her is wondrous, melodramatic, and fun. Both artists author intrigue with plenitude, not as a measure of payoff, but as the potential – romantic, even eerie – for what we get wrong. The woman in front of the camera holds the same curious power of a woman who is just out of frame.
Cwynar’s study of beauty – like Vitti – is both easy and hard to look at. Pleasing, coordinated, splendid! But also disguised and withholding. A woman who is covering her face with one hand does not merely signify disengagement. There can be enormous vitality in looking away. There can be enormous vitality in how a woman might hold a sandwich (Vitti) or cross her legs at her knees (Cwynar’s model).
Cwynar’s models, whom she captures both in studio and with collage (bringing to mind the chaotic glory of cascading cards at the end of Microsoft’s 90s Solitaire), reject traditional notions of the muse in exchange for multiplicity, or in the case of this piece, with an unorthodox, seemingly offhand, super-sized pose. This non-pose is surprising, especially given the scale. While the image of a woman laying down belongs to a long figurative lineage in art, Cwynar’s model appears uninterested in being “arranged.” Her torpor tips into another territory: extreme relaxation, which is so enjoyable to encounter, particularly now. The studio setting furthers the image’s intimacy as if we are encountering a moment in between takes, before the model has made herself accessible. Much of Red Desert unfolds in kind, as though Giuliana has stumbled into the frame accidentally: in heels as she walks through the mud or wearing green in an otherwise grey world. These beta moments come into view confidentially, providing maximal intimacy for the viewer. Giuliana occupies the screen like a secret. Cwynar’s colossal lady in red occupies a wash of teal, also like a secret. Two women, out of time and in step with it. They are so real. Real like a hallucination. We ask ourselves, as the credits roll or as we turn a street corner, Did I imagine her?