She leans over, leaps behind the mirror, her body gone beyond the torso. Projection steals the foreground, something densely tangled, a weedy abyss under the mirror’s trick of white light. There is a thick mess of things where she falls as sacrifice to the sublime.
In the photographic self-portrait Francesca Woodman took in Rome in 1977-8, it is not a Monday in New York City in 1981, and she does not jump to her death, commit suicide at 22. Although self-inscription always in a certain way rehearses death, Woodman did not kill herself the first time she made her image, looked into a mirror, used the name that fates her. And yet, I do not pretend to not understand the terminal world in which Peggy Phelan imagines Woodman’s death as an artistic act: “perhaps on January 19, 1981, she found a composition that suited her, and she developed it into an act of suicide.”
In the photograph Woodman disappears herself from two technologies of visual reproduction in an image that fractures her, wounds her along the lines of (self-)seeing. And not alone, I (mis)recognize myself in it. I wear my mother’s watch, given to her by her mother, engraved with the year 1981. It is the time I keep. If I am seeing her see herself, I am seeing it through my own eyes carrying my own image. Ariana Reines speaks to the contagion of identification:
there is the feeling she is constantly leaping to her death inside me, as though my spinal column had become the shaft between Manhattan buildings where my own figure, mine too, has always been leaping and falling and dying and has always wanted to smash itself to atoms in this impossible world, and I am confident this feeling and this figure dying forever within me is also beyond common and that maybe you person reading this now have felt or do have such a woman or such a figure leaping to her death inside you. Every woman or every woman artist or every person no matter the gender, every artist but especially every woman who has ever wanted to die or just said she did or had that feeling when she felt so maligned and so misunderstood and so defaced and loathed and ignored that she has either died or not, has died inside herself or has dreamed or longed for an exit like death, has been her and we who have promised ourselves to live have to live with that death and the fact it sometimes looks horrendously attractive although we reject it.
I feel this even as I know that something leaps and falls and dies in the collapsing of our leaping and falling and dying at the vanishing point between figure and self.
Esmé Weijun Wang takes hundreds of self-portraits during periods of psychosis. Replicating Woodman’s blur grounds the shadow self’s terror, gives her sick and well selves a shared context of loss, scripts a spectral dialogue which bears something like the inscription of Reines’s promise to live:
Francesca, what do you think of these photographs?
Do you see what I was trying to do?
I was trying to make myself more real.
In the haze of her movement quick with despair, sweeping a line suspending my critical capacity, I forget if it is her or Reines or Wang or I leaping and falling and dying behind the reflection’s crosshatching, its web. I forget who wrote themself into a colossus, who threw themself off the ledge.
[Do I supplement you with me in order to make death mean?]
In a letter written as if about the photograph, Woodman writes: “I would rather die young, leaving various accomplishments, i.e. some work, my friendship with you, some other artifacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.” When I was little, I saw dirt everywhere at night soiling the day’s remains. I am sorry I cannot take myself out of her self-deceit. I realize my apology is a kind of mourning. I am stuck in my child eyes. The decay or the darkness reminded me that I covered my face with my hands when I thought I was sinking into the ground, or when I wanted to.