Published in Photomonitor 14 October 2013.
Michelle Deignan, ‘Her Fanciful Digression’, 2012, single channel HD video, 10 mins 40 secs, Edition of 5, Still Image, Courtesy the artist and Maria Stenfors.
Deignan’s film asks us to reflect on the relationship between women and history, and on the ways in which historical narratives are constructed and presented. Her film blurs the conditions of visibility and invisibility so pervasive in the histories of women.
A landscape staged as a single, long shot is dense with leafy trees and edged by an untamed lawn of grass and wildflowers. The narrator, a woman, introduces Anna who she tells us, ‘did not have a home of her own’ but ‘opted to move regularly between London, Dublin, Caen and Paris’. The film cuts to a close-up of trees, again filmed as a single shot, one of the trees, the focal point, has shed all its leaves. In this subtle suggestion of a shift in season, there is the sensation of displacement. The narrator (who speaks in French-accented English) continues her introduction; her delivery is seamless, without interruption, deadpan. Anna appears as a peripatetic character, staying with friends and family as she travels from one city to the next. The seamlessness of the narration is a counterpoint to the sequences of landscapes that move non-linearly across time. The scene of barren tree is presented from another angle and another perspective (this time, a wide-angle shot) and simultaneously we are told that Anna ‘kept company with politicians, philosophers, painters and poets’.
Michelle Deignan’s film is a dialogue with a woman, whose life unfolded in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The woman is Anna Doyle Wheeler, born in Ireland in 1785; she died there in 1848. She is an important figure in the history of feminism and nineteenth century intellectual life. Wheeler’s travelling brought her into contact with a number of artists, writers, politicians, and social campaigners, including other women with similar political ideals and principals, Frances Wright among them. The narrator tells us, wryly, that when Wheeler was in London to give her first public lecture titled ‘Rights of Women’, her friend Jeremy Bentham ‘had instructed his secretary to invite journalists and dignitaries to the event despite not making arrangements to attend himself’.
Visually, Deignan’s film brings slowness and contemplation into the frame. It mediates how it is we enter into a relationship with nature as it is imagined in the visual field. In turn the landscapes we view are themselves constructed, even as they, in the eighteenth century English landscape tradition developed by proponents such as Capability Brown, might perform the illusion of land that is natural and unmarked by human hands and fashions. The film, via the narration, imagines an encounter between Wheeler and John Constable, they walk through the gardens of an estate, and Wheeler, says of the painter: ‘the colours, smells, textures and sounds were the perfect backdrop to his baritone voice’. Then, with the understated humour present across the film, Wheeler (or rather Deignan) muses: ‘He was totally taken by his opinion and desires … but he presented his particular vanity in a palatable, even pleasant way’. As we listen two young men in period dress walk together on a path lined with large shady trees. Reflections are cast by sunlight as it filters through the leaves, and we hear birdsong: a picturesque ideal. Wheeler is never pictured, we only see the young men, as they in the tradition of the Romantic poet or artist, perform their immersion in the landscape in which they find themselves. Music interjects the narration and their staged communion with the natural world, passes from summer to autumn.
Deignan’s film asks us to reflect on the relationship between women and history, and on the ways in which historical narratives are constructed and presented. Her film blurs the conditions of visibility and invisibility so pervasive in the histories of women. Wheeler is never seen but is simultaneously brought to life in the narration. Deignan situates the medium of film and the history of British landscape (in art, literature, and garden design) into a fascinating relation. Themes of travel and displacement are entrenched in the ways in which we speak about the twenty-first century, and the circulation of art and ideas. Deignan’s film invites us to consider other historical moments, through a female figure whose story goes against the grain of what we might assume about centuries prior to our own. At one moment in the film, an aeroplane makes its way above what appears to be a Capability Brown view of lake and trees, and in that moment time and place fold into one another and collapse.Michelle Deignan, ‘Her Fanciful Digression’, 2012, single channel HD video, 10 mins 40 secs, Edition of 5, Still Image, Courtesy the artist and Maria Stenfors.