Many of the pieces collected in ‘Poor Things’, the excellent new exhibition at the Fruitmarket, use humour, but perhaps none quite as pointedly as Rebecca Moss’s video installations, ‘Thick-Skinned’ and ‘Home Improvements’. Both works demonstrate Moss’s interest in slapstick as a way of examining ‘the gap between being a body and having a body: between gendered physical experience and its own meta-image’ (Hennefeld 150).
In ‘Thick-Skinned’, Moss walks across a nondescript English field, festooned in brightly coloured balloons. It’s a funny scenario but she doesn’t play it for laughs, and as she walks, her expression is not so much deadpan as concentrated, her natural stride widened to a slight waddle to accommodate the balloons duct-taped to her body. We hear the squeaking of the balloons rubbing together, which mingles with the sound of the wind; the primary colours of the balloons bright against the grey day. The video cuts to a shot of a barbed wire fence, followed by the muted squeaks of her approach. It’s a moment of pure, cartoonish slapstick, as we await the inevitable violence. Arriving at the fence, she hesitates, considering her options – then levers herself round and leans in, balloons popping as they hit the barbs, and fragments of rubber pinging off; one leg, then the other, as she drags her body through the small gap in the fence. It’s a relief when she’s all through and the shot is empty again save for a few forlorn balloons snagged on the wire, the only testament to the absurd drama that has just passed.
Most slapstick revolves around the mechanics of physical encounters with things, and that’s what we see here: the altered stride, the process of moving a body through a fence – these actions highlight the bodily intelligence we largely take for granted and which slapstick so often reveals – making ‘what is involved in normal functioning clearly manifest where it might otherwise remain invisible’ (Carroll). In thinking about slapstick, it is male clowns that dominate – Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd – and certainly, as Maggie Hennefeld explains, women have tended to have ‘a marginal position in physical comedy because audiences often feel uncomfortable laughing at comical images of violence against women’ (Q&A). Hennefeld, among others, has been central in recovering the lost history of slapstick comediennes, demonstrating how their work represents ‘vivid traces of the slippery and mutually constitutive relationship between female bodily identity and visually mediated subjectivity’ (150), and that dynamic is very much evident in Moss’s work, too. Neutrality, often so important to slapstick, is not available to women – with femininity figured as vulnerable, and either ethereal or sexual. The nature of that ‘visually mediated subjectivity’ means that the anxiety about physical risk an audience feels on encountering ‘the simultaneous hyper-vulnerability and physical invincibility of the slapstick clown’, is especially charged with a female performer (Hennefeld 147). The title of Moss’s piece, ‘Thick-Skinned’, seems to gesture to this sense of vulnerability, with the balloons acting as a perverse form of armour that embodies the simultaneity Hennefeld describes; hyper-vulnerable but also, in their jauntiness, invincible. Moreover, the balloons add a kind of drama to the encounter with the barbed wire, acting as a comic chorus to the event by popping wildly as Moss manoeuvres herself through the fence.
As one limb, then another is pulled through, we notice a disaggregating effect, with Moss’s body devolving into separate elements. In thus transforming herself into a thing, she counters the cultural objectification of women with a different kind of objectification, where the transformation to ‘the status of a mere object’ (as defined by the OED) is not coloured with judgement – it’s not demotion or degradation, but a more neutral levelling. The less ‘alive’ Moss becomes, the more alive the objects around her seem, the balloons, for example, protesting fiercely but ineffectually as they are dragged through the fence, with those few left on the wire the only survivors.
This transformation into objecthood isn’t solely a dynamic available to women performers – Buster Keaton was ‘perfectly in sync with object culture’, ‘treating himself as one more thing … observed by the camera’ (Robbins 211), but it’s more significant – more radical and more freeing – for a female performer. Neutral objecthood works against the self-fetishisation that Sandra Bartky diagnoses as the narcissism produced by ‘an infatuation with an interiorised body’ (40), a narcissism that evolves into reification, as women exploit their bodies for gain (see, for example, the sexualised self-presentation of many female social media influencers as a means to increase engagement).
‘Home Improvement’ also keys into presumptions about female self-presentation, and again, ‘neutral’ objectification offers a way of problematising expectations around femininity.The video shows Moss seating herself in a neglected back garden, surrounded by a rickety assemblage: two clothes hangers tied to buckets, and a pair of watering cans tied to a plank. She hooks a hanger into each cheek, and pushes down on a plank beneath her feet, which activates the watering cans, causing them to tilt and fill up the buckets, which in turn pull at the ropes attached to the hangers, thus pulling the hooks in her cheeks. As the water fills the buckets, the tension on the hangers grows and the ‘smile’ produced on her face grows more and more extreme, the tension in her body revealing the discomfort. It’s nerve-wracking for the audience, with our anxiety about the physical risk rapidly intensifying, until finally, in evident pain, Moss releases the plank and unhooks the hangers.
It’s a perverse, modern-day Heath Robinson assemblage – which Moss describes as a machine for smiling; ‘If I was ever too tired to smile’, she says, ‘I’d have a machine to do it for me.’ The machine produces an effect that is supposedly innate or involuntary, thus externalising it as constructed and artificial. Smiling is a key feature of female self-presentation – and a symbol of both the emotional responsiveness demanded of women and the requirement they recognise their roles as objects or ornaments and behave accordingly (neatly summed up by that notorious demand to ‘give us a smile, love’). As with her embrace of objectification, here Moss leans into the alienation which Sandra Bartky sees as so central to the female experience; ‘woman lives her body as seen by another’, she writes, ‘a mode of self-estrangement [that] lies close to the heart of the feminine condition itself’ (37). Paradoxically, in Moss’s hands, the processes of objectification and alienation become the means to counter and critique a visual regime that grows ever more toxic.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. Femininity and Domination, Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.
Carroll, Noel. Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor and Bodily Coping. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
‘Q&A with Maggie Hennefeld on Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes’ Columbia University Press blog, 5 June 2018, https://cupblog.org/2018/06/05/qa-with-maggie-hennefeld-on-specters-of-slapstick-and-silent-film-comediennes/
Hennefeld, Maggie. ‘Slapstick Comediennes in Silent Cinema, Women’s laughter and the feminist politics of gender in motion’ in The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender, eds. Kristin Lené Hole, Dijana Jelaa, E. Ann Kaplan, Patrice Petro. London and New York; Routledge, 2017, pp.141-154.
Moss, Rebecca, ‘Rebecca Moss: The Art of Mischief’, Somerset House, 2022, https://rebeccamoss.co.uk/Texts-and-Interviews
Robbins, David. Concrete Comedy: an Alternative History of Twentieth Century Comedy. Copenhagen: Pork Salad Press, 2011.